Essential Escapes

Photo by Falco Negenman
no way out

“I’m out of here,” resounds through our brain and often slips off our tongue when life appears to present us with nothing but disappointment, boredom, fatigue, malfunction, inconvenience, frustration, disenchantment, letdowns, and defeat.

The global pandemic, however, gives no “out of here” to go to. The only possible escape the common wisdom offers is “Stay Home.” Not easy advice to follow when it was cold, rainy and gloomy out, this phrase has reached anathema status with the advent of summer. Citizens have grouped themselves into two camps.  The ones who thumb their noses at the restriction and dive right into the nearest pool. The rest who sit at home watching the frolicking on TV  crying, “How dare they?”

An unfounded yearning for “better days” sweeps me into a chimera of nostalgia. Historic events of the 1960s spun society off its axis. Assassinations, protests, and riots left personal trauma and political disruption in their wake. And yet, for me, memories of that decade most often conjure visions of beaches.

sky, water, sand, wind

Wherever I lived, Lake Michigan’s vast sand beaches and rolling surf were never far away. I grew up, went to college, and raised my own family within easy reach of her shores. From May through September, that confluence of sand and surf called me like a siren’s song whenever I yearned  to “get away from it all.”

Lightening at sea
Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Before the modern era, beaches embodied not respite but menace. From antiquity until the middle of the 18th century, the oceans and great lakes were a source of food. From their shores journeys began and ended. Not every voyager returned. Classic and medieval narratives abound with tales of the sea as a mysterious and dangerous realm.  The beach epitomized the edge of the unknown. Far from being places of retreat and recreation beaches roused dread and apprehension in human imagination. http://, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inventing-beach-unnatural-history-natural-place-180959538/

inventing the beach

The Industrial Revolution, the period from 1740 to 1860 transformed largely rural, agrarian societies in Europe and America into industrialized, urban ones. It transformed the seashore as well. As factories multiplied, cities and towns became increasingly louder, dirtier, and a clear threat to health. Some health professionals believed that fresh air, exercise and sea bathing worked as a curative counterpoint to the ravages of the urban environment. The wealthy began to flock to the beaches. Seaside resorts sprung up one after another.

The Romantic writers and artists at the turn of the 19th century added to the allure of the beach. They proclaimed that the seashore was “site of transformative experience.” The beach’s pristine emptiness and its lack of history made it the perfect escape from the drudgery of modern life. It existedVictorians at seaside at the “’pleasure periphery,’ a place beyond the boundaries of quotidian life.”( John Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/mayjune/feature/the-blue-humanities)

the beach party movie

In the United States in the 1960s a unique twist on the beach escape splashed upon our shores. Adolescents and young adults claimed the beach in increasing numbers. At the beach, kids escaped much more than the drudgery of everyday life. They also took flight from  a culture in turmoil and left behind an older generation that couldn’t be trusted. The Romantic poets had sung the wonders of seaside enlightenment in the 19th century. The 20th century beach revolution found expression in quite a different form. The “Beach Party Movie” was born and remains with us today as witness to escapism at its best.

The stories depicted in those films were set far from Lake Michigan, but the experiences of the characters mirrored to some extent the gatherings along the dune beaches in Indiana and Michigan so dear to my nostalgic heart.

Ocean surfers
Photo by Mauro Paillex

Unlike Romantic poets and painters, Beach Party movie producers had no ambition to create great art. The movies’ characters were undeveloped. Their plots were wafer thin, almost cartoonish. In the early 21st century, they were often recalled as tokens of a more innocent past.  That past wasn’t innocent at all.  It is, however, the movie’s blatant indifference to the real issues of the 1960s that contributed most powerfully to their success. These movies chronicle a particularly vibrant moment in American popular culture, the explosion of rock ‘n roll and the rise of adolescence. They ignore everything else — true narratives of the “pleasure periphery.”

never grow old

Plots revolve around dancing, music, surfing, drag racing, custom cars, and alcohol with no hint of social consciousness. Music dominates dialogue. The movies are filled both with plot-connected songs and unrelated performances by artists of the time. Teens and college kids move in a world in which they are the prime movers. Parents and other authority figures are “off stage” if mentioned at all. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/29007/party-frankie-annette-7-official-beach-party-movies

With all their focus on frolic and fun, they necessarily leave out any reference to the problems plaguing the world outside the beach. Civil rights riots, political assassinations and the Vietnam War are disregarded. The big problem of every movie is a boy-meets-girl drama. The ending is always happy.

While I was in college, my escapes to the beach had a beach-party movie flavor to them.  St. Mary’s College students had strict curfews.  You could never just take off for the whole day. If you had left after lunch, you had to sign back in by five o’clock.  You could then sign out again for an evening. This policy, the nuns in the administration believed, would keep us from straying too far away.  It did not keep us from the beaches.  Fellows from Notre Dame regularly took turns doing the “beach run.” That meant around four in the afternoon, one or two of the guys would pack his car with as many girls as it could hold. The dangerously crowded vehicle then raced at breakneck speed from the Michigan dunes back to St. Mary’s College. The girls piled out, rushed into the dorm reception room, signed in and signed out again.  We then piled back in the car for another harrowing ride back to the beach.

Fire at beach
Photo by Marcus Woodbridge

In retrospect, it sounds crazy, but it was worth it. Those days truly reinvigorated me. For one day I could live on the edge, away from my grinding work in the dorm dining room and the draining demands of my studies. I soaked up the sun, emerged myself in the cool lake waters, and built childish sandcastles.  The guys provided the food and drink and the transistor radios for playing our favorite music. I had no reason to envy Annette Funicello. I learned an important Love Lesson – even the romance that lasts only one summer leaves you richer for the experience.

surviving the vagaries of time
Riot and fire
Photo by Florian Olivo

The beach calls to me again as Covid-19 continues to claim more and more lives, disrupting more and more families and as American cities burn to protest police violence.  A day at the “pleasure periphery” might very well have some of its storied curative power.

But, for now, the beaches are closed. I’ll have to content myself with reading the book my sister Cheryl lent me, Same Beach, Next Year by Dorothea Benton. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31931767-same-beach-next-year

Are you yearning to get away right now? If you could do so, where would it be? I’d love to hear your stories of past escapes and present dreams.

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Photo by Joel DeMott

At the beach, life is different. Time doesn’t move hour to hour but mood to moment. We live by the currents, plan by the tides and follow the sun. Sandy Gingras

Normal Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Castel in tropics
Just an intermission?

Marque re. CoVid
Photo by Nick Bolton

When impact of the present pandemic hit home, the “new normal” became the big new buzz phrase.  Way back in February, many anticipated a couple of weeks of “shelter at home” and then back to “normal.” But here it is summer. And normal still eludes us.

If we are honest, we admit that even when social distancing loosens up and most businesses are no longer shuttered, our day-to-day reality will be significantly altered.  “Normal” will evade definition. We began 2020 in a place to which we can never return. Hence – the “New Normal.”

unsettling times

The cataclysmic sweep of CoVid-19 across our entire world has caused the idea of normal to appear to be an illusion of sorts. It may be that this is the year in which the word “normal” disappears from our vocabulary.

This is my second go round with a norm-shattering communal hurricane. It comes almost exactly fifty years after the first one, the year 1969.

My personal life altered overnight when, without medical rhyme or reason, five years of infertility ended. I conceived a child and gave birth to a baby girl. But my return to a traditional trajectory of womanhood played out against a backdrop of political and cultural turmoil that packed into a single year enough counter-cultural phenomena to fill a century.

Photo by Jay Wennington

The world in which my daughter celebrated her first birthday was not the world into which she had been born. The earthquake that was 1969 produced a “new normal” that meant she and I grew up in the same geographic location, but in alien lands.

