Up on the Soapbox

Get Back still – photo credit: The Guardian

I should’ve known I was going to wake up on the soapbox side of the bed this morning. Last night, shortly before I went to sleep, I read one of the umpteen scathing reviews of Peter Jackson’s three part documentary “Get Back,” which used the scads of footage shot while The Beatles were preparing for their Let It Be album, film and rooftop concert which took place in January, 1969. I’ve always had trouble with critics who make their living interpreting music, art and literature for all the rest of us simpletons out here, who apparently aren’t smart enough to make our own assessments of what’s worth listening to, looking at or reading. Okay, my tongue is firmly implanted in my cheek. The truth is, I’ve never wanted to have anyone else’s point of view influencing my appreciation for the arts. To be fair, I prefer developing my own opinion based on my own thoughts about mostly everything. I know there are people more expert than me in multiple areas. I appreciate learning facts that I don’t know. What I don’t appreciate is being told how to think about those facts. Is it arrogant to believe I trust my own ability to think critically without anyone else’s opinions as my intellectual foundation? So be it. I think I’ve lived long enough to have earned that attitude.

Of course, there are more significant issues than how much I love watching anything Beatles, ratcheting up my ire. If anything newsworthy caught your attention today, it would be the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing oral arguments about an abortion case which, if the justices make their predicted decision, will overturn Roe V. Wade. I remember when a woman’s right to determine what happened with her own body was finally codified by the sitting Supreme Court in early 1973. Despite never having enough states ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, this historic passage meant that at long last, government had no power over the most essential freedom, the agency to choose whether to keep a pregnancy, one of the most dangerous medical conditions for women, physically, emotionally and economically. Now, thanks to a Supreme Court packed by the former misogynist in chief, that decision will once again be in government hands, particularly in the case of poor women with limited options. The irony of allowing government that type of control from the right wing of this country, whose vociferous rage over vaccines and masking they consider a violation of individual freedoms, shouldn’t be lost on anyone. In addition, nationwide polls bear out the majority’s support for the right to choose, not that the minority seems to care about the democratic underpinning of majority rule.

Broad support for abortion rights: Gallup polls show Americans’ support for abortion in all or most cases at 80% in May, only sightly higher than in 1975 (76%), and the Pew Research Center finds 59% of adults believe abortion should be legal, compared to 60% in 1995—though there has been fluctuation, with support dropping to a low of 47% in 2009. Steady support for Roe: Support for the Supreme Court’s abortion precedent in Roe v. Wade is similar, with a November Quinnipiac poll finding that 63% agree with the court’s ruling; and 60% of respondents in a November Washington Post/ABC News poll and 58% of May Gallup respondents want the court to uphold the decision. – Alison Durkee, Forbes 11/30/21

However great the Republicansand the judges’ anti-abortion stance, expressed with concern for the life of a fetus by Justice Samuel Alito today – “Justice Samuel Alito dug in on whether viability is an appropriate line for the court to have drawn. “The fetus has an interest in having a life,” Alito said, and that doesn’t change between before and after viability,” doesn’t seem to extend to the child after it exits the womb. I cite the example below, one of many that indicates that the Republican government members don’t have much sympathy for children post-birth, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Photo credit – The Guardian

Last Thursday, 39 million American parents began receiving a monthly child allowance ($300 per child under six, and $250 per child from six through 17). It’s the biggest helping hand to American families in more than 85 years. They need it. Even before the pandemic, child poverty had reached post-war records. Even non-poor families were in trouble, burdened with deepening debt and missed payments. Most were living paycheck to paycheck – so if they lost a job, they and their kids could be plunged into poverty. But every single Republican in both the House and Senate voted against the measure. – The Guardian, July 2021.

Photo credit – Anadolou Agency

What they will go to the mat to protect is the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, despite the fact that the U.S. is the world leader in gun violence and most particularly, violence against school children. When Covid19 forced schools to turn to online classes, a brief respite occurred. But with kids back in the classroom, the numbers of school shootings have again risen. Drills to deal with active shooters is a part of daily education. How terrifying to simultaneously think of getting sick from the virus or shot by a classmate.

In America’s gun violence ‘epidemic,’ Oxford High in Michigan is the 28th school shooting of 2021. Of those, 21 have happened since August when many students returned to in-person learning for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. There were 10 recorded shootings in 2020. – NBC News.

Death-penalty-color

And how about this contradiction? I have never understood the logic of those people who are anti-choice and pro death penalty. How does that make sense to anyone?

Democracy is in a dark period, fueled by disinformation, outright lies and willful ignorance. The Civil War, which seemingly ended in 1865, is percolating away in the 21st century. Voting rights bills are stuck without passage because of the conservatives in the Senate, while efforts are underway in multiple states to make voting more difficult, along with gerrymandering districts so future elections will indeed be rigged. How ironic considering the still raging lie that the last Presidential election was a fraud.

I’ve been demonstrating for causes over all the decades of my life, from my teens to just a few weeks ago. I’m exhausted and angry, like many other people. Right now I hope to maintain the energy to keep up the good fights against the tyrannical trends that I don’t believe are majority opinions. But as I age, part of me still can’t believe resistance will be required to the end. Whether it’s as small as pushing back on the snarky opinionated critics or the greater task of standing up to the right wing mob and its leaders, I hope I still have some fuel in my tank. Whew. I’m done for the night.

Blue Birthday Alternative

Today would have been my brother’s 78th birthday. He died in April, 2015. For much of his life, he was a troubled guy who left heartache in his wake. But for me, at least in our youth, he was a loving big brother who was on my side, lots of fun and very smart. He had the most astonishing ice-blue eyes. I always think about him and how life can turn out so unexpectedly rotten. While growing up together, Fred felt, for the most part, like he was glad to be intimately connected to our family. But something about him was always a bit off. I could talk with him about history and books. He was generous when he had money but his choices were always impulsive and slightly irrelevant as if he was missing part of the big picture. He didn’t seem to care much about nature except for pets. He had beautiful tropical fish tanks which one would’ve thought would be somewhat meditative but he usually stared at them in a depressed state rather than a peaceful one. He lived as a materialist until his emotional problems disrupted his earning power. I guess I’d say that whatever was his center was hollow. Mental problems are complex and certainly rooted in our physiology. I don’t understand all that happened with my brother but I know the solace I find in the natural world eluded him.

My younger sister, my brother and me.

There were family gatherings which were warm and fun. We sang at many of those after sharing a meal. Our traditional songbook included tunes passed down from our parents like “You Are My Sunshine,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” all of which had harmonies suitable for people whose vocal ranges spanned varied octaves. Those were the good moments.

Fred in his late teens

I don’t know everything that made Fred who he became but I know his abandonment by his high school love devastated him. He followed her to California when they were college freshman. Unable to persuade her to come back to him, he dropped out of school and joined the Air Force for four years. Upon his return he floundered around, looking for a job that would hold his attention and someone to love. I was fifteen when he decided to marry a beautiful but much simpler person who was simply the wrong match for his increasingly complicated behavior. Their marriage lasted long enough to produce three daughters while Fred was clearly unhappy, ill-prepared to parent anyone and still pining for what once was years before. His erratic behavior was awful for his wife, his kids and everyone else. When he was manic, he wore all of us down. When he was depressed, he was a suicide threat.

Fred kissing Michael at our rehearsal dinner, 1976
Fred and my sister-in-law visiting us, 1977

Eventually, his marriage fell apart and Fred wound up in a relationship with a significantly younger woman. They married and stayed together until his death. She was a naif, a product of an abusive, broken family who was loyal to my brother who’d evidently saved her from an unimaginably hard life. I still don’t know how she managed to survive his complicated, challenging behavior. As for him, he was filled with self-loathing about his failures. I felt that as he lived a hermetic life with few social contacts, far away from family in Las Vegas, a move I’d advocated to protect us from his intensity, that his mind atrophied from lack of intellectual engagement. I didn’t see him often after 1986 as his energy diminished along with his self-esteem. He passed through my life a few times and I visited him once out there but we fell away from each other. A sad ending.

