What This is Really About

91307041-1C8A-4055-A4A6-93DDF3273B9DThese days I spend a lot of time alone. I need the space and I enjoy it. For a seemingly social, friendly, engaged person, I’ve always had hermit tendencies. When Michael was alive, we were often hermits together. We each had our own interests and spent lots of hours, next to each other,  but pursuing individual activities. In a way, I guess that made me a good candidate for my unexpectedly early widowhood. In elementary school in Iowa, and I think in Illinois as well, there was a place on our report cards that said: Makes good use of time. I always got a positive check in that box. I think that for the most part, I am making good use of this new time, despite the absence of my big, crazy guy who isn’t sitting in his proper place in our living room. Perhaps too much use of my time, especially brain time.

774C4BC5-199A-480C-9473-8A7F5C50866FWithout the interaction of other people, my mind has been running amok. I’ve been taking classes, swimming, writing this blog, writing a book and archiving Michael’s writing. I had my DNA analyzed and am in contact with relatives on my dad’s side of our family for the first time. Somehow I’m now actively involved in planning my 50th high school reunion, coming later this fall.

7D1EA6D6-0EC9-4B1D-943A-0C0A85D4539BI’ve seen every movie nominated for best picture this year. I watched my tennis hero, Roger Federer win the Australian Open, live, even though he was playing in the middle of the night. I’ve managed to watch almost every Olympic event, although I’ll admit, I read whenever curling is televised.

And speaking of reading, I’m doing lots of it. Online reading, books, and for the first time in a long while, magazines.  I’m still checking out current cancer research. After conquering the medical websites and learning that I could understand what I thought was beyond my skills, I’ve gotten used to paying attention to where research is going. I’m trying to do art, crossword puzzles and to discover something beautiful every day. I’m moving along at a pretty fast clip, always aware that counting on unlimited time is a concept I put behind me when Michael received his miserable prognosis. Living in the now. Despite the somewhat frenetic pace, some of my activities have built-in periods of stillness and quiet. Listening to music relaxes me and I’ve learned to do ten minute meditations to make sure my head doesn’t explode.

My biggest personal assignment has been rereading all the journals I’ve written since I was a young girl. Reliving your life in undeniable black and white is a challenge. I’ve been embarrassed, surprised, ashamed, proud, emotionally moved and everything in between. Sometimes I can only read them in small doses as I try to digest how I got to where I am. I remember a lot, but understanding many relationships I had and how they changed or disappeared over time has been stunning. Although recognizing that I have the same key problems as I did 45 years ago is disheartening,  I know that my skills at dealing with them have improved.  I wrote only whatever I felt was necessary back then, so there are gaps in time. What was once one way, somehow became another way. I’m missing pieces of documentation which might help explain things better. I know that having saved this stuff is a good thing. But sometimes I feel weary doing so much contemplating of my insides.

But here’s what this is really about.ADB1F59A-2931-4F95-A8DB-50B3335F749C I am a political person and have been for as long as I can remember. I don’t exist in a void. What happens in the culture around me and the broader one of the world affects me. I don’t occupy a small mental space. No matter what the circumstances of my little daily life, I’ve always thought about the bigger picture. Where do I fit? What can I do? When the issues felt too big, I made up my mind to stretch out my arms and spin around-whatever I could touch I would try to improve. I tried to break the big picture into manageable pieces, so I could feel like I was making some kind of contribution, that I could be a positive force to combat some of the negatives in our society. Negatives too numerous to squish into some little blog post.  Family illness, personal crisis and even death have never stopped me from paying attention to what’s going on out there. I’ve never understood how some people manage to stay in their bubbles, detached from anything that doesn’t immediately affect their daily lives. I feel like everything affects mine. One of Michael’s favorite lines about me was that he’d learned that as long as there was someone somewhere who was oppressed, abused or troubled, that I would be too. So I have an overly developed sense of empathy. I guess that made me a drag sometimes. Oh well.

I’m reading what I wrote over 40 years ago. “The totalitarian forces of this society have created fear and madness in the individual and in the mass. Our red, white and blue bicentennial year, ostensibly a celebration of 200 years of freedom is a black comedy extravaganza. Those people up there, at the top with their power and the money, celebrate in their joy of self-delusion.” Thud.

I don’t feel any differently today than I did back then. In fact, I feel worse. The toxicity of our social and political climate is overwhelming. Each day is crazier than the previous one. For a long time I’ve wondered if it would’ve been easier to have Michael die if Trump hadn’t been elected. I think so and thinking that is just mind boggling. I’ve never felt like any president has been my idea of perfect, but obviously everything is relative. The lunacy of this administration and the flood of over the top stupidity and narcissism feels like sitting under an elephant. It’s hard to breathe. The most recent high school massacre and the response from the NRA, the Trump administration and the absurdists on the right have booted me over the edge. The idea spread by bots or whoever the hell they are, that the kids who’ve been galvanized into action about automatic weapons are paid actors enrages me. The systematic gamesmanship in the political arena is abhorrent. The crowd of actors is up at the top, the Romneys and Rubios and all the other hypocrites whose principles morph at the drop of a hat. Not that I ever thought they had real principles. These political hacks are nothing but expedient, always. They are for sale, twenty four hours a day to the highest bidder. Am I jaded? Yeah. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up the fight. It just means that I’m not a fool.