Because of my youth, I welcomed the changes with open arms. The brave new world excited me. Throwing off the shackles of centuries of prejudice liberated my soul. I rejoiced for my children. At the same time, I celebrated at a distance. Being the mother of an infant daughter meant my immediate struggles were of a more mundane nature.

every kind of revolution

While David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask shocked many, it became an instant best seller, which made it possible for the next generation to have a healthier and more realistic attitude toward sexual intimacy. For Jay and I, it provided a guide to a subject forbidden to Catholics – birth control. It took family planning out of the murky shadows into the clear light of reason. We could not know at the time that in making “more rational” decisions about when to have our children, we had also paved the way to interior religious freedom, a more profound transformation.

This clash of conservative and liberal ideologies resounded in multiple assemblies in 1969. Jay and I, mired in domesticity, became armchair activists. The summer before Jay had joined the protesters as they marched from Lincoln Park to the Democratic Convention. Two years before I had walked the street as a striker, demanding better more equitable pay for country employees. In 1969, we watched as others took up the pickets. Live television coverage of the tumultuous events of that year brought war, protest, and riot into our living room.

out in space

We witnessed inspiring moments such as when we jammed into a

Amstrong on the moon
Photo by History HD

neighbor’s tiny apartment living room with about twenty young parents and almost as many babies, all eyes glued to the fourteen-inch screen as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of moon. There was absolute silence in the room.  Even the little ones hushed their voices as he recited, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”  And we believed it too. We grew up listening to space adventures on the radio and following space heroes in the comic books.  In some ways it’s hard to believe that “Star Wars” is still a fantasy.

playing to the herds and the nerds

With less pride, but no less excitement, we tuned into Woodstock, that glorious fiasco that ripped the curtain off any hope that the old order

crowds at Woodstock
Photo by Markus Spiske

could stand. We tuned in to hear the music, but stayed glued to the tube by scenes of “debauchery.” It would take months before the full story of what happened when 300,000 music fanatics showed up instead of the expected 50,000.  But one of the inevitable results was the same as one being anticipated in our present predicament – more babies.

The cultural shift did not limit itself to the “hippies” milling around on a dairy farm in upstate New York. Right in the heart of New York City itself earlier that summer, Oh, Calcutta had opened on Broadway. Since

Live Nude Marque
Photo by Alex Haney

full-frontal nudity was central to this production, it did not appear on our television screens, but we read about it in the Chicago Tribune, and discussed it with friends over beers on the common patio of our apartment complex.  In those days of “never trust anyone over thirty,” the general consensus among us was that censoring the play was an abuse of power. On the other hand, none of us was quite ready to shell out for the tickets when it came to Chicago.

waging peace

Of all the grand events that took place that year, the one that moved me the most was the Moratorium against the Vietnam War that swelled up in the Autumn. Sitting home while the protestors marched in cities around the world tore at our souls. Two million Americans of all ages and backgrounds took to the streets and assembled in churches, schools and meeting halls. Dr. Spock broke out of his persona as the optimistic childcare expert to address the rally in Washington. That more than anything made me realize that all those people were marching, protesting, demonstrating to protest the sweet baby in my arms. But I couldn’t bring myself to take her into the streets.

I couldn’t convince Jay to go. He held that as an Assistant State’s Attorney he was an official representative of law and order. That status forbade his participation. So, even at the domestic level skirmishes between the old order and the new played out. I feel certain ours was not the only household to witness such a divide. Love for us triumphed over political difference. We refocused even more intently on building a good life for our daughter.

Rob Kilpatrick’s enlightening and entertaining book, 1969:The Year Everything Changed, http://(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6139711-1969) cover the immense scope of the  sweeping changes that zipped through every aspect of human life that year. Then as now committed, however, loving relationships thrived, families grew and prospered, hearts broke, elders passed on, and in a thousand other ways everyday life moved steadfast as the rising and setting of the sun.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

Whatever is has already been,
    and what will be has been before;

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV

Flowers at sunrise
Photo by Olga Filonenko

There are many important events from that year that I haven’t room to include.  What do you remember about 1969?  How did it influence your life? Or was there another year that changed “everything” for you?

 

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Careful What You Wish For

Slightly pregnant belly
Great expectations

Man in darkly lit office
Photo by Armeer Basheer

“That shakes things up a bit, doesn’t it?” Antoine Vilar, editor of Building Design & Construction magazine and my boss, smoothed his striped silk tie with nervous fingers. I had just told him I was expecting a baby in six months in May, 1969.

Earlier that month, when I shared the news of my pregnancy with family and friends, it had been received with unalloyed delight. After four years of trying to conceive without success, Jay and I had pretty much given up hope of becoming parents. So, of course, the people who loved us best were joyful to hear we crashed through that barrier.

Loving my job

Ironically just six months before, I drove the fear of infertility into a dark corner of my psyche, and channeled my energies and dreams into work. For the first time, I had a job I loved. True, only an associate editor, I wrote mostly small, short one-page articles, mostly about new products. Nonetheless, I envisaged writing longer, more important stories once I showed what I could do. In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the overall process of producing the journal, the gathering hundreds of different bits and pieces together and creating a beautiful, coherent whole.

Antoine’s words could have been mine. As pleased and relieved as I was to be pregnant at last, I didn’t want to leave the magazine. But I didn’t see any way out of it. Every single woman I knew had left the workplace following the birth of her first child.

The Feminine Ironique

Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, five years before,

1970 Suffragette march
Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

claiming that the societal assumption that women could find fulfillment through housework and child rearing alone had given rise to a pervasive dissatisfaction among women in mainstream American society. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Feminine-Mystique(Her book sparked the second wave of feminism, but the twenty-something women I knew had one-by-one abandoned outside employment in favor of staying at home with their new babies. Nannies were the prerogative of the very rich. Daycare centers didn’t exist. Our mothers would have been horrified if asked to care for their grandchildren. I didn’t process any of these facts as rational at the time. I simply knew I would be staying at home with my baby and that would mean leaving the magazine. The second wave of feminism washed ashore on distant beaches, but I didn’t feel its surge.

The allure of suburbia

Suburban landscape
Photo by Kruse Collins

Swept up in the allure of another mystique, Jay and I began to search for a place to live in the suburbs. We never considered remaining in the city to raise our family. On a sunny April Sunday, in far flung Palos Heights a forty-five minute drive from Chicago Loop, we found what seemed the perfect place. Thorton Meadows, set in a landscape of woods and rolling hills, offered two-bedroom units at a very reasonable price. Although somewhat dark and featureless, the apartments were twice the size of our place in the city. Best of all, the lawns behind the complex teemed with young parents, toddlers, and babies in bassinets. We signed a lease for May first.

On Monday, I took extra time with my hair and make-up and wore my chicest maternity dress to work.  By noon I’d completed several pieces and took them to the assistant editor to review.  I didn’t need to hand carry them to him, but I did have to talk with him. “Bill, Jay and I are moving to Palos Heights at the end of the month. I’ve decided it would work best if I resigned on the fifteenth.”

The unexpected opportunity

He spun in his chair. “Sit down.” It wasn’t a request. I sat.

“Tony and I have been talking about this.” He spoke slowly as though working things out while he spoke. “It looks bad for the magazine to have added new staff less than a year ago only to drop the name now. Not only that, you’re turning in good solid work. We hate to see you go.”

I tried smiling but ended up sighing. “I don’t want to leave, but having a baby doesn’t give me a choice. There’s really no one else to take care of it.  And even if there was, I can’t imagine not taking care of my own child.”

Mom working at home
Photo by Charles Deluvio

He nodded. “I get it, but what if you could do both?”

