The Living Spaces #2 Chicago Girl

D774FE1B-BE1C-434B-B12A-14BD171DC3E3At seven years old, I have now become a Chicago girl. My family has moved into the third floor of an apartment building at 7746 S. Cornell.8D3673FB-0A1D-45E5-90B0-2637454C154D

One block to the west is Stony Island which is a major thoroughfare through the city. The Chicago Skyway is close by and we are never supposed to play in those places because of the heavy traffic and the stranger danger. But I look at them from our alley and from the back porch steps three stories high, where the boiling afternoon heat turns our apartment into an inferno in the summer. There are so many vehicles moving in steady streams in many directions. I am not in Sioux City any more.B0F9C5A9-AEDD-4BF3-A621-24CB1DE93C45

This apartment only has two bedrooms. Mom and dad are in one. My two sisters and I are in the other. My brother is in some makeshift space on the back porch. There is aluminum foil put up to reflect the sun away from his bed. I am too young to be upset at the major downsizing from our Iowa house to this small space. In retrospect I realize that this move was much harder for my older brother and sister who were more established in their Sioux City lives. They have to adapt to a new social structure because we are now living in a much more sophisticated and wealthy area than in Iowa where class didn’t seem as obvious. Or maybe I was too little to notice class then. Our apartment building is on the fringe of that wealthier neighborhood and we go to school with kids who are used to a whole other economic existence.A976B8B9-FEED-4356-87A6-7FF2314303F8.jpeg

As kid number three, I have the advantage of observing the problems of my siblings and figuring out strategies to survive. My parents,who were driven by desperation to make this move, didn’t have the psychology chops to understand the ramifications of this sea change. They were naive. This move created what my mom called “two separate families,” my parents with the older siblings and my parents with me and my younger sister. Whether true or not, I think my mom was wrong to tell us that. At least she told us two young ones. I really am not sure what she said to the big kids. Dorothy the boundary-less. But I digress. Mrs. Miller is our landlady.

She is broad, with greasy, straight salt and pepper hair which is straight, cut in one length to just below her chin. She is brusque and I want to be away from her. Sometimes her family comes to visit and by their accents, it seems they’re from the south. There is a pale-skinned, pale-haired, pale-eyed girl about my age. We play together in the gangway which separates our apartment building from the one next door. I make up most of the games. I did the same thing with Robin, the boy I loved in Iowa. With him we played, the butterfly, the spider and the fly. He had a dual role as the mean spider and the savior fly. I was the butterfly. With this pale girl, we are playing island natives. We trade off who is the girl and the boy. The heroine’s name is Fayaway. She is always in danger, being captured and then being rescued. Although nothing actually sexual happens between us, through the prism of time, I recognize that these were erotic forms of play. Apparently I am always in love, as soon as I recognized the beginnings of that feeling.657B6482-247C-4482-93BE-1D9507D3F07B

Our block is primarily apartment buildings, some three units and others six units. There are a few duplexes. There is only one empty lot on the block. I go down there to collect grasshoppers. In summer, my sister and I screw our roller skates to our shoes and go down the sidewalk making metallic, grinding sounds on the journey to collect the bugs. I bring them back to the ledge at the front entry of our building and conduct experiments. I dissect them and move their pieces around to see what happens. Sometimes their separated parts keep moving after my operations. I have no idea how that works but it interests me. We say that the grasshoppers are spitting tobacco juice at us. Our lawn consists of a small patch of dirt, maybe 4’ by 4’ with some wan blades of grass. I am now in the urban world of bricks and mortar. That’s what I adjust to, with the alleys, sidewalks, gangways and apartment basements as my play ground. Iowa becomes a memory. In summer and on weekends, kids pour out of the buildings and we all play together. Our hide and seek games have a two block radius because there are so many kids in the game. We need lots of space for hiding. I remember going into dark basements and have a hard time believing the freedom of those days. We play kick the can in the alley, concentration and those hand clapping games that have songs attached.1BBABBF0-23D2-4D4C-AB0E-3C6158A51145.jpeg

Concentration is a game where you say, thinking of, names of, cars, beginning with, A. We go from cars to colors to flowers and so on. This is semi-spoken and semi-sung. The hand games have songs too like, a sailor went to sea, sea, sea to see what he could see, see, see. Our hands move fast and we have special clapping styles. Sometimes if we go too fast, the game breaks down and we start over. We play jump rope and hopscotch.640C5E4C-4D3D-4691-864F-E3AD7F974D65

There is always something to do outside. My mom opens the front window of the apartment, calls out or whistles and we run home for dinner. After we eat, a big gang of kids runs to the corner to wait for Harry, the ice cream man.012F27F4-03CA-41C6-A7FF-631020624C7F

He wears a white coat and hat and rides a bike with small freezer on the front of it. For a dime you can buy a popsicle, a fudgsicle, an ice cream bar, a dreamsicle or a push-up. I love chocolate popsicles the best. I am bigger than a lot of the kids. While we wait for Harry, I lie on my back and flex my knees toward my chest. The smaller kids sit on my feet and I push them through the air. I push Johnny Lothrop so far that he flips over and breaks his collarbone. His parents are very angry and I’m afraid they want my parents to pay. Johnny has to wear a neck brace. For days I’m afraid to go out and I stand in the little front hallway, looking out longingly at everyone playing. Our block is filled with all kinds of people.13808B2C-6CA8-4FA7-BA2E-1606A90506EF.jpeg

We have several Greek families living near us. Elaine and Anna Sonios live across the street. They’re older than me. Their parents own a grocery store on 79th Street. They celebrate different holidays than we do and on occasion we get invited in and are given treats. We get Greek halva which is nougat with pistachios. I can still taste it. Elaine and Anna’s parents are very strict. When they have lots of guests, the girls climb out the windows to run around with the rest of the kids. Constantine Athanasoulias lives on our block as does Johnny Latsoudis. Johnny is handsome. There’s another cute boy on the block named Kenny Jones. I have a crush on him. He has a line in the middle of his lower lip that makes him look special. He has an older brother named Edward James but everyone calls him Edgy. The first African-American student at my elementary school, Horace Mann, moves onto our block. Her name is Sandra Greene. She is tall and athletic. Her skin has reddish tones and her face has high cheekbones. I think she’s beautiful. I often wonder whether she is part Native American. Down the block there is a family from somewhere in the Middle East. A little girl whose name is Lu-el plays outside. She is odd. The big kids try to make her eat dirt with a stick. Sometimes when I look back I feel like the kids are just this side of Lord of the Flies. One day Lu-el drops to the ground and is having a seizure. We run and get my mother who comes and puts a tongue depressor in her mouth so she won’t swallow her tongue.87B3A019-7FC8-43C2-A41B-512494B802FD.jpeg

Our block is full of action. One day I am outside when a mean-faced teenager named Harry Hess comes up to me and calls me a fucking kike. I know this is bad so I go tell my mother. She comes storming outside and yells at Harry and explains to me that some people don’t like us because we’re Jewish. I’ve never heard the “f” word either. I’m getting my first lessons in prejudice. Cornell is an ethnic swirl and there’s a lot to learn.C7139B48-3F79-4845-BACE-C326FA06D510.jpeg

My grandparents live right around the corner on 78th Street. I can still smell their hallway. It smells like chicken soup and pepper and schmaltz. Schmaltz which is flavorful chicken fat is saved and put in a jar in the fridge and is used for cooking and us smeared on everything. Why did everyone not die of heart attacks? My grandmother is a wonderful cook. But when we visit, we sit at her white porcelain table with blue embossed flowers and eat apricot jelly on rye bread and cantaloupe cut into chunks. The chicken and friccasees are for special occasions. One of my uncles and his wife live “north” on Kenmore but then they are suddenly south on Euclid. We get together with the extended family every weekend and have big meals. We sing a lot. Favorites are You Are My Sunshine, Tell Me Why and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. We shop locally on 79th Street.F8D0571C-2F03-4D06-9325-96A2A9BC7205.jpeg

There is Heller’s drugstore and Feldstein’s delicatessen. Feldstein’s has a big barrel full of penny candy. There are yellow jawbreakers wrapped in red rope candy. There are little wax bottles filled with juice. Wax is definitely a thing because there are big was lips you bite down on and wax mustaches. There are white candy cigarettes with pink tips and pastel gums that are shaped like cigars, with a gold label like the ones on real cigars. There are pink, yellow, white and blue hard sugar dots that are baked onto paper- you bite those off. You can get a package of pixy sticks or Lick-a-made which is nothing but flavored sugar. Tiny ice cream cones filled with colored marshmallows. Chum gum. Those were the treats we got on hot Saturday afternoons when we all piled into the laundromat with our bags of clothes, sheets and towels. How I hated the laundromat. The wringer washer in Iowa was long gone. My parents wouldn’t own a machine again until they moved near me in my adult life, almost 30 years later.  But while we took turns there, swapping out the wet loads and folding the hot things from the dryer, there was shopping.

