Life on Broadway – Chapter 1 – 1979

Our home as it looked in the winter of 1978

Some years in your life stand out as those in which you feel you’ve taken a transformative leap, becoming a modified version of the self that existed only months earlier. I’d have to say that 1979 was one of those years for Michael and me. We’d done the mad act of buying an old house, currently being used as three apartments, without ever having seen the first floor. That turned out to be the apartment with the open lease, the one which would be our personal space as we began our venture, not only as homeowners but as landlords. Quite the leap from the almost annual moves we’d made since moving in together in April, 1972. I think we were both stunned by our headlong plunge into a world of responsibilities but we were going forward at a fast pace, as if time had suddenly sped up. The days of feeling like life was moving in slow motion were relegated to history. From then on, we’d be scrambling to keep up with the pace of adulting which had magically become who we were.

We didn’t take too many photos of the house in those days. I suppose we were too stunned by the enormous amount of work to be done. The bathroom and kitchen had their original fixtures from the early 1900’s. A claw foot bathtub, a sink and toilet that were crammed into a six foot square space as the bathrooms had been added well after the house was built, stacked on top of each other to replace the outhouses which were in place from 1893 to 1916. The kitchen sink stood on legs with no cabinet space below it. The only entry into the basement was through cellar doors on the side porch. Lovely golden pine floors had gaudy linoleum glued either to the centers or the trim around the rooms. Guessing what year the walls had last been painted was impossible. The house stood on a double lot which had been mowed but was overgrown with volunteer scrubby trees and bushes. There was simply dirt rather than yard. A hitching post was clutched by a tree that had grown around it.

I found jawbones with teeth in the dirt along with hip joints that appeared to be from cattle. We had five rooms on the first floor. Upstairs there was one two-room apartment and one three-room. The tenants shared a bathroom which was located in the back hallway. We began the herculean task of reclaiming this space filled with good feelings although suffering from years of neglect. We got the floors refinished after yanking up all the linoleum. We stripped wallpaper and started painting. Suddenly there was a salmon-colored room for our books and albums, a blue room next to the bathroom which became our first bedroom and soft whites and beiges for everything else. I think the biggest difference between Michael and me became glaringly clear at this time. I lived at a rather breakneck pace while Michael kind of oozed along, being “mellow.” That may be my most detested word. That’s when he came up with a line he used the rest of our lives – “would you mind removing your feet from my back as you run over me?” I was always in a hurry and could easily tolerate a little imperfection while he was slow, methodical and a perfectionist. So went our lives.

The first few months of the year were sucked into the fixing up vortex that pulls you in when you buy an old home. Still, we managed to get away for weekends, visiting with our friends from college, many of whom had migrated back to Chicago. We visited Brookfield Zoo, went to Cubs’ games, hit the museums along the lakefront and went to our favorite restaurants.

Michael snuck in a white water rafting trip with our friend Brian.

When we were home, we continued to work on improving the house. The yard was a disaster. That reclamation project would take years, adding a garage, digging out unwanted opportunistic foliage and building a fence so our dogs could be in open space.

We were also dealing with our tenants who had the usual issues, dripping faucets, broken appliances and my least favorite, plugged up toilets which required plunging. I can’t figure out how we dealt with all these chores in addition to working full-time, but we were young and energetic. June rolled around and I successfully planned a surprise party for Michael’s 30th birthday. I remember how astonished he was that someone who talked as much as me could fool him, but that verbiage was a great cover for my excellent secret-keeping skills. The old “what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.”

Then July showed up, bringing different challenges. My dad who’d already survived a heart attack, started having severe angina. He was hospitalized and had an angiogram which indicated that he had five blocked arteries. His own father had died of heart disease at age 39, when my dad was only eight years old. At fifty-six he’d already dodged what appeared to be a genetic bullet. A skinny guy, his body produced lots of cholesterol which wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d smoked since he was a kid. Always the healthier of my two parents, he was suddenly faced with a life-threatening situation. My sister and I hustled up to Chicago to support both him and my mom as they confronted a harsh reality, a threat they’d nervously contemplated for years.

Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital, Chicago

I still remember the tension in the cardiac surgical waiting room. Everyone was waiting for a word about a loved one. Sometimes a message was delivered by medical staff. Faces went crestfallen. Others reflected joy but it was muted as all were keenly aware that outcomes would be different from patient to patient. No technology back in those days. People sat with books, magazines, and knitting. Fidgeting was common. No one wanted to leave the room, but despite everything, there was hunger, toilet breaks, and thirst. A timeless room with no windows so there was no sense of the outside world. After long hours, I remember the tall crisp Irish surgeon, Dr. Coogan, coming to speak with us. Dad had survived his five coronary bypasses and Coogan called him a tough old bird. He would be in recovery next and then in the cardiac intensive care unit. Visiting was limited to a half hour twice a day.

Dad, pre-surgery with Mom

When my turn came, I was immediately stunned to see a white coated man with a long gray ponytail, examining my dad’s chart at the foot of his otherworldly bed which was in the center of a mass of tubes and flickering machines. I knew this man. He was a friend from college who went on to be a nurse, and ultimately, to medical school. He was in his residency on the cardiac service. He had given me my first hit of acid when we were juniors at the university. Now he was holding my dad’s chart, in charge of his life, at least in this moment. Stunning and utterly random.

As the days passed, my dad who had never been ill, had negative responses to his medications and developed arrhythmia. We were reassured that this was an expected result, but it was unsettling. In addition, he became rude and made completely out of character lewd remarks. He was temperamental and angry, most particularly when I refused to bring him cigarettes which he referred to as “his things.” My mother was self-medicating and acting out and altogether, I mostly felt a need to flee. The doctor explained that many men behaved like this post-surgically because they were uncertain of their futures and their ability to eventually resume a normal life. I understood these concepts and could feel my dad’s discomfort. But it was a lot to manage. I was 28 years old with my hands full of my own life and too many of my parents’ tribulations. That would remain a consistent theme of my life, the blurry boundaries between who are the kids and who are the grownups in my family. Love was plentiful but roles were awry.

Dad recuperating at home with one of my nieces and their new family dog named Bypass to commemorate Dad’s surgery

Eventually Dad was released to get better at home and my sister and I returned to our lives. Michael was facing a crisis as a new record store was opening just doors away from his campus business. This was a threatening scenario and we spent hours brainstorming about strategies for dealing with the new competition. One day, out of nowhere, my high school boyfriend appeared in town and showed up in my office. He’d left a job to start a rollerblading business in Evanston near Northwestern University and thought opening a site in our university community was a good plan. Within days, Michael’s store was diversifying into the rollerblade rental business which we hoped would help with the new threat to his work stability. Literally within days of that deal, my mom’s health took a precipitous decline. Stuck with ulcerative colitis since she was a young woman, she thought she was facing a colostomy surgery. She also was a candidate for back surgery because of severe spinal stenosis. That turned out to be the one that needed to come first. I used vacation and sick days to head back to Chicago, along with my sister, worried that both my parents were going to collapse from the stress.

Mom made it through as she had through so many previous hospital stays and surgeries. Exhausted from all the racing around, I headed back home. The next event was another pop-up visitor from the past. The lovely blond guy who helped me survive my toxic relationship with Al, the person who preceded Michael, contacted me to complain about his marriage, his work and life in general. For an eyeblink this distraction was a bit of fun, but I was in my marriage forever, so I drew a line, despite an urge to run away from all my hassles for an interlude in unreality. An escape hatch which needed to be ignored. Understanding that was a bad plan made me realize that I was a full-on adult making mature decisions. Life was indeed moving fast.

Golden Dennis from pre-Michael days

In September, Michael and I made a quick trip to Florida. The weather was incredibly oppressive and the area had experienced two hurricanes in a short time, leading to powerful surf, a disappeared beach and intense riptides. I had a two humiliating experiences on that getaway. I was making my way down the steps from the seawall toward what little beach was still evident when a big wave crashed into me, yanking the top of my bathing suit off, right in front of Michael and his dad who laughed uproariously as I struggled to hang on to the railing and cover myself at the same time. The other was going for a swim, not recognizing that I wasn’t able to fight the currents and was being carried further away from my landmarks toward concrete dock supports which extended into the Gulf. I had my head up as I tried to control my trajectory and keep my bearings. Suddenly I felt Michael grab me from behind, like the experienced lifeguard he’d been for three years. He told me I looked like a pathetic puppy who might get lost forever. Not very empowering but I was glad he was there.

We headed back home and back to the house rehab. Michael and a friend rebuilt the front porch and I made my first attempt at gardening. We had friends and family visit us regularly and made another grownup decision. We’d planned a winter trip to the Bahamas but scrapped it to buy a beautiful couch instead. I really loved that couch.

Michael and I began to discuss having kids. He was especially interested in starting a family to build what he’d missed so much in his own family of origin. We needed to draw a few breaths first and attend to that task the following year. So our first year on Broadway reached it’s end. On to the ‘80’s.