Visions of installing a baby bed next to my desk filled my imagination and I giggled. “I don’t think a baby exactly fits in here at the office.”

He got the picture and laughed. “No.  But you could do this work at home.  You have a typewriter, right?”

“Yes, but …I’ll be taking care of the baby. I won’t be able to write.”

“Trust me,” Bill said. “I’ve got two kids. When they are little, they sleep a lot and even when they aren’t asleep, you don’t necessarily have to be doing stuff with them. You’re going to have time on your hands you don’t know what to do with.”

He expressed concepts I’d already considered, but I’d always understood the motherhood role to be an all or nothing proposition. That I could be a mother and something else at the same time didn’t compute for me. But now that my colleague had put the proposition in front of me, mixing childcare and some other work didn’t sound so preposterous. There were sixteen hours in a day.  Surely caring for my baby couldn’t consume that much time.

“How would it work?” I asked.

“Good girl.” He was elated. “Let’s go tell Tony.” The plan they laid out for me was decades ahead of its time, but none of us thought of it that way. It was simply the answer to a thorny problem for them and a way for me to continue doing work I loved. On a regular basis, Bill would mail me all the new product information that the manufacturers sent to the magazine. At home I would hone this myriad of information into short, informative articles, which I would mail back by the monthly deadline. Rather than the set wage I had been receiving, I would be paid by the hour. I’d be my own time keeper.

murphy’s law in the nursery

What could go wrong? We had come up with a dream solution.

By mid-May, Jay and I were settled in our suburb apartment. We had met several couples in the building, many of whom would remain friends long after we moved away from Thorton Meadows. My agreement with Building Design and Construction was not nearly so long term. That was because we failed to take into account the needs and desires of the third party to our agreement, my newborn little daughter, Kristin Margaret.

Breastfeeding mom
Photo by Ksenia Makagonenova

Breastfeeding had all but disappeared from the American infant care, but resurged in the 1960s as a part of the counterculture. Although a fairly mainstream sort of person, I decided to nurse my baby, having no idea what that entailed. No other mothers I knew breastfed their babies. Neither Jay’s mother nor mine had breastfed. I made my choice in knowledge void that took two children to overcome.  Kristy was the experiment.  Her sister Carrie born nineteen months later benefited greatly from what Kristy taught me.

Thus, I tried two innovative endeavors at the same moment in time – all on my own. I chose to breastfeed my baby and work from home.

The standard advice at that time had been developed for bottle-fed babies. It held that infants should be fed every four hours. No one could warn me that breastfed babies on the other hand nursed every two to three hours and fed on the average twelve times a day. https://www.romper.com/p/how-many-hours-per-day-does-a-baby-breastfeed-no-need-to-watch-the-clock-2957091

I learned that all by myself. Learned it as over and over again I left thought half-finished on the page. Learned it with deadlines looming over my head when I couldn’t bear to let my baby “cry it out,” another standard of the time.

murky answers

I found myself rewriting articles over and over because I got so little sleep that coherent thinking evaded my consciousness. Jay came home expecting a peacefully sleeping baby, a smiling wife and a hot meal.  He got chaos. He would take the baby from my arms and walk the floor with her while I fixed dinner, a meal I ate as I fed Kristy. By the time the dinner dishes were cleared up, my brain was too frozen for creative thinking.

By the end of the summer, even though Kristy was feeding less often, she slept less and sought attention in other ways.  She was so charming, a smiley baby with big blue eyes who responded with ward delight to being picked up and sang to, who loved to be outdoors and who was entranced by other children. Putting her in her bed to stare at a wind-up mobile while I sat at a typewriter began to feel like criminal neglect. I dreaded the arrival of the thick envelope from the magazine. I had too often been up past midnight to meet my deadlines.

Jay’s income covered our expenses. We had almost saved the $2500 we would need as a down payment on a house. If I continued to write, I would be doing it for my own fulfillment, but it had become a stress not a joy.  I convinced myself I’d become a lousy writer, that the magazine deserved better. If I kept up in that way, Kristy would miss out on key parental attention she required for healthy development. I was nothing but an imposter – neither real journalist nor true mother. Something had to go and it couldn’t be the baby! I made the dreaded call to Antoine and Bill. I pulled off the career track just in time to avoid a wreck.  The relief was immense.

Office desk
Photo by Aashish A

My choice may have been a terrible mistake. My opportunity to work from home came way ahead of the curve. The workplace mores I knew would shortly be nullified. Had I continued to work part-time from home, I might have been able to parlay that into a full-time job in journalism at some future point.

Instead, I devoted the next fifteen years to being the best mother that I could be. Did I simply cave to the feminine mystique? Perhaps. But maybe I simply chose an alternative freedom.

Girls marching "Future is Female"

 

A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.                                

Bill Watterson

Despite the fact that it’s been over fifty years since The Feminine Mystique became a sensation, we’re still asking, “Should mothers stay home with their children?”  Why do you think the question won’t go away?

 

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Graduating, Again and Again

Grad caps in air
no singing no dancing no toasts

“What do you miss the most?” a friend recently asked. Living through the CoVid-19 pandemic robs us of so much normalcy that it can be hard to pinpoint just what our hearts yearn for most. Yet, it took me only a few moments to answer, “Celebration.”

Weddings, baptisms, bar and bah mitzvahs, and even funerals have been thrust aside as impossible under present conditions. It’s heartrending to witness people we care about either put off a major transition in their life for which they had long prepared. Equally discouraging is to become married, to confirm one’s place in a community of faith, or to say final good-byes to a friend or family member, but do so alone or with as few others as possible quietly and efficiently before moving back into the rhythm of quarantine living. No singing. No dancing. No toasts.

june, 2020, slips away before it even comes

This particular spring the missed celebration that is hitting our family the hardest is that my grandson Bryce will not “officially” graduate from high school.  He’ll simply move on. Hopefully, he’ll begin college next year. No one Bryce's Middle School Graduationcan know for sure this week what September will bring.  But he will do so without the celebratory hoopla that usually accompanies graduations – the caps and gowns, the marches, the parties, the gifts, the hi gh spirits. He’s not alone. You can read about the other 3.6 million here:

https://www.quora.com/How-will-COVID-19-impact-the-2020-2021-school-year

 

Bryce himself is fairly complacent, but the elders of his family really wanted to celebrate this major transition with him. Perhaps, we yearned for festivity as way to relive the memories of our own graduations and the changes they brought.

https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/8/21246487/college-high-school-graudation-virtual-ceremony-online-school

I’ve graduated more than the usual amount of times, piling up diplomas and degrees like a stack of tarot cards I used to try to tell my future.

just six years old & a whole new world

Kindergarten table
Photo by Gautam Arora

The idea of graduating kindergarten brings on a sense of the ridiculous, but for me the change was profound, making as it did, a life path that would forever follow twists and turns rather than the straight, narrow way. When I left kindergarten, I transitioned from the public to the Catholic school system in Detroit, Michigan, an abrupt change of direction and not a little disorientating for one so young. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Moody had been pretty, sweet and young – much like a favorite aunt. The nun who ruled my first-grade classroom believed that no learning could happen without strict discipline.

I buckled under. Any natural free spirit squelched. All my energies directed into being a “good student,” a designation that never left me. I clung to that as a core sense of identity, my one quality that remained true and firm even when other endeavors failed. The problem with this identification is I couldn’t be a student forever.  Graduations were inevitable.

middle school mystic

After attending grade school for eight solid years, I graduated from both eighth grade in 1956 and ninth grade in 1957, because a family move once again propelled out of one school system into another. My father took a big leap into a management level position with another company in another state the week after my eighth-grade graduation. In our new home town, Muncie, Indiana, elementary school concluded with sixth grade. The next three years students attended junior high and then graduated at the end of ninth grade. In September, 1956, instead of enrolling in my first year of high school as I would have in Detroit, I entered a final year of junior high.

