Summer family reunion in Northern Michigan

23 August 2022

Though I hadn’t classified this trip in my mind as a family reunion, I’m pretty sure it fits the bill: 30+ extended family members, a scenic lakeside location, a century-old house, and matching tees, to boot :)

Our last visit to John’s extended-family cottage in Northern Michigan was in 2017, when June was 1.5. This year’s trip was delayed three times over (in 2019 because both of John’s sisters gave birth, and in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID), so we were beyond thrilled to finally return. I would love to share a few photos, if you’d like to see! I also have a few thoughts to share on why this trip felt so removed from everyday life, and in that way, refreshing – because if I notice something, it’s hard for me to resist digging down into the roots to figure out what’s going on :)

The first layer of novelty that set our time in Michigan apart – and made this vacation feel especially refreshing – was physical. The weather, of course, was delightfully different than North Carolina in July: a crisp, sunny, 75 degrees during the day and a hint of chill at dinner, with almost no humidity in sight. I got to wear a sweatshirt! Almost every evening!

Because of the mild temperatures, we enjoyed true indoor/outdoor living, something I miss dearly about New England summers. We were in and out of the houses a million times a day and the windows and screen doors were open at all times. When inside, outside sounds floated in: children laughing, the slap of the bags hitting the cornhole board, the buzz of a boat on the lake. And the reverse when outside: pans rattling on the stove, the murmur of adults talking, and the gentle suck of the refrigerator door opening. I love living this way, but North Carolina’s 90+ summertime temps make air conditioning and closed windows a necessity.

The last physical layer? We move a LOT more in Michigan than I do in my everyday life. We walked the road between cottages multiple times a day. We ran and jumped in the sand dunes. We swam. We kayaked, we canoed, we paddle boarded. We tubed. We knee-boarded. We went to bed tired and with a gentle ache somewhere in our bodies pretty much every night.

And finally, of course, Northern Michigan is just incredibly physically beautiful: striking blues and greens everywhere you look.

The second novel layer is our schedule. The sun doesn’t fully set until 10pm, so the days seem to stretch and stretch. Unlike at home, where my time is pre-scheduled, regimented, and fairly routine, the days here unspool with languor. Our schedule is loose, and I’m largely not in charge of it – I’m often only vaguely aware of what’s going to happen next. Go on the boat? Sure! Take a detour to the lighthouse? Sure! S’mores at the big house? Sure! The kids play for hours at a time under their own steam, dashing past just often enough for us to confirm they’re still on their feet.

The third layer is relational. Here, we spend more time together as a family than we do in our everyday life, where we split off to school and work during the week. More than that, though, we’re surrounded by extended family in Michigan. There are aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins galore. There’s always someone to play with or have a conversation with or go on a paddle board with, and there’s an easy sharing of the weight of cooking, kid-minding, and logistics that falls on just John and I when we’re at home.

June bonded tightly with one of her cousins who was born just five weeks after her (remember, they last saw each other at a year and a half!). One of the sweetest parts, though? Seeing the big cousins hang with the little cousins. There are several high schoolers in our group, and they were unbelievably kind, patient, and goofy with our kids: reading to them, tubing with them, and allowing them to chase them around the house with badminton rackets (this happened multiple times a day, accompanied by shrieks of delight).

The final layer is historical. Since John and I didn’t grow up in North Carolina, our surroundings don’t conjure childhood memories. There’s something particularly powerful and sweet about seeing your children experience things you loved when you were young in the exact same place, even (especially?) when they’re different from the everyday.

Take this crazy flipping maneuver on the right. Apparently this is a longstanding Thomas tradition – my husband and his sisters remember doing it when they were young. The kids run at full tilt into a grown-up’s feet, get flipped over the adult’s head in a full pike position, and land on their feet. It is as astonishing and hilarious as it sounds, and the kids could not get enough.

From hiking Sleeping Bear Dunes to eating at the A&W to simply sitting on plastic Adirondack chairs, watching a lake day slide by, I’ll take nostalgia and relationship over extravagance most days of the week.

And that’s pretty much where we ended up. This vacation is about as far from glamorous as it gets, and family time can be messy and frustrating, but it is beyond precious to us. We feel so incredibly lucky to get to take our kids here – to have them experience the natural beauty, the laidback fun, and the relationships with people we love – that the siblings all vowed Michigan will be an every-other-year adventure for the foreseeable future. There are a million destinations I’d love to see in the world, but I know I’ll never regret prioritizing this one at this time.

P.S. Annie celebrated her first birthday on this trip! She did it in true Michigan style: digging into a cherry pie serenaded by a circle of smiling relatives.

The celebrations were not without incident, as a certain sibling leaned on her high chair tray and knocked it loose, causing the pie to crash to the ground…

… but thankfully, we had about 547 pies to feed our crew, so the birthday girl still got her happy ending :)

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August 23, 2022 6:23 am

I absolutely love your trip reviews. They remind me a lot of the writing style of Drew Perry who did the Toad and the Frog (I believe that’s what he called it) series for Our State magazine. Your reviews always give off a lovely, deep feeling of nostalgia!

August 23, 2022 7:34 am

Emily, what a delightful trip! Your descriptions made me feel as if I was there with your family. Your reviews of Michigan and the New England areas make them seem like such magical places.

Kelly Strawberry
August 23, 2022 8:25 am

Love this so much! And the pictures!!!

August 23, 2022 10:08 am

What a lovely trip and recap! My favorite part may be sweet Annie looking over the edge at the fallen pie – ha! Sibling antics are my favorite.

August 23, 2022 6:34 pm

I always enjoy reading your trip recaps. The line “I’ll take nostalgia and relationship over extravagance most days of the week” really resonated with me, especially in an era when so many people seem to travel just to post about it on social media. Also, hooray for sweatshirt weather! I can only DREAM about being able to comfortably throw one on.

August 24, 2022 4:00 pm

I can already tell the Birthday Pie Incident of 2022 will be one of those memories y’all laugh about for years. And I loved your reflection on the big cousins interacting with the little ones — that happened in my family vacations, and I *idolized* my big cousins because of it. Love that your crew is getting a taste of that relationship!

August 24, 2022 7:52 pm

As a mom of 4 who doesn’t have that wonderful extended family situation (I know this was a reunion, not your every day experience, either!) I would take that “village” situation any day over a glamorous vacation! Thanks for sharing your lovely descriptions.

August 24, 2022 9:39 pm

This looks so sweet! Love your recaps. This particular one reminded me of the movie Dan in Real Life (an *older* family favorite). Nothing like an extended family vacation.

August 26, 2022 6:59 pm

Oh, Em! So so much of these observations resonate with me! Since our move to Savannah (4 years ago!) I can’t tell you how many times I‘ve said how much I miss opening the windows and doors in the summer. Now I know it’s not just me :)
And I‘ll always take low-key family gatherings/reunions over extravagant travels! Your time in northern Michigan does truly sound magical.

August 26, 2022 8:18 pm

Such a lovely recap of what sounds like a wonderful trip!! Going up to NY in the summer feels a little like this to us, but since 2/4 Kirk siblings live there year-round, it’s not quite the same—we’re working around their jobs and normal lives to see them while we’re there. But I figure a little bit of sweet family time in a beautiful, non-humid place each year is better than none! :)

August 29, 2022 3:54 pm

Ok 1) This trip looks so dreamy, I’ve heard such wonderful things about Michigan! 2) That pic of you jumping off the dune is perfection and 3) “unspool with languor”… *slow nod* beautiful!