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A Single Strand of Lights

The holiday season has come around again, and hope is in full bloom. Just like clockwork, the annual transition from L-tryptophan to Christmas fudge has set off a flurry of sights and sounds. Cars in the Keweenaw are topped with evergreens, drivers rushing home to deck their halls. Holiday music plays in rotation on local radio stations, and church bells chime on schedule. Along the waterfront, a frosty tree gleams a cool blue while downtown, wreaths and garland twinkle at every turn. There are ribbon-wrapped spruce tips and green Grinch cutouts. Why, there’s even a King Kong-sized elf scaling the exterior facade of a boutique hotel. Yes, there is a swell of hope in the air, set aglow by strands of Christmas lights.

In my small town, a little further up the road, the spirit of the season greets me, although a bit less lavishly. It begins with an artificial tree at the tip of Main Street. Each year at the end of November, the tree arrives on the back of a trailer. We watch as volunteers maneuver it into place and string the power cord. Along the lane, wooden light poles are wound with a single strand of multicolored lights—the old-fashioned bulbs, maybe C9s. Growing snowbanks serve as garland. Beyond that, it’s up to the residents to top off the job.

The sights of this town remind me of my childhood. They speak to me of a collective spirit, the kind I knew in my youth. Back then, there was a towering spruce in my hometown’s centre. It was strung with lights by volunteer firefighters and draped in snow by Mother Nature. It grew next to the firehall where every December, Santa held court beneath a wooden arch and welcomed us each with a brown paper sack of sugary treats.

I remember those visits to that firehall as if it were yesterday. My older sisters were placed in charge. We’d dress after supper in a clamor of snow boots and secondhand coats, hats and damp mittens, then tumble out the back door, panting. Our boots trekked the snow-blown path around the corner, down the side of our narrow home, past the slider window with a single strand of Christmas lights taped to ranch casing. The center of the strand was often drooping; the tape would give way. But did I mind? No, not at all. Those lights were a symbol. They filled me with hope. As long as they were lit, that’s all I needed.

I can still hear the crunch of snow beneath our feet, the wsk wsk of coat fabric as our arms swung to and fro. Our noses numbing. Our breath ascending in transparent Os. It all fanned my growing sense of hysteria. “I can’t wait to see Santa!” I would squeal. Then you better hurr’yup, my oldest sister might say. I would scurry ahead, the route filling my well. There were homes lit like runways and windows glowing with electric-orange candelabras. We caught glimpses of glistening trees between drawn drapery panels and full views of those beyond sheers. There were wreaths on porch doors—a touch our home did without—and the occasional Nativity scene, the Baby Jesus in the center tugging at my heartstrings. 

When we’d reach the firehall, the windows were lit, the line long. It snaked around the checkerboard floor. So many kids. Raucous ones. Shy ones. Wealthy ones. Poor ones. We all lined up together, one collective body, eager to see Santa; a queue comprised of the innocence of youth. We, coughing and sneezing, our noses dripping. And he, our idol, anticipating a long night, perhaps a cold in the days to come. But he welcomed us all nonetheless, sat us on his knee, asked for our wishes. And we gushed. Did he know whose Christmas lists would be fulfilled? Did he consider those who might wake to disappointment? I certainly did not, for I believed in the power of Santa. The power of Christmas. The power of hope. And as I neared his side, in those years of naiveté, my wishes were doable. My neighbors’ wishes were doable. There was nothing beyond reach.

When at last it was my turn, I would climb aboard his crushed velvet-clad knee. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” he’d bellow. “And what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” What does a child say to this man? On the spur of the moment? In his grandeur? With his red suit and curly white beard? This Santa-star. This celebrity. A saint known round the world! And so I’d sit, transfixed by his tall, black boots. Oh, those boots! With their single buckle. Their shiny leather—or was that pleather? Their squared heels which would soon set foot on my rooftop! What were my wishes from year to year? Was it an Easy-Bake Oven? A Crissy doll? A Mrs. Beasley from Family Affair? The world was ripe for the picking as long as I had the hope! And I did.

It has been decades since I’ve paid a visit to that beloved firehall. And certainly decades since I’ve sat on Santa’s knee. I find the years have molded me, mellowed my hope. I look upon holiday wishes differently now, my perspective matured. Though my family finds comfort in the season, I am keenly aware there are those whose stockings won’t be hung, whose trees won’t be lit, whose holidays may fall prey to financial hardship. As a matter of fact, I’ve learned that as children, my siblings and I were mere steps from that scenario ourselves, our Christmases always teetering on the brink. But somehow, we were sheltered from that reality. Our parents managed the undoable, maybe with a little help. Somehow there were gifts. Somehow, turkey. Somehow, Christmas joy. Was it their hope that fueled the magic? Or was it ours?