A Whispered Embrace

Me immersed in icy Lake Michigan

This past week I was happily ensconced at an inn on the shore of Lake Michigan, which I refer to as my ancestral waters because I learned to swim in it when I was seven, newly moved back to Chicago which I’d left as an infant. I don’t recall any body of water near my home in Sioux City, Iowa, not even a swimming pool. My parents couldn’t swim. Even when we headed to Rainbow Beach which was closest to our apartment in the city, they always sat on the grass that edged the lake. I was free to go to the water where I watched the swimmers, eventually copying their movements until gradually, I could motor myself through the lake. Although I have a healthy respect for a medium that isn’t my natural environment, there’s a small part of me that thinks I really do belong there, mostly submerged and not likely to be shocked if a few little fins sprouted from my sides or perhaps a bit of webbing grew between my toes or fingers. I’m a water person more than a lover of mountains or deserts or forests. I appreciate their beauty but I don’t belong there. Let me paddle away. Conveniently, Michael was a water person too, with many more water skills than me. A scuba diver and water skiier, he’d park himself near a shoreline any day, given a choice. So it wasn’t a surprise when after we stopped going to our family camp of college friends and their kids at Sister Lakes, Michigan, we found a new summer haunt at Lakeside, Michigan which we tried to visit for at least a few days every year.

Lakeside Inn

“Located in beautiful Lakeside, Michigan, Lakeside Inn invokes memories of a less-hurried time. We are Harbor Country’s rustic, historic lodging destination. Choose from 31 rooms, each with unique features and characteristics. Spend the morning reading on our 100-foot porch facing Lake Michigan. Relax on our private beach. Lakeside inn is a registered Michigan historic site and is also on the National Register of historic places and has been a prominent feature of the Harbor Country coastline for over a century.”From the Lakeside website.

Lakeside is not a destination for everyone. Rustic, with no televisions in the rooms, terrible internet and old fashioned decor, it is far from luxurious. Quiet and peaceful, Lakeside is more a meditative place than a lively social destination. A place where you go for the beautiful private beach, for swimming in water that somehow makes you suspect that ocean animals will appear at any moment, for sitting and staring at the horizon for hours. And for me and my family, who were drawn into helping me collect the rocks along the shore which are endlessly interesting for me, it’s a place for walking along the border between beach and surf, fascinated by nature’s variety and ultimately, for swimming in the always chilly water, watchful for sandbars or riptides, feeling the small fish tickle you softly as they go their way and you go yours.

I’m not sure which year we started going there. Michael and I went alone a few times while someone watched our kids. I’m pretty sure we stayed in every room at the inn at least once. One of the remodeled ones had a double jacuzzi which was the fanciest amenity in the place. Perfect for romance. But also fun to share with the kids when they came with us.

We had these family traditions. Some started when the kids were pretty young and our vacations consisted of trips to Florida, freebies from Michael’s parents, dangled in front of us to encourage a visit. Taking photos of our little ones holding hands by the water got to be a thing which we kept up for years. Now my daughter repeats the ritual with her boys.

We also had this fascination about our feet. A close-knit crew, I have lots of feet and leg photos we took at the beach among other places. Who knows how these momentary little episodes take on emotional significance, reinforcing the deep bonds we shared in our family of four? Some pictures have only three pairs of feet. Others two. Someone couldn’t be there for reasons that were benign. Other times we were waiting for a scary event to end which threatened the absent one. Whatever the case, nostalgia practically drips from these captured moments.

I once thought I’d be unable to enjoy Lakeside after Michael died. I was wrong. The echoes of our pleasure are palpable on the breeze coming off the lake. I took my son’s high school graduation photo in the rushes on the beach.

We climbed the seemingly endless flights of stairs together, hauling chairs, towels, and umbrellas along with drinks and snacks. Usually by the end of the day there were bags of rocks to drag up to the top, worth every step as they’d soon be living at home in our garden, adding depth, color and memories.

The slow times. Hanging out in our rooms, my son usually lying on Michael, one of his favorite bedrests. Skipping stones on the water. Playing catch or frisbee. Lots of hugging and snuggling, horsing around. So much hilarity at our meals where we laughed uproariously at ridiculous words in the English language, long forgotten, usually somewhat perverse and often disgusting. Those few days each year deepened our love for each other.

Then my daughter got a boyfriend and a dog.

The boyfriend eventually became the husband and ultimately the couple who became the parents. Suddenly Michael and I were grandparents and sometimes everyone came to Lakeside.

But life inexorably moves forward. The kids were busy in their lives pursuing careers and academic degrees. Most frequently our Lakeside trips came back to Michael and me, enjoying our romantic interludes together in the best of times and in the ones we snatched between his bouts with his cancer and the relief of remission.

I was anxious the first time I went back there last year to snatch a day away from the claustrophobia of the pandemic. But we had a wonderful brief trip. A day of swimming, hunting rocks and eating food from our favorite restaurants while masked or sitting outside.

I was happy we went and so comfortable that I knew it would be a destination again this year. This time I spent my time with my sister and my son. The weather was perfect, mild temperatures, sunny skies and chilly water to offset the hot sand and perpetual brightness. As I drifted in and out of reverie and memories I thought also of the strangeness of having adapted to not being physically embraced every day. Body contact that was part of your life for decades is a stunning loss. I know that touch is critical for health and well-being. I do get hugs sometimes. The pandemic was rough in that respect. I read an article about the importance of self touch which fortunately wasn’t alien to me. What is odd is that I still feel Michael’s touch, especially when I need it most. I can’t quite explain how it feels. Light and gauzy and internal. These past few days, I felt like I was encased in an embrace. Can an embrace whisper to you? Can a long cherished place hold a vault of embraces which your presence keys open as you enter those treasured spaces? I felt that way. All the sweetness and heat of bodies, laughter and intimacy in my ears and barely running across my shoulders. In the cold water, I felt the warmth of all those years.

On the last night, I lingered by myself to get a few shots of the lovely sunset. Then I turned to take the long hike back to the inn. When I’d almost reached the steps, there was a streak of light shining straight down like a tractor beam pulling a spaceship from its orbit to its dock. I thought it was probably Michael, checking in, which is of course inexplicable and bizarre. But I’m getting quite a collection of photos like these in which that beam appears at the most interesting time. If I ever find explanations, I promise I’ll share them.

Farewell to Spring

Last year when summer arrived, lockdown came along as its companion. Desperately missing a place to swim, I arranged a kiddie pool and umbrella in my backyard. Every day without rain found me sitting poolside in a lawn chair, kicking my feet in the water, headphones plugged in, observing all the life going on in my garden. I learned a lot about birds, bees, butterflies, squirrels and rabbits. My gardening skills improved and I made plans to enhance the habitat I hoped would induce more species to choose my yard and to provide nourishment for pollinators. Despite the isolation I had a pretty great time. When the heat and humidity ratcheted up this week, I knew spring was over. I miss my kiddie pool but it seems a bit ridiculous to reassemble it when I’m now lucky enough to be back in the park district pool. This spring was glorious, a bit cooler than usual. I had virtually all my perennials return along with a fabulous number of different birds. Some flowers will last through the summer while others appeared only briefly. I see the summer floral crew ready to blossom. I felt like sharing the bounty of this past equinox with those of you who read my posts. Here is the fleeting spring beauty, the migratory birds and the hope for the next few months. Enjoy.

Until next year….

“Normal”

My park district pool

I can’t count the number of times I hear the word “normalin a day. But it’s lots of times. I hear it in conversation with my friends. I hear it on news shows, both on television and the radio. I hear it in my head when I’m evaluating an activity in which I may or may not participate. For example, the normal opening day for the outdoor pool in my community is on Memorial Day weekend. Of course last year, that wasn’t true because of Covid. The outdoor pool never opened at all. The indoor pool eventually re-opened but I was one of the last regular lap swimmers to return because I was uncertain about the safety of being in an indoor facility. I waited until I was fully vaccinated and deep into the time when I was relatively certain that my immune system was ramped up enough to contend with the virus. That was my normal. Careful and cautious with an eye toward the risk/reward ratio about my health. My normal was different regarding the return to the outdoor pool. Despite the chilly weather I was there the first day it opened. Fresh air, few people and my happy place? I had no hesitation whatsoever.

Roger Federer

Right now Roger Federer is playing in the French Open. So is Serena Williams. I watch Federer and Williams play whenever I have the opportunity because I know that at almost forty, their careers will eventually be winding down.

The tournament is being played in a Covid-bubble modified environment for the safety of everyone involved. The total number of fans allowed to attend the matches is a scant five thousand. So this is not normal. But watching the way Federer played after two surgeries and a long layoff due to his injuries and the pandemic, the whole situation felt perfectly normal. I know he won’t be around for perhaps even one more year. And Serena is playing like a powerhouse. But in this moment, I’m engaged in my normal Federer/Williams obsession which will mutate into some kind of fondness for them after life changes and they move on. After all, isn’t that normal? Before Federer and Williams showed up twenty years ago, my tennis normal was liking Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Depending on how long I live and how long some of the twenty-somethings keep playing, it will be normal for the younger generation to become my favorites. Time goes forward. Things change. That’s normal.

Maggie Haberman: Trump Telling People He Expects To Be ‘Reinstated’ As President By August

For me, the headline above is not normal. That announcement by Maggie Haberman, a reporter for the New York Times, was validated today by sources close to Trump. Nothing in the history of his presidency and post-presidency resembles any political experience in my lifetime, except perhaps the Nixon years. Even those seem tame compared to the snake oil salesman atmosphere surrounding the loony years of the 45th presidency. Out there in the world, though, are other people longing to return to living under the aegis of what to me was an aberrant reality. So who’s normal? Me or them? I guess in this case, normal is a matter of personal beliefs and perceptions.

