This is where I lived for the last part of elementary school, right across the street from Horace Mann Elementary School, and through my high school years at South Shore. The high school art teacher, Miss Novelle lived in the apartment below us with her parents. I thought that was weird. I never could figure out where teachers belonged back then. Moving to this building put me closer to my friends. Fern lived around the corner and down the block on Jeffrey. My friends Judy and Brenda lived around the other corner to the north on Chappel. We were on 81st Street-on 83rd Street was the famous Carl’s Hot Dogs where a buck bought the most delicious dog wrapped in greasy paper with fries, the genuine Chicago hot dog unmatched by any other. Bliss.
A lot happened while I lived at 2019 East 81st Street. I was eating lunch at home by myself when Kennedy was killed. I walked down to Judy’s to be with people and then we silently went back to school to begin the weekend of mourning. My baby cousin, only 21 months old died of bronchiolitis while we lived there. My older brother and sister were gone, off to the Air Force and college respectively, and we’d become a family of 4 in less cramped quarters.
I was growing up. I kept a diary and then a journal starting at about 11 years old. I still have all of them. Although I wrote about school, current events and family, I spent a great deal of time writing about my friends and frequently, boys. I was somewhat flitty in my feelings, but from 5th grade on, I had a mad crush on a boy named Danny. He had dark hair and soft brown eyes. I remember liking to describe them as limpid pools, a phrase I’d read in some book. I was a singularly loyal person. By the time I was 12, I was sure I’d love Danny for the rest of my life. But I was also pretty calculating. I knew very well that as kids, relationships and love came and went, often so fast that you barely knew they’d happened. I myself had other crushes, even while being internally devoted to Danny. So I decided to spend my time becoming his great friend, hoping to make a transition to love some time down the road when the odds were better that it would stick. And so began my great campaign.
For the most part, high school was fraught with the common experiences most teenagers walk through as they grow. I liked lots of my classes and teachers, but felt insecure and stupid in others. The external world was tumultuous and bled into daily life. I was keenly aware of civil rights issues, Vietnam, music and marijuana, or herb as one friend called it. Sex, too. No one told me much about it, but my body was awake. Although I had a pretty liberal social conscience, I was personally very conservative. No teenaged pregnancies for me. Some of the boys teasingly called me polar bear because I was so cold. On the other hand, my friend Marc with whom I had spirited conversations about the state of the world, said he liked me so much that he’d give me a hundred yard head start before he shot me during the impending race war. Looking back, I’m glad I grew up where I did, in a multi-racial neighborhood which was a microcosm for the issues of the day. Who I am now is a direct result of that time and interchange. Breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding are legacies from that place.
In the meantime, I was trying to do the social thing. My first real high school date was with a guy named Denny that my male friends thought was great. We went on a hay ride where I was huddled into myself to ensure that no part of me ever touched a part of him. I kept a close eye on Danny, finding ways to make myself his reliable friend, to become indispensable. By the time we were juniors, we were pretty close. I dated his best friend and we laughingly pretended we were like TV celebs, The Crusher and The Bruiser, who shared a girlfriend named Lil. I really liked my boyfriend but he knew nothing of my long, secret campaign to win Danny. In that junior year, Danny ran for student council president and I ran for treasurer. We worked together on our campaigns and I reveled in the time we spent alone strategizing. His parents had two cars which was unimaginable to me. One was a silvery blue Chevy Malibu. I stood in the third floor window, waiting for it to pull up in front of our apartment. I still remember the license plate-PD1502. When we won our respective elections, there was a big social event at school during which the old officers would announce the new ones for the following year. We stood behind a curtain, waiting to be called. For a brief second, he held my hand and squeezed it. His hand was dry and warm. One of the exciting moments of my life.
My birthday was at the end of May, right before the school year was over. I turned 16 on a Thursday and that Saturday, Danny, who was attending some school leadership conference, said he wanted to stop by and drop off a present. I got all dressed up for the 5 minute event. Talk about hitting me in my sweet spot. He handed me Sergeant Pepper, newly released and the stuff of my dreams.
That summer, my parents got kind of flush with cash. I guess that being four instead of six helped. My dad said I could either go to California with my mom and sister to visit family, or take a trip offered through South Shore to Expo ‘67, the world’s fair in Montreal. As if I had to think for a millisecond. Danny was going on that trip. A dream come true. We packed up and boarded a Canadian National train for what to me, was a long ride that could’ve gone on forever. Fern was there and a few other good friends. Even today when I see the CN logo, I’m flooded with great memories.
