One month from today is Spring (even though I thought it was always the 21st when I was a young ‘un, or so it seemed). In a four-season state, normally by the third week of February, we are so Winter weary, that we rejoice when the sun peeks out from behind the ever-present gloomy skies, or, by chance we hear a songbird warbling in a tree as we pass by. Every little glimpse of Springtime now will fill my heart with joy.
On Monday I saw and heard my first Robin – what a welcome sight and sound that was.
Before long, the marshy area around Council Point Park will be filled with the call of the Red-Winged Blackbird as it trills to its mate.
Only then do I feel like Spring is just around the corner.
Long-range Winter predictions were a bit scary.
Our Winter has been wacky, but not just here in Southeast Michigan. Way back in October, it was more than ghosts and goblins scaring us, as several learned meteorologists, including the local folks, the National Weather Service – even those prognosticators from The Old Farmer’s Almanac, all gave a long-range forecast for an extra snowy and cold Winter. I believed them as they sagely predicted this doomsday and even added that it would likely rival or surpass Winter 2018-2019 for snowfall and brutal temps. “Ugh” I thought and remembered during one chilly week in late August, the Park and ‘hood squirrels began burying their peanuts and not eating them on the spot. At that time, I muttered to myself “do they know something we don’t?”
Folklore tells us that the wide black bands on the Woolly Bear caterpillar I saw back on October 17th would indicate a bad Winter was in store.
When a dusting of snow on November 7th adorned porch pumpkins …
… then a record-setting 8.5-inch (22 cm) snowfall on Veteran’s Day occurred …
… I sure wished I could be like a bird or butterfly and head to warmer climes ‘til April.
Our Fall was cold, not even chilly – the trees turned color, not as vibrant as usual, yet the cold snap messed them up and my ornamental Maple has yet to drop its leaves. My neighbor’s Magnolia bush has buds and I’ve already seen crocuses, daffs, and snowdrops beginning to push their bright green heads through the still-frozen soil in homeowners’ gardens, likely due to several days when we climbed to 50 F (10 C) or above.
There have been countless predictions for a three-to-six-inch snowfall, resulting in an “oops” with just a dusting of snow or some icy precip. In fact, we’ve had many mornings where freezing rain has messed up my a.m. walk. When our snowfall is off the mark, the weathermen have some clever ways to explain away the deficiency. I have to laugh as they report “the snowfall was not ambitious enough” or, my favorite “this storm was a low achiever.” It sounds like a teacher’s renderings on a bad student’s report card. Also heard was “the complexion will change later today” – so now Ol’ Man Winter has become a she, or is this Mother Nature being referred to? I’m a wee bit puzzled and perplexed, but happy the Groundhog knew the scoop better than all the rest of ‘em.
With the advent of Spring, and sunrise earlier every day, I am excited about the happenings that await me in the ‘hood and Council Point Park in the upcoming months.
The joy of new life, whether it is the green leaves as they unfurl, or the baby robins’ beaks wide open for Mama Robin to drop a grub or worm bit into them, is a sight for Winter-weary souls.
And then, just like that (snapping fingers), those babies are ready to fledge.
Watching fuzzy yellow and gray goslings with their parents is a sight I never tire of.
But, in my usual mad sprint out the door every morning to my favorite go-to spot, with coat tails flying and woolen hat askew, I cannot help but think about a fellow walker named Mike Chiola.
Who is/was Mike Chiola?
There are many types of walkers, with a myriad of personalities, that frequent the perimeter path at Council Point Park. Some are eager to just get their steps done and are plugged into music while they walk. Some stare at the ground, not willing to engage in eye contact or small talk. Because the entire Park encompasses only about two miles, it is a small enough venue that most people take the time to get to know all the other walkers, even if it is just their first names. Since I’ve walked at this Park since 2013, I know almost everyone by their name and a little bit about them as well. But, I want to add that I generally walk by myself. This is not because I’m antisocial, but anyone who is there to bulk up their steps and get exercise, is not necessarily interested in stopping with me along the way while I photograph a Blue Jay swooping to the ground, or I bend down to feed Parker who sometimes gazes at me like a lovesick cow until I give him a few peanuts.
Then there are those walkers who are there to enjoy nature AND exercise.
Now that would be the category I fit in, as did Mike Chiola.
