In the original kitchen at Michigan’s Big Sable Point Lighthouse, families of the 1800s and early 1900s undoubtedly reckoned with their troubles over pots of tea where the gift shop is now. At Little Sable Point Lighthouse, keepers climbed the tower during storms and their hearts must have quickened with urgency, determination, and fear all at once, ready to face challenges almost impossible to imagine. And far out on Lake Michigan, travelers and ships’ crews passed the Michigan beacons of White River Light Station, the Ludington North Breakwater Light, Little Sable Light, and Big Sable Light as they journeyed through their lives and the far-off lighthouses became part of fleeting landscapes in their memories. The past feels just beyond our grasp when we visit these special, preserved places.
The more I explore lighthouse keepers’ journals and other books that offer details of their lives, the more deeply I’m humbled by their hardships and efforts. As it is for most people who seek historic sites, one of my main activities at Sable Point Lighthouse Keeper’s Association (SPLKA) is the act of imagining - allowing the beautifully restored lighthouse parks to conjure glimpses of the realities that lit these very buildings, sands, and water, and, feeling the existences of those who worked in this place more vigorously than I ever will … but who don’t exist any longer.
I did five volunteer tours at Big Sable Lighthouse from 2008-2012, and I count those ten weeks as some of the best in my life. It’s a priceless experience to stay day and night at such a beautiful, undeveloped spot on Lake Michigan, in a house that feels like some home you didn’t know you had and to then find yourself in conversation with hundreds of visitors, to share meals and talk and work with the rest of your crew. Not to mention sleeping near an open window not far from the water’s edge, walking the shore with a camera any time you please, reading with the sound of the surf as background, and on and on.
During one of the early days of my first tour in 2008, I met Bob Sperling, the Director of Restoration and Maintenance, and back then also being a kind of roving lighthouse historian. I was at the cash register in the gift shop when a gold van pulled up beside the windows. I saw this stranger’s arm lift out a white wooden thing he’d built (to house the trashcans at the gift shop entryway, a structure that’s still there), and then he strode in to chat with us, the latest group of volunteers. He was thin and youthful, about six feet tall, and he always wore a ball cap or mariner-style hat.
I liked him right away. A few days later as I climbed up the tower to sit high on the cold lantern room metal and watch the beautiful world below while awaiting visitors willing to climb to the top, I saw this restoration guy Bob walk to the edge of the lake, take off his hat, and stare across the water for a few minutes.
After a long, challenging marriage, I was not looking to get involved with a man, but I’d heard he wasn’t married and I wondered why not. I ended up alone with him one evening as the rest of the keepers went into town for dinner and he and I remained painting outside. Fifteen or twenty feet apart, we talked about books. I described a novel I was working on, and he seemed interested as he continued to work with focus, then at some point he disappeared.
I came to learn that that this was his style – connect a little bit with friendliness, and then vanish. But for a thousand reasons, I fell in love with him anyway; or if I’m honest, maybe partly because of his perplexing qualities. When he died in 2016 after a year living with inoperable cancer, we had been together for seven years, a rich give-and-take of two fairly different human beings. I venture to say we were both pretty good teachers to each other in certain ways, especially during that last year when he showed more desire to live and more courage than I have ever witnessed. I loved him hour-to-hour with a dedication he didn’t think possible.
A few months after Bob’s death, Ceil Heller kindly invited me to join her all-women group of lighthouse-keeping friends for a 2017 May tour. I balked. She had been much closer to Bob than to me and thoughtfully kept in touch through and after his last year of life, always expressing concern for both of us. Ceil was aware of both my attachment to him and my grief, and she was reaching out because she thought it could be healing for me to be there. But at that time, I couldn’t imagine returning, even for a souvenir, much less to stay on-site for two weeks. I couldn’t bear to walk around the lighthouse grounds I’d come to associate so intimately with Bob, to be surrounded by choices he’d been part of making and executing in the restoration of Big Sable, to stare down at that lighthouse road from the top of the tower and know that he would never roll in along the sand in his gold van again. So, in 2017, I turned away from that idea.
But a year later, that kind woman invited me again for the May 2018 tour. I was that much further along in time from the last moment I’d spoken to Bob, listened to his voice and his thoughts, touched his hands or heard his laughter, his breath, his heartbeat. And because I missed him no less, the sense of connection to him through the few belongings of his that I possess was increasingly inadequate.
The lighthouses, on the other hand – well, he had touched every inch of them, learned their stories and stood in all of their rooms in all seasons. In fact, he influenced a good deal of what I admire about their restoration. Suddenly, I yearned to be near all of that, so I signed up for May and anticipated those two weeks with increasing joy and hope.
As the dates grew closer, it became obvious that, in addition to returning for the lighthouse itself, the camaraderie with the people, and the wild beauty of Ludington State Park, I had another intention: something in me hoped to catch an actual glimpse of Bob Sperling. He had been wholly alive there over the course of almost two decades, and I had seen him so many, many times, painting in white Tyvek suits, repairing things at the work table in the basement, watching the sky at night – wasn’t it possible that there was something left of him that the atmosphere might have retained? Shouldn’t it be possible that a twist in Time might occur, even just for a second, and let me see a flash of him at the top of the tower or walking into the gift shop again?
I believe that I am one of hundreds who return to Big Sable Lighthouse and the other lighthouses in part because their hearts yearn for someone who has left this world. Maybe their reason was that they regularly visited there with that person, splashed together at the lake’s edge as children, or spent time working with them in that memorable world. Or maybe it was because, for human beings, lighthouses are and always will be threshold spaces between land and water, light and darkness, safety and danger, life and death, inviting a direct connection to the unknown.
The women I stayed with at BSP in May of 2018 were passionate photographers. I watched them head out to the big lake sky for almost every sunset and often heard about their pre-dawn light quests over coffee before we started work. From Big Sable’s kitchen one evening at dusk, I watched them scatter around the dimming beach with glass orbs through which they sought altered images of the water, dune-scapes, sky, and lighthouse. There was persistence to this quest that dragged them outside at the sighting of a bald eagle or other unexpected gift, whether they were tired or not. I marveled.
We’ll return to cherished landmarks like SPLKA’s four lighthouses partly because so much about life remains unknown and unknowable, and we are by nature drawn to this point where steadiness and mystery dwell in such harmony. We feel the past even as we can’t see it, and can never return to it. And we trust something of our future to these lighthouses as well, for when historical sites and parks are preserved, we are allowed to revisit the places we walked in times past and they are mostly the same. In our attempts to reconnect and possess, we take pictures, and gather t-shirts, mugs, blades of grass, jars of sand … knowing that we can return and there will be a continuity of images and forces we have touched, and loved.
Some of us who visit Big Sable Lighthouse will never stop listening for the sound of a familiar voice outside the window on a night in the present that is much like nights not so long ago, when that living soul was actually there, perhaps sitting on a bench among the cottonwoods. It is as if time is more fluid at a lighthouse, and there is something there that isn’t elsewhere. It is as if maybe our spirits are kindred to light, and in certain special places where our cousin lights stand decade after decade at the threshold, we are able to slip just that much closer to touching something far beyond ourselves.
Editor’s Note: Jacquelyn Vincenta is the author of the novel The Lake and the Lost Girl.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2019 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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