You Lived It Differently

Sign reading Proof
What Readers Deserve

In unpacking Tracy Seeley’s quote about the memoirist’s agreement with her reader, my September 20 blog post opened a discussion on what writers owe their audience. That essay, however, focused mostly on my promise to tell an emotionally true story and didn’t ponder Seeley’s warning that “other people in my book would tell the story differently.” My Ruby Slippers.

This week I’ll first address the issue of other people’s take on the same experience. I then tackle another obligation memoirists have to their readers — something has to happen in the narrative.

You Lived It Differently

But that’s not what happened.  Don’t you remember? It went like this.

These are the responses that I must brace myself to face if I go forth with this project of writing a memoir. I didn’t live my story alone. Dozens of persons accompanied me along the way from birth until I woke this morning. None of them, other memoirists have warned me, will remember the events and situations we shared in exactly the same way I do. In fact, their memories may be diametrically opposed to mine.

Because time travel is science fiction, we cannot revisit the moment in time of the remembered incident. Wrangling over who remembers more correctly is useless and can be harmful to an otherwise solid relationship. The better response writes, Marian Roach Smith,  the author of several memoirs, is to keep this phrase handy, “I realize that’s not the way it happened to you. It is, however, the way it happened to me.”

Memoir’s deep subjectivity

Saying this will help me and relatives or old friends who challenge my recollection to acknowledge the deep subjectivity of memoir. I invite others to tell the same story in their own way. Doing so lets them know I will honor their truth just as I hope they will honor mine. Wow! That’s an overwhelming declaration.  If it is only my truth, my version of the story, who else is going to care?  That’s a valid question.  Yet, subjectivity won’t invalidate the story.  Rather, only my deepest personal understanding of what I experienced and what I witnessed can possibly attract an audience.

required authenticity

If you read my words and you don’t find me there, you will stop reading. You are, after all, reading that book, that essay, or that blog post because you care about my point of view, about my take on things. Perhaps, you have known me for all the years I mothered Kristy and Johnny. Maybe you wondered, “How does she do it?”

Now, I’ve written a memoir.  Readers expect an honest account – not some Pollyanna perspective on parenting a child with special needs.  They don’t want hocus-pocus. Nitty-gritty holds their attention. If the real Jule is missing in action, if it sounds like someone else’s story, you won’t finish.  You are expecting to hear my voice.  I can only tell you what I remember about how it happened and how it felt.  If one of Kristy or Johnny’s sisters wants to say, “But, Mom, I remember…,” I’m happy for you to hear her tale.  She was there too.  She will bring her own brand to the narrative just I’m trying to bring mine.

Bringing my brand to the memoir is one primary responsibility I commit to. Another is telling a story in which something happens.

Something Has to Happen

It might seem obvious that readers expect something to happen in a story. That’s the nature of the story, isn’t it? It also is true that if a child is born, grows, becomes ill, becomes even more ill, and dies, “something” has happened. But that’s a biography, not a memoir. Poignant as such a story might be, it shouldn’t be published – at least, not in such a bare-bones fashion.

“Something has to happen” in the narrative means significant change takes place within the writer’s very soul.  In an important way, by the end of the tale, the protagonist is not the same person she was when the story began.  If she can’t weave a transformation into the fabric of her story, the writer probably shouldn’t be creating a “memoir.”

The elusive “something”

That raises lots of questions for me. What sort of evolution could readers be looking for? How do I show it?  I am not Saul, knocked off my horse on the way to Damascus, blinded, and converted to being a follower of a new faith. Fortunately for me and most other memoirists, a transcendent conversion isn’t necessary.  Less drama will do.  Yet, change must happen.

Sister Rosemary Connely, the director of Misericordia Home, often told the parents of the children in her care, “Not one of you chose to have a child with mental or physical handicaps. But because you have this child, you have accomplished things you never would have thought yourself capable of doing.  You are a better person than you would have been.”

not always for the better

She is right even though most of us would have settled for being a somewhat lesser person if it meant our children were more typical. Sister’s faith in us was touching. Simply being the parent of a child with disabilities doesn’t make you a better person. Sometimes the weight of the experience causes you to behave shamefully.  Simply giving birth to a child with serious challenges doesn’t automatically turn one into some kind of saint.  It can actually turn some people into devils.  But, I am convinced it does change parents in some way.  There is no remaining the same person you were before this child came into your life.

might i be different?

Thus, in writing a memoir about Kristy, Johnny, and me, I carry the obligation to discover and reveal how being their mother changed me.  Who am I today that I never would have been if I hadn’t been Kristy and Johnny’s mother? It’s a question anyone can ask themselves about all their committed relationships. For me, this year, it must be one that my memoir answers.

Johnny and Jay reading in the yard
So many days were quite wonderful! Johnny and Jay relax in our yard.

 

Dwell Deeply in the Only Life We Have

Old diary and photo with flowers

Memoirists enter into an agreement with readers: I will tell you an emotionally true story in a skillful way. I will make it worth your while. And while my memory is imperfect, I haven’t invented memories. I haven’t invented facts. If I compress timelines, combine characters, or conflate events, I will tell you. The other people in my book would tell the story differently; this is my own, true version.” — Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers

Being honest isn’t easy

Truth is slippery. It sounds so easy. Just be honest. Tell it like it was. Memory, however, is a living, breathing power and like all living beings, it changes constantly. Every day, I experience thousands of moments. Each one of them crowds itself into its own little corner of my brain. None of them are forgotten, but all are transformed by the space they share with the memories that were there before they arrived. And as new memories burrow in, they modify those that came before them.

