The Heart Land
Morse family photo
By ROY PETER CLARK
"Welcome to Union City," reads a red, white and blue sign, "A Slice of American Pie."
A visit to this small Michigan farm town today is like stepping back in time to 1968 when Mick and Jane Morse began their life together.
Well, one thing has changed - now there's a nudist colony. The nature lovers descended out of nowhere onto a cornfield near where the Morses bought a small farmhouse.
"There it is," declares Jane's mother, Ruth Brandt, a proper, silver-haired lady. She points to the sign along the road that reads DEKAN Nature Park. "DEKAN spelled backwards is NAKED," she explains.
Along with the farmers, nudists and church ladies, this road is traveled by deer, and they judge the size of the deer population by how many of them are hit by cars. Not long ago, a deer crashed through the picture window of a house.
"Yeah, they'll do that," explains Russ Brandt, Jane's father. He has lived most of his life in Union City and done almost everything here.
Was he ever mayor?
"Yeah, once, pro-tem."
Russ Brandt is a plain-spoken man, who begins the day with breakfast at the City Restaurant, a place where the regulars stop chewing to check out a stranger. The coffee can raise the dead, and the oatmeal is so sticky you could use it to shingle a farmhouse. Russ jokes non-stop with the waitress, a thin woman who has done this job for 23 years. "She's been here longer than dirt," says Russ with a high-pitched chuckle.
The waitress points to Russ' cap, which says "Retired" on it.
"Should say 'Retarded.' "
Russell Brandt liked, admired and respected his son-in-law Mick Morse. Everyone in town knew that Mick was a good father, a dedicated educator and one hell of a good baseball coach. Russ would one day learn that Mick had AIDS. "I figured he had to get it from some medical procedure," he says. "No way in my mind Mick would get it any other way."
To get here you drive due west from Detroit to Jackson, and then southwest toward the Indiana border. Union City, which gets its name from the union of two rivers, is just down the road from Hodunk.
After they married in 1968, Mick and Jane moved into a little second-story apartment on Broadway, just across the street from Tina's Snip and Curl. The street is home to two bars, an auto parts store, a hardware store, two insurance companies, a savings and loan and a store with no name on it. Jane's mom calls this "The Dime Store," and says reassuringly, "You can get just about anything there."
Mick came to Union City from an even smaller town, Fennville, where the Morse family still lives. Fennville is about 90 miles northwest of Union City, not far from the shores of Lake Michigan. It is a town of neat little houses and apple orchards, and prides itself as home to the annual Goose Festival: "Fun, Food, Friends, and Frolic."
Mick saved enough money as principal of Union City Middle School to buy a small farmhouse from Jane's parents. It had lots of room for both of them and the family they hoped to raise. Mick planted a huge garden, and Jane, who was pregnant, decided she wanted to raise horses. She bought a beautiful roan colt, who turned out to be quite headstrong for a gelding. Jane tried to break him, but he'd rear up and resist. Rope burns left the skin on her hands almost raw. The vet confirmed what Jane suspected: The gelding was a stallion, after all. She had to get rid of him, but the wildness of horses remained part of her imagination.
On July 5, 1971, Jane gave birth to her first child, a son named David. Jane describes it in her journal: "The night David was born, Mick was in the hospital. Not really sure what his problem was. We were all worried."
Jane was sleeping downstairs when her water broke about midnight. Five hours later she knew it was time. She got dressed, called her parents, who drove her to Community Hospital. Mick's doctor had to release him from another hospital so he could join Jane to see his son enter the world.
Mick and Jane were thrilled to have a boy. He had loads of black hair, and Jane checked him over top to bottom "to make sure there was the right number of everything." Jane writes, "He was a beautiful baby! I can remember when we drove home & Mick & I kept glancing down at him. We thought ourselves very clever to have produced such a delight. For me, personally, as with any mother, it was the greatest experience of my life. To have created a life! What now?"
Reading those words from a distance of more than 20 years, Jane shook her head. She was struck by the foreshadowing: Mick in the hospital with a mysterious ailment at a time when she is most vulnerable. It was a struggle that would be magnified many times in her heart, between wellness and disease, between living and dying, between their shared joy and their lonely secrets.
THE SERIES: This is the sixth installment of a 29-part story.