Looking back through the time tunnel, thirty years ago. A family photo of our foursome alongside Michael’s parents on our annual vacation to their home in Longboat Key, Florida. I think the phrase “the camera cannot lie” dates back to the nineteenth century, its original meaning being that people often didn’t believe what they looked like in their portraits. My more literal interpretation of the phrase is that it’s false – the camera can freeze a lie posed before it. These six smiling faces are mask-like, hiding more authentic feelings behind those grins. After twenty years of trying to tolerate the wretched behavior of Michael’s parents, I was rapidly approaching that point in time when I knew that in order to preserve my self-respect, I would have to disassociate myself from them permanently. To this day, I have no idea how my tender, sensitive husband emerged from that selfish, rude and vacuous organization. A miracle. I loved him enough to try multiple conversations, confrontations and pleas with those people, failing to communicate who I was to them and what I needed every single time. We were the proverbial oil and water. As our kids grew, the toxicity between us intensified. The stakes get higher when your children can be influenced by others whose life principles don’t blend with yours. That’s where we were going. Michael used to say that if our situation had been reversed, he’d have dumped my parents in less than six months. So those smiles. Genuine in our family of four, but utterly fake with those other people. The obligatory family visit which they paid for in order to get us down there was now a spring break ritual. A ritual I was soon going to end. Absent the emotional difficulties with them, we still had some fun, albeit while feeling guilty.
Michael’s parents were wealthy. They had a boat, lived in a lovely condominium and with plenty of discretionary income, treated us to meals at great restaurants and their country clubs. My mother-in-law frequently reminded me that their money followed bloodlines, making sure I understood I would have no claim to their privilege. Soon my in-laws would learn that wasn’t an issue for me. But in the moment I took one for the team and did my best to muddle through this messy situation.
In what I knew what would likely be either my last, or close to my last, special time in that beautiful place, I enjoyed the beach, the shells and watching our two babies grow and explore. Michael and I did our best to shield the kids from our adult problems. We both felt that they could decide later how they felt about their grandparents. In the meantime, we felt they should know their family, regardless of its issues.
They had a wonderful time. My father-in-law volunteered at Mote Marine Laboratory so he took the kids with him for some hands-on experiences with fascinating sea life. Riding on a boat with dolphins leaping beside you is a great experience for anyone, as is pulling up to a dock to have lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. As the saying goes, what’s not to like?
Back then, Sarasota, the city down the road from Longboat Key, was the winter home of the Chicago White Sox. For a southsider like me, a ball game with my favorite team was a vacation bonus. Our daughter tried her hand at tennis lessons while our son practiced his leaping skills. After my last trip, I missed those times with my family.
Some parents are eager for the baby part of life to end, to have their little ones move into the part of life when they’re beginning to develop more fully into the people they’ll ultimately become. Not me. I kind of liked the portable phase when you could haul them around and deal with essential issues like eating, sleeping and toilet-training. With each passing year, children get more complicated and that was certainly true of ours.
Our daughter was finishing fifth grade with middle school looming in the fall. She was a good student whose only troublesome academic issue was long division. The math teacher was frustrated with E for hitting that wall, telling her that she was disappointed with her lack of progress. So began the first of my many confrontations with various school personnel. I remember that phone call when I told said math teacher that she should be concerned with her inability to teach my child during the rough times, rather than implying she was a failure as a student. For me, pushing a stroller was much simpler than those confrontations. My son would be a kindergartner in the fall. We’d figured out that he was color-blind before he started school, a problem he was certain he could overcome. I still remember him trying to get the eye doctor to let him have another guess at identifying the number he couldn’t see in the color wheel test. The doctor said,”you either see it or you don’t,” a concept my kid couldn’t abide. Foreshadowing of things to come.
I was in my fourteenth year of my job as a commercial property assessment official and was feeling stable. Michael was still an owner of the campus music store Record Service. The business was engaged in fierce competition with interlopers who’d opened a store down the block. The music business, which had evolved from vinyl and 8 tracks to cassettes and ultimately CD’s, was soon to be faced with big box electronics stores who used CD’s as loss leaders to draw customers to their more expensive products. Michael, a political science major who loved music, was working like mad to keep the store profitable. In addition, being a city council member made him a very busy guy. Every now and then, we’d slow down enough to realize that our lives had morphed dramatically into full-blown adulthood at what felt like a breakneck pace. Time seemed to move faster, far different from those days when changes felt like they took forever.
