|Kent and Ross, living large at the Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island.|
My younger son Kent turns 18 tomorrow. The official end of childhood. So as he slips into the general anonymity of adulthood, I'm celebrating, if not a most distinctive youth, then one that ended up in a newspaper column more than is average. He was always a headstrong boy, a quality that one day will serve him well, but that growing up, as illustrated below, could pose a challenge to his parents.
Several people have asked me what Mackinac Island was like, and while I intend to write something for the travel pages, I thought, with summer about to wink out, I ought to give a brief report here.
There is a charming little downtown, with plenty of the famous fudge shops -- fudge is not my favorite sweet, but you get used to it. Most of the island is park, with good trails and hiking. Cars aren't allowed, so transport is by bikes or horses or foot. People seemed enthralled by the horses, though, frankly, in my view, they were a reminder of the utility of cars -- you spent a lot of time waiting for the horse taxi to come around.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel. A tour guide described it as a "steamship on dry land," which summed it up pretty well. An enormous white wooden structure built in 1887. Meals are included in the price of the room, and, as with cruise ships, there was quite a focus on eating.
Or maybe that was just me.
The place is so big and so elegant that I walked around the lobby for a day before I realized it displayed three John Singer Sargent oils and a Childe Hassam. Elegant enough that the hotel charges $10 apiece for non-guests to walk through the lobby, and takes in $75,000 a year from people willing to pay. Its greatest feature is a stupendous front porch -- said to be the longest in the world, holding 100 white rocking chairs. I spent as much time as I could on that porch, staring at the blue expanse of Lake Huron, and I know it's corny, but the phrase "sacred space" came to mind. Put it this way: It's worth the nine-hour drive to Mackinac to sit on that porch for an afternoon.
Passing along genetic grandiosity
Vacations are all about forging memories, and I'll share with you the key Mackinac memory for me. The Grand Hotel requires that men wear suit jackets and ties in public spaces after 6 p.m. Even though children are exempt from this -- their outfit of choice seems to be golf shirts and khakis—I used the opportunity to put my boys in their first blazers.
This demand for elegance infected the mind of Kent, my younger boy, and at one shop in town—the London House—he seized upon a walking stick, black with a blue cobalt glass knob, and announced that he had to have it. He just had to.
As any sane father would, I emphatically told him: a) I wasn't spending $50 on a walking stick; b) I wasn't about to be the father of a boy who carried around a walking stick, and c) no, no, no.
Tenacity runs in my family, and we do not give up easily. "I want to die," he said, confronting the disappointment with all the gravity an 8-year-old can muster. Returning to the Grand Hotel—this fabulous swooping vista of Victorian charm—while he whined "die, die, die" was one of those strange, exquisite highlights of fatherhood, along with being thrown up upon.
This was the first day, with four nights of "die, die, die" ahead of us. At dinner, with the boys safely tucked in the hotel's children's program, I consulted with my wife. Yes, he was spoiled, and getting him the stick would spoil him further. But really, we were on vacation....
What had softened me was, in the constant rehashing that followed, I asked him where he imagined taking a walking stick.
"To fancy occasions," he said.
Did I really want to be the guy standing in the way of a lad being properly decked out for fancy occasions?
We told him he could get his stick—provided he kicked in the next six weeks of allowance, and behaved for the rest of his life. He enthusiastically agreed.
The older boy, of course, needed to be bought off, and he chose to go on a spree at Doc's House of Magic, loading up on itch powder and joy buzzers and the most realistic-looking rubber cigar I've ever seen.
It was all worth it—the expense, the certainty that my lax parenting skills were turning my boys into brats—that night, as we marched into the Grand Hotel's archly labeled "Salle a Manger" (see, I didn't invent pretentiousness).
The boys strolled in front of me, Kent proudly holding his walking stick -- it was a little big for him, so he had to hold it high, which made him seem like Louis XIV taking the air, Ross wearing a Thurston Howell III yachtsman's cap and brandishing his fake cigar.
Guests did double takes. I am not exaggerating to say that heads turned in the dining room to see this strange family come rolling in. The maitre d' informed my older son that gentlemen must remove their hats at dinner, and we were shown our seats, my heart bursting with pride.
"My work on Earth is done," I told myself. "I can die now, confident that I have passed on my qualities to a new generation."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 4, 2005
Postscript: Almost needless to say, he never used the walking stick again. But it is mounted above the door to his bedroom, where it is available, should the occasion arise.