When I was a young person, I was a great sleeper. My parents told me that as a baby I just went to bed and slept for twelve hours. I shared a room with my sister for our whole lives before adulthood. She told me I would drive her crazy because as we settled in at the end of our days, I would say good night and immediately begin the breathing associated with deep sleep, while she tossed and turned. I remember the pleasure of turning over to sleep on my stomach, never waking until morning when I literally bounded out of bed, ready for anything. So normal. Then I had kids. A lot more disruption in the night became customary. As I got older, I’d be wakened by some random pain. Sleeping on my stomach after two caesareans became uncomfortable. I miss turning my back on the world and sinking into oblivion. When Michael got sick, I felt aware of his every move even when I thought I was unconscious. Suddenly I’d be awake, sleeping fitfully at best. During the last months of his life, when his circadian rhythms disappeared, he was waking every hour and a half. I woke with him. Now, four years after his death, I sleep in short spurts. I’ve tried all kinds of recommended aids to get back into what’s recommended and normal for my age. So far, I’ve failed at all of them. My normal is nothing I thought would be my life, staying up until 4 in the morning and sleeping late. Just like I never thought my normal would be me surviving Michael by years. My plan didn’t look that way, ever. Now it just is no plan at all because life tossed me the unexpected. So here I am, trying to get “normal.” Although I’m relatively certain no one I know would ever refer to me in that way.

I remember when my friend Meii offered to make some masks for me and my family in March 2020, when wearing them was recommended. I brought her a bunch of bandannas that Michael used to wear when he ran or rode his bike. I kept one for myself but used all the others so everyone could feel him close to us during a time like no other. Since that time, I’ve developed quite a stockpile of masks. I have one with octopus tentacles, one with monarch butterflies, one with Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I have plain cloth ones and KN95’s and the triple layer paper ones. Where I live, for the most part, wearing them isn’t an issue. Around here, they’re normal. Although I hate how sweaty I get when I’m active and inside, I never take mine off until I’m out again. I can’t imagine thinking that having the CDC recommend mask-wearing is interfering with my personal freedom and is too much government intervention. Public health isn’t an abnormal consideration in any society. Like public education and public safety are normal governmental concerns. Initially, wearing a mask felt abnormal to me. But as with other unasked for changes in my life, I’ve responded by adapting to the demands of circumstances. Now in fact, I’ve realized how glad I am that I haven’t even had a sniffle since wearing a mask, nor has anyone in my family. Even my grandkids stayed totally healthy during all this time. I’ve thought about continuing to wear them indoors indefinitely, as a precautionary measure in the future, whether they’re mandated or not. I think I’d feel normal and more confident that I could stay healthy, cutting down the opportunism of infectious diseases. But I’d bet a lot of cash that plenty of people would think I was nuts.

From 1971 through almost half of 2017, normal for me meant being in a relationship, and ultimately, a marriage. Cancer, the veritable poster child for abnormality, entered our lives in 2012. For five years, Michael and I straddled the conflicting worlds of being the selves we’d been for decades and the selves that were now forced to deal with the threatening, disruptive threat of impending doom. The definition of normalcy was muddied daily, depending on what was happening with treatments, how Michael was feeling, how our family was feeling and how I was feeling. We wrangled with these challenges and fluctuations until the day he died, May 28th, 2017. Then my normal became being a single person, a widow, a woman with a new title. A woman living in a country with a person who in my eyes, was an aberrant president, who daily demonstrated behavior which was antithetical to my idea of normal. I was busy trying to adapt myself to this unasked for, undreamed of reality. Pushing through each day, trying to find my spot in a dystopian and bizarre landscape, both externally and internally. I made some strides.

Then in 2020, along came the pandemic. The bits of my new normal skidded to a halt. I had a couple of advantages at this time. I was getting used to being alone and I was good at trying to keep contagion at bay. Partners of cancer patients have lots of practice at fending off the diseases which can be stopped at the front door. I have the economic good fortune of having Internet services, a computer and a smart phone. I’m glad it’s normal for me to recognize what luxuries they are in imposed isolation. Poor people might not have noticed the difference between pre-Covid and the new reality. Their struggles are so normal for them, that doing without the creature comforts that allowed wealthier folks to connect on Zoom or Facetime, don’t have relevance to their daily lives. The privilege of frustration isn’t normal for everyone. At least not the same types of frustration. The deep financial divides in my country make normal a completely relative term. Some people want to attend large events, maskless, hang out body to body in bars, take long trips with no restrictions on how they travel or what they do. Other people would just like to eat regularly instead of every few days, if at all.

Don’t misunderstand me. I was lucky enough to get a few tastes of part of the life I had before. I’m lucky because I have family who chose to stay near me. So we lived in our bubble and got away from home for a little time, while still living within the recommendations of the government. I’m grateful. I don’t know that what we did was getting back to normal but it was a welcome reprieve. Frankly, I’m not sure enough of the future to predict how life will be, even just a few months from now. I don’t believe anyone really knows what that looks like, any more than anyone having been prepared for the world to change as dramatically as it did in 2020. My approach is to live day by day, as much as possible. I’m willing to make a few appointments, for practical purposes, but I don’t get too far ahead of myself.

I think I have some inklings about what I hope will stop being considered normal. I’m done with mass shootings. I’m done with people who haven’t read the Constitution or The Bill of Rights bellowing meaningless catchphrases. I’m done with selfishness and no respect for the common good. How did those things get normal? I’m done with passengers fighting on airplanes and road rage. I’m tired of listening to jaded politicians, who are actually disenfranchising voters, pretending they’re for safe and fair elections. I’m tired of people thinking it’s normal to equate demonstrations about civil rights with an insurrection on the seat of our government.

June 1, 2021, 12:55 PM EDT By Steve Benen – MSNBC

It was unsettling to see former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn appear at a right-wing gathering over the weekend and endorse a military coup in the United States. Asked about Myanmar’s coup, the retired Army general specifically said, “I mean it, it should happen here.”

I’m tired of reading headlines like the one above which is heard by some of my fellow citizens and cheered as if military coups are a normal and desirable next step for this country. Can anyone define how this kind of incendiary language from a convicted felon, who was lucky enough to be pardoned, is considered normal by anyone?

Life changes, whether we like it or not. Normal is only normal within a certain context in a given time. Children have the privilege of having a frame of reference that’s pretty short. The fortunate children, that is. Not the ones separated from their parents at a country’s border. They grow up faster and learn that “normal,” is a variable term. Healthy adults figure that out. Overgrown children masquerading as grownups have tantrums, like kids who want all their toys back right now. No matter what. Am I missing something? I’m keeping my understanding of normal. I just wish I knew what to do about the other definitions floating around out there.

Four Years Gone – The Reality or Unreality of Love

Shelter/ Consumer by Miles Johnston

The artist who created the work above feels like someone I must have known in one dimension or another. Throughout the course of our 45 years together, my frequent and repetitive request to Michael was that he have a zipper installed in his chest, which I could pull down, so I could climb inside him, getting closer to that essence of him which made me feel safe, peaceful and utterly relaxed. He would laugh while hugging me tightly and say, “ if you get any closer to me you’ll be behind me.”When I found this piece of art I knew it wasn’t actually us, but it certainly feels as if we were the impetus for its existence.

Boundaries by Miles Johnston

When Michael and I met back in 1971 at that backyard wedding, when everyone was pretty much smashed by one type of intoxicant or another, when some inexplicable planetary alignment or cosmic forces were operating, a bit of magic happened. Whatever is the most essential core of a person, the deepest part of the self that is wordless, that hums like a silent engine, mostly invisible beneath layers of social mores and structures, in this first meeting between us, this core was exposed. Not just in one of us but in both of us, simultaneously with our vulnerabilities laid bare. The instant spark of connection happened right then, in a moment. We were inseparable that night, in a completely platonic way, as if we’d been best friends for years, able to feel each other’s every feeling and hear each other’s every thought. I’ve only experienced that moment once, on that night. The same was true for Michael. Drawn together like magnets, it was only a matter of months before we abandoned our previous relationships and wound up living together for the rest of our lives.

I write “our lives” deliberately. Although Michael has been dead, at least corporeally, for four years, he isn’t dead for me. I had no inkling that this would be my reality. I had no expectations of what life would be like for me after he was gone. We’d talk about it. He’d say all the stuff you see in movies or on television. “You’ve been a wonderful partner and I thank you for everything we’ve shared. But you’re full of life. I want you to be happy and not lonely. It’s fine with me if you want to be with someone else. As long as you’re okay.” I would just stare at him blankly. Most of the time I was thinking about how to get another Ensure in him, to keep him alive which was what he wanted more than anything. A life force like no other. He was astonishing.

I was exhausted after he died. Id barely left his side for 5 months, sleeping next to him in the hospital for 32 nights and being his full time caregiver for the next months until he died. I was wholly committed to him as I had been in life. I was in some type of reality which felt wrapped in plastic – I could see through it and was able to move within it but the daily slog was not like anything I’d imagined. I always slept in our bed, on my side. I still do. Although I missed him desperately, I also felt his presence. A lot. I could be doing all the daily chores a person does while simultaneously staring in his eyes, which we often did, especially at night. I had movie reels running in my head of the two of us in our former life, just doing our daily thing. My memory palace. Right now I can watch the tendons in his skinny legs, taut while he bent down in the garden to weed around his beloved tomato plants.

Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t have a perfect idyllic existence. We were well known for our bickering and disagreements. We were each strong-willed and opinionated. We lived like many couples do, with intermittent and challenging conflicts. But there was that deep, magical connection which emerged and glowed brightly during every crisis, every pain, every trauma. I’m not sure I think it’s actually anything magical. I’m more likely to think it’s science, beyond our current capabilities in understanding the complexity of our brains and how we fit into the universe. Maybe some day these rare and beautiful events will be easy to explain. I won’t live long enough to know. But in my moments of magic realism, I’m always reminded of these two lines from “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.”“ They were not capable of living for even an instant without the other and the capacity diminished as their age increased.” And then there is the line Michael wrote me after living together one month, for my 21st birthday.

So here I am, four years later with the connection and passion for this man still alive inside me. On my good days, it’s a bonus to conjure his image, to look at his shoulders or hands in my head, to hear him say his ridiculous goofy sayings and to laugh out loud. On my darker days when I think I might not get through the murk, I suddenly feel buoyed by what we had, from deep in my gut, pushed back up to the surface, to help me appreciate the life he’d have given anything to be living. That perpetual connection still feels electric although its existence is now a peculiar abstraction I don’t understand. But on it goes.

So here I am. Four years out from the biggest loss in my life. The grief is endless and surprising, as is the joy. As is the rage about the stupid, insensitive things people say to me when they have no idea what they’re talking about and no clue about how I feel. Also, the jealousy and anger I feel when I see other couples, most especially those I know well, still together, sharing real life, when I know that the quality of those marriages has none of what Michael and I shared. My nasty side. I have never claimed to be saintly or magnanimous. We all have our less than admirable qualities. I expect to live however long I have left, still in love with Michael and what we were fortunate enough to have found and cherished, unless dementia or brain death stops me from feeling. I’m sure by that time I’ll have bored everyone I know to death with my incessant conversation about a person who no longer exists for them. Who knows? Maybe it’ll go on even after that…

Eighth Decade – A Few Thoughts on the Previous Seven

Dad and me – 1980

When I was a young woman my dad would frequently share his views on life. They were more than a tad simplistic. When the conversation was getting a bit too esoteric he would say, “you wanna know what the meaning of life is? I’ll tell you. You get born, you grow up, you get a job, you get married, you have kids and then you die.” Needless to say, no one took that bare bones analysis too seriously. Most of us thought a lot more happened than that. As he grew older, he told me a little more. He’d lost his dad when he was only eight and his mom when he was in twenties. He had lots of bravado, but I think part of him was always a scared little kid. He started saying this one line over and over. “If you can get to age 70, you have a decent chance of cruising along for awhile.” He didn’t make it, dying at 67, just like my husband. Tonight is the eve before my 70th birthday. I remember the story of my mom being driven to the hospital by our neighbor Earl while she labored away. My delivery wasn’t easy – none of hers were. She said the doctor stood over her saying sternly, “Now Dorothy, do you want to have this baby?” Eventually I emerged.

I was told I was a good-natured, easygoing baby. I ate and slept well – one of those babies who they thought was dead because I was conked out for the night. There’s what we’re told about ourselves and what we actually remember. Tonight I’ve been sorting out how fast these years have gone by and what I actually remember, decade by decade.

First Decade – Baby to age 10

I was born in Chicago, but my parents moved our family to Sioux City, Iowa when I was eight months old. My first solid visual memory is of me sitting on the kitchen floor in our duplex on 16th street. My mom was irritated because our cocker spaniel Trixie was in heat, leaving blood droplets on the floor. She put a diaper on Trixie. While I watched this, I also noticed tiny flecks of dust catching the sun’s rays through the window. We didn’t stay too long on 16th street. We moved to a bigger house on 23rd street because my mom was having my little sister when I was just under age 2 and 1/2. I loved that house and our neighborhood. We lived next door to Reggie Brewer and his family and across the street from the Larimers who were wealthy. I was in love with their son Robin who was my age. We played together all the time, along with his younger siblings Charlie and Janie. I liked bugs and dirt. My mother needed a hysterectomy when I was four and my younger sister was two. I suffered from fear of abandonment after that. I was terrified by her absence and didn’t like the way my grandmother took care of me. All she cared about was how clean everything should be. That left me out. I attended kindergarten and first grade at Hunt School. I loved school, especially the smell of new school supplies and books. I was an early reader. I knew my older sister didn’t like me but my brother did. She was over five years older than me and he was eight years older. They were a different generation and I spent most of my time with my younger sister. I was never mean to her. I decided not to treat her the way my older sister treated me. I was happy in Sioux City. We had a scary flood once during which we evacuated our house and our car floated away. After my mother was sick, I wet my bed and my older siblings teased me out of that and also mocked me for liking warm milk. But generally I was ok. At age seven, my dad’s business venture flopped. He was involved with his sister’s husband and my mom hated them both. So we moved back to Chicago. We never lived in a house again, only in crowded apartments. I looked out the back window of the car as we pulled away, waving goodbye to the Larimers whom we’d never see again. But little kids don’t know the meaning of never.

When we got to Chicago, I was enrolled in Horace Mann School, put back in first grade because they thought perhaps the Iowa school system was sub-par compared to Chicago’s. Within two weeks, I was moved up to second grade which I found to be an unnerving experience. Evidently I had already discovered some coping skills because I adapted quickly and was selected for a program designed for a student to complete three semesters in two. I did the same thing between seventh and eighth grade. Ultimately, I skipped a whole year of school. In retrospect, I think this was a bad idea as academics aren’t the only consideration in decisions about child-rearing. But I was flattered to be considered smart. More challenging than schoolwork were the clear economic class differences in our neighborhood. I could see by observing my sister and brother that this striated society was painful and uncomfortable. I started to plan my own way of coping with this system. I clearly remember knowing I couldn’t compete with these kids who had what seemed like a zillion lessons and attended overnight summer camps. I was going to have to use my brain to overcome the financial chasm.

Second Decade – Age 10 – 20

What can you say about the astonishing years between 10 and 20? So much growth in every possible way. Your body goes through tumultuous changes, morphing from that of a child into that of an adult. I remember the confusing scramble to catch up with what happened to me while I slept. One night I went to bed a girl and woke the next morning, ostensibly a woman. One minute I was confused and incompetent, the next self-assured and cocky. Like having whiplash. My home life was tumultuous. I knew there were financial challenges and that my older siblings were both struggling emotionally. I tried to be cheerful and easygoing but I worried a lot. I felt parental toward my mom and dad and was always looking down the road, trying to be prepared for anything. I was a really good student all the way through eighth grade but by high school, I was losing interest in staying between the lines. By sophomore year, my biology teacher told my parents that I might do better in a lab school where I had a more individualized study plan. But that was private and expensive. So mostly I skated along with my mediocre weighted honors classes grades keeping me in the center of a college oriented life. I had a crush on the same boy from 5th grade through high school. We were good friends but despite my scheming, we never got where I wanted to go. I had a pretty normal social life, dated, went to events and pondered the uproar of the late ‘60’s. I lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and the Chicago Democratic convention. When I went to college in the fall of 1968, I was a seventeen year old virgin with rapidly evolving left-wing politics. Personally I was careful and conservative. I floundered a lot during my freshman year. By my sophomore year, I was engaged in anti-war demonstrations, traveling to DC to join forces with my peers. I also fell deeply in love for the first time. That relationship was doomed by our youth, or rather more by the immaturity of my boyfriend. We struggled through a few years while I became much more political and focused on how I wanted to live my life. When I was twenty I was struck by some mad instantaneous thunderbolt while attending a wedding. I met the young man who would become first, my best friend and six months later, my life partner. From roller skating down our block to emotional partnership in ten years. Remarkable.

Third Decade – Age 20 – 30

I moved in with Michael in 1972 and was with him until his death. We were both politically active in the anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights and the environmental movements. We went to school, worked in alternative communities and struggled to build a deep, honest and committed relationship. Sometimes things were pretty tumultuous but along with the struggles came a passionate, powerful union. After 4 years of living together, we got married. We traveled together, attended concerts and museums, festivals, camped in beautiful parks and partied a lot with our friends. By 1978, we were both established in secure jobs and by the end of the year, we bought a house. We worked hard on fixing it up as it was quite old but packed with character. When I was 30 and Michael 32 , we’d had ten years together. We felt ready. I had my first child that year.

Fourth Decade – Age 30 – 40

We added a second child to our family about five years later. My parents moved to our town and became part of our daily lives. Michael became a city alderman. I became an organizer of school fundraising events and served on our park district and school district advisory committees. We grew an intimate family unit. The latter three years of the decade were painful. In 1987, my cousin committed suicide. The following year my best friend did the same. In 1989, both my parents were diagnosed with cancer. Michael suffered with herniated disks and finally had back surgery. A tree struck by lightning crashed through our recently applied new roof. My dad died within three months of his diagnosis. We were sorely tested by these crises but made it to the other side. And we were still together.

Decade Five – Age 40 – 50

Michael’s music business was beginning to suffer between the advent of online streaming services and big box stores. My job was stable and provided benefits. Our kids were getting older, participating in athletics and music so we were on the run all the time. My mom became very dependent on me during the years after my dads death, especially as she’d never driven a car. I called my life, Driving Miss Dorothy. Michael and I had stress during that time but we’d grown truly strong as partners so we managed. As Michael approached 50, he decided to go back to school to become certified as a US History teacher. His political science degree wasn’t useful so he became the ancient undergrad. Our daughter was already in college. I was nervous but happy he was moving on. Life was never dull.