I worry for these kids. What will be left for them? Can they sustain the energy to keep up the fight? Ending Vietnam took years. Civil rights remain a problem. Our environmental strides are being cast aside. I can’t even begin to talk about women’s rights, the unending siege. Watching people like Wayne LaPierre be applauded for their primitive world views makes me despair. The cultural divisions are so deep. I want to stand with these kids. I want to keep pushing back. But I’ll admit, my anger is getting worse and so is my frustration. I saw Black Panther today. A unique film with unusual vision. Many positive social and political messages. The film’s central themes felt optimistic.4B8B6A74-6E07-41AF-A43B-77C925F469AF

There are people out there who are hopeful. I wish they’d drop by and hang out with me.  Before my rage and bitterness eat me alive. That’s what this is really about. If Michael was alive, he’d feel the same way and know that yeah, as long as there is this much wrong, I’m going to be one angry, hot mess.B46BB441-8D3A-4586-BA6E-85F224254E82


My Little Existential Soulmate

8EA445BF-10CB-433A-98DC-38194A3AF5DDI found this nickname in an old greeting card from my husband while going through all of our treasures after he died. I’ve been trying to downsize and organize. During my mom’s last few years, I had to move her three times, from her house to mine, from my house to assisted living and finally to a nursing home. Sorting through her things was really hard. You’d think her possessions  were reproducing themselves in the night. Truly annoying. Stuff is stuff. You don’t want resentment over “things” to muck up your feelings. So when I started looking around my house where we’d lived for forty years and considering my pack rat partner’s stashes, I got busy fast.

The five years of Michael’s illness permanently altered the way I perceive time. We lived from scan to scan and appointment to appointment for years. Long range plans fell away. Moment to moment, day to day became our norm. So faced with the seemingly herculean task of shedding the piles, I’ve felt like I’m racing time. I don’t want my kids to go through what I did. So I’ve been sorting, donating and tossing at a pretty rapid clip. But while I’m trying so hard, I’ve found myself mired in my head, with each task creating internal conversations as I weigh what’s important and what’s not.

I’ve never been much of a materialist. I’m not fashionable. I drive old cars. I care more about how my house feels than I do about furniture or matching dishes or window treatments. My garden looks much better than my living space. I do like books.My guilty pleasure. But I’ve parted with almost all of them. We used to have two rooms with floor to ceiling bookshelves, all full. Now one room has none and the second has only one small shelf. The books I still have are now put in bags to go out the door as soon as I’ve read them. The only ones I’ve can’t part with have strong sentimental value. But as I push myself to get through this process, I feel that existential self breaking through my task-oriented behavior and often find myself just stumped and pondering. Just sitting.  Instead of working my way through each room, scooping up what’s irrelevant and making progress, I’m distracted. The worst impediments to my progress are both physical and psychological. They’re my journals and notebooks of fiction and poetry that suck me in, slow me down and leave me pondering the meaning of life. Just like I always did. The reason Michael called me his little existential soulmate.5A121C05-889B-4AFA-BF8B-DB5E103812BE

E9AA20DB-53BA-477C-BEF6-7C811C4F08F5I’ve got these nuggets going back about 55 years. Crazy, huh? I get to read my growing up. I can see myself at eleven when I was busy deciding who was my best friend and which boy was the cutest and smartest. But even then, I was trying to figure out what life was and where my place should be. I was always a little detached from whatever was going on around me as I tried to find a reason for whatever was happening. I was interested in big ideas. I couldn’t decide if that was cool or not. Even then, I had the feeling that most people felt comfortable gravitating to the median. I never felt that way. But being outspoken and somewhat noncompliant was expensive. My pages are filled with the clash of social norms, the desire to fit in and my natural tendency to deviate from the acceptable. These themes are consistent as I sink into the pages of the past. And I guess it’s not a surprise to find that trying to resolve my inability to just be quiet and fit in remained an issue throughout my life. I developed what I called my internal armor so I could survive the inevitable backlash that you incur when you push against the flow. I remember one incident in particular that really stuck with me. I was in an advanced placement English class with a brilliant, prickly teacher named Ms. Annan. She had a PhD but chose to teach high school and she taught with an iron hand. I think I learned more from her about critical thinking than I did from any other instructor in my life. But she ticked me off because she was so definite and right all the time. We were reading Lord Jim in her class and discussing symbolism. I remember that she had specific ideas about the use of the word “white” throughout the book. In the school lunchroom before her class, some other students and I were discussing alternative points of view in contrast to her opinion. So we went charging into class and when discussion opened, I raised my hand and offered up what my mates and I thought. I still remember her looking at me and saying, “Well isn’t that interesting? Is there anyone else in the class who’d like to support Renee’s point of view?”  The time after that question felt like a hundred years. All that lunchtime bravado was left at the table. My face burned. Finally one guy got the nerve to give a lukewarm endorsement to my, (our?,) theory. I never forgot that moment. I was 15 years old. And I realized I had no tribe. I was a one person show. Which was problematic. Because I really believed in team play. I always thought that numbers meant influence. Being one was so much harder.

Reading myself through the years is wrenching. I spent a lot of time trying to team up, partner up, all the while recognizing that even a teeny deviation from what was expected of me often brought a powerful sense of isolation and disappointment. The worst part was that I felt unseen. On the surface, I could tell that people made assumptions about who I was without doing much digging about the underpinnings of what they saw. I often felt empty. But I presented differently. I wound up with a lot of imbalanced relationships. Often, I was the only person who recognized that uneven status. And there was a dominant part of me that didn’t want to wave my hand and say hey! You’re not getting me. I wanted the recognition to just happen.

