Looking back, it’s easy to spot a small event, a key moment that at the time, seems like no big deal but ultimately, is the seminal instant that causes a shift in a life’s trajectory. The year 1981 was big because Michael and I had welcomed our first child in late August. While all that was a big change, another less obvious game-changer had been instigated by me and my neighbor who lived across the street. When we bought our house in 1978 we thought we were in a “starter home,” a place where we’d live for a few years before moving to the next place. Our ancient home, built in 1893 and broken into three apartments since the 1930’s, closely resembled a place featured in the film “The Money Pit,” a gaping monster that would endlessly gulp down massive amounts of cash. During the next couple of years, housing costs steadily began climbing and we quickly realized we could never afford to replace the square footage of our house and its big double lot. After poking around we discovered that our little neighborhood was zoned as multi-family housing which meant that at any time, a property developer could demolish an old house and replace it with an apartment building. As we were planning on having children we knew that being surrounded by apartments would increase traffic, get noisy and be undesirable for family living. I got together with the owner of the house across the street to begin the process of appealing to our city council to downzone our neighborhood to buildings no larger than two units. Existing structures could stay as they were. We visited all our neighbors until we’d gathered the required number of signatures to make an appeal. When we appeared before the council, our own alderman, a not-too–bright good old boy announced his opposition to the plan, stating that he owned a four-unit apartment building right down our block which he intended to eventually expand. Rarely had we seen a more blatant explanation of self-interest from an elected representative. He was outvoted by the rest of the council so ultimately we were saved from overdevelopment. After a short time, we were awarded the Environmental Heritage Award from our local Preservation and Conservation Association.
Michael was furious with our alderman for putting his unabashed self-interest ahead of the desires of constituents. He decided he was going run against him in the municipal election in the spring of 1985. In one sense, the idea of Michael becoming an insider in organized politics seemed unlikely after his years as a classic outside agitator. But I was already a public official, hired by an elected one in 1978. I felt comfortable in that we were cleaning up years of sloppiness and corruption which had been long time policies in our community. Michael wanted to do the same thing. His father had been mayor and a plan commission chairperson in their hometown. The truth was that despite their political differences, public service as demonstrated by his dad almost felt like genetics rather than simply tradition.
So because we were a team, albeit one with absolutely no idea about running a political campaign, Michael became a candidate for alderman with me as his manager, squaring off with the selfish hack in the April 2nd municipal election, 1985. We talked with everyone we knew who’d had political experience, and with a dedicated crew of supporters who wanted a representative interested in their needs, instead of his/her own, headed down a new road in our lives. A new road was literally the case as every subsequent day, Michael began knocking on the door of each person who resided in our ward. He’d come home after work, pick up a stack of his newly minted campaign literature and head out for a few hours to talk to his potential constituents. On weekends he often took our daughter along so he’d have time with her. Our lives were turned over to this effort which was exciting, exhausting, sometimes irritating and often frustrating.
In February, my daughter and I slipped away for a long weekend with my family to celebrate my niece’s Bat Mitzvah in California. I’d grown up vaguely practicing my religion with little formality but plenty of social customs, largely centered around major holidays and food. I didn’t expect to play any role in the actual event but was surprised by my sister who was missing a person to read a Torah portion as part of the proceedings. I was uncomfortable but I couldn’t disappoint her. I found myself singing at the dais in front of a congregation. Luckily, a facility with language and a good memory for what I’d heard many times at the events of my peers, allowed me to pull off my tuneful performance. You never know what life might throw in your path and truthfully, getting kicked out of your comfort zone and passing muster is good for building confidence. After that excursion, we went back home to resume life on the campaign trail.