Decade Six – Age 50 – 60

Michael successfully transitioned into his new career, not only getting certified to teach US history but also acquiring a Master’s degree. Happily, he found a true vocation which was a fabulous gift at his stage of life. We were thrilled. He wrote an exceptionally cool class called Modern American History through Film and Music which was a big hit with his students. Meanwhile our daughter had graduated from college and moved home to attend law school in our hometown. She made this move largely to develop a relationship with her brother as adults. Separated by five years, they really weren’t totally bonded. They are now. Our son graduated from high school and went off to college within easy driving distance of home. When he graduated, he took a year off and then entered a PhD program at our local university. So although empty nesters, our family was close. My daughter fell in love and married during these years, setting up permanent residence nearby. Michael and I had slid back into the familiar place we’d established during our ten years before children. We had anniversaries, trips and the usual arguments which had marked our always flaming relationship. He always said our lives would be perfect if I’d just stop talking. Not an option. My kids got together and threw me a fabulous 60th birthday party. Life was good.

Seventh Decade – Age 60 – 70

I couldn’t have cared less about sixty as a benchmark birthday. Life was comfortable. We became grandparents. I retired from my job that had been perfectly fine for over thirty years, to care for my grandson so my kids wouldn’t have to worry about baby day care. Mostly, I felt lucky in my life. Big love. Great kids. What more can anyone ask out of this messy world? But then our luck ran out. In 2012, Michael was diagnosed with an orphan cancer, one so rare that treatments were few and largely ineffective. The disease moved so rapidly that on the same day as his diagnosis, we met two hours later with an oncology surgeon and quickly scheduled a surgery. I was still caring for my grandson and also my mother who’d finally needed to move in with us. Life was a blur. We finally got some space for a second opinion which concurred with the first, that 30 radiation treatments were required post-surgically. These were to the head and neck. We had a long, hard summer. Somehow, Michael, though fatigued and thin, made it back to teach school in the fall. I kept caring for my grandson but we moved my mom into assisted living. A year passed. I was anxious for another full body scan which hadn’t been done in what I felt was too long. The doctors finally agreed and discovered widespread bone cancer, confirmed by bone marrow to be metastatic disease. Being right was terrible. That November, 2013, Michael was given two to three months to live, absent treatment, and perhaps a year with it. Our daughter was pregnant with her second child. We didn’t know if he’d live to see that baby. He quickly retired and began chemotherapy within a few weeks. The next few years were a rollercoaster of remissions and remission lapses. We had ecstatic times of trips tucked into the healthy periods and despair in the dark times. I read everything I could about this monster disease, wrote specialists across the country and begged for clinical trials and experimental treatments. My state of mind was hyper-alert. Michael focused his energy on staying alive. By 2015, his predicament was getting worse with every passing day. Meanwhile, my brother died unexpectedly in April. My mom began a descent into dementia. Michael was given an off-trial drug in May as a last ditch attempt to save his life. He clawed his way through the fatiguing treatments. In July, he was weak but alive. That month, my mom fell and broke her hip and was dead within two weeks. Four days later, our almost 15 year old collie was diagnosed with lung cancer. I had to euthanize him. Michael clung to life. His tumors shrank. By December there was no evidence of cancer. But his liver enzymes went wild and we lost our oncologist. The new one was unwilling to risk resuming the treatment. We got to 2016 with joy and trepidation. Generally it was a great year. However, in December, Michael seemed off to me. We went to our doctors who ran some scans which were all negative. I didn’t care. He was changing right in front of me. By the end of January, 2017, I forced our way into the emergency room where I demanded a brain MRI. The results were dreadful. They revealed what was essentially a metastatic cancer meningitis. Invisible on regular scans, the brain MRI, his first, picked up the ghostly mush. He was given 4 weeks to live. We tried various barbaric treatments as he tried desperately to survive. He made it through seventeen weeks. He died in our home with his family, as he’d wished, if it had to happen at all. I spent six months planning a memorial which was a wonderful if dreaded affair. In January, 2018, I started a blog and began the business of trying to establish a life on my own. I’ve done okay absent the wretched politics of the Trump administration and Covid. I am still here, curious about what comes next.

Decade 8 – Day 1

Today was my 70th birthday. My daughter took the day off work and we drove up to my old hometown to see a Monet exhibit along with a fabulous newer artist, Bisa Butler, among other old favorites. We ate a late lunch at our favorite pizza place where we’d shared so many wonderful family times. I was thrilled to have some alone time with her as her schedule is pretty packed. I came home to beautiful flowers from my son, who is out of the country, and my cousin. And something else so timely and special. I planted a tree 3 years ago to honor Michael, but it didn’t survive the winter. I tried again in 2019. I could tell this year that it’s definitely going to succeed. A kousa dogwood, it’s a languid, drapey tree especially when laden with blossoms. Michael had that long relaxed frame which was my source of comfort for so many years. Today on my birthday, it seemed perfect that I received what I’ve been planning on doing for these past 4 years.

Balm

When you’re in my situation, you never know when that sneaky monstrous grief will just appear out of nowhere and flatten you like the proverbial pancake. That happened to me last night. May is my really tough month. I’ve already made it through my wedding anniversary, Mother’s Day and my oldest dead friend’s birthday. Up next is my 70th birthday on Monday and the 4th anniversary of Michael’s death on the 28th. One more deep breath and there’s his birthday on June 5th. Then I’ll be able to slide back into the version of life I’ve created for myself without my partner. So last night I was looking to continue the seemingly endless process of downsizing, which is so daunting I don’t think I’ll ever be done. The project I decided to take on was weeding out the too many years of income taxes I’ve had stuffed in a file cabinet. I picked about eight years’ worth and figured I’d shred them will binge-watching a television series. Before long, I found myself getting deeply disturbed. The shredding became this giant overwhelming metaphor. I felt like I was tearing up whole years of my life, strip by strip. I kept looking at our signatures and the dates, remembering what happened during all those times. By the time I was finished, I loaded everything into the recycling bin, rolled it to the curb and went to bed miserable. I woke up feeling the same way and actually sobbed for awhile. I absolutely hate crying and always have; I can’t remember a single time I’ve ever felt better after purging myself. I think I’m better off digging in the dirt. In any case, I just felt awful this morning. So I decided to take my own advice which I hand out unsolicited on many occasions. After reading this book, The Mad Enchantment a few years ago, the story of Claude Monet’s obsession with painting his water lilies, I realized that although I had a cursory knowledge of artists and their work, I was wanting more. So I set off on this exploratory path, discovering artists I’d never known about and deepening my knowledge in a truly satisfying way. All the beauty is balm for my most achy days. And along with music, I’ve found my own quiet ways of patching myself up when the pain knocks me down. So I thought I’d share fifty paintings of the hundreds which have made a difference in my daily life. I hope you enjoy them.

A Lost Wonder – Alexandra Romano
Prades the Village – Joan Miro
The Shore of the Turquoise Sea – Albert Bierstadt
Bel Automne – Rose Dalban
The Gardener – Maurice de Vlaminck
Woman in Purple – Martina Shapiro
The Dance – Andre Derain
The Grand Canal of Venice – Edouard Manet
Winter Birches – Holly Ladue Ulrich
Harlequin and His Companion – Pablo Picasso
Maple and Cedar, Lake George, Utah – Georgia O’Keefe
Lady With Hat and Feathers – Gustav Klimt
Landscape – Emil Nolde
The Circus – Georges Seurat
White Birches – Winter – Maxfield Parrish
The Turkeys – Claude Monet
Orchard in Autumn – Pol Ledent
Loch Nevis – Scott Naismith
Rift – Ellis O’Connor
Kindred – Bisa Butler
Girl Looking Out the Window – Edvard Munch
The Poet’s Garden – Vincent Van Gogh
Woman With a Necklace – Amadeo Modigliani
The Flower Seller – Diego Rivera
The Wedding – Jacob Lawrence
The Laundress – Pierre Auguste Renoir
Flower Clouds – Odilon Redon
Seashore – Joaquin Sorolla
Green Wheatfiekds – Auvers – Vincent Van Gogh
Roman Girl at Fountain – Leon Bonnat
Girl With a Cat – Franz Marc
Cool Shade – Dana Irving
Nichols Canyon – David Hockney
Morning Interior – Maximilian Luce
The Blue Veil – Edmund Tarbell
Interior With Woman in Red – Felix Vallotton
Majestic Skies – Jonas Gerard
Copse of the Banks of the Garonne – Henri Matisse
Coming Home- Gertrude Abercrombie
Herons and Lilies – Frank Weston Benson
Serpentine – Jane Aukshunas
Tropical – Anita Malfatti
Path With Poppies – Sara Paxton
Summer in Waiting – Donna Young
Window in the Country – Marc Chagall
Boreas – John William Waterhouse
Landscape with Red Tree – Leo Marie Gausson
Midnight Sagebrush – Johnathan Harris
Streetlight – Giacomo Balla
Marriage – Andrew Wyeth

The Living Spaces – Part 10 – From Park Street to Broadway – The Last Move

January of 1978 was essentially a repeat of the previous year’s winter with lots of snow along with dangerous ice storms. Power outages, slippery roads and dangerous conditions followed our annual visit to Longboat Key, Florida to see Michael’s parents, which as usual, required the same navigation skills as the hazardous weather conditions of Illinois. I was excited, however, because I was ready to start my new job as the auditor/appraiser in charge of commercial property assessments in the town Michael and I had left behind two years earlier. Meanwhile, he was having a wonderful time confidently driving his 4 wheel drive Blazer around town, the vehicle I’d promised from our wedding, taking photos of the damage caused by the relentless storms.

