One of the interesting elements of looking back over so many decades has been recognizing how much today’s technology, often held in the palm of my hand, has changed the way I record my life. I’m one of the lucky people who was born with the ability to recall powerful, vivid daily life memories from long ago. Additionally, I have a considerable number of photographs spanning what’s getting close to a century’s worth of images. The number of pictures I have from those busy years of raising young children, working full-time, being a partner and a daughter of a widow, are significantly fewer than the ones from recent times. Life back then didn’t allow for the quick snaps I now take daily. I didn’t always have a camera at the ready. So there are gaps. The photo above was taken in February, 1990, where this reminiscence begins.
My community earned the designation “Tree City” in the first year of its inception, 1976. Requirements for the title are determined by the National Arbor Day Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and the National Association of State Foresters. I love living in a city that values trees. Our town’s tree inventory is one of the most diverse city forests in the country. Estimates of our tree population puts the number at 11,000 street trees, 4,000 park trees and an estimated 100,000 trees which are privately owned. I personally have planted four spring-blooming trees, two dogwoods, a red plum and a redbud, along with two fruit-bearers, an apple and a pear. The city has maintained three on the parkway in front of my house. We lost some to disease and some to lightning over these past 43 years, but they’ve all been replaced.
On February 14th, 1990, a powerful ice storm hit our community, knocking out power for almost a full week and devastating the beautiful trees which are a prominent feature of virtually street in town. That day would be forever known as our own St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Approximately 2,884 street trees were damaged and of these, 489 required immediate repair or removal as they threatened life or property. That was the backdrop for the chaos which concurrently happened in our house. In February, my dad had been dead for almost 5 months. My mom was living on her own for the first time in her life. Suddenly she, like everyone else, was without power. So she packed a bag and we made our way through the icy streets to bring her to our house. Our kids were eight and three. We had an ancient gas stove, a Detroit Jewel, which had an extra large oven capacity so we could cook. In addition, its ambient heat took the chill out of the indoor air. As our refrigerator began to warm and the freezer to defrost, we cooked four meals at a time so we didn’t waste any food. We packed two coolers with ice for storing all of it on our side porch. We had plenty of candles and flashlights. Because we had a gas water heater we could bathe for awhile, that is until the ice melt, along with rain, flooded our basement. The four feet of water that accumulated took forever to pump out, after it destroyed a significant number of albums in Michael’s treasured vinyl collection. He’d set the storage boxes up on raised skids to protect them from any dampness. We’d never anticipated a flood of this magnitude. The good news was that most of them were safely in the house and that we had decent insurance. A long recovery began almost instantly following the draining of the water. The kids thought everything was a fun adventure while we grappled with the hassles. Quite a beginning for the new decade.
Fortunately for us, in March, Michael’s parents, who we hadn’t seen in months, sent us tickets for a trip to Florida during school’s spring break. Excursions to see them were always a mixed bag. We shared virtually no views on almost anything, political or social, which created a lot of tension. Michael and I had been together for 18 years, the first 10 of which were childless. During that time, we were able to ignore the stark differences between our world views and those of his parents. The addition of kids changed all that, upped the ante and all bets were off. Almost every get-together brought verbal skirmishing. I usually wound up trying to mediate between everyone, in addition to trying my best to explain what the problems were from our standpoint. These talks were usually fruitless, Michael looking at me with a bemused expression as I tested every angle in our conversations. I was really doing all of that for him. Despite the conflicts, he was always miserable when dealing with the severity of the fractures in his family. I was hanging on out of love for him but was losing patience. We made the best of our time, hoping to have a peaceful trip. Michael’s older sister was brought along for this visit. Her relationship with them was even more strained then ours. We enjoyed the beach, Disney World and each other. Getting away from winter and the basement cleanup was a relief, despite the interpersonal hassles.
We headed back home to spring. Our daughter was in third grade and our son was in daycare. I’d just begun my 13th year in my job. Michael was busy with his record business, his alderman position and a number of other community service projects. I was working hard to help my mom which was a challenging task. She’d lived her life with my dad as her protector. I tried hard to stay out of that role but she didn’t make that easy. Back then, if I’d had any idea of the complicated twenty-five year road ahead of us, I might have started therapy earlier. Instead I just hurled myself at the job at hand. I hoped to help her get a driver’s license and a modicum of a social life outside her family. Daunting tasks, indeed, but I was young, full of energy and loyal. I was also busy.
May brought our wedding anniversary, Mother’s Day, birthdays and another flooded basement. School wrapped up. Our daughter was enrolled in summer camp. We carpooled with other families which made life easier for all of us working parents.
In July we took our kids, along with another family, to a Wildlife Prairie Park about an hour and a half from home. We stayed in a genuine caboose which came equipped with a button, which when pushed, would cause the car to jiggle as if it was rolling down the tracks. The kids pushed it on and off all night. We had a great time despite intense heat.
Because we didn’t have air conditioning, we spent a lot of time at the park district pool that summer. We brought a cooler packed with sandwiches, fruit and chips for dinner and lolled around in the water until we were cool enough to go home. Fortunately we had one more getaway in August. We’d begun a tradition of staying at a funky resort in Sister Lakes, Michigan with a group of old friends and their families. We shared communal dinners, swam in the lake, picked fruit and treated ourselves at the local ice cream parlor/candy store/souvenir trap in the evening. That summer, I brought my mom along. My sister and her husband joined us for awhile too.
The end of the month brought E’s 9th birthday and the beginning of fourth grade for her. September marked my mom’s 67th birthday and the first anniversary of my dad’s death. I remember thinking that the pace of life had picked up, moving too fast for me to fully process all the events that had zipped by. Michael was 41 and I was heading toward my 40th birthday the following year. We were always busy. I wanted to be aware of what was happening in the moment, before the next event swept the moments away. That would be my task for the years ahead, the practicing of awareness.
Summer ebbed away. October came and went without a single photo of Halloween. We didn’t miss H’s 4th birthday, but the lack of documentation for the rest of the year reminds me that I was still distracted by the challenges of all the losses and demands of the previous three years. I missed Fern. I missed my dad. I wasn’t comfortable with my role in my mom’s life. I felt like an orphan. If I could’ve made time stop, I would have.
In December we sent E off to Florida to visit her grandparents on her own. I was terrified doing it, but she was under the care of the stewards and was carrying documents that would ensure her delivery into safe hands. Still, I had a hard time holding myself together, but managed to hang on until she’d boarded the plane. Then I sobbed. Driving home from the airport, I finally calmed down. After a bit, I realized that my crying against a bulky coat had jostled one of my favorite earrings right out of my ear. They were a gift from Michael. I told myself I’d never forget how I lost it. I haven’t.
That December I did have enough presence of mind to document the fact that I thought my sweet and gentle little boy was getting bullied at daycare. His arms were constantly covered with bruises in the shapes of fingers that were digging into his skin. I took a few photos of those to develop a record. He was uncomplaining. The boy who was committing the aggression turned out to be his lifelong best friend. But that fact is for a different story of the future.