People Who Get You

Here’s the thing I find most annoying about undergoing personal change:  Getting other people to realize it.  Why do people who knew you during one period in your life always expect you to be the same as they remember? Sure, not everyone has gone through the tumbling wash cycle of emotional/mental/psycho analysis that I did, but why do we hold people from our past in mental time capsules?  Everyone changes.  The hard part is that, even after you know you’ve changed for the better, you have to convince other people, and that is oddly more work.

Upon my return to Western Michigan from my experiment on the Detroit side, I’d mentally made a break from “growing up Sunny” and changed things about myself that I didn’t like, let other things grow out, and stopped letting myself wallow in behavioral ruts.  I felt better, healthier, freer, and more open and loving in general.

Then…  I happened to return to Grand Rapids around the time of an ACS Homecoming, so I immediately ran into people who had high-school-shaped perceptions of me.  I shattered them joyously.

“You did what?!” someone asked when I told them about my model scouting while in Detroit.

“You were always a shy, quiet girl,” another told me in bafflement.

“I can’t see you doing that.” This was said in a tone suggesting that, since she couldn’t see me doing it, that meant I hadn’t.

It may show just how much I grew to say that I smiled with nothing but love for these people. 

But as the months rolled on after my return, the differences between who I’d been as teenager and who I was as a nearly 30-year-old came up time and again.  People expected me to be snotty and cutting, which was really obnoxious because I found myself “obliging” in this regard and therefore reverting a bit. I suppose parents and family will always see you as you were as a child, but if they could accept that I drink on a regular basis, why couldn’t they conceive of the idea that I might now be happy and not sulking all the time? (That’s just my face!)  Even the person I was from college had changed, so people who didn’t even know me as a teenager often still thought of me as they perceived me in college.  My college friend Justin pointed out to me once that he had always assumed I was aloof and thought myself better than everyone else because he’d often seen me smirking during classes.   I explained that I smirk whenever I’m amused by someone or something.  Justin – God bless him – actually corrected his view and has been “in on the secret” behind my rather constant smirking ever since.

I can’t be the only one with this problem.  But, it has always bothered me when people don’t know me but think they do – this is actually my biggest pet peeve.  My roommate, Miranda, and I had a group of friends referred to as “Group Yay” (more later) who tended to lump Miranda and I together as one entity.  While I love M as one of my closest friends, we are NOT the same person and have significant differences.  I’m sure Group Yay thought I was being negative about M one night when I repeatedly pointed out that I was not her – I am not as conservative, I am not quiet, I swear, I like rap music, I have been drunk on more than a handful of occasions.  I also pointed out that M is a better person, so I tried to point out how she is her own person, too – she thinks before she speaks, she’s gentler, she knows more about folk music than I ever will.  Also, the issue went beyond simply being compared to M, because they had a very certain idea about who I was under the label of a “good, Christian girl” too.  I’m not a rebel or a badass or anything, but considering my upbringing and educational experiences, this label and the assumptions that go with it drive me nuts – especially when coming from these boys who should have known me better.

But what are you going to do?

I guess part of this problem is that we constantly realize new things about ourselves.  I am this.  I am this.  Wow, I’m way more that than I thought.  Do people see us better than we see ourselves, as outsiders looking in?  Are we all a little blind, or delusional?  I pride/bludgeon myself on being ridiculously self-aware, but why don’t other people see things about me that I think are essential and obvious?

On the flip side, there are those people that see you at every stage of your life.  No matter the lengths of time that go between your meetings, they know who you are and what you need and love you enough to be accurate, if that makes sense.

Enter the Andrus kids.

When I was 7ish, my mom wanted to earn extra cash by babysitting.  One wet Michigan day, a lady with her baby showed up at our trailer door and came in to interview my mom.  She was there only a short time before there was another knock on the door.  I remember our dog, Kat, barked with a mouthful of dog food and scampered over to greet a second woman who’d come to meet my mom about babysitting.  My mom was confused, but soon enough the first lady realized she was at the wrong address.  Thank goodness, because this second woman was the mother of an adorable little girl with a mullet named Kaly and a robust toddler named Luke.

My fondest childhood memories are of Kaly, Luke, my brother Christian, and me playing outside, drawing inside, and eating macaroni and cheese and baloney lunches.  When we played, “Mrs. Jackson” was for some reason always the name of the bad lady after us.  We played hockey on the frozen swamp behind our house in the winter.  We made the most awesome fort of all time – it had a working sauna, no lie.  They helped me create The Kota Series as we played Kota for hours and hours and hours – I was always dying, Kaly always had telepathic headaches, Luke always crushed things, and Christian was the wild card.  We became like siblings, really.  Kaly’s bloody nose stain on our house’s stairs was still there when we moved.

Fast forward a few decades.

At Kaly Andrus’s wedding, she chose me as her maid of honor.  I hadn’t really seen her in about four years, but when you grow up as the closest thing to someone’s big sister, I guess this is a job that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The strange thing was, though we’d both changed a good deal since we’d been kids playing Kota, I don’t recall even having a catch-up discussion.  It did immediately strike me as odd that Kaly thought she would still know me as well as she did way back when, and she also didn’t seem to think there was any reason I wouldn’t know her anymore.  I was worried about this at first.  Kaly said things like, “Well, I trust Sunny.  She knows what I like.” When you haven’t known someone since they were of legal age, can it really be said that you know or even can guess their taste in gifts, flowers, or colors of penis straws?

But here’s the thing: We did still know each other.  We could exchange wordless glances and get it.  Kaly knew enough not to attempt to match-make me at her wedding.  I knew when to help as a maid of honor and when she had it under control.  And I’ve never been prouder than the morning of her wedding as she chugged from a bottle of Pepto in one hand and then a bottle of Jack in the other.

