There was a time and place during my childhood when I was sure my dad loved me. It was on our two trips each summer to the Watervale Inn in Arcadia, Michigan, traveling from my childhood home in Winnetka, Illinois.
At Watervale, my Greatest Generation dad was transformed in so many ways; one was he loved spending time with me. I didn’t know until I was well into my 20s that my dad saved the ticket stubs from every trip we took across Lake Michigan and put the latest in the corner of his mirror, until his next trip.
Excerpted from the upcoming memoir “Just Ask: Finding My Greatest Generation Dad’s Love” and featured in the June 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
It is dark and deliciously scary when my mom, sister Betsy, brother Robby, our dog Chessie (we had to put a muzzle on him) and I walk up the wide, dirty red wooden steps to the S.S. Badger car ferry in Milwaukee. “If he doesn’t make it,” I ask Mom, “will he come tomorrow?” Our dad has stayed with the car to get it safely onto the ferry. My older sister Betsy says, “He always makes it, Emily,” and makes a quiet “duh” sound without Mom hearing. But I don’t care. We are on our way to Watervale. I lift my right leg as high as I can to take the last, giant step onto the ferry and look up to see the man in a double-breasted blue blazer with rows of shiny brass buttons extending his hand to help me over this last, big step.
I am an anxious baby boomer child, never quite feeling secure around my ambitious, emotionally-reserved father, but once we are on our way to Watervale, I feel little anxiety around him. I smile big when he finds us, knowing our family will be together for the six hours it takes to cross the lake from Milwaukee to Ludington.
Dad inserts a very long, thin silver key into the door of a “secret bedroom”—a stateroom with a toilet, a sink and a window to the outside. We tug on handles on the wall and out pops a freshly made bed with crisp white sheets and a thick brown wool blanket. Betsy and I lie head to toe in the single bed, and the next morning we hear a sharp rap on our stateroom door and a man announcing “Ludington.”
“Are you 5?” Dad asks me, looking up from signing the index card-sized registration at the glass-topped front desk in the inn. I peer up at him, smiling, because I know he is the Watervale Dad now and he will be happy all week. “No,” I giggle. “I’m 4. And Robby’s 7, I think.”
“Betsy’s 9,” Robby offers, as he hops on one foot while Dad completes the card with his long, slanted handwriting. “Can I go get the boat?”
Because Robby is a boy, he is allowed to row our boat all alone, along the shore, to our cottage—the rest of us ride in the brown Buick down the dirt road. Dad lifts the big, tan, leather-trimmed suitcase out of the trunk and puts it into one of the three tiny bedrooms. We don’t take time to unpack, and it is only minutes before we are in our bathing suits, encased in our faded pink life jackets and Dad is rowing us in the heavy green metal rowboat to the outlet—a wide stream of water connecting the smaller inland Lower Herring Lake to Lake Michigan—where we will play for hours.
I am in the sand and the water all the time. There are so many sand castles Robby and I must build along the outlet that we are very, very busy. I leave the water’s edge only to gobble a hot dog charred over the fire Dad builds and drink sun-warmed lemonade, pee in the long beach grass, and to run back and forth with my plastic bucket to where Dad and Betsy hand dig a channel to keep water flowing between the two lakes.
At night, at the linen table-clothed dining room in the inn, I am sun-drenched and drowsy, with little interest in the simply-cooked meat and potatoes meal, so Dad shares our plates. We are sometimes given a nickel afterward to choose an O’Henry candy bar, Hershey bar, Peppermint Pattie or Tootsie Roll from within the glass display case in the lobby.
Once back at the cottage, Dad leans over Betsy and me and nuzzles our foreheads with his “nearly a bedtime kiss but not really” show of affection. The Watervale Dad is here and I am sunburned, and even though the sand in the bed will scratch my burn, I am happy because Dad says you have to get burned to get tan. He thinks suntan lotion is dumb, but Mom is always trying to put it on us.