Growing up is hard. Sometimes it never happens. People just enlarge and march along without ever probing their depths. That’s been challenging for me. I always want to know more and I think everyone else should want more too. But that’s not very realistic. I’ve chewed on these ideas my whole life. I’ve read page after page, my frustration spilling out, both with myself and others. Getting into a comfortable spot has always been a challenge. I’m not sure that I even really want one. There’s something about comfortable which for me implies stagnation. If I’m not always poking around, trying to think of every angle, I think I might stop growing and adapting to what’s tossed at me every day. I know everyone doesn’t feel that way. They work hard to get into a safe, stable spot and develop a framework that fits over everything. And what doesn’t fit organically can be molded or twisted into that system that makes life explainable for them. And for whatever happens, there’s always an answer. For me there are always more questions. Life keeps me on my toes and I can’t find any configuration that doesn’t require adjustments to the unpredictability of life.

So what does this have to do with my piles of stuff? Well, first I don’t have my soulmate any more. He wasn’t as existential as me but he was accepting and willing to travel all the crazy roads my brain led me down. So that constant supportive resource is gone except for what I believe will be his permanent presence that remains with me. The knowledge that eventually there really was a place for me, and that someone really was always looking below the surface was my anchor. Now I depend solely on my internal resources honed over a lifetime. And that’s ok. But everything takes a lot longer without having a sounding board, so my haste to deal with the concrete, like what needs to be pared down in my house often slows to a crawl. Even as my list gets longer and my need for speed continues to spark my engine. I guess, in time, I’ll figure this out. Or not. And if I don’t, I forgive myself in advance. Life’s too short to be wasted on worrying about stuff. So it’s ok that I didn’t get rid of one single thing today. 

Accidents, Shame and Lies

774EAC62-6381-40ED-8249-A0B7652302F7Accidents have two essential definitions. 1) An event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause, and 2) An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury. In truth, I think much of what happens to us in life is accidental. The tiniest, most insignificant twist can change the trajectory of your life path, often without acknowledgement until further down the road, when you recognize that things might have been different, absent one event or because of another.4AB105E6-5CC1-4761-997B-7CC5E377C21D The totaled car in the photo above was the only new car my dad ever owned. A blue Chevy Bel-Air. A dream fulfilled. Dad was quite a character. Before he settled into his grownup career in his mid-40’s, he floated from job to job, sometimes working two at a time. He never finished high school, having quit to take care of his family, his father dead when he was only eight.  He worked in factories, as a credit manager, a traveling salesman and an insurance agent. And he hated insurance. He thought it was a criminal conspiracy to take advantage of the poor. Sounds about right. He found it overpriced and unfair, even as he sold its products and tried to collect premiums. He hated that job. When my parents moved to live near my family, my mom told me she found a box in their basement filled with uncollected premium bills. Irrationally, he rejected the industry that employed him. In any case, he didn’t buy any auto insurance for his new ride. 424AF375-AF41-4197-BC6E-534731E5228FThat decision had multiple implications. My mom never learned to drive. Having insurance for her was a non-issue. When my brother was old enough, he got a driver’s license. How he got away with that is a mystery. No insurance is no insurance. I suspect my dad gave him a testosterone pass, figuring that the two family males would somehow ensure that competence was a thing, and accidents wouldn’t happen. When my older sister turned 16, my brother decided to take her under his wing and give her a chance at the independence offered by a car. Early one Sunday morning, while the rest of us slept, the two of them slipped out of the apartment with the car keys, so he could give her a driving lesson. They weren’t gone long. My sister was anxious and crashed into a viaduct. So much for the new car.

I was about 11 years old. I have vague memories of the anger and angst that this event elicited. I remember the yelling and the crying consuming that day and then the silence. The family needed a car. My younger sister and I were still in elementary school, one which had no cafeteria. We lived too far away to walk home and back to school at lunchtime. Mom was working downtown and dad, who worked in the neighborhood, would pick us up, drive home, make our standard lunch of either scrambled eggs or salami sandwiches, and drive us back to school. Our poor little coronary arteries. In any case, a vehicle was mandatory.

So dad had a friend, the mysterious Mr. Fruchter. According to public records, he ran a half dozen five and dime stores which eventually were absorbed by larger concerns like S.S. Kresge and Woolworth’s. But my mom always implied that he and my dad, who grew up on the west side of Chicago and liked to play poker and go to the racetrack, were a tad shady, with connections to a dark cultural element.