New student in class
Photo by Javier Trueba

Once again a member of a “graduating” class, this time of St. Lawrence Catholic School, I thoroughly enjoyed all its attendant perks plus one important status I had not had at St. Brigid’s.  Because the thirty ninth-grade students had been together since kindergarten, the arrival of a “new girl” triggered a wave of excited interest. Luckily it played out well for me. By graduation, I celebrated as joyously as if I had actually journeyed with these same kids for the last decade.

the road less traveled

1960 High School Yearbook
Our high school yearbook

Just three years later, we were all graduating once again.  This time with a diploma from Muncie Central High School. For most of my classmates, it would be their last graduation. Only ten percent of my high school graduating class went to college.  For the others it was time to take on the adult responsibility of a full-time job. Many celebrated their weddings shortly after graduation and were parents within a year. Among the lucky few who had the opportunity to continue my education, I moved to the campus of St. Mary’s College in South Bend at the end of the summer. Over the summer, my family moved as well. Back to Detroit and shortly thereafter to St. Paul, Minnesota.

I expected to spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree. It took seven. I accumulated course credits not only at St. Mary’s but also at De Paul, Roosevelt, and Loyola Universities as well as at the University of Minnesota. Yet, I did finally receive a degree from St. Mary’s in the rather nebulous field of English Writing, the rather vague designation under which my hodgepodge of course work was gathered. I had long since moved away from St. Mary’s, but, because then as now I loved celebrations of any kind, even ones that acknowledged somewhat dubious achievements, I returned to campus for graduation in August, 1967. I partied with my family after certain that I had finally finished graduating.

deja vu, all over again

Martin Marty
Martin Marty, teacher extraordinaire

Thirteen years later, however, the irrepressible student at my core, found a space for herself in my consciousness once again. By that time in 1980, the world and I had both experienced cataclysmic changes. The woman on the cusp of middle age barely resembled the girl of twenty-two. I had compressed a lifetime into those thirteen years. As I became a student once more, that experience informed all that I heard in the classroom, read in the library, and wrote at my computer.  One thing, however, had not changed. I took my time achieving my goal. Twelve years passed and I had two master’s degrees before I accepted my Ph.D. in Theology from my mentor Martin Marty at the University of Chicago.  Now, beyond a doubt I had finished graduating. But, I did so much more aware than I had ever been that I had hardly begun to learn.

graduates in a sunset
Photo by Baim Hanif

“The real ceremony begins where the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and hearts filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with our world.”
Linda Hogan

 

As a child, I wasn’t happy with my transfer from public school to Catholic school, but there’s some fairly decent argues as to why that can still be a good decision for parents to make. ttps://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/22/weekinreview/parochial-school-mystique.html

Catholic schools – good or bad?  What do you think?

 

 

Can Too Many Dreams Come True?

Dreamcatchers
beginning at the end

Spring is meant to be the season of rebirth. Yet, Spring, 1968 found me unemployed — again – just as I had been the spring before.

Teacher's desk
Photo by Element5 Digital

A week after I turned in my resignation as the sixth-grade teacher at St. Henry’s grade school, the principal received an application from a perfect candidate. The prospect had recently left the convent after a decade of teaching middle school grades. She wished to continue teaching but not as a celibate religious.  In different times, she would have been considered totally ineligible to teach in a Catholic school. But in the tumultuous end of the twentieth century the school staff welcomed her with open arms.

While leaving the classroom ended my struggle to attain “good teacher” status, it intensified my search for secure employment. I could not conceive of a life without work. Even though Jay’s earnings covered our needs and occasional luxuries, I had no wish to remain jobless.  We knew that were I to become pregnant I would probably stay at home with our child. Yet, at that point in time, we had no assurance we would ever welcome a child into our family. I remained unable to conceive. Adoption agencies continued to reject us as “too young.”

brick walls

For four years, I had run into a brick wall every time I applied for a position in

Woman with camera
Photo by Vanilla Bear Fillms

journalism. In their study of women in journalism, Seeking Equity for Women in Journalism and Mass Communication, Ramona R. Rush, Carol E. Oukrop, and Pamela J. Creedon note that the percentage of women in journalism rose from roughly six percent to eight percent from 1965 to 1970. I knew from age eleven when I first set my heart on becoming a journalist that there were fewer women than men in the profession, but even in 1968 I didn’t appreciate how great the disparity was. If I had majored in journalism, I convinced myself, I could have landed a place on a newspaper or magazine staff. But that degree had been unavailable at St. Mary’s, the college for which I received a scholarship.

Right out of school, I had “settled” for a position as a county caseworker. I loved that job but left the agency in the hopes that less stress in my life would allow me to become pregnant. Then, I tried teaching grade school, another of the “acceptable” jobs for women.  Last week’s blog recorded that disaster.  I wasn’t trained to be a nurse.  After eight years as a waitress all through high school and college, I definitely wasn’t going back.

might as well try

boss and secretary in silhouetteThere still remained one “suitable” woman’s job I might consider. I could be a secretary. I had learned to type and take shorthand in high school. In a quirky turn of fate, one of my other untried skills, speaking French, landed me the first secretarial job for which I applied. The editor of Building Construction, a trade journal for architects, engineers and contractors, had moved to Chicago from Paris. It appealed to him to hire a secretary to whom he could dictate in French if he so chose.

In late April I began my fourth new job since leaving college four years before. And I loved it. The office space vibrated with excitement. Everyone on the editorial staff had a passion for the world of building especially my French boss. Because it was my job to see that most of the articles actually made it to pre-print form, I often joined in the editorial discussions. My father and grandfather were draftsmen. So, I knew a great deal more about the world of architecture and building construction than most English Literature graduates.

Within six weeks, the assistant editor, an engineer as well as a journalist, called

White high rises
Photo by Digby Cheung

me into his office. He offered me a position as an associate editor on the magazine. I never saw it coming. The irony hit me right away. Here like a gilded message on a silver platter was an offer of the very kind of work, I had practically begged for in the past. Yet, the offer no longer held the same allure. The intensity of my desire to conceive a child had swept aside all other ambition.

“I need time to think about this.” I told him.

He lifted his chin and squinted at me, “I thought you’d jump at this chance.  We need an answer pretty soon.  We’re going to hire someone before we chart the next edition.”

I sighed. Was I crazy to hesitate? “I am excited, but I want to tell my husband before I commit.”

“Okay, I get that. Think you can let us know tomorrow?”

Could I? Yes, dragging out the decision wouldn’t make it any easier. “Of course.”

no final answers

Wabash Ave under L tracks
Photo by Sorensen

At five o’clock, without bothering to clear my desk for the next day, I grabbed my purse, ran down three flights of stairs and out onto Wabash Ave. Skipping the “L” train, I strode north, my thoughts too jumbled to make sense of them. I halted in the middle of the bridge that crossed the Chicago River, leaned against the broad steel railing, and stared at the water flowing backwards away from Lake Michigan, a reversal of nature created by a massive engineering effort at the turn of the century. At that moment it felt like my life also flowed backwards. This moment in time, the day on which I could walk into our front door and announce to my husband that I had an honest-to-goodness journalism job offer, came three years too late. Or did it?

For the last eight blocks of the walk to our apartment, I let myself daydream, envisioning building a solid resume at Building Construction and then moving on to one of the many other journals published by Cahners, maybe even Variety with all the excitement of  being the front lines of the theater world.

Jay surprised me by being home when I got there. “Where have you been. I’ve been worried.”