Perhaps it was that single strand of lights taped in our living room window.

Photo by
Natalie Carolyn Photography

Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. In addition to her Carrot Ranch column, you’ll find Marie’s work online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan and is a recipient of the Stuart D. and Vernice M. Gross Award for Literature (Saginaw Valley State University). Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.

Porch Talk

I write within a porch in the heart of the Keweenaw. It looks out over a bustling village street, an old railway line, a ball diamond. There’s a Veteran’s memorial down the lane, flags flapping, begonias blooming. One name listed there belongs to a relative I never met, though I knew his Grandpa, my great-uncle. That memorial connects me to half of my family, to mining immigrants, to this place. That’s the way it is around here.

It is in this porch I sit each day, beside a patchwork bird on a wooden pedestal and a tabby cat who lounges in the sun. It’s a feminine space. An old space. Once cold and dark, it has undergone a transformation in recent years. A transition. The walls and floor have been insulated, the thin window replaced, the door repaired. It’s been painted and papered, received fresh lighting, a sturdy boot box, and a line of aged-bronze coat hooks to hold outerwear. It has become a conglomeration of the passing times. Just as I am a conglomeration of ancestry. 

I imagine this old porch was once like many Keweenaw porches. Or sheds. Or mudrooms. The walls were probably lined with wooly coats, peas of ice melting from their cuffs, scant puddles forming in rings below. I envision galoshes strewn about on its bare wood floor, rag rugs soaking up the slushy weep from their soles. Somewhere in its past lies the smell of damp dog. Of coal. Of firewood. Maybe even pasty or pannukakku. There have been times sitting out here I swear I can almost hear the voices of past residents coming from interior rooms—the Finnish or the Cornish or perhaps the French Canadian—chatting over morning coffee or afternoon tea. I imagine the clink of their cups. The slurp of liquid from their spoons. They speak with confidence, with pride, with identity. Unhindered, they raise their voices in their mother tongue. They laugh, sing, whisper. They are who they are and are licensed that freedom.

There are days I sit and think about that. I think about the freedom to speak the language of one’s choosing, and I act upon it. Though on most days I may be writing or editing from this porch, there’s at least one day a week reserved for the study of language—Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people, my maternal blood. I log in remotely to a makeshift classroom hours away. I don my headset, turn on my camera, and join a group of others like me, students of all ages hungry for the words of their ancestors.

It is in this porch once built by immigrants that I’ve come to understand the beauty of an Indigenous language. And the value. It is here, where European descendants have stomped their boots and hung their overcoats, that I have learned another side of me. Beyond the French Canadian that contributed to my father’s blood. Beyond the Cornish of his mother.

My journey began over a year ago, in stutters and stammers. I could hardly speak. I saw my face in a small square on the screen. Other faces, too. Strangers, all of them. All of us wondering who we were. Why we’d come. What had drawn us to that virtual classroom. “Aaniin, boozhoo,” I said, my voice timid, the words foreign. And that was the beginning.

These days I introduce myself in the language with greater ease, a rhythm gradually developing, though still far from adequate. Like a graying toddler, I pick up syllable by syllable, word by word, the elders my teachers. Each week I grow in the culture, learn history, hear stories. The elders tell jokes and tease one another. And we laugh. “We don’t want to make it too heavy,” they say.

Though each member of our class comes from different walks of life, from different locations across the country, many share a similar linguistic history: Our Anishinaabe grandparents didn’t pass down their language, because they feared for their children—and their children’s children. They feared they would be taken away, feared they would be punished, as that is how it was back then. And so our parents grew up hearing the language, but not speaking it. They grew up understanding some of what they heard, but not storing it away. And we, as their children, grew up without it.

So, that is why we gather.

To honor.

To restore.

To revitalize.

I sit on this porch on a Thursday morning caressed by wisps of mashkodewashk, the scent of wiingashk in the air, nibi at my side. Sage, sweetgrass, and water ready me for the day’s teachings. We’re reading a story during this lesson, each slide on the screen a page of the storybook. I review what I see before I’m called on. To my surprise, I recognize the words, understand their meaning. There are tears in my eyes. A lump in my throat.