We had surprisingly little supervision. I think kids must’ve seemed older back then, because we were treated as if we were responsible. At least in my crowd. We stayed in groups of girls and boys in little apartments and all gathered to catch the Metro to go to the exposition. I remember wearing dresses and skirts which seems so impractical now. The metro was always packed and when we arrived at the exhibits we wandered around together in a group, exploring and tasting exotic food. The first time I tasted tandoori chicken was at the Indian pavilion in Montreal.
One morning, we were all jostling to get on the train and there just wasn’t enough room for Danny and me. I could barely contain my excitement. A whole day alone with him. Six years of dreaming and finally, all my imagining was coming true. What a magical day. So innocent and sweet. We wandered around holding hands and never saw anyone we knew. A secret bubble. We walked and talked and by evening were ensconced in a gondola on a big Ferris wheel where Danny actually did the move-a fake yawn and stretch which wound up with his arm around my shoulder. That was it. A tender memory to relive over and over. The trip ended and we went home.
When senior year started, everything went on as if nothing magical had happened. Danny moved from one girlfriend to the next while I stayed with his best buddy for the most part. Then one wintry afternoon, he and I drove downtown to attend another one of those conferences that looked so good on what we still called a resume. The meetings were boring but I didn’t care. I was just happy breathing in the rarified air of just us two. On the way home, the snow fell hard and the trip took forever. We started talking about how strange the next year would be when we’d be apart for the first time in our short little lives. And the next thing I knew, he was telling me he had no idea what he’d do without me and reaching for my hand and confessing that long-awaited word-love. I remember exactly what I was wearing that day, a loden green box pleat skirt with a matching cable knit sweater. Green right down to my tights. We decided that we would attempt a sneaky romantic relationship and tell no one in case it didn’t work out. Our first date was at Due’s pizzeria in downtown Chicago. That involved a lot of staring and giggling discomfort. I was disappointed. I’d been waiting so long for this moment and it was far from memorable. The second date was just driving around and talking but we did make a stop at Carl’s hot dogs for a late night snack. When Danny drove me home, he was walked me upstairs and I stood expectantly at the front door, hoping for the long-awaited kiss I’d imagined since I was 10 years old. I can still see him in the hall light, wearing a light blue shirt under a slightly bluer v-neck sweater and a tan shearling jacket lined with cream colored fake fur. Even today, I’m attracted to those jackets. Anyway, he said goodnight and I realized he was just going to turn around and walk away. I remember thinking, no way I’ve gotten this far and nothing’s going to happen. I grabbed the collar of his jacket and kissed him. It was a sloppy mess of scraped teeth, mushy lips and the taste of mustard, onion and bright green relish that make a Chicago dog a Chicago dog. And that was it. Danny moved back to the friendship chasm without a word and I was too embarrassed and proud to say another word about it. Senior year drew to an end and I went to prom with my same boyfriend while Danny had moved on to someone new.
That fall, I went my way and he went his. We stayed friends through most of college and as juniors finally were able to discuss what he thought was the impossibility of “us.” He told me I was a great friend but a little too challenging for him as a girlfriend. Oops. I could never keep my mouth shut. Yay for me.
We lost touch after college. Once, about 15 years ago, I found him online and sent him a birthday greeting-no way could I have ever forgotten his birthday. We exchanged pleasantries and then fell away again.
This is a before story, before my life with Michael which began at age 20 and is still going on, despite his death last May. Going back into these old memories is a welcome respite from the grief process. Innocence and simplicity. Treasures.
These days my mind wanders. A lot. I’ve finished the eighth month since Michael died. During our 45 years together, it seemed that my whole life happened while we shared with each other. I was only 20 when we started. Remembering everything we experienced often overpowers me with pain that is physical, wrenching gut pain. Sitting with it is just too much. So off my mind goes to other places, seeking relief.
I don’t know why my memory has always been vivid, packed with detail, both visual and aural. I know that there are mnemonic tricks that you can use to train your mind to remember, essentially creating a mind palace to use as a tool to access information. I’ve never needed to do that. The inside of my head reminds me of those children’s pop-up books, the ones where each page turns into a 3D structure that you can walk through and touch. When I pull away from my thoughts of Michael and me, I drift into the before, my very early years and am suddenly in the midst of a different type of experience.
