When I arrived in Michigan in late November, it was getting cold, but the temperature hadn't hit the freezing point yet. I was constantly checking the thermometer, not because there is much of a difference between 1 degree and -1, but because I was using water inside my RV to shower and wash up. Whenever water was about to freeze, I had to empty all the tanks so that the pipes don't burst. And when the temperature did eventually drop below zero, I checked into a campground in Allendale, an hour and a half away from Lebanon, Michigan.
I was met there by the camp owner, a man with piercing blue eyes and an equally colorful haircut; a vivid blue mohawk. He helped me refill my propane tank so I could use the heater inside the RV. I asked him if he was tired by now from people inquiring about his hair, because I couldn't have been the first person to notice it. He laughed and said that he didn't mind at all. I then asked if he'd pose for a portrait and he was more than accommodating. Wanting to know more about his distinctive haircut, he suddenly opened up and told me his story:
"I worked in corporate IT for 27 years. One night, I was in a boardroom meeting and I received a phone call from home. I ignored it. Then I got a second call and my rule is, if it's twice, it must be important. So I got out to take the call. It was my four-year old daughter. 'I just wanna say good night, Daddy', she said. I yelled at her for interrupting my meeting. On the flight back home -I was on a business trip-, I kept thinking to myself, 'did I just yell at my four-year old for wanting to wish me good night?'
Soon after that, I quit my job, moved to the country, bought this land, and now I own the campground and I'm about to get a double-wide mobile home for the family. My two daughters decide what color I should do my Mohawk. On presidential election week we had it in red, white, and blue. The week before that, it was a rainbow. "
After settling into my parking spot in the falling snow, I realized that I had run out of clean clothes. But I didn't have any detergent on me, so I asked the man working on the RV parked beside me if he knew where to buy some and where to find change for the coin-operated machines. He jumped from underneath the car, smiling. "You don't need to worry about that", he said. He went inside and came back with a bottle of detergent and a bag of coins. "Here you go, please take them". I tried suggesting paying him, be he wouldn't have it. "Don't be silly, go wash your clothes. Wait, do you have gloves? You can't walk around like this in the snow. Here, take these ski gloves, I have an extra pair and I won't need them."
I didn't know what to say. Except repeating "thank you so much" over and over. I asked him what he did for a living and, like Rob, had an interesting life that took a sudden change halfway.
Tom used to work for the city in Detroit, in a youth-oriented program with a focus on inner-city kids. But he grew frustrated that he wasn't making any real difference. The community was impoverished yet he couldn't understand why all these kids would keep spending their parents' hard-earned money on expensive sneakers. This wasn't the kind of poverty that he could help solve.
'I prayed God and asked him to guide me", he told me. One day he woke up, sold all his belongings, and moved with his wife and son to Haiti. He is now a minister there, working with an organization called "Faith in Action", helping local farmers grow trees whose fruits are not common on the market, thus exportable for high prices, enabling them to rise beyond poverty.
The only possession Tom still has in the USA is his small RV. He flies to the US a few times a year to meet with potential donors who could fund buying new trees for the farmers in Haiti.
Driving to Lebanon the next day proved to be similar to many of my visits to other Lebanons. Deserted farmlands and empty streets. I thought perhaps it was the changing weather; people don't venture out into the cold as much. But animals were more resilient, and the sight of horses behind a fence told me there had to be at least some humans nearby. I parked by the fence and went walking around. I saw an abandoned house with boarded-up windows. I walked up to it to take some pictures. But as soon as I got closer, out of nowhere a mastiff started running towards me, barking. Luckily he was attached to a long chain and couldn't reach me. The door of the house that I thought was abandoned opens and a woman's voice blared: "Who is this and what do you want?"
I introduced myself from a distance and the woman walked out the door, looking to be in her late 40s, blonde with her long hair in a ponytail, dressed in hunting clothes. She was very beautiful.
"Well come on in, don't just stand outside. My name is Annette."
Once inside, had I not seen the miserable state of the exterior, I would not have guessed it was the same house. It was furnished and clean, but still humble. She must have seen the puzzled look on my face and said: "Yes, I know. The house is a mess outside, but I'm renovating it little by little, on my own."
Wanting to know more about the township and why there wasn't any people around, she laughed and said: "Honey, it's a tiny farming community here, everybody's Irish and today is Sunday. So they're still hung-over from yesterday. Anyway, how old do you think I am?"
A loaded question if there ever was one. I changed my early estimate to be more complimentary. "Early forties", I said. "Well I'm 57, how about that?", she replied. I was genuinely shocked and she seemed to enjoy my disbelief. "Yes, and I'm working on this house alone, because I don't need no man to help me out."
I thought this meant she had no family. I couldn't have been more mistaken. After she had opened up about her life, I was left in awe with this woman's strength:
"I have 14 children, 29 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren on the way. My friends call me sunshine; I got the word tattooed on the back on my neck. But it wasn't easy growing up. Last time I saw my dad was before my 9th birthday. And both he and my mother were alcoholics and abusive. She died when I was 14. I didn't have any relatives so I was put in an orphanage for 3 years. I married young and married dumb. He was a lazy, abusive, good-for-nothing, but I never fought back. I was cleaning houses in the day and milking cows in the evening to raise the kids. Do you know who Kathy Lee Gifford is? I heard her say on TV once that if you settle for what you've got, you deserve what you get. I had two choices and I picked living. It's better now. I bought these 80 acres here, got my horses and my dog Reese. My ex-husband, he's back living with his mom and dad. One day I want to retire in Florida; it's warmer there. I visited a few times and everybody looks different. But if they all get along, so what? Though I have to say, people there don't seem to have as much time talking to you as they do here."
When I arrived in Michigan in late November, it was getting cold, but the temperature hadn't hit the freezing point yet. I was constantly checking the thermometer, not because there is much of a difference between 1 degree and -1, but because I was using water inside my RV to shower and wash up. Whenever water was about to freeze, I had to empty all the tanks so that the pipes don't burst....