Mike Chiola walked at Council Point Park for many years. He was a former football coach at Lincoln Park High School and also functioned as a substitute teacher. I’d walk alongside Mike from time to time and our conversations ran the gamut from the good ol’ days of the 70s and 80s, to current events, sometimes politics. But, most of our conversations revolved around nature because there is lots to see there … if only you look up, down and around.
Most of the other walkers called him “Coach” but I always called him Mike. He had a few names for me too, including “The Peanut Lady” or “The Camera Lady” and occasionally he’d even call me by my name. 🙂
Mike was pretty protective of this Park. He took an early retirement after suffering a heart attack. For rehab, he began walking at Council Point Park. He walked the entire circuit (a Figure Eight loop, consisting of two miles, with each loop being approximately one mile). Every day, rain or shine, even all Winter, the first complete trip around the entire Park he picked up trash. Mike’s pet peeve was trash that Park attendees threw anywhere but the garbage cans, so Mike picked up empty water bottles, fast food and granola bar wrappers, or plastic store bags which littered the Park. When he was done, the second two miles were his to enjoy. He loved the natural setting of this Park and boy did he love the squirrels. (More on that later.)
Drop down and give me 25 (pushups)!
Mike, for all his good qualities, never lost his coach demeanor and I was often on the receiving end of a few well-meaning wisecracks through the years. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that Mike was right about some things, and now, as I reflect back on my interactions with him, I recall one of my mom’s favorite sayings. She would recite this old proverb when I finally understood something she’d preached about in the past and I had failed to see her point right away: “we grow too soon old and too late smart.”
Many times I’d arrive at the Park breathless, staying too late at the computer to finish up just one more reply to a comment here on WordPress, then hightailing it out the door to the Park. If I passed Mike on the perimeter path, he’d quip “too bad you were so late getting here because I saw a ___________ this morning.”
Mike never said a “heron” but instead he’d say “that big bird you like to take pictures of” …
… or, he was apt to add that I’d missed those “red birds you like that sit in the trees” – well, those would be cardinals.
Mike knew the names of those birds – that was just his way. So, why did I feel like he was chastising me for my tardy behavior – furthermore, why did I care what he thought of my punctuality (or lack thereof)?
I distinctly remember this one conversation.
Mike: “Where were you this morning? The goslings were all together by the twisted tree and you could have gotten a nice picture, but they’re gone now, so too bad you weren’t around earlier.”
I thought about my retort, while smarting a little from that accusation. Plus, sheepishly I was remembering how I used to be out the door to catch the bus for work so timely that one could set their watch to my schedule – sigh, what happened to that young woman?
And, despite the fact that I was late, I did see those goslings at the twisted tree anyway!
Inwardly, I began to take the gruff demeanor with a grain of salt, feeling it was MY prerogative to set MY own schedule. Furthermore, I hated being chastised, my tardiness exposed for anyone within earshot. But, I politely just let the comments roll off my back. This time I had to explain why I always seemed to be running late these days – I was not just going to let it go.
Linda: “Mike, I was running late as I was responding to some comments on my blog.”
Mike: “A blog – what’s that?”
Linda: “Well, where do I start?” [at which time I explained as succinctly as I could what a blog was.]
Mike [after a long pause spent pondering what a blog was]: “I don’t know anything about computers, I’m not computer literate and I don’t want to be. I have a flip phone and I like it that way.”
Linda: “I have a flip phone too and I admit sometimes it is easier to be on the outside of social media as it does hog a lot of your time, but I bet you’d enjoy interacting with people.”
Mike: “I do all the interacting I want right here and down at Dingell Park.”
Such were our conversations from time to time and I jollied along to the equivalent of getting my hand slapped for missing the heron, cardinals or the goslings.
Sometimes, if I was running late, Mike would alert the other walkers to seek me out … like one time when he said “tell The Camera Lady to get over to the Creek to see the mist rising off the water – she’ll want to take a picture for that blog she has.” The message was shared and received – no missed mist opportunity for me. Thanks Mike – I got that shot.