And this lack-of-need-to-catch-up goes for Luke, too.  It helps that the kid is so laid back and just plain lovable in general.  When I was leaving Kaly’s wedding, I remember a very drunk Luke picking me up in a huge hug and saying, “I love you.  And that’s not just because I’m drunk.  I really do love you.”  He may not remember that, but it meant a lot to me.  Later, when Christian was in Luke’s wedding, I saw this same connection still existed between them too.  The funny thing here is that they’ve grown to have such different lives and interests – Luke stayed country while Christian had to borrow cowboy boots, for example.  But there’s still just that easy thing that exists between people who grew up together.

And that’s what the four of us have.  We’re almost-siblings.  We can change and grow up and go for lengths of time without seeing each other, but we’re still close enough to know each other at the drop of a hat.  We’ll be in each other’s weddings without hesitation.  We can roll with the changes life brings and accept each other

The FourSo.  There are people in your life – some whom you even love dearly – who will hold you in a time capsule. There are some who will refuse to see changes/growth.  This can be incredibly frustrating as you try to move forward, but it’s good to keep those other people around you, the ones who somehow know you and love you and recognize you.

Maybe that’s the test of any real relationship – no matter how much time and how much change has come along the way, who still knows you without having to ask?

Living on the Fringes of an Amish Community

Another part of growing up on the Haymarsh was that many of our neighbors were Amish.  I don’t know the history of how they came to settle in the area, but they definitely added a unique flavor to the community.  I respect their devotion to their way of life and faith, even if I don’t find it necessary.  But… There are definitely a few things/stories that stuck in my memory:


I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point my brother and I started calling Amish children omelets.  I think it may have something to do with the fact that often one house will have a dozen children.

In summer, the omelets play outside much like my brother and I used to do, and I imagine there is a similar aspect of their mother wanting them out of the house.  They will always be barefoot, but in this community clothing is never optional.  The omelets will be dressed from head to shins in black doll’s clothes with the cutest (and probably most uncomfortable) straw hats and bonnets you’ve ever seen.  There is always a puppy.  People drive by slowly to see the herd of little omelets playing, and it’s hard to say whose curiosity is more entertained – those in the cars or the children.  But I do know that the puppies always enjoy the children’s attention being diverted, because they always jump at the chance to run for it.

Once, I saw three little omelets standing by their pasture, staring open-mouthed and pointing as a bull had his way with a cow.  That must have been Biology class for the day.

Deer in a Barrel

Not everyone enjoys having Amish neighbors.  Especially around hunting season.  One family went so far in their plans to “outsmart” their Amish neighbors that they built a 25-foot tall fence along their entire property line to keep deer from running off their property onto the Amish property.  It was a wall Nehemiah would have been proud of, even if the motivation was a little different.

When deer season came around, however, the Amish were ready.  They got up at 4:00 a.m. and sat along their side of the fence, waiting.  The deer, probably confused, ended up being funneled by the new fence into the Amish property.  Trapped, the deer ran along the fence like those shooting games at a carnival while the Amish men shot at them for 45 minutes.  Deer tried crawling under the fence to no avail.  Thirteen deer died that days, some so small they still had spots on their little haunches.  As my Dad found out later, “The boys enjoyed some sport.”  By mowing down Bambi’s as they tried to crawl under a fence?  Very sporting indeed.

 The Sunday Morning Game

My family played a game on the way to church every Sunday: Guess Which Way The Amish Went To Church.  You play by swerving around the horse poop in the road, trying to decipher which direction the horse-drawn buggy had been traveling.  Are the poopy trails leading to the Yoders?  Or the Adams?  Then our family car would make that one turn to our church, and we’d see a pile of plop going in the other direction.  Yes, it was the Yoders that Sunday.  (We found odd things to be competitive about in my family, but poop tracking was one of them.)

The Amish Diet

At the local grocery store, I always found it exciting to pull into the parking lot and see a horse and buggy tied to the lamppost.  One day, my mom and I entered to find a young Amish couple (you knew they hadn’t been married long cuz his beard was thin yet) shopping around.  I’m not alone in finding this exciting, because I distinctly remember seeing several other customers also looking in the couple’s cart, wondering what they were buying.  I lost track of them in the store but was fortunate enough to end up right behind them in the checkout line.  What did they pull from their cart? A frozen pizza and eggs.

Two thoughts went through my head:
1.) Shouldn’t they have chickens?
2.) How did they cook the pizza?

 Business Moguls

Oh, they’re crafty, those Amish.  They helped themselves to all the maple syrup they could carry from our woods two years in a row.  We would drive by our land and see the trees reflecting back at us like they all had rear-view windows – the syrup collecting bags were silver.

Not only did they relieve us of the burden of harvesting from our land, but they were also so generous as to plant…special herbal crops on our land. My grandmother was shocked by the DEA one afternoon when they landed a helicopter, knocked on her door, and asked if she was responsible for about 20 marijuana plants on her property.  Honestly, I can’t really blame the DEA – which is more ridiculous, that my grandmother would be growing weed or that the nice Amish boys would be planting weed? (To be fair, the true culprits may have been my aunt and uncle’s employees, but I have my reasons for suspecting the Amish boys. We had always wondered what was in those plastic bags when they would come out of our woods.)

More as a kind way to interact with the Amish boys than as an actually wise business move, my dad decided one summer to buy pigeons from them to hunt on the Hunt Club.  They were delighted (he would later say because they’d known a sucker when they saw one) and sold Dad over 100 pigeons at a time that they caught in their barn.  Now, fun fact about pigeons:  They will return home to roost, even after the betrayal of being sold into a slavery where they’re shot at.  So, by the end of the summer, my dad was pretty sure he’d bought many of the same birds at least three times.

