Two Days – Two Homes

If your life is working at its best, you can learn something new every day. If the time comes when that doesn’t happen for me, I don’t want to be here any more. So far, despite any and all adversities, I’ve been lucky enough to keep growing my knowledge, along with feeling the wonder that comes from never getting stale and bored. My last two days have been stuffed with little gems which in one sense are brand new to me, at the same time that they’re as familiar as a favorite old bathrobe.

My two days began with cloud photos, and then a familiar road trip north, from my home of fifty one years, to the home of the ten most formative years of my youth, Chicago. I can’t count the number of times I’ve made this trip between 1968, when I started college, and this weekend. These two days promised to be rich and full. My daughter had splurged on a wonderful gift for the two of us, plus my sister – tickets to see Hamilton, the groundbreaking musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ “Founding Fathers.” The show is ending its long run in Chicago the first week in January. American history is one of my main interests and strong suits, although I know there are thousands of small incidents that are still outside my considerable stash of knowledge. My husband was also a history enthusiast who ultimately wound up as a U.S. history teacher, even developing his own class, Modern American History through Film and Music. He also taught government and prepared students for their Constitution exam which was required for graduation. Both of us were eager to see Hamilton but Michael died before we fulfilled that goal. As I drove through the countryside I could feel his presence as I so often do, daydreaming that whatever I experience without him will somehow travel through time, through the universe, through me, to some elusive space where he still resides, seeing what I see, feeling what I feel. I drove my daughter’s car while she rested, singing along to a playlist that was filled with the R&B of my youth which added a new layer to my reverie. These songs by The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and many more, were the soundtrack of my teens when I was growing up on the south side of Chicago. By the time we exited from the expressway onto Lake Shore Drive, I had effectively time traveled. As soon as I near the city, I sense an attitude and a donning of urban armor that I used more regularly when I was a resident of that big bustling place.

I remembered that when I was in eighth grade, we worked on a “Chicago Book,” and that we studied the city’s history and architecture. At that time, the Prudential Building was the tallest structure in the city. Looking at the famous skyline which now dwarfs that still visible, narrow tower, made me feel both nostalgic and excited.

We turned from the Drive to Michigan Avenue where I managed to snap a quick photo of the iconic holiday-decorated lions in front of the Art Institute. It’s been in its current location since 1893, the same year my house was built. Having visited there so many times, I can wander through that building in my head and look at what for me, are its most iconic artworks that still have as profound an effect on me as they did when I was young. I have prints of many of them in my home.

We turned off Michigan to find parking within walking distance of the CIBC Theater, constructed in 1906, the current home of the Hamilton production. We had a little time before we needed to arrive so we wandered around for awhile. I’ve had two knee replacements since the last time I’d been in downtown Chicago so I was able to motor along at a rapid pace,which was so delightful. I spotted the Berghoff restaurant, a Chicago institution since 1898 where we’d eaten as a family when I was a girl. My father used to work at the First National Bank of Chicago, long since absorbed by bigger banking concerns and now a part of Chase. But a clock tower from the original site has been preserved and I was glad to see it. Also still a presence is the Italian Village, a restaurant opened in 1927 when my parents were little kids growing up on the west and near north sides of the city. That place was out of their economic bounds back then but in the 70’s and 80’s, my dad got to treat himself to lunches there, his favorite place close to work. And then there is the Flamingo sculpture in front of the Federal building seen through a blizzard of holiday lights. Old eyes, new eyes. I was engaged in a visual memory feast.

Soon it was showtime. We headed back to the theater where a kind passerby took the requisite outdoor photo souvenir of the day.

We entered the building which retains the old-fashioned restored details of an earlier time. We climbed the stairs to our level where wonderful center balcony seats awaited us. I had a great chat with one of the ushers who’d grown up in the city not far from where I lived. After 4 steep flights of climbing, I, a champion at sweating, was dripping wet, but I’ve learned to live with it. After we were seated, that usher came and found me, presenting me with a fan from the production. You never know what your nemesis body function can do for you.

Hamilton. I’ve been thinking about this brilliant experience since I saw it and expect to be mulling it over for a long time. I know who this person was but the depth and breadth of his history, juxtaposed with all his peers and their issues, still so relevant to today’s issues was just mindblowing. Matters of race, entitlement and power, addressed in amazing rap riffs, along with a hugely talented multi-racial cast was just stunning. I think that any piece of performance art that makes you hungry for more knowledge is above and beyond entertainment. The composer and author, Lin-Manuel Miranda is brilliant, a creative genius who I know is actively involved in critical issues of our time. I’m thinking that this experience is among the top ten events I’ve attended in my life. And my brain is bubbling with new ideas about what to learn next. After Hamilton, the three of us met up with my son and his girlfriend at one of my favorite restaurants in the city.

While my daughter and sister headed back home, my son dropped me off at my niece’s house in Evanston. There was another big event coming my way the next day. In addition to a breakfast with my kid, his girlfriend and her parents, I was getting ready for a reunion with an old friend I’d known since elementary school, through high school and college. Danny. The truth is I’d had a crush on him since I was ten years old. An early Machiavellian strategist, I plotted out how to become his indispensable friend as we grew up, waiting to make the big romantic move when we were older. We had a bit of a time together on and off in our junior and senior years of high school but the truth was, we really weren’t suited to be anything other than platonic with each other.

We continued our friendship throughout college – I even visited him once in my junior for several days to see if there was still any fire left between us, but mostly there was only fizzle. Eventually we fell away from each other and moved on into our adult lives.

Danny’s life wound up taking him into the world of the ex-pat, living first in Germany, then in Switzerland. He had a wife and three kids and spent his time traveling the world writing environmental policies for different countries. After a time, I lost track of him, but every ten years or so, I’d find out something about him from our closest mutual friend with whom I’d always stayed in touch. The last I’d heard was that he’d gotten divorced, had a new job with an international health foundation and had met a new woman whom he’d married. My life got more hectic and intense after my early retirement to provide child care for my first grandson. I’d been at it a year and a half when my mother’s health took a steep decline. She’d moved in with us, and then in one of those life-changing moments in 2012, my husband was diagnosed with a rare cancer. For the next five years, I rarely thought about Danny as I juggled my roles as a caregiver for so many people.

My grandson headed to day care and my mom to assisted living. She died in 2015 and I spent the next two years riding the cancer rollercoaster with my husband who died in May, 2017. I spent the remainder of that year mourning, recovering and planning a celebration of his life in December. When 2018 dawned, it occurred to me that it had been 50 years since high school graduation. Through social media, I started to chat with some old friends about having a reunion in Chicago. I still can’t quite figure out how I wound up taking on a lot of the planning, but I did. And while trying to get the plans solidified, which included finding classmates, I thought about Danny for the first time in a long while. I asked our mutual friend if he could track him down but he too had lost touch. He seemed to think it was possible Danny’d died but I just couldn’t believe that. So I started doing internet research and eventually found him, working for another international cancer organization and living in Thailand. I wrote him an email and to my surprise, we started a regular correspondence. I was the recent widow and he had fallen away from his only living relative in Chicago. He wasn’t going to be able to attend the 50th high school reunion but was interested and curious about it. Over time he re-established contact with our oldest mutual friend, submitted information to the class reunion questionnaire and requested photos from the event. That was a great success which came and went.