Michael continued to march through the city daily, while I became a precinct committee person, organized our volunteers and counted committed voters who’d promised to vote for Michael. His slogan was “Energy and Commitment.” As his opponent was 25 years older and appeared dissipated by a lifetime of excessive alcohol consumption, we were pretty confident of a win. I still can visualize the precinct voting lists, which after a time, were seared into my brain. I knew who lived where and whether or not they said they were voting for Michael. On April 2, 1985, we woke up confident. We had printed door hangers with a reminder to vote that were hung by our crew of loyal friends, family and campaign workers. A close friend was enlisted to babysit that night so we could celebrate victory. When the polls closed, I went to the courthouse to check on the returns as soon as they were tabulated, precinct by precinct. I was in a room with the other 6 candidates for city council, along with the mayoral hopeful and a few other citywide officials. Our ward had five precincts. The results came in within a few hours. As I looked at the summaries of the last area to report, I quickly realized that Michael had lost by just two votes. Only two. I announced the result to the others in the room who were sympathetic but still engaged in the rest of the numbers. With no cell phones at that time, I gathered my papers and went flying home to tell Michael what had happened before he heard the news from anyone else. When I walked in the door our friend Linda had just gotten done putting our daughter to bed. Michael was in the shower getting ready to party. I sent her home and knocked on the bathroom door. He poked his head out, smiling, until I told him the results. Fastest disappearing smile ever.
I hated having to tell him that terrible number. He got dressed and we huddled together, trying to figure out how we’d miscalculated. We called our families to tell them what had happened and then didn’t speak to anyone else that night. The next day several dozen people called to apologize for not having voted. I remember telling several that if they wanted absolution they should get it at church because they certainly weren’t going to get it from me. We learned the hard lesson that what was so important to us was far less important to others, even if the ultimate outcome impacted their lives. Always considering ourselves outsiders, we had nonetheless, never disenfranchised ourselves as soon as we were old enough to vote. By the end of that day, Michael was already talking about running again in four years and all the things we’d do to drag voters to the polls. Lesson learned.
Meanwhile life went on. Michael’s parents flew us down to Florida and we took our daughter to Disney World for the first time. Although they weren’t my favorite companions, Michael really wanted to keep trying to stay connected to his parents and we all appreciated life on the beautiful Gulf Coast.
Back home, we resumed our regular lives. That spring and summer we worked on painting our big old house and developing our yard and garden. We visited my family in Chicago and they came to visit us.
Our daughter had her fourth birthday. She was quite a character. She loved My Little Ponies and She-Ra, The Princess of Power, sister of the superhero He-Man. Her musical tastes had expanded and included Culture Club. We took her to their concert which unfortunately included a smoke machine as part of their stage show. As soon as she saw the smoke, she insisted that we leave the theater as she’d had fire avoidance training at her day care center. At the first sign of smoke, one had to stop, drop and roll. Or better yet, leave the premises. We brought her to speak with a police officer at the venue but even that official presence wasn’t good enough to convince her to stay.
We bought her a She-Ra costume for her birthday which she wore frequently. When a traveling troupe featuring She-Ra and He-Man came to perform on roller skates, we bought second row seats, almost on the floor near the performers. The villain of the ensemble, Skeletor, threatened to steal all the children from the earth. Our fully costumed child, sword in her hand raised over head, stood up on her chair, and shouted, “I will never surrender.” We could see the smiling performers while we were doubled over with laughter. Her character was already fairly well-formed at this early age.
We had a good summer. There were play dates and parties for our little one, special events for us with an ultimately terrific show in September, the first Farm Aid Concert which took place at the football stadium in our town. We took turns attending the non-stop music, trading tickets to Michael’s employees for blocks of babysitting time so we could attend both together and separately. We’d seen lots of bands before but no festival this big had happened right down the street before. Quite a wonderful time.
In October, Michael and I left our girl with my parents and headed to the Indiana Dunes. My brother was having lots of emotional problems at the time and was leaning heavily on me. We were also trying to get pregnant again and hoped that a change of scenery would help with both situations. We stayed at an inn near the beach which had an amazing cosmopolitan restaurant. I remember that was the first place where I’d ordered and loved a new-to-me and most delicious dish, ossobuco. We climbed the Dunes and relaxed. We were so lucky to have my willing parents allow us the time to rejuvenate our relationship.
The end of October brought another Halloween and another costume, a princess one this time. My meager sewing skills were getting a workout.
At Thanksgiving dinner that year, my parents announced their desire to move from Chicago and take up residence in our community as they’d finally realized that neither my younger sister nor I were ever moving back to the city. My older sister was established in California and my brother, who still lived in a suburb nearby, had been recently divorced and was leading a chaotic existence. We thought their move was a great plan as they were getting older and especially loved the idea of having our daughter be close to her grandparents. As the year drew to its end, I was occupied with locating a place where they would be comfortable. I was certain that upcoming 1986 would be a busy year.