It leaves me wondering how I keep my implicit agreement with my readers as I write my memoir.

craft is a given

The “skillful” part I get. I stay with my craft, writing, editing, and rewriting. I submit excerpts to writers’ critique groups and to mentors. Time to rewrite once again taking to heart the insights these wise counselors have shared with me – over and over until my writing clearly communicates my voice and shares my vision. Skill alone, however, will not make my story worth your while.  Only if you sense right from the beginning that what I tell you is emotionally true will you stick around to hear the end.

and so is imperfection

It’s a given that as a reader, you understand that my memory is imperfect. You know I must compress timelines. You’re not expecting to read a day-to-day diary. You may, indeed, accept that I combine some characters. Over the course of Kristy and Johnny’s lifetimes, I consulted with so many doctors and educational specialists that it is inevitable that these people run together in my mind.  As to conflating events, there were so many emergency room trips in our lives, it is only natural that some of them blur together while others stand out in vivid detail. This is true also of the multiple bittersweet and funny moments I shared with my two extraordinarily special children.

but lying is unacceptable

At the same time, you fully expect that I won’t make up a memory just so it fits the narrative.  Also, my story happens in a particular time and place. Therefore, the backdrop against which our lives played out, Chicago, Illinois, during the last quarter of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, must be portrayed with the greatest possible accuracy. For that I cannot just rely on memory. Research might not be the “fun” part of writing, but without it the memoir will lack luster and solidity.

digging deep is essential

There are no external references or resources, however, in which I can find my own emotional truth.  That vital nugget, that essential core, of a memoir exists in one place only, deep inside my very self. I’ve buried it so deep, I’m not certain that I can dig down far enough to reach it. There was a day almost fifty years ago when I sat on my kitchen floor and sobbed. I held in my lap, my four-year old daughter, unconscious and limp in my arms. She had just had had a wrenching grand mal seizure. I wept in frustration that none of the seizure-control medications were working. I wept in relief that I had caught her before she fell, and she hadn’t been injured this time. I wept in helplessness because I couldn’t make my little girl’s life better.

yet unbelievably difficult

Then Kristy’s breathing slowly became more regular. Her two-year old sister, Carrie, came up to me and patted my shoulder, “Be okay, Mommy,” she pleaded. At that very moment I heard their infant sister, Betsy wail from her crib.  I smiled at Carrie and wiped away my tears. I got up, lifting Kristy, and carrying her to a couch to sleep off the aftereffects of her convulsion and went to get my hungry baby.  Carrie trailed along behind me and stood beside us as I put her sister to the breast.  Her eyes were still wide with consternation.  I smoothed her dark curls back from her forehead. “It will be okay,” I promised. It was the last time I cried over a seizure and maybe the last time I accessed my own emotional truth.

can I do it?

Because I now want to tell Kristy’s story because I believe she deserves it and my grandchildren should know this part of their heritage, I must unbury almost fifty years of hidden emotions. Discerning which are the true ones and which are only the ones I wanted to feel will not be easy.  But if I don’t do this, you won’t read the memoir. It won’t be worth your while.

But how will I reach emotional truth as honest and raw as Anne Roiphe attains in her essay, “A Child Has Died,” published in Tablet, an online magazine about Jewish life?  Read it and see what I mean.

I can only try

Of course, my language cannot be Roiphe’s language.  I don’t have her voice. Still, I want you to feel my loss the way I feel hers. That’s the task I’ve set for myself. Almost everyone else in my story would tell it differently because they lived it differently. All I can promise is to do my best to tell my own true version.

Jule reads the Christmas story to Kristy, Betsy and Carrie
Note the net on the spiral staircase. We lived every day with the illusion that it kept our daughters safe.

 

 

If I Had Known

Question mark by doorway
Be careful what you promise

In last week’s blog post, I promised that this week I would “bring you up to date on how far I’ve gotten so far with the memoir, examples of advice I’ve received, and the quandaries I face as I move forward.” The sentence makes me chuckle because, of course, I couldn’t possibly do all that in one short blog post.  Instead, I can share what I consider to be one of the important pieces of advice I found about writing a memoir: “Begin by asking yourself a lot of questions.”

don’t do this

This is not what I did. Rather, I just plunged in and started telling a story about a young couple who longed for a child but struggled with fertility issues.  Then page after page I recounted the days and years of their life as a family. No wonder my writing colleagues felt lost as they tried to find a theme and to keep up with dozens of characters. The manuscript was a roller-coaster ride up the peaks and down the valleys of our life.  Readers had to hang on for dear life because it never paused. I didn’t take time to reflect on the challenges or the joys for very long at all. And I kept how I might be feeling about what was happening completely to myself.  Did I even know then or now how I felt? I didn’t stop to find out.

After eighteen months of writing and submitting sections of the “memoir” to writing workshops for review and always hearing the same critique, I finally realized there was something fundamentally wrong. Kristy’s story remained as compelling as ever, but I had not yet imbued it with its true power.

now and then

I put aside writing narrative and took up asking myself questions. Many different guides to writing memoirs offered a myriad of possible questions I could ask myself.  I read several of these. The one that struck me right between the eyes was, “What do I know now that I didn’t know then?”

What I now know is the Kristy never had a chance.  The neurological disorder that eventually destroyed her resided deep inside her infant’s brain from the day she was born. As best I can understand and explain it, the force behind this disorder was a genetic anomaly. It was not carried on a gene she inherited from her father or from me. Rather shortly after conception genetic mutation, a so-called “de nova variant” caused her developmental trajectory to be unevenly and unpredictably stunted.

blissful(?) ignorance

I did not know any of this until Kristin was thirty-eight years old and most of the damage to her body and mind had already happened. During those thirty-eight years, my husband and I sought the best medical care we could for Kristy. We never let go of our hope that someday a medication would come along that could control her irretractable seizures. We firmly believed that if Kristy could stop seizing, she could regain some of her lost abilities and even start learning new ones.  That dream dimmed greatly as the years went by but never disappeared entirely – until 2007.

not a real answer

That year, genetic testing became available for her. The tests revealed the root cause of Kristy’s seizures and disabilities and why her brain had slowly atrophied. (Brain atrophy is a wasting away of brain cells, or more accurately, the loss of brain neurons and the connections between them that are essential for functioning properly.) EEG exams performed when she was young showed no damage, but the older she became the more these pockets of atrophy appeared.   By the time the doctors could give us this genetic analysis, Kristy was as helpless as an infant, dependent on others for all her needs. The diagnosis was, therefore, not a shock, but finally an answer.

willful naivete

Now when I ask again, “What do I know now that I didn’t know then?”, the question deepens into, “Would I have wanted to know then, what I know now?”  My only honest answer is “No.” Although it was hard to have our hopes dashed year after year, I wouldn’t want to give up the joy our beautiful, happy little girl brought us through the first twenty-five years of her life. If we had known how ultimately devastating the disorder would be, fears and forebodings would have tainted all those good times.  And we would have been helpless to stop the inevitable.  It was by far better to live each day, each year, as it came to us without any knowledge of its heartbreaking end.

through a mirror darkly

As I write the memoir, I will have to hold up a double mirror to my own inner thoughts, reflections, and feelings.  My readers need to fully understand all the optimism I held onto as a young mother, all the joy I got from being Kristy’s mom. Yet, the story must also carry my awareness of its tragic end.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

Doorway opening out
Photo by Jan Tinneberg

 

A Memoir Is NOT about Me.