The reunion was over, but Danny and I kept writing. We were in regular contact for a year and a half when he told me he’d be attending a conference in Orlando at the beginning of December. He decided to do a quick layover in Chicago and was hoping I could drive up to see him and our buddy, Rich. I realized that his arrival was the day after I was going to see Hamilton. Pretty fortuitous timing. So of course I agreed. All he wanted was some deep dish pizza and our company. My two days in Chicago were suddenly chock full of interesting experiences. I realized I hadn’t seen Danny in 49 years. After Hamilton, and meeting my son’s girlfriend’s family, I would be attending a mini-reunion with a few elementary and high school friends. A collision of all different parts of my life. I’ll admit I was nervous. I didn’t have a car so Danny got a rental at the airport and volunteered to pick me up at my niece’s house to drive us both to Lou Malnati’s, a great spot for Chicago style pan pizza.

I was a little nervous. Forty nine years is a long time. Would our faceless online communication translate into real time when there’d be no way to edit what we shared? When he arrived at the door we looked at each other with big, silly grins as we searched the new version of our faces for who we’d been so long ago. But I’m delighted to say that our transition into the now was really fast. As we drove off together, part of me felt so normal and homey. Both his parents and he had lived in the neighborhood where I was staying and we’d driven together countless times before through the darkness, on our way somewhere, talking about life, the future, big ideas and little ones. We’d always gotten along and within minutes I could feel the rhythm of that long ago time, when I could look at his face and read his emotions. He was kind and courtly, smart and funny as we went to join a small group of friends we’d known as children. We had a lovely evening. For me, it was a surprise to not only feel the comfort and ease of acceptance by these people, but also to feel that Chicago is still a home to me, and all that is implied in that. I suspect a part of me will always belong there, to that city which informed my early development. To have a group of people who let me enter that space so seamlessly is a great bonus.

Last night when Danny dropped me off he asked me to send him the photos I’d snapped because he was too distracted to take any. I sent them in an email, along with a note before I went to sleep. When I woke this morning, he’d sent a note from the airport thanking me for them, saying he’d had a super time and also thanking me for coming back into his life. I was so touched. I don’t know if or when I’ll see him again. But that’s ok. I know we’ll still write. As I stood on my niece’s porch last night, taking pictures of a beautiful sunset, I thought about how lucky I was to feel like I had two homes, when so many have none.

All weekend I said that my two days had felt kaleidoscopic, colorful, spinning from thing to thing, leaving me with a lot to digest. But when my son picked me up this morning to drive back to my “home” home, I took some pictures of the beautiful clouds in the sky, looking up as I do most days. And I recognize that it’s the same sky over my head always and that despite life’s challenges, I’m lucky to have had what I had and to have what I have.

The Living Spaces #2 – Chicago Girl – School Days

When we moved to Chicago from Sioux City, Iowa, I had already completed first grade. Evidently the Chicago School System wasn’t sure that the education I’d received to date was adequate. So, I started school in first grade again at Horace Mann School on the south side. I didn’t think much about it. I was meeting new kids and enjoying myself. After about two weeks, though, my teacher had figured out that I was ahead of my classmates and one day, I was told to gather my things as I was moving to a new room. Instead of being with Miss Becker, I would be with Miss Krutza. I was basically terrified but my older sister was brought down to explain that this action wasn’t punitive but rather a good thing. So off I went to second grade. Back in those days there was a popular trend of having bright kids do three semesters in two. After one term in second grade, I was moved to a class where the second part of second grade was combined with two semesters of third grade. I discovered this was an honor and I was very glad to be part of this elite group of students. We were accelerated. I had no idea that meant losing valuable childhood time. Nor did I understand for awhile that designations like that were so hurtful to excluded kids. I was proud of being pulled out of regular class activities to sit in the special reading group. We had books called readers which were accompanied by workbooks whose colors matched. That year the set was a deep lavender with a yellow stripe. My teacher’s name was Miss O’Brien. She said funny things like “Cripes all Friday,” and “By Cracky.” One time while she was stapling construction paper to our bulletin board, partially turned to us students and partially to the board, she accidentally stapled her hand. All part of elementary school excitement.

The best part about floating between grades was being able to meet kids both older and younger than me. I liked school. I had big crushes on two blonde boys, Scott McKenzie and Blair Alden. I was bigger than they were so I’d chase them down on the playground and wrap my arms around them so they couldn’t move. I guess that was the beginning of my aggressive style. Probably the most significant event of that part of my life was when I was eight and I broke my nose in P.E. class. I was afraid of tumbling. I didn’t like the sensation of being upside down.

The gym teacher had a long row of mats lined up on the floor. I stood in line, waiting my turn, growing more terrified by the second. Thinking fast, I told him that I couldn’t put my head on the mats because I was wearing bobby pins which would hurt me. I still remember his disdainful look. He told me to take the pins out of my hair, run to the desk in the corner of the gym, lay them down and run back to the mats as fast as I could so I could start tumbling. So of course, I did, my heart hammering as I tried to figure out what was worse, tumbling or being in trouble. The floor was waxed and shiny.

I ran as fast as I could, slipped, fell and slid face first into the corner of the desk. I can still feel the astonishing pain. I stood slowly, trying to gather myself, mostly embarrassed by the whole situation and trying desperately to not cry. Our gym outfits were navy blue shorts and white blouses. I was dizzy and confused, wondering why I felt wet when I wasn’t crying. Looking down, I saw my white shirt soaked in blood which was pouring out of my nose. The teacher got me and took me to a side room off the gym and began mopping me dry. I had to take off my shirt which was mortifying. Even worse, someone went to my locker to get me something else to wear. All that I had was a pink sweater which was missing buttons – he safety pinned those open places and sent me back to class. That day I was having lunch at my aunt and uncle’s house. There was no cafeteria in our school and my parents couldn’t get me and my sister for lunch, which they usually did. We were settling down to tuna sandwiches with lettuce and tomato on pumpernickel bread, exotically cut in triangles instead of the usual mundane halves. And there were pickles and chips. I was about to sink my teeth into the sandwich when my uncle walked into the kitchen and said, “now that’s a broken nose if I ever saw one.” My heart sank. Broken meant fixing and if I hated anything more than somersaults it was doctors. Late that afternoon my mom took me to a heinous individual named Dr. Weiss. He pushed and poked my face as hard as he could, asking if it hurt me. I lied through my teeth but to no avail. He scheduled surgery for me the following morning, promising me that no needles would be involved. Right. I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted for dinner and chose a bag of Tootsie Rolls. The next morning I was trundled off to the hospital where I was immediately stabbed with a “hypo.” That’s when I learned that grownups couldn’t be trusted. After the operation I got my little self together and bartered my way home instead of staying in the children’s ward that night. I slept on the couch at home which to me was a big treat. My nose had a cast on it, held in place by two bands of elastic which wrapped around my head. When I went back to school, the kids called me “horse face.” For the rest of my young life, I was embarrassed by my nose and certain that anyone seeing my profile would never be able to love me. The growing pains of childhood.

I spend a lot of time with my family during my elementary school years. We are together every weekend, my parents and my siblings, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, plus cousins. We go to Rainbow Beach for picnics. No one goes down to Lake Michigan except for my younger sister and me. I teach myself how to swim in that cold water and dodge dead alewives in the sand. I become aware of problems in my family starting when I was about age ten. Friction between my older siblings and my parents becomes obvious as the teenagers butted heads with the authority figures. I am eight years younger than my brother and a little over five years younger than my older sister. They are unhappy and my mother in particular is very stressed and often sick. My brother eventually leaves home and college because of a young love gone sour and winds up enlisting in the Air Force for 4 years. My older sister, who keeps a lot to herself, eventually graduates from high school and goes away to college. I am observing all these dynamics and I decide to be as little trouble as possible to my mom and dad and to protect my younger sister. Maybe I was born with an old soul, a moniker I’ve heard from the grownups. All I know for certain is that I want to develop good coping skills. It appeared they’re required for a happy life. I am always looking ahead.