“It’s magic here,” my best Watervale friend Sally says. We are lying on our bellies on the Lake Michigan beach, burying our hands deeply in the warm sand until we feel cool moist pockets of water. I only see Sally at Watervale and Watervale is even better when Sally and her mom, dad and siblings, Sue and Chuck, come too. Dad stands next to our beach fire, hot dog in one hand and an amber bottle of Stroh’s beer in the other. His best buddy from high school, Sally’s dad, Dave, drinks a beer next to him and makes Dad laugh, something I can’t do. Why, I wonder now, did my father not have a friendship like Dave’s at home?
“Take three shots,” Dad says as he hands me golf ball-sized rocks from the shore. “Then it’s Sally’s turn.” Dad reaches back with his muscled, tanned arm and tosses the brown bottle into the frothy waves of Lake Michigan. I toss my stones, trying to shatter the bottle. Bottles are frequently seen on the shoreline in the 1960s and a favorite activity is to see who can shatter the glass. The result, decades later, is rounded, smooth, multi-colored beach glass. We gather beach glass of various colors every summer and take it home. (Editor’s Note: We don’t recommend this activity today, and glass containers are no longer allowed at the beach.)
Later, on a walk, we dig out clay-like mud along the ground springs in the dunes and rub the goop on our cheeks in bold, brown stripes. “War paint,” Dad says, and helps us collect glass jars full of the mud to take home. The clay dries on our sunburned faces and cakes off, and we smear more on to keep our game alive.
Mom loves the social life beyond beach picnics, and embraces the 1960s cocktail scene, dragging Dad to cottage gatherings before dinner. In one of the most glamorous photos I have of my mother, she is sitting in our cottage, dressed for dinner in a simple knit dress, with pearl earrings, carefully applied lipstick and well-coiffed dark brown hair, the result of her beauty shop appointment the day before we left, and having avoided getting her hair wet all week. But what is most dazzling is her smile. I am 8; she is 39. I sit next to her in a simple cotton dress and smile shyly, my yet-to-be restrained buck teeth protruding and hands in my lap, looking at Dave holding his Polaroid Instamatic while mom smiles as if the world is waiting for her.
I want it to always be just me, Dad, Robby, Betsy and Mom at Watervale, along with Sally and her family, because we are full up with just us and fun stuff to do. But all too soon, by the time she is 13, Betsy becomes so enamored with a summer camp in Minnesota that she will spend a year’s worth of babysitting money to help pay for 12 weeks there. It is the same time that Robby grows bored with our beach afternoons and convinces Dad to let him waterski, a gas-guzzling activity Dad disdains. And, just like that, our time all together at Watervale ends.
To Dad, the motorboat and Betsy’s absence are intrusions into our family time, and the quiet lake where he paddles a canoe with us or sails a Sunfish. While Dad would never rent a motorboat, several of the fathers chipped in to rent one from a marina and took turns zipping us around the south end of the lake. For Rob, the motorboat and the dozen kids who cluster about it is excitement. For me, the idea that we kids leave our parents for the day saddens me. I feel a pressure between staying with Dad to make him happy, or playing with all the kids who I’d only recently joined at family beach picnics and beach fires.
In a photo taken that summer of change, my parents sit on wooden chaise lounges with thickly padded cushions in front of our cottage—Dad with a book and a satisfied smile; Mom, a saucer and cup of coffee in her hand, with a Jackie Kennedy look in a white beach jacket, earrings and lipstick. Robby perches, bare-chested, on the edge of Mom’s chair; an eager glint in his eye hints of joining other children on the ski boat down at the lake. I kneel between the chairs, wearing cut-offs and a hand-me-down surfer shirt of Robby’s, a happy little-girl look on my face, and not nearly as eager to join the older kids at the motor boat. I don’t want to lose the Watervale Dad by leaving him alone. Will he still be happy?