I almost quit blogging

When you write a blog you need to choose, according to the common wisdom, a topic about which you are passionate and upon which you have a great deal of expertise. For me, this narrows down to two subjects – one, my own life story, and two, love & committed relationships, my field of scholarly research and teaching.

A few years back I wrote a few sample blog posts upon the latter topic and submitted them for review to a small group of fellow writers. These colleagues, members of a Portland writer’s workshop strongly preferred the stories about my personal life to the essays on family life, love, romance, and marriage.

 everybody is an expert–at something

Other writers, they stressed, already commanded the stage on the topic of committed relationships. And, frankly, these commentators told me, those bloggers did a much better job of elucidating that field than I did. On the other hand, many of my short tales about my life as a wife, student, teacher, and mother were quirky, warm, and captivating.  Upon that subject, I was clearly the one and only expert.

So, following their advice, for two years I’ve devoted my blog, here on my website, “JuleWardWrites,” to vignettes of various moments in my life. Most of these stories focused on my time as a wife and mother, but a few reached back into my childhood. None have, however, examined my life since my daughter Kristy died in 2015.

blog posts as the “trailer”

That’s because while I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve also been working on a memoir. Through the memoir, I am trying to share with others the struggles, the failures, the mystery, and the moments of great joy that filled the forty-five years of my life I shared with Kristy. She was only nine months old when she experienced the first symptoms of what would prove to be an unpredictable, devastating neurological disorder. The scientists called it “Progressive myoclonic epilepsies/neurodegenerative encephalopathy,” but that is simply a description of what the patient suffers and not really an explanation of what causes the disorder. The known causes are many, but most of the time the cause is unknown. The disorder strikes like unseen, unheard lightning.

it just wasn’t working

I have submitted drafts of the memoir to writing colleagues for critique. And I hear familiar comments, not unlike those leveled against some of my blog essays. The blog posts, a friend claims, isn’t honest. “It only tells the good stuff.”  The memoir, fellow writers tell me, doesn’t dig deep enough into the narrator’s emotions.  It portrays a protagonist who always seems to be in control despite the complex challenges she faces.  And they don’t believe that could have been true. And they are right.

Last week, I read an interview with Rebekah Taussig, author of the new memoir new book, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body. Rebekah, paralyzed since toddlerhood, has already gained audience for her book through her Instagram account, Sitting_Pretty. The interviewer praised both the Instagram account and the book, a collection of essays, for the way they were able to create an intimacy with the reader.  One felt, she wrote, as though the memoirist had “hooked elbows” with you to walk you through her life.

come, walk with me

Reading the interview affirmed a resolve I had made earlier this week. Just nine days ago, one of the people I hold most dear in this world, my brother-in-law, Marty Ward, succumbed to Covid 19, despite being fully vaccinated. Marty had been quite healthy and had a long bucket list of grand adventures planned. People in his family usually have long lives. His totally unexpected death cracked my heart. It also jolted me awake to the fact that I could no longer dilly dally about writing my memoir.  Kristy deserves to be remembered.  Only I can tell her story.  I must get going.

Like Rebekah, I plan to take you with me. For the next year, the blog will take a new turn. It becomes the story of my journey into the depths of my heart and soul as I struggle to give an honest account of my years as Kristy’s mother.  This means it will include the challenges any writer faces such as dealing with critique, the hard work of rewriting, again and again, the difficult task of finding an agent, and the search for a publisher.

lots of questions, but also some answers

The blog will be full of questions that I’m hoping you’ll be willing to answer.  I am open to critique as well.  I don’t write simply for the positive feedback. Let me know what engages you and what leaves you cold. In return, I promise to share with you everything I learn about writing a memoir.  I believe you probably have a story to share.  Taking this walk with me might be the inspiration you need to sit down and begin that book you were always “going to write.”

September, the start of the school year and the month of my birthday, has always been a time of new beginnings for me. Next week, my first post of September will bring you up to date on where I am at this point. I’ll share examples of wisdom  I’ve culled and how that’s working out.

Let me know what you think about this new twist.

Jule and Kristy 1969
Kristy and Jule, Chicago, 1969
  1. You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. ~Anne Lamott

Winter of My Discontent

Winter beach
Delayed gratification
Children watch snow through window
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Well, at the end of my August 9 blog post I left you hanging. My husband Jay and I had moved our family to a beach house on the Indiana dunes in Michigan City, Indiana. We intended to spend the summer there while during the renovation of our Chicago Victorian rowhouse. At the end of the summer, however, months of restoration work remained. We extended our beach stay to Christmas.

As you might have guess, December came and our city home continued to be uninhabitable. We would be staying on the beach for the winter.

swimsuits to snowsuits

The eastern shore of Lake Michigan in summer is a sunny paradise of warm sandy shores lapped by cool rolling waves perfect for body surfing. Winter transforms it into a raging sea of surging, angry, crashing breakers eating away at the dunes. The blue skies turn metallic gray and the wind makes it difficult to stand upright. It’s a place of majestic beauty, but not a playground for small children. My kids and I confined ourselves to the four walls of the cottage for the duration. The few desperate forays that we took to explore the dune in front of our house began slowly.

Children building snowman
Photo by Ethan Hu

It takes quite a long time to bundle four young children into snowsuits, winter hats, mittens, and boots. Usually by the time, I finished gearing up the last child, the first one was unzipping her jacket, complaining, “I’m too hot!”

When we got outside, we trudged to the top of the dune and surveyed the fierce power of the winter lake. By the time, we trekked back to the house, everyone, including me was ready for hot chocolate. The house that had seemed quite spacious when we had first viewed it the previous spring came to feel very cramped as the five spent hours after hour indoors. One blessing of those months was that Johnny was a breast-feeding baby. The oxytocin that flowed into my blood stream during our long sessions of nursing helped me keep my sanity.