When my mother died, a few months after Fred, she didn’t know he was gone. Sometimes thoughts of him would break through her dementia and she’d wonder why she hadn’t heard from him and still hoped that if she could just talk to him, she’d help him straighten out his life. I was my mother’s power of attorney. She’d also always said she didn’t think she could survive the death of one of her children. Although there was disagreement within our family, I insisted that we protect her from that ultimate pain. The idea of having that overwhelming knowledge drift in and out of her fragile memory seemed cruel. I took most of her last possessions, including some photos, to disperse to everyone. I often stare at the ones of my brother, a beautiful innocent little boy, before darkness took over his life. I’ve now outlived both my parents, Fred and Michael. I don’t suffer from darkness although of course I feel sadness and grief. Darkness is a different matter than those feelings. I know how to achieve solace and comfort. I can lift my spirits by finding the small bright spots in every day. So on this anniversary of Fred’s birth, I’ve decided to send out some of those bright bits to wherever he is in the universe. I wish they could’ve helped him through his life.

I hope they relieve a bit of darkness for someone besides me.

Life on Broadway – Chapter 8 – 1987, 1988, 1989 – Do Bad Things Really Come in Threes? Part 1.

Photo credit – Carol E.
Photo credit – Carol E.
Photo credit – Carol E.

I was still on maternity leave during the first few months of 1987. When I returned to work in February, I brought my son with me, setting up a space for him in the corner of my office behind my desk. For a full month I was able to extend that fleeting time when I could spend whole days with my baby, significantly more important to me at this point as I knew he was my last child. My co-workers were glad for the distraction as most of them had been through the experience of the working mom. When March rolled around, having a four month old was too distracting, so off he went to my parents’ home where he’d spend most of the next year. I was able to nurse him on my lunch hour while feeling relaxed about the care he’d receive from my mom and dad, a wholly different experience from my life with my daughter. For the most part, the only challenge during those early months was this determined little boy’s total refusal to drink from a bottle. We tried every type on the market before caving in and deciding he’d eat solid food earlier than recommended. Aside from that, he was an easygoing, genial baby whose company was a delight for his doting grandparents.

My memories of those spring months of 1987 are mostly about three main preoccupations. The first was working with Michael to meet the needs of our kids while trying to balance jobs, the reclamation project known as our home, and personal time just for us. Right before our son was born, and with the knowledge that my parents were leaving Chicago to live near my family, my brother, who was bipolar, and whose first marriage had ended in a sad divorce, was considering a move himself, either to join us or head to Las Vegas. His emotional state was always a challenge under the best of circumstances. Many times, while growing up with him, I’d witnessed his erratic behavior seriously affect my parents’ well-being. I’d also observed that my male cousins all seemed to have some degree of mental instability.

Dennis who died at 25.

I’d already lost one of them, Dennis, about the same age as my brother, to suicide when he was only twenty-five. My brother Fred had also threatened suicide. Although I felt somewhat guilty, I knew that his constant presence would be seriously disruptive to all our lives. After talking things over with Michael, I used all my persuasive power convincing him to move to Nevada. I think I’d learned that despite good intentions, I could never really help my brother. So I put my little family, Michael and me, and my parents first.

My brother with my daughter

The second focus was helping our daughter accept the fact that she was no longer the only child. Michael was the second child in his family and I was third out of four in mine. Neither of us ever felt the luxury of being the center of attention all the time. In addition, because we’d both hit our thirties before we had a kid, we were ready to be tuned into every need of our dominant little girl. Always a strong, opinionated person she’d recently seen a cheerleader demonstration on a trip to the local mall with my parents. She asked what they were doing and was told that their job was to cheer for athletes at their games. Her response has a prominent place in our family lore. She scowled, folded her arms across her chest and stated vehemently, “Well, when I grow up I’m going to be a sports girl and they’re all going to cheer for me.” Quite prescient, to be honest. However, when some of the cheering was directed toward the new baby brother, her plan was slightly upended. Working on that issue would take her awhile.

A little look of trepidation in that boy’s eyes.

The third preoccupation of that early time as new parents of a little boy, was how to raise a male who’d be resistant to some of the pressures which influence boys as they evolve. When this baby entered the world, he might as well have had the word “sweet” stamped on his forehead. He literally oozed love. How could we help him keep that trait front and center, without letting expectations for male behavior affect his innocence? I was also concerned about the instability of the males in my generation. Would that affect him as well? So much to think about.

In early summer, we had a big party in our backyard. I think it was a combined birthday party for Michael and me whose birthdays were two weeks apart in early June and late May, respectively. E was having her own social life as she ended her kindergarten year. In my unflagging efforts to do whatever I could to constantly demonstrate that she was as important as always, sibling or not, I made her a detailed costume for a friend’s medieval-themed party. Despite my rudimentary seamstress skills, things worked out well.

I no longer remember the specific date in that summer when I got the dark news that my young cousin Eliot, who’d been a part of my life since his birth, had leapt to his death from a building in Chicago. He was only 27 while I was 36. Diagnosed as bipolar during his devolution from a successful student to a person who could barely manage school, his bookbag was still strapped on his back that awful day. His continued effort to resume his interrupted life trajectory finally got to be too much for him. I was devastated. He was the second child to die in my uncle’s family, the first being a toddler who didn’t see her second birthday after contracting a common, but lethal disease for her. My uncle and aunt had one surviving child, but had long since divorced as my aunt too had suffered from intractable mental illness. I hadn’t seen her in at least a dozen years. I drove north with my family for the funeral, my young baby with me as he was still nursing and couldn’t be left behind. Michael stayed behind with E.

Me sitting in the front row next to my dad, Eliot on his mom’s lap.
Eliot with me behind him to his right.
Eliot with my aunt and uncle.
Eliot

The day was hot, my black dress making the temperature feel more oppressive. I went straight to my aunt to embrace her which was somewhat surprising to me. The almost two decades we’d spent together at countless family events were more powerful than the distance of our recent years. Looking at Eliot’s new grave next to that of his sister who’d died in 1964 was incredibly painful. As I held my baby boy, not even a year old, I grieved for my cousin while worrying that there might be a gene for depression and suicidal tendencies that could manifest in my son, years down the road from that moment. That thought was never far from my mind after Eliot’s death. But life goes on.

We packed up the kids and headed up to the Olympia resort in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where we stayed for a few days before joining some old friends who lived in that town. We introduced our kids to each other, swam in their local lake and ate at the famous Kiltie Drive-In burger and shake joint.

E’s 6th birthday
On the front porch
E – 1st day of 1st grade

E turned six and began first grade. Around the same time, my mom was feeling quite ill and ultimately was diagnosed at almost 65 years old with Type 1 diabetes. She was hospitalized for a few days which seriously interfered with our babysitting arrangements. For the first time in his life, my dad stayed home alone with a baby, his adored little grandson. He was valiant but I was determined to find a younger more reliable babysitter. Our office attorney recommended the person who took care of his child. So just like that, one day instead of going to my parents’ house, I dropped my 10 month old off at the home of a virtual stranger. That was a tough day. Mom and dad showed up at my office, announcing that they were moving away. They couldn’t get their minds around the idea that I was looking for dependable child care but rather were insulted, feeling rejected. I tried to calm them down so I could get back to work. But later that day, after I picked up my son, they pulled into my driveway, right behind me. When they saw his bedraggled condition, his bib crusted with spaghetti sauce, they started crying as did he, baffled by their disappearance and reappearance. I thought I’d lose my mind but in the end we decided to give them another try, fingers crossed that neither parent would get sick. What a nervous number of months until my kid got old enough to attend the same day care center as my daughter had, where we knew there would be younger caregivers in robust health.

Of course no one can anticipate what can happen on any given day, despite the best-laid plans. One weekend afternoon I went off to run a few quick errands, leaving Michael on the front porch with little H sitting in his rolling walker. When I got back a short while later, they’d disappeared. Poking around the house, I eventually found them in a locked bathroom. I insisted that Michael open the door to let me in. Our kid was in the bathtub, his face and head covered with bloody scrapes. Michael had hoped he’d have him cleaned up with little evidence of the fact that while he was reading the newspaper, our active baby had rolled himself down the front concrete steps. The wheels had locks but they only work when someone locks them. My wrath was boundless, at least for awhile.

Fortunately, little H made it to his first birthday. His always helpful and always partially jealous sister was happy to help him rip the paper off all his presents.