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There was Dessauer’s butcher shop where my mom would order a piece of book roast. I don’t even know what that is. The butcher shop smelled of blood. I knew that even though I hadn’t smelled blood before. There was Wee Folks, the toy store where you could get Silly Putty. Eventually I got a Barbie doll at that store. Mine had red hair and a hole in her head. She could wear either a bubble hairstyle or if you wanted a change, you’d reach into the hole and pull out a ponytail. My favorite doll was one I’d gotten in Iowa from my grandmother. She was a Madame Alexander doll with a porcelain face and a stiff blue dress with white trim. She had one other outfit. Buying doll clothes was too expensive so I made more out of Kleenex and rubber bands. I still have her, though she is in pieces.4409CA29-B19F-43E9-8062-6BEE094B1218

The Avalon theater was on 79th Street, within walking distance of our apartment. Sometimes we went with our friends. It was a fine old theater with stylish boxes and a balcony. If we shared a box of Milk Duds, they were real caramel with real chocolate covering that cracked when you bit them. I saw scary movies with Vincent Price and always liked the cartoons that played before the feature film. Movies were pretty cheap. Life felt good to me in those first years on Cornell.

D118A0CE-7DEE-491F-B19F-45C5CAF06461We went to Rainbow Beach on the weekends. The adults all stayed on the grassy lawn of the abutting park  but I went to the water where I learned to swim by copying other people’s actions. My brother worked at the concession stand there and it felt exciting to eat something away from home. They put mustard on the hamburgers which came wrapped in thin white tissuey paper. Mostly we ate at home. On weekends, we got food from the deli, like salami and bologna and bagels and lox. Those were welcome treats. For the most part, I was a happy kid. But there were troubles brewing. My dad worked for the Chicago Motor Club in the day and at Polk Brothers at night. My mom worked occasionally but she had bad bouts of ulcerative colitis and often wound up staying home. She worked at Time-Life Books and The University of Chicago hospital where she was in accounts and the beginnings of Medicare. My dad was the one who came to bring my little sister and I home for lunch as our school didn’t have a lunchroom. We ate a lot of eggs and salami. I knew there was economic stress. I always worried about my mother’s health. She would go in and out of hospitals, events which frightened me just like the first time it happened when I was four. My brother and sister were adapting but they each had struggles. My brother became a fringe person who only had a few friends. My sister was more socially entrenched but she was unhappy. The small space we shared rumbled with emotions, some spoken and others beneath the surface. I kept my younger sister close to me. She was physically little and I wanted whatever was coming in my direction from the big people to be kept away from her. I was pretty young to be thinking those thoughts but I was worried a lot about the obvious economic stressors and the impact they were having on our household. I was impacted too by those like everyone else. But I found ways to respond that prompted my dad to give me my new nickname – weasel. I liked that one. I thought it was apt. When I felt the anger, sadness and anxiety of the older people, I wanted to make things better, for them and for me. So I found my own ways to deal with the childhood issues that have big impacts on how we feel about ourselves. My go-to skill became lying. When it was picture day at school and so many girls pranced in dressed in fancy outfits with fancy shoes, I’d get asked, “where are your dress shoes? It’s picture day.” And I would clap myself on the forehead and say, “oh I forgot.” Worked like a charm. I started to figure out that there might be a way around, over, under or through  any obstacle or problem that was in front of you. While I was playing and doing my little kid stuff, there was another part of me developing, the part that is the core of who I am as an adult. No depression, no acting out, no ulcerative colitis for me. I was going to be the person who found my way through everything, with as little personal damage to me as possible. I am still that person. The Chicago school days are next up in my memory journey which I’m going to leave for my family.138F2F5B-A6FE-4B9C-BC70-1F8B5AB7CB76

Storytelling

E4146CCC-FD6E-4165-B8E1-51B18A5B9768Remember that time? Did I tell you what happened? You’ve got to hear this, you won’t believe it. How many times have we all either heard or said words like this? What follows them are the snippets of fabric that get woven into the tapestries of our lives. There is oral tradition, a verbal codification of ideas and knowledge, art and culture which is passed down through generations. Religions and epic poetry are examples of oral traditions along with Native American storytelling used in place of the written word.CC796DFB-1E1D-413D-BF99-E19C335EA9F2

Oral histories are those in which individuals are interviewed. When their narratives are combined with others, they comprise a layered picture of periods in time. Most of us to some degree, have a group of stories that are shared from generation to generation. Depending on the loquacity of our family members and friends, our personal tapestries unroll along with our lives, leaving traces of what makes us unique and part of a culture specific to our experiences.

 

I remember the first time I thought about life as a tapestry, when I was a twenty year old traveling through Europe, touring castles and observing the aged fabrics unfurled along the endless walls. Most of what I saw were grand historical events, not the smaller tales that were the stuff of everyday life. But tapestries, made of mutable, flexible material seemed a good way to keep track of life to me. You could add to them and remove things from them so they were more alive than what is based on bedrock and stone. Perhaps a softer approach is what appealed to me, a little more room for the adjustments made to stories as they flow from one generation to the next with the promise of a space to sew in the latest event or perhaps to correct an older one.40E56581-6995-49AB-B17A-24B40FB1ECCB.jpeg

Right now I am making a big effort to turn my own tales into written form, to make a volume of memories for my children and grandchildren and maybe people farther down the road than them. After Michael’s death a little over two years ago, the urgency to tell our stories became stronger as I have no clue how much time I’ll still have to remember and to share. For the most part, it’s a private and intimate effort. I’m finding my way to memories by going through my living spaces which I visualize in my mind. Those walls and rooms and furniture evoke all kinds of stories, some which I’ve told many times and others which have remained quietly in the background. The reasons for those which remain unshared have mostly to do with what was either age-appropriate for my kids, too embarrassing to share with most people, and others which just slipped into my mind’s crevices. I just glided over them. It’s funny how that works.BAAC2F0B-B592-49A7-8314-202043663137

The very specific delicate nuances of how our individual brains process the world is one of life’s intriguing mysteries for me. While some people view space as the final frontier, I’ve always thought that how our minds and bodies work in tandem with each other are the ultimate frontier, the final mystery. I’ve always had lots of ideas about our remarkably complex infrastructure and the myriad functions firing away as we go about our business. While we talk, eat, sleep, make love, work, parent and everything else, there are zillions of activities purring along inside us. We pay no notice to them for the most part. Unless something goes wrong there’s no reason to get lost in the autonomic activity.424265A3-5D6B-4C5E-800F-B092E97B3D34

Thoughts like these always led me to interesting conversations with Michael during our many years together. I, who in recent years have been referred to as an engine, a furnace and a motor, would be humming away, trying to hypothesize about virtually anything. I can still remember driving home from some sizable party, the two of us sharing our opinions and perceptions of all the other people there. Suddenly I looked over at Michael and said, “don’t you wonder what everyone is saying about us on their way home?” He looked absolutely gobsmacked. Of course he hadn’t been thinking about that. This led us into a discussion about how little attention we pay to our effect on others, apart from obvious faux pas, when we feel like we’ve put the proverbial foot in our mouths, or when we inadvertently embarrassed someone or hurt their feelings. Like mentioning a gathering it seemed like everyone had been invited to except the person you just told about it. So it is with life in general. We go along, conversing with people along the way, telling stories and sharing events without necessarily being aware of how our words are affecting them or recognizing how those interactions will become part of who they are and how they think. In the past couple of days, I’ve had two experiences that reminded me that the receiver of what I’d shared at some point in the past had incorporated a bit of me into themselves.2D2CAAC1-7419-45E3-A002-621FEB80F00B