The picture above is of a restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa where my family lived from the time I was 8 months old until age 7. The Green Gables. We rarely went out to restaurants because money was always an issue but on special days, we went there. In my mind it looked so much bigger than the building in the photo but I know that my child’s perspective accounts for that. I remember my favorite food was their massive turkey club sandwich with real turkey sliced from the bird, juicy tomatoes and lettuce, and enough mayonnaise to ensure that my mouth always needed mopping as I ate. I dreamed of going back there but then realized it was better to leave the memories in place so they could never be altered by my grownup perceptions.
In Sioux City we first lived in a rental on 17th street. We had a blonde cocker spaniel named Trixie. When she went into heat, mom muttered and grumbled, mopping up spots from the floor and eventually putting Trixie in a diaper. I was about 3 then and the diapers were from my little sister. Trixie bit me in my armpit and we got rid of her. In that space, sunlight came through the kitchen window and I’d stand still and watch the tiny pieces of dust moving through the air like tiny fliers. Fairy dust. We only lived there a short time. Eventually my parents were able to buy a house and 17th Street disappeared.
This is one of the few pictures I have of our house on 23rd street in Sioux City. The photo was taken from the rear.
It was the only house my parents ever owned. It was big and hard for my mom to manage. My brother bred white mice in the basement. When they were born, I was fascinated by their naked pink squirmy bodies. We had bats in the attic. I can see my mom chasing them, brandishing a broom at a sheer curtain or the baseboard by the door that led to the attic. I am sitting in the kitchen, watching her press a glass into cookie dough, the round shapes pulling away and then laid carefully on a sheet for baking. I played outside all the time. We had neighbors called the Brewers and the Larimers. The dad in the Larimer family was a doctor. Their home and lot were really massive. Their kids were Robin, Charlie and Janie. Robin was my age and was my first love. We played imaginary games in which he played the dual roles of noble fly and nasty spider. I was always the butterfly in distress, constantly in need of rescue. Thinking about that makes me laugh because I was a rugged outdoor girl with a sense of confidence. But we played it that way anyhow. The Larimers were Scottish and each summer they had a huge barbecue with bagpipers and what they called a weenie roast. Still makes me laugh. I had my first drink of orange soda pop at one of these grand events and was astonished by the carbonation bubbling up my nose. I liked milk.
I had a tricycle named Silver after the Lone Ranger’s horse with pink, green and white plastic streamers that blew at the ends of my handlebars. We had a new dog, a collie mix named King who was gentle and once came home carrying a baby raccoon in his mouth. My mom fed it strawberries which it pulled apart with its black, leathery fingers. We called it Mario. I can’t remember what became of him. I stayed outside as long as I could every day. My dad called me Chief Blackfoot which hurt my feelings.,My mom gave me jars with air holes punched in the lids for oxygen. I filled them with twigs and leaves and hunted for caterpillars which I hoped would cocoon and turn into butterflies like me. There was a tall stand of hollyhocks on the corner and I’d stand very still and watch bees disappear into the depths of their centers and wonder if they’d ever come out. When they did, if you stuck your nose in after they left, it would come out yellow, covered in pollen.
Once, there was a big flood in our town and my dad wrapped me in a rough blanket and carried me to the house on the highest ground where Mrs. Monroe, who lived there, said we could stay until the water receded. The next day, I went with dad to find our car which had floated down the block and was stopped from disappearing altogether by a sturdy fence. Life was full of adventure.
This is a photo of Hunt School where I went to kindergarten and 1st grade. I really loved my kindergarten teacher, Miss Wyfles. My mom had surgery the year before I started school and I was very upset by the possibility that people could vanish from their proper places. Every day I asked my mom if Miss Wyfles would be in school and if she’d be home when I got home. And instead of saying maybe or usually, she always said yes. One day Miss Wyfles was absent. Evidently I threw such an enormous fit that my sister who was 5 and 1/4 years older than me, was sent for to talk me off the ledge. She said my eyes were big as saucers and I was totally rigid. The first terror I remember. But I liked school. I liked my rug used for naps and the carton of milk we got before we slept. I remember our cloakroom-in the winter, the teachers were always reminding us to stand our rubbers up straight so the insides wouldn’t get wet. Those ugly black boots which had clips to snap together. I was glad when I finally got a pair of red boots. I also remember our air raid drills, thinking all the while that my arms probably wouldn’t do much to stop a bomb if it fell right on top of me.