The big cat-faced clock above our tiny kitchen archway read seven o’clock. “Geesh, Honey,” I said, “I thought I was rushing home. Time got away from me. We need to talk.”

Jay’s take on the dilemma lacked the ambiguity of mine. “Of course, you’ll take the job,” he insisted. “This is your dream. Go for it.”

“But what about a baby?” Journalism didn’t mix well with motherhood.

“Yulsey, you can’t keep drifting around waiting to get pregnant. It may never happen.  But this job offering is real and right now.”

My gut twisted when he voiced, “It may never happen.” But I couldn’t deny his logic.

That night we celebrated at the Jewish deli just a block from our place.

The next morning, I accepted the position. No regrets, I told myself. I can do this.

Four months later, I became pregnant. Once again, quandary ruled my life.

Northern Lights
Photo by Greg Rakozy

“Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see further.” —Thomas Carlyle

Did finding your “life work” present you with a quandary?  I’d love to hear how others experienced these times in their life.

Good Teacher – Bad Teaching

Back to Grade School

Sixth grade classroomI leaned back against the hot yellow brick, slid my hand into the inside pocket of my suit jacket, and slipped out a thin, solid cigarette and dug a little deeper for the book of matches, my husband had brought home from some south side bar. I needed this brief respite. Before striking the match, I edged to the corner of the school building and scrutinized the playground milling with shouting, running children. Red-headed June Hurtgen, the second- grade teacher caught my stare and gave me a quick thumbs up.  No nuns in sight.

The long inhales of nicotine-laden smoke gradually soothed me enough to face the post-lunch classroom. I closed my eyes against the bright sunlight of the early spring afternoon. I wished I didn’t have to move.

Afternoons were always more chaotic than mornings. The baseball games and hopscotch matches that filled the midday recess fueled the student’s energy. Settling them down, getting them to pay attention to the afternoon classwork, would challenge me intellectually and exhaust the last of my physical energy. The bell rang. I dropped the cigarette and ground it into the dirt between two dandelions, bravely pushing their way through rock hard soil. I didn’t have their resilience. How had I gotten myself into this?

Far From Normal Times

Easy answer – Bored stiff staying at home after leaving my position as a caseworker for Cook County Children’s Division, I blithely, naively decided that teaching in grade school would be a less stressful occupation. In ordinary times such a choice would have required a return to school to earn a degree in Elementary Education. But, the late 1960s were far from “normal” times. Every aspect of human culture, social, commercial, political, and religious, spun in an unfamiliar vortex.

Statue at Vatican
Photo by Artur Dziula

For Catholics across the world, the end of the Second Vatican Council brought a new wind streaming through church doors and windows.  Century-old practices changed overnight. Each officially-initiated change brought on other unexpected changes.  This revolution hit the American Catholic school system at its very core – the cadre of teaching nuns, who had for decades taught the children in these schools.

The council documents had encouraged lay people to be much more self-reflective about their faith. Many nuns found, upon deep reflection, that opting for the single, celibate life when they were barely out of childhood had not been an authentic choice. Dozens of women left the convents around the country. The numbers of sisters abandoning the religious life would snowball in coming years.  In the late 1960s, staffing Catholic schools entirely with nuns became suddenly impossible.

The archdiocese of Chicago responded to the crisis by seeking lay persons to teach. But with schools, both public and private, bursting at the seams, trained teachers were hard to come by.  The archdiocese introduced a summer program to college graduates without degrees in education to teach in grade school. A band-aid solution at its best, this temporary measure attracted the delusional and the directionless, the cohort into which I fit so well.

Into the Fray

Dark classroom
Photo by Mwesigwa Joel

In the summer of 1967, I attended this boot camp for teachers. In August, a position for a sixth-grade teacher opened up at St. Henry’s School. During my interview, Sister Felicity, the principal, warned me that sixth grade is a uneasy year, a changeover time as students move restlessly from childhood to early adolescence. She clearly had concerns about my lack of experience, but she was desperate. I had done well in the summer program. I wasn’t fresh out of college as many applicants were. Most likely her fingers were crossed behind her back when she handed me the key to “my” room.

Undaunted,  I spent the last week of August decorating the bulletin board and carefully honing my lesson plans. The room looked warm and welcoming – the perfect learning space.

The Tuesday after Labor Day introduced the less than perfect element – the students. Had I really thought that 30 boisterous eleven-year old kids would quiet down simply because I asked them to? As the weeks progressed, I painstakingly built individual social contracts with each student. That enlightening, but lengthy, process played serious havoc with my carefully wrought lesson plans.

The Ides of March

Now in mid-March, the whole class was seriously behind in our learning goals for the year. I dragged my feet up the creaking wooden steps to my high-ceilinged, second-floor classroom, certain that again today  I would be compelled to spend far too much time helping individuals with particular problems, listening to a slow crescendo rise as twenty-nine other young minds veered off track.

Boy with book on head
Photo by Jaikisshan Patel

They didn’t disabuse me of my preconceived fears. Students, who weren’t chatting with a seat mate or whispering loudly across the aisles, wandered away from their desks – not out the door where they were sure to be spotted by a hall monitor, but up to the pencil sharpener, the school supply case, or the small corner where I stashed books for free reading. None of these actions was exactly forbidden. But they were meant to be rare, not the order of the day. Bent over the work of one student, my back aching like an old lady’s, I stood every other minute and directed the wanderers back to their place.

I liked these kids. I wanted them to have a solid educational foundation. But by now, I had serious doubts those goals could be met.  I felt more like the 9-to-3 babysitter than an actual teacher. The students didn’t dislike me.  In fact, they often followed me home and we had great discussions around the small garden in front of my apartment building. Nor were they learning disabled. Some struggled with one or two school subjects, but for the most part they were bright as new pennies. The sad truth was they had my number.  They had sensed right from the beginning that I was not just new to them, but new to teaching and basically clueless. Once this underground message permeated my classroom, none of the “tricks of the trade” I tried Children at project tableworked. The experiment was blowing up in my face.

All of this was running through my head while I helped Tess Balsercak, my best student, locate the edition of the encyclopedia she needed for a report. Behind me, the usual scuffs and whispers transformed to a low murmur of giggles. I laid the heavy red volume into Tess’s small hands and turned to scan the classroom.

Little Boy Lost

No one was out of their seat, but one desk was empty. Tommy O’Brien. Tommy had come in after lunch, but now he was missing. And something smelled funny. Most of the students attempted to look busy, either rifling through the pages of a book or scribbling with a pencil, but enough of them kept glancing over their shoulders at the cloakroom to at least assure me that Tommy hadn’t gone completely AWOL. Although his attendance record was poor, he’d never simply left in the middle of the day before.

Tommy lived with his mom and her boyfriend, a home situation becoming more commonplace as the 1960s grew to a close, but one that still shocked me somewhat. I worried much more, however, about his practice of skipping school to wander the streets of “Old Town,” in that decade a favor haunt of the counterculture. Within a few minutes most students became aware of my scrutiny. As though drawn by puppet string, their heads turned toward the rear cloakroom door. Two quick strides brought me to the front entry. There the heady aroma of cannabis vied with the classic cloakroom mix of dirty jackets and mud-covered boots. Tommy leaned against a navy wool coat, his head flung back, his eyes closed, a smile like a cherub barely part his lips, which blew out a small stream of smoke. My gut twisted. Was that how I’d looked, hiding behind the school? But wait. It wasn’t the same!

pre-teen boy
Photo by Garrett Jackson

“Tommy!”

His eyes flew open, their merry blueness as charming as ever. His smile remained. “Hi, Mrs. Ward.”

