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.