Jule and the children, Christmas, 1977We had been promised Christmas in our renovated Chicago home.  Instead, we celebrated it on the dunes, which turned out to be as warm and traditional as we could wish for – right down to the photo of the children and myself coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. Jay took the Christmas break off from work and we had a hilarious New Year’s Eve with the children. I concocted a Chinese dinner. I even baked fortune cookies with handwritten fortunes inside. Unfortunately, they were rock hard and we needed a hammer to get our fortunes out! The break refreshed both Jay and me. Just three more months, the architect promised. We crossed our fingers.

a storm like no other

Then the snows came. Our cottage stood less than ten miles from the Michigan state border and we were swept up in the great Michigan blizzard of 1978.  No one could remember a storm quite like it, but anyone who lived through it remembers it to this day. Massive and powerful, it turned deadly before it was over. In the midst of it, I didn’t feel at all sure my children and I would survive.

Blizzard
Photo by Christian Spueller

Carrie and Kristy were home from school when the January 26 sky turned dark grey.  The National Weather Service had been warning of impending storm, but even they had no idea how big it would be. Within hours blowing snow pummeled our house and the dune, accumulating so quickly it obliterated the children’s play climber within two hours. And it just kept coming.

The South Shore trains stopped running so Jay could not get home. He tried calling us, but the lines were down and while our phone rang, no voice came over.  The snow didn’t stop until Friday afternoon. By then thirty inches had accumulated. The snow covered our ground floor windows and the cottage was eerily dark. Television reception had disappeared, but the radio kept broadcasting.  This connection to the outside world saved my sanity.  The broadcaster was snowed into the station for 48 hours.  At one point, he offered $100 to anyone with a snow mobile who would bring him a six-pack.

Beer was the last thing on my mind. We didn’t lose electricity.  I don’t know why, but simply felt grateful. It was a week before Jay could get home. Even then he had to bribe a taxi driver to bring him to the cottage since the beach road remained dangerous.  The blizzard was over, but not the snows.  Both in Indiana and in Chicago the next few winters would prove to be extremely snowy, but that’s the one that is seared on my memory.

escape from the beach
appalachian Mountains
Photo by Ben Bracken

At the end of February, we knew we needed to get away from winter. We rented a motor and drove south. It was tricky going because the snows followed us all the way over the Appalachian Mountains. After one twisting, turning miles-long drive down a steep mountain side, we pulled into a truck stop for a break.  We piled into the diner for lunch.

One of the truckers ambled over to Jay, “Did you just drive that rig down the highway?” he queried.

“Yep,” my husband said, “And it was damn frightening.”

“My, god, man” the trucker said, “No one’s been on that road all day.  You’re luck you’re alive.”

“Oh,” Jay replied. “I thought it was odd we didn’t run into any other traffic.”

much needed magic
Little girl at Disney World
Photo by Joel Sutherland

Overall, however, the trip was a great success.  The girls reveled in their first trip to Disney World although after coming out of the Haunted Mansion, Betsy chided Jay, “You shouldn’t have taken me in there.  I’m just a little girl and I was really scared!”

We continued on to Delray Beach to visit Jay’s mother at her condo.  It was great to get out of the trailer and into real digs for a few days before heading back up north.  By that time, there were some signs of spring.

spring revival
Easter cookies
Photo by Jennifer Burk

With spring comes hope. On Mar 20, we moved back to the city in time to celebrate Easter in our new home.  The house shone with gleaming new woodwork and freshly painted walls. The stained-glass windows now not only sparkled but no longer rattled.  The kitchen appliances were not in working order yet, but our neighbors brought us meals for a week.

 

I fell in love with 832 Belden the moment I first stepped inside two years before. It had been very dusty and rather dilapidated, but I imagined how love and polish would bring out its true beauty.  It had taken a lot of love and much more than polish to bring it to its present splendid condition, but now its warm, welcoming presence made my heart sing.  My children radiated joy as they claimed their new bedrooms.  Undoubtedly, I would have adored this house under any circumstances, but after our year on the dunes, my appreciation for this wonderful place overwhelmed me with the shear joy of being home at last.

“Life takes you unexpected places. Love brings you home.

 

832 Belden, Chicago, IL

Dream of the Beach – Plan for Reality

Beach with sunglasses
summer dream
Wasp
Photo by Duncan Sanchez

What could be better? A whole summer living on the beach. Days ruled only by the ebb and flow of our appetites for food, sleep and pleasure – just my children and me for three idyllic months. Well, of course, there were glitches.  There always are. But things held together pretty well. The worst trauma of the summer was a swarming wasp attack on my six-year-old daughter that nearly sent her into anaphylactic shock. Other than that, the weeks passed without grand drama.

back ‘n forth, up ‘n down

The hardest part for me was I couldn’t leave any of my three daughters at the beach on their own. Every time one of them needed to pee or poop, I had to sling their infant brother across my hip and parade with all three up and over the sand dune and back to our beach house. Plus side – between breastfeeding a lusty baby boy and climbing that dune a dozen times a day, I easily dropped back to my pre-pregnancy weight.

Mon and kids at beach
Photo by Dylan nolte

Late afternoons were a bit of a see-saw. Most relaxing was just staying at the beach until the kids were so bushed, I could feed them a simple dinner followed by a quick rinse in the tub and into bed just as the sunset. Time to pour a glass of wine and enjoy a good book. Down side – that meant my husband Jay was staying in the city for the night.  Because we were brand new to the beach community, I didn’t know any close-by families. After a long, adult-free day, I yearned for some grown-up interaction, but Jay’s long hours at the office often meant he missed the last commuter train out to our distant community.

yay! dad’s home
Commuter train
Photo by Redd

On the other hand, the children and I got excited if we knew he’d be home, but that meant getting everybody off the beach by three, up to the house, properly bathed and nicely dressed so that we could meet his train. Pulling this ritual off was touch and go. We too often found Jay waiting at the station for us, hot, sweaty, and feeling deserted. Still, whether we made it on time or not, the reward was dinner at Swingbelly’s, a boisterous sandwich shop that catered to beach families. For me, at that time, it was as good as, if not better than any fine Chicago Loop restaurant.

the end of good enough

Unrenovated houseAll in all, the summer plan worked until it didn’t. By the end of August, we found ourselves mired in disaster. Our Victorian row house in Chicago needed far more renovation than we had anticipated.  We had expected the work to be completed by Labor Day in time for the new school year. On the third weekend of August, we drove with the children into the city for a tour. Many of the rooms were still down to the studs. None of the bathrooms had been plumbed. The kitchen was an empty square. True, we had new windows, repaired flooring, and a cleaned-out basement, but we didn’t have a living space. To ice the cake of disaster, our architect informed us there was no money left in the renovation budget.

now what?

“But we can’t live here!” I needlessly told him.