What interesting and pleasant surprises. The first incident happened with a young man who was all ready to leave the country to start a teaching position abroad. Just a few days before he was getting ready to depart, he got a message from his new employer, informing him that his contract was cancelled. A stunning shock. He’d given up his apartment, sold a bunch of his possessions, stored the rest and was making the rounds of saying goodbye to family, friends and colleagues. A college teacher, he was bowled over by this news as most schools are already geared up for the fall semester and there’s not much out there in terms of open positions. As we talked through this emotional and economic blow, I suddenly heard my own voice talking at me out of his mouth. He was uttering one of my most often repeated pieces of advice, that when you look at your problems in their entirety they become overwhelming and almost paralyzing because they’re just too big. He talked about breaking that big ball into smaller more manageable pieces that he could deal with one at a time and there wasn’t a hint that this notion was anything other than his. I was fascinated to realize that my advice and wisdom from years of experience was now a natural part of his skill set. I knew that he as goes forward, part of my tapestry is now interwoven with his. I thought that was amazing and kind of like an osmosis exchange.

The other story was less profound but nonetheless significant. When my daughter was growing up she had a long friendship with a classmate who spent a lot of time with us. They played together, studied together and thanks to social media, continue a relationship which is one of those childhood gifts that are very special. Our kids’ friends spent a lot of time with us. We hosted play dates, shared meals and hauled some of them with us on vacations. This particular girl was one of those friends. In addition to my current memory sorting and writing, I’m still trying to go through the 40 plus years’ worth of accumulated items Michael and I collected in our house. Yesterday, I managed to let go of the oxygen dive tank he used on so many underwater adventures during his life. I took a photograph of the tank and put it next to one of him underwater and posted a little story about it on my Facebook account. A while later, this friend of my daughter’s commented on the post. She told me that she’d always remembered the story I’d told her about the time I was walking through the house looking for Michael and calling for him but getting no reply. I figured he’d left without saying goodbye. A few minutes later, I opened the door to the bathroom, flipped on the light and saw Michael, submerged in the tub, head underwater, face mask on and snorkel sticking out a few inches above the surface. Truly one of the funniest things I ever saw. I hadn’t thought about or remembered that story in years. But here was this was friend who’d listened  to my tales as a little kid, remembered this one and gave it back to me at a time when I’m hunting for things precisely like this family fable. So, so great. We crisscrossed to the point that we’re now little pieces of each other’s histories. I just love it.

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So in the next day or two, I’ll be picking up my journey from age seven when my family moved back to Chicago from Sioux City, Iowa. I’m eager to resume the quest. But as a postscript, I realized that I’d left out a crucial piece of my Iowa story. As a five year old, I had a tricycle named Silver, after the horse in the Lone Ranger. It had pink, white and green streamers that hung from the grips on my handlebars. I can feel myself pedaling madly down the sidewalk, pretending I was a hero on horseback. Silver turned out to be the only bike I ever had. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me one later. I grew up without ever learning to ride a two-wheeler. I was humiliated by this and found all kinds of ways to conceal it from people. When Michael and I met and rapidly built up such an easy trust, I told him about my “tragic flaw.” He was sure he could help me learn but except for a few abortive efforts I made in the middle of the night when I’d sneak off with a friend’s bike, I was too nervous to learn. Maybe one day I’ll get one of those three-wheelers with baskets that I see older people riding. So this is my homage to Silver, my one freewheeling ride, which I left out of my stories of life until age seven. Until the next time….90DB4EAA-B970-4C82-BC3C-49D2EA293C15

Durable Wounds

5FCA2662-5D0D-4E18-BD42-059972A7F128The year 1990 was more than the beginning of a new decade for me. I had just survived three years of traumatic losses, hits to my primal weakness, abandonment. My cousin had committed suicide in 1987. My best friend committed suicide in 1988. In 1989, both my parents were diagnosed with cancers. My mom survived hers, but my dad died. My husband ran for public office and won after having lost an election 4 years earlier. All the walking door to door ultimately took out his back. After writhing in pain for weeks, with me sleeping on the floor because he couldn’t get comfortable in bed, he had surgery. Everyone was in a physical mess but me. I was working, helping my parents, helping Michael and taking care of my kids who were seven and two and a half. What a mad time that year was. I just ran from place to place, tending to people and trying to keep up with the daily demands of life. I knew I was changing inside but I couldn’t tell how those changes would manifest themselves. I was 38 years old.

 

When 1990 began, I decided to try fixing what I could. I planned a trip with my mom and kids, wanting to meet a long held dream of hers to visit Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. My dad wasn’t a big traveler. I thought that I could give her a dream and also get a few goodies for my tired brain. I’d spent years studying the Civil War and figured that I could pack in a few sights of my own that were near enough to be reasonable add-on destinations. What an ill-conceived plan. My mom never got a driver’s license, so I took off as the only driver on a 12 and a half hour trip with her and my two kids in the back seat. We managed a stop at Jefferson’s Monticello and then spent a few days walking the cobbled streets of Williamsburg. My mom had a bad knee. She’d stubbornly refused surgery and was favoring it a lot as we roamed around. I was excitedly getting ready to head for Richmond to check out the history and hit a few battlegrounds before we turned for home.0A15AF94-6EEF-40EA-A3F6-A7D7847588E4

Our first stop was Jefferson Davis’ White House of the Confederacy. We drove down Monument Avenue, the site of many enormous statues which have since ignited controversy about celebrating the heroes of a slave-owning culture.( A story for a different blogpost.) When we arrived at our destination, I was immediately anxious as the house had multiple stories and no elevator. I tried to talk my mother into staying on the first floor but she insisted on seeing everything, stairs or not. Up we went and down we came. By the time we reached the first floor again, she could barely walk. We made our way to our hotel where the kindly matriarch of a family reunion there, dispatched some young men to help me get my dependent menagerie to our room. In those pre-cell phone days, I went down to the lobby to call Michael and both furiously and tearfully told him I was bringing everyone home the next day. I was angry and despondent. This was supposed to be the corner-turning time for me. Instead, it just felt like a continuation of the previous years.C1B9B12D-D7CB-48D6-A159-9113E9BA74CA

We made it back home with me driving through some white-knuckle rainstorms in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. We dropped mom off at her place and arrived at our house, the kids still miraculously alive. When we got there, Michael told me that the day before the return home, our dog Sydney had run out into the street to chase an animal and had been hit by a car. She was alive with a new thousand dollar leg. I felt battered in almost every way. But there was nothing to do but move on. During catastrophic 1989, I hadn’t any extra time to work on my burgeoning garden. Too many sick people.9D7B13CB-46B9-418F-A2F4-2C3946B708A6

We’d been in our home for almost 12 years. For the first eight or nine, we’d been reclaiming our old house from its life as a three apartment rental building. In 1930, at the height of the Depression, such a large home was too expensive to maintain. We were slowly converting it back into a single family residence. The yard was mostly barren except for some overgrown shrubs along the front sidewalk which were filled with huge weeds and volunteer trees. Over time, we reclaimed that space. We fenced the back yard and Michael started thinking vegetables while I gingerly began making my way through the world of flowers, shrubs and ornamental trees. I started with petunias and marigolds. Then the ball began rolling.C0A4C22C-3C63-428D-9228-FEC9D88575E6

 

I decided to attack the ground. My dear friend Joanne heard what I was doing and showed up one day carrying a big flat of perennial plants that had been sold on the cheap after a flood wiped out a lot full of flowers. Perennials. I knew enough to realize that you couldn’t just slap those any old where, and after reading what they were and what they needed, I decided to de-sod a large section of my south front yard to give them a proper home. Every evening after work and on the weekends, I became a human rototiller, digging 6-8” deep until I was in the dark rich soil for which this part of the world is famous. I heaved all the grass and roots into a wheelbarrow which I carted away every day. I planted all 36 of my new plants and then added more. Water and hope came next.B8ACA461-F52F-4905-A221-8AE9A0E9E962