I’ll never know their whole story. What I do know is that Irv managed to provide us with a temporary vehicle, a nice black hearse. DB01EBB2-BDE9-469B-94FF-847E79C39344Yup. Dad would come to our school and pick us up in one of these babies. At the time, I was innocent enough to think this was a great adventure. I’d hop in and pull down one of the little jump seats and ride away in all my glory. I had no clue that this vehicle usually carried a coffin in the rear. The difference of style, the size, the fancy interior made me feel special and I innocently took it in stride. In retrospect, I can imagine what my mom, older brother and sister felt like, driving around in this monster. But the hearse was just a temporary experience. After a while, the beneficent Mr. Fruchter again came to the rescue with a Plymouth Fury, a car my dad drove for the next 10 years, one he grew to love and which he treated as his baby. All this was pretty benign until I grew up and approached driving age. By that time, my brother and sister were young adults. He was still a driver – my sister never attempted to get a license until much later in life. So there I was, faced with the mistakes of my older siblings which would provide the blueprint for my dad’s attitude toward me driving.  I took driver’s ed in school and passed the class. But dad refused to help me practice. 30E0FD35-4D99-4BB7-AF46-225CBAC8993C I was going to be relegated to the ranks of those with no license, no wheels, no freedom. I was so ashamed. I hadn’t done anything wrong. The cost of insurance and the bad judgment of my siblings was going to make me an outcast, different from my classmates who were already cruising around, many in their own cars, others in their parents’ vehicles. I’d skipped a year of elementary school, so I had the advantage in senior year of high school of being only 16 almost until graduation. I could hide behind my age. Sometimes I had the nerve to ask a friend if I could try a spin in her car, but after a block or so, the fear that I might have an accident, that there was no insurance to cover me, was so overwhelming that I stopped asking. I hated the feeling. Weak and powerless. When friends volunteered to lend me a car to do something, I started to lie. Didn’t have my glasses. License is at home. Too tired. Ugh. I was heading off to college without the most basic card in my pocket, humiliated and guilty. Also ticked off. Helplessness was my least favorite feeling.

The good thing about college was that you really didn’t need a car. Mostly anywhere you needed to be was within walking distance. And I knew people who had cars. I never told anyone about my lack of license. I just slid along trying to figure out how to fix this by myself. In my sophomore year, I fell madly in love. With Al,  a guy with his own car. A doctor’s kid. He had insurance, on multiple levels.  We had a tempestuous romance, on and off, on and off. The summer after that year, we both headed home to Chicago for jobs. Then the unexpected happened. An accident. My boyfriend blew out his knee. I can’t remember exactly how it happened but he was confined to his house. He lived near the lake in a bustling neighborhood with lots of traffic. I took the bus after work and headed to his place to hang out. After a few hours, I got up to leave, wanting to catch the bus and get home before dark. But he had a better idea. I could just take his car and keep it since he couldn’t drive anyway. That way I could have a lot more visiting flexibility. The Hornet. A really ugly boxy car-his was a flashy neon blue.IMG_5911I still remember the terror in my body. Couldn’t he see my chest hammering up and down, my heart practically bursting with fear? He just assumed. Normal people know how to drive. No big deal. Take the car and go. Keep it for days, maybe even weeks. My embarrassment was boundless. So boundless, in fact, that I was willing to risk anything to stay hidden. Seven years earlier, my sister hit a viaduct. And now I was in this space and too ashamed to admit I wasn’t “normal.”

So I took the car. I had the audacity to take those keys and with virtually no practical driving experience, ease into traffic, hoping I’d be able to pull off this feat without crashing or getting arrested. And I made it. All the way to my waiting parents who were beyond appalled at my recklessness and deceit. I stuck my chin up in the air and defied them. I felt so free. I built that feeling on the incredibly shaky foundation of fear, humiliation and lies. What a load. I didn’t know how to get out from under it so I embraced it. And suffered internally. But whatever. I took my younger sister and we piled into the car and cruised the neighborhood. We laughed with glee. I was going to break the cycle of the oppressed female relegated to dependence. Sort of. Eventually I returned the car to Al, who got better. Anyway, we were in one of our breakups.

But I was intoxicated by driving. So one evening after work, I stole my dad’s keys, like my brother before me, and took the Fury from behind our apartment. The Plymouth was a much bigger car and felt unwieldy. As I drove around, I couldn’t gauge it’s width and eventually scraped a parked car. And to my shame, I sped away, quaking in fear. I was so wobbly in traffic that within minutes, I was pulled over by a cop. Through a mixture of sincere hysteria and excuses about breaking up with my boyfriend and a misplaced wallet, I talked my way out of a ticket and limped home to face my father’s wrath. No more driving that summer.

I headed back to school for junior year, still license-free and trapped by the emotional quagmire I’d created for myself. I had a few more driving opportunities in other people’s cars, still lying and feeling terrified. My relationship with Al continued its rollercoaster status. That summer I stayed in town instead of going home. That summer, I met Michael.

I’d heard about him for years through mutual friends but we’d never crossed paths. One night, we both showed up as wedding guests at a crazy all night party. We had an instantaneous connection. And we began to build on it steadily, spending a lot of time together and finding trust. After 6 months, I realized that I’d found whatever a soulmate is supposed to be. A few months later, we were living together. The weight of all my shame and lies lay like rocks on my spirit. For the first time in my young life, I felt safe enough to confess all that I’d been hiding for years, from the kid white lies to the driver’s license saga,  and everything in between. What immense relief. My 21st birthday was coming. On that night Michael handed me what appeared to be a jewelry box. When I opened it, there were car keys inside. He’d scraped together $150 to buy me a car. A white Chevy Impala. He was going to help me hone my driving skills and take me for my driver’s license. Free at last, from the whole wad of accidents, shame and lies. The great irony-on the first day of owning my car, Michael was driving it and someone slammed into it. Totaled. So totaled that we got more money than he’d spent originally. Enough to buy me my first real car, the one that helped establish my independence. The car I loved. Like my dad’s first new car, a blue Chevy. Bliss.67CA5CE8-5FD5-4937-B0AF-7D011AFD4E3926644815-d7af-42e8-bf73-130e1f22f156.jpeg

