Fourth of July in South Haven: Rays of a Red, White, and Blue Summer

I wrote this as a personal piece in high school.  My recent time in Michigan has allowed for more time in South Haven, specifically at Thanksgiving, which has been a new wonderful, blessed experience in itself.  I still couldn’t help thinking about those hot summer days on the edge of Lake Michigan, when the lighthouse seemed bigger, the sky more blue, and the weeks seeped with nostalgia.

My little self at the South Haven lighthouse

“The Fourth of July in South Haven, Michigan was like nothing else.  It wasn’t just the obvious things like the town parade, or the fireworks, or the “ocean” (which I soon found out to be nothing of the sort, rather it was Lake Michigan), or even the way the sun sets on the horizon like its rays decided to kiss the water with hues of orange, red, and pink.  No, it was so much more than that.  Having visited my family over the summers there many times when I was little, I’ve been left with a piece of paradise I’ve rarely known.

Being an only child, I was thrilled to go to South Haven where my grandparents have a beach house.  This was no ordinary trip.  This was family.  When I reached South Haven, I was no longer just a daughter.  I became a granddaughter, great-granddaughter, niece, great-niece, cousin, neighbor; you name it.  The place was packed.  There were always my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and often my grandparent’s siblings came with their families.  It seemed every year I was introduced to some new family member, perhaps my grandma’s brother’s daughter’s daughter.  Meaning she was something to the extent of a second cousin.  Regardless, she was family.

The eldest girl of what are now twelve grandchildren on my dad’s side of the family (I have one older cousin, Chase, who is roughly six months my senior), I always had lots of responsibilities.  Plus, there always seemed to be another cousin on the way, or a new baby in the house.  In that sense, for that one week in South Haven I became a big sister to many of my little cousins, and a substitute daughter to some of my aunts and uncles.  The house itself lent itself well to these sorts of affairs. Namely, located at number 6 Chippewa St. (lending itself the name of “6 Chip” or “The Chip House”), it was virtually on Lake Michigan which meant easy beach access.  It was structurally suited as well.  Entering the house onto a small platform near a staircase going up, and a staircase going down, it was easy to decide which way to head.  Upstairs was the kitchen (a prime spot for some of the best pancakes), a living room which lead out to a deck over looking the lake and the South Haven Light House, and a few bedrooms.  In other words, this was adult (or rather, more civilized) territory.  The baby gate over the stairs never needed to be removed, as there was nearly always a baby or toddler in the house.  Downstairs, however, (better known as the basement) was for kids.  Filled with board games, toys, balls, blankets, pillows; it had everything a kid could need to have fun or build a fort when necessary.

With this entourage of a sort that my family seemed to make up, we would wake early on the Fourth of July for two main reasons.  One, we needed to save our perfect seats in front of my great-grandparent’s house (who lived on the parade route); and two, organizing and arranging for over twenty people to be in the same place at the same time was like trying to get a cat to do water ballet: its just not going to happen.  Once we were all ready to go to South Haven’s official and famous parade, we would set off on our own “6 Chip” parade route, complete with pots and pans, and newspaper hats we had made that morning.  Then, my cousins and I (often dressed in matching red, white, and blue outfits made by one of my aunts) would get our faces painted with stars and American flags, proudly waiting for the parade.  Sometimes spending this time dancing, laughing, or singing, the best were when I visited with my great-grandparents.  Robert and Frances Leever, my grandma’s parents, were always very special to me.  Frances (my namesake), standing less than five feet tall, was glad to be called, for once in her life, “Big Frances” when around me.  While she had suffered a stroke before I was born, and was thereafter unable to speak properly, I always understood what she was saying. I could see it in her eyes and in the half-smile she could give when she saw me.

The rest of the day would be spent playing numerous games (the best of which were childish croquet and parachute games), at the beach, eating good food, and of course, making a stop at Sherman’s Ice Cream Parlor.  The quintessential ice cream parlor of South Haven, no visit is complete without a delicious waffle cone topped with your favorite ice cream.  For years, I forced myself to eat their signature “Blue Moon” ice cream, just for the sake of joining in the fun of the resulting blue lips, teeth, tongue, (and sometimes nose), that my cousins enjoyed after a cone of Blue Moon.  The day concluded itself with fireworks, and sometimes a very exhausted pillow fight before bedtime.  Some years we would stay longer, others we would fly home to Southern California the next morning.

My visits to South Haven gradually grew more rare as I grew older.  My most resent visit was two summers ago, to attend a service for my great-uncle Mike who died earlier that year.  Having been a high school basketball and P.E. coach, (not to mention a die hard Detroit Pistons fan), he always got fun games going and contributed to my love of basketball, the Pistons, and the tough game of Bill Laimbeer.  Six Chip was not the same with out him.  My great-grandparents had died in 2000, and our families no longer sat in front of what was their house for the Fourth of July parade.  The great old play equipment at the beach had been updated to “safer”, though far less fun, play structures; and right on the beach, a portion had been gated off for a skate park.  I was older, and South Haven still had the buzz of a beach town, but had lost the sweet glory I had once seen it as.  Sherman’s has stayed the same, though I have given up the blue bubble gum taste of Blue Moon, and gone to the more traditional chocolate chip cookie dough.  With my (still) growing family, many families (mine included) have opted to rent either other beach houses near The Chip House, or stay in a hotel down a ways, due to space issues.  The downstairs, with the addition of a T.V., has morphed into a room devoted to my younger cousins watching Disney Channel.  As for the beach, Lake Michigan has gone down, changing the beach space and making it much rockier.  The sand dune that I once swam to has been washed away, or I have simply been unable to find it.

All is not changed for the worse in South Haven.  Streets once plagued with pot-holes have been redone, and the quaint downtown is booming.  The pier and the gorgeous red South Haven Light House are as beautiful as ever, and a handy shower has been installed outside of Six Chip for people to rinse sand off after coming up from the beach.  Older, I was given new responsibilities and privileges, like riding down to the pier on my bike, and being treated much more as an adult than a child. I’ve upgraded to the adult’s table, and am privy to conversations that at a younger age would not have held the least bit of interest.

The South Haven and Six Chip of my childhood is long gone.  Some of the traditions have remained, while others have vanished.  It is up to my younger cousins to keep those alive now.  The memories of it all are forever – those are mine to keep and cherish.  I will always love South Haven and the smell of Lake Michigan sand, the red of the lighthouse, and the noise of pots and pans on a cool breezy Fourth of July morning.  The sunset has never changed; each glow more breath-taking than the one before, allowing each drop of sun to reflect over the soft waves of Lake Michigan as if it were blind to the world around it, as if it was always there and as if it always will.”


2 thoughts on “Fourth of July in South Haven: Rays of a Red, White, and Blue Summer

  1. This is so touching and beautiful, Frances. We all have such sweet memories of past family times and traditions; especially at this time of the year. Thank you!


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