I really like school. I work hard at perfecting my penmanship by writing my letters in Miss Kittle’s little notebooks which show the proper forms for printing and cursive. I read all the time. I like to go through sections of the library, reading all the books in biographies, all the books that are part of a series.

I like historical biographies and sports biographies the best. I read mysteries and books about animals and nature. Eventually I am put in a special program which meets in the library and is focused on reading for speed. We get a machine that fits over our books and slowly drops a black screen over the text. The goal is to keep ahead of the screen. There’s a control which speeds up the pace of that slowly falling screen. Eventually, there is no speed on that machine which can keep up with my reading. We are tested for comprehension. I do well and am not conscious of the fact that this exercise will be a gift for the rest of my life.

For the most part, I like my teachers. Mrs Masterton and Miss Brennan are my favorites. Both are English teachers. They are strict and demanding which works for me. I can place myself in their classrooms in my memory more than half a century later. Mrs. Masterton had a bad temper and sometimes humiliated kids. Once she made Milton Berns sit in a corner with a dunce cap. I felt terrible for him. But I still was glad to learn from her and glad she wasn’t mad at me. Miss Brennan smelled wonderful and had a gentler nature.

Generally I get along well with my classmates. I am keenly aware that many of them have economic advantages that I don’t. I realize that I’ll have to use other tools to get along in the world. Some friends and I start a club called “The DOLL’s club.” That stood for Delta Omega Legga Lambda. We were droll. The truth is that I wasn’t a very clubby person. Excluding people from private societies felt wrong to me. One day, two members, Barbara and Betty, were supposed to play with me after school. Instead they trapped me in the hallway of my apartment building and beat me until they got tired of it and left. I didn’t defend myself, but I learned a lot about people from that experience.

I grew quickly. I was truly embarrassed by it. I started my period in 5th grade and felt ashamed. I wore an undershirt over my bra but the boys took their rulers and pushed it under my backstrap and laughed at me. By the time I am twelve I am my adult height. There isn’t much to do about it except move forward. Frequently, I like trying on the grownup style. On weekends, I put curlers in my hair, wrap an apricot-colored chiffon scarf over them and walk around the block. I parade past the older guys who are polishing their cars. I pretend I have somewhere exciting to go later and that they’re admiring me. How embarrassing. Sometimes depending on the family financial situation, I go to the beauty parlor to get my hair done. I read movie magazines with all the gossip about people like Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. When I come out of the shop, I look like I’m forty years old.

From 5th grade on, I develop a crush on a boy which lasts all the way through high school. I still lead a normal life with interest in others but it’s pretty clear to me that my nature is set on being a “one person” person. I’m modeling on my mom and dad who despite bumpy times, always seem really in love with each other. I decide I want that too.

In seventh grade, my class is participating in the science fair. I am very serious about my project which is a study of the circulatory system. I shape a heart out of the clay you can fire in a kiln and paint the chambers, valves, veins and arteries in the appropriate red and blue colors. Then I fashion a standing three poster folding display which has drawings and explanations of how things work. My piece de resistance is supplied by my dad who pays a visit to the Chicago Stockyards and brings me a cow’s heart floating in formaldehyde. I won first place amongst seventh-graders and am automatically entered into the city fair where my project takes second. I felt pretty good about myself that year.

When eighth grade arrives, I am twelve years old. I will turn thirteen just before I graduate and go to high school. This year is filled with transitions for me. I’ve caught up with the kids who are chronologically a year older than me. I’m angling for a social position, trying to be a cool kid without losing my friends I’ve made along the way through the previous years. I vow to never be what my friend Fern and I call “fair weather friends.” I met Fern in second grade and she and I will be friends for life. I am doing well in school until I bump into the wall of what’s called the “new math.” It’s weirdly theoretical and I can’t follow the concepts but somehow I can intuit answers. Miss Young, soon to be Mrs. Colegrove, accuses me of cheating as I work a problem at the blackboard and find the right answer with the wrong method. I am utterly humiliated and am put off math for a very long time. All my other classes are fine, though, so I have plenty of time to focus on social issues. My friends and I spend time bent over a Ouija board searching for answers to our questions from the beyond. I go bowling at the Pla-Mor bowling alley on 71st Street and have an average of about 100. I am a good athlete and can smack a softball and send it a mile in addition to being able to really toss a football. Back in those days, girls’ sports were pretty much non-existent. The boys teased me mercilessly and called me “moose” after a ball player on the Chicago White Sox. I am mortified and angry. But I still play.

I want to be adorable and attractive but I also want to be myself, smart and strong. This dilemma causes problems. I worry about my weight all the time. I get invited to a swimming party and have never shaved my legs. My mom is in the hospital and I’m too shy to ask my dad for help. I take a razor and pull it across my legs, dry, and cut myself so badly that I don’t swim in the heavily chlorinated water. I hate my glasses and try going without them whenever possible by pulling on my eyelid for visual clarity. I go to fortnightlies which are dances attended by everyone in our 8th grade classes. I am always relieved when I’m asked to dance. We even have dance cards which feel like an archaic relic of the past. I can do a mean cha-cha-cha. The year seems to fly by. I am treasurer of my class and I collect the money for our year-end autograph books. I put the money in a mint-green wallet and somehow lose it. Fourteen dollars gone. I’m so scared to tell my parents because I know money is tight. Another unforgettable moment.

As the year wraps up, I have good and bad experiences. I win two prizes in the President’s Fitness Program which is mandatory in our school. I am on the honor roll and am a play leader for the younger kids at school. When I graduate, I’ll wear blue and white school ribbons with my blue and gold honor roll pin in the middle of them. We do a stupid vote for the best feature of every kid in our class. I want to be known for my beautiful blue-green eyes. Instead my best feature is my teeth. I don’t have braces so I guess that makes them special. I try not to be disappointed but I am. I try to take all the “good luck in football and baseball” notes from the boys in my autograph book in stride. I even try not to mind the fact that my graduation dress will be one that my older sister wore to a prom. Graduation finally arrives and I’m excited. But as mother announced to me early that morning, my graduation had been marred. My baby cousin Iris died that morning of a childhood infection that would never have killed her in modern times. My parents can’t come to my special day because they need to be with my aunt and uncle. I think I aged that day. Elementary school has ended along with some of my innocence. High school awaits me.

Opposites

If you’re born into a world without a ready source of food, do you know that you’re hungry? Or is it that the gnaw in your belly just “is”? Do you have to know fullness in order to recognize starvation? I suspect that you can’t know one without knowing the other. The dynamics of experience are dynamics of contrast. We recognize what is opposite of something else and unless our environments are truly neutral and repetitive, we live by noting the dynamics between converse elements.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I read a lot about dialectics, mostly philosophical and mostly political. These days, I’m thinking primarily about the processes of life and what you can expect to learn when you engage in anything, love, work, social interactions. What is a likely result of participating in virtually anything is a heightened awareness of the wide range of feelings you can expect to experience as the pendulum of life swings along.