Crash-PTSD, Caregiving and Grief

D0E58473-66D8-4079-A188-F49C499850BBAlmost nine months have passed since Michael died. Sometimes it feels like a few seconds and other times it feels like he’s been gone a thousand years. I’ve attacked this new life that was forced on me. My nature is essentially aggressive. Hanging around waiting for things to happen isn’t how I roll. Throughout our five years of contending with Michael’s prognosis, I could feel myself living a dual existence-part of me was exquisitely aware of the importance of the present while another part was down the road, trying to imagine and prepare for life without my partner. I often thought of myself as living like Grateful Dead art, one foot in the moment, the other spanning a long stretch of time.B9555AF9-7057-4216-9DCD-4A6CA458EFF4I did everything I could think of to make the best out of this new life. I’ve had therapy and attend  a grief group. I’m swimming regularly to recover the strength I lost while being a full-time caregiver. I’ve taken classes to stimulate my brain. When I want to cry, I let it happen. I’ve gone to the movies and bingewatched lots of tv shows.

I’ve journaled steadily and written dozens of letters to Michael to relieve the stress of missing him. I’ve taken two trips by myself to establish my independence. I’ve helped other people who are sick or grieving. I threw a big public event to honor Michael which drew 500 people and for which I prepared every exhibit. I curated his life and it worked. I adopted a rescue dog. I’m still a source of comfort and support to my kids and grandkids. I’m a good friend. I started this blog. And I’ve started the book that I want to write about what it’s like to navigate our pathetic health care system, and how we lived while going through our experience.

A lot of stuff, right? My therapist told me she’s never seen anyone try so many things and work so hard to try to get better. She said I’m not only turning over all the rocks and looking underneath them, but have actually gotten to the pebbles. And I HAVE been working on my mind and my feelings, trying to understand as much as I can about who I am and how I got here.

The cushion of my lifetime love has supported me. I’m not lonely for anyone but Michael. I still miss him every day. But I feel him around me and inside me, especially on those unpredictable difficult days that just happen. Music helps a lot. So it sounds pretty good, right? That’s what I thought too. I’m working my brains out. E4AA6C8B-7B05-432C-ADBF-08D6658159F0So the book. I started it about a week ago. I knew that important resources for it would include the medical records I’d saved since the initial diagnosis, and my journals, my steady companions since I was an adolescent. They would help me flesh out what I want to convey, not just facts but all the feelings that go along with this kind of journey. Since Michael’s death, I’ve been slowly re-reading those journals, hanging out in the ones from the ‘70’s which are somewhat embarrassing, but are also filled with the beginning of my love for Michael. 85DF1137-75E4-4C0C-A947-EAAB28FB1B4FBeing immersed in those pages has been beautiful and wistful and comforting. Looking back at the initial stages of our relationship has been my pleasure. I’ve savored every page, note and letter. But for the book, I decided to haul out the ones from the mid-2000’s to the day of diagnosis and beyond. 46481818-2AB8-44CD-96E2-83602B335A0E

I started reading. I was in the stable peaceful years of The Before. Before Merkel cell cancer. The events and ideas I was exploring were meaningful but primarily benign. Events involving the kids, ideas about aging, musings about the meaning of life.

Suddenly I started feeling very nervous, anxious. I got to the pages immediately following diagnosis. My breathing accelerated considerably and I could feel anxiety building in my core. Then I sensed panic creeping to the surface. I couldn’t believe it. I realized that if I kept reading I was going to be a combination of hysterical and paralyzed. I closed the journal. I felt like I’d been standing in the sea with my back to the waves. And an unexpectedly huge one had bashed into me and tossed me into that fearful place of wondering if you’ll drown or be able to get yourself together enough to make it back to the shore.

I managed to get out of the house and into the pool for awhile but I was seriously disturbed and off-balance. Why? With all the soul-searching and me confronting my feelings, was I suddenly in this uncertain scary place? Where was safety, stability?270242BD-CD35-460C-ADF8-26FE2DA7A1120AB52D85-FC8A-4A19-8D8E-C6816EBF6B035B033881-D00E-4B52-AFA9-DD8C8AEFBAA1

The water was always a place of great comfort for Michael and me. Living in a landlocked part of the country was kind of a bad joke we’d played on ourselves. I was comfortable in that environment. So why the buffeting about and the sinking feeling? I went back home.

As I limped indoors I started thinking that I felt like I’d been in a war. I was flattened out. I know I’m still sad but this felt bigger than sadness.6430417E-3DB3-4F57-AC35-083B819FCB9A

I started thinking PTSD. And feeling kind of guilty about it. Comparing myself to people who experienced the horrors of war seemed arrogant. One death? Pitiful. Like hitting the couch with the vapors and being a drama queen. I found myself appalling. But then I started thinking, researching and reading. Remembering. What the original terrifying diagnosis felt like, and the first surgeries and subsequent treatments. The three month checkups. Always knowing that the stage of Michael’s disease made long term survival virtually impossible. Second opinions and endless research. Getting to the year anniversary of the beginning of terror. Arguing with doctors about scans and protocols. Fighting, always fighting. Being told that the survival odds had just increased and then a few months later, being told that cancer was back everywhere. Two or three months to live, maybe a year with treatment. More research, stretching across the country,  questioning one doctor after another. Unimaginable emotional swings from despair to joy, from pain to bliss.