Once, my sister forgot me at school. I was supposed to meet her on the front steps so she could walk me home. Eventually all the kids had gone except me. I can’t remember how I figured out how to make my way but when I appeared at the top of our slanted block, people were calling and looking for me.They were so glad to see me and proud of me for finding my way. I always thought my sister figured if she left me there I might never come home. That was the beginning of my being industrious and streetwise.
Sioux City didn’t work out for us. We were moving back to Chicago and had to leave King behind because he couldn’t live in our apartment. Robin took me to the big toy room in their house and said I could pick out any toy I wanted. I chose a metal horse with 3 legs. He kept some of our fish which he held in a bowl, alongside his siblings and his parents who waved goodbye as we all looked sadly out the back window of our car. After they faded from sight, I asked my parents if there was milk in Chicago and how you got to be the first car on the road.
There was a before. Remembering it helps with the now. Someday, there may be an after.
This is a photo of my house which was taken in 1916. The people standing in front of it were the original owners who built it in 1893. The wraparound veranda is gone except for one small portion over the entry steps-the numbers above it are still here and made of wood. Along with everything else about this place, I love them.
I acquired the picture one day when a man who was about my age now, knocked on the door and told me that his father, who’d lived here as a boy, was near death and felt the photo should stay with the house. What a generous act on the part of a stranger. It’s been hanging in the living room ever since that day.
When Michael and I started looking for a place to buy in 1978, the market was tight and interest rates were high. What became our house had been used as three apartments since the 1930’s. When the depression hit hard, no one could afford to take care of such a large place. The current owner was involved in settling an estate with the heirs of his business partner who’d recently died. He needed to sell three of their jointly owned houses to pay off the heirs’ shares. When Michael and I went to see the house, the renters of the first floor weren’t home. We climbed to the second floor and walked through the two units upstairs. I still can’t pinpoint the reason I knew we had to have it. There was nothing particularly attractive about the rooms or the shared bath-rather it looked like a lot of work with faded wallpaper and dingy floors. But I wanted it desperately and Michael, always indulgent, went along with the utterly irrational idea of making a bid without ever having seen the first floor. Inspections? Bah!
The man who owned the place was a dapper, diminutive European man who wore seersucker suits with a handkerchief in the front pocket and beautiful two-toned shoes. He was reluctant to let the house go as he’d hoped to demolish it one day and build an apartment building on its large double lot. Though not a coffee drinker, I must’ve met him every day for a month, to listen to his life stories and frustrations, using all my persuasive powers to melt his opposition and sell it to us. And eventually he did, on a balloon contract at an exorbitant interest rate. He was quite annoyed when I filed the contract with the County Clerk-he scolded me for not accepting his handshake as his bond. And suddenly we were homeowners. When the tenants’ lease on the first floor expired, we finally got to see the first floor which was our apartment for the first three years we lived here.
We scraped wallpaper, painted, stripped, sanded and varnished floors. We were thrilled. The walls seemed to exude warmth and good feelings. We spent long hours talking about what might’ve happened within these rooms, trying to understand what made the atmosphere so homey.
Three years after moving in, we got pregnant and took over one of the upstairs apartments to make room for the baby. We rented the remaining unit to friends – when baby number two came along, we took over the entire place.
We spent a lot of time learning the history of the house. I have the original title which dates the land back into the 1700’s. The title includes the original owners’ wills which surprisingly, show that their personal possessions were auctioned off to their children. We met the man who added indoor plumbing and two bathrooms in 1918. He said they cost a full year’s wages. We knew his children, two of whom were local lawyers and one who was an Olympian. When their family sold the house, the local candy shop owner was the next purchaser. We found the names of renters, too. All neatly compiled in directories in our local library. Microfiche revealed newspaper stories about who fell down the cellar stairs and how all the residents died. We found out that the original name of our street was Market-the residents petitioned the city council to change it to Broadway because they didn’t like the implications that “market” brought to mind. One day, a man who came to our garage sale told me he’d attended a beautiful wedding in our parlor.