“Put that out. We’re going to the principal’s office.” If I could have covered it over, I probably would have. Being expelled would delight Tommy, but was the worst thing that could happen to him. As I marched him out of the cloakroom and straight into the hall, total chaos erupted behind me. It was the least of my concerns right then.

Sister Felicity and I waited together until five o’clock for Tommy’s mother to retrieve him. She stomped into the office, her brilliantly blonde hair fell in heavy waves down both side of her face. Tommy had gotten his beautiful eyes from her and even though upset, her voice lilted like music, “What’s this all about?”

When Sister explained that Tommy would be on a one-month probation, she looked at him, shrugged her shoulders and sighed, “Well, let’s get you home.”  And another vulnerable child walked out of my life, but never out of my memory.

Teacher Be Gone

There were almost three months of school left. The children would, I knew, believe I had deserted them, but I knew I had to leave. I realized I couldn’t teach in elementary school. I just wasn’t good enough.  That I had received the proper training was a basic fact.  But there was more to it than that. I still struggled with a demon that had plagued me longer than I could remember. I had a desperate need to be liked and I often sacrificed greater principles to that need.  Wanting so much to have the students like me, I had forfeited their respect.  Once gone, it could never be reclaimed.  Without it I couldn’t be an effective classroom teacher. I needed to open the space for some one else.  I had to hope that teacher would be better than me.

If I stayed, it would do the children no good, and I would break under the heavy load of self-doubt I took with me into the school building every day. That Friday, I handed in my resignation.

Love Lessons, I learned, are not just about commitment to others, they can also be about our relationship with our self.

Have you left some one or some place because it was better for them that you leave? Could you share that here?

Or less personally, who was your favorite grade school teacher and why?

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” ~ #Oscar Wilde

Let Winter Go

Purple crocus peeking through snow
Death…so familiar yet completely unknown

Black flower
Photo by Antonio Grosz

Hurricanes, wild fires, tsunamis, even today’s prevailing enemy, the COVID-19 virus, I witness these disasters striking human persons all over the world. I shudder for them and just as quickly sense enormous relief that my home still stands, that my body and spirit remain healthy. But there is another less settling feeling   hiding beneath the relief, the one that’s always there. At some unknown moment, death will come to me. That same awful reality that first shook my world when my best friend died when we were only nine years old is one I can never escape.

For this reason that Spring has always been my favorite season. As our days grow gradually warmer and longer, sunshine also pours forth from the earth that lay gray-brown and dull for so very many weeks. Yellow daffodils appear at almost every doorstep. Forsythia burst like fireworks from the banks of the Willamette River. Even on cloudy days, I take to wearing my sunglasses again.

the wisdom of spring

Field of daffadils
Photo by Marian Kroell

Spring is my mentor. Time, she says, to let go of what has already died.  Just as we need to clear away the dried-out leaves of last years flowers, I need to clear my hours of that which deadens my soul.

In the spring of 1967, a court order forced me to return a foster child in my supervision to her biological family just before her adoption. It devasted me that none of the arguments I had mounted against this travesty of justice held sway. Tradition won out over reason. Just as the spring rains washed away the last of the dirty Chicago snow, they also washed away my desire to continue working toward change I seemed helpless to initiate.

wilted and gone

Lone flower in woods
Photo by Matthew Smith

For three years I poured my heart and soul into helping neglected and abused children find care, love and nourishing in new homes. I worked with them and their new parents as children with damaged spirits slowly adjusted to the kind of childhood, I had taken for granted as had most of my friends. The children did not learn to trust easily. The parents were not always able to cope with the challenges. Sometimes the new families fell apart at the seams. But when it worked, when children and parents bonded into a new family unit, every bit of effort paid off. Still, the cases that fell through took their toll on my psyche a little at a time. And almost every week brought another abandoned, abused or neglected child into my caseload. The never-ending cycle made me feel like a hamster in a cage, and I was just one social worker in one agency out of hundreds.

Soon after I began working at Cook County Department of Child and Family Services, I married my college sweetheart Jay Ward. For two of those years we had been hoping for a baby, but I remained infertile for reasons without a discernible medical cause.  In what might have been reaching for straws, the gynecologist speculated that my work stress might be causing my infertility.

every end is also a beginning

At first, I considered his advice unacceptable, a too easy answer to a question

Puplre daisies
Photo by Annie Spratt

he couldn’t answer. But once uttered, it could not be unsaid. It was one of many straws on the camel’s back. I just didn’t feel it yet. When Vicki Reagan disappeared immediately after I brought her back to her biological family, it was the last straw. I couldn’t carry my load any longer. This work I loved, work that I had believed was a perfect fit for my skills and my sense of self, could no longer sustain me.

If an older version of me needed to die, who would take her place? Not a daffodil, I didn’t burst into bloom where planted as soon as the snows washed away. Rather like a daisy, a seed scattered on the wind, drifting, randomly landing without real intent, I would flower briefly in different editions over the next few years. It would not be until I became a mother that I once again discovered a passion that could sustain me over many seasons.

 

Mother, toddler, flower field
Photo by Lieanna Mikah

 

Some things happen for a reason,
Others just come with the season.”
Ana Claudia Antunes, The Tao of Physical and Spiritual

Was there a time you felt your life was suspended between an ending and an unknown beginning? I’d love to hear about that.

Little Girl Lost

No hush fell over the courtroom as the judge looked up from the papers scattered across his bench. The restless shifting of impatient bodies and hiss of whispered conversations filled the stale air with a low buzz. But my blood stopped pumping and my breath stilled as I waited for his words.  Had my argument carried its needed weight?  Had I prevailed against the common wisdom?Blocks reading "Child Custody"

It was late March, 1967, but winter still held a grip on Chicago and even inside the courtroom most of us wore heavy coats and jackets to keep warm. Even so a chill ran up my spine and down my arms as I stared across a sea of heads at his clean-shaven, craggy face.

He cleared his throat. “Beatrice Hill, you may approach the bench.”

A thin redhead whose curly hair stuck out all over her head, slipped out of her chair and walked toward the judge. “Yes, Your Honor?” Her speech slurred sleepily and the judge’s eyes narrowed. Yet, he continued, “Sole physical and legal custody of Victoria Ann Regan is hereby awarded to her natural mother, Beatrice Hill.”

Mrs. Hill turned immediately and glared at me with icy blue eyes that screamed, “Showed you.” My heartbeat thumped into rapid pace as I gripped the side of my wooden chair, gritted my teeth together, and willed myself to silence.  I had lost. Worse than that, Vicki and the Kaufmanns had lost. I had failed them miserably. I rose and walked out of the room so that no one would see the tears streaming down my cheeks.  Social workers should remain emotionally uninvolved in their cases, but Vicki had tugged at my heart strings from the day I met her a year before.

She waited for me at the front door of the neat brick bungalow in the Edison Park neighborhood of Chicago. Although ten years old, she flashed with the exuberance of a younger child, bouncing up and down so much her patent-leather shoes squeaked. “Mom said to show you into the kitchen,” she squealed. “She has coffee ready for you.  Dad will be home soon.” She grabbed my hand in one of her pink chubby ones and pulled me down the hall.

The Kaufmanns, whom Vicki called “Mom” and “Dad” had been her foster parents for five years, but I had recently been assigned her case because they wanted to adopt the little girl they’d come to think of as their own. A few weeks before Vicki had been placed with them, neighbors of her natural parents had alerted the police that Vicki and her two younger brothers had been left alone in their apartment for three days.  An emergency hearing assigned custody to the Department of Child and Family Services. The police took the children to a temporary foster home until more permanent placements could be found for them. No one had room for all three children.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

The Kaufmanns had married in their late thirties and had been unable to conceive a child.  They applied for adoption but had been turned down because of their age.  Foster parenting had been a way for them to fulfill their deep desire to parent. Having the chance to make room in their home and their lives for five-year old Vicki with her round blue eyes and wavy blonde curls had been a dream come true for them.