There is a big hole in the research about what happens to people taking these rides. Especially when they end. A lot has been written about grief. I hate a lot of it. Rules and timetables and steps that are put forth as givens. As a person who always felt like an outlier in life, I am left cold and annoyed. If I’d followed rules and protocols when Michael was alive, he’d have died sooner. I’m no more likely to follow the grief rules than the life rules. And there’s very little about PTSD and caregivers, who help their loved ones survive and then help them to their deaths. I know that the wild swings of the past few years have taken chunks out of me. Eroded me bit by bit. I don’t expect to ever feel the same as I did in The Before. And what I learned in this past week was that no matter how hard I try, I can expect to be blindsided by grief, terror and panic. I need to find ways to get through those times as best I can. People should know this stuff. We need more resources. Looking for them in the midst of pain is really hard. Here’s a link to an article that I found helpful, albeit the different circumstances.


I’m still living life one day at a time, mindful of everything Michael was willing to tolerate in order to wake up the next day. Trying to honor his tenacity with my own. Inch by inch. 9CAEC0B3-AD74-40F2-97AE-8BDA884D7FBA



Take a Hike

FB46B0E5-655D-46B2-8C30-B9709C916809Recently, I’ve been compiling a list of all the goofy phrases and inside jokes that Michael and I used to toss around. I remember  when our daughter went to college and started expanding her movie choices, she called us and said she was appalled to find out that half the lines we frequently threw at her were swiped from movies like The Godfather and Animal House. Gotta love the enlightenment of your kids. I’m hoping the list provides my family with laughter and great memories. Which brings me to the next subject.

Michael and I spent 45 years together. Today, I was stewing over the way I feel about the platitudes I get to hear from people about my grief process. Like never say never, one of my favorites. That’s the one I hear when I say I have no interest in marrying again. I’m told that in time, I’ll change my mind. That it’s too soon for me to know how I’ll feel in a year or so. When I say I know exactly how I feel, I get these knowing looks. I find this intensely annoying and presumptuous. What in the world makes a person think that grief makes you lose touch with the self you built over a lifetime? That pain makes you incapable of any rational thought? I find this attitude mysterious. I don’t attribute any maliciousness to it. I just think that assuming I’m missing something that others know is an error in their judgment.

I was the third of four children in my family. Birth order has multiple advantages and disadvantages. In my case, I felt three was a pretty decent spot. I got to watch and learn from my older siblings, in addition to my parents and their extended family. Dysfunction can be pretty glaring looking up from the cheap seats. By the time I was in my teens, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want in my life. Sticking with the program I designed for myself was sometimes isolating and painful. But what I knew with absolute certainty were the following personal parameters for me: 1) I was never going to pretend I was stupid, even if it seemed that boys didn’t like the fact that I had  opinions and a lot of attitude, 2) I wanted whoever I was with to be a real friend and not just a love interest, and 3) I didn’t want a lot of regret in my life. If onlys and what ifs just don’t work for me. And I was lucky because I had those parts of myself figured out. Of the four kids in my family, I was the only one who never divorced. I consider that a good thing.

When Michael and I met in 1971, what happened between us remains as mysterious to me today as it was then. Mind melding? A collision of souls? I don’t know. With all the language at my disposal, I’ve never been able to pin it down. We had an instantaneous connection and intimacy. We became best friends. We were each involved with other people romantically. But as months went by, I knew we were headed somewhere different. I was terrified to try the transition from friends to lovers, fearful of losing a relationship that was magical and unprecedented. As I headed to Europe with two friends in the beginning of 1972, I called Michael and said, “guess what, I love you,” to which he replied, “far out.” Yup. And I left the country for a few months. Upon my return, we needed to disentangle ourselves from previous relationships. I showed up on his doorstep with my suitcase and announced that I was moving in. He asked where I’d sleep. I answered, your bed. And that was when our long road together truly began. I was twenty, he was twenty-two.

There were some tumultuous times. We were discovering each other and trying to figure out if we could make a lifelong commitment to each other. For a time, I was troubled by doubts. Michael’s response was to sell a catalog of his work, buy me an airplane ticket to California to see my oldest friend Fern, so I could decide if I wanted to stay with him. True friendship, the bedrock of who we were together. We got married the next year.

We grew stronger together with each passing year. And we grew stronger as individuals. Michael was a feminist and I benefited constantly from his support and irritating pushing. I think he’d say the same thing about me. We made babies and lived through failures and deaths and uncertainty. We had hard times and incredible joy. We were constantly amazed that we were never bored with each other and that our passion kept growing, right alongside that steady friendship which was our go-to place when times were tough. It hauled us through everything.  

And then Merkel cell cancer entered our lives. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Michael, whose youth was spent lifeguarding and doing water sports was a red haired guy with a family history of skin cancer. So he faithfully got checked every three months and had multiple growths removed, as did his parents. Nasty Merkel came fast and hard. His dad died at 98 and his mother is still alive. How could he have this dreadful prognosis of only a few months? Impossible. I became a researcher. Those few months he was given to live in 2013 turned into years as we pushed for treatments. Our years in tandem served us well, as we sunk in despair and then pulled each other up to be the best we could be with each other as long as we could. We made memories which cushion this time without him. He left me music, a mourning quilt made of his clothes and a heart necklace engraved with his writing. And stacks of notes and letters that surround me with love. 

So when I say I don’t want to be with anyone for companionship, it’s because I’ve already had the best friend and best love I can imagine. And I had it for a full life, not my whole life, but a rich, extended one. I’m not lonely, except for him. The rest of the time, I’m busy trying to find the most positive ways to finish off what’s left of my time.