“Giinitam,” the elder says to me. Your turn. He wants me to read out loud what I see on the screen.

Before this day, I’ve never understood as many words grouped together. I’ve never passed a slide without relying on the English translation for clarification. I’m excited. In disbelief. “Before I begin,” I say, “I just want to tell you that I understood some of this before I read the translation. And that almost makes me cry.” My cheeks are warm. My heart glows.

“Nishin,” the elders say, nodding. “Nishin.” They are happy with my progress, proud of their student, grateful that Anishinaabemowin will not be forgotten from Aki, this Earth. I feel in this instant that somewhere in the distance my Ojibwe ancestors are smiling and nodding, too. En’, they are saying. Nishin, n’doozhisheninaan. Yes. Good, our grandchild.

It is Wednesday now, a writing day. Beyond my Keweenaw porch cars pass, children call, neighbors mow their lawns. My keyboard clacks amidst the delicate snore of the cat. I often grumble about the noise, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. I know, if I wait, there’ll come a lull in the din. The cars will quiet. The children will go home. The lawns will be tidy, and the cat will rouse herself and wander off in search of kibble. I’ll pause my typing in those moments. The click-clack of the keys will fall silent. And I’ll listen. I’ll listen for the sounds of those familiar voices—the voices of the Keweenaw immigrants. The miners and the railway workers and the lumbermen. The Finnish. The Cornish. The French-Canadian. But these days, if I listen close enough, I’ll hear another voice, too. One fresh to my ear, like a robin’s spring call. It rises from an inner space. Claims a place in the dialogue. Adds to the melody of my history. “En’,” I’ll say, for I know who it is. It is the voice of my other half. The voice of the Anishinaabeg. And I’ll smile.

Photo by Natalie Carolyn Photography

Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.


Growing up I had a blueprint in mind, a family ideal loosely based on a 70s television show. It consisted of a white-collar husband, responsible and kind. And exactly two children, a girl and a boy. I envisioned meals around the table, Sundays in church, sleepover Saturdays, and a collage of my children’s artwork magnetized to our fridge. What I hadn’t envisioned was what came to be. Yes, I had the kind husband, two children, the artistic fridge door. But it was a late addition that altered the plan: our third child—an Olde English Bulldogge named London.  

She appeared to us all paw and leg. Adventure in her blood. Endless pup. Though she was the last remaining of the litter, her coat was first class, striped gold and black, a stark white stop and snout with boots and chest to match. Her tail had been cropped to prevent it from drawing up like a fiddlehead fern, and her fudge-like eyes—sweet and dewy as they were—possessed a hue of curiosity, a dab of mischief. She was both awkward and adorable, three months old and filling in fast, except for the wrinkles. Those would always remain.

When first we met, she clasped a bird in her jaw, a corpse she’d discovered beneath the spirea, or perhaps it was a viburnum. The farmer scooped her up, pried two fingers between her teeth, tossed the bird off to the side. “Eck,” he said.

What were we getting ourselves into?

We tried to hold her that muggy July evening, to cuddle her like an infant. She flailed about, ears flopping, bum wiggling, head hung over our forearms. Her body was too busy. I grimaced. “She’s got an awful lot of energy,” I said. But I could see both son and husband were smitten with her, taken in by her fierce independence, her fearlessness. They set her down in the grass, her home turf, and interacted there on her terms. Hesitancy niggled. Did we really want to own a dog? But the look on Noah’s face told me my feelings were moot. The plot had shifted. This dog now owned us.

In her first days in our home, London, as she came to be called, was more interested in sniffing than snuggling. Her nose was ever to the ground. She was under the chairs, under the tables, beneath the beds and the sofa (from which she needed help getting out). She even found her way inside our dishwasher. But when she had finally learned the lay of the land, she settled in to learning more about us. One day, as I reclined on the sofa for my afternoon nap, she didn’t want to be left out. She perched at the cushion’s edge, nuzzled, grunted. Moist eyes pleaded. I had set a rule that she would not be permitted on the furniture. We had just redecorated, and I was bound and determined that ‘the dog’ should remain on the floor. I hung my hand over the edge, caressed her brindled fur. “Lay down, London,” I said. “Go sleepy.” But she persisted, as was her way, working from one end of the couch to the other, trying to make the leap, her legs a hair too short. “Alright,” I said, and gave in, hoisted her up. “Just this once.” She rooted about my neck like an infant, let out a big sigh, then she was out. “Baby girl,” I whispered, then drifted off too, warm puffs of puppy breath upon my skin. Our afternoon naps became the norm. Another plot shift.