In the meantime, I’d crippled myself. My right side ached from hip to foot. I went to the doctor who prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxers which didn’t do much but make me groggy and feel as if my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. While chatting with a friend, I found out about a unique Norwegian massage therapist who practiced the art of reflexology. I wasn’t sure what it was but was game for anything to relieve the pain. And in those days, I had health insurance that covered the treatment. I remember my first appointment. You would lie on your back on a table with otherworldly spacey music playing softly and Bjorg would gently begin elongating your body. Her motions were smooth, gentle and slow. I had the sense of being heated taffy, pulled into a shape other than the one I’d brought to her. The pace of each soft tissue pull was glacially slow and I found myself relaxing into it. As she went along, Bjorg asked me questions about my activities, basing those on what she was feeling in my body. On the first day, she told me that both my hip area and my heels were crunched up into balls that didn’t much resemble the normal feel of long muscles, tendons or ligaments. I wasn’t exactly sure how she knew all that but after she worked on one side of me, I could tell that it definitely felt longer than the other. I decided to make a series of successive appointments. After four of them, the initial pain which had driven me to her was gone.

That was terrific but even more interesting were the discoveries that she helped me make along the way. She would stop at a place like my thumb muscle and ask why I thought it was unusually large. I started remembering all the things I’d done with my hands. I remembered angrily squeezing a baseball bat while in elementary school when getting teased about my softball prowess and thinking angrily about how I was going to hit a ball far over the head of anyone trying to catch it. I could feel myself lifting my Danish cast-iron casserole and pots that I stupidly chose when I got married, never thinking about how heavy they’d feel after years went by. They never broke so I didn’t replace them – I just got more tired of lifting them. Why didn’t someone tell me about lightweight stainless steel? Bjorg told me that my neck felt like I was someone who hurled myself headlong against life. That sounded right to me. While working on my soft tissue in my thigh, she stopped and asked, what happened here? After thinking a minute, I remembered a ligament tear I got in that spot one summer when I was thirteen. My appointments with her began to evoke all kinds of memories which we’d discuss as she worked out my knots.9A1244E9-0586-4CE6-AF63-344DE41BD7F3

One day, I was talking with her about how surprised I was to be delving into so many things that had happened long ago. She made one particular statement that I’ve always thought about over the years – the body remembers its pain. I believe that and more. I’m not sure what magical powers Bjorg possessed. I always thought she might be some kind of shaman or witch doctor. But she resonated with me and said things about the human body and ultimately who we people are in our entirety that make a lot of sense to me. The body remembers its pain. We can all look at scars that we’ve acquired over the years. I dropped a glass jar when I was a kid, trying to use it to save newborn guppies from their cannibalistic parents who gobbled them up right after their births. While scrambling to save the babies, I gashed my leg, creating part of my body’s story. The vestiges of that day are visible on my right knee.A8AB8C44-C2A9-46F1-8204-BF9778286E74

When I broke my nose when I was eight, it healed with a deviated septum. In cold weather, both my cut leg and my nose ache, the way you feel when you eat something that gives you brain freeze. I’ve taken some bad spills in my time, a few memorable ones from horseback. The images of my spine show the signs of those falls from my teen years through my early 30’s. As I age, they will exact a price from me as have the other physical choices I’ve made throughout my life. The body remembers its pain.400C0DD0-927C-4839-A257-5240B8E372B9

But what about our minds, housed in our brains, the memory areas stimulating the study of the hippocampus, the amygdala and other regions which are responsible for everything from motor skills to memory? The brain remembers its pain?9A326086-20B1-41A0-AECE-F5ECB0CCD270

I suspect this is correct. But the accumulation of experiences over time make those memories difficult to access. Is this papering over of memories accomplished by personal cognitive necessity, by time or by a combination of both? Is preverbal learning and experience difficult to remember because the language tool is necessary for unearthing them? I don’t know the answer to these questions but my instincts tell me that even the smallest babies are recording and processing experiences that, barring physical injury to the brain, remain parts of them for the rest of their lives. The emotional and psychological wounds that affect us are as durable as any physical injury but are harder to see. The same is probably true for the good things that happen to us. What gets complicated is when we have reactions to situations that seem inappropriate to what’s actually happening and can’t feel or find the reason for those responses. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. My husband was raised by parents who should probably never had children. After they left him, very sick with pneumonia, alone in a hospital at age 2, he’d gotten up and wandered out of his room. He was then restrained to his bed. That was his first cognitive memory. When I met him, he was twenty-two. At the first sign of what he perceived as an emotional threat, he withdrew into what I called his rabbit hole, a safe alone place where he could protect himself. He’d clearly developed that place as a defense mechanism for when he felt isolated and threatened.  Happily, I was just the person for diving into rabbit holes, trying to discover why they existed. I, who was well loved by my parents, was encouraged to be outgoing and rewarded for that behavior. We made a perfect pair with our very different origins. His psychological wounds were always operating in the background. And of course, in time, the ones I collected were lurking around as well. I think that’s probably how it is for most of us. Some people have no idea how they came to be who they are and are utterly uninterested in figuring it out. They choose to be shut off from those painful times. Others, like me, go poking around all the time, looking for reasons for everything. From my personal vantage point, I find that looking for and through those painful times ultimately disarms them from their power to resurge and take over my behavior. They are from the long ago. I guess we all have to find what works for us. I still can’t help wishing I could convince everyone to try things my way. Michael wished I would intermittently “take a hike,” and stop tromping around in his scar-filled interior landscape. Oh well….ECD5E324-9068-4A94-9403-6324819E5D9C

Some time ago, I was walking down a sidewalk and a woman was walking toward me, pushing her baby in a stroller. The baby made eye contact with me which held as we got closer and closer to each other. I made a concerted effort to smile brightly and warmly at this child although I knew it was unlikely we’d ever see each other again. The way I see it is this – I’d rather make a positive, happy, even if unremembered, memory than scowl and put a durable wound into a little head. Maybe that’s simplistic but I’m well-intentioned.B4DFAB37-D5C2-4856-9BA1-7FBDCA6C2FA4

The Living Spaces #1

As I wander through myself, I’ve been trying to think of a mechanism to help me navigate my almost seven decades. Going through the years just doesn’t feel right to me. When exploring memories, both those of which we are aware, and those which have yet to be recalled, reducing the search to the simple mathematics of successive years doesn’t work for me. What came to mind is a methodology that seems more organic, an approach that is holistic rather than segmented. Lots of my recall is visceral, enured with smells and textures, sounds and touches. All those sensory triggers are important to memory. As with the books, the art and the films which are so integral to my views of the world, I wasn’t surprised to find myself visualizing one of my favorite movie scenes as an entry point for proceeding in my fantastic journey, the title of my last post. I remembered the 1945 Academy Award Winner for best picture, “Spellbound,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a mystery which focuses on a doctor who has amnesia and who may or may not have committed murder. With the help of a psychoanalyst, the doctor finds his memory in a beautiful montage, designed by Salvador Dali, illustrating the remembering by showing a series of doors, one opening after another in a gorgeous memorable visual effect. I’ve never forgotten it and as I mused today, it seems that a good way to explore my past is by walking through the places I’ve lived and peeking behind the doors to see what might be there.0059473C-0B21-4ABB-85F9-0996256E1A9C

I don’t remember anything about my first eight months, living with my family in my grandparents’ house in Chicago. We moved to Sioux City, Iowa after that where we lived first in a house on 16th Street. I don’t know the address but I think it was a duplex.