At work, I was navigating a steep learning curve. Never known for my fabulous math skills, I was embarking on a career which was centered almost entirely on that topic. While braving all kinds of rotten weather, I was also working my way into certification by attending classes and passing exams offered by the Illinois Department of Revenue in order to become a professional assessment official. Back in the day, our office was occupied by a good old boy who cut a lot of real estate tax deals with the business community in smoky hospitality suites at official government conferences. Our goal was to clean up those unfair deals, modernize the office by computerizing all our data and to become a role model for other jurisdictions in the state. Heady business. I guess that a bunch of algebra and geometry from high school actually seeped into my brain because I was certified within the first six months of my job. My friend and boss Joanne and I decided that my title was pretty ostentatious so we swapped it for chief deputy assessor. The two of us, along with our secretary/receptionist Pat, and a couple of other deputies, wound up spending our entire careers there. We couldn’t have predicted that future then as we were required to run for office every four years. We were like family.

Out measuring property in the snow.
Joanne
Pat

Suddenly I was having a significant job in my life rather than transient way stations on the way to somewhere else. Michael was dug in at the Record Service. Neither one of us had ever had any leaning toward a vocation and not much in the way of ambition about anything but our political efforts. We’d been together for six years and had leapt many of the personal hurdles we’d discovered between each other while plowing through our early twenties. A new level of maturity was sneaking up on us.

We traveled frequently to Chicago to visit with my family, spending lots of time at our favorite places like Lincoln Park Zoo and its adjacent Conservatory. We were big fans of the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. Occasionally we headed further south to the Museum of Science and Industry. We had lots of college friends living in the city so we had places to stay. One of the perks of living a few hours south of our former home was being able to stay connected to people who also drove down to see us. We especially enjoyed eating at the wide variety of favorite restaurants that were sorely lacking where we lived. We haunted Chicago delis and deep dish pizza parlors.

The months went by fast. When not working, we took full advantage of our burgeoning local music scene which supported multiple venues. We listened to everything, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz and classical music and witnessed bands which eventually became renowned. We went to the movies most weekends. People we knew we’re starting to get married. Michael turned out to be a popular best man for weddings in which the maid of honor was tall, as he was 6’4.” That summer one of his partners got married and we attended their big bash.

We passed the summer months swimming during our lunch hours at the park district pool and sunning in the back yard. Michael played a lot of softball. Immersed in my new job, I began paying lots of attention to the housing market. Both of us were sick of moving and started talking about the possibility of buying a house. Back then, interest rates were really high, approaching 15%. We didn’t have much money saved but we looked anyway.

That summer, the man from whom Joanne had bought her house, a dapper older European gentleman named Henry, lost his business partner to cancer. Her heirs didn’t want to continue sharing ownership of several properties they’d owned jointly. She put me in touch with him and I discovered three houses, all rentals, that I thought had potential as a home for Michael and me. I began a relentless campaign to talk Henry into selling us one of them. He was quite undone by his sudden change in realty status and filled with gripes about the unfair way life was treating him. I, never a coffee drinker, started meeting with him for “a coffee” as he called it, and listened patiently to seemingly every injustice he’d ever been subjected to in his life. I was on a mission to get into the one house that would bring us back across the street that separated our twin cities, back into the more liberal town of the two, in the neighborhood where the best elementary school was located. Elementary school? Suddenly we found ourselves thinking about kids and houses when it felt like five minutes ago we were still babies ourselves. I kept pouring cream and sweetener into that coffee and trying to steer sweet sad Henry into selling us a house.

We visited with my older sister that summer and my older brother as well. Our family felt pretty generationally divided with my younger sister ten years younger than my brother and eight years younger than my sister. But we did our best to stay connected despite the gap. I’d always felt the chasm but we were all raised to believe in the sanctity of family so we did our best. They were already married with children although I can’t say that I aspired to either one of their relationships. That, in and of itself, proved to be instructive. Of the four of my siblings, I was the only one never to have gotten divorced.

My two sisters and me
My brother

Back home, the house campaign with Henry continued. By late summer he agreed to show us the property on Broadway which at the current time was being used as three apartments. Broken down from a single family dwelling into three units during the Depression, it was a big old farmhouse set on a double lot. When we arrived for our viewing, the people renting the first floor weren’t home so we only saw the second floor. The walls were covered with ancient hideous wallpaper with painting color schemes that defied description. But emanating from the walls was an infusion of warmth and comfort that was literally palpable. With the first floor a mystery we were utterly entranced with this house which we viewed as a starter home. We each asked our parents for some seed money for a downpayment and Henry, worn down by my incessant persistence, agreed to a reasonable price at the impossible interest rate of 15 and 1/4 %, a contract which would balloon in three years when we’d need to refinance. We were ecstatic.

Michael, a self-taught carpenter, had begun building shelving and furniture for our new home. I was raising tropical fish as a hobby, growing houseplants and knitting. I’d barely written a word in 1978. Life had shoved my literary creativity and journaling into a corner. I’d had a falling-out with my beloved friend Fern that year as her emotional problems, always an issue, were encroaching on boundaries that magically emerged from the space in me that was going all adult. When hunting through my writing, I found these most significant lines: “We are about to move into our first house. It’s hard to believe we actually own it and my feelings range from joy and excitement to fear and hesitation about all the responsibilities and unknowns involved in home ownership. This is the brink of a new era.”

Michael’s first album rack

We spent weeks paring down anything we didn’t want in the new house. Every day after work we plowed through the house on Park Street until we had six giant trash bags loaded with castoffs for disposal. Then trauma struck. I’d removed my emerald engagement ring, wrangled by Michael’s mother from a jeweler friend, because she hated the idea that I only had a sterling silver wedding band. Initially I’d resented it, but over the years I grew to love that ring. While sorting and deep cleaning, I’d taken it off to keep it clean and the next thing I knew, it went missing. I was inconsolable and mostly paralyzed because it felt like such an inauspicious way to start our new life. Michael went out to the driveway, sat down and waded his way patiently through every one of those bags, where he ultimately found it in the trash. I never forgot that patient, loving gesture. I gave that ring to my daughter years ago, after Michael replaced it with his own choice on our 30th wedding anniversary.

The almost lost ring
The 30th anniversary replacement

We moved into the house on Broadway in the fall of 1978. We stripped wallpaper, painted and refinished three of the floors in the previously unseen apartment which was our first living space in the house. We thought we’d be there a few years. I’m still living here 43 years later. We didn’t have much furniture but over time, we filled the rooms. We were happy and didn’t really care much about stuff. The yard was a disaster too, but that could wait. We started our salvaging with a porch repair.

In November, we spent Thanksgiving with my parents in Chicago. A few years down the road, that holiday would become an annual event in our home. After that weekend, we went back to work until the winter holidays back in Florida with Michael’s challenging family. But they couldn’t dampen our happiness at having arrived at this new phase of our lives. We made another quick trip to the fantasy of Disney World with visions of returning some day with our own kids. A new era indeed. And the last move we’d make together. Certainly the last for Michael who died in our home. Hopefully the last move for me.

The evolving home on Broadway
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The Hard Core Conundrum

The new pollinator’s garden

Last year, a few months into the pandemic when the weather became reasonable, I headed outside to attack my yard. In a good way. My house is on a double lot, about a quarter of an acre. When my family was living here, we could divide the chores. The kids mowed the lawn, much to their vociferous dismay. Michael was in charge of the fence and cleaning the gutters in addition to tending to his massive vegetable and herb garden. Oh, the joys of fresh tomato sauce, salsa and pesto. I’m way too lazy to do all that. I immersed myself in beautifying the planet, hurling flowers, shrubs and trees into the ground as fast as I could. Decades passed. The kids grew up and moved out. Michael took over the mowing. I started wood chipping the garden in an effort to control weeds. The hours the two of us spent outside were our happy times. There’s a lot of magic living inside your own creation with your art and life partner. When I realized Michael was in the last phase of his cancer, while he slept, I tore out to the back yard and covered his beloved and massive vegetable garden with black plastic topped with wood chips. I left his perennial herbs alone and also the raspberries, but I knew I could never manage the rest of that space as he had. I planned a pollinator’s garden. Part of the work was therapeutic. Part of it was just me. Physical labor suits me. No matter what the situation in my life, I tend to crank myself up and hurl myself into a manual task. My brain, always running on high voltage, needs the balance that heavy sweating and sore muscles provide.

Pandemic work

During my life, I’ve had a lot of descriptors tossed at me. Single-minded. Relentless. Fierce. Dogged. Unstoppable. Most recently, my son called me hard core. I’d just hauled twenty-plus 2 cubic feet bags of mulch out of my car, through the garage and into my garden in an effort to practice effective weed control. I was always cranking away outside and inside too, for that matter. Looking back, I was doing this kind of stuff as soon as I was old enough to assert myself independently. Once, back in 1967, with my two older siblings out of our apartment, and my mom and younger sister away on a trip, I remodeled my shared bedroom, even yanking down curtains and soaking them in Rit dye. I was always doing something.