“Well, we could throw something together for about $10,000 more and you could move in next month,” he offered. “But it wouldn’t be the restoration you were hoping for.”

“What,” Jay asked, “wouldn’t get done?”

“The woodwork and staircases would remain unfinished. We could board up and cover the fireplaces. The kitchen cabinets and the new breakfast room would have to go.”

“In other words,” I confronted him. “We would be worse off than if we had never tried to fix the house up in the first place.”

House renovation
Photo by Nolan Issac

“Not exactly true,” he said. “You have a new heating system instead of the old coal burner and the house is now much better insulated. And we’ve shored up the wall that had bent partially burnt away by that old fire.”

I didn’t find much consolation in his words.  “If instead we go ahead and do what we planned, when could we finish?”

“You’d be in your new home for Christmas,” he assured me.

I looked at Jay with pleading eyes. “We need to talk about this.”

The situation had muted him and he only nodded. Johnny has thankfully slept out this encounter in his carrier on my chest, but now we rounded up our daughters from their risky romp through the half-finished house.

two steps back, one step forward

Montessori schoolAs the children slept on the way back to Indiana, Jay and I grumbled and muttered, half in conversation and half in self-talk. We were too numb for a real discussion.  That took place the next day. Neither of us felt ready to let go of the restoration plan we had put our heart and soul into for months.  This would be our forever house. If we could, we would complete the project. Two main issues took priority. Could we afford to proceed with the remodeling? What would we do about school for Kristy and Carrie? It was divide-and-conquer time. Jay would approach the bank about increasing our renovation loan. I took on the school situation.

the new us
Carrie, 1977
Carrie, 1977

As soon as Jay possible on Monday morning, I phoned the Michigan City school district. For Carrie, there was a straightforward schooling solution. The local public school ran a bus which would pick her up right in front of our house. I really like the open, Montessori-type structure of the school Carrie would attend, and her teacher, a twenty-year veteran first grade instructor, struck me as both competent and extremely caring. For Carrie, our shy child, it wouldn’t be easy to start at any new school, but this one, at least seemed would ease her in.

Child's painting
Photo by Dragos Gontarium

Kristy’s special challenges meant she would need testing before placement. Setting up an appointment for this meant Jay would have to stay home from work for a day, but in the scheme of things that was a small adjustment to make. As things turned out, the class into which Kristy was accepted was considerably better formulated to meet her needs than the one she had been attending in Chicago.

Betsy and Johnny, 1977With Carrie and Kristy’s school issues settled, I began to look into a pre-school which Betsy, age four, could attend. But she put her foot down and refused to go. “I’ve gone to nursery school already,” she said, “but I’ve never had a baby brother before. I want to stay home.”

Pre-school isn’t mandatory and the truth was her company during my long days would be lovely.  I didn’t press the matter.  In the meantime, we did receive the loan extension from the bank.  The restoration work would proceed as intended. We hunkered down to spend another four months on the beach.

commuting becomes a dilemma

Because we now had to wait until Kristy and Carrie got on their school buses before I could take Jay to the train, it meant he wasn’t getting to the office until eleven in the morning. He then had to leave by five to catch a train back to the beach. It was impossible for him to complete his work in such a short day. We had to consider that he stayed in the city for part of the week, but he couldn’t live at our wreck of a house.  Could we afford a studio in town for him?  That would really stretch our budget beyond control.

Chicago apartment buildings
Photo by Chris Dickens

Then the blessings of having a large extended family kicked in.  Jay’s aunt Florence worked for the city, which meant she had to live in the city to keep her job. But her elderly father lived in his home in the suburbs and she was responsible for overseeing his care. Her solution had been to rent a one-bedroom in the city as her official address, but actually live in River Forest with her dad.  This apartment was just off Michigan Avenue not far from Jay’s office.

She offered it to him to use whenever he needed. Gratefully we accepted. Now, I took Jay to the late train on Monday morning and picked him up from a post-dinner train on Thursday night. He spent long weekends with us.  This was our plan.  Very often, however, he had stay in the office through Friday as well. Autumn at the beach was spectacularly beautiful. I was lonelier than ever.

no end in sight

And autumn extended into winter with no end in sight for our renovation project.  What happened next will be the story of my next blog post.

Beach in autumn
Photo by Aaron Burden

“Send your dreams to places you can’t reach; they will go there and they will pull you up there!”
Mehmet Murat ildan

Forever Our Favorite House

Indiana Dunes
a sense of deja vu
Beach house interior
Photo by Hutoo Abrianto

“Here it is,” my young friend Sarah Forsythe gleefully announces as she moves aside to usher us into her newly acquired cottage on Highway 30 along the Florida Gulf Coast.

I duck into the tiny light-filled living room. Something feels strangely familiar although I’ve never been here before.

Sarah chats away about how there was no kitchen before so she had to carve it out of a corner of the front room.  I agree it’s charmingly done, glancing around with chills of déjà vu running up and down my arms. We move into the bedroom hall. Sarah continues her merry monologue about the effort it had taken to transform what had been a hoarder’s shack into the exquisite beach cottage we now admire profusely. The hallway ends in a wonderful surprise. The entire back half of the house is one enormous master bedroom looking out over a small lake. Our friend has bought a house no one wanted because it was in such bad shape, and now she owns a home set between the ocean and a lake.

ah, it’s the paneling!
Southern lake
Photo by Jo Valery

“It’s incredible, Sarah,” I say. “And somehow it feels familiar.”

She smiles. “It’s the paneling.” She points to the ceiling, which is covered in knotty pine.

“Of course,” I reply. “It reminds me of our beach house in Indiana.”

“I felt the same way the first time I saw it,” she tells us. “It was one of the reasons I knew I just had to have even though Bill (her finance) thought I was crazy to take it on. The Indiana house was my favorite home ever!”

My daughters, I knew, feel the same way she does. “Carrie and Betsy often say they really wish we could have held onto it.”

“Why did you and my parents give it up? We all loved it so much?” she asks.

“There just came a time when holding on didn’t make sense any more, but that didn’t make it easy to let go.  The weird thing is none of us set out to buy a beach house in the first place. Yet, it was one of our best moves ever. One we never regretted.”

unexpected acquistion

Almost half a century had passed since Sarah’s family, the Forsythes and we had purchased the ramshackle house in Michigan City on the Indiana Dunes. Eventually we fondly dubbed the place, “1618,” its mailing address even though we never received mail there. Desperation drove us to buy it in the first place.