My father was going to work with his sister’s husband, selling farm implements and water conditioners. As a person who only made it through 10th grade before quitting school and working to help his family, in Chicago he bounced from one job to another. In retrospect the Iowa job seemed like a poor fit for him to me. Probably desperation-driven. My mother didn’t like dad’s family and they didn’t like her. His older sister Sylvia was a dominant personality who pushed my mom around. I think dad’s family resented the fact that she stole my dad away from home when he was still so young and so necessary to their well-being. This job with his brother-in-law required dad to travel, leaving mom at home with us kids and dad’s disliked big sister. In any case, we were in Iowa.B17AED77-D3BB-40C0-B857-5D77ED1800A5

I have several memories of that first house. I am on the linoleum floor watching my mom clean up after the dog who was in heat and dripping blood on the floor. Mom put one of my diapers on her. I can see Trixie, the blond cocker spaniel waddling around at my eye level. I can also see the sunlight shining through the windows, reflecting on the little motes of dust floating through the air. I was small, looking up. I am also in a crib in that house. My brother and sister, eight and five years older than me, are moving from one end of my crib to the other. They call me pootchky nootchky. I don’t know why. They’re encouraging me to follow them and I stand in my crib, sidestepping, hand over hand on the railing, trying to reach them. Of course by the time, I catch them at one end they are already on the other side. They say, come on pootchky, let’s go, pootchky. They laugh. I keep trying but things never work out.

They laugh at me and say I stink because I’m still wearing a diaper which is wet. I’m embarrassed because I think I know I’m supposed to be dry but I can’t do that yet. Surprisingly I’m not mad at them. I’m only confused and frustrated with myself.60589B5B-3FDD-40DC-9B9F-123682CE9F2D

We are now in the house where we live longest in Sioux City. This house is the only house my parents ever owned, 101 East 23rd Street. Mom has had my younger sister so there are four kids instead of three. The house is big. Dad is traveling and mom has trouble managing all four of us so sometimes a woman named Mrs Wailey comes to help her clean. We have bats that occasionally slip into the house from the attic. One time, we see a bat upstairs, hanging from one of mom’s sheer curtains. My mom always loved sheers as she called them. Mom gets a broom and swats at the bat. Another one is squeezing its head out from under the door to the attic. She swats at that one too and swears because my dad is gone. In the house at 101 East 23rd Street, there is plenty of room to play. We have a breakfast nook. I liked the feel of that spot, cozy and tucked in. You can play under the dining room table.A89F4E1E-2B7D-4140-9C87-F96721D30990

I hide behind the couch a lot, exploring myself. My parents laugh at me. I’m always red and sweaty. The couch is a kind of vomit green with silver threads in it. I don’t like the color but it appears in my parents’ color scheme all the time. Maybe it’s the cheapest fabric. I play outside a lot. The Brewers live next door and I’m friends with their son named Reggie. Then there are the Larimers who live across the street. Robin is my age and his siblings are Charlie and Janie. Their dad is a doctor and they’re rich. I’m in love with Robin who is blond and looks like Jay North, the kid who played Dennis the Menace on television.391A2996-F1A9-4C15-A109-0BD68AF41395

When we are five we go to Hunt School and Miss Wyffels is our teacher. I love school and the smell of school supplies. I like my rug and my milk at naptime. I like being outside. I’m big for my age and the kids call me names. I decide that I’m never going to do that to anyone. Dad calls all of us awful nicknames, too. Mom tells him to stop but he doesn’t. Looking back, I think it’s because he’s still the little kid whose dad died when he was eight. He calls me tubby and Chief Blackfoot because I get so filthy playing outside. I like bugs and flowers. I am always carrying a jar stuffed with twigs and leaves and putting lightning bugs and caterpillars in them. I have a favorite caterpillar.3F10507A-32A1-401E-A190-5DD6B90580BA

My brother has a fish tank and he lets me feed his fish. I make a mistake and pour too much food in the tank and the water turns all brown. I’m terrified that I’ve killed them all. He also has a parakeet that’s blue and is named Little Man. He can do tricks like pulling a small plastic car with a harness across the table. He also has a weighted bird toy which he pokes with his beak and it bobs up and back. My brother breeds white mice in the basement. When the babies come they are all pink, squirmy and their eyes are closed. We have our dog, King, the collie. I love all the animals.E07DA811-FF45-4668-9B7D-D1ABC067D49A

I am also afraid. When I am four and my little sister is two, mom has to go to the hospital for surgery. My grandparents come and stay with us. My grandmother pulls my hair really tightly and makes pigtails which stick out of the sides of my head. I miss my mother. My brother says he’s going to take me to see her in the hospital. I pick a handful of pansies to bring to her. We walk for what feels like forever. I’m broiling with heat and my pansies are wilted. We enter the hospital where  my brother keeps pushing me behind curtains to hide me until the grownups are gone. Then we are in mom’s room. She’s glad to see us and doesn’t seem surprised that I’m there. At that time, I didn’t know she was medicated. She pulls up her gown and says, “do you want to see my scar?” She has a bloody vertical line on her stomach. I can still see it. After she comes home, I’m always worried that she’ll be gone again. Every day when I go to school I ask her two questions: Will Miss Wyffels be in school today and will you be home when I get home? She always says yes. One day I got to school and there was a substitute teacher. I was frightened, enraged and then catatonic. I was taken to the hallway and my older sister was brought down to talk to me. She said I was silent with my eyes big and round like saucers. I survived it. But I learned that grownups lied. I never forgot that either. There are so many memories from those years from ages three to seven.

I sat on the floor playing with pots and pans. Mom watched Guiding Light and then As The World Turns on television. I carried that habit throughout my adult life. I found those shows comforting. Mom baked almost every day. I can see the floured surface and her rolling pin with red handles. The dough grew and shrank as I watched her handle it. Sometimes I would take a glass and push it into the dough to make round cookies. Peeling away the extra dough was fun. She made sugar cookies and jam thumbprint ones. I liked making the thumbprint.

For awhile my two cousins came to live with us. Six kids was a lot. Mom wasn’t around to catch all the action going on in the big house. My cousins were closest in age to me and my younger sister. My brother, who had a nasty streak, devised a dreadful game for us to play. I was a lot bigger than my cousin. He would hold my arms behind my back and tell her to hit my chest as hard as she could. I don’t remember feeling a thing. But then it was her turn. He held her arms and I pummeled her chest. She had very pale skin and I made big red marks on her. I was haunted by that dreadful experience my whole life. She and her brother moved back to Chicago after about six months. A sadly failed experiment.A85C75D3-EBA1-444A-98DA-824BB1C0DE28

There are more memories from those days. I remember the cloak room next to my room at Hunt School. I wore black galoshes with these big clasps. I wished I had shiny red rubber boots instead. I remember seeing my blond corkscrew-haired friend Connie run away after leaving me a May basket on my porch. I remember going to the circus with other people including a boy named Phillip. I started to itch and my mom to me to the drugstore and pulled my pants down to show the pharmacist. Chiggers, he said. I was mortified.1A9577A9-8350-489C-8C0A-50F9CDDF452B

I remember having chickenpox and measles. I was supposed to take St. Joseph baby aspirin for children, the little orange pills. I told my mom I couldn’t swallow them if anyone was watching me. She was so naive she left the room. I promptly dumped the pills into the floor vent behind the couch, an inkling of my apparently genetic negative attitude toward medicine and doctors. When my clean-obsessed grandmother came to visit, she pulled the couch away from the walk to vacuum, saw the vent and emerged with a handful of pills. Oops. <> on April 12, 2016 in Miami, Florida.