Latest garden patch

For the most part, operating at an intense level is still okay with me. I’ve thought hard about how I got started on this road and truly can’t identify a beginning to my behavior. I am certain that I am only hyper-driven when the goal is one I’ve chosen. As a student I was pretty blasé about anything that didn’t interest me. But independent of requirements I was driven to devour topics of my choosing. I know a lot about seemingly unrelated random subjects. I’m not sorry that I’ve had a somewhat atypical trajectory that didn’t lead to a life path that appeared more likely for me before my academic underachievement became obvious. I am pausing, though, right before my 70th birthday, to consider whether this high voltage pace is how I want to be operating on the shorter end of my life.

I keep giving myself assignments. I have a clipboard loaded with chores, some of which are necessary and many of which aren’t. My phone’s Notes are chock full, over a thousand sitting in there, waiting to be printed or deleted. Hundreds of them are letters to Michael, some longer than others, some funny, some pathetic. Reminders of what to look into further are squeezed between lists that range from how many artists I’ve discovered in the past few years, to my rankings of things like my ten guitarists, to my life’s peak sexual experiences, to the best concerts I’ve attended in my life. Just exactly why it’s necessary for me to record all this disparate stuff is a mystery to me. My frantic attempt to codify my existence before I die? To leave a history for my family so they know more layers of the person they believe me to be? Will they care about any of my record keeping? Who knows? I think my garden book, which has a record of when I planted a flower, a tree or a shrub, how long it lived,or is still living, is kind of a cool thing, but why the compulsion? I don’t have a family bible in which all the births and deaths are recorded. Is this stuff my version of those historical treasures? Beats me.

My DVR is getting loaded with movies I haven’t watched in years. I’m in a quandary about whether to watch old ones that I remember liking or only new ones before I run out of time. I feel the same way about television shows. Old or new? I try compromising with myself about swapping watch days between series I used to love and new shows. Books are in this too. I want to go back and read favorites one more time but what about this stack of new ones? These are my “golden years.” I’m racing from thing to thing, acting as if any of these choices are supposed to be seriously significant. I really don’t think they are but my habits are really wired deeply into my psyche. In the end, is any of this stuff really important?

During these past long pandemic months, I’ve been discovering that I’m cutting away the activities and the people which have turned out to be more of a drain on my energy than a positive factor in my life. I’m less tolerant and patient than I once was, which probably isn’t saying much. When I was living in a regular dynamic with my family and all that comes with those commitments, I stifled more of my natural socially-averse impulses for the benefit of other people. Left to my own devices now, I’m not willing to do that any more. I’ve found that besides missing Michael’s company, I’ve been surprisingly well-equipped to deal with isolation. Because of my high energy levels, both mental and physical, I stay pretty busy. And based on the many deaths I’ve endured, I believe that most of us don’t wind up with much company anyway at the end of life. Giving my time to less than satisfying relationships is no longer something that seems worth my time. The same is true for participating in activities that don’t really light my internal fire. I find that the most essential interests I have revolve around the natural world. I’ve thrown myself into building an environment that services a broad number of species. At a time when our planet is laboring under neglect and outright abuse, that’s important to me. But I want to be more successful at balancing that work, with slowing down and quietly observing what’s happening around me. I’m trying to practice being hard core about experiencing what I’ve created in a more laid-back way, rather than an overtly aggressive one. I want to spend more time just being present in my space instead of constantly affecting it.

I have gorgeous plants blooming all around me. I’ve created habitat for birds, which will soon be followed by butterflies, bees and moths, to name a few insects for whom I’ve provided a bounteous landscape. But mostly, I’m racing around, snapping photos of everything, rather than letting myself just observe and soak in the world I’ve designed. The only times I let myself do that, just sit, is on the train trips I’ve taken to national parks where staring at what’s around me feels like my job. I’m also good for awhile near bodies of water which are not easily accessible in my part of the world. And I do love clouds. But I need to slow myself down right where I am every day. I got a weekend away recently where I was able to get those more relaxed feels than I do at home. On the second night I was utterly exhausted from the slowness of my day.

Spring bird migration was stunning in my yard this year. I want to spend more time just looking at all these fascinating avians and their interesting behaviors, rather than just taking their pictures. I want to simply experience all this life without compulsively turning it into work or a project. The observation brings a kind of peace and stillness that I need, rather than just being hyperintense all the time. I understand that Michael always provided that calming respite for me. I’m trying to find a way to give it to myself. Obviously I’ve benefited substantially from my intensity. But the fact is I need more balance and therein lies the conundrum.

So I’m practicing. The other day I just sat in a chair and looked around. I wandered the yard for a bit to see how all my plants, old and new were getting along. I took a photograph of a shasta daisy which for some reason, I’ve never been successful at growing. I got a close-up which I thought looked beautiful.

A short while later, I ambled around again and to my amazement, the daisy had fully opened and turned itself to face the sun. I’ve seen time-lapse videos of flowers and plants moving all the time but it was only a matter of minutes before this had happened. Imagine if I’d just sat next to it, watching that flower for those minutes. How meditative and slow that might have been.

I watched a house wren gathering materials for nesting in one of the four boxes I have specifically for them. Last year all the boxes were occupied. What happened to my residents? Were the more rare species who showed up this year too much competition for the tinier wrens? I don’t get to know. I guess that intellectual curiosity has a life of its own even as I try to slow things down, at least some of the time. Life is full of contradictions. Some people go blithely along, never noticing theirs. I’m not that lucky. So I’ll continue to wrest the best of both worlds, before my executive mental functions begin to recede with age. I’m going to try hanging on to that power with as much relentless energy as I can muster. There’s an equilibrium out there somewhere. I’m on the hunt for it.

A Scavenged Memory

Fall 1969 – Me with Pete Swinnerton.

Way back in 1976, after living with Michael for four years and having decided to marry, I decided to wipe away all evidence of my previous relationship with Al. I was deeply involved with Al from 1969 until 1972. I finally left him in April, 1972, after falling in love with Michael. That is I mostly left him. Aside from childish high school romances, Al was my first true love. I didn’t start out expecting to fall for him as hard as I ultimately did; he got there before me. Recently disentangled from a lingering relationship, I’d started my sophomore year of college with the intent of stretching out, trying new things, and exploring the possibilities of a broader life than the one I’d led during my first 18 years. The guy in the photo above was the teacher in a sensory relaxation class I’d been taking at the beginning of that year, a touchy-feely thing where you learned to let a bunch of strangers lift you in the air, stare into each other’s souls and practice other assorted cosmic exercises. Pete and I were on the campus quad during an unusually warm late fall day. I don’t know who took our photo. What I do know is that sitting off to my left on the steps of the Union was Al, in a brown clingy shirt and bell bottom jeans, strumming a guitar. I remembered meeting him in the beginning of my freshman year at a street dance. I was 17 years old and at the time, I recalled him primarily as a terrible dancer who moved as though his fingers were inserted in an electric socket. That was all. But the new me on this day was definitely more interested in him. I sat down next to him and we chatted.

Me talking with Al

An old friend of mine from elementary school days, who I’ve known all the way through college and into my current life, sent me the above photos of that day. I only have one more of Al that’s quite blurry. Before my marriage, I burned all the other ones I had of him, in addition to all my love letters from him. I wanted Michael to feel secure with me, which was a challenge, as it took me years to recover from that previous devastating relationship, a fact of which Michael was keenly aware. I put it away in a corner of my mind. I never “didn’t love” Al. He appeared intermittently in my life for the next few years, trying to convince me that he’d matured and was ready to be with me. But I didn’t trust him and knew he’d broken me too deeply for us to ever be together again. I loved Michael in a much healthier way. When he was stricken with cancer, what little was left of the memory of my first love, was wiped completely from my consciousness after a lifetime of its tiny incursions into my brain through the years.

Fern and me.

Except once. In 1988, my oldest friend died. I was devastated. For three days, I felt unable to function which was so challenging as I was now a wife, a mother of two kids and working full-time. In the midst of my grief, reviewing my life with my beloved Fern, I suddenly remembered that in college, she’d had a fairly serious relationship with one of Al’s roommates. I hadn’t spoken to Al in thirteen years but I knew where he lived. Finding him was easy. Life is so odd. I always thought of him from my perspective through the years, never imagining how he thought, or didn’t think of me. When I called his home, a woman answered, someone I assumed was his wife. I introduced myself as an old friend from college. She went to find him and I heard his voice for the first time in all those years. His wife was speaking in the background – he asked me to hold on a second and I heard him say, “yes, Leslie, it’s that Renee.” I was stunned. I truly had never imagined that he’d told anyone a single thing about me. Pretty dense, I suppose. I told him about Fern and told him I was wanting to contact his roommate. He was properly sympathetic but it didn’t take long to realize he was thrilled to hear from me and was soon encouraging me to stay in touch. I was appalled and unnerved. I felt particularly awful as a feminist, for clearly making his wife feel threatened and uncomfortable. The conversation ended with me determined to never contact him again. I didn’t. I found out later through mutual friends, that he’d divorced this woman, the mother of his children and remarried. My life moved forward.