Until recently, Vicki and her brothers had not been eligible for adoption because their parents had not relinquished custody. But last year their father had appeared after a four-year absence. He claimed his wife had abandoned him and he had gone to look for her without success. He had decided he said to give up his children for adoption.  The necessary procedures were initiated and the papers signed.  The father disappeared once again.

Both the Kaufmanns and the family who were fostering the boys immediately began adoption proceedings.  The boys’ adoption went smoothly because their foster parents were a couple in their mid-twenties.  But the court delayed Vicki’s adoption for further observation because her foster parents were now in the forties, and in the mid-1960s that was consider almost grandparent age.  Eventually, however, I was able to build a case for Vicki’s adoption.

I described her” pinkalicious” bedroom with its canopy bed filled with the stuffed animals Vicki loved.  She created characters for each of them and enacted little theatricals for me whenever I visited. I included photos of her

Pinkalicious
Photo by Alex Gruber

wardrobe, one that Shirley Temple would have envied.  Mrs. Kaufman loved to sew and Vicki, much to her foster mother’s delight, adored all things ultra-feminine – the more frills the better. The girl’s school reports, I could demonstrate, were those of a child who clearly enjoyed school and was able to maintain fairly good grades in most subjects.  Vicki advocated for herself, writing an essay, “Why I want to be Vicki Kaufman.” That went into the file.  I felt certain we had a winning case and told the little family not to worry.

Then the axe fell. Vicki’s biological mother reappeared.  She was remarried and had two more children. “I had to leave Chicago,” she insisted, “Because my husband was always beating me up.  I was afraid he was going to kill me and maybe the kids too.”

I asked why she hadn’t tried to contact the agency. “I didn’t want nobody to know where I was. It wasn’t safe. And I heard the kids were in foster care.  I thought if I tried to visit them, Sam would find me and he’d really get me this time.”

Two women talking
Photo by Chris Hume

“Aren’t you still afraid?” I asked.

“Nope, I’m married again and Elmer, that’s my new husband, he’d kill Sam if he tried to touch me.  Besides I’m only staying long enough to get my kids.  Then we’re heading home to Alabama.” Her gaze wandered around my office. She wouldn’t look me straight in the eye and I didn’t trust her.

“I can’t just take you to see the children. The boys are legally adopted. I need to talk with my supervisor about the best way to proceed.”

“That ain’t fair,” she protested. “I never would have give me kids up for adoption.”

“But you did abandon them. Please come back tomorrow.”

Fortunately, I knew she had no way of knowing where the children were presently living.

My supervisor and I took the case to the head of our division.  Our attorney was quite certain that the boys’ adoption couldn’t be overturned although the Mom might be able to obtain visiting rights.  But since Vicki’s adoption wasn’t finalized, we would have to get the courts to formally take away Mrs. Hill’s parental custody.

I was asked to visit the Hill’s home to make an assessment of their ability to take custody of Vicki. The couple and their two children lived in a dark, ground level apartment on a noisy street. Someone buzzed me in without acknowledging me.  As I stepped into hall, the small of urine overwhelmed me.  I tried to take shallow breaths. The apartment door stood partially open and I pushed it a little way in.

Photo by Christian Chen

“What the fuck you want?” a tiny voice piped. I looked down to realized a toddler in a sagging diaper had addressed me. Across the room, a chuckle rumbled, “He’s a hellion that one,” Mr. Hill said and blew out a stream of cigarette smoke.

“I need to ask you a few questions,” I managed to force myself to say.  I really just wanted to turn and walk out. “Wife’s in the kitchen. She’ll do the talking.” He waved toward a dim doorway. As I followed his direction, the floor felt sticky underfoot. In the kitchen, Mrs. Hill also smoking and drinking what looked like a beer was reading a magazine while a baby played under the table with some old spoons. I kept the interview as short as I could.

In the end, all my misgivings didn’t count. Beatrice Hill, the judge reasoned, was Vicki’s natural mother and the court always favored keeping families together if it could.

Two days later, I drove to Edison Park. A teary-eyed Arthur Kaufmann met me at the door.  His wife, he said, was in their bedroom with the shades drawn.  Vicki came out from behind him, clutching a worn Teddy Bear in one arm, a small suitcase gripped in her other hand. She was wearing saddle shoes, a pair Elsie Kaufmann had saved from her teen years. I bit the inside of my lip. Social workers don’t cry.

“Come, Vicki,” I whispered. We were both unnaturally silent on the trip to Chicago’s west side. Vicki, I’m sure, was sad and apprehensive. I had no consolation I could offer. Mrs. Hill met us outside on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building. I hugged Vicki even though it wasn’t protocol. “I’ll be coming for a visit next Monday,” I told her mother.

“What for?” she barked.

“Supervisory visits are mandated for six months after a custody hearing.” This was true, but I hoped I’d find something that would mean I could take Vicki back to her real home.

“Okay, I guess.”

I yearned to kiss Vicki good-bye, but it would have been unprofessional. “I’ll see you soon,” I promised. There was a haunted look in her big blue eyes that told me she didn’t believe me. Grown-ups, in her experience, didn’t keep their promises.

I never saw her again. Mrs. Hill never returned my calls. Checking with the building management I discovered that they had left without paying their rent just two days after I brought her to them. They left no trail the agency could follow. Vicki had been right.  I couldn’t keep my promise. As many times before and many times after, Love’s Lesson was the love is very often all about loss.

“I know that’s what people say– you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. Oh, youll be happy again, never fear. But you won’t forget.’

Girl alone in woods
Photo by Andrew Neel

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

 

This Other Little Life

girl and cat
Things that go bump in the night

Dark living room
Photo by Morgan Vander Hart

There is was again – that strange creaking sound. I stopped scribbling notes on the large yellow pad of legal paper propped on my news and held my breath.  Did it come from the bedroom or maybe the kitchen? I twisted my head slowly to the right to glance into the dark shadows of our tiny Rogers Park kitchen. An alley light cast just enough brightness to assure me that no one or nothing moved between the counters and the appliances.

The creaking ceased. I bit my lip and chided myself for being afraid.  But I pushed back into the sofa cushions a little more tightly and pulled the fuzzy red afghan more securely around my waist. Hopefully, Jay wouldn’t be too late tonight.  I hated that preparing for the next day’s trials regularly meant he kept late night hours at the State’s Attorney’s office. Although exhausted from a long day at work and an evening of study, I couldn’t fall asleep.

Being alone for any length of time spooked me. My family home, set in the midst of a crowded Detroit neighborhood, had always bustled with the activities of three sisters and two brothers, presided over by a stay-at-home Mom. Every day, but Sunday, friends came and went pretty much at will. Knocking and doorbells ignored as uncalled for formalities.  Unused to solitude, I easily transitioned to dorm life at St. Mary’s, and later found it totally acceptable to share my first apartment with fifteen (yes, really) other young women.

Antique bedframe
Photo by Bianca Capeloti

What was that rattle? It definitely came from the bedroom.  The bedroom window latch refused to close securely. I needed to check it. Taking slow sliding steps in my stocking feet, I crept out of the living room, into the short hall that led to the bedroom. I reached my hand around the door frame and switched on the light. It revealed a room stuffed to the edges by an antique bedroom set, handed down to us by my grandmother. That was all.  No menacing presence greeted me.

I can’t be doing this, I thought. Being spooked by every little sound ruined the peace of my evenings, the time needed for study or I’d never finish college. I had to feel less alone. And I knew just how to remedy the situation.