My mind is a blank every day when I get to the Park. I absorb what is around me, do some thinking and sometimes a blog post is begun in my head, from a photo I’ve taken or something I’ve seen. I had to admit to myself that Mike was right – why was I lingering at home when I could be here? The purpose all along was to walk, then I began taking pictures … but somehow the reason for my being here was becoming an afterthought. I mused on that a bit, but no way would I tell Mike he was right! I had my pride after all. (Note to self: Linda – linger later in the day at WordPress … the comments will still be there.)
Every year, once Spring arrived, Mike would finish walking at Council Point Park, then head to Dingell Park down at the Detroit River to chat with the fishermen there. He’d scope out the nature doin’s at that venue, then give me a daily report. My blog is full of references to Mike when he told me he’d seen a Mama Mute Swan with its cygnets riding on her back, or when, just like clockwork, the Mama Mallard built a nest in the planter’s box near the boardwalk and sat on the eggs to incubate them. People would stop at the nearby restaurant and bring Mama Duck goodies so she didn’t need to leave the nest unattended. Mike would give her goodies as well. I’d go down on a weekend to scope out Mike’s “finds” for my own interest, or picture-taking for my blog – yep, I’d be toting goodies too and I got pictures of Mama Duck semi-hidden and incubating those eggs.
I never did see the cygnets going for a ride though – this year I know I will, even if I must go to Dingell Park every weekend to scope ’em out.
I wanted to reblog a particular post centering around squirrels, but I could not since this current post has pictures and is lengthy. So, if you click here you will be able to read the post in its entirety. That blog post mentions a conversation between Mike and me, not quite two years ago, where we, along with a dozen squirrels, (give or take a few), congregated at the fork where the two paths meet – it was a beautiful Spring day.
These are the featured photos from that post of Mike feeding the squirrels. On that day, once again, he challenged me … this time not for my tardiness, but why I would not tender peanuts to the squirrels like he did, hand feeding them, instead of just laying peanuts on the ground?
And here’s how that conversation played out:
Mike: “Look Linda – here is how it is done, put the peanut between your fingers and hold it out. It’s easy – watch me.”
Linda: “Mike, I need my fingers for work.”
Mike: “The squirrels aren’t going to bite your fingers off – give them some credit.”
Linda: “They might not have had breakfast or I ticked them off one time; you never know.”
Flash forward almost two years.
So, on and on it goes, and, like anyone who suddenly passes away, after that initial gut punch, you struggle to remember the good stuff. Gee, I could have eulogized Mike – I’d have regaled the mourners with his wit and touch of sarcasm, or maybe his grumpy old guy demeanor, even though he was just 70 years old at the time of his death. But, I would have concluded by saying he was a good man and a friend to all at Council Point Park (the peanut pals included).
Mike had some serious health issues the end of last year. His growing absence at the Park was evident, as was his gaunt and haggard look on the few occasions when he did show up and shuffled along the pathway, head bent, a dark gray hoodie covering his head and hanging off his slumping diminutive form. It was evident to all of us, he’d lost weight and was not speaking clearly. He stayed to himself, mumbling in monosyllables to our greetings of “how ya doin’ Mike?” We walkers compared notes saying “Mike/Coach is just not himself – did he say what was wrong?”
Collectively we worried about our friend.
And then he didn’t return anymore.
We learned through Ray, a fellow walker who went to the same barbershop as Mike, that our friend had a stroke, then oral cancer caused his tongue and part of his jaw bone to be removed. He landed in a nearby nursing home to recuperate as he lived by himself. I sent a ‘thinking of you’ card with a note, signed simply “Linda, a/k/a The Peanut Lady and The Camera Lady” – I knew he’d know who I was.
Mike eventually lapsed into a coma and passed away on February 7th. Al, one of the regular walkers, went to his funeral and advised us a memorial tree will be planted in Mike’s memory this June. I went on the obituary notice tribute wall and posted these pictures of Mike feeding the squirrels, unfortunately not the clearest shots in the world as they were taken on the fly. I wrote a message to say how Mike loved this Park and he’ll be missed.
Rest in peace Mike. I was a slow learner sometimes, but I now “get it” … so up and at ’em going forward. I’m gonna get my butt movin’ every morning and down to the Park timely and you aren’t even there to chide me about it. I’ll miss our talks … and walks.
[Photo of Mike Chiola courtesy of R.C. Aleks Funeral Home; included are some of my favorite shots from Council Point Park the past few years.]