832 Belden Chicago, ILIn the autumn of 1976, Jay and I undertook the renovation of the 1895 Chicago row house we had bought the year before. What started as a fairly simple project ballooned into a blueprint for a major restoration. We originally envisioned updating the electric and plumbing throughout the house while remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms. By mid-October and after multiple sessions with our architect, John Drummond, we had a very different design. It now included restoring all six fireplaces to working order, reducing the four bedrooms on the third floor to two, stripping and staining every bit of woodwork throughout the 5200 square-foot house, and installing a new heating/air-conditioning system.

In the same week we committed to this major makeover, we realized I was pregnant with our fourth child. The new baby was due in May. Caring for an infant while surrounded with workmen sounded horrendous to me. I pressured Jay and our architect to get the project going.  Finalizing the design work, getting work permits, and lining up contractors, however, proved to be a long-drawn out process. By January we knew that the beginning deconstruction would not happen until May.  Our baby’s due date was May 15.  John, the architect, thought the renovation would take about four months.

close to drowning

Jule and the children, Christmas, 1977How, I wondered, was I going to get through a summer with four children under the age of eight with our home literally being torn down around us? The answer came to me as I waited to pick up my youngest daughter Betsy from preschool.  On the bulletin board, an index card offered a four-bedroom cottage on the dunes in Michigan City, Indiana, for rent.  Maybe we could live there for the summer.  Jay liked the idea.  I called the cottage owner.

tiny cottage
Photo by Clay Banks

We drove out to see her place, but knew as soon as we stepped in the front door that we couldn’t possibly live there for four months. Yes, it had four bedrooms, but each was minuscule and the common room was just as small. The miniature kitchen appliances were at least forty years old. This little cottage was meant to be a two-week summer refuge for a family who would “live” at the beach the whole time. A family of six, however, would be crawling all over each other by the end of less than two weeks.  By the end of a whole summer here, we’d be at our wit’s end.  Yet, as much as that house disappointed us, the idea of living at the beach for the summer still sounded like a good plan.

disappointing search
Lake Michigan Cottage
Photo by Josh Hild

At first, we read classified ads in our search for a summer place, but not full-summer rentals turned up. So, we hired a real estate agent who did rentals as well as sales.  For several weekends in a row, Jay and I drove over to Michigan City to look at possible rentals.  We stuck with Michigan City because the South Shore Electric train rail ran from that town into Chicago’s Loop and provide an excellent way for Jay to get to work.  For a thousand reasons I no longer recall, none of the houses that the agent showed us seemed feasible.  February was almost gone. Panic took over.

“Let’s consider buying,” I told Jay. “If we hate it, we can sell next year. But we might love it. The beaches are lovely and it’s close enough to have a permanent summer house there.”

risky choice
Lake Michigan from beach
Photo by Jeff DeWitt

“Are you kidding me?” Jay exclaimed.  “We barely know how we’re going to finance this renovation of our house and you’re talking about buying a second one?”

I pushed back. “We have to come up with a solution for the summer.  We can’t stay here. It’s not like we’ve never talked about a cottage on the dunes. Whenever we go up to Michigan to rent a place for a couple of weeks, we talk about buying a place someday.  So do Bill and Mary Florence.  They’d love it if we found a place on Lake Michigan.”

“We’ll look, but I’m not committing to anything,” he said.

The next weekend I felt certain we’d find a lovely spot just right for us, but the homes we loved were way beyond our price range and ones we could afford were too far from the beach to make the purchase worthwhile for us. By mid-March, our whole scheme looked like it would go down the tubes.

a crazy idea
Mailboxes
Photo by Mathyas Kurmann

“Maybe there are families who are ready to sell but haven’t contacted a real estate agent yet,” I said.

“That could be true, but how would it help?” Jay asked.

“Well, we could put letters in the mailboxes of all the houses we like. We tell them we’re interested in buying or in renting for four months.  If they are open to an offer, please contact us.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Maybe. But what can it hurt?”

The following weekend we slipped our letter into fifty mailboxes up and down Michigan City’s Lake Shore Drive.  On Wednesday, we got a call.  When we arrived at 1618 Lake Shore Drive on Friday evening, we immediately fell in love with the location.  The house sat several steps down from the road and away from what little traffic noise there was on that quiet street. A small sand dune sat between the house and the lake, protection the home from Lake Michigan’s winter storms. Up and over the dune was a two-minute walk to a deep beach lapped by lake waves.  At this point the lake offered enough shallow waters for children to play safely.

Knotty pine
Photo by Abby Anaday

The house took our breath away quite differently. It was jammed full of furniture and people and appeared to not have been cleaned in some time. Still, it had a long, spacious living/dining room, a good-sized if badly furnished kitchen, and five good-sized bedrooms. From the front bedrooms, you could see the blue-grey lake turning scarlet under the setting sun. Best of all, every wall and all the ceilings were glowing knotty-pine despite the poor upkeep of the rest of the house.  We both knew we wanted this house.  The asking price of $52,000 was, however, way beyond what we could swing.

The owner agreed to wait a week to hear from us.  The minute we arrived home, Jay called Bill Forsythe, “I’ve got a deal you can’t pass up,” he said.

cross your fingers.

The next weekend, the Forsythes drove out to the beach with us. They walked slowly around the house with us and the down to the beach, where we could see a faint outline of the Chicago skyline at the edge of the horizon.  As we mounted the steps back to our car, Mary Florence said, “It’s one of the ugliest houses I’ve ever seen, but, of course, we’ll buy it!”

So, we did. Over the years, Mary Florence transformed the “ugly” house into a beautiful home for all of us – the home that became everyone’s “favorite house of all.”

Of all the places you have lived, do you have a favorite? It would be great to hear about it right in this space?

1618 Lake Shore Drive
1618 Lake Shore Drive

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have Wedding Invitation, Will Travel

Proposal on a signpost
Hooray for happily ever after!
Wedding with balloons
Photo by Alvaro CvG

Everyone, it is often claimed, loves a wedding. What’s not to love?! Marriage celebrations are the culmination of a real-life fairy tale. For a brief, few shining hours, a whole community of randomly gathered folks fervently believe in “happily ever after.”