And so our relationship with our home became more fulsome and complex. We were sharing space with everyone who came before us and began to compound that history with our own contributions. Our children grew up here and after leaving, came back to the place where so many of their life events happened. Learning to walk, playing in the yard, nuzzling pets and sleepovers were regular events. So were fighting and laughing and crying. The ball banged off the basketball hoop in the driveway. A hammock was strung between the apple and pear trees. Michael built a tall multi-level climbing structure in the backyard.
Listening to music and watching movies and taking furtive steps into the adult world everyone is so anxious to join happened under this roof. Our kids’ friends called our home a refuge space where comfort, treats, a sympathetic ear and big hugs could be found. A house of acceptance and no judgment. The people who came wore many colors and no one thought about it. Michael, whose childhood home was a cold and empty place, reveled in the warmth which I know has seeped into the walls and floors. We enriched the surrounding ground with trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and herbs. An ecosystem happened outside that meshed with the inside. A home with many flaws, not for everyone, but perfect for us. Every time I drive down my street and see it waiting for me, I’m always happy to go inside.
The stairs are harder for me now. The house is too big and too much to maintain on my own. Suddenly I have hired helpers. I’m toying with ideas about how to manage as I age along with this stoic refuge that’s weathered so many years. Such a sturdy, reliable place. I hope to stay here until the end of my life, in the space where the walls continue to send out the vibe that drew us here. Where in certain lights at different times of day, the ones that I love still appear in the shadows and years of memories play in images on these wondrous old walls.
On January 23, 1943, my parents were married. Today would’ve been their 75th anniversary. My mother was nineteen and my dad was either nineteen or twenty, depending on which document is correct. A pair of babies. Neither one of them had a great childhood. My mom was the only surviving female amongst her siblings and as such, was treated in the classic second class style for girls by her immigrant parents. Not much was expected from her in terms of life accomplishments. In addition to going to school, she was responsible for a slew of household chores which included daily floor scrubbing, errand running and bearing the brunt of my grandmother’s rage at her life. The middle child in a group of boys, she felt incredibly uncomfortable as a sexual object amidst her brothers and step-brother. She got little support from my grandmother who lived the barefoot, pregnant life of a superstitious first-generation immigrant, smart but illiterate, frustrated and devastated by the deaths of three children. She asserted what power she had over her primary target in the household, her sole surviving daughter. My mother told me my grandmother never told her she loved her in her entire life.
My dad was another first generation American child whose very early years started out promising but quickly devolved into depression life. His father, who worked as a commercial photographer toying with ideas of double exposure, died at 39, when my dad was eight years old. He had an older sister and younger brother. In keeping with the idea that boys would be the family standard bearers, he took on the responsibility of trying to take care of his mother and siblings. His first job was pulling a wagon through the streets of Chicago, selling apples. As finances became more dire, he quit high school after his sophomore year so he could work full time. My parents both had powerful native intelligence, but neither had a shred of guidance or attention paid to their potential. They were street kids who learned how to bluff and act tough. My mom’s toughness ran deeper than my dad’s. Inside they were still little children, perennially stuck in those spots because their grownups were overwhelmed by life and never understood parenting, beyond making sure there was food and a roof. Neither one of them saw a toothbrush until they were old enough to understand that people actually took care of their teeth.
They were introduced by my mom’s older brother and it was one of those things. They were married in less than a year. My mom wore an ice blue dress with a little jacket and open toed shoes though her feet froze and were soaked that night. My dad had a suit that he got from somewhere. They received $80 and spent two nights in a hotel. My dad was my mom’s first and only lover. I don’t know about him. He was way too shy to talk about those things with me. After the honeymoon they moved into my mom’s parents’ house and went to work. My mom’s job was short lived as my brother was born in November of that year. They stayed with my grandparents for over eight years, finally moving to Iowa when I was a baby. My older siblings were eight and five. My dad was hoping for a new beginning working with his brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, selling farm implements and water conditioners. He was on the road a lot, while mom stayed home and tried to manage the children and the bill collectors. That part of their life helped them feel independent, on their own at last. But ultimately, my mom, subservient to my dad’s older sister, found life was even less attractive there than living with her parents. We all trundled back to Chicago when I was seven, moving into an apartment on Cornell Avenue on the south side of the city, right around the corner from my grandparents who lived on 78th Street.