In May of 1992, my friend Joanne, who was also my boss and one of the most generous people I’ve ever known, gave me the gift of allowing me to guide her on the Civil War trip of my dreams. She wanted to replace the disastrous event of the previous year when my mom’s unconscious risk-taking had spoiled that part of our trip. I’d planned on taking her to Williamsburg, Virginia, on her bucket list for years, adding the Civil War ending as a little treat for myself. I’m one of those people obsessed with trying to understand that bloody four year nightmare. That trip ended abruptly after mom impulsively overused her fragile knee, causing us to head home before I got my part of the excursion in the books. So here we were, a scant year later, Joanne and me, off for a week’s jaunt through the battlefields and historic cities of Virginia.
We made it to Charlottesville and Monticello, Lexington, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. We saw the Wilderness with Cold Harbor, Richmond and Petersburg, the site of a dreadful siege. If there is such a thing as a history extravaganza, our road trip would make a classic brochure for that kind of adventure. An unforgettable experience and a testimony to the power of friendship.
Then it was back to regular life. School ended and suddenly we were in summer. The kids went to day camp. Michael and I gardened away, taking time out for concerts, barbecues and picnics. The kids rode their bikes and hung out with their neighborhood pals. We went to Chicago for a family reunion of Michael’s that was a rare event. That trip turned embarrassing and explosive. In the middle of the gathering, our blunt daughter asked her grandparents if they’d consider paying for her to attend an expensive basketball camp that was beyond our family budget. They told her that instead they’d pay for golf or tennis camp, which were the sports that “the best people play.” She promptly called them racists and forced their hand. A party to remember, indeed.
In keeping with time seemingly speeding up, we suddenly found ourselves nearing summer’s end. We went back up to Michigan for the annual trip where we joined our friends and their families for another riotous week of family camp.
Then just as suddenly, school was back in session, middle school for E and elementary school for H. Here they are on their first day in the fall of 1992.
We were so lucky that both our kids loved going to school. I have infinite respect for those parents who have to battle their reluctant children every morning, just to get them out the door and who worry all day about whether their kids will make it through the last period. Here are some sweet photos of H in his first few days of school. Then I have one of the elementary school’s annual ice cream social which E and her friends, now big middle schoolers, attended just for fun. What is particularly humorous is that the photographer lopped off Michael’s head in the picture, one of the hazards of being 6’4.”
We settled into our fall routine. Michael’s summer months were always somewhat of a business drought as the university students left town for the summer. Fall found him quite busy, making up for those slow months. Halloween came. I think that was the one when E got annoyed with her friends and went off on her own, walking home by herself through a dark neighborhood park. Not the wisest decision which wound up in one of the few punishments we had to drop on our pre-teen.
November arrived bringing H’s 6th birthday, Thanksgiving and cold weather. But December provided Michael and me with an unusual treat. The National League of Cities was having its annual conference in New Orleans and we were joining the mayor, the six other alderpersons and their partners on the trip. We farmed out the kids to close friends and took off for long weekend.
Michael attended his meetings while I explored the city. I loved Magazine Street filled with artists’ shops and was amazed by the wealth of Civil War artifacts housed in the Museum of the Confederacy. When we met up after Michael’s obligations, we rode the trolleys, visited the Garden District, the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas. We soaked in music at Preservation Hall, catching the Neville Brothers and Maria Muldaur. And we ate. Beignets at Cafe du Monde and muffuletta sandwiches from the Central Grocery. We spent our entire trip per diem at The Courtyard of the Two Sisters restaurant on our very first night. A dinner on the mayor’s dime at the famous Commander’s Palace for our entire group was so expensive that the city bursar denied the mayor reimbursement for half the bill. And of course we rode the Natchez paddlewheel boat down the Mississippi. What a glorious time.
We returned home refreshed and just in time for a heavy winter snow. Up next – 1993.