 Riding lessons

By the time I actually had horses of my own, I was over my girlhood horse phase. It didn’t help that our appaloosa was an idiot.  Gorgeous, but an idiot.  “He” (and I use the term loosely, if you know what I mean) needed training desperately so that he would calm down and stop bucking. My grandfather had an old Amish friend who reportedly worked wonders as a horse whisperer, so we took our appaloosa to this exorcist and let him see what he could do.

After looking the horse over and agreeing to keep him for a while, this kind older man turned to me and asked how I liked riding him.  I said, “Fine, but he bucks a lot.” He then gave me the most valuable advice I’ve ever received, and it can extend beyond horse riding to all areas of life, I believe.  He said, “Well, if you’re going to fall, be sure to land on your head so you don’t hurt your ass.”  This was the first time I’d ever heard an Amish person swear.

So, anyway, living on the fringes of an Amish community wasn’t a drastic influence on my life, but it certainly added a unique flavor.  These people are mostly known for buggies, bonnets, beards, and hand-crafted furniture.   They often seem un-relatable.  But they’re faithful, they’re funny, they are not perfect.  At the very least, living so close to them taught me that you really can’t judge a person by their cover.  Or what’s in their shopping cart.

Hunter Princess

“What was once captured through epic voyage, war, quest,
in modern days is found through sport, hunting.
Preparing for battle in blazing orange armor,
man’s ancient blood channels Odysseus, Hector, Arthur.
Sirens pose as pheasants; long-suffering Penelopes wait at home.
Something primal comes off the field
in a faithful beast becoming man’s best god,
in Nimrod’s prized weapons gleaming in sunlight,
in 4-wheel chariots trampling wild terrain.
And then the return to Camelot,
with little to show for the journey
but a story, memory, lesson
and wilted, lifeless sirens for wives to roast.”
Hunting Glory

 Haymarsh Hunt Club motto: “Why pay to have it done right when you can do it yourself?” This is not printed on business cards or anything, but it was commonly uttered under our breaths.  Not that the place is a trashy construction of duct tape and plywood.  Not all of it.  It’s just that Grandpa Bud, the owner, was a cheap Hollander despite his claims that he took pills for it, and he never paid for anything if there was an iota of a chance that we could build it or fix it ourselves.  Despite this fact, the Haymarsh somehow manages to be a beautiful place, probably because nature is the main focus rather than architecture.

I’ve already discussed how the wildness of the land stimulated my childhood, but honestly the land is the biggest part of why I love the Haymarsh.  Not 40 acres as my college roommate once thought, but more like 1400.  I love that even now, after over a decade, I can drive out on trails and honestly get lost, finding myself in a field or forest I swear I’ve never been in before.  The Haymarsh feels open, especially at night when the starry sky stretches from horizon to horizon.  It is still and wild at the same time.  It sometimes feels like the breeze carries air from a simpler time.

The land is amazing, but there is more to why the Haymarsh Hunt Club added a whole dimension to my life.  Because of the Haymarsh, I grew up abnormal…ly.

People often assume that “owning a hunt club” means your family must be loaded. Uh, no. We did have a lot of land, and I guess that means something.  And my founding grandfather was kinda important in the local business sense, I guess.  But I would never call us wealthy.  It’s practically a farm without crops, for crying out loud.  Still, sometimes I used to imagine what it would have been like in olden days.  Then we might have been big shots. However, it was always my secret nightmare that, had I lived during those times, I would have been married off for land acquisition – or a goat – to some equally-affluent family’s hunter son.  The Somervilles do probably have sell-out genes (I think our ancestors sold out for lordships to England), and I know the Gummer side is always looking for a deal.  My grandfather was only half-joking when he once suggested I put up a “Marry Me, Hunt For Free” ad in the Haymarsh clubhouse.  If we’d been in our situation in the 1600s, I wouldn’t have had a say and would’ve been married off kicking and screaming.  So, I’m happy to live in the present, thank you.


There is something very cool about a family that runs a business or two together.  You share in the work, in the stories, in the ups and downs and frustrations and blessings.  My grandma and her friend Dorothy regularly catered meals for the big groups of hunters, and this was always a source of…entertainment.  And leftovers.  Leftovers are good.  It was a treat as a kid on Saturdays to hear that the hunters were done and we could go out to the clubhouse to fill our own plates.  Very communal.  On a daily basis, the Hunt Club was a thing that pulled our family together and kept us active and working together. I learned a lot from the experience of living literally on the workplace with my family. I learned hard work.  I learned physical labor and the pure joy of being completed exhausted from a full day working outdoors.  It was like Little House on the Prairie but without cotton dresses and with a lot more cursing.

Despite not having a lot of cultured civilization around, I always felt like I was a part of a bustling community.  We had people at our house constantly.  It became a kind of game to identify who had arrived by recognizing the truck that had pulled into the driveway.  I could ID over twenty men by what truck they drove.


  • Christian and I once had friends over to watch a movie, and a truck pulled into the parking lot outside. We knew this was nothing to get excited about. Our friends said something like, “A blue truck just pulled in.” Christian and I didn’t even bother looking, but one of us said, “Oh, that’s Tom.”
  • My mom got to a point where she was maybe a little too comfortable with people popping in.  I was once on the phone with her from Grand Rapids, and I heard a knock on the door through the phone.  Mom said, “Tim, can you get that?” My Dad muttered something, and Mom sighed and went to answer the door.  I heard through the phone as the door opened and someone asked if Tim was available.  Mom, without missing a beat, said, “He’ll be right here.  He’s putting pants on.” I started laughing into the phone, and I later found out it was Dan, one of my favorite hunters, who fortunately knew enough about the Gummer craziness not to be disturbed.

