My niece begins her college career at Michigan State University this week. I have to sit with that thought for a minute. My niece – the first grandchild in our family, the first sweet babe to make me an aunt, born in the summer before my final year of high school – begins her college career at Michigan State University this week! I can remember anxiously awaiting the announcement of her arrival from afar and counting down the hours of her maiden voyage to Michigan as she traveled from Maryland in the back of a black Volvo with dad, mom and, ever faithful, Auntie Annie and Wujek Wojtek. Those first backyard snuggles against the cartoon backdrop at 932 would be the start of a childhood of summer adventures in the mitten state.
After many trips to Michigan early in life with mom and dad and, 22 months later, little sister, “Michigan Camp” began the true dedication to summer life in the Great Lakes State as the almost 6- and 4-year-old nieces stayed a whole week without parents. At the time a third year student at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, I had recently moved from East Lansing to Muskegon for my clinical years and the girls were my co-pilots as I navigated my new hometown. Though we often (accidentally) took the long way round from Meijer to the apartment, we could always find the beach and had a keen sense of direction to (aided in no small part by the absurd abundance of) the ice cream shops. Love for Lake Michigan life was born and I would learn years later just how deeply it ran.
As my husband and I considered a potential move to Maryland, I was shocked when little sister declared her opposition to the idea. Assumed initially to be a snub, her resistance was really a testimony to the magic of that summer week. And so we remained residents of Muskegon as Michigan Camp extended from one week to many, filled with wave jumping, farm dinners, late night ice cream drive-thrus, countless episodes of Friends watched in the dark of the condo basement, miniature golf, road trips, ferry rides, archery, boot camp in the driveway, 5Ks with too many stairs to count and nieces becoming cousins.
During the months that spanned between those summer moments, the giggling pre-K student with the “Mickey Mouse” hairstyle transitioned to a bilingual grade-schooler, while the only French I learned were the braids to manage her curls. In the time between Lake Michigan sunsets, she navigated junior high with an interest in photography and growing love for soccer, now independent in the implementation of the practical fashion of headbands and excelled into high school, where she overcame the challenge of physical injury, funneling her passion into theatre production as well as the esteemed role of editor in chief of the yearbook and became a self-proclaimed dabbler with her trademark curls now often straight…until she hit the waves of the big lake.
Always a helper, she was a tremendous asset during my summer maternity leaves and was a natural big cousin. Needing less of my help, we embraced friendship as we shared conversation, laughter at movies, intrigue for Paleo and CrossFit, the challenge of an adventure-a-day for her sweet sixteen and (woefully) the loss and reconstruction of our right ACLs. She expressed interest in medicine, I offered insights, both jaded and inspired, and when the time came for college application, it was an exciting to learn of her potential opportunities. Relating to her experience of decision influenced by both geographic and financial criteria, I simply hoped she would ultimately feel unquestionably confident in her choice. This expectation was satisfied when her announcement was made for Michigan State University, with the only lament my own as we were no longer residents of the place she would now call home and much more than a quick car ride away. Hindsight, and her anticipated year of graduation from this great land grant institution, is 2020, so I pause, reflect and take solace in knowing the seeds planted 31 years prior by her mom at Brody Hall were watered for the better part of her own 18 with me and my family along the shores of Lake Michigan and will be further nurtured by the sunshine of her in-state aunts, grandma and extended family. For now I will send love from a more westerly west coast and look forward to my own Michigan Camp – with football games, special events, beach field trips and, eventually, a most special celebration of graduation.
Until then, sweet niece, I wish you joy on the journey – though there will be rough patches and frustration, moments of panic and sadness, there will be so many more fantastic opportunities – lifelong friends, inspiring professors, intriguing classes, IM sports, endless clubs, unique plays, spectacular concerts, studies abroad, fight songs and alma maters sung and hopefully football games as amazing as the one against Wisconsin that introduced you to Spartan Stadium. Eighteen years later, I would wager pretty near to the day, you were escorted by dad and mom from Maryland to Michigan, on your own once again, this time in the back of a black Jeep, maybe even driving a few of the miles, via the home of ever faithful Wujek Wojtek and Auntie Annie (we will give her credit in spirit from Egypt). I hope you felt the virtual backyard snuggles from all of us against the quaint cat-statued backdrop at 937 as you start your adult hood with college adventures in the mitten state.
Congratulations on an amazing Act One – I am so excited to watch what will unfold for you in East Lansing. Thanks for being the first to make me an official Spartan Aunt!
May you learn as much in the classroom as you will about yourself, visit the library often and, forever more, Go Green!!!