December arrived, the end of a tumultuous year. At age thirty-six I was beginning to realize that all years are filled with tumultuous events, punctuated by stretches of peaceful times, joyous times. I’d begun to develop some life philosophies, one of which was that in order to have a positive, effective life, a person needed to have a strong set of coping skills, the key to getting through whatever was being served up as the problem of the moment. I was definitely an adult, a state which had finally crept up on me while I was busy living. At the end of the month, we had a small family holiday celebration with our kids and my parents.

A definite bonus of having grandparents in town was that going out on NewYear’s Eve was no longer as interesting to them as having their grandchildren spend the night. Michael and I dressed up and went out to take care of ourselves for a bit. On to 1988.

Life Recipes

For thirty-five years, late November meant finding the strategy for hosting Thanksgiving dinner amidst the flurry of daily life as a working mom, wife and daughter. As I carried that mantle which had passed from my grandmother to my mother and to me, I knew that ultimately, I’d be letting go of it, as they had before me. I wanted to be graceful about the transition. My mom constantly bemoaned her stepping away from throwing the big events, even after they were too much for her physically. Eventually my parents died. My kids grew up. I retired from my job. Michael got sick and our last five years together were a rollercoaster of joyous and dark dips and rises. We got all of our last Thanksgivings under our belts, me happy to give Michael his favorite holiday, absent the conflicting feelings we had about the abuse heaped on the indigenous people who welcomed those who’d fled their countries, only to abscond with this new one. When Michael died in May, 2017, one of my first proclamations was that I was done hosting Thanksgiving, ready to pass my responsibilities to my daughter and son-in-law. I’m good with the decision. I did my share. But I’ve still hung on to my preparation notes, part of my historical record.

Grandma
Mom

As the holiday approached this year, an onslaught of memories from my early Thanksgivings, when mom and grandma were in charge, inundated my daily thoughts. Most of the memories were fragrant with the aromas of the dishes which showed up annually, concoctions with their roots in Eastern Europe rather than American traditions. My current assignments include sweet potato pies, cole slaw and cranberry-mandarin orange relish. I can make those with no recipes and blindfolded. But those tasty treats weren’t what I was smelling. I was envisioning my grandmother walking into our apartment with her pink Corningware bowl, full of gefilte fish with a carrot slice across the top. I was visualizing the dark gray oven pans, the ones with lids which when removed, released the fragrance of my mom’s spicy chicken fricassee, a concoction of chicken wings, tiny peppery meatballs and little tender morsels of tangy chicken livers. We dipped slices of eggy challah into the peppery gravy in the bottom of the pan. I realized that for my family, my ultimate absence will mean the disappearance of those old recipes, brought over the ocean by my grandmother in 1920, a steerage passenger on the Rotterdam, illiterate, speaking no English, yet ready to start a new life in a new country. Fifty years after her arrival she finally became a U.S. citizen, taking her test orally as she’d never learned to read.

It’s not like I didn’t have plenty of things to do this past week. I had doctor appointments, swimming, writing, a broken car and a new puppy to train. Although our family members who’ve been part of decades of Thanksgivings are still unable to join us because of Covid issues, I have houseguests and friends converging on my space this week. Regardless of all that, I couldn’t stop feeling an urge to prepare one of the recipes that defined so much of my life. How much more time do I have when I’m able to do the challenging physical work of cooking old school? No one gets to know the answer to that question. I finally decided to make the family recipe for apple strudel. A dense dessert, not too sweet, with a fruity mixture of fresh apples, raisins and dried cherries, mixed with sugar and cinnamon, its trick is in the dough. The maximum thickness is 1/4 inch, which is then smeared with jam, spread with the fruit and rolled so it’s multi-layered. My mother’s instructions are hilarious. “Mix eggs, oil, sugar, orange juice and baking powder. Add flour until the dough feels right.” A daunting task. I decided to go for it. I kept adding flour to the wet ingredients until I got a texture that I could knead with my hands without getting bits of dough stuck to my fingers.

Next, I retrieved my mom’s old hand-held chopper from that kitchen drawer with the odds and ends. Her ancient wooden mixing bowl is always visible in my kitchen. I started chopping fruit.

When I completed preparing the strudel filling, I rolled out dough, sprinkling it with flour so it wouldn’t fall apart or get stuck to the waxed paper I was using on top of my cutting board. I got enough for five separate rolls. Getting them lifted onto greased cookie sheets without them tearing open is another tricky procedure.

Two rolls ready for the oven

My mom’s loose instructions allow for a varied oven temperature and no particular baking time. “Until the dough turns a nice golden brown color.” Ha. I slid the cookie sheets into the oven and hoped that with frequent checking, everything would turn out reasonably well. About an hour later, I pulled them all out and set one aside for taste testing. Fortunately, the flavor was familiar and quite delicious. A simple dessert, with a peasant mystique that harkens back to another time. I felt so pleased and satisfied.

Life recipes are precious bits of family history. Introducing them to those who never tasted the rich dishes of the now deceased matriarchs is a gift to me as well as from me. The afternoon’s effort is a nod to the past and the future. The sweetness of tomorrow’s dessert helps allay the sadness about all those empty places at our table. I’ll pass these recipes on to my kids and hope that when they take my spot they’ll hear the echoes of those voices from the beyond, mine included. Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate.

What’s Going On?

Fall, 1963

In any mid-November I can suddenly be 12 and a half years old. I was paying attention to the big world at the same time I was being an eighth grade kid. I remember the halls of Horace Mann School in Chicago, along with my teachers and my classrooms. Having attended a kindergarten through 8th grade school, I was finally at the top of the pile. I was a good student back then, striving to be on the honor roll.

I was an office helper and a play leader which would earn me service recognition in addition to scholarship awards. When I wore my blue and white graduation ribbons, I would wear a gold pin with blue lettering in their center, acknowledgment that I’d done well. I remember my friends and my crushes from those days, young people who formed the core of my social life, through high school and beyond. I considered myself a basically happy kid with the average worries that are the hallmarks of those bridge years between childhood and young adult life. Thanks to freewheeling family conversations, I also knew a bit about Chicago politics, along with current national issues. I was aware of civil rights inequities and the Bay of Pigs invasion. A child of the Cold War, I worried about nuclear destruction. And then there was the war in Vietnam, vague but unsettling.

Family dinner, fall 1963. My brother took the photo

I don’t suppose anything could have prepared a child, or an adult for that matter, for November 22nd, 1963. That Friday I left school and went home for a quick lunch. Horace Mann didn’t have a cafeteria and, conveniently, I lived right across the street. No one was home, so I ate quickly, then ambled down the block to my friend Judy’s house for a bit of socializing before returning to school for the remainder of the day. Judy’s parents and grandmother all were home and had just seen the bulletin on the television news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Anxiety and fear were palpable in the adults, rapidly spreading to us kids. We were told that the best thing we could do was return to school. Before too long, as we sat in our rooms, we were all alerted to the fact that Kennedy was dead. I was in French class with Mrs. Shannon teaching at the front of the room. She sent for a television set which was wheeled into the room on a cart. She told us that we could watch the news or put our heads down on our desks, whichever made us most comfortable. Some kids were crying. I watched the television, mostly seeing the same images and hearing the same announcements over and over. Somehow the school day ended. On Friday evenings, our family usually had dinner with my grandparents. We drove to Blue Island, a suburb on the southwest side of Chicago, where we all ate our supper in front of the black and white screen. I remember both the nervous uncertainty we all felt, coupled with the comfort of our familiar routine. Every time anyone tried to be funny, though, we all felt somewhat embarrassed and weird. The rest of the weekend was spent watching the news unfold, when like most Americans who had televisions, we were riveted by that box which meted out all the photos and videos, Jackie’s bloodstained suit, LBJ being sworn in as President on Air Force One, Bobby Kennedy helping Jackie from the plane. In those moments, in my innocence, I felt like everyone in the country was experiencing the same emotions. I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live tv. Weren’t we all alike then, during that terrifying moment? I couldn’t possibly have conceived that there were people who were glad to see the young, relatively liberal Kennedy go down. I didn’t understand the complexity of the divisions that were always seething in this country, no matter what the tragedies, small and large, every day.