I remember when we drove back to Chicago to visit our extended family. We bounced along the road with no seatbelts and we kids pretended we were police cars and made siren sounds as we drove behind the big trucks. The drivers smiled at us and pulled their horn cords as we went by. Car rides, long and short, are part of the memory bank. All six of us in the car, along with the dog, driving through the countryside for entertainment and winding up at a Dairy Queen. We ate our cones while King got to lick a dilly bar. My brother was bar mitzvahed in Sioux City. I wasn’t well-monitored at the party after the event. I got into the little cups of wine and vomited. Red everywhere. Not a common occurrence since then. I felt awful. I also remember a recurring night terror when I was pressed against the wall and felt like a big oozy bug was going to squish me. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the wine episode. A8594611-232B-4326-8BE4-B0F9E99AE4AD

I went to see the film The Giant Claw with my siblings and I still remember the terror of the last scene in the movie. I remember the flood when my dad carried me in an abrasive blanket to Mrs. Monroe’s house at the highest point on the hill. And our car floated away and wound up in the yard across the street. I remember when my sister was supposed to bring me home from school but she left me. I waited there for a long time and then somehow managed to find my way home. My family was fanned out, looking for me. I guess I always had a decent sense of direction. I remember we had neighbors who had a collie – in the summer they shaved his body except for his head and the tip of his tail, making him look just like a lion. I remember when we were all playing outside and Janie Larimer caught her fingernail on something and it pulled away, hanging from her finger by a thread. I smashed her nail back down and walked her over to her parents’ house. I remember tasting orange soda for the first time and being afraid of the bubbles. A neighborhood kid threatened me with a rubber knife and my brother chased him away. My brother also laid me on my back on rocking chair legs and shoved me down a hill. Lots of my back skin peeled off and my parents were furious. My pajamas got stuck to my back.CE3EB7D0-EF8D-42D2-AED5-73A88F7D4E85

Now I’m at the train station with mom as we’re going to Chicago again. I can smell the fumes that are associated with train fuel and the steps up into the cars which seemed tall as the sky. I become a little girl for a fleeting moment every time I board a train. I remember the dolls I shared with my little sister. I remember my older sister making us play “school.” She was the teacher and was always mean and rigid. Not like my real teacher. It wasn’t much fun.5F1026CB-1F69-4333-AEBF-53E7FF0B0FE6

I remember the rare occasions when we ate at a restaurant, usually the Green Gables where they made the most delicious club sandwiches. I remember getting a little white bag filled with Michigan sour cherries candy at S.S. Kresge’s downtown. I remember the hollyhocks on the corner of my block. I remember being scared when we were moving back to Chicago. I asked my parents if there was milk in Chicago. I loved my warm milk which eventually I gave up because of merciless teasing by my older siblings. I asked my dad how people got to be the first car on the road. I remember saying goodby to the Larimers. I gave Robin my small fish bowl because it couldn’t go in the car. King had to go too. Robin gave me my choice of toy from their big playroom. I took a bronze horse figure which was missing one leg. I stared out the back window of the car and we waved and waved until they disappeared. My, my, my. If I sit here long enough, there’s no telling how many more layers I can peel back. All from walking around in these structures that pop up in my head. I’m only at age seven. For now, this is enough. Next up, Chicago and elementary school.78876597-02CC-49E0-9871-69C32F293282

 

My Fantastic Voyage

11CCAF20-EF03-4B26-A348-7C4353515F1BRecently, I’ve been thinking that I am on a mission. Granted, it’s a mission of my own making. And an odd mission it appears to be, as it is mostly shapeless, disorganized and somewhat incoherent. Whatever I’m doing begs the title “mission” as it lacks a specific goal and is occurring in my inner self as opposed to the world “out there.” But I call it a mission anyway. While thinking about this I was remembering the film “Fantastic Voyage,” which was released when I was a teenager. That movie was about a Russian scientist who’d developed the power to miniaturize people and objects for short periods of time. After developing a blood clot in his brain a group of intrepid Americans with a submarine were miniaturized themselves to cruise through his body to repair the clot, in the hope that the miniaturization invention could be maintained and extended. A vivid and exciting technicolor adventure that reflected both the Cold War and the imagined science of the future, it wouldn’t make anyone’s top 100 film list, but was memorable enough to come to mind as I ponder my current curious journey. I have a powerful memory which I think is probably a genetic trait.6D9C5314-D8CB-4BCE-BCE2-573A5D38308C

My mother remembered a lot from her early years and as the chief communicator in our family, she shared many stories with me. Her attention to detail was so specific that I feel I can actually see her on her wedding day with her open-toed shoes in January’s snow and ice. I can see her on the day she came home from the hospital with me after my birth, when my father locked us in the bedroom because there were too many people in the house. I know I was dressed in pink from head to toe and that my cheeks matched my outfit.F5F396F4-B573-4D46-B536-1E89414211F9

She talked about living on Division Street and Artesian and Merrimack Avenue in Chicago.  She said I was a farmer like my grandmother who loved plants and could grow anything. I’ve started the tedious tasks of plowing through public records and Ancestry to flesh out more of our family saga.6F8FE9FB-613E-4F1A-9C40-461CB3D191AB

To do that correctly you have to be methodical and spend a lot of time researching. I’ve got a decent start but I’m trying to live my life too and am constantly aware that I’m on the shorter side of my string.  So my mission is all over the place. I’ve written down lots of the bits and pieces I’ve ferreted out over the years. I have many of mom’s stories tucked into my memory, the kind that make you wonder where she leaves off and you begin. I’ve written those down too. I think lots of families have those histories and there are more diligent detectives than me whose tales are more complete. EDE9BD62-D2AC-44FE-913B-ED6926D983FB

But I also know that daily life is filled with so many tasks and chores and work and small experiences that many memories, whether planted or genuine, get papered over by the layers of living. There was a time when my mom and I sat down with the photos she’d inherited from her mother, along with ones of her own. We tried to identify in writing all the faces that looked up at us from their sepia-toned and ragged edged pictures. She just couldn’t remember who they all were. We got a bunch of them sorted out, but I have an envelope of those photos that I call the phantom relations.

Some of them are probably my relatives, others perhaps friends or acquaintances. Although somehow connected to the family web, I’ll never know who they were. And aside from not identifying their names and connection, I won’t know what they did and how they affected the lives of the people I do know. A vast emptiness, a sere desert is my real history, dotted with little oases of information that I hold cobbled together in my own memory and my journals. But the gaps are big. I remember that as a little girl, there were family reunion picnics in Chicago when far-flung relatives gathered in a park. My mother told me of a time when my older sister got lost at one of those events and her heart was in her throat until her little girl was found.

I remember names like Harry, the cousin who was uncouth. When he visited he slept in the bathtub. There were Dave and Belle, my maternal grandmother’s nephew and his wife. Belle had thin lips, usually bright matte red and whose handbag was always over her arm. Irv and Jeannette were fun and my parents’ age. Irv was funny and liked dancing and singing. Jeannette was warm and affectionate. They had a son a little older than me named Marshall. I went to a college football game with him once and couldn’t wait to get away from him. He was so, so boring. All this information is part of my mission. I’m trying to find all the history. I’m compelled to flesh out the memories to try and make the family history richer and more dense. I know my kids are interested. My son keeps talking about making videos of me sharing stories about the past but that keeps getting deferred.0A473A21-D866-4792-87E4-E434F3197A01

He did do that with my mom and they’re fun to watch. But she and I spoke a lot about the gaps I’m referring to now. My father wasn’t a big talker. She asked him lots of questions about his childhood but he was often reluctant to look back and dredge up the answers.B3648BA8-BFE7-4F18-A0B1-A0F8C13A0B69

He polished his mother’s fingernails. He himself and beautiful long, slender fingers which were always manicured and perfect. I still compare men’s hands to my dad’s. She used to say she would die without ever knowing big chunks of his family’s story. She was right. My perception of my family’s past is primarily from the maternal side. Dad’s side is spotty at best. And even with mom’s willingness and often, inappropriate willingness to share details, there was still a lot that was never discussed. People guard their secrets. Some stories will never see light. Many topics are taboo. That’s always been hard for me. I’ve had embarrassing experiences in my life as almost everyone does. I’d like to forget some of my less attractive mistakes and behaviors. But I’ve always thought that too much secrecy is damaging internally, and that making our issues so precious and private actually creates these chasms that could be bridged and made less threatening if they were actually exposed. Maybe then the scary parts could be defused as we shared them and recognized that we often have more in common with each other than we might suspect.B20BD006-7097-4F43-8B2C-CBFB8B2833BD

I certainly respect people’s rights to have privacy and be boundaried. But sometimes it’s taken so far that we find that life has gone by and the people closest to us can be more like strangers than intimates. That’s how mom felt about my dad in many respects. Their love was always there along with big pockets of silence.

