The hidden lives of the Wolverines

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 11:27am

Madeleine Virginia Gannon / Daily

Madeleine Virginia Gannon / Daily Buy this photo
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On the day George G. Gannon got married, he didn’t wear a wedding ring. Instead, he simply turned his University class of 1952 ring around on his finger; silver band on the outside, ostentatious blue sapphire facing the palm. Real classy, grandpa.

But then again, as a newly minted Wolverine myself, such an incident is rather unsurprising. School spirit has always been the University of Michigan’s most prized commodity. Or, at least that’s the excuse my grandfather used to defend his slightly unconventional tastes. We — the students of the 21st century — might instead chalk that up to “The Michigan Difference” in all it’s beautiful simplicity. Leave it to a Michigan Wolverine to forgo a ring on their wedding day in favor of their class ring. What romantics we Wolverines are.

As a child, I can still vividly remember holding my grandfather’s wrinkled, soft hand in my small, chubby fingers. And oh, how I loved to play with his class ring. I would roll the ring round and round his finger, and peer into that sapphire, imagining that I could fall right into it’s blue, mysterious depths. I know every facet carved into the stone as well as I know the words to John Denver’s “Country Roads” or the menu at Ann Arbor’s local coffee haunt, Espresso Royale.

Back then, his hands seemed so big and strong, despite being weathered with age. Even now, though his hands are no longer as steady, warmth and reassurance still oozes from his grip. When I take his hand in mine, strolling down our familiar and beaten Brooklyn paths, the world stops turning for a few restful moments.

Two partners in crime, nothing was beyond us. Whether it was ice cream with dulce de leche sauce for breakfast or giggling incessantly in the back rows of church (during mass, to my mother’s horror), trouble was our shared manifesto. A self-proclaimed “tough guy,” I had him wrapped around my little, chubby fingers.

Thick as thieves as we were — and still are — it should have been no surprise to anyone that the University of Michigan is where I would find myself a second home. Where I went, my jiddee – my grandfather – would always follow.

And I always thought I knew my grandfather well. Among my family, I’ve always been incredibly close to him. From confiding in him about failed tests, discussing the complexities of literature and film or even gossiping about boys (George Gannon’s pro-date tip is to grab some “soda-pop” or a malt at the local diner), nothing was ever a secret between us.

Even the things left unspoken, we still understood. As my grandfather grew older, his health declined. Conversations cut short with excuses of exhaustion, and a softly exhaled “I’m fine” never truly deceived me of my grandfather’s difficulties. I implicitly understood everything looming behind the silence.

Now, the years separate us, and so, too, does a new, unfamiliar distance gape between us. Yet, since stepping foot in Ann Arbor, I feel that I have never understood my grandfather more. I have never felt closer to him than I do now.

As I walk along the streets of Ann Arbor, with its the pothole littered streets and lamp-lit sidewalks, everything is strangely familiar. As I lay on the lawn of the Diag during Michigan’s half-hearted attempt at spring or fall, or as I plod heavy-footed along snow banked paths, I feel torn between a thousand different moments, a million different lifetimes.

Every day, I wake up bleary-eyed in a dark dorm room. The sun not yet risen from winter’s darkness; the room muggy and hot from a heater on full blast. Every day, I trod, unbalanced, down the hall to the bathroom. Every day, I ungracefully pull on layers on layers to bundle against the warmth.

Sometimes, I stop, and I think. I think, for a brief moment, of my grandfather. I think of how he once lived in the very same dorm as I did, all those years ago. I sit, and I wonder: Did we have similar morning routines? Stumbling from his bed, pulling on his shirt backwards, hair sticking up awkwardly like my own curly mane? I did inherit my dark curls, bushy and thick, from him and my ancestors from Lebanon. Did he slink down the hallway at the crack of dawn and blanket himself in coarse layers to protect against the cold?

Sometimes, I can almost see him walking beside me. I’ll sling my leather messenger bag over my shoulder, careen out the door in a bundle of scarves and sweaters and flying papers — and there he is, walking beside me. An ever-changing collage of old photos, my mind sloppily piecing together an indecisive image of my grandfather in his college days.

Often, I am too sleep-deprived and frantic in my rush to class to acknowledge this ghost that walks with me. But together, on sleepy mornings, we walk into the cold together. And with a gush of February wind, he’s gone again.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, I work the morning caffeine rush at Berts. I’m always all-smiles, sing-song small talk and an array of self-deprecating jokes about exams and the cold. The café, always busy, is a buzz of warm chatter, pierced by the shrill cry of the espresso machine, the smell of roasting coffee hanging heavy in the air.

As I bustle to and fro, mopping, scooping, dashing, chatting, I think. I think, again, of my grandfather. I think of how he worked, too, in college. I think of how he grew up scurrying around the family grocery as a child in Detroit; I think of how he worked as a chef for a sorority on campus, making ends meet with the same brand of hustle and bustle I do three mornings a week. I wonder if he joked with coworkers and gossiped in between customer orders, like I do. I wonder if he turned some of the famous Gannon charm on some of the girls he served — just like I throw in a playful wink to passerbys, or jokingly write my number on the rim of a coffee cup when friends float by.

