The past few weeks have been pretty packed for me. I’m preparing for knee replacement surgery at the end of October. The rules that surround such an invasive procedure were more than I anticipated. Perhaps the most pressing one is that no invasive dental treatments are allowed three weeks before or three months after the surgery. And in keeping with my usual string of luck, I had two ancient fillings, already crowned, call it quits at the same time. Mirroring molars on opposite sides of my upper jaw. So off I hustled for the joy of the root canal. I’m calling 2018 “the year of the tooth.” I know it could be worse.
Although dentistry has certainly improved since I was a child, they haven’t figured out a way to change the sound of the drills. You don’t hurt after the anesthetic, but you still feel the torturous looking tools accompanied by that awful high-pitched whine. The lights for the microscope used for this work is so bright that you need sunglasses to protect your eyes. As I lay in the chair, I decided to distance myself mentally from the entire procedure and send my brain somewhere else. I practiced the deep breathing of meditation. Much to my amazement, I found myself back in the first apartment I shared with Michael in April of 1972, the morning after I moved in with him. We’d been friends since the previous August and had spent many long nights together, talking and listening to music, and eventually, falling asleep innocently and platonically. But I well remember that transitional morning and because I have the gift/misfortune of powerful multi-layered memory, I found myself back in that glorious moment and totally away from the physical assault on my mouth. And this is what I know as classic reverie, the ultimate gift for unfortunate times.
I’m getting pretty good at this, finding the ability to retreat into a 3D mental space where I can roam, feel, smell and touch whoever or whatever is with me. Being with Michael is the best, but I can be at my grandmother’s kitchen table as a child, my hands on its white and blue porcelain surface, eating sliced cantaloupe and rye bread with apricot preserves. I can smell the hallway in her building. I can feel myself riding in my high school boyfriend’s car on the Dan Ryan expressway, my head on his shoulder, no seatbelt, and almost fearless, as I watch the speedometer arrow moving close to 90 miles per hour and noting that I’m not really afraid. When I get to these places, I’m reminded of my favorite Twilight Zone episode – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – based on a story by Ambrose Bierce, a study in reverie prior to death. I saw it in high school and never forgot it. Reverie must be one of the mind’s and body’s built-in survival skills. Having access to such a tool is a wonderful thing.
All this dental activity took place the week prior to my 50th high school reunion. A once in a lifetime event. I was ambivalent about attending which was ironic as I was a principal player in organizing and pulling it together. A casual inquiry on social media about whether or not there would be a reunion led to my involvement, and for one reason or another, I wound up being the point person for it. Because of technology, I’m in contact with old friends and some have been part of my life consistently. But we’re flung far apart and I didn’t know what it would actually feel like to be with so many old friends again, some who’d been so significant in my growing up process. Others less so. Conveniently, the event was taking place on the same weekend as the Laver Cup, a tennis exhibition organized by my beloved Roger Federer, featuring the world’s top players at the United Center in Chicago.
So, if the reunion was a disappointment, I had a whole other plan which I knew I’d thoroughly enjoy. That part of my Chicago trip was a resounding success. As I approached the city, I felt a certain amount of trepidation. Although I grew up as a city kid and consider myself pretty streetwise, I’ve lived for almost fifty years in a relaxed university community. It’s easy to navigate and the skies are uncluttered by buildings poking their heads up so high that horizon doesn’t exist. I can appreciate the beauty of the architecture but I never want to live in that environment again. The pace is too fast and it takes too long to get everywhere. But I was determined to find my city self, bad knees and all. A handy pair of walking sticks are my new friends.
I believe there were five feeder elementary schools into my high school. Lots of baby boomers, so many in fact, that during our freshman year, we attended a branch school because the main building was too crowded. South Shore High School was located a bit west of Lake Michigan and its theme was water-related. The school paper was the Shore Line, the yearbook was the Tide, the sports teams were the Tars. In keeping with the event, I threw a little temporary color in my hair – it’s name was Aquatic.
I was interested to note that almost 25% of the attendees were from my grade school, Horace Mann.