So the mission. I’m like those miniature rescuers from Fantastic Voyage, looking into the tiny estuaries in myself for memories and experiences that I’ve tucked away. I have some ideas of what I’d like to unearth and expose and then there are the surprises that emerge because some random thought let me find what I wasn’t actually seeking. For example, today I was thinking about how having my two knee replacement surgeries has already changed my life. Even though the second one is only four weeks behind me and I had a setback of my incision splitting open a bit, I can already feel that the grinding pain which crippled me for years is gone. Sure, there are vestiges of discomfort from the surgery but they feel irrelevant compared to that bone on bone nightmare I sustained for so long. Last weekend I went to an art fair and wandered around from booth to booth, taking my time exploring and never needing to sit down. I can’t remember the last time I was able to do that. My legs are no longer bowed and I don’t limp. While thinking about that today, I suddenly remembered that when I was a sophomore in college, I met a guy named Jerry who lived close to my parents’ place on the north side of Chicago.

Map from Rogers Park, Chicago, IL to Chicago Loop, Chicago, IL

We spent a day together talking and walking and I remember we wound up all the way downtown in the north Loop. Miles and miles of walking. I hadn’t thought about that in years. I didn’t like him as much as he liked me and our friendship was brief. But I remember that walk, from neighborhood to neighborhood, through all kinds of of economic strata, winding up at the fancy mansions on the streets close to Lake Shore Drive. I can see Jerry’s face but can’t remember his last name. Absent my recent knee replacements, I’m not sure I’d ever have remembered that walk. The proverbial tip of the iceberg is what that is, an incident that didn’t push its way into the commonly told adventures of me. As it is, there are times when I’m relating a story to my family and everyone says, almost simultaneously, “yeah, yeah, you already told us that a million times.” Some of them aren’t even my best stories. For reasons I can’t explain they just got shoved to the top of the memory file cabinet and are the ones that pop out most frequently. I’m looking for all the others, or at least as many as I can access from all the layers in my head.CC483FA6-45D5-4B9E-87CC-CBEBE309D92C

When striations in sedimentary rock formations are observed, we know from geologists that the layers can contain different environments that accumulated over the years. One line could forest or ocean or woodland. I think that’s how people I are built as well, layer upon layer. We move along the surface with occasional forays into one of those memory striations. I want to get at more. Sometimes a trigger for that will be a naturally occurring event. A person will ask a question and the answer will lead me into a group of memories buried below the surface.46CBE7C7-5399-4A1D-821B-64D0E52C7962

The other day, a friend wrote me to ask some questions about a handsome guy we knew over 50 years in high school. I have her my answers and satisfied whatever she needed at that moment. But later, when I was ruminating on that long-ago past, I remembered that somehow, he’d gotten connected to my oldest friend Fern. I saw the three of us standing in an apartment complex parking lot in my university town. The name of the complex was Country Fair.  I remembered thinking back then how odd it was that this Adonis-like character who seemed so out of reach in high school was now having this easygoing conversation with the two of us who were completely off his radar when we were young. Our images are vivid to me, down to the color of his eyes which matched the blue sky on that bright day. I hadn’t thought about that in years.0BE7C4C0-99C5-4162-9CE5-544F766712A4

Another person asked me about getting elected student council treasurer when I was a junior in high school. An induction ceremony, led by the graduating senior officers, was held in the school gym. While the festivities hit underway, we new inductees were hidden behind a curtain waiting to be introduced. I was standing next to the president-elect, my friend Danny upon whom I’d had a terrible crush since elementary school. In that big moment for us, he reached over in the dark and grasped my hand in a moment of anticipation. I’ve always remembered the feel of his hand which was warm and dry, not like some of the sweaty paws that were part of the awkward dating scenes of my teen years. That was in late spring 1967. I can still feel it now when I close my eyes and transport myself back to that space.CBDD8924-94A1-4511-83E2-F81741A25ECA

So what’s the point of all this? Will it make a huge impact on the world? I don’t think so. When I think of what my legacy may be, it’s more often in terms of small, personal  things. I was a good daughter to my parents. I remain a good sister,a good mother and a good grandmother. I think that my extended family likes me pretty well. I know I was a good wife. I think I’m a good friend. Along with my husband, I created an atmosphere in our home which was welcoming and safe to all kinds of people. They keep coming back, some after almost 25 years now. That’s a good enough mark on the world. But this mission, this discovery journey of old history, some tiny bits and others larger? I suppose it’s to create a three dimensional character out of what will be the photographs of me looking flatly up at those grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren who may wonder where they came from.

They’ll have my stories and my memories, my journals and my lists. They’ll know what movies I watched and what books I read and which shows I binge-watched on Netflix. They’ll learn the bad and the good, the sad and the happy. I hope they’ll laugh and I hope they’ll be inspired to do something interesting with their lives. Or maybe this will all be a private exercise for me. Either way, I have to keep poking and probing. I have no real clue what the ultimate results will be but it seems the process is the point. My interior terrain isn’t as awe inspiring as the national parks I’ve roamed in recent years. But there are surprises tucked away that I hope will continue to surprising and fulfilling. Win-win. Fingers crossed.9D740B03-E6E2-4C75-BC11-A72B02DFF4CC

Conundrum

 

95DEDBA8-B4C7-487E-8F22-FE06FBF6321CI’m wrestling with how to express myself in the midst of the socio-political climate in my country. I can’t say that I’ve ever been completely comfortable as a U.S. citizen. I’ve read too much history and lived through too many ugly times to just tune out the big picture and focus on me and my little world. I grew up in a household in which news and current events were always front and center, no matter what the personal issues may have been. I am a political creature as was my husband, so it’s no surprise that my children are always engaged as well. Even as Michael’s life was ebbing away, my kids and I were still anxiously watching our Orwellian government take shape before our eyes. That November, 2016 election and the subsequent government unraveling lay over our intimate family pain like an unavoidable dark cloud.A16044A3-3C0C-4870-B94B-4A83AE6B01C1

As Michael’s cancer invaded his brain I struggled to help him make sense of the Muslim ban. What is a Muslim ban he would ask? I had a tough time explaining what was happening. As the months went by, the dysfunction and gamesmanship of this president escalated and along with his dangerous antics came the knowledge that the thin veneer of civilized behavior in our society was being pulled back to reveal the fact that a large swath of our population was eager to climb aboard this ugly runaway train of prejudice and hatred. I can’t say I was surprised by that, either.White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

I know that my views are wholly disparate from many of my neighbors. I’m a radical, at least relative to what I know are mainstream viewpoints. But the stakes are getting higher every day. I can’t conceive of what the future holds for my children and grandchildren. Efforts to cope with climate change are being systematically undone by this government. Science is ignored. The courts are packed with judges who will strike down many laws that affect critical components of individual freedoms. Bakers don’t have to accept cake orders from people whose lifestyles don’t fit with theirs. Women’s choices are being carved up by white-haired old men. How can I, who have never served as a soldier in any war, feel what seems to fit the definitions I’ve read of “battle fatigue?” PTSD?8DE7932B-330D-414B-9B12-D9D24FEF7C3D

I know I’m not alone in these feelings. After the gun violence of this last weekend, I believe there are millions who can’t bear one more event like these, people for whom the simple logic of getting rid of these war weapons would stem the tide of violence in this culture. It happened in New Zealand in the blink of an eye. But here, the bodies continue to pile up, indiscriminately. Little children, teenagers, young people and everyone else. Equal opportunity death. So yes, writing about anything personal is a conundrum for me right now because I’m exhausted from this world and I don’t want to trivialize the horror that occupies my mind. But there are thoughts sifting around each other in my head and I think that I’ll try to pull them together in a way that is somehow relevant, albeit topically different from this current nightmare.

For the past several years as I coped with illness, deaths, loneliness and feelings of abandonment, I’ve fled to this country’s national parks. While Michael was still alive and in decent shape after one of his toxic treatments, he went with me. Since his death, I’ve gone alone, aside from one trip with my son. These natural miracles help calm and normalize me. They help me ratchet down from the sometimes giant-sized feelings that can blow up in me when I spend too much time on my own, thinking.