My favorite thing about the Haymarsh community:  I have many, many adopted-uncle-types.  My dad has a hard time calling the hunters merely “clients” because he is friends with so many of them (except for that one…), and I know what he means.  Though I was just a girl and they were a bunch of middle-aged hunters, I tend to think of them in a more familial way.  There is a certain amount of comfortableness I feel around hunters that I don’t find anywhere else. To this day, I am most comfortable around men ages 35+, and I prefer them to women of any age, actually.  Who knows how healthy this is, but it’s just something that developed as a result of being in the Haymarsh environment.  (I grew up on a hunting preserve writing science fiction novels – I’ve accepted that I do not relate to most women.)  I remember sitting around with my dad and groups of hunters, listening to stories, jokes, and their easy way of talking about nothing in particular.  My idea of “men” was shaped by hunters, and I saw from a range of lawyers to farmers that there are some qualities common to all which I appreciate.  I love the nostalgic smell that comes from the mix of cologne, jeans, and mud off a field – it’s strange the things I missed when I moved away to college, but this smell was one of them.  In many ways, hunters ruined me for “city boys.”  If I feel like I’m more butch than a guy, I get judgy.  If I know I can do more physical labor than a guy, I get judgy and kinda wanna arm wrestle.  (It’s because of this tomboy attitude that I suppose I earned the nickname “Hunter Princess” from a post-college friend, but whatever.)

I admit I had favorites:

  • Kevin H. is like an uncle to me and is one of the first non-family people I ever remember.  Kevin knew my dad before I was born, and I always thought of him as that cool uncle who cracks jokes and knows the best stories about your parents’ wilder days.
  • Kevin R. was the one responsible for roasting the pigs for the annual Haymarsh Hunt Club Pig Roasts. (He has many other fine qualities, but I have the utmost respect for anyone who cooks me pork.)  One year, after prepping the pig, he somehow tossed the whole pig right over the roaster and onto the ground, after which he muttered “son of a bitch” while my father laughed.  Kevin claimed that it had been like a slippery bar of soap, and I still can’t figure out how a pig is in any way like a bar of soap.
  • Brooks, Dad’s intern for a while, fit in so well that he became like a member of the family to the point where he admitted that he had “caught the crazy.” Poor devil.  (He was also the one who insisted that I name my autobiography “Crouching Chuckar, Hidden Pheasant” if I ever wrote one.)
  • Many of my favorite hunters were my favorites solely because of our give-and-take banter.  Chris H. was often kind enough to remark, “What is that smell?” whenever he saw me in the area.  Despite the jabs, he once really surprised me with kindness when I broke my hand at a Pig Roast – he brought me dessert. I did not check it for spit, come to think of it.
  • “Robin Hood and Little John” weren’t exactly great, but I remember them fondly because of the obvious physical resemblances that led to their nicknames.
  • I had a serious case of hero-worship with Dan B., who saved me multiple times from his uncle trying to fix me up with his cousins.  It’s to the point that years later I’m still automatically happy to see him.
  • I remember the first day Marc S. showed up with no previous experience and thought he’d just try out shooting.  As time went on, he showed up so often that he became “The Customer.”
  • Tom K. lived in town and was always just a good man. Even if he had Labs. And he always brought amazing pie to the annual Pig Roasts. (Gosh, what is it with me and food?)
  • Jake was one of my grandfather’s best friends, and they definitely had a lot in common.  I must say, though, that Jake’s ribbings were never mean in quite the same way, and I guess I think of him as more like an adopted-grandfather, really.

I also had my least favorites.  These sometimes included the downright ignorant because it took so long to “train” them how to shoot.  Sometimes my least favorites were those who thought I didn’t know what I was doing and so took over for me.  More often, however, my least favorites included those who noticed my gender more than the average hunter.  I am not blind; I am not deaf.  You were the ones with earplugs in, not me! It’s not that I am a complete knock-out by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just that I was the only female in the area and therefore the only target – thank God not literally.  It was incredibly obvious whenever one group at Sporting Clays asked me to walk ahead of them.  That group was so bad that Jordan – the other girl trapper – and I refused to take them around, ever.  Most weren’t bad, though.  Every once in a while I would encounter an older hunter who would get that “If I were a younger man” glint in his eye, but most of them behaved themselves.  Sometimes they even tipped better.  (Ah, the subtle power of feminine manipulation.)

Most of my experiences on the Haymarsh blur together because they were all so similar – green foliage, cold snow, hot sun, mosquito bites, Sporting Clays’ orange paint on my hands, pheasant smell, gunshots.  Here are a few standout memories:

  • Helping Kevin H. at a tower shoot and watching a pheasant run away and then right back to us as if it wanted to end it all.
  • Going out in the field with my dad and Dixie, our Weimaraner who could run faster than any dog I ever saw.
  • Numerable occasions when Christian, Lance, and I would sit in the truck, listening to the radio, because it was raining too hard to do Sporting Clays.
  • The time Austin, another Sporting Clays trapper for a while, took a group around during a thunderstorm and came back drenched, only to receive a dollar tip from the man, who apparently thought he was being generous.
  • Bob S., “The GrandMcDaddy” as we called him, coming to Sporting Clays Tuesday mornings with his dog, Shadow, who once chased a clay rabbit I threw.
  • A neighbor guy sometimes showed up to play football during break times, and one time he told my dad, “When you play football, you shouldn’t think.” Lance muttered, “You must play football a lot.”