I’ve thought a lot about that. The majority of my current contacts from that part of my life were people I’ve known since I was a little girl. Of course, there are some exceptions. But that time seems to be one when significant bonds were made. Below the surface of what grade school is, there were all kinds of traumatic events occurring in the lives of those innocent-seeming little faces that I remember. Part of me knew that then and more of me knows it now. I, of course, had major issues happening in my home life amongst different family members that were unnerving and scary, just like everyone else. I do have my diary from 7th and 8th grade which has the requisite gossip about boys and girls and crushes. But I did note some more grownup thoughts appearing during that time. My baby cousin, not yet two, died on the day I graduated from eighth grade. Sweet little Iris. So wrong. The familiar faces of my school friends and our relationships formed the safety net of my life back then. There were special ones I could always count on, despite any social pressure. And I remember a few unique teachers too, particularly Mrs. Masterson, my very tough grammar teacher, and Helen Brennan, my English teacher who smelled of some lovely perfume, had pink cheeks and delicate hands which she placed on your desk when leaning over to discuss your work. Thinking back, Miss Brennan, Miss Harding and Miss Annan were all English teachers who had a powerful influence on my intellectual growth. Along with Mrs. Coleman, my biology teacher, and jolly Mr. Kelly, a history teacher, I understand that they gave me the essentials I still use today to process the world.
The reunion turned out well. People really seemed to enjoy reconnecting and most had the awareness that the event was a once in a lifetime experience. Sone enjoyed it so much they suggested planning a 70th birthday in a couple of years. For me, there wasn’t enough time for substantive conversation with a lot of people I wished to catch up with a little more. My high school honey brought me a corsage that he said was on orders from my husband’s spirit. And the guy who was the idol of my dear gone friend Fern, brought me a copy of letter he’d received from her so many years ago. Powerful and moving. I was lucky enough to leave the reunion with my oldest friend who’d been my college roommate, my European travel companion and the person whose family and mine vacationed together for years. Spending time with her made me miss her when I went back home. In the meantime, a flood of strong memories were unleashed by the experience.
I remember when it was okay to be twelve and get on the IC, the Illinois Central and go downtown to the Loop. The seats were made of wicker and could be moved so if you were traveling in a group you could face each other. Getting off at the Randolph Street station and maybe getting a hamburger at Wimpy’s or when flush with cash, a French dip beef sandwich at Don Roth’s Blackhawk restaurant. Strolling along State Street and wandering through Marshall Field’s with its elegant interior. Sometimes you could eat at its Walnut Room and top off your sandwich with dessert, either Frango mints or those creamy, sugary ones that always seemed to be on the table at every social event I ever attended as a kid. If you chose Carson, Pirie, Scott, you could eat at the Heather House, its answer to the Walnut Room. On the way home, I’d grab a few flowers to bring my mom from the lady who had a cart at the entry to the station.
In my mind, I’ve played softball on the Horace Mann playground and swung so high on the swing set I thought I’d go over the top. I’ve walked up and down 71st Street, 79th Street and 87th Street. I’ve been at the Shoreland Deli as well as Seaway’s. I’ve shopped at Seder’s, Yankee Pedlar and Gordon’s Dress Shop. I’ve gone to Schwartz’s lingerie shop where the women came uninvited into the dressing room and gathered your breasts in their hands to show you how to wear a bra the right way. I’ve coveted the Weejun loafers and the Adler wool socks. The Brooks Brothers Ivy League shirts and the Gants with the locker loops on the back. I’ve gone to movies at the Avalon, the Jeffrey and the Hamilton theaters. I’ve bought a Silly Putty egg and a red-haired Barbie doll at Wee Folks toy store. I’m pulled the string on the Chatty Cathy doll that I shared with my sister. I’ve dressed our cat, Charlie in the blue corduroy coat and hat that we took off our Tiny Tears doll. I’ve dipped my hand into the penny candy barrel at Feldstein’s delicatessen and smelled the blood at the Dessauer’s butcher shop where my parents got their meat. I’ve had a strawberry soda and fries at the Bon Ton restaurant and a famous chocolate phosphate at the counter in Woolworth’s. I’ve bowled with Fern at the Pla-Mor bowling alley. I feel like Bloom in Ulysses. I could go on and on, live-streaming my memories to myself.