Graduation day, 1964

In June, 1964, I learned more about how suddenly everything can change and go dark. My brother, who was impulsive, unstable and heartbroken over losing his longtime girlfriend to her acting ambitions, had quit college and enlisted for four years in the Air Force. His hitch would ultimately take him to the Philippines where he would become well-acquainted with the burgeoning war in Vietnam. On the morning of my eighth grade graduation, my little toddler cousin died of a common, and today, curable bronchiolitis. My parents needed to be with my grieving aunt, uncle and young nephew. Wearing my older sister’s hand-me-down prom dress, I went through my big day without the support and pride of my mom and dad. I think maybe my sister snapped the photo of me. My thoughts were getting more complex. Just what kind of world was this anyway? What huge gaps existed between so many groups in our culture? I thought that maybe life would get significantly better when in July, 1964, LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Ostensibly, it did, as archaic Jim Crow rules were dismantled, allowing everyone the same privileges I’d thought were constitutionally guaranteed. But again, I was naïve. Growing up in the tumultuous ‘60’s, I learned more about racial injustice, class injustice and sexism. I wanted to be on what I felt was the right side of history and spent years convinced that ultimately, with enough hard work, real change would finally happen.

Me speaking at a demonstration in the early’70’s. Photo: Tom P.

Fifty eight years have passed since the Kennedy assassination. On this evening before that anniversary, I find myself remembering Marvin Gaye’s 1970 anthem, “What’s Going On,” which marked that moment when an artist transitioned into political discourse. The lyrics are still so relevant today as I mull over the brazen, out-in-the-open racism that remains a blight on this country. Yes, that song was more a commentary on the tumultuous societal discord over the Vietnam war, but that war was also riddled with racial inequities. I am stunned by the decision of the jury who acquitted a young white male, who drove across state lines with an automatic weapon, ostensibly to police a demonstration, who shot and killed two people and wounded a third. An acquittal. I watched the judge in that trial behave with blatant prejudice. Anyone who lives in this country knows that its judicial system is grossly unfair to people of color and particularly to those with black skin. The people rallying behind this flawed, racist justice are in the same cohort as those systematically gerrymandering voting districts in multiple states to ensure the disenfranchisement of those people who overwhelmingly sent a Democrat to the White House in 2020. The same people who have decried the “rigged, stolen” election are systematically working to ensure that the next one will be their get. I am no longer naïve. But, what’s going on? Fear, lies and misrepresentations are providing cover for what apparently is the civil war which never really ended. Although certainly not the majority, the angles by which a minority can control the outcomes of elections, legislation and the courts is being actively pursued and designed by that minority. Unnerving polls suggest almost a somnolence by large swaths of the population which say they want what is being attempted by the current government in power, while also stating that they’re ready for a change. Trying to make sense of the contradictions is maddening. So much nonsense is accepted without analysis. I can’t understand how to think my way through what to me is essentially unthinkable. What’s going on? I am saddened, horrified, angry and mystified all at once. Scared, too. We live in a culture that is like an armed camp, where violence is pervasive and life is held in low regard. Dystopian is a word that’s tossed around frequently but I’m thinking nihilism is more apt. I am unnerved by all of it.

Other Novembers in my life have been marked by eye-opening sadness since that first momentous one in 1963. Tomorrow marks the loss of a dear young thirteen year old girl, Molly, a friend of my daughter’s whose death on the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination made tragedy even more palpable and unthinkable than I’d imagined. In November of 2013, Michael, who’d seemed to have outmaneuvered his Merkel Cell cancer discovered in 2012, had a CT scan which showed widespread bony metastatic disease. He was given a prognosis of two to three months, absent treatment. What a dark holiday season we shared at the end of that November. Of course, with luck and much research, we squeezed out a few more wonderful years together. But Novembers are sobering for me. And in this one, as I remember the others, I ponder what’s going on and what will be with a significant amount of trepidation.

Thinking About The Ends

Way back in the fall of 1978, when we moved into our house, we were the youngsters on the block. Our closest neighbors were all in their late 40’s, a couple of them a bit older than that. Their children were grown and out of their houses, as these people had their babies at least a decade sooner, if not more, than we did. We were still all about us. In the four houses on our side of the block, together we totaled eight adults. At this time four of those, including Michael, are dead. He was the baby of that subgroup. Our neighbors to the north, Bill and Marilyn, moved away in the early 2000’s when Marilyn fell and broke her hip on the asphalt driveway. Bill insisted on having it resurfaced every year, until absurdly tall, navigating its height grew dangerous . They moved to a senior citizens’ enclave on the east side of town. Marilyn died a few years later. Bill is still alive and has a new lady friend.

Paint job in progress

Our neighbors immediately south of us, Bob and LouAnn, were our favorites, the kind of people you think about when you hear the phrase “good neighbors.” They were friendly, helpful and supportive. When Michael had back surgery in the midst of painting our house, Bob was always lurking around our driveway when I came home from work, a paintbrush stuffed in his back pocket. “Need any help?” he’d ask. Of course we did. LouAnn found out that Michael loved rhubarb so he was always the lucky recipient of a pie when the rhubarb was harvested. Once Bob pulled a hungry tick from my baby son’s head because I was terrified I wouldn’t get the whole thing out. Our kids got homemade popcorn balls and apples at their house on Halloween. Bob, a diehard Republican, crossed over and voted for my very liberal husband when he ran for alderman. They came over to our house for family gatherings and birthday parties. We developed relationships with their families. Bob died in his seventies, felled by a brain tumor in 2000. LouAnn went on for more years. She saved all the news articles about my kids’ accomplishments. When she just had to have ham salad, I ran to get it from the grocery store. As she aged, we looked out for her, especially during power outages and other scary events like storms. Eventually, she succumbed to dementia, moved into a care facility, where ultimately, she died in October, 2012. Fortunately her daughter, a friend a bit younger than us, is now the owner and occupant of her childhood home.

Juanita and John lived on the other side of Bob and LouAnn’s house. We took a little while getting to know them. Nita was a nurse who worked in my obstetrician’s office. When I was pregnant with my daughter, she swapped appointments with another nurse who was a friend of mine over the full term of my pregnancy. During the last ten days when I was overdue and ordered to stop working, to simply rest at home, she dropped by to see how I was feeling on her way home from work. She was warm, kind and reassuring. John was more distant, a person who emanated rigidity. To me, they were an interesting match. John was politically conservative. When Michael knocked on their door during his first campaign, John ordered him off the property as they’d never vote for someone like him. A pretty drastic attitude, we thought. But somehow over time, we’d all wind up chatting across driveways and back fences. When John was invited to bring a child along on a special small biplane ride he’d won in some drawing, he took our daughter. Over the years, he went through multiple coronary bypass surgery which was humbling for him. I still remember him walking slowly up and down the block leaning on the much smaller Nita for support. He was so happy to be alive that his outer crust crumbled significantly. Nita survived cervical cancer. John was petrified of losing her and wept on the street as we sympathized with him. Our interest and concern for them both touched him and as decades passed, we built quite the cozy old school neighborhood that felt like 1950’s television. They were lovely to me when Michael died. Today they’re both still alive at ages 91 and 90. Nita has trouble with walking and stability. John, who is frail, plagued by failing vision, and coping with a big dose of forgetfulness, still comes outside to do yard work and especially, to mow. John mows. A lot. His yard is well-manicured. I have no idea how he keeps going but I suspect stopping might mean the end for him. In winter, he clears his sidewalks along with that of Bob and LouAnn’s. I’m not sure remembers that people more than 20 years his junior now live in that house. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

In my front yard – Photo credit – M. Mitchell

I think there’s one person older than me who lives further down my block, but otherwise it’s just me, John and Juanita who are still here, decades after I first moved into my house with Michael. Eventually, while some were busy living and others dying, abruptly or over time, with good health and good luck, I find myself suddenly at the head of the line, the line closer to the end. The generation preceding mine has mostly fallen away and I am staring mortality in the face. At least that’s how I feel. Fewer people are standing between me and the inevitability of “the end.” I don’t feel the least bit morbid, but rather practical. I could keel over quickly or live for a much longer time. With each passing day, the end comes closer. That’s just my truth.

Me at about 5 years old.