Life was always financially bumpy and my mom was sick all the time. I spent a lot of time visiting her in hospitals, thankful I looked mature enough to pass the age requirement for getting into her room. My dad held several different jobs before finally getting his toe in the door at the First National Bank of Chicago in his mid-forties. He finally found his niche and advanced professionally, despite no education or credentials.
All those years were tumultuous. My younger sister who’d come almost two and a half years after me, made four siblings who were crunched into a two bedroom apartment with our parents. As I watched from the advantageous third position, I realized that though my parents were truly loving to each other and all of their kids, there wasn’t the expected boundary of adult and child between us. In retrospect, it felt like a mostly benign but often wacky frat house with no one in charge to really steer the ship. My parents were scared of a lot, and trained us to be as afraid as they were of so many life experiences. My older sister ultimately referred to their behavior as life on the couch.,They clung to each other amidst the uproar and the scary and I realized that the best role for me was to be ok and figure out life for myself. The first time I jumped off a diving board they were positive I’d be an Olympian. Finding realism kind of started there. Through it all, their love was palpable and despite their childish behavior, I worshipped them and modeled my future desires on having big love like them. I just wanted to make sure I got to be an adult first and to make sure I married another one.
Luckily, I got that part right. When my dad died at only 67, my mom soldiered on and made it to almost 92. She never entertained remarrying and was wistful about his absence for the rest of her life. My own path seems a repeat of hers, with Michael having died at exactly the same age as my dad. That part of the story is unfinished. Although, in my heart, I suspect that once you get the big love, there doesn’t seem much point in settling for anything less. Happy anniversary, mom and dad. I hope the two of you are out there somewhere, connected forever and that, mom, you’ll see that dad was never serious about Ava Gardner. I miss you two crazies.
This is a photo of me and my friend Fern on my 16th birthday over 50 years ago. We met when we were 7, in second grade in Chicago. We were an unlikely pair. She was shy and awkward, I was outgoing and aggressive. We became best friends. Through elementary school, high school, as unsuccessful college roommates and beyond, we shared a deep, intimate relationship. We wrote 3 snotty novels together as teenagers, we saw the Beatles together and imagined being old ladies, rocking in our chairs, harmonizing to all their songs. We had the same crushes and didn’t mind sharing. We talked on the phone for hours, eventually graduating from gossip to big ideas and deep thoughts and feelings. After many years, we knew Fern had serious emotional issues. She struggled through them while becoming a court reporter, a pianist, a bowler and eventually, a PhD candidate in creative writing. I tried really hard to help her. She killed herself in 1988, two weeks before our 20th high school reunion. I’ve never really gotten over it. I miss her all the time. A wrong and unnecessary death. But aside from the countless memories, I am left with one permanent gift from our life together, the perfect day.
One hot summer day in 1966, we were just a couple of kids with nothing to do but amuse ourselves. Our friend, Mary, who lived in a big building right on Lake Michigan invited us over to hang out. We walked there, sweaty, but not caring as we watched the sidewalks shimmer in the heat. When we got to Mary’s, other friends were gathered, girls and boys, sitting on the large concrete patio that overlooked the water. The air felt cooler there. My main crush was on site which made the day glow for me, and Fern’s was there as well. We were utterly innocent. A glancing accidental touch of a hand was a dream you could live on for weeks.
There was a neighborhood bakery called Burny Brothers. I remember the pink boxes so rarely seen in my house and to my delight, Mary’s mother had bought their cinnamon rolls which I’m sure were the most delicious ones I’ve ever tasted. We snarfed them down as we kidded and flirted and the hours flitted by. Eventually it was time to go home. As Fern and I lived only a block apart, we left together. On the way home, we decided we were hungry and decided to stop for a burger.
This is where we stopped. For a buck, you could get a burger, fries and a Coke. For me, it was always special to eat out, even at fast food restaurant. Mustard on burgers? Unthinkable at my house.