It is, my contention, therefore, that as wedding plans sweep the country in a veritable flood in the coming months, they will lift high the spirits of not only hundreds of brides and grooms, but of thousands of excited invitees. I, alas, have not received any wedding invitations for the coming season, but listening to the plans of others evokes delightful memories of my own. Sharing the blessed moment when a young couple pledges to love one another “until death do us part,” has taken me to about every state in the U.S.A. The farthest and most adventurous wedding journey my family and I ever took, however, led us to a small town in southern Poland.

one girl’s american adventure

The bride, a former nanny for our grandson Bryce, honored us with this invitation. Mariola had come to New England, as a young college student, to strengthen her English language skills. She supported herself by helping our daughter Betsy care for two-year old Bryce. My husband Jay and I visited Boston frequently in those days so that our grandson would know us as he grew up. That year we also came to know and love Mariola.

Bridal bouquetTwice Mariola brought Bryce to Chicago to visit us. On one of those occasions, she accompanied us to a friend’s wedding. On the way to the wedding, she insisted that we stop to buy flowers for the bride. She was quite flabbergasted to find out that guests did not shower American brides with flowers. Nevertheless, we stopped at a florist and as we greeted the happy couple following the ceremony, Mariola thrust a huge bouquet of golden roses into the bride’s arms. That young woman opened her eyes in wide surprise, but graciously smiled and gave a tentative thank you.

Bryce and Mariola, 2003
Bryce and Mariola, NYE 2003

Another time Mariola joined us when we vacationed with Bryce over the New Year’s holiday in Florida. In a very poignant moment, she telephoned her boyfriend back in Poland as we stood on a Florida rooftop.  The sun was just slipping into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but over the phone we could hear midnight fireworks in Poland. Now five years later, Betsy, an eight-year-old Bryce, Jay, and I were traveling to her home country to witness her marriage to the young man who had been at the other end of the telephone line.

as long as we’re going, why not?

Our daughter Betsy was born a party girl. (She is the one that was delivered at six PM on a Saturday night by a doctor in a tuxedo.) She decided to turn our trip to Mariola’s wedding into an adventure on a grand scale. We were to begin with a cruise on the Mediterranean.

Monkey on Gilbraltar Island
Photo by Lucas Cleutjens

The cruise added a host of enchanting destinations to our journey. We found every stop even more amusing because Bryce found unique ways to enjoy the famous sights. He mimicked a street performer in Barcelona. In Morocco, he played hide and seek in an ancient mosque with a crowd of local boys. On Gilbralter, a monkey stole his ice-cream cone. He also managed to charm many of the ship’s personnel, some of whom remembered him from a cruise we had taken three years before. (Yes, that’s another story I’ll have to share.)

a long dark ride into unknown territory

Our most risky venture was to come, however, after our plane landed in Warsaw. The late September sun was just setting as we picked up our rental car. We went through the usual anxious moments while Jay figured out the workings of the unfamiliar vehicle. Betsy rode in the front passenger seat with the GPS device she had acquired back home. Its program gave directions to the Polish roadways in English. As enlightened as this sounds, the results were not always what one would hope for and the Polish roadway system seemed (to us, at least) convoluted at best. I became incredibly grateful that at least we were dealing with the Roman alphabet in our attempts to discern street names.

Australian Shepherd
Photo by Yas Duchesene

Upfront you could cut the tension with a knife as father and daughter struggled to remain civil through one missed turn after another. In the back my eight-year-old grandson squirmed and twisted as he tried to find a way to get comfortable. It was a lost cause. Listening to me read would catch his attention and calm his restlessness, but it was too dark in the car to see the words on the page. Instead, I made stories up. For five hours, I spun one “Super-Bryce” story after another. Bryce’s dog Ranger, his beloved Australian Shepherd, played a key role in every tale. Each yarn featured one of the locales, which we had visited on our cruise. I do so wish I had been able to record the stories. They were crazy. Still, they would be fun to hear again.

we made it!

Periodically, Betsy would reach Mariola on her cell to assure her that although the trip from Warsaw was taking much longer than it should, we were coming. Finally, after many miles along a gravel road, a sign loomed up. Dukla it read. Mariola in a bathrobe with her hair in rollers stood beside the sign. Fog swirled around her legs. I felt like a character from Brigadoon had come to greet us. She was so relieved to see us she was in tears. We were too exhausted even for that.

Fortunately, comfortable beds awaited us at a quaint inn. We were asleep almost before we could undress because the festivities started at nine in the morning. It was already past midnight.  We were grateful for the sleep we managed to get. A Polish wedding, we found out, is a twenty-four-hour affair.

a beautiful beginning
Church wedding
Photo by Jeremy Wong

Bright and early, we joined Mariola, her finance, her family, and her godparents for breakfast at their family home. From there, the family solemnly processed through the village streets to a small but ornately decorated Catholic church. We sat, stood, and kneeled for two hours during the long religious rite the accompanied the exchange of the wedding vow. It was beautiful, but because it was in Polish it felt even longer than it was.

A marthon party
Drummer
Photo by Music HG

We weren’t the only ones getting antsy at the church. When I entered the reception hall, the guests appeared to me like a large group of oversized children just let out of school. Voices echoes loudly as people fought to be heard over the thundering of a brass band. Glasses clinked in toast after toast to the new couple. Dozens of people danced foot-stomping folk dances and laughed loudly as they gamboled.

 

 

fun for the whole family
Dancing at wedding
Photo by Mitchell Orr

And the children! All the village families had been invited and while it wasn’t a large village, every family had lots of kids. They ran and weaved among the dancers and around the long tables where guests sat enjoying the mounds of food on their plates. The hall sometimes served as an auditorium.

At one end was raised, curtained stage. At least fifty boys between the ages of six and eleven had a game going. They would run up the steps on the side of the stage, slip behind the curtain, burst from between the drapes, and launch themselves off the platform. Picking themselves up, they ran off and repeated the cycle. Bryce caught on to that right away and raced off to join them. When they finally tire of that game, he joined them for the rest of the evening. The fact that they spoke no English and he didn’t know Polish was no barrier at all.

one guest, one bottle
Bottles of Vodka on a table
Photo by Jacalyn Beales

Mariola made certain that her American guests did not suffer from a language barrier. She was now studying to become an English teacher. So, she seated us at a table with her university colleagues, all of whom spoke excellent English. That made it extremely comfortable for us and the girls were excited to learn about the U.S. Most of them were married. None of the husbands spoke English, but they chatted among themselves. Then as the evening wore on, we all drank deeper into the bottle of Vodka provided for each guest. It began to feel as though we did speak the same language.

feast without finish
Chafing dishes on buffet
Photo by Jonathan Borba

There was no official beginning and ending to the buffet. The food just kept coming. We filled our plates and ate our fill. Then we chatted, danced, and watched the children for a couple of hours. More food arrived. We helped ourselves to that and the band played on.