As months passed, many pet no-nos fell by the wayside despite earlier learned philosophies. I had descended from a line of old-school dog keepers. My childhood home had supported ‘free-range’ pups, Skippy and Poopsie, who were more like traveling salesmen than household pets. Noah, on the other hand, never had a dog in his childhood. His first experience with one was after he’d moved out on his own. He’d adopted a male pup almost immediately and raised it as a backyard pet before we met. Together we’d adopted a female in our early years of marriage, one you might call a hybrid model who spent her days in the backyard and her nights asleep at the hearth. London was something altogether different. She wasn’t a breed for roaming the great outdoors, even though, given another body, that may have been her preference. A brachycephaly, she couldn’t tolerate temperature extremes. Heat and humidity were especially hard on her with her compressed snout. She couldn’t cool herself, so we had to be watchful of her. As it turned out, that wasn’t the only thing we had to be watchful of.

A recreation of an extinct breed, the Olde English Bulldogge was said to have better health outcomes than the more well known English Bulldog. That was the primary reason we chose it. Unfortunately, for London, this didn’t hold true. From puppy vaginitis to skin allergies to pododermatitis to gingival hyperplasia, London experienced it all. Our closet overflowed with limited ingredient food and treats, medicated shampoo, antihistamines, ear medications, creams and salves, and antifungal wipes and solutions. Because of her skin allergies, we took to showering her at home rather than taking her to the groomer’s. I learned to trim nails, flush ears, soak inflamed paws, and treat yeast infections. Mama’s good girl, I’d say after I cleansed her facial folds with a foul-smelling wipe, an activity she would only tolerate because it was followed up with a treat. She’s always good for Mom-Dog, Noah would say, though I wasn’t sure how I felt about that moniker.

It was the combination of it all that made London more like our child than our pet. Through the cuddles and the playtime and the ailments and the treatments, a deep bond developed. She wasn’t ‘the dog’ anymore—she was our Baby Girl. We’d take her for car rides when she was bored. I’d surprise her with toys when I returned from the store, for which she would wait at my feet at the sight of a bag. She even took possession of Noah’s club chair, something I never dreamed he’d allow. We’d line it daily with fresh bedding, to protect the upholstery we said, but really it was to make her more comfortable.

When we moved to a new home, London’s needs came first. The home lacked a fence, so she couldn’t be off-leash. There were a lot of other things the home lacked too, but the first thing Noah built was a pretty wooden fence for London. She loved to lie in the yard, to watch the neighbors through the pickets, to duel the chipmunks, to hear the buzz of the hummingbirds. It was within this fence that she experienced those joys. And it was within this fence where she first showed signs of what was to come.

We were sitting on the patio swing when Noah noticed it, a slight drag of a rear paw, the scrape of nail on pavement. “Something’s going on with her,” he said. There was gravity in his voice, a shadow uncommon to him.

“It’s just her lazy walk,” I assured him. But that was just the beginning.

She began slipping on the floor of the new home. “This floor just isn’t her thing,” I said, and added some rugs. Soon she began slipping outside too, losing her balance when she ran, tumbling in her turns. While grooming her one day, I noticed the nail of one toe worn away to the quick, a result of the dragging. She began struggling to jump into her chair, climb the stairs, leap into the truck. “Are you getting too old for climbing?” I asked as I hoisted her hips. She turned to me, gave me a sloppy kiss. Translation: Thanks, Mom.

We brought our observations about the dragging foot and growing lack of strength and stability to her veterinarian. Concerned about a spinal injury, we tried laser therapy. Her condition didn’t improve. An MRI was recommended. We travelled six hours to a southern Wisconsin clinic. They coaxed her down the hall. She looked back at us. Our hearts ached. “We’ll be waiting,” I called. Baby girl, I thought.

The vet met with us afterward. “There’s no evidence of spinal injury,” she said. What they saw instead were symptoms of a condition called degenerative myelopathy, a disease affecting the spinal cord. She wanted to run a test on spinal fluid they had drawn to see if she carried the DM genes. “That will take a few days,” she said, “but we’ll call you when we get the results.”

The test returned positive; both genes were present. Other conditions ruled out, London was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease of the spinal cord, a fatal condition. It began in the hind quarters and would ruthlessly work its way through her body until all was gone: the wag of her tail, her legs, her bark, her ability to swallow, and eventually her ability to breathe. London was dying, and we couldn’t help her.