It is the evening before Thanksgiving day. All my contributions for tomorrow’s family dinner are made. I spent the night with my children and the newest generation, my grandchildren of blood and choice. We were enjoying ourselves. I was keenly aware, as always, of my husband’s physical absence, but it was my daughter who suddenly said, ” dad should be here, dad should be here.” Her face was sad and disappointed.

Both I and my beloved son from another mother simultaneously replied that he was here, would always be here with us. And that’s true in the sense that I always feel, that the power of what our love built is still alive and sustaining. Nevertheless, we’d all still like him here in the flesh, talking with us, hugging us and telling his old man jokes. Could any of us have anticipated the palpable absence of his person before he was really gone? I don’t think so. We all are figuring it out as we go along, and only the richness of what came before informs that vacant space we feel now. The price we pay for love is a given and is exacted by life. There are losses every step of your way through this world. Grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, lovers and spouses. The horror for those who lose children. To experience life’s joys, you can expect life’s sorrows. You can opt out of it all, if you don’t want to be subject to the chaos of feeling. If you never have a pet, you never have to feel the pain of losing it. And so it goes, on and on. You take risks or you don’t.

As I ponder all this, I’m sitting with my mourning quilt on my lap. When Michael got his dire prognosis, he somehow had the presence of mind to realize how lonely and devastated I’d be after he was gone. So he set himself to the tasks of trying to leave me with tangible evidence of us that would remind me of what we had for a lifetime. This quilt is made from pieces of his clothing which he snuck out of the house to give to the person he commissioned to make it. Photos of our family and snippets of his passions and interests are screened on or sewn to it. Shirt pockets were stuffed with his business cards from all his jobs along with personal notes for me and our kids. We each got a pewter tag, seen below, to remind us of him. Mine is on my keychain and I carry his note in my purse.

He made me three CD’s, adding the artwork, which commemorated our love through music we’d shared. And he designed a piece of jewelry for me, inscribed in his own handwriting, a testimony to our forty five years together. Things are things are things, but now and again, they are so much more than that. I feel great solace from his efforts to provide sustenance for me in his absence. As years are going by, he remains with me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

My life is still a good life. I have love and friendship, health and wide-ranging interests. I can take care of myself in all ways and have my independence. What is opposite from my life with Michael is that he is no longer at the center of my daily existence. I’m continuing to adapt to that disparate feeling after leading the bulk of my life so differently. But I appreciate how lucky I’ve been to have experienced the richness of my primary relationship and the intimate bonded family we made. Everyone is not so lucky. Although I’m selfish enough to wish we could’ve died together after another 25 years, I’m unselfish enough to know that the world is filled with people who are in infinitely worse shape than me. That’s always been true and always will be. What I can say is that if you stay conscious about how life works and if you want to ease the future pain of your loved ones, you can do something about that, right here and right now. No one gets to protect anyone completely from what goes along with experiencing life’s highs and lows. But you can provide comfort that lasts forever. These are my late night thoughts before tomorrow’s Thanksgiving tradition, missing Michael, with Michael, harboring the opposite feelings inside me for what I imagine will be the rest of my life. The risks were worth it. No regrets.

A happy holiday to those who celebrate it. And who are trying their best in this world of conflicts.

What Turns Up

The past few days, I’ve been ruminating. Ruminating while sorting through piles of paper in my house. Thinking about Thanksgiving which I took over from my mom when I was thirty. I’d just had my daughter in late August that year and felt like I’d really arrived in my adult life. My whole family came down from Chicago and we packed a lot of people into this house. I’d gotten really sick with the flu but I didn’t care how much fever I had – I was doing this no matter what I felt like. And so began a tradition that was maintained until Michael died in 2017.

I was already tired of the whole production. I can’t count how many hours I spent preparing for this one day, and during the last seven or eight events, things were tough. My knees were bone on bone and all that time on my feet was expensive for my body. When Michael got sick, continuing with the annual dinner was heavy with emotion, always wondering if this one was the last one for him.

In November of 2017, just a few months after he died, I handed the tradition baton to my daughter and my son-in-law. This year will be my third Thanksgiving out of my house.

I’ll bring a few of my specialties to their place but now I’m a guest. That’s just fine with me. While going through a lifetime of papers, I realized that I’ve kept all my Thanksgiving prep notes and plans. We often had 25 people here and the quartermaster in me had a battle plan. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to pitch them into the recycling.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking that now I’m a matriarch. I’ve actually been one for a long time because my mom never quite managed that role. Thinking about how you slide into different positions in your family is always thought-provoking. So many people who all shared the same table are gone now. Some spaces are forever empty while others are filled. When I think back, I recognize the role shifting that was in play long ago, but most of the time, none of it was discussed. The transitions just slid into place, as if we were all puzzle pieces whose little knobs finally found their proper fit. At least for a time.

I’ve been trying to focus on the positives in my life these past few days, a socially appropriate attitude for this holiday. Mostly they are little things which in my view are what make up the bulk of our lives. I seem to be transitioning into a place where I’ve almost completely internalized the powerful connection that I still feel with Michael. I see him, I hear him and I feel him all the time. That love is a source of strength for me along with its aura of mystery that radiates through me. I don’t understand it at all but my daily functioning is improved. I’m engaged in an interior dialogue with him which feels comforting. Today I went to the grocery store, one of my most detested chores. I’ve always tended to overbuy. As I stood unpacking the bags in the kitchen, I was mystified by how many packages of cheese I’d bought. I suddenly heard Michael’s voice saying, “so, was there a big sale today? You couldn’t afford not to buy all this?” I laughed out loud as that conversation had happened so many times in the past. I’m glad I have these vivid memories.

I’m also glad that the Walgreen’s clerk knows my name and I know hers. I’m grateful to have relationships with all the young pool employees who listen to my stories and let me mother them. I’m grateful that two people, one of whom is a dear old friend and another who is a total stranger who only knows me through reading this blog, took a moment to send me a New York Times article about my beloved Roger Federer. And of course, I’m grateful for my family and friends and for the fact that after 15 years, my two knee replacement surgeries have erased the dreadful pain I’d tolerated for so long. Another great joy has been unearthing incredible relics from the paper mountain I’ve been climbing. You never know what might turn up.

In what feels quite serendipitous, while thinking of my first Thanksgiving hostess job, begun right after I became a mother, I found a small brown travel journal I’d bought in 1980 for a trip Michael and I were taking that October. The trip was suggested by my obstetrician as a break from our attempts to conceive. We’d been trying for two years and I was really discouraged. Although my mom never had problems with fertility, other women in my family did and I suspected I was in the same boat. My doctor said that before we started fertility testing, a trip away from the constant monthly pressure might help relieve stress which could be getting in the way of pregnancy. So we planned a driving trip to Colorado, a combination of camping, national park visits and a little luxury on the side. I was twenty nine and Michael was thirty one. Most of my journaling during my life was done on notebook paper or legal pads so finding this little book was quite a surprise. I remember this trip well. I’d never been in the mountains before. Going in October promised to be a great choice as kids were back in school, meaning that the places we’d visit would be less crowded than they were during the summer months. We left home early on October 1st, 1980.

We were headed to Redstone, Colorado, population 94. Our destination was the historic Redstone Inn, once a large rooming house and lodge for miners working in the surrounding mountains. We drove through Aspen and Vail to get there, the scenery spectacular and lit with fiery fall color.