Like compiling Michael’s humor and writing for our kids. Like writing this blog and the story of our journey through a rare disease. Like appreciating nature and music and taking classes and being a good mom, grandmother and friend. When I think of Michael watching me fend off unasked for advice from well-meaning people, I know he’d be pissed off and select one of his choice dismissive phrases and tell me to have at it. So I will.

Take a hike, people. I know what I want, thank you very much. 



Books, Downsizing and Life

1686B27E-C5F0-47B1-89DD-FE281DA9E965This bookcase was built my maternal grandfather. I don’t know how old it is. When I was seven, it was the only bookshelf in our apartment. We had a set of World Book Encyclopedias, but I think they were stored on a built-in shelving unit in the living room.  Back in the 1950’s, there were no empty spaces on grandpa’s shelves. Now, it reflects my efforts at downsizing.

I believe in downsizing. I think living with less is a worthy goal, and I’d like a smaller carbon footprint. After 40 years in the same house, the accumulated stuff can get very cumbersome. After moving my mom three times and having to make decisions about her things,  I’d like to lessen the load for my kids. The idea of them grumbling about my treasures after I’m gone makes an unattractive picture. But my books. I could never get enough of them. I’ve already made multiple donations to libraries, books for prisoners and more. It’s getting to the place where the ones I still have feel essential to being myself. I don’t know if I can send them out the door. 

I love reading. As a kid my grandfather’s shelf with its limited collection was a magnet for me. I started with the top shelf, first book. When I finished that one, I replaced it and moved to book two. Eventually, I read them all and went back up to shelf one and started over. The books belonged to all of us, but I thought they were all mine. The constant re-reading I did became part of the family lore. I probably read each one a hundred times. Some of them were way too mature for me. Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, Hawaii were all very instructive, albeit inappropriate. But no one stopped me. I liked mythology, especially The Iliad. Nature books, too with illustrations of birds, trees and insects. I read the World Books. My favorite volume was “D,” which featured beautifully painted pictures of all the dog breeds. I couldn’t let it go with the rest of them.

Books were my safety net. They shut out the emotional chaos of the world and didn’t require anyone but me. Acquiring them became my life’s quest.


When I was 8, I suffered a broken  nose in gym class. I was trying to avoid tumbling which I hated. When I tried to con the teacher out of doing forward somersaults because of bobby pins in my hair, he made me run to his desk to pull them out. I slipped and wound up face first right on the desk corner. I stood up, trying not to cry but I felt wet. Looking down I saw my white gym blouse saturated with blood. The teacher wiped me down and sent someone to get a sweater from my locker. I went back to class.

That day, my sister and I went to lunch at our aunt and uncle’s house. There was no lunchroom in our school. I was biting into a tuna salad sandwich on pumpernickel bread, sliced in triangles, when my uncle walked into the kitchen and said, “now that’s what I call a  broken nose.” I lost my appetite immediately. Later my mother came and took me to Dr. Weiss, one of the early villains of my life. He pressed and prodded, all the while asking if it hurt. I lied every time but he said that I needed to get it reset immediately, the next morning. I told him that I’d do it as long as I didn’t have to get any shots-no needles, to which he agreed. We left his office and  I cried and cried until my mom told me I could eat anything I wanted for dinner. We settled on a big bag of Tootsie Rolls. The next morning I drank some bitter potion mixed with a bit of orange juice and off we went to the hospital. Imagine my horror as the first event featured a gruff nurse who said I needed a “hypo.” Shorthand for a hypodermic needle. I cried and argued and told her about the doctor’s promise but alas. That was my first experience with bald faced lying by adults to a kid. At least the first one I knew about. The rest of the prep time I explained over and over about the promise but they stuck me anyway and as I counted backwards from a hundred,  I was a bitterly angry kid. When I woke, I had a cast on my nose held on by two elastic straps around my head.  I was hungry. I was in a children’s ward and it was dinner time and I could smell burgers and French fries on the trays being carried in to the other kids. When my tray came it had one measly rubbery square of lime jello. I was so done. The doctor came and said I needed to spend the night. An eight year old’s version of when hell freezes over came out of my mouth. They said I could leave if I could get to my dress which was hanging on the curtain rod above the bed. The dress was black with red, white and gray polka dots and I slithered my way into it for the win. When we came home, my parents told me I could sleep on the couch in the living room. I felt so special, utterly unaware that their intent was to protect my sisters from the expected disturbance from the drugged-out little patient. But even better, my dad had gone out and bought me a collection of books based on the films of Shirley Temple. And they were definitely all mine. I’m not sure if ever felt so special. I’ve kept them for 58 years7C113D4A-3738-487E-9A5B-E256912BF65DEventually I became more autonomous and aware that my lust for books was unmatched by both my parents’ income and the space in our apartment. I discovered libraries, plowing through biographies, history and sports stories.

B6CCAABC-913A-475A-ABDA-2A0B1A80309E I read popular series of the time, kids’adventure books, mysteries, and animal stories that shaped my life choices as I grew up. I loved the Albert Payson Terhune books about the Sunnybank collies which had such a powerful effect on me that the dogs of my life were all that breed.

The Black Stallion books are still in my house. All those childhood books were a refuge from family problems, money problems and the limited lifestyle that my parents chose, perhaps by necessity, perhaps by inertia. They were my intellectual foundation that I built on and my endless reading forned me internally, page upon page, empowering me to believe there was a beyond, a future, a different space that I could reach by stacking up the words so high that I’d vault over the limits of my youth. I don’t really believe that I need the actual books any more,but I have a sense of loyalty to those tools which gave me the strength and courage to move beyond my childhood constraints. How do I downsize those pieces of my history? I don’t think I can and I forgive myself. I’d rather sleep on a pallet than give them away. 