When Jay arrived home, I greet him with a big hug, a long kiss, and the exclamation, “I need a kitten.”

He pulled back, cocked his head, dropped his heavy briefcase with a thud, and laughed. “You never cease to surprise me.  What brought this on?”

I shared the tale of my fears over cups of cocoa.

By the time I finished, he was smiling broadly. “A kitten wouldn’t be much of a guard animal.”

I punched him gently in the shoulder. “I know that. But if we have a cat and I hear an odd noise, I’ll just tell myself, ‘Oh, it’s just the cat.’ Then, I won’t be so scared.”

“Do you know how to care for a kitten,” he asked.

“I’m sure I can learn. I’ve wanted a kitten forever. My mom hated cats for some reason. So, she never let me have one.”

Jay held on to his doubts, but he did feel bad about leaving me alone so many nights and he desperately wanted me to be happy.  As a new husband, he believed that making your wife happy constituted part of the job description. I didn’t see any reason to disabuse him.

Litter of kittens
Photo by dimitri Houtemann

Making my wish come true proved far easier than expected. Jay’s former college roommate and his wife lived in Evanston, just north of our Rogers Park neighborhood.  Their cat had recently given birth to five sweet little tabby kittens. Delighted that we wanted to adopt one, they let us have the pick of the litter. We choose a little female, whom we named “Champagne” for no logical reason whatsoever.

Waiting for her to wean so we could bring her home proved difficult. We learned that growing creatures take time. They cannot be rushed, a fundamental lesson of parenthood. The day did come, however, when Jack and Kathy called to say, Champagne could leave her mother. Elated we spent Saturday morning in a pet shop, acquiring a litter box, litter, a climbing tree, feeding bowls, cat food, and a cat bed. We had a great time choosing all this equipment but had quite a nasty sticker shock at the cash register. Bringing a little one into your life, we discovered doesn’t come cheap. Undaunted, we coughed up the moola and headed for Evanston.

On the ride home, I realized we’d missed an important purchase – a cat carrier.  I envisioned holding my warm, fuzzy little friend in my lap all the way home.

Cat looking out
Photo by Alireza Attari

She, of course, had different ideas. True to her nature, Champagne was curious about this new space that rumbled and moved. She remained in my lap just until we pulled out of our friends’ driveway. Then she wriggled free, crawled up to my shoulder and leaped to the back seat of our old Volkswagen. Petrified that she’d crawl under the seat and wedge under the driving pedal, I made Jay stop the car. We didn’t want to open a door and let her escape. Instead, I hung over the front seat and managed, after several missed attempts, to snare her. She hissed and scratch my hand. Oww!

Kitten on bed
Photo by Anthony de Kroon

At home, I gingerly place the kitten on the floor. She scurried under the twin bed we used as a makeshift sofa. We rolled it away from the wall and she took off for the bathroom. Running after her, I quickly closed the toilet, realizing that I’d have to be more careful about that from now on.  Come bedtime, we found out one of our purchases, the cat bed, had been totally unnecessary.  Champagne had no intention of sleeping anywhere, but with us – the first in a long line of youngster who would crawl into the “family bed.”

Champagne did alleviate my fears. She loved to curl up beside as I studied at night. Now, Jay often found the two of us asleep on the sofa when he arrived home. It warmed his heart, he said because when he saw us curled up like that, he realized we were “family” in the true sense of the word.

If you have ever learned a Love Lesson from a pet, please share it with us here.

“Way down deep we are all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them.” Jim Davis

Cat under blanket
Photo by Vinicius de Moraes

Love Is Negotiating Differences

Purple garden
Lo, There Be Snares along Love’s Garden Path

Jay and I learned love’s lessons slowly.  One of the first is that who you are in college and who you are as a married person are vastly different facets of the multi-dimensional self.

College Campus Loving

We met and fell in love while we were college students at different schools. For both of us, campus life focused on studying – going to classes, reading, researching, and writing. Tension and anxiety built up around exams and grade reports.

Campus couple on bency
Photo by Mojor Zhu

College can also be a time of great financial strain, but we were spared that anxiety. Jay’s parents handled the cost of university education for all five of their children.  And I had been fortunate to be accepted at St. Mary’s College on a work-scholarship program that covered tuition and dorm fees.

Due to such good fortune, the time Jay and I shared was “downtime.” Social life was our release from the relentless march toward a degree.  We got together to have fun. It could be low-key – coffee, cigarettes and long conversations.  It could high excitement – a big football game or extravagant ball.  To be together meant winding down, de-stressing, relaxing.

Living Together Reality

Becoming married radically altered our way of being together. We stopped dating.  We didn’t even realize that we had done it. Because we came home to the same place every night starting with our wedding night, the necessity of meeting somewhere simply slipped away.  And stealthily with it went the perks of actual dating.  At first, about half the nights in the week, one or the other of us was working or at school. But even when home, we were no longer necessarily ‘together’ in the way we had been while dating. We shared space, but not time.

Couple in small apartment
Photo by Soroush Karimi

We did the stuff people do “at home.” – cook, dishes, laundry, pay bills, read, iron and get work projects completed. Going out wasn’t an option because we were no longer supported by our parents or by scholarship funds. Our cost of living was now our own. Our salaries couldn’t be stretched to cover eating out or entertainment.  The responsibilities of maintaining our place and budgeting our money ate into the little bit of free time we did have.  So, even a cheap date like a walk in the park sounded more like a chore than a treat.

As for curling up and having a long conversation over a nice cup of cocoa, we slowly but steadily realized that away from the heady atmosphere of campus life, our most passionate interests were worlds apart – quite literally.

Being Politically Correct

Chicago Picasso
Photo by Solstice Hannan

Jay had cut his wisdom teeth on politics. For three generations, Ward/Brophy family members had been active in the Chicago Democratic party. Passionate about civic involvement, they campaigned for and won elective offices in city, county and state government. Dozens of others in the family, men and women, held non-elective government positions.  Politics wasn’t just their work.  It was their life. Every noon hour they met for two-hour lunches to discuss the “business” with one another and other city and county officials. They went out together after work before returning home for dinner.  They played golf together twice a week. Many belonged to the same Catholic parishes.

Whenever and wherever these gatherings occurred, the topic was always the same – politics.

Jay could hardly be blamed for regularly bringing this same subject to our tiny kitchen table.  Unfortunately, when he did, my eyes glazed over.

I could as easily be mesmerized as anyone by a charismatic figure like John Kennedy, but the day-to-day running of civic affairs could not hold my attention for very long before my imagination had wandered off to faraway lands.

A Land Far, Far Away

France, for instance, with her glittering capital city and romantic wine country, or the fjords of Norway. As much as Jay loved the here and now of the Chicagoland political scene, I loved just about anywhere else.  Who should run for Alderman of the 29th precinct just couldn’t hold a candle to my daydreams of an African safari.  Any time I passed a travel agency, I slipped in to scoop up any free brochures.  The vivid photos of high waterfalls and deep valleys, barren deserts and tangled jungles entertained me as I rattled along on the bus ride back to our apartment.

When I tried to get Jay to look over the brochures with me, he’d smile, give me a kiss and remind me that the electric bill was due.  Often this slightly chiding remark preceded an announcement that the next evening we needed to pass out election pamphlets to commuters as they crossed the Jackson Avenue bridge toward Union Station.

I sighed, but I met him on the bridge at five o’clock the next evening because deep in my heart I was very proud of his earnest engagement. I knew that being politically involved was honorable and that I needed to do my part.  But who could blame me if, while I smiled and thrust leaflets into reluctant hands, I pretended that the Chicago River was the Thames?

Have you had a time when you and someone you held dear had vastly different dreams?  What love lessons did you learn?