“She may have a year or so,” the vet said. “I’m so sorry to have to deliver this news.”

In the months that followed, we managed to provide for our girl as best we could. We ordered special booties with bands to help with foot placement and grip and to protect her skin from abrasion. We exercised her, created resistance on her rear paws to promote muscle tone. Walking became more and more difficult. We ordered a cart, and though she learned to use it, she wasn’t happy. Noah took to walking her in a sling instead. He bore the weight she couldn’t. She was thrilled to be out of the cart again, tooling across the open field, just like the old days. Now, it wasn’t her feet dragging behind her—it was Noah. I would watch from the window as he scooted along at her hip, struggling to keep up with her momentum, holding the straps with his right arm, using his left as ballast. She’s doing great! the neighbors would say. 

Though we did all we could for London, we couldn’t stem the tide of her disease. We couldn’t change its outcome.

It was mid-January when our vet made a house call. The pandemic was among us, so she couldn’t come inside, but she was willing to meet outdoors. Fortunately, the mild winter showed mercy. We dressed London in her jacket, lined the frozen ground with a thick pad, covered it with her favorite bedding, and placed a sprig of sage in the center. Noah helped her outside where she met the vet with a kiss-filled lunge and a tumble. We gathered close around her, held her, whispered endearments to her. I told her how much I loved her, what a very special girl she was, how much she meant to us. I heard the murmurs of Noah and Sam. We were all together there, suffocating in a stew of grief. I saw out the corner of my eye the syringe that delivered London’s departure, wished I could have reversed it. She let out a big sigh, just as she had as a puppy when first she laid on my chest for our nap, rested her head on her front paws, closed her eyes. “My baby,” I whispered into the thick folds of her neck. “My baby.”

*     *     *

Throughout the winter, I often looked for signs of London in our yard. At first, there were sink holes in the snow where her feet had been, but fresh precipitation soon erased them from view. In the spring, I waited for the snow to melt, anxious, hopeful. Surely there would be signs of her left over from the fall, a chew toy, a ball, some droppings here and there. But when the snow receded, I found nothing. No sign of London. No sign of her life.

It wasn’t until the temperature warmed and the grass began to thrive that London’s former presence at last made itself known. It appeared as crop art, burn spots in the lawn, traces of her urine in unusual shapes. A comma here. A figure eight there. “Sweet baby,” I said. “Thank you.”

I know one day these spots will green again. They’ll fade away, erase what is left of our girl from the lawn. But not from the heart. Never from the heart. For now, I’ll cherish them, cling to them. For as long as they last, I’ll treasure these precious works of art, just as I do the ones on my fridge.

London “Lundy Lu” McAlister
April 2011 – January 2021

Photo by Natalie Carolyn Photography

Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.

Bubble Trouble

Call me the girl in the bubble, but I like the comfort of my space. I’m not an especially affectionate adult—a flaw I own and often ponder. I’m reserved with PDA, sometimes a bit stiff. So when 2020’s tsunami of a coronavirus rose from the depths of the Wuhan meat market, engulfed the globe, and banished humanity to our six-foot bubbles of isolation, I was more than willing to adhere to the restrictions. Six feet? To be frank, that was more in keeping with my preference.

Though the CDC guidelines suited my needs, I was aware that not all society felt the same. My younger sister, for instance—the touchy-feely one of the family—is my polar opposite. While she lamented the lack of sight, touch, and scent of others, I took to wearing my six-foot isolation bubble like haute couture. Paired with matching mask, all that was missing was a spot-on accessory, a petri dish perhaps. Bubble fashion was on trend, at least for me.

Photo by Pixaby on Pexels

In deference to my bubble, I rarely left the house this past year, with the exception of a grocery run or an occasional dash to the big-box store. I even ceased all visits to the hair salon. It has been a year since I’ve seen my stylist, a fact which is all too glaring. Had we a tower in our humble abode I could let my hair down, but the strands have become so brittle I doubt it would make for a sturdy climb. My husband, on the other hand, dared to tend to the activity of his follicles when restrictions permitted. Unfortunately, this created the need for safe distancing at home as well. Kisses resembled sideswipes of the jawline, a faint smear of L’Oreal’s Blushing Berry the only evidence of our encounter (provided I even bothered to apply makeup that day).

“Are haircuts really necessary?” I asked him each time he headed out to his appointment. “Are they essential? I’m thinking not.”