I’ve been experiencing “the ends” for a long time. When I was the little kid in that photo, lying on that couch, thinking my little kid thoughts, I was already aware that people can vanish from your life. Even back then, I wondered why we didn’t talk more about happens to everyone. As I grew up, I started figuring out that human lifespans are pretty short. I wanted desperately to be sure that I didn’t squander too much of my precious time. I got to be fast, confrontational, moving as quickly as I could through energy-draining situations and energy-draining people. I can’t say exactly how I would measure my full capacity for living but I’m trying hard to squeeze as much out of myself as I can before I can’t. Being close to many deaths of my most loved people has created a singular focus in me, to be fully aware of how I’m living each day and getting the most from whatever I’m doing. The pandemic, the dystopian politics at home and abroad, none of which I can change, have only increased my desire to be fully present and aware in the moments I have. Who knows when my end is coming? Not me. But I think about it. I’d like to go out satisfied that I’d appreciated my life as best I could, especially after the egregious unexpected end of Michael which has been my greatest challenge. How would I ever again feel joy? This past summer, after having my garden become an unexpected way station for countless monarchs on their journey south to Mexico, I stood in the midst of the whirring orange and black wings and felt an overwhelming bliss that I thought I’d never experience again. The natural world is joyous to me.

As the summer months slipped away, I was anxious about whether a real fall season would arrive. Climate change, a drought for a few months and stubborn clinging green leaves convinced me that autumn would come and go in a flash, followed by another dreary COVID winter. I was wrong. The slow transition in color began in mid-October. Every day for the past month, the sun has set on the trees and shrubs which overnight, seem to dip themselves into the brilliant oils and acrylics daubed on canvases by artists for centuries, as they try to capture nature’s magic. Despite big winds and rainstorms, the rich reds, oranges and yellows have hung on and deepened. Every day, I drive down the streets of my neighborhood and through the parks, astonished that I can be dazzled no matter how often I witness this beauty. I don’t need to travel anywhere to see fall colors. Spectacular has parked itself on my front doorstep. As I’ve mulled over the passage of time, my place in life’s line and all the ends I’ve witnessed, these two amazing seasons have taught me that if you have to make your exit, going out after having immersed yourself fully in rich experiences goes a long way to making endings feel more acceptable. I don’t know my future. But I’ve gotten a lot from the present. Here are some photos of my autumn joy.

And for good measure, a brilliant sunset followed by moonlight.

The end. For now.

Life on Broadway – Chapter 7 – 1986 – Some Big Events

Challenger explosion January 28, 1986

I suppose I can cut myself a little slack about not remembering every single detail about 1986. I do recall Reagan being in the midst of his second vacuous term, an altogether exhausting experience. January was burned in my brain because of watching the Challenger explode scant seconds after launching. As with most of the big terrible events, I watched it happen over and over on television, all the while thinking of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was setting a precedent as the first one to ever go to space. I grieved for her family, as well as the families of the others who’d died. Our daughter was approaching four and a half years old. She was the queen of ear infections and was wan during the winter months. Michael and I were trying for kid number two. He was approaching his 37th birthday while I was hitting 35. As with our first attempt, things were crawling along. I do remember thinking that it seemed unfair that people who didn’t want to have kids got pregnant so easily while we took so long. Then I’d remember people who could never become pregnant and felt guilty.

Little E, sick with one of her zillion ear infections.

We had some big events coming up that year. Our school district had decided to offer a full-time kindergarten program instead of just a half day. There was to be a lottery for the limited number of slots. We were hopeful about getting one as even back then, day care costs took a big bite out of our income. On top of that change, my parents had made the decision to move to our community after finally realizing that neither me nor my younger sister were ever planning on moving back to Chicago. Because of my job in property assessment, I was tasked with finding them a comfortable place to live. I was pretty stressed. I’d always taken on a lot of responsibility regarding my mom and dad, and this time, was most anxious about ensuring that they’d be pleased with their surroundings. Moving away from the city where they were born and had spent most of their lives was a big deal. I was edgy, had taken on too much and was pretty cranky. My folks came to see the duplex I’d found early in the year and thankfully, were more than satisfied. They returned home to prepare for their move while I started acquiring the little items to make them feel homey. In their mid-sixties, they’d never lived in a place with their own washer and dryer. This new place would forever end the miserable trips to the laundromat.

At some point in the first two weeks of February, I finally got pregnant. Back then there weren’t accurate pregnancy tests for early detection so we didn’t know we were having a baby. I was somewhat suspicious but was waiting until more time had passed before trying to get confirmation. Meanwhile E. developed chickenpox. I remember her bouncing into our bedroom early in the morning, oblivious to the fact that spots were popping out all over her body and that she was broiling with fever. Good times. Actually we thought her delirium was quite entertaining as she chattered away in her own stream of consciousness. She was always a relatively uncomplaining patient.

Every March, I attended a professional conference where I took one of the two classes required annually to maintain my designation as a certified assessment official for the state. I’d bought a pregnancy test to take with me as I was fairly certain I’d conceived. The night before I left, Michael and I had a “date nightas I’d be gone for several days. I no longer remember the topic which wound up enraging both of us, Michael to the point where he hopped out of the car to stalk back home. We could do tempestuous fighting like nobody else. I woke early the next morning to drive the few hours to the conference where I was busy all day. In that pre-cell phone time, I didn’t call home the first night away. But the next morning I used my pregnancy test, got a positive result and called Michael to inform him in a snotty way that he was going to be a father again. I guess I can blame hormones for my behavior. I recall that I was staying in a Hilton hotel, ostensibly a nice one, and that a cockroach crawled up the bathroom wall as I was sharing my exciting news.

E. at her day care center’s Purim party, April, 1986.

Back home, I started seeing my obstetrician. I enjoyed being pregnant, I suppose primarily because I never experienced nausea. Meanwhile, we were busy helping our daughter grow, participating in all the events at her day care center, continuing to prepare for my parents’ arrival in late spring and working on our own house, which we’d now taken over completely from apartment dwellers so each kid could have a room. We were busy but in a good way.

Michael in white holding hands with our lanky 4 year old.
Baby number 2 already obvious.

May arrived. A big month for us, we celebrated our fourteenth year of living together as well as our tenth wedding anniversary. My birthday, on the 24th, was followed by Hands Across America, a charitable fundraising event which took place on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Between 5 to 6 million participated coast to coast. I think it was the first public service event or demonstration to which we brought our kid.

In June, we took a short trip to the Indiana Dunes. Any time in Lake Michigan was always restorative for both Michael and me. E. hadn’t been too fond of water during her first couple of years but by four she was coming around. We’d dropped swimming lessons when she was three. With a styrofoam “egg” strapped around her middle, I’d been bringing her to the pool where I got to listen to her screaming “get me out of here!” as she paddled along. Michael said we shouldn’t let her be a quitter until he came with me one day and realized we were wasting time and money. After the summer of ‘86 we tried again with more positive results. Back home, we reached the end of June when my parents finally moved into their duplex, less than five minutes from our house.

I also had a sonogram around that time when I was estimated to be around seventeen weeks pregnant. That was my first and only sonogram, quite different from all the snazzy photos that are available in today’s technologically advanced times. We had no idea whether anyone could determine the baby’s sex from that blurry image but in any case, we wanted to be surprised.

Fourth of July parade, 1986
E with my mom in our backyard

Having extended family nearby was a good thing for everyone. We’d made a family of friends but there truly is no substitute for grandparents. My parents adored my daughter who was so lucky to have the extra attention and company, especially with a sibling arriving in a few months. We spent the 4th of July together and took E. to the County Fair for fun rides and delicious awful food. My cousin and her husband, who had previously lived in California but had moved to Ohio, were glad to have our side of the family within driving distance, beginning a visiting tradition that would last decades.

When August came we got the good news that E. had gotten into the full-time kindergarten program. She would be starting school at the end of the month on her fifth birthday. She would be one of the youngest kids in her class but she was tall, smart and mature for her age. We were delighted. That month brought her the first bicycle of her life, a hand-me-down from one of my brother’s daughters. Michael gave it a thorough tune-up before teaching her to ride. Naturally athletic, for her that process was brief. Out main problem was controlling her impulsive tendencies which led her to cross a really busy street without our permission. And so began the years of hearts in our mouths and punishments that fit the crimes. Life was never dull.