We strolled outside and sat down on a hot bench to eat and talk over every minute detail of the day. As we ate and chatted, we watched an auto mechanic come out of his shop and get ready to slide underneath a car. He had a portable radio with him which he flipped on before he disappeared on his little rolling cart. And suddenly, Paul McCartney’s unmistakable voice wafted out as we heard Eleanor Rigby for the first time. What a great moment. As we sat there in bliss, full stomachs, dreamy dreams and the perfect musical accompaniment to what had been a perfect day, we had a simultaneous realization. We’d been talking about turning 16, which meant summer jobs and responsibilities. Before we knew it, we’d be thinking about college and adult life and all that is implied by those transitions. We were keenly aware that what was ahead would likely be harder, and that the landmark events like getting a driver’s license, college, work, maybe marriage and kids, would be frontloaded with expectations. And miraculously, we knew that those futures were full of land mines that could easily blow up in our faces. The day we’d just shared was a perfect day, a carefree day, when nothing bad happened, nothing hurt and every tiny sunny detail felt just right from start to finish. We promised each other that we wouldn’t ever forget it and that when all that adult load came down, we’d be able to go back and remember what was simple, carefree and ultimately the best time ever.
This year will mark the 30th since Fern’s death. I carry the memory of that day by myself. It still works for me. I’ll always be grateful for it.
When I was younger, I remember having a conversation with my older sister about hard times that invariably appear throughout life. How do we handle them? What’s the go-to response when things get tough? She told me that she always relied on her body for managing the challenges. I was so surprised. For me, it’s always been my brain. I’ve always thought that by turning inward and digging deep into my mind that I could manage almost anything. Michael would watch me thinking and roll his eyes and say, “ more brains.” I think it’s a quote from a Night of the Living Dead movie. He referred to me as his existential little soulmate.
I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. A lot of people view space as the final frontier. For me, the space between our ears is the most mysterious and still relatively unknown place for exploration. In the past week, I’ve read two interesting articles about the brain. One was about whether or not there are structural differences between the brains of highly creative people and everyone else. The other posited that there may be a universal brain Wi-fi system that connects all of us. That when we get a feeling about someone and suddenly your phone rings and you hear that voice, it’s because of a transmission rather than a sixth sense. I’m really interested in all this stuff and figure I won’t live long enough to truly know all the answers about what’s in my head or anyone else’s. But there are some things I feel really certain about and I’d like to share them.
If you’re not constantly questioning and wondering, you run the risk of getting stale, thinking you’ve got all the answers. We live in a perpetually evolving state, inside and out. Getting too comfortable and taking anything for granted is a dangerous trap. Especially if you don’t like unexpected bad surprises. No one knows what’s around the corner or a phone call away. Staying plastic and flexible in your mind helps when life dishes you a piece of darkness.
Then there are the tricks that I’ve worked hard to develop that always work for me. My two most annoyingly repeated pieces of advice, especially if you’re one of my kids, are the following: 1) If you want to have a good life you need to develop excellent coping skills. People with the best lives have done that because most of life is about coping. Poor skills=poor life. 2) There’s a 5 year rule. When you’re smacked down in a hole by a life event, stop and ask yourself what you were doing exactly 5 years ago today. I mean exactly. Unless you’re one of those unfortunate people with total recall, you won’t remember. Just like you won’t remember the monster you’re dealing with today, 5 years from now. Not in the same way, at least. Indeed, perspective is everything. It all winds up in the rear view mirror.
I have a few more techniques that help me manage the unmanageable. One is by making sure I look back and comb through my history and my experiences. Often, I find something back there that shines a light on the now, some nugget that drops a useable tool in my my mind that helps me navigate today. Stuffing all your negatives away is a good way to get an ulcer. Looking them over demystifies and normalizes almost anything. And there are little gems hidden in those memory banks.
Finally, there’s cutting whatever the monster is into manageable pieces. I saw this cartoon in a newspaper once-it was a giant ball rolling downhill and there were feet, hands, heads and other body parts sticking out of it as it swallowed everyone in its path. Don’t get sucked into the giant ball. I usually sit down and write about whatever is happening, working my way from the worst parts to the less painful. I look for tiny pieces that I can somehow manage and manipulate rather than letting myself get completely flattened by the weight of the pile. Baby steps take time but after awhile, the impossible becomes doable and little pockets of being okay reappear. A process that for me is a metaphor for life. If you only think about the whole, you get paralyzed. Find the small. A little bit at a time. The next thing you know, the ball can be kicked instead of swallowing you whole.