The parks with their vast spaces, soaring heights and dazzling beauty stimulate different avenues of thought. Perspective changes as you ponder your tiny space in the great big world where the silent hoodoos, thousand year old trees and rushing waters stand their vigils as uncountable people like me pass through to ogle their majesty. So many who’ve viewed them are long gone and dust. One day, I’ll join that group of people who were compelled to take these journeys and then passed into anonymity. But there’s the question. I’ve thought about two things you learn when you travel to these breathtaking places.5082345D-C6E7-4596-B885-5149DB47AD9F

One is “leave no trace.” This is a seven point manifesto which a serious parkgoer learns to ensure that the paths taken through the beauty remain unmarred by our presence. Our journeys should leave nothing of us behind except the spirit that drove us to travel there in the first place. Leave nothing, take nothing.B0E6A1A5-707F-41BC-85F7-AE4072A26AE3

And then there is our very specific footprint to consider. For those of us who care about the safety and integrity of our planet, we are reminded to be aware of our carbon footprint. We strive to be mindful of how to cut back on our own carbon emissions to try to diminish the destruction of earth’s atmosphere already so damaged by the use of fossil fuels, the endless belching of toxins into the atmosphere. I do think about these issues and try to measure what I do, to be a responsible citizen of the planet. But leaving no trace and footprints means more than the obvious to me.

As you roam the parks, you see the attempts of people who came thousands of years before us, to leave a record of how they lived, how they walked through these spaces we now observe. I’ve photographed the petroglyphs in Utah and Colorado. I know that they are strewn over the globe in other countries and that people try to preserve them for the future. Is it not, then,  a common instinct to leave a trace, to leave a different kind of footprint, unlike the dinosaur fossils we see in the west, but a footprint nonetheless? A way of telling future generations that once we were here, that once this was how we lived? I am pondering those ideas in a personal way for me and also pondering the traces and footprints left by those who’ve written themselves into recorded history by their acts of violence. All of us are tiny specks in this world, and many of us will go unremembered for anything we’ve done. In my case, I haven’t contributed a significant accomplishment or discovery that makes my life memorable to the world at large.

That’s ok with me. My family will remember me and pass my stories, those which entertain, those which in their small ways were heroic, until our line either disappears or is blended with others until there is no recognition. My physical footprint will be small, my emotional footprint a bit larger. When I’m remembered, I’m hopeful it will be for trying to make a positive contribution to the lives of people I was able to reach as I passed through this life on my journey to its end. I’d like my legacy to be one of caring and being a voice for those who didn’t find theirs. I’d like to remembered for having a moral compass, for trying to help even out the many injustices I see around me every day. I’ve leant a helping hand to people who needed one. I’ve created safe spaces for kids who were without those.4350A3B7-9D4A-4C60-8EC2-1961E751A50B

I’ve marched against wrong wars and abrogated rights. I’ve been to jail, albeit briefly, to stand for my principles. Those things will have to do. But I ask myself in these troubled times, what impelled the shooters who aimed military grade weapons at total strangers to do what they did? Is their way of leaving a trace? Is this their idea of a footprint, one that will stand alongside those images carved into the rock faces alongside rivers and up mountains? I can’t know the answers to those questions. These young destroyers have an internal fabric so very different than my own. I don’t know if they sought to become part of the violent history that marks this country. I don’t know if they ever gave a thought to what I, nearing the end of my seventh decade, think about as I look back over my life and ponder what for me are the big questions. I just know that I can’t merely  think about this stuff, when outside me there are more and more incidents and bodies piling up. I can’t see into these peoples’ heads. I only know that for those of us evaluating our own impacts on the world, we have to make room for the struggle to quash this violence. For me that means, working for and contributing to those who would be elected and remove these weapons from access to anyone.

It means trying to thwart the NRA which has corrupted the intent of the 2nd amendment and confused those not smart enough to understand its real meaning. It means trying to maintain and build more cross cultural bridges with people so our combined strength can undo the damage that’s already been done and to build coalitions that will last. I want to leave a trace and a footprint that is tolerant and humane. I don’t want to be swept aside by those who are the destroyers. So it is personal and much bigger than me all at the same time. I still want to rise up and beat back the dark cloud of what’s pushing us into these stressed-out dark places. I’m going for the light, the beauty and bright skies. I guess that’s what I can do.

Shout Out

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You’ve made 100 posts on Renee Rocks.

Today I received a message from WordPress informing me that I’d made my 100th post today. I truly had no idea. When I started this blog on January 1st, 2018, I was propelled by my emergence from an emotionally intensive struggle alongside my beloved husband Michael. The struggle was with a sneaky virulent killer, Merkel Cell carcinoma, the disease which ultimately claimed him after just over 5 years.BA03C2BB-55D8-42CB-8261-DB739F66C2F1

Diagnosed in April, 2012, Michael and I walked through the turbulent world of cancer diagnosis, treatments, scans and the ups and downs of contending with an incurable disease. After living in the demanding role of caregiver while still being a partner, wife, friend and lover, I was worn out. In the months following Michael’s death, I was busy recovering, taking care of business and planning an event to celebrate his life.

His life was rich and complex and included several work iterations as a small business owner, public official and a teacher. I knew there would be a big crowd of well wishers and there was. That event was in late December, 2017.34D361A7-A28A-45F5-BF52-7FD7ADA33B78

On New Year’s Day, I woke up and decided I would write a blog. I needed a place to express myself about Michael, our life journey, our family and most of all, me. I’d been a covert writer my whole life, always meaning to get around to writing as a vocation. But the demands of my daily life were such that I never got around to finding out if anyone out there might be interested in anything I had to say. And that was alright. Times change. I was retired and after Michael was gone my head was brimming with thoughts, ideas and memories.98385B2F-D2BE-4043-AD8C-071A4A6E1A1D

My kids had their lives. We’re very close to each other but I knew that I couldn’t depend on them to absorb every notion popping up in my mind. I didn’t want them to, but at the same time, the historian side of me wanted them to know parts of my life history, their dad’s life history and even some of theirs which got papered over by time. That happens to all of us. So this blog has an ultimate purpose, to leave a record that can only come from inside a person, from the most private places that often remain hidden or are perhaps shared with maybe just one or maybe a few others. In my case, many of my most intimate people are dead.

I have one sister and a few peers who’ve walked beside me through my life. But the numbers are dwindling and will continue to do so. For some reason or other, sending my missives into the void, into the field of vision of utter strangers has worked for me. The truth is, I don’t actually understand exactly how this platform works. But I do know there are statisticians out there who keep track of things.ZON-4209895 - © - Zoonar/Marek Uliasz

So I know this: 1) In the nineteen months that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve average just over 6 posts a month.

2) During this time period, 8,940 people have viewed at least one post on my blog.6BD86382-A6AF-4D92-9D82-74496B07D7AC

3) People from 51 countries around the world are among those 8,940 people. I know some of them are repeat visitors as I have followers who’ve chosen to be notified whenever I publish a post.4D270780-9C13-4BEB-B5F1-38505121763A

I find all of these numbers to be utterly astonishing. There are women and men and wide-ranging age groups. When I think about it, I’m overwhelmed. These people who for the most part, say nothing, write nothing to me, have a window into who I am that I’ve not shared with many others I know. They’ve heard my raw emotion pulsing through my language. They’ve listened to my stories about my parents and my friends. They’ve seen my travels and heard my impressions of the places I’ve visited. They have a fair idea of what my politics are and how I feel about our shared planet. All this from me scribbling away, often in the depth of night, trying to purge myself of bubbling emotions and thoughts which I used to share with my husband. I’ve written these posts from the comfort of my home, hotel rooms,  and the jouncing of a train. And this thread has connected me, albeit in a transient and fragile way, to a community of sorts, drawn together by the written word. For me a valued commodity in our complex world.C4575506-4449-46E0-AE49-D93B8D58EF61

So thank you to all of you, those who are known to me and those who are not. In my most challenging times, having this unexpected connection to the world has been a source of comfort to me. I hope I’m lucky enough to have you keep reading my eruptions from the depths of my interior. Until next time.1AC2A7DF-C9FC-4294-B134-CB0A1DAA6D2A