First bike
First day of kindergarten
She-Ra cake at school

The end of August brought me into pregnancy anxiety. E. was a big baby, almost 11 pounds which meant I was at risk for gestational diabetes. I had a wretched glucose tolerance test which involved drinking what tasted like sugared orange sludge, followed by a blood draw every hour for four hours. Bequeathed the tiny invisible veins of my mom by genetic chance, it took 13 pokes to get four tubes of blood. My arms looked like banana peels gone rotten. The end result indicated an elevation in my blood sugar. I didn’t have to take any medication because my levels weren’t severe but I was unnerved. I’d planned a natural delivery after having E. by caesarean but wasn’t sure how a long labor might affect me or the baby. I vacillated for weeks. In September, I remember that Michael and I attended an annual broom corn festival we’d always enjoyed. He got angry because I ate a homemade taffy apple there, as I’d done in previous years. He was alarmed that I was endangering my health. Nobody’s perfect, even a worried mom-to-be. That month flew by, topped by an unexpected, impulsive addition to our lives, initiated by him.

Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog

In my eighth month of pregnancy he surprised me by bringing home a springer spaniel puppy, despite the fact that we had our mature border collie Ribeye. We’d always had two dogs but had lost his Irish setter, Harpo, months earlier. Manfred was named after a cartoon character from our childhood. I couldn’t believe he’d just showed up with this new dog, but he was irresistible. Our family was burgeoning. October zoomed by. E. had a monarch butterfly costume for Halloween and I was thrown a baby shower by good friends. Also memorable was a strep skin infection that E. developed which required damp medicated dressings. I picked up strep throat while treating her and started a course of antibiotics. In my eighth day of treatment, I developed a rash all over my body and was declared allergic to penicillin. I’d had enough body issues. After consulting with my doctor, I scheduled a caesarean for slightly a week earlier than my due date. The baby was a good size and I was eager to get this kid born healthy.

E as a monarch butterfly
Baby shower
Me with my younger sister

On Sunday afternoon, November 2nd, I was admitted to Burnham City Hospital. Our daughter was born at Mercy, a Catholic hospital, but I was planning to have a tubal ligation after delivery which couldn’t be performed there. Michael and E. stayed with me for awhile but had to go home so she could get up for school the next morning. So I was alone, feeling my Braxton-Hicks contractions and chatting with the experienced maternity nurses. They were periodically monitoring the baby’s heartbeat and confidently predicted that I would deliver a boy as the heart rate was lower than the typical girl’s rate. I lay there wondering if they were right, trying to figure out what I could do to raise the kind of male child I’d be able to like later in life. The next morning, Michael arrived and joined me in the surgical theater. This experience was quite different from the hurried preparations after my 44 hour labor with E. When the anesthesiologist injected my spinal block and then quickly lay me back on the flat hard table, I felt like my stomach was in my throat. He perceived my discomfort immediately and correctly said it would pass quickly. At 8:19 am, I delivered an 8 pound, 15 ounces baby boy. I called out to our pediatrician to find out his Apgar scores. The doctor said he got two 9’s and I said, “why not 10’s?” He replied, “ everything can’t be perfect.” With a healthy baby out, we gave the go-ahead for the tubal ligation. No more birth control for us. I didn’t want to spend too much time in recovery apart from the baby, so I refused pain medication. As my gurney jounced along the hallways, my pain was intense. When I got to my room, the nurse told Michael to wait outside as they were really going to hurt me. And they did. But at last I was in my bed from where I promptly requested my baby and my drugs.

Michael brought E. to meet the baby after school. She was sick and wore a mask. Years later, she said that when we weren’t looking, she pulled it down to blow her germs on him. He didn’t get sick but I did. I was in the hospital for days with a fever and a terrible cough. Our little guy got jaundice but he was gaining lots of weight for a newborn. The doctor thought my milk had a high cream content. Meanwhile I had a nerve caught in one of the staples sealing my incision. I wouldn’t say that was the greatest week of my life but eventually it ended as all trials do. Here’s the photo of little H on the day we brought him home from the hospital.

We had a quiet Thanksgiving with family. Michael sent me off to parties with the baby in tow because of all my hard work during the pregnancy.

I had three months maternity leave. I was hyper-focused on this little baby as I knew he was my last. The additional attention-getter was understanding and working with our daughter who wasn’t thrilled to have lost her status as “the only one.” Parenting is intense and endless.

Those eyes say everything.

My boss,who was also my dear friend, told me I could bring my newbie to work for another month after the first three ended. From there he’d stay with my parents for whose presence I was beyond grateful.

The last photos of 1986 are all of this sweet boy, born with the angelic disposition. We felt lucky. We were.

When You Don’t Send Birthday Greetings and Other Reflections

Al in 1970

Today is Albert’s birthday. I’ve always remembered it since I learned what day it was way back in 1969. Like many numbers, birthdays seem to get stuck in my memory. Many of them make no sense to me, as the people whose special days I remember are often those I haven’t seen since I was a child in elementary school. I actually haven’t laid eyes on Albert since 1974. I came dangerously close to seeing him in 1975 when I was on a trip in California, visiting my friend Fern, while deciding if Michael was really the right person for me to be with for the rest of my life. Al was my first big love, after some innocent high school crushes. Our three year on and off love story was twisty, painful, ecstatic, tempestuous and often brutal. Being with him almost broke me. I know that I was often exhausted, insecure and filled with self-loathing during that time. For years I thought if I could wait out his immaturity and reluctance to be in a committed relationship at too early an age, we’d wind up together. Letting go of that fantasy was a difficult process for me which eventually got easier when I made my cosmic friendship connection with Michael in 1971. After eight months of that soothing, burgeoning bond, I finally broke away from Al as I ultimately transitioned with Michael into life partners. But that wasn’t easy for me.

Me with Al, Fall 1969

I have always made intense connections with people. Keeping them is a theme in my life. I am loyal while at the same time, quite cautious about who I’ll trust. For the most part, if I’ve felt emotionally betrayed, I’ll walk away and never look back. But walking away from my first true love was a big ask for me. I’d always felt like love wasn’t the problem between Al and me. We weren’t able to get past what felt mostly to me was simply bad timing. The rule was you weren’t supposed to be too serious in college, at least for him. There was a constant push-pull which was torturous for me. But I always loved him. My ultimate leaving was both an intellectual and emotional decision. I knew I could never trust him after all the havoc he’d caused with my sense of security. And I’d found a healthier, more secure passion with Michael. Even with Michael, though, I took several years trying to be sure we could navigate our differences. With that California trip, Al, who finally felt ready to be with me, used all his sway to convince me to travel from San Francisco where I was with Fern, to Los Angeles where he was completing a PhD and preparing for law school. Thankfully, I understood that seeing him again, no matter what the outcome, would be a crushing blow to Michael and me. I had just enough good sense to say no to a visit. I returned home having avoided my impulse. Michael and I were married the following year.

Fern

Over the years, being well-loved by Michael went a long way in healing the scars on my psyche which had so changed me during that tumultuous time with Albert. I moved on with my life and was glad I’d been so lucky. I saw myself as a survivor of reckless, immature mental abuse. Being whole despite that reality was a win. I didn’t ever forget Al but I didn’t talk to him again for thirteen years. I contacted him when my beloved Fern died. She’d been in love with Al’s college roommate for a few years and I wanted to find him to let him know of her death. When I called Al, his wife answered the phone. I identified myself by name, adding that I was an old college friend. When he came to the phone, he sounded excited. I heard him say, “yes, Leslie, it’s that Renee.” I was so stunned. In all the years since he’d been out of my life, I’d never once thought of him telling anyone, wife included, anything about our past history. Perspective is fascinating. I was wounded enough to believe that despite the power of our feelings, that I was the only one who walked away with real pain and damage. That phone call was a jolt. I could tell immediately that he was way too interested in prolonging our conversation, that his marriage was probably in trouble, and that as a feminist, I never wanted to undermine another woman who was in a bad spot. When we hung up the phone, I understood that I couldn’t be Al’s old friend. After 1988, I didn’t communicate with him for a few decades. Years later, a mutual acquaintance told me Al had since divorced and remarried. He also said that he was markedly changed and quite unlike the person we knew when he was young. Sometime in the mid-2000’s, I opened Facebook and found myself staring at his still recognizable face. The algorithms which suggest friends to you was possibly the reason for his appearance but after checking him out, I realized we had no friends in common. I sent him a friendly, chatty note saying I was surprised he’d reached out to look for me, along with some details about my life. And just like that he vanished. I could only assume he wasn’t savvy about how the platform worked and was embarrassed to be “discovered.” I never heard anything further from him and never found him again. My life was full and busy so on I went. Subsequently, my mom’s needs, my kids’ needs and ultimately, Michael’s cancer blotted thoughts of Al out of my mind. Still, every year, I always remembered his birthday.