After Michael’s death, I began the long, slow process of sorting through the 45 year accumulation of stuff that was staring me in the face. Both of us saved lots of paper, especially personal notes, letters and cards. Over time, I made progress, sorting, discarding and still saving every scrap he’d written me and I’d written him. Meanwhile, as I read through so many documents, I discovered that I’d missed burning two greeting cards from Al that were squeezed into the piles of hundreds. I’d also stashed a couple of things he’d written me just months into our tempestuous relationship. I was stunned by this find. We were only 19 and 20 years old, respectively. I don’t think it’s immodest to say we were both pretty smart. But the lengthy fable he wrote to me all those years ago was remarkably insightful and filled with nuggets of self-awareness, much knowledge of who I was and perhaps the most telling sign of our ultimate doom – he didn’t believe that partners could be equals. If only I’d cut my losses early. I’m going to share this remarkable fable which has so much truth although certainly, time and maturation change people. So here it is. As it was written.

The Continuing Dilemma of L.C. by Al H.

One fine morning Little Chicken was buried deep in one of those holes that he digs himself in periodically.

He was wallowing in his own dirt. He was pissed. Because he knew that his own little wings were responsible for the big black pit.

But that made things even worse. So there he was, spiraling deeper and deeper, he was half-way to China, covered with grime

Uncried tears in his eyes, For no particular reason, When from down below he felt a rumbling in the earth, And a light mysteriously began to glow below him.

And then the bottom of the pit dropped away, And then he felt a strange – But pleasant Breeze.

Whoosh-it smelled…why, it smelled of alcohol! What a strange soothing thing this breeze was. Little Chicken was no longer spiraling downward. The breeze was suspending him in mid-air.

He was weightless. He was also plenty scared. All sorts of suspicious thoughts about the breeze Drifted across his chickenshit brain.

He was scared, really scared. So he turned to the next page And began to summon all those Anti-breeze defenses he had used so well in the past, But the breeze (It was a,well, it was some sort of cosmic energy That radiates and glows in the dark) Took the form of a horse. And the horse (Whom Little Chicken called, appropriately enough, Stormy) Began nibbling away at his defenses (Fig. 44)

Needless to say, Little Chick went crazy. This was unplanned (except by Stormy.) But it was fresh. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Stormy was a fresh breeze, A good breeze, Bringing him only soothing relief to his aching blisters caused by too much digging.

Or, at least, at this stage, It appeared that way to Little Page-Turner, Who didn’t know what he was getting into, Who only knew what he was getting out of, Who was sick to his soul with self-contempt, Who would willingly trust that Stormy who could at once reach him as she said she could.

She did. Stormy, she ate away almost all his defenses. The breeze wafted our hero (well, at least mine) Back up from whence he descended A century or more (no shit) ago. And Little Chicken plopped on the solid earth and he was happy to be alive And Stormy galloped on right after him. She galloped on the thin air For she was mystical, magical Stormy – The best thing that ever was.

And L.C.’s heart tripped a million times a minute He thought that now that Stormy ate away his defenses(Though not all, I might qualify) (Unhappily) (But as it turns out, not so unhappily) (But if it turns out differently, very – most unhappily) She would be an obedient, tame, docile little creature Who would follow him anywhere.

But he hoped, deep down, that perhaps she wouldn’t. Little did he know that she couldn’t. For when Stormy emerged after saving him from all the dirt in the pit, she remained true to her nature – Stormy. God, what a bitch she was. For you see, once Little Chicken was helped out of his pit The whole thing became confused. Very, very confused. For Stormy had to change from Savior, Noble Savior. She had to change. She changed to a vixen. A black-haired wench of a horse With pale blue-green eyes That could destroy anything within their reach.

These eyes – they merit some lingering upon Let us linger They are Stormy eyes They spit out flaming ribbons of fiery wrath. Sometimes They can consume – completely incorporate – any mortal foolish enough to linger upon them But they can also freeze. They become as cold as ice water Cold as a January evening in Canada with no clothes on. Sometimes. At these times Stormy can freeze any activity she likes. I told you she was magical.

And sometimes they are but children’s eyes. Curious. Happy – no – gay, and Loving. And sometimes they are all of these things at once. And Stormy, with her eyes of Jade, And with her sleek and supple body Began to toy with Little Chicken As a cat with a mouse. But Little Chicken didn’t mind He was too happy with his rediscovered emotions And he was in love; L.C. loved Stormy. He knew he was in love because he could feel something Else towards Stormy that he hadn’t felt in a long time. Hate.

Little Chicken hated Stormy. He hated everything about her. Her every move, her every gesture Absolutely infuriated him Because he began to realize a gigantic truth. He knew, suddenly why she had saved him. She had saved him from his own pit Only to throw him in her own pit Which was much deeper and dirtier And already occupied by others. Love and hate alternating On and off, Off and on. Sometimes Stormy was good on the surface But evil inside. Sometimes she was a terrible ogre With a good heart trapped inside her plotting deeds. Yes, she was magical. Sometimes Little Chicken was daddy. And sometimes he was an even littler chicken.

And sometimes he was Dionysus and she was Athena And sometimes she was Aphrodite But he was Apollo But he held onto one thing continuously – He was always a Little Chicken (And a bad punster) And sometimes Little Chicken knew that the truth he discovered was a big old lie.

It was just the last line of his defenses. And sometimes he feared the truth of the truth. And for good reason. What a dynamic creature Stormy was! She made everything about her dynamic Including Little Chick Who had been stagnating in a quagmire for too long. She was powerful. She loved her power. She worshipped it more than even herself (Which, being Stormy is no mean accomplishment) But Stormy also knew that Little Chick had power She couldn’t label it But she sensed it – she smelled it And was even a bit afraid of it Because it wasn’t her kind of power at all.

Furthermore, Little Chick was ambivalent toward his power And this was beyond her realm of accomplishment She couldn’t understand his ambivalence And tried to either crush his power, In which case she sometimes succeeded, and sometimes lost. Or to make him her equal Which he didn’t dig at all. (Joint rulers don’t make it) Sometimes Little Chick made Stormy forget she was Magical. He made her feel like a mortal woman – somewhat Powerless, perhaps, but less responsible and much happier. So you see, even Stormy was a little chicken (But somewhat of a better punster – Help!)

But Stormy was a schemer A puppeteer with her hands on everyone’s strings. Stormy never slept. Being a magical being, she didn’t need to. Instead, while everyone else was safely asleep, Dreaming, She schemed and schemed, She schemed to make her dreams real. Stormy could do this, because everyone knows that The only reason we sleep is to give the little People inside themselves a chance to express Their desires and give their opinions. By making people dream. So Stormy found a better way But it wasn’t better at all.

Little Chicken saw that and he told her And she knew he was right, but she couldn’t admit it, But she couldn’t change. Her die had been cast Much earlier, many generations and personalities ago. So Stormy could see through Little Chicken because of her x-ray eyes And Little Chicken, mortal that he was, could still see through Stormy, Because he was very familiar with many of the Games she played. The only thing they couldn’t see, Neither of them.

They couldn’t see what they were doing together. This was a bit upsetting to L.C. But was disastrous to Stormy Who had to know everything That there was to know. She knew a lot of it, too A great deal But never enough. Insatiable, this compulsion was. And when someone knew that she didn’t know everything There was to know, as did L.C., It detracted from her magical quality This made her attractive, No it made her beautiful And real and touchable and reachable. Yes, it made her beautiful When she lost her magic powers But she didn’t know it. And she sure didn’t like it.

Because she didn’t want to think of herself in mortal Terms. Stormy didn’t want to admit reality Much as Little Chicken didn’t. She denied her emotions But tried to use them for her godlike schemes. Sometimes this worked But sometimes it didn’t Especially with Little Chicken Who tried to bring her up/down To his level Of existence (he learned how to release his emotions and accept them. She helped him, but he couldn’t help her.) With, however, Little success.

So Little Chicken and Stormy faced each other Every day. He woke in the morning Only to find her scheming Neither could change the other any more They could only wonder how come they Both slept in the same bed Or occupied it, anyway. It was fun occupying the same bed It was satisfying It was fun playing fun games It was amusing They were always smiling, gay smiles But they were also seeking. Both of them They were seeking And not finding much at all. Except more questions With no answers. And soon Stormy grew to hate Little Chicken Whom she had once saved. She hated him as much as he hated her. She hated him because he was under her magic spell And yet could still retain his power. She hated him because she feared him But feared him because she loved him.

It was very confusing And frustrating. But sometimes, it was rewarding Sometimes Stormy and Little Chickenshit could Romp and play as though they were children(Which they were) And nothing else mattered And they could do this anywhere Even in a cemetery Or walking down the street. But these moments were transient and quickly done with and sublime.

And they made no sense And they made them both unsure of themselves And insecure, Because they knew that all the moments Couldn’t be like that at all. No, they can’t.

So this is a photo Al took of me at his parents’ house, a few months after he wrote that amazing tale of us. We were absolutely doomed but it took awhile longer before we left us behind. I’m so glad to have found this rare look at part of my life that came before I settled on a different path. Like going on a mysterious scavenger hunt and finding the big prize. Maybe some people wouldn’t want the look back. But I’ll always be grateful that someone close to me took the time to describe a rare time in my youth. First love from the first partner. Like fingernails on a blackboard. And then along came Michael. The end and the beginning.