All in all, being a live-in at the Haymarsh Hunt Club was interesting.  I learned by the age of sixteen how to deal with customers.  I learned how to shrug off sexism and how to handle offensive behavior, though I must stress that this was not the norm.  I learned several colorful acronyms for PETA.  I can hike with the best of them.  I love getting dirty.  I am stronger than I would have been if I had worked at a mall.  The Haymarsh also contributed greatly to my knowledge of things that the ordinary girl did not know, and I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten my foot in the door at a few job interviews by bonding over hunting stories.  I know what a field smells like in winter.  I was a Sporting Clays trapper for ten solid years, and I say with an odd kind of pride that I am damn good at it, even if no one ever knows what I’m talking about.  And on at least one occasion when a guy has tried to impress me that he’s a redneck because he once owned goats, I’ve been able to throw down, “Oh, yeah? Well, we had hundreds of pheasants.”

At Grandpa Bud’s funeral, I really saw how much the Haymarsh people meant to me.  I knew more people in the reception line than most of our family, save Grandma and Dad probably.  It was a wonderful feeling to have this strange little community that was completely separate from the rest of my life, and it meant a lot to me that dozens and dozens of hunters hugged me like we were family.  It was amazing to see in one room the sheer volumes of people my grandfather had touched through their shared love of nature, and I was a part of that legacy.


Gummer-ing It Up

Once upon a time, a man and his two friends decided to go for a fishing trip off the coast of Northern England.  They got caught in the Trade Winds, drifted across the Atlantic, and ended up in America.  If you ask me, that is the perfect story for how my mom’s side of the family ended up in this country.  It just fits – a fishing trip gone wrong is the reason we’re here.

Here’s my basic belief about the Gummer side of my family: We’re bonded not only by blood and close proximity (most of us have lived somewhere along the 2-mile “Gummer Lane” at some point in our lives), but also by the shared knowledge that we are a weird bunch of people who will always love each other out of empathy if nothing else.


Grandpa Bud – One of my earliest memories involves a Christmas tree, a cathedral ceiling, and a chainsaw.  We had just moved into our new house, which seemed enormous and lofty to my little self.  Grandma Marie and Grandpa Bud had come down to Cedar Springs to help us pick out a tree, and we’d come home with a doozy that would later be christened “Oh, Hideous Tree, Oh, Hideous Tree, how blue-green are thy branches.” The only problem was that the tree was about a foot too tall for our ceiling.  My grandfather, being a master of creative solutions, brought in a chainsaw – yes, into the house.  It would have been a brilliant idea, except that sawdust shot across our living room.  The burning smell set off the smoke alarm.  Our dog, named Kat by my self-amused parents, started howling.  We all tried to cover our ears as we coughed and sputtered through the smoke and flying chunks of Christmas tree.  Grandma, not to be outdone by either the dog or blaring smoke alarm, started screaming at my grandfather.  Now, it is saying something when I tell you that the noise was so deafening that I couldn’t even hear my grandmother.  But I could see her lips – fortunately I was too young to read them.  I also saw my father, who was trying desperately not to laugh.  My mom just stood there, looking embarrassed and helpless, which was always the reaction she had in situations like this.  Eventually the tree was cut down to size, and then Grandma did the same to Grandpa.  We enjoyed the Hideous Tree, but that Christmas we spent most of our time picking sawdust out of the rug.

Other adventures of Grandpa Bud:

  • He once accidentally burned down thirty-some acres of field because he was trying to cut up some scrap metal left in the woods with a welding torch.
  • My cousin Randy once was driving by a field that Grandpa was brush-hogging and saw that our grandfather had tilted the mower to investigate something of the mechanics.  The problem was that he hadn’t bothered to turn off the mower and was poking around while the blades were turning! Randy, the father of a toddler at the time, asked, “How old is Grandpa? Old enough to know better?”
  • He once came home from a day with hunters and adamantly denied Grandma’s accusations that he had eaten a jelly doughnut, which was verboten from his diet.  She then pointed out that he had jelly stains down the front of his sweatshirt. Busted.
  • Grandma, in an attempt to get him to listen, once shouted, “Hark!” and he responded cheerily, “…the herald angels sing!” This did not exactly appease her.

 Mostly, Grandpa Bud was a good guy. At his funeral, over 500 people came – all were close friends or family. As Dave Riley, pastor and near family member, said, “Bud liked to have a good time,” and he tried hard to make other people have a good time. I get more from Grandpa Bud than I would probably like to admit – we both don’t like being told what to do, we both poke at people too far, we both think we know what is best for other people, we both love bread.

marieGrandma Marie – I, if anyone, have the right to pick on her because I bear her name as my middle name and somehow fate found it suitable that I bear many of her traits as well.  Therefore, I poke in love because many of her idiosyncrasies are mine too.  I am not the only one to inherit her shrill voice, but I confess that I mimic it better than anyone – I could even get her dogs to obey me when I used shriller tones.  My college roommate once went to a ballgame with my family and asked, “Do you think you can get your Grandma to do the voice?” I blinked at her and replied, “It’s not something you have to ask her to do.  Wait.  It will come.”

Other Gma Marie gems:

  • The Gummer girls used to go shopping every Friday after Thanksgiving.  One year, I was trying on clothes in a crowded dressing room when she yelled in to my mother, “Does Sunny need panties?” I was a teenager at the time, hence the memory sticking vividly.
  • Never beat her at cards.  She once stood up from the table and started stomping around angrily – drawing the reproachful glances of my cousins’ toddlers – because she didn’t win AS BIG as she had wanted.
  • In her older age, Gma once got up at 4:30 a.m. to make pies for the Hunt Club.  She passed out in the kitchen, woke up on the floor wondering how she had gotten there, and FINISHED MAKING 2 PIES before calling my mother 5 hours later to take her to the hospital.  When the doctor heard this story, he apparently joked about maybe getting a psych consult.  When my brother heard this, he further joked to the room full of family, “How about a round on the house?”