In the spring of 2017, as Michael’s health steadily declined and he spent a great deal of time sleeping, I began sorting out papers and memorabilia from the past to prepare for what I’d decided would be more an exhibit of his various iterations rather than a traditional celebration of life. During the hours selecting what treasures I’d use for his event, I found a few pieces of writing from Al to me, written in the early ‘70’s. I decided to write him a note, explaining what was going on with Michael and to ask him if he was interested in seeing those interesting epistles he’d written so long ago. His response was polite; he wished me luck and said he wasn’t great at connecting with the past. The blur of Michael’s death and the next several months left little time to dwell on that. But near the end of the year, I sent Al a note explaining why I’d initiated contact with him years earlier and abruptly ended it. I thought that at this time in our lives, we might have at least some sort of connection. As people have disappeared from my life and knowing that the future holds more and more loss, I thought there was value in keeping in touch with those who’d once been so significant in my world. That met with a really negative response from him. A while later, my old friend Brenda sent me the photo of me and Al on the front steps of the student union on campus, taken on the first day we’d gotten to know each other. In the spring of 2018, I sent him the photos and got a thank you email. I thought I’d ask if perhaps we might stay in touch after all but was rebuked by an abrupt response which made it clear that I should go back where I came from. I wrote him a response expressing my surprise that after over 50 years, even minimal contact was more than he could manage, but that I would honor his feelings. I thought for a long time about all the unknown but clearly negative emotions I seemed to elicit from him. For so long I thought I was the damaged party in our relationship but clearly, my view was too self-focused. His desire to leave everything back in that old time still seems weird to me and is really the only instance in which I’ve been unable to share a few memories with an important person from my past. I haven’t reached out to him since then. Sometimes I wonder if he’s still alive or if I’ll ever know if he’s dead. I find that idea that he could simply no longer exist without my knowing to be unnerving and creepy. For some reason, it just feels wrong. But oh well. I guess I’ll just continue to remember his birthday without ever acknowledging it until either my memory fades or I’m gone myself. In the end, I suppose our differences were always as serious from our very beginning as they proved to be late in our lives.

Switching from the personal to the greater world, I’ve been noting the significant changes in my community. I’ve recently photographed three vacant businesses within a few blocks of my home. With the increased freedom provided by my vaccines and the generally accepted mask-wearing in town, I’ve ventured further out of my smallish pandemic route and noticed the economic devastation wrought during this lengthy change to people’s habits. I’m thinking that many of these shuttered facilities are never coming back. Urban blight is evident. I suppose that perhaps the issue of the supply chain might ultimately resolve but I just took the photo below two days ago, in what was formerly a fully-stocked grocery store. Conversations with friends in different cities include discussions of the same issue. Anyone not noticing the big price increases on virtually everything must be wealthy enough to be able to absorb the financial bumps. On top of the scary politics, these are worrisome issues.

On a lighter and more positive note, I’d had great concerns about whether this year’s dry, hot summer would devolve into a drab autumn. Trees were still green and beginning to go brown without the glorious colors which are dazzling and the best part of the four-season area of this country. Thankfully, the past few weeks have brought a brilliant show to my designated tree city. I’ll end with some of my favorite photos I’ve taken recently which make the coming winter easier to bear.

October Surprise

Joe Manchin – Photo credit – Washington Post
Kirsten Sinema – Photo credit – AP
Atlanta Braves – Photo credit – The Guardian

Most of the October surprises I know about have entered the American lexicon as either political shocks that alter the outcomes of primarily presidential elections or underdog baseball teams that wind up winning the World Series. Generally, I wander through Octobers making sure I remember birthdays and anniversaries, a few of which I’d like to forget, like my wicked witch mother-in-law’s. Some months seem to have these clusters of events involving other people’s memories rather than ones personal to me.

Additionally, my Octobers are spent hunting for the best fall colors dripping from the many trees in my city, or noting what’s still blooming in my garden and comparing this year’s plant survivors to those of the past. This has been an unusual month. I’ve been exasperated and furious about the logjam in Congress where these two contrary senators are clogging up critical bills and squandering the opportunity to make significant changes which will benefit millions of people. The level of dysfunction has been torturous to watch although I’m constantly reminded that traditional politics have never been my go-to place for optimism anyway. At this point I’m more desperate about not hurtling back to early 20th century mores, along with hoping the ostriches ignoring the severity of climate change, will wake up and do something before the planet is reduced to ash. I search for respite where I can find it. And I also muse about my life’s journey. How did I get to here from there? I wish I could remember everything. While poking around in my memory, I started having vague recollections about having an important turning point happening in a long-ago October. I chewed on this notion for awhile. What happened 50 years ago in October, 1971? I was just past twenty. I was still convulsing emotionally from the humiliating on again – off again relationship with my first grownup love. I’d been taking a mental beating for a couple of years and was pretty jaded for someone so young. As a chronic journal writer, I have all the painful evidence of those times in writing. Every now and then I think I should burn it all, but I don’t. Those pages are my truth, uncomfortable as they often make me feel. As I mulled over that time, I had one of those “aha” moments. I’d met Michael in August of 1971. The mysterious mind-meld that occurred on that night we attended the wedding of a mutual friend is now, and has always, made me feel inadequate in finding the language to describe the remarkable instantaneous fusion that happened to us. My need to build on that friendship was immediate and profound and happily was reciprocated by Michael. And then I remembered the significance of late October all those years ago. One night, I sat alone writing, marveling at this remarkable serendipitous meeting which had shown me a new way of feeling that I’d thought was impossible and out of my reach. Because I had mysteriously landed on the right point in time, I was able to locate the page I’d written quite easily.

I have all our most sentimental letters, notes and emotional mementoes in a big binder that’s readily accessible. Sure enough, that’s where it was, in its logical place.

I’m a much better writer now than I was back then. Decades back, I hadn’t learned that less was better, nor that being overly-dramatic wasn’t necessarily the best way to convey emotion. And those run-on sentences. Groan. I’d recently taken a class in Romantic English poetry and was busy with Wordsworth, among other poets, and I had a particular obsession with his ode on Tintern Abbey. Frequently, I feel a strong sense of embarrassment at the profoundly sentimental style of these pieces, but yet I realize that knowing my life had taken a new direction at the exact time when it did, and being able to express that change at such a young age certainly has value. I think that identifying big transitions when you’re just a kid is kind of wonderful. I remember my original intent in writing this blog was to leave a record of my experiences for my kids, ones that pre-dated their existence. So here is such a moment in its unvarnished, embarrassing original form.

Me – 1971

I’m listening to music and as usual here comes the barrage of feelings. But with a heightening joy at achieving an understanding, a relationship beyond the rampant superficiality floating everywhere, a connection that is omnipresent, omniscient, not so much on specifics but on the sensing of my pain and problems, my happiness and expectations. This relationship transcends the physical, traveling to remote areas of consciousness, and with that utter, intuitive knowledge and depth, comes total relaxation and an easiness filled with pleasure. The strength of it, its passions bring me close to ecstatic tears.

And I know that finally I have reached an ultimate plateau with someone where petty differences, disputes and opposing views are immaterial. This before “the presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts,” and now I understand you almost entirely, William Wordsworth. Though you reached your version of heaven by communion with nature, with the earth, while I have with a human nature, I truly understand the euphoria I have so long ached for and almost gave up on. I’ve seen a plain face, at least at first sight, the same as anyone’s on the street. And a body like others I’ve seen, a glance of acknowledgment, simply of an existence, nothing more. A face and a body which now are beautiful, exceptional and so meaningful that my once casual glance now sees a soul, fully written in eyes and facial expressions, a slouch, a hand patting a dog. A soul so close to mine it feels all my knowledge, lingering in my direction but an instant where we bask, momentarily in total freedom.

We are not lovers, except in our minds. I don’t know if we’ll ever share ourselves in that lovely physical passion, but how suddenly irrelevant. For there I know him too, his gentleness and tender heart reaching out, innocently, despite his past pains, to that pure clean place in love. His pain, the onslaughts on him hurt me as equally as they do him, and within myself, I arm for battle to fight those foolish blind people who cause so much misery as they twist in their own confusion. I love you, Michael.