Dad and I lose our common ground at Watervale as I enter adolescence, and it is not until I am a teenager that we begin to spend hours on the tennis court. I am a tomboyish, self-conscious teen, uncomfortable with my femininity, and so tired of feeling like these boys, whom I once built sand castles and splashed about in the outlet with, don’t want to lay their beach towel next to mine or hold hands with me at the beach fires. I stop hanging around the motorboat, and instead volley for hours with Dad on the two Watervale courts, both of us throwing a T-shirt over our bathing suits.
In the evenings, these families we have vacationed with for many years gather on the Lake Michigan beach for a bonfire. The fathers stand to the side, chatting with cans of Stroh’s in their hands. I love sitting by the fire with Sally and watching the dancing flames, listening to the lapping waves. But almost everyone wants to run and hide in the recesses of the dunes, so we join them, our bare feet splaying the evening-chilled sand in all directions. We play Pom-Pom- Pullaway, chasing each other, and I try to stay close to Sally. Soon a couple of the boys twist the rules, tagging girls and tumbling on the sand with them, gently inching toward the privacy of the tall grasses for a quick kiss.
All too soon each year, we boarded the boat in Ludington for home. There was a routine to our leaving that provided comfort in tradition. We always sailed at lunch time. When I was younger and the boat had left the harbor, Mom and I would stand on the pink linoleum-covered steps leading up to the dining room to wait for a table for lunch. Lunch in the car ferry dining room looked like lunch in a fancy restaurant, except no one seemed worried about prices.
Sometimes, the waves were so high outside in the lake, I couldn’t eat my turkey sandwich, but I always tried to because it came with fancy curlicued toothpicks in it with potato chips. When the waiter brought the sandwich, it was on a blue and white china plate with a blue boat in the middle and writing underneath—Pere Marquette.
If I didn’t eat, Dad didn’t have to pay for it because the waiter writes “seasick” on the bill. But if I did, I got to order a Dixie cup of ice cream with chocolate sauce on top. Then Betsy, Robby and I got to run all over the boat while mom took a nap in the stateroom. If she woke happy, she’d give us a dime to get a Nestle Crunch out of the vending machine in the lounge. That made it a very good day even though Watervale was over.
Dad’s ashes are buried in a small township cemetery just a short walk from Watervale. A sprinkling of childhood friends who lived in the summer magic of Watervale are returning to the area now for retirement. I combed Lower Herring Lake for a retirement home, in vain for many years. We finally heard of one, but my husband and I ultimately decided we needed to keep the magic of Northwestern Michigan as a vacation haven, not a year-round residence. So, I still return each summer, remembering how Dad’s sharpness softened and his anxieties melted away as he walked the Lake Michigan shoreline with me.
Emily Guziak is a freelance writer based in Vermont. Her husband and adult children long ago gave up comparing the beauty of Northern Michigan with northern Vermont, realizing they are in love with both.
Watervale is a 50-mile drive north from Ludington and sits on a pristine spot of land bordering two lakes. With uncanny foresightedness, a Chicago bachelor bought the acreage in 1917, with its abandoned lumber camp hotel and cottages and welcomed his large extended family to vacation there. The friendliness and beautiful surroundings soon attracted other vacationing families, and a niece bought it in 1960, cherishing its heritage and protecting the land from developers. By virtue of the owners’ foresightedness and generosity, combined with efforts from the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and individual contributions, Watervale’s shoreline along both lakes remains virtually the same today as when the land was purchased over 100 years ago.
Watervale is still a simple summer resort where families play on the beach, swim and take long walks. When I was young, we ate dinner nightly in the turn-of-the-century inn where tanned college girls brought us plates of baked chicken and mashed potatoes, followed by ice cream sundaes. Watervale made a major change in their menu in the early ’80s when Dori Noble Turner assumed management from her mother. Dori upgraded the meals—particularly dinner—to a more sophisticated menu and raised meal prices. The wait staff is still college kids—mostly female but there are males now, too. But the layout of the dining room and the white tablecloths, silver and dishes are exactly the same.