Our room was old-fashioned, no phone, no television, no radio. The first night, we unpacked, explored a bit, had dinner and turned in early as we had a busy schedule planned for the next day. We woke up, had breakfast and went for a stroll before getting in the car to check out McClure’s Pass which was incredibly beautiful. In the afternoon, we’d scheduled a two hour horseback ride up into the mountains with a guide. We were taken up into the clouds on narrow paths, surrounded by aspen trees. We saw a hidden mansion of a mine owner and were enjoying the scenery, almost at the end of our upward climb when my stirrup got caught on a branch that struck my horse, causing him to rear and toss me off. Michael’s horse reared too but he held on as the guide scrambled to get control of mine. I was stunned and in severe pain, feeling around in the fallen leaves for my glasses which had flown off my head. I realized that I had no choice but to remount and get back down the mountain to the stables. Each movement of the horse was a jolt to my aching body but I made it. My dismount was more like falling and Michael was shocked that I could barely move. I got in bed and he went to find a dusty tube of Ben-Gay that I slathered on myself. The next day I sent him off for a hike while I lay still trying to read a book, High Tide at Gettysburg. What a crazy detail to remember. One more night in Redstone and then we headed off to the closest hospital at Glenwood Springs where I was examined, x-rayed and given muscle relaxers and painkillers. With the rebounding ability of youth, I got myself going, determined to keep on course with the trip. We did our laundry and then drove to Marble to see a partial ghost town and old marble quarries.

Then we went off to Telluride where we explored the town and then went off to pitch our tent in the San Juan National Forest. I was pretty impressed with my resilience and enjoyed being out in the crisp fall air, cooking outside and being alone. We read by the light of our Coleman lantern at night and had a wonderful time, thanks to those handy medications. From Telluride, we moved on to Mesa Verde National Park. We camped there and were delighted to climb out of our tent in the morning to see deer wandering around our front yard. We explored the pueblos and ruins and read about the history of the vanished people who once made a life there.

Our next stop was Ouray, Colorado. We drove the incredible Million Dollar Highway where at one point my speed was so slow that Michael woke from his nap because he thought we’d stopped. That road is one of the most challenging I’ve ever driven.

In Ouray, we stayed in a hotel. We ate at a delicious restaurant called the Bon-Ton which served Italian fare. We tasted Mondavi wine from California for the first time at that place. Ouray was an engaging town which we strolled through for a day. We eventually signing up for a jeep tour of Engineer Mountain, just under 13,000 feet and a challenge for me as I’m not fond of heights or bouncing along on them in an open-sided vehicle. We did it though and I managed to grab a few rocks which I still have today. We finished our wonderful trip at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National monument, another remarkably beautiful place. I still have the brochure from there, a far cry from the glossy ones you can pick up at any national park today. Then we headed home. Despite my unfortunate accident we had a wonderful, relaxing trip. Within a month of that trip I got pregnant. My doctor was right – we needed to break a stressful pattern. How incredibly lucky were we. My daughter was born the following summer, just a few months before I took on Thanksgiving for what would be a 35 year stint as I unwittingly shifted to being a matriarch. As I work my way through the paper history of my life, there’s no telling what will turn up. Old feelings, new understandings. On I go. Happy thanksgiving to those here and those always near.

Cancer Bomb

Michael and I stepped off into 2013 with our new regimen in place. We were concentrating on figuring out how to adapt to the knowledge that he was harboring a potentially deadly disease that could rear its head at any time. Simultaneously, we were trying to practice real mindfulness, squeezing our best possible days out of the present.

I had gotten trained in the art of lymphedema massage, a technique used to relieve backed up lymphatic fluid which occurs when lymph nodes are removed and the fluid creates swelling. Michael’s was in his face and neck. I’d had some practice doing this for my mom years earlier when she’d had many lymph nodes removed during her mastectomy. I felt glad to have a hands-on way to be helpful in relieving some of his discomfort. In early June, when school ended, Michael and I had our long-delayed trip to Sanibel Island, cancelled the year before. Then I surprised him with a birthday gift, a journey to Panama to have a “boys’ trip” with our son who was working on his PhD there. A biologist studying the physiology of tropical birds, our son hadn’t ever had a private trip with his dad. We’d had plenty of family vacations, but all of us thought there was a long future stretched out ahead of Michael, with plenty of time for the two of them down the road. The previous year’s Merkel Cell cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment changed all that. We were living in the now instead of the future. There was no more counting on limitless time. Michael the historian was eager to see the Panama Canal, in addition to observing what his kid was doing with his research. The night before Michael was supposed to leave, I developed lower back pain and bled when I urinated. I’d had a kidney stone once before which was quite painful, but this didn’t feel as bad as that one. We got scared because my father had died from bladder cancer which presented only as blood in his urine. Michael wanted to cancel his trip, but I said, no way. The previous year, our kid had learned of Michael’s disease while he was alone in the rainforest. If there was something severely wrong with me, I didn’t want him finding that out, alone again. Michael took off on Sunday. By Tuesday, I was relieved to learn that I, indeed, only had kidney stones, and was thrilled that Michael was traipsing around with our kid, having a lifetime experience for both of them.

When Michael came home, we proceeded with a normal summer. I deferred dealing with my massive kidney stones until after our grandson moved on from our house to day care. Michael seemed to be doing well at his regular exams and we edged cautiously forward, hoping against hope that his remission would stick around. Looking back on that past year and four months, it was hard to believe we’d gone through an orphan cancer diagnosis and treatment, moved my mother from our house to assisted living, had our son return from Panama with a scary dengue-fever like illness, while I walked around for months with kidney stones. In the meantime, our daughter was pregnant with a second child. After grandson one was safely ensconced in day care, the plan was for me to have my kidney stones removed, rest for a few months and then get ready to care for baby number two who was due in January. Michael would return to his classroom in the fall. His scan, the first since November, 2012, was scheduled for November 8th, 2013. As our family was coping with these issues, our longterm neighbors across the street were also dealing with cancer. The husband in that family had been struggling with a lethal form of leukemia and had gone through a bone marrow transplant. His wife and I were sharing the stress and fear of losing our spouses and were both worn out. Our families got together and decided we really needed a break.

So in October, shortly after my kidney procedure, we were gifted with a long weekend at a cushy resort in Wisconsin where we’d be pampered from head to toe. I was surprised, grateful and very unhappy. The reservation began on Friday, November 8th, the day of Michael’s long-awaited scan. I really didn’t want to go. My deep concern over that long gap between PET/CAT scans was always hovering a few millimeters below my surface. Although I was practicing living in the present, my inherent instinct to look down the road was always operating covertly. Old habits are indeed hard to break. I tried arguing my way out of the trip. Michael really wanted me to get the break before Thanksgiving, always a big bash at our house and his favorite holiday. He made sense but I was very uncomfortable and nervous. He told me that being present for the scan wasn’t necessary, that I would be with him when he got the results. Everyone else was pushing for the trip, optimistic and really excited because they’d taken me off guard, always a tough thing to do because I usually sniffed out the best-laid plans for me. So, reluctantly, half-heartedly, I packed up and took off for my very unwanted vacation. I wanted to be with Michael but I made an effort to appreciate the luxury of having nothing to do but be the recipient of massages, pedicures and poolside service. I tried to submerge my worries and enjoy the moment.