The Living Places #2 – Chicago Girl – High School and The Crush

EBFE9E25-64F8-4CC3-8140-2F4CCB1FB610This 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 into closer proximity 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 south on Chappel. We were on 81st Street-right 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.

7E47F54D-CAFD-4B41-9E8D-945A2F521F7CA lot happened while I lived at 2019 East 81st Street from 1963 to 1968. Looking back, I realize that the convulsions of the culture at large were the overarching backdrop for my own smaller drama, the drama of growing up. I well remember the events that had the greatest impact on my political views and social conscience.

I remember watching John Kennedy trying to explain the debacle that was the Bay of Pigs. I stood behind my father with my hand on his shoulder while we listened. I asked dad if there was going to be a war and he told me he didn’t know. That admission was terrifying, realizing that the grownups didn’t have answers that would provide a sense of safety and comfort. That was the beginning of having childhood stripped away. I was eating lunch at home by myself when Kennedy was killed. I walked down to Judy’s house 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 suddenly become a family of 4 instead of 6 in far less cramped quarters. The current events were fearful and unsettling. Civil rights clashes were more pronounced and deadly.

In 1964, just before my freshman year in high school, three young civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi. The following year, Malcolm X was killed in New York. The Watts neighborhood was in flames in 1966 while the Viet Nam war escalated.

In 1968, the year I graduated from high school Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated. During the Democratic convention later that summer when I was seventeen years old, there were riot police on every street corner downtown where I worked every day. I took the Jeffrey 5 bus up and back every day and on those long rides, I thought very hard about patriotism and rebellion, right and wrong and seeded my future beliefs in that considerable time of reflection.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I was growing up in tumultuous times. Perhaps all the times are tumultuous. 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. 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.

High school proved to be a challenge in discipline for me. After my freshman year, what seemed to be a deeply ingrained sense of antiauthoritarianism began to assert itself. I liked learning but the expected regimen for someone with my “abilities” wore me down. I gave up worrying about grades after my freshman year. They dulled my senses. I still read all the time, but not necessarily anything to do with homework. In my sophomore year, my smart and intuitive biology teacher, Mrs. Coleman had a meeting with my parents and suggested they look into sending me to the lab school at the University of Chicago so I could work at my own pace and have more control over my studies. That was financially impossible. So I skidded along in my honors classes being a relatively mediocre student with occasional flashes of brilliance. The system was grossly unfair. My “C’s” in my honors classes earned me a place in the National Honor Society which more rightfully belonged to a hardworking “A” student in regular classes. I was learning life lessons that would shape me down the road.

In the meantime, I was trying to do the normal social things. 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 pledged a sorority which made me acceptable and also somewhat ashamed of myself as I really didn’t believe in exclusive clubs. Eventually, I got my friend Fern into it with me. We had fun playing volleyball and also putting together a surprisingly sophisticated musical event called The Sing. I actually performed on a stage at McCormick Place.

I was lucky enough to see The Supremes, The Temptations and The Beatles. I had a penpal from Liverpool. 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.

dated his best friend, Rich, on and off for years, and we laughingly pretended we were like TV wrestling 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.

EA588F6A-DC39-4C4A-8374-CE1B0B1FF73BThat 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. EE557BE5-46D6-401F-A318-36EC9BADCB35

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 he confessed to feeling 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.

0451ccaa-8d8a-464c-b683-3c37cf747a42.jpegWe 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.

I’m glad I grew up when and where I did. The world around me was alive with ideas and principles and action. I lived in a multi-racial neighborhood and was always pushed to think about issues outside my little, personal space. While I was a normal kid with romantic dreams, I was also getting a broad-based liberal arts education which helped me navigate the challenges that faced my generation.

From South Shore High School, I was getting ready to step off into college where I would confront the choice of whether to stay in the mainstream which was where I floated in my high school years or to step outside and move into a space that was better suited to my independent spirit. That story is next in this abbreviated recounting of my life.

This is a before story, before my life with Michael which began at age 20 and is still going on, despite his death in May, 2017. Going back into these old memories is a welcome respite from the grief process. Innocence and simplicity. Treasures. 


Post script:

Last year was my 50th high school reunion. I was one of the key people hunting for classmates. I found Danny who’d been living abroad for many years. He wasn’t able yo attend the reunion. But a few weeks ago, while on a business trip in Florida, he arranged a layover in Chicago and asked if I could come up and see him. I did and along with our old friend Rich and a few other classmates, I finally saw Danny again, after 49 years. A wonderful and touching reunion. The Crusher, The Bruiser and Lil, together again. How great was that?img_1995

An Accidental Memory Palace

42EEA069-C9DB-43A5-9E0E-F4EFCA78B37BThese 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.

(C) 2003 Gateway,Inc. 

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 Old Home

33867462-1CC2-4C78-BC57-51C4F18299AAThis 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.830EC811-454F-481D-B807-6A9B4990EBCC

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. 



Dor and Hal

A31DC57A-8992-4F72-ABED-CC72BB49876DOn 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. 1F20B17A-E979-4100-985F-8ACAFDF732DD

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.

65328148-B2D8-4E24-A5CD-AC74DF70BDF7Luckily, 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.