So there it is, my youthful missive from 50 years ago, written to this magic man with whom six months later, I would jump the gap from just friends, to friends and lovers, as we’d remain until his death in May, 2017. The writing is imperfect but I’m glad I saved it. The beginning of our life together, recorded for posterity. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

Fever Thoughts From A Time Lapse

Credit – Reuters

The day after the Moderna booster was approved by the FDA and the CDC, I rolled up my sleeve to be finished with vaccinations for this year. I wanted to know that I’d done what I could do to protect myself and anyone around me. What happens next? Who knows? In an unprecedented time, you use your best judgement after assessing the data available. No one can predict what may happen, even a few months from now. But at that moment, I was finished. I had no reaction to the vaccine late that afternoon or evening or even the next morning. I was busy going through routine chores. While in the kitchen I noticed some bananas just this side of going rotten and decided I’d turn them into a banana bread. But I was short one banana. I called my son-in-law to see if he could spare one and when he confirmed that he did, I was grateful that my daughter and her family having chosen to live right across the street. I made a quick trip to get their spare, had a brief chat, and returned home. Within minutes I felt my temperature rise, developed a pounding headache and a withering fatigue which slammed me into my recliner. I spent the next twelve miserable hours there. I wasn’t really surprised. I’d had similar reactions to my two previous injections. Although I have no evidence to support my theory, I’m all but certain I had Covid in February, 2020. After a wretched week of a head-throbbing fevered state, painful rib-wracking cough and body aches, I’d noted in my journal that I’d lost my sense of taste and smell. No testing was available at the time I put all the pieces together. So I’ll never know if I had antibodies built up after that infection, perhaps making multiple vaccinations redundant. In the long run, it doesn’t much matter. But oh the places I go when my brain is boiling.

Violet

I’ve been without a pet since January when I had to euthanize my elderly rescue dog Violet. Violet wasn’t the dog I was looking for, just a few months after Michael died. She was at a shelter which primarily houses the smaller collie version, the shetland sheep dog, which I thought was a better match for someone in my age group. But there was poor Violet, a former show dog, aged 8 and 1/2, who’d been kicked to the curb after winning as many blue ribbons as she ever would. An animal who’d been debarked, lived most of her life crated and made no eye contact with humans, she was the perfect reclamation project for me, the caregiver with no one in my care at that point. We spent three and a half years together and by then, she’d become as close to a real pet as she was able. You actually can teach an old dog new tricks. Then she was gone. Since I was 17 years old, except for a few months, I’ve always had a dog. So this recent time with no patter of four paws has definitely been a big change for me. I’ve been thinking about what to do about it.

Bandit

Look at this adorable dog. Last week, I randomly glanced through the available pups at my local shelter and this face, that of a bright, beautiful border collie was staring at me. You don’t often see them in shelters. The next day I drove over to the facility to be the first person to see him. He was pretty loud which is fairly typical for the breed. I had a border collie for 15 years. She was smart, a herder, a dog who stared into your eyes, trying to anticipate what you wanted, what you needed and what was the next assignment. I adored her.

Ribeye

Ribeye was loyal, loving and busy. I knew what I could expect from this breed. Bandit was three years old. The owners who’d relinquished him to the shelter had purchased him as one year old from someone on Craig’s List. After two years with him, they’d given him up. When I sat with him in a room to see what he was like, I noticed his alertness to all the action he heard going on just the other side of the door.

He responded to his name and to the “sit” command but he wasn’t able to focus. In addition, he was bald from his withers or shoulder area all the way back to his tail. When I inquired about the cause of this hairlessness, I was told that his previous owners said they’d been treating a non-specific skin flare without veterinary intervention. They also said he’d started nipping at them and their grandchildren. The shelter said they’d put him on an antibiotic for his skin and attributed his nipping to his herding instincts. Ribeye never nipped anyone in her life, even when she exhibited herding behavior. I suspected that Bandit had been crated for long hours and perhaps had started chewing at his body out of boredom and lack of exercise. I also thought he’d missed the early training these highly intelligent dogs pick up fast when they’re taught from puppyhood. I went by myself to look at Bandit. My family has been encouraging me to get a pet. I wanted the only voice in my head while weighing this choice to be mine. I filled out the application for adoption and was told I’d be contacted within two days about the shelter’s decision. Then I went home to think.

I’ve found it strange that ten months have gone by with me making only feeble attempts to find a dog. Ordinarily I’d be on a mission with no roadblocks that could possibly deter me from my goal. A part of me has been uncomfortable rattling around in my too-big house. My son has been here intermittently but I’ve been mostly alone now for almost four and a half years. After living with a strapping 6’4” man since I was twenty, I’ve felt a vulnerability that’s new for me. We live in a culture where violence against women is more common than not. Having a sizable animal would help allay some of my safety concerns. Yet, aside from those, I’m definitely aware of the freedom I now have. I can leave my house without worrying about anyone. I can stay out as long as I want to without thinking of when the dog has to go out or when it needs to be fed. I can take trips without making arrangements for anyone but me. I’m saving money on all the food bills, vet bills and grooming bills that are part of responsible dog ownership. Whose reasonable considerations are these? When Michael died and our little cocker spaniel right after him, I was all dogged up within weeks. And working hard on reshaping Violet. Where is that me?

My kids were betting I was bringing Bandit home as soon as I was approved. As it happened, both of them were leaving town just as all this decision-making was swirling in my head. I got the approval call two days after meeting Bandit. I slept on the matter one more night and then called to let the shelter know I wouldn’t be adopting him. I had some regret. He was such a lovely dog. But undoing someone else’s issues is no longer on my to-do list. If I get a pet I need to start from scratch. My fixer behavior has gone missing. I think I’m done with that part of my life after decades of caregiving and throwing myself at problems. I wish I could know when that transition happened to me. In the midst of my miserable vaccination reaction, I started fantasizing about ways to be conscious of the subtle steps that turn a person from one set of behaviors to another. In the midst of that fever-y delirium I had some ideas.

The banana bread

As I blearily assembled the ingredients for my banana bread, I was remembering an interesting conversation I’d recently had with my eleven year old grandson who seems to get taller every few days. We were discussing how cool it would be to have a time-lapse camera in his room at night to see if the obvious growth results we’re witnessing could be caught incrementally on a camera, the way a plant’s evolution from seed to bloom has been so many times. With advances in technology, could we literally see him elongate? Could we see his features morph slightly every night? Could we see his hair grow or a freckle appear where there was once nothing? I find these ideas fascinating.

As I lay back in my chair waiting for my bread to bake, I was thinking how I wished I could’ve had some as yet uncreated time lapse camera installed in my mind which could’ve slowly tracked my transition from being the person who needed Violet to the person who didn’t need Bandit. The subtle changes in me, like my grandson’s new inches seemed to suddenly just be “there,” but I know that’s not really true. As he is, I’m continuing to evolve. I am still myself but with tweaks and alterations. My whole life’s journey has led me to this moment. Will I be the me that’s lived with a dog for 52 of my 70 years? The one that snuck one into my dormitory when I was just seventeen and having a pet was totally illegal? The one that welcomed my life partner with his dog so that for decades, we always had two who traveled with us everywhere we went and were our kids before we made human ones? I know I’m not going to have a cat, even though I’ve had three, because they don’t seem to have much to do with who I am. I could see myself with a bird again because I’ve spent decades with cockatiels and some parakeets flying through my house.

If I had my internal time-lapse camera which recorded the waves and ripples of my mind as I continue to adapt to the life conditions I didn’t choose, perhaps I’d be able to foresee what I’m going to land on as my next phase of deciding whether I’ll have an animal companion again. I know they’re supposed to be a healthy choice for older people. But right now, despite a lot of isolation, I don’t feel unhealthy. My guess is that the many emotional demands of the previous decade took a bigger toll on me that I had no time to consider in their moments. Maybe my morphed self of now has been redefined, and that more impulsive me, who always had a dog, is a me of the past. I really don’t know what to expect. If that internal time-lapse device which I imagined during my fever really existed I’m certain that I could see the solid core of Michael and me that is still a surprising source of comfort and strength that has grown despite his absence. Someone should really look into developing a device that stays current with these sea changes life demands as we wend our way through its twisty path. Maybe in a distant time, long after I cease to exist, someone will invent one. Meanwhile, I still have no pet and I make a mean banana bread, whether I feel terrible or not.