When I returned, Michael told me that his post-scan appointment had been moved from November 11th to the 12th. All my nerves went jangly as I felt my radar detecting a problem. Michael seemed alright but I couldn’t wait to get to that late afternoon appointment at the end of his school day. We sat in the lobby of the head and neck oncology department for a bit and were soon called back to the office. Within minutes, our surgeon entered the room with the scans and it was instantly apparent that we were in trouble. Unable to shake the crestfallen look on his face, he shoved the films up on his light board which lit up with red flashes indicating widespread bony metastatic disease. The cancer bomb had detonated.

He said he’d looked at the scans three times in utter disbelief, unable to wrap his mind around the involvement of so many bones. He thought it must be a different cancer – of the 1500 cases of MCC diagnosed per year, only 10% of distant metastases were to bone. He’d already scheduled a bone biopsy for Michael with an interventional radiologist to confirm the diagnosis and we were being sent to oncology where the cancer doctor would assume the team lead from him, our surgeon and guide. His nurse slipped into the room and told us that he’d practically been in tears and was horribly disappointed that he hadn’t been able to stop the disease progression. We asked him for a prognosis. He said that absent treatment, Michael might have two to three months of life, with treatment perhaps a few more. He looked utterly defeated. When we left the office, I felt so sorry for him that I gave him a big hug. He said that was the first time a patient’s family member had taken the time to feel something for him. But I truly felt for him.

We stumbled toward the elevators, numb. We called our kids and decided to head over to our daughter’s law office. Our son joined us there and the four of us lay entwined on her couch, sobbing in disbelief. An unforgettable moment in time. There was our girl with her pregnant belly, wondering if her father would live to meet the new baby. Eventually we all went home. That night Michael and I clung to each other in our bed, alternately crying, talking, comforting each other, trying to grasp what would happen next. We slept fitfully and rose the next day to make plans. He needed to resign from school and prepare his students for that eruption in their lives.

I was already thinking of what I could do to help him face his mortality and give him succor in this dreadful time. He went through the bone biopsy which confirmed the MCC. Then we met with our oncologist, Dr. Luyun, who was now our primary team leader. We talked with him about the chemo regimen which would be rigorous – a cocktail of carboplatin and etoposide, given back-to-back, three days per week, every three weeks.

This was not a protocol designed for MCC, but rather one for other neuroendocrine cancers. Chemotherapy was not considered to be truly effective for this disease, except in the short term for some lucky patients. The day after the last treatment, Michael would be given a Neulasta injection to help support his immune system as his white blood cell production, along with red blood cells and platelets, would take a big hit from this toxic regimen. We asked him how long he might live with this plan. Luyun replied, “maybe a year.” We contacted Dr. Bichakjian in Ann Arbor to see if he felt the treatment was appropriate. He was disappointed for us but confirmed that this choice was our best bet for now. We touched on the topic of clinical trials but discovered that traditional treatments needed to be exhausted before going that route. We asked Dr. Luyun if we could take some time to let Michael make his exit from school and have a normal Thanksgiving. He said a few weeks wouldn’t make a difference.

So we proceeded to the tasks at hand. Michael offered his retirement to his principal who sadly accepted it. Then he had to tell his kids which was very hard for him and them as well. I immediately started a Facebook support group for him which the school graciously shared with the kids, their families and the building staff. The group’s numbers burgeoned so quickly that Facebook trolls started advertising on its page. After that, people needed approval to join. For Michael, who was not a big social media person, this group became an important lifeline to the people and the job he loved so much. In addition, I contacted the school district to help establish a scholarship in Michael’s name that would be awarded annually to a student who excelled in the study of history and government. These small, concrete actions made me feel like there was actually something I could do to help my partner as he stared at his mortality. I don’t think either of us could really believe the horrific prognosis. He had no pain. He did start losing a little weight after he heard the bad news but he still looked strong. Imagining death is such an ephemeral experience even when there’s nothing critical going on with your health. I think conceiving of the world going on without you is just too hard. Michael wasn’t ready to leave his life. He said he’d be willing to try anything to stay alive. “I’m not done yet,” he’d say. “I still have so much to do.”

Our kids came to his classroom on his last day to help carry out his personal possessions. All day, administrators and other teachers sat through a period of his teaching, out of respect for his skills. Kids brought gifts, cards and notes. He gave away certain precious classroom items to his closest colleagues. As we packed and watched him gather up the symbols of his career, one lone student sat in the classroom, struggling away on the Constitution test, a senior with learning disabilities who worked very hard and needed this exam in order to graduate. Michael had given him study aids and steady encouragement as we all milled around him. When it was time to go, Michael sat down to grade the exam. When he got to the end, he looked up with a grin and said, “Congratulations! You passed.” The boy’s face crumpled with relief and joy and he threw himself into Michael’s arms, saying thank you and then, good luck with your sickness. I don’t know if he really passed or not. The beauty of the moment was enough.

We tried to squeeze in some normal life. We went to the movies and saw Twelve Years a Slave which was so somber we could barely speak afterwards. We took a quick trip to Chicago to go to the Field Museum to see some exhibits and to eat at two of our favorite restaurants, Greek Islands and the original Uno’s Pizza. We lay in bed for hours holding each other. My journal describes those moments – “I am enveloped in love and lonelier than I’ve ever been.”

Next came what we thought would be Michael’s last Thanksgiving. Our family came including cousins, second cousins and anyone else from far away who feared they’d never see Michael again. From my journal – “As I prepared the food I felt overwhelmed, disconnected, detached. The food turned out delicious, maybe some of the best I’ve ever made. I only cried twice. I guess it was the right thing to do.” Treatment would begin the following week. We were as ready as we could be.

Beechwood Memories

You know those days that start out being really irritating and then seem destined to go straight downhill from there? That was today. I woke up early to watch my beloved Roger Federer play tennis. After a brilliant match two days ago when he manhandled my least favorite player, Novak Djokovic, he lost to a next-gen 21 year old who I actually like a lot. I know that I don’t want to be one of the crazies who let their moods depend on athletes, but some days a great match from this 38 year old superstar and seemingly impossibly decent human being, goes a long way to bring me to a truly good mood.

After that, I needed to go to have my blood drawn in preparation for a physical on Monday. This is never a fun time for me as I was born with invisible veins, a genetic gift from my mother which I in turn passed on to my daughter. When I had knee surgery in July, a nurse with a bad touch wound up blowing my most reliable gusher with her attempt to insert an IV.

So I went with trepidation to the lab only to find that the hours on the internet for that facility were incorrect. Could I get grumpier? Yes, indeed. I dashed off to the only open lab, available for another 45 minutes. I entered a germ convention, every seat filled with hacking children and adults. After checking in, I burrowed down in my jacket, trying not to breathe. There were seven blood draws ahead of me. I watched to see which phlebotomists were available. I was hoping for someone experienced. But unfortunately when my turn finally came, the woman who called for me looked like she was about fourteen. She got her two stabs in before finally realizing she didn’t have the magic touch. Explaining this to people gets very tiresome. She got a more mature woman who got me on the first try.

With my new set of bruises and bandages I left the lab, last person out the door. I was beyond annoyed. But there was a positive plan. I had appointments for a massage and a haircut. As part of my widow coping skills, I budgeted for a mini-spa day for myself every six weeks. A good way to contend with the physical isolation that happens when you lose the daily contact you’ve been accustomed to having for the bulk of your life. Imagine if the only touching you experienced for days was being stabbed three times for a blood draw? The timing was perfect. Looking for an additional way to defeat my crummy mood, I checked out movie times for a film that would be guaranteed to distract and entertain, rather than causing any negative reactions. I chose “Ford v. Ferrari which proved to be exactly what I needed, an interesting story with action and more humor than darkness.

