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A tale of two Henrys

Last week my cousin Mike shared a photo of Henry's Hamburgers on 26th Avenue East and London Road, circa 1961, on his Facebook page. Mike recalled that the path in the back of Henry's "led to one of the nicest areas on Lake Superior, known to us as 'Behind Henry's.' " He and his childhood buddies had a lot of fun memories of hanging out on the lakeshore in back of Henry's — building fires, tossing rocks into the lake, swimming in their underwear ... "Sure was private when we were young," he commented.

Until Mike shared that photo I had forgotten that there was a Henry's out east. The Henry's I remember was on 23rd Avenue West and Superior Street, on the upper side. In the back of our West End Henry's was an alley, not very appealing because it was dark and crowded with garbage cans from Henry's and all the neighbors. But across the avenue was LaPanta's market, the largest corner store in the West End. The Superior Street sides of Henry's and LaPanta's were well-lit and friendly. Henry's stainless steel counter was spotlessly clean and LaPanta's produce section meticulously and artistically arranged — business was good.

Cousin Mike and I are post-WWII Duluth baby boomers — Mike from eastern Duluth and I from western. Our parents were born in Duluth, and our extended families have been here for at least a century. As our generations have walked the ground and swum the waters of Duluth and Lake Superior, we have been part of an ever-expanding collective of memories linked to places. That sense of tangible and historical place creates powerful memories.

I thought about this as I read Mike's comments about the London Road Henry's and his neighborhood. I have been meaning to tell Mike that I was back there just last year, when I drove my granddaughter to the orthodontist's office. The backyard of his old house now abuts the orthodontist's parking lot.

Mike's family lived just a few blocks from eastern Henry's; the house hasn't changed that much but the neighborhood now has a different look and feel: The avenue no longer leads to Lake Superior but ends before the freeway. However, when I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the parking lot I thought that the yard looked almost exactly like it did when we were kids, and just like that I could imagine me, Mike, and our younger brothers and sisters coming out the back door after lunch to play, our mothers inside cleaning the kitchen and then sitting at the table to have a cup of coffee and watch us through the back window.

There are more stories connected to Mike's house: the day the crabby-looking (we thought) landlord who lived upstairs gave to us kids a small sack of peppermint sticks; the blue glass Shirley Temple bowl and cup that were special to Mike's mom, my Auntie Peggy; the bank of deep-pink peonies at the side of the house, right under the bathroom window, where I threw up one sunny summer afternoon, startling Mike's dad, who was taking a bath on the other side of the screen, open window and closed flowery curtains. The neighborhood store, with its odd smell: Mike's little brothers called it "the stinky store," which made Aunt Peggy laugh and then tell them not to let the owner hear them say that because he was a nice man. Mike's family buying a house and moving several blocks further from the lake, but not so far that he couldn't continue his adventures "Behind Henry's."

We each hold and care for our part of every story, and that is what connects us: Henry's out east and Henry's in the West End; Mike and me, Auntie Peggy and my mother; the kids swimming in Lake Superior "Behind Henry's" and the lonely old men who dropped by LaPanta's for company; the crabby landlord and the cheery, athletic orthodontists across his yard and across more than half a century.

Here in Onigamiising, stories continue stories, layered in time over the places where we live and breathe.