Sometimes, as I lean against the counter, hands braced behind me and huffing oh-so-slightly from my endless stream of small-talk, I see him there with me. We slyly nudge our hats off our heads, combing fingers through our hair in an effort to revive flattened curls — Gannons have never been hat people. Of course, in lieu of a gray T-shirt and baseball cap, my familiar ghost wears a more 1950s characteristic button down, and trousers belted at the waist, with what my mind fancies to be a funny-looking paper-boat hat.

Then, the peace is broken by a new wave of customers. The line seemingly without end, like a cruel, impossible bonus-level of a video game. I’ll whip my cap back on with a wince and quick prayer for my hair, and step up to plate at the register — my ghost disappears.  

On Wednesdays, I go out dancing — swing dancing, to be precise. Dancing around the ballrooms in the Michigan League, spinning on the balls of my feet and kicking up my skirts, it’s as if I’ve fallen through time. From the vintage fashion proudly shown off by fellow dancers and the classic jazzy tunes of the 20s, 30s and 40s to the old-fashioned wood floors and panelling of the ballroom, the evening is suspended between eras.

As I stumble though my swing-outs in a botched version of the Lindy Hop, I think of my grandfather. I think of how he, too, used to dance swing on campus — maybe even in the very same ballrooms. I think of how he’d frugally save his pocket money — just enough for a date, he always tells me, just enough to take a nice girl out for the night. I think of how he might have come dancing, weary and tired from hours of classes and work; I wonder if he felt the same burst of energy, the same jittery excitement to dance when the music starts to play as I do. Yes, he would have. He still does, even though his knees no longer let him join the dancing fray. My grandfather has always loved music with all his heart. I imagine that just like me he would have been content to never let his feet leave the dance floor.

Some things are different, of course. Back then, I imagine, they might’ve had a band playing through the night, rather than Spotify hooked up to speakers. I imagine students might have dressed up for the night out; I imagine that going out dancing was the big night of the week. I think of how I might have fit in well, with that crowd from the 50s, as I dance away my Wednesday night in well-loved, second-hand red heels and a bright orange flouncy skirt.

Sometimes, I imagine that it’s my grandfather I’m dancing with instead. I close my eyes, and for a moment 2019 slips away — the music and the movement takes over. Together, we dance for a moment in a timeless bubble, neither in my time, nor in his. He always said he wanted to teach me to dance. I imagine that it’s my grandfather coaching me though the fast kicks of the Charleston. We may never be able to dance together in real life, but I can have this moment.

Later, as midnight closes in, I’ll triple-step my way across the softly illuminated diag. I’ll dance playfully, teasingly around the block M. I’ll tip-toe across the stone benches, swing along the steps of Hatcher, and twirl my way past Angell. I revel in the intimacy of the night. This dark, unknown world after sunset that seemingly only I know — here, I dance across more than a century of precious dreams gifted by The Sandman. In the quiet of the evening, I hear the buzz of activity of students from years — from eras — gone by. Lover’s embrace under the engineering arch, friends scurry from the library, dancers, like me, blissfully straggle home.

This moonlight world is the collision of timelines. The entirety of campus, of Ann Arbor itself, is steeped in nostalgia. The city is practically dripping in memories — good, bad, beautiful and ugly. It is easy to reminiscence when gazing at the block M, sitting in the Michigan Theater, or walking through the Michigan League. But the truth is, these memories are everywhere. One only has to slip beneath the thinly veiled surface to find these carefully nurtured moments and lifetimes.

Thousands of students before us have walked along our campus. Thousands have filtered through these very same halls, trudged stubbornly through snow-storms, and dragged themselves through exam seasons. Just because they leave does not mean their presence is no longer felt. Rather, I imagine that within the very foundations of the University lie the experiences of these travellers who have passed through and beyond Michigan’s walls.

I often reach into this veil, beyond the demanding excitement of the everyday to the depths of the past. It’s true that one should not dwell too long on what has happened, and instead look to the future, but for me, it has provided comfort. My grandfather, who I love unconditionally, is now more than that — more than a “grandfather.” As silly and obvious as it may seem, he is also a person, one who I finally have had the pleasure to become acquainted with. By accessing the well of memories held within the heart of the University and its campus, I have come to understand and identify with my grandfather, George G. Gannon, so much more. I have come to understand, as cliche as it is, what it means to be a Wolverine.

Now, when my byline prints “Madeleine Virginia Gannon,” I bring those memories — that nostalgia — with me. I invoke the memory of my grandfather, of the Gannon name, in every article I write. I add to this collection of memories with every morning I wake up to the Ann Arbor sunrise, and every night I fall asleep to that clear and bright Michigan moon.