After that, I was in evening. I have plenty to do, but sometimes, after a mixed bag day, I allow myself the luxury of looking back on good times which can be an internal process or an external one. I decided to pull a photo album off my shelf which is a guarantee for producing happy thoughts. The one I selected at random brought me back to a magical time in my family life, the years of fun at The Beechwood in Sister Lakes, Michigan. In the very late 80’s and for many years in the 90’s, our family participated in what can only be described as family camp with old friends. When it began, Michael, myself and our kids hooked up with my oldest friend from elementary school, high school and ultimately my college roommate, her family and one other family to rent cabins at the Beechwood. We stayed in Cabin # 1.

A funky place with a number of old houses, some small, some bigger, owned by a very relaxed couple named Tom and Virginia, the place housed a playground and a beach on Round Lake, one of the Sister Lakes. We started out as a few people, but as time went on, more and more of our old friends and their kids joined in until we’d turned into a crowd. Some people came for a few days, others for one week or two. There were babies and grannies, singles and couples.

Traditionally, I prepared dinner for the first night, a hearty, spicy chicken and potato concoction. Side dishes came from everyone else. We all usually shared one big communal meal daily, most often supper. As years went by, it got pretty incredible, cooking for 30-40 people. During the days, kids and adults alike popped into different cabins, often staying for lunch. There was swinging and swimming. We rented boats with tubes for riding and water skis. Eventually we rented jet skis. There were basketball games, lots of spades and hearts, board games and ping pong.

We bought a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables – I honed my peach pie-making skills there. We went to Wick’s Apple House for fruit, cider and delicious Reuben sandwiches which were big enough for two people. Kids went off with parents who weren’t theirs but it was okay.

We took excursions. Bowling, amusement parks, bookstores and ice cream parlors were explored. People fished and read a lot. Or just did nothing.

At night the happening place was The Driftwood, an ice cream parlor which also sold kitschy souvenirs and had loud music in the background. Michael and I had vehicles with space, his a big red Chevy pickup that held lots of bouncy kids and mine a station wagon with a “way back” seat that faced backwards. Good, cheap thrills.

At night there were bonfires on the beach where we toasted marshmallows and the kids enjoyed the fireworks brought by my pyromaniac husband who was easily as thrilled as they were. The kids wrote plays and performed them for the grownups and they had mass sleepovers.

Every year we all looked forward to this trip which was a family and chosen family-based experience. In my crew, everyone was happy but my son who was one of the youngest kids. Each year as he grew we’d excitedly head back to Michigan where to his dismay, he’d find that everyone else had grown too and that no matter what, he’d never catch up. He was also conned by one of the few kids who wasn’t in our group who told him that he should bury all his teenage mutant ninja turtle toys in the sandbox as part of a game, only to find that they were all missing when he went back to find them. The early hard life lessons.

Over time, there were a couple of modern A-frame buildings built right on the beach. Although our group had the largest number of people, there were other folks who rented at Beechwood. We became an imposing presence. We got along well with Tom and Virginia but one day, they decided it was time to retire. They sold our beloved summer home to some younger people whose goals were very different from what we’d previously experienced.

In December of 1995, the new owners sent out a newsletter, part of their management approach and included a note for our clan. This memory was my final erasure of today’s earlier sourness. I read their note and Michael’s response to it which follow below. Unreconstructed rebels we were, even as a responsible parents with kids. Enjoy this with me:

From the new owners –

“I know you have been coming to Beechwood for many years. It has become a tradition that your group can spend summer vacation together, something to look forward to. However, my wife and I have apprehension with inviting your group back as our guests, based on some of the things we experienced and endured with your group at Beechwood kast summer. Such as:

Exclusive telephone use. The “business line” on the porch is for convenience and emergency use only. Your group used this phone often and extensively. We ask that you limit the use of our phone for its intended purpose. Many friends came to visit while you were at the resort. Traffic was a steady stream of cars going in and out and using the limited parking space at the resort. Beechwood is a great place to visit, but we feel that our facilities should be limited to those uses by those who are registered guests. Beyond that, our existing facilities become taxed and overcrowded.

I understand that most of your kids are teenagers which means, among many things, that they want to have fun without dad and mom watching over them. However, in our rules, we state that your children should be supervised. Yes, I know that kids will be kids, but kids have to know what the limits are. Last summer, your kids lost a few of the recreation balls – you did replace them but by the end of the second week, they were lost again. We had one of your kids “lose” his suit while swimming, then ran around the beach trying to get it back. Funny, yes, but we had many complaints from other guests on this kid’s behavior. In fact, your kids talked back to a few guests when approached about this behavior. And the swearing from them was intolerable. We could hear them down at the beach from our house. Also, at times, their use of the recreational facilities was destructive. There is no need for any of these things to happen. We invite you back to enjoy your Beechwood vacation. But, you all must examine this letter and our wishes to make this work for you, other Beechwood guests and us.”

Well, then. Here is Michael’s response:

Dear Jim,

Thank you for the informative note you enclosed with your December newsletter. Despite the fact that our group rented every cabin at the upper portion of Beechwood last summer, we can certainly understand how the many other guests had trouble with our unruly behavior and the total lack of supervision of our children and friends. To alleviate your apprehension with inviting us back, we have all agreed to take the following steps to make sure that we have the type of vacation you think we should have.

1) We have contracted with G.T.E. to install a pay telephone booth for the two weeks that our group will be at Beechwood. We will of course cover all of the costs, and you and your family are welcome to use it as well, as long as you have correct change. This will leave the business line free for emergency calls, calls of “convenience” for neighbors whose phone service has been interrupted by tropical storms, or incoming calls from your stockbroker or psychiatrist.

2) We do have many friends and family members who visit us at various times. We are probably quite fortunate that the beach wasn’t shut down by the Public Health Department last summer due to overcrowding. We have agreed to run a noiseless electric shuttle from downtown Sister Lakes to prevent the “steady stream of cars going in and out,” and eliminate the massive traffic jams, pollution and double parking which was such a problem last year. In addition, all visitors will be limited to a 45 minute stay per day. We will provide you, as best we are able, a list of expected visitors along with notarized credentials, family and employment histories and personal financial statements. Any alcohol or drug testing will have to be at your expense.

3) I was not aware until reading your note, that our children were, as a group, so uncontrollable and obnoxious. We thought they were only like that at home. The fact that we didn’t see our kids for four or five days may have been a contributing factor. We gave them a fistful of cash and told them to have a good time. From the sound of it, they did. To prevent any recurrence we will take the following steps:

A) A pair of old-fashioned stocks will be assembled during our stay. All misdeeds will be punished. A little public humiliation and corporal punishment will go a long way.

B) Morning classes will be held daily, Monday through Saturday, for all children. Attendance will be mandatory and we will cover the subjects of deportment, diction, proper grooming, vacation etiquette and zone defense.

C) We will be bringing our own swingset, slide, jungle gym and basketball set to make sure your equipment is not over-used or abused. We will also cover our share of your annual depreciation. We also have a lot of balls.

D) An officer of the day will keep a log of the whereabouts and activities of all children. The kids will not be allowed to congregate in groups larger than three. Before swimming or using any of Beechwood’s equipment, each child will be checked for proper attire, proper attitude and for double knotted bathing suits.

E) All children’s mouths will be washed out with soap upon arrival to discourage improper vocabulary.