In all truth, I love Gma Marie and am ridiculously proud to be named after her.  She’s a feisty, strong, God-fearing, sports-loving woman who passed down to the rest of us women at least some of her ability to cook and certainly her inability to sew.

Uncle Bob– Uncle Bob moved away to Wisconsin with his family, and I’m sure this has something to do with trying to outrun the crazy.  But, you can’t entirely run from genetics.  And I’m pretty sure he’s secretly attracted to the crazy, because my Aunt Pam fits in a little too well in our family.

  • At his son’s wedding, he started talking to a girl whom he thought was his niece, only to realize late that night as he lay in bed that it was a different girl entirely.
  • My favorite Uncle Bob stories come from his youth. (This may be a completely fictionalized version from what actually happened, but I like it.) While living around the well-to-do area of Grosse Pointe, he and a friend were cruising the neighborhood and spotted numerous black lawn jockeys. They took it upon themselves to “liberate the brothers” and stole the lawn jockeys, taking it a step further by painting their faces and hands white before returning the statues otherwise intact.

Aunt Penny– Aunt Penny is a wonderful person and I love her dearly, but she has been affectionately deemed our Crazy Aunt.  A missionary from church inadvertently delighted us all one Sunday by telling us that in…whatever confusing language they spoke where he was a missionary, “bah” meant “ant” and “ba” meant “crazy.”  I turned around to Aunt Penny with more joy than I usually felt in church as a teenager, and everyone laughed at our secret joke.  Thus, “Bah-Ba” became her nickname.  (The best part is that she laughs along and doesn’t deny it. The trouble is when we haven’t told other people this and she introduces herself to our friends by saying, “Hi, I’m Sunny’s Aunt Penny.  Whatever Sunny has told you, I’m not crazy.”)

 Other adventures of Aunt Penny:

  • When speaking to her Mexican migrant workers, she has been known to ask, “Fillet mignon?” although we’re not sure what she was trying to ask.  Similarly, trying to sing Happy Birthday in Spanish to me one year, it came out as best translated “Happy Jesus Year.”
  • When my aunt and uncle were pretty sure that their house was on fire because it started filling with smoke, the only things she grabbed as they fled were her thyroid pills and her grandson’s Bill Elliot race car.
  • On a group shopping trip, she tried on a dress after my mom had tried it and not liked it.  Coming out of the dressing room stall to show us, Bah-Ba had it on backwards and over her shorts.  She still considered getting it because it was a size 4 and was only $18.
  • She always makes way, way too much food.  We’ve been known to have more leftover lasagna than the amount we actually ate. (To be fair, she’s not alone in this, and “Gummer-ing it up” became a term to describe our genetic propensity for the overproduction of food.)

me and momPaula – My mom has been known to pull a whopper every now and then too.

  • Dad and his friend Kevin were going to go ice fishing, and Mom looked at Dad with more seriousness than anyone could have wished for and asked, “How do you get the boat out on the ice?”
  • Or, then there is the time that Mom wore two different colored sandals to my friend’s high school open house party – she didn’t notice until we got there.

Really, though, I have a great mom.  She embodies all of the good qualities of the Gummer side – loving, caring, compassionate, easy-going, etc. etc.  My mom always, always finds the good side of people.  It was annoying as a teenager when I would be griping about someone and she would stick up for them, but she taught me to try to find something of quality in everyone.  And her eternal patience with us more Somerville types taught me that sometimes you can sit back and stay out of arguments.

 My favorite mom memories:

  • When we were little, I would actually look forward to going to bed because mom would scratch my back with her wonderfully pointy nails.
  • My very first memory is of Mom playing with me on my swing set in matching pink jackets.  (This was before my brother entered my life, and it’s just one example of why I hated him so much when he was born — I thought that, since she was going to be his mother, she would no longer be mine.  I couldn’t even look at her or him in the hospital, and I remember clinging to my dad’s shoulder.  But, when we brought him home, our dog Kat licked Christian in the face while The Muppets were on TV.  That’s when I decided maybe he was okay.)
  • I was big into coloring, and Mom gave me an empty, clean compost barrel to color in day after day during summers.  Every time now that I hear a certain kind of bird (for the life of me I don’t know what kind), I think of playing in that barrel.
  • One Thanksgiving Day, I was too sick to go up to Evart, where we have always gone to spend the holiday with my dad’s mom’s side of the family – the only day of the year we see them.  Since I was sick, I was pretty bummed that I would miss Aunt Enid’s chocolate mousse…and seeing family, of course.  Mom stayed down in Cedar Springs with me, and she made me an entire Thanksgiving feast.  (To be honest, Christian and Dad might have stayed too, but I only remember Mom.)
  • Mom once tried to order “potato wedgies” from a grocery deli when my friend, Cat, was tagging along.  This is one of her favorite stories about my mother.  I was so proud at the time, as you can imagine.

Are we younger generations immune from the Gummer oddities? Signs point to NO.  Apparently a random friend of our grandmother’s once looked at my cousin Stefanie and said, “Oh, you’re a Gummer for sure!” Stefanie told me this later in an appropriately horrified tone.  I suggested that she should have touched her face nervously and asked, “Oh? Is the crazy showing?”  But, to sum-up and make ourselves feel better, here are only a few stories:

  • Stefanie once called my brother’s cell phone and talked to him for five minutes about ordering pizza for dinner that night before she realized she wasn’t talking to her father.
  • Even those who marry in are not immune to the crazy.  Mike, my cousin Tonia’s husband, used to have a job as a safety-something-or-other, and one 4th of July he lit fireworks with flaming marshmallows.
  • My cousin Randy, not exactly an avid reader, once told me excitedly, “Sunny, I read 2 books!” Somehow I knew he meant The Hunger Games, even before he told me, “Well, I watched the first book.  Then I read the next two.”  I’m still proud of him.
  • My cousin Ryan was too cool a teenager to play with us much as kids, but when he did…  One Thanksgiving he took me riding the 3-wheelers (translation: I was clinging to the back of him as he drove fast) over Gma and Gpa’s sand dunes.  He took 1 a little too steep, and the 3-wheeler started tipping back on top of us.  After we jumped and were all settled upright again, Ryan said, “Don’t tell anyone about this.”  I was kinda afraid of him and kept a vow of silence for 20 years.
  • me and christianThe youngest of us cousins, my brother may be the member of our family who is least affected by the Crazy Gummer Gene.  For the most part, Christian and I act as something like Statler and Waldorf commentators on our crazy family’s antics.  However, Christian has had a few of his own moments here and there. My favorite:  Antenna Boy.  Once when watching TV with Christian and me, Ryan had the remote and kept hitting power on the cable box so that the TV would go static-y.  Christian, however, because he was holding a metal necklace, thought that he was controlling the TV.  Ryan kept this up for probably half an hour, and Christian would twist in all sorts of positions as Ryan turned it on and off.  Thus “Antenna Boy” was born.

 What of future generations? Will the craziness grow? It seems to be on a healthy start.

  • Kylie, the firstborn of the next generation, had a lot of crazy to channel.  She was once interviewed on live TV for a news spot about a kids’ party:
    The reporter: “What was your favorite thing at this party?”
    Kylie: “The piñata.”
    The reporter: “You mean you liked the candy?”
    “And how did you get the candy out of the piñata?”
    “I beat the hell out of it!”
    At this point, apparently the camera shook because the cameraman was laughing so hard.
  • While the rest of us were at dinner, the kids were building a huge fort in Gma’s living room.  Tony disappeared for a while until suddenly we saw something come flying down from the balcony.  Kaitlyn jumped up to retrieve a stuffed animal eel toy from where it had landed in Gma’s ceramic village.  Tonia started to yell at him, “What have I told you? Do not throw things!”  Tony’s whole defense:  “But it wasn’t real!” As if he knew the limits were to not throw real eels in the house.
  • Ian and I once dug up buried treasure by finding an “X” where he’d dug earlier.  When reburying the treasure, he told me to mark it with a “Y” instead of an “X” so that the bad guys couldn’t find it.
  • Mia refused to participate in the Sunday school children’s special for Father’s Day until handed something shiny to hold onto.  She also once threw the peace sign during a performance.

So that about sums it up for a tracking, generation-by-generation account of the Gummer craziness.  Janeane Garofallo said in some movie that this is “the genetic betrayal that is my heritage.” Don’t get me wrong; J’adore ma famille.  They just scare me sometimes.  We are an odd bunch, as I think all families must be.  But does your grandmother tell complete strangers that she hopes the neighbors die soon so that we can buy their land?

Still, it is my belief that we’re most bothered by our family’s flaws because we know they can be our own.  On the flipside, shouldn’t the same be true of our family’s strengths – shouldn’t we see them as our strengths? I have learned a lot from my Gummer family about generosity, selflessness, kindness, and all around love.  The Gummers are easily content, easily loving, and open.  They are down to earth and connected.  They humbly serve in a small community.  I’m not sure I could return to live on “Gummer Lane” as my mother and Aunt Penny did, but I appreciate the idea far more than I did when I was a teenager hungry with the adolescent desire for change and adventure.


“Bad Gene Thing”


My family is very good at self-mockery – both sides, but today I’ll focus on my dad’s side.  “Bad gene thing” is a long-running joke, but all our quirks (genetic and otherwise) are loved, as they unite our little branch of the Somerville clan.

The Somerville family has instilled in me things I appreciate deeply.  It is from Dad’s side that my brother and I get our intellectual bent.  It’s from here that we love learning, science, literature, debate, wit, puns (oh, the puns), etc. Our grandparents, while not completely understanding the cultural generation we came from, always treated us with what I can only call respect.  They never talked down to us, and they took what we had to say about various issues seriously – I cannot begin to explain how this strengthened my adolescent confidence. My faith comes from all over the place, but the fundamentals I am grounded to come from what I gleaned from Grandpa Lloyd and Grandma Judy – this is a good legacy.  I know that my love for literature stems from the books on tape my Aunt Sharon  (my dad’s only sibling) read for us, and we listened to Secret Garden, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator so often that we wore out the tapes.  And, the Somerville side has always talked about “Irish this” and “Scottish that” so that through family I feel like a part of something stretching back into history – a something full of outlaws, circus owners, poets, Celts, hymn writers, and dragon slayers.

(Sidenote: An early Somerville family shield holds a picture of a dragon on a cart with flames coming out both ends.  The story is that an early Somerville gained lands by slaying the last “Wurm” by rigging a cart with a spear that gored a dragon through the mouth and out the other end.  Classy.  Another Lord Somerville instituted the custom of giving a side of bacon to house guests – loving bacon as I do, I like this connection.  Of course, then there was the much more future Lord Somerville who partied away all the family wealth.  This also seems to fit.)

It was difficult as kids to watch what we said around our conservative Somerville grandparents.  One time I blurted out how I had won at euchre the night before, and I remember my dad stiffening — as part of the “filthy five,” card playing was not encouraged.  (I should have known better because of the story of how my dad as a kid had been punished for watching “Mary Poppins” – this was his first movie, his second later being “The Godfather,” which I always thought was a hilarious contrast.) My dad was always more subdued around my grandparents; we were always scolded about little things that in our own home would have been fine.  I remember, as a kid, knowing that this was a way of showing respect to my grandparents.  But, I also thought that we were hiding who we really were from them, and I never liked it.  It felt like a lie, even if we were doing it to make them more comfortable.