Much like me, my mother, who lives some thirty miles away on the Reserve, was holed up in her bubble, snug as a winter’s waistband. An elder of slight construction and a diabetic to boot, she wasn’t taking any chances with socializing. She was masking up, sanitizing, avoiding crowds, and abandoning her shoes on the doorstep upon her return home from essential excursions. On the rare occasion I delivered something to her or stopped by the house to help with a technical issue, we kept our distance, yelled at each other through our three-ply masks, and when I exited the residence, I’m certain I heard the hiss of a Lysol can in my wake. We blew kisses from afar and though pre-virus I would normally hug my mom, instead I hugged myself on these visits and mentally teleported the action to her. We were satisfied with that for now.

But that was us.

It was on a recent trip to the Reserve that my bubble was finally burst. It occurred two days post snowstorm, when I picked up my huggy sister to drive her to a medical appointment at the health clinic. A long-term cancer survivor, she’s tough as jerky and what’d you classify as a fighter, but that doesn’t make her any less of a people person. She had sequestered herself securely throughout the year, not by choice, mind you, but mainly because her immune system had been wracked by past chemotherapy. A novel virus was the last thing she needed, and she’d done a good job of avoiding it (knock on wood, as Mom would say).

Though in her youth my sibling had been delayed in physical development, as an adult, you wouldn’t know this about her. She’s fully bloomed now, her legs long, her trunk robust. True, cancer was a setback, but she emerged from the disease with a lush head of hair and the wisdom of one who’s tread the abyss, a trait which might jade others—but not my sister. Years have kissed her delicate face, but her smile is wide and her eyes bright, the combination of which emanates a childlike affection very few of us possess. It is this affection she is compelled to express. She is drawn to hug, to pat, to touch, her fingers like those of a seven-year-old pianist, slim, lithe tendrils, the only physical part of her which has not kept time. She is a perplexing blend of woman and child with a need to be nurtured through contact with others. Thankfully, on this particular day, she was respecting my rather stringent boundaries, keeping to her space in the rear passenger seat of my Subaru.

“We’re stopping by Mom’s, right?” she asked as we headed out of town, her voice eager. “I wonder if she’ll let us in.” We both laughed. Sometimes humor is our only defense.

Photo by Pixaby on Pexels

The medical appointment was brief, and afterward we drove the few miles to Mom’s house. It was the week of my birthday, and she’d asked me to stop by to pick up my gift. With masks secured and hands sanitized, we climbed the porch steps. Mom was waiting at the door. She waved us inside. She’d had both her vaccinations by this time, and though she still wore her mask, was feeling a bit saucy. The three of us stood in the narrow hall, pressed between the washer and dryer on one side and a boot bench on the other.

“Here,” Mom said, presenting me with a large gift bag. “Open your present.”

“Right now?” I was surprised she was willing to remain in close contact with us for that length of time.

“Yeah! Go ’head!” It had been a year since she’d been able to watch any of us open a gift.

I reached into the bag and pulled out a card and three little bundles wrapped in white tissue paper: two sets of sleeveless, floral pajamas ideal for the post-menopausal woman and a pair of purple scuffs. Amethyst is my birthstone, and Mom often buys me things in hues of purple. “Mm,” I said, smiling. “So pretty! These’ll work perfect. Thank you!”

The gifts opened and pleasantries exchanged, our short visit drew to a close.

“I’m glad I got to see you,” my sister said to Mom. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too, honey,” Mom said, a nib of sadness there. Regret in a lower key. 

My sister’s gaze tendered, her eyes hazed. Time lulled as a clock’s tick faded. The air grew thick, alerting me. Something was coming. Something was about to happen.

And then it did.

I watched as my sister’s arm reached out across the expanse. A hand in need. Gloveless. It emerged from her bubble, slipped through mine, eased into Mom’s. The tips of her fingers brushed the skin of Mom’s wrist, the back of her hand, her knuckles. A forbidden gesture; perhaps the first touch in over a year. “Mommy,” she whispered in her woman-child way.

I dangled there on emotion, aware of the significance of the moment—not just of the physical exchange itself, but of the struggle which had propelled it. The year-long isolation. The deprivation. I had witnessed an innate craving for affection, for an intimate connection with another human being. It was all spoken in a single, gentle sweep of warm skin: the toll this pandemic has wrought on something so human as touch. I had all but forgotten.

One’s bubble may be a comfort, but another’s may be a curse.

Photo by Natalie Carolyn Photography

Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and French Canadian/Cornish descent. She is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community on the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.