In closing, thank you so much for inviting us back. It’s a shame that Tom and Virginia never took such an active interest in the happiness and wellbeing of their guests. If they had only had the vision to turn Beechwood into a politically correct, new age yuppie boot camp, just think of all the fun we could have had over the last seven years.

Sincerely, Michael and Renee

And that was that. We found a new place to go that year. Eventually a core group of people bought a place similar to Beechwood nearby on one of the other lakes. We weren’t financially able to be part of that deal as it would’ve limited our ability to do other traveling. And our son who grew from a toddler to a pre-teen needed a change. Our daughter started as 7 year old and left on the verge of her driver’s license. I still am in touch with a number of those special family members with whom we shared so much. I ended this stinky day with a sense of the richness of my life and my continued adoration of my feisty and entertaining husband. A lot can happen in just 16 hours.

Indoor Days

I’ve been waiting for the arrival of the indoor days. I have to prepare mentally for them because I’m an outside addict. I’ll always choose outdoor swimming over indoor swimming. The hours I spend in my garden, headphones in my ears, digging in the dirt, consistently override my attending to indoor tasks. There’s no doubt that my garden is better looking than the interior of my house.

I guess I feel most comfortable out there in the living dirt. I’ve been like that since I was a little kid. I can do without the dead inside dirt. Dust on shelves is so much less interesting than the soil that grows life. Besides, I love sky and clouds. Ceilings don’t cut it.

I adore the midwestern fields which, after many years of living near them, are now converted by my imagination into the shorelines of my youth. I loved living near Lake Michigan. That beautiful place, along with my precious ocean and lakeside vacations, restored me when I needed it. Toes in the water, eyes fixed on an unbroken horizon always provided a sense of perspective for me about where I stood in the chaotic world.

For me, perspective is a necessity. The corn and soybeans rippling in a soft wind have replaced that water; they are easily accessible, practical and provide the same balance as a shoreline does. There is no body of endless water where I’ve lived since I was a teenager. I learned to live by the adage, “adapt or die” a long time ago. And so I have. During the outdoor months, I’m busy looking up at the clouds or down at the earth, chasing insects, butterflies and bird calls, driving through the countryside hoping for glimpses of animals, admiring all that grows. The rest of the time, I’m digging in the dirt, hurling new plants into the ground, hoping for the best, and battling my weeds, one handful at a time. But living where I do, where inclement weather is a fact of life, I always know that it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be swimming at the indoor pool, comforting myself with the avian crew who know I’ll be faithfully supplying with seed and suet, and finally, reluctantly, turning to the inside chores I’ve learned to ignore for the most part.

As I’ve gotten older and become a widow, I’ve gotten worried about the accumulation of stuff in my big old house which has been home for over 41 years now. No matter how minimalist I wish to be, the nagging thoughts about preserving history for my family remains strong and is in direct opposition to the downsizing I’m trying to manage. In the years of Michael’s illness we talked a lot about getting rid of things. And we did.

We donated hundreds of books. We sold thousands of vinyl albums, CD’s and posters accumulated over a lifetime of music loving. But now he’s gone and I’m left with this huge task. The biggest fear I have is overloading my kids with all the debris they didn’t accumulate. I remember that each time I moved my mother, I couldn’t believe how her possessions seemed to multiply. My sister and I held a garage sale when we moved my mom from her apartment into my house. A woman showed up and was perusing the merchandise. She asked who we were moving and when we said it was our mother, she told us that it took her three solid months to empty her mother’s house when she died. She was so tired and overwhelmed that she didn’t keep a single item. I never forgot that conversation. Then there are all the articles with names like, ” Your Kids Don’t Want Your Junk.” Hmm.

When my daughter got her own house, I dispatched her stash of memories directly to her. Chore one done. My son is still afloat in the universe so although he thinks he’s traveling light, there are multiple large plastic tubs which contain his important treasures. So I try to turn my attention to what’s left of mine and Michael’s personal items. I’m making slow progress. I’ve done well with clothes and have dug through lots of papers and documents. Found this sweet little note today.

More turn up in the most bizarre places. I’ve recently disposed of years’ worth of medical records. But not before I took some photos of some of the impossible numbers that we dealt with during Michael’s cancer siege. I know they were inflated and felt lucky that our co-pays were capped. But I needed to save a remnant of what we had to contend with, what most people in this country have to deal with, when they’re coping with the tremendous emotional stress of a terminal illness.

Looking at things like that sends me to the windows or my porches to see what’s going on outside. We’d been having a lengthy fall when suddenly, winter arrived with blasts of cold and snow. The trees, flowers and shrubs weren’t ready. For me, a little more “out” provides a nice break. But back to the indoors.

I knit for awhile. I’m a lazy knitter, choosing to pick a pattern and then mindlessly produce row after row, making scarves and afghans, doing something while doing nothing. I try distracting myself from the dark politics of the world by watching old television shows. I read a lot.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have every season of “ER” on my DVR. I was always a John Carter fan, immune to the obvious charms of George Clooney. I watch old Errol Flynn swashbucklers, too. My diversions are not bad things, but they don’t do much for my list of chores. So I decided to tackle one, winnowing out my jewelry. Usually I only wear a few pieces, over and over. I adopted a merciless rather than sentimental attitude and started going through everything, creating a pile that could be given away. But then I found a really cool piece which was part of a great memory.

Michael and I never had a honeymoon. It seemed a bit irrelevant after having lived together for four years before we got married. But on our 15th anniversary, we took a delayed one to Cayman Brac, the mid-sized island of the three Caymans, population slightly over 2500. Michael wanted to scuba dive and I snorkeled. I rented a car while he was below the water, feeling very proud of myself as I drove on the wrong side of the road in the wrong side of the car. There was a jewelry craftsman selling his homemade pendants in the middle of the countryside. I paid $10 for an oval piece and he gave me a chunk of unpolished rock as a souvenir. Making a lot of progress in my household tasks is significantly slowed down by things like this.

I also found this horse’s head tucked into my jewelry box. The only remaining token I have from what was a gorgeous glass carriage drawn by six prancers, it was a gift given to me in 1969 by my first love for some holiday. I was at my parents’ apartment when he presented it to me, wrapped in layers of paper and plastic. I was dazzled by its beauty and its implied intimacy. This talented young man had written a fable about our tempestuous relationship in which my personality was characterized by a wild horse he called Stormy. We went out after he gave it to me. When I came home, my mother was distraught because a crazy cat I’d brought home from college had leapt from a tall shelf straight into the box on the table, shattering the carriage into what looked like a bazillion pieces. I was so sad that I missed the metaphorical implications. I needed two more years and my friendship with Michael before I realized that I was in a toxic situation which the crushed pieces foreshadowed at that time. Anyway, I’ve had this lovely shard with me for fifty years, to remind myself that life could have gone another way for me.

I think the indoor days need to go on for a long time this season. I find myself in deep retrospection frequently. That makes my aversion to the tasks ahead of me even greater than usual. I still feel pressed for time. I want to do everything I can do while I’m still able. I’m keenly aware that barring an unexpected health issue, I’ll soon be finishing my seventh decade on this earth. Michael so often said he wasn’t ready to leave when he was dying, that he still had so much to do. Here I am over two and a half years after his death, still feeling his emotions and replicating them, despite the much better fortune I’ve had. We’ll see what I get done. My kids say I should forget about all this extra work and just enjoy myself. But I’m compelled to take this walk through my life and ponder it all. I’ll let you know how it goes.