 At Grandpa Lloyd’s 80th birthday celebration, something changed.  I think we had the first real, open, free discussion.  It started with what in years past would have been avoided subjects – war, civil responsibility, and our relatively liberal stances. For some reason, we just started blurting our real thoughts.  I don’t know why the wall fell, but it did.  Aunt Sharon even went so far as to say to Grandpa, “You’re the only Baptist in the room.  We’re liberated Baptists,” which years ago would have been sacrilege.  Christian and I, as always, were listened to with equal standing, but we argued too, which took this whole experiment a step farther.  As unusual as this all was, Grandpa took it all with less confusion/disturbance than I would have thought.  He of course went on a preacher-ly detour into the nature of grace, but we jumped back in at times – definitely a new turn – and somehow managed to remain in the conversation.  It was…beautiful.

The Somerville side of my family is not exactly stuffy or devoid of fun.  My great-uncle Alden once said with a twinkle in his eye that our ancestors traveled “one step ahead of the posse,” and I quite believe it.  Alden also once said, “If I’ve done anything in my life to be sorry for, I’m glad.” I love these witty people on this side of my family.  Also, we are supposedly related to both Emily Dickinson and P.T.  Barnum, and Aunt Sharon has pointed out that this is the perfect description of the poles of our family – we’re poets and circus freaks all rolled into one. We take little seriously.  Even at Grandpa Lloyd’s funeral, when the fire alarm went off because of the caterers in the kitchen, we started laughing, which eased the “oh, no” looks of the guests immediately.

My aunt Sharon is definitely in the running for the quirkiest person of the Somerville family, and I’m pretty sure I grew up hero-worshipping her a bit for her love of stories, eclecticism, and all around verve.  My devotion may also have been based on the fact that I look like a mix between my Aunt Sharon and my mom – people have often seen my mom, aunt, and me together and assumed that Sharon was my mom’s sister instead of my father’s.  I have the Somerville dark eyebrows that are darker than my hair, and so does my aunt.  Dad commented once to Aunt Sharon and I that our shared appearance was simply a “bad gene thing,” but I think the comment rose out of childhood bitterness from when my aunt used to tease him that he was adopted because he looked nothing like either of their parents.

I love listening to stories from when Aunt Sharon and my dad were kids.  I’ve probably heard the stories a hundred times – knowing Dad – but I like the nostalgia.  The stories show that my brother and I are merely continuing the pattern of Somerville siblings with overactive imaginations.  For instance, I like the one about how my aunt used to sing in their front yard when cars drove by because she read a story about a famous opera singer who’d been discovered at the age of eight by a famous opera singer who’d driven by her yard and took the little girl in as her prodigy.  Then there are the many stories of how Aunt Sharon used to torture Dad, like when she left teeth marks in his arm and, when accused, denied biting him.  That takes a fun mix of guts and stupidity, and I applaud her for it.

As for my father, Dad doesn’t take anything too seriously, and I definitely have inherited this approach to life from him.  I fully admit to being a Daddy’s girl when I was little, and apparently this started very, very early.  When I was 5ish months old, Dad allowed me to be a part of the best April Fool’s Day prank ever.  While changing my diaper, he knew my mom was listening from the other room as he rattled off “This little piggy went to market.  This little piggy stayed home.  This little piggy had roast beef…” dramatic pause… “Paula, Sunshine has 6 toes!” My mom came running.

Other examples of my dad being a nut:

  • One time when Christian was around 6, we were fighting until Dad sat us down and gave us some long lecture, and at some point Christian and I wordlessly made up because we were bored.  Dad, with his most serious face, said to Christian, “Look at your sister and say, ‘I. Am so.  Sorry.’”  Christian then turned to me and mimicked, “I.  Am So. Sorry.”  Dad lost it laughing and all was forgiven.
  • Dad once asked me to smell his head because he was sure it smelled like a cucumber.
  • Dad has attempted to win an argument by insisting, “I only hear when I’m right!”
  • He once literally skipped through a screen door.
  • Dad arranged pennies on our kitchen table in even stacks of 10s, and I rearranged the piles to spell out “OCD.”
  • He told the doctor discharging him after getting a pacemaker that he was going to KFC for dinner.

Dad’s ability to find and make humor in life definitely affected my childhood, and I learned from his example not to take myself too seriously.  Dad taught Christian and me a lot by example, probably more than he realizes.  We were taught Biblical Truth and right and wrong and each received our fair share of spankings, but along with that we saw from his example that a godly, loving father wants only what is best for us.  Even Dad’s OCD-like interest in numbers and science showed us that God has created a world that is fascinating.  He showed us that we could be creative and funny and weird and still be smart, confident, fairly well-adjusted people.  Growing up around my friends’ parents, I always, always felt grateful for my father in comparison.  My dad showed interest in us, what we cared about, what we thought about, and who we were turning into as people. Dad treated us like we were capable of making right decisions on our own rather than browbeating us.  Honestly, I feel a little gypped because I never had anything to rebel against.  Dad has taught me many valuable life lessons, even if only from stories of his own poor choices in earlier life (these would be the 1970s, or his “herbal period”).  I have been spared from making many mistakes in my own life because I heard what the consequences were like for him and I had no desire to go there for myself.  I will forever be grateful for how Dad nurtured us and allowed us the freedom to think for ourselves.  Dad was and is our friend.

Looking at everything, I don’t apologize for saying that my mom’s Gummer side has had more impact on my daily life because it is true, but I don’t want to forget the Somervilles at all.  While my mom’s larger family has more of an apparent influence in my life, I do deeply appreciate the Somerville side because its depth, passion, and faith balance out the Gummer…well, craziness.  But more on that later.

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