So, brains. I’m working on mine. It helps. My son would say, there you go again, being the itinerant lecturer, offering up advice without ever having been asked for any. Michael would say I’m trying to be the cruise director. Whatever. Brains. Think about them.
I never was very ambitious. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist for awhile. But I figured out that having no idea what to draw or paint when looking at a blank piece of paper was probably a critical drawback. I was pretty much interested in every subject that came my way, with math and physics being the only ones that didn’t light my furnace. I spent a lot of time reading books. I also liked talking about politics. I enjoyed riding in the car with my dad, listening to news radio and hearing what he had to say about Mayor Daley and local officials like Ben Adamowski. I used to put people like that on my lists of friends and crushes, which usually changed on a daily basis.
I felt pretty weird, at least in comparison to lots of the kids around me. My family lived in a neighborhood which was populated by a diverse mix, but as a young teenager, I mostly noticed that we couldn’t afford the clothes and lifestyles of the “coolest kids.” No overnight camps, Gant shirts or Weejun shoes for me. It was hard to be an outsider looking in on that world. How to fit became my most pressing question.
My family had moved from Sioux City, Iowa to Chicago when I was seven. I was put in first grade, though I’d already completed it, but I assume that small town school was considered less than adequate. A few weeks into the school year, a teacher showed up and said I was done in my class and moved me to second grade. The year after that I did three semesters in two. Same thing happened in sixth and seventh grade. I felt so afraid. I didn’t know where I belonged. Each time I felt settled, I was in a new space.
My older brother and sister were having a hard time. I could tell they felt like imposters. Changing cities and schools in adolescence is so challenging. I knew they were sad and uncomfortable. I was trying to figure out how to avoid that and just be ok. But what to do about the uncontrolled changes? Where did I really belong? How about the people I called the clothes police? The ones who said, “where are your dress shoes,” on picture day? I didn’t have dress shoes. So I said I forgot it was picture day. When I wore the puke green ribbon sweater with the maroon skirt and a girl said, “that doesn’t match,” I replied, “It does now.” Aha. I’d found my angle. I would embrace the role of being different. And I’d make it charming, funny, entertaining. I’d squash the fear of being an outsider, push away that square peg in the round hole feeling. I wrestled internally. I was the wrong size, I had the wrong clothes, but I’d be the right friend and develop some strong armor to get by. And it worked. I figured out how to maneuver my way through my teen years, planning strategies, cultivating friendships, even getting elected treasurer of student council. I was the puppet master instead of the misfit. Pretty repugnant but successful.
When I went to college, I was barely 17. I had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted to do, but I was sure of one thing. I wanted to shed the persona I’d developed to survive high school and be just me. Whoever that was. Just me. A genuine, authentic self. I kept a magic suit of mental armor to protect myself from unexpected assaults, but I turned inward, trying to figure out who I was. It’s a task that takes a long time. Trying to understand what you want rather than what others expect is a lengthy process. The layers of behavior and attitudes that take years to acquire have to be examined and dissected – a confusing process. Often a lonely one. Finding my voice was easy on the surface because I had a lot of language. Years of reading gave me access to a bottomless reservoir for creating one-liners and developing a stinging wit. But there was more to authenticity than word games. Everyone can remember the things they wished they’d been able to say during particularly tough moments. They usually came hours later, in the shower, where red-faced and fuming, all the should’ves arrive, like pieces of lost baggage at the airport. I peeled away at my insides, walking through an interior landscape with boulders and rocks that needed peeking under and shoving aside. Through my 20’s and 30’s, I clambered around in there, looking for my real voice, my real heart and perhaps most importantly, my real principles. And over time, I began to realize that what came out of my mouth was starting to be integrated with what was in me. I stopped feeling a disparity between my internal and external lives. I had become authentic, although I periodically wondered if I was really me and not a fraud. Those masks we wear are hard to discard.
Eventually I felt I had arrived. Living in a place where I was all me all the time. In a bad spot, I had access to my most real self. I became my trusted ally. Authenticity helps make you fearless. The certainty of self-knowledge is what we have left when our lives convulse. When the unexpected happens, when the people we love die, authenticity helps in going forward into the opaque that was once translucent. I’m not going to give up this hard fought self I’ve become in my life. I’m still flexible and can grow but I have a true center. No matter what happens, I’m truly mine. To this day I don’t know exactly what I want to be, but I like who I am. That’s something.