Mariola and her husband spend plenty of time with each guest and spent much of the evening in the center of the dance floor. By midnight we had been there for ten hours, and the crowd was not all diminished. If anything, more people who had had to come from farther away showed up. Around two in the morning, the nature of the food changed. Breakfast was served. Voices quieted. Some guests left. Children were taken home to bed.

goodnight, sleep very tight

That was our signal. Bryce had been asleep under the table for several hours by that time. Jay slung him over his shoulders. We hugged the bride and groom. As the sun rose over the Catra Mountains, we pulled the shades in our room and fell asleep.  It had certainly been a wedding to remember!

Does one wedding you attended stand out for you?  I’d love it if you write a bit about that in the comments.

Sunrise over mountains
Photo by Francis Gunn

 

The Future Comes Soon Enough

Child watching fireworks
ordinary wonder

This year we celebrated the Fourth of July in very traditional ways. Because this is 2021, and we are just beginning to transition out of the pandemic mode,  the commemoration felt extraordinary. Freed at last from months of isolation, we rejoiced to be able to gather with friends and with strangers in merrymaking and festivities. It was a true Independence Day.  Like celebrations often do, it brought to mind other times when we commemorated this particular holiday differently than usual.

Last July, this blog featured one of those occasions, the year Jay and I spend the Fourth of July in the Ukraine. This year my mind spins back to July 4, 1976. That year we had chosen to spend our holiday on Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine.

Maine village by ocean
Photo by Carl Newton
up north & down east

A one-week layover in a small cottage along the island’s southwestern coast, near Tremont, had been our first visit to Mount Desert. My husband, our three-year old daughter Kristy, our eighteen-month-old daughter Carrie, my sixteen-year-old sister Beth, and I had already journeyed north from our home in Chicago to Montreal and Quebec City. We had then headed south toward New England. After a week on the road, we took a break and met up with friends from Chicago, the Forsythe family They knew about the island because the mom, Mary Florence, had a brother who lived near there.

Maine lighthouse
Photo by Daniel Vargas

Being on Mount Desert swept us into an entirely other culture. Both Maine and Illinois were part of the USA, but there the similarity ended.  It didn’t even sound to us like the folks spoke the same language. The little fishing villages of Tremont formed the “quiet” side of the island.  For us that was quiet, indeed, since even “busy” Bar Harbor was a far cry from the noise and hustle of Chicago. The entire island is only 54 square miles (Chicago covers 234 square miles) yet every mile of it offered a fascinating new discovery.

nonstop views and vistas

Most breathtaking is Somes Sound, a fjord-like body of water that runs five miles inland and divided the east and west sides of the island. When we stood at the inlet and stared up at the soaring cliff, towering over the water like sentinel giants, even the little children were awed into silence.

Jordan Pond
Photo by Alexa

At the other end of the pleasure spectrum was Jordan Pond. The “pond” is a glacier-formed tarn with exceptionally clear water, but swimming isn’t allowed there.  And although we could have rented a canoe, that didn’t sound like a safe decision with two such young children in tow.  What we did learn to love was tea on the lawn of the Jordon Pond House. We could almost feel we had been transported to England, but the delicacy to which we became instantly addicted were popover so light they melted in your mouth.

true land’s end

Of all the places on the island, the one that intrigued me the most was the summit of Cadillac Mountain because, while there are twenty mountains on the island, this one at 1,530 feet (466 meters), is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. That makes it the first place in the United States to view the sunrise.

To celebrate this phenomenon, every year on July 4, many of the citizens of Mount Desert Island as well as hundreds of visitors make it a point to be on the summit at the crack of dawn on Independence Day.  Our visit was a long after this momentous event, but with the wind blowing so fiercely that I held my daughters very tightly as I took in the great expanse before me, I vowed to return for July 4, 1976, the 200th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

return to eden
Mt. Desert Island coast
Photo by Alexandra Fisher

Our return trip turned out to be the first vacation that Jay and I took alone since our first child had been born. With great excitement I planned the romantic getaway to one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited.  This time instead of ram-shackle cottage among the sea grasses, a lovely old inn, high above Somes Sound would be our home for the week. I had planned the trip with great exhilaration. Yet, when it came time to actually hug and kiss our children goodbye, I almost couldn’t get into the taxi that would take us to the airport.  We were leaving them with two trusted, known caretakers, but, at the last minute, it felt very scary to walk away from them.

a difference in perspective

My anxiety was not much allayed when after checking into our room at the venerable Asticou Inn, we went down to enjoy dinner in the dining room. Dinner was included in the American Plan price of the hotel. The maître stepped up as we entered. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but a suit jacket and tie are required for the evening meal.”

“But I am formally dressed,” asserted my husband. He wore a “leisure suit,” a new evening apparel for men that had become all the rage that year.

“Your outfit does not meet our dining standards,” the host insisted.  And we were not allowed to dine there.

Grey Rock InnWe had to find another place to eat that evening.  We checked out the following morning. Gypsies that we were, we were very fortunate to find an opening at the charming Grey Rock Inn, a much less formally run Bed and Breakfast quite close to Somes Sound. After enjoying a lovely cup of tea with the inn’s proprietress, I finally began to de-stress. It began to look like our quest for a romantic getaway but work out after all.

fogged in, but not bogged down

On our first trip to Maine, the skies were bright and clear. The sunshine was brilliant. That didn’t happen this time. But fog and rain didn’t stop our fun. We took several long hikes. On the one day the fog lifted, we went sailing on the Sound. Finally, the focus of our trip came up.

Folk dancers
Photo by Ardian Lumi

The next day would be July 4.  We took a long afternoon nap, ate dinner and headed up the dark mountain where the festivities started at midnight.  The fog became increasingly dense, but we found a parking spot and good seat. We watched the islanders perform folk dances around the bonfire. A bevy of local bands belted out enjoyable patriotic tunes.

Scottish bagpiper
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos

Throughout the night the fog hung low over our heads.  By quarter to four in the morning, it began to lighten up.  We became hopeful that the fog would clear and the sun would burst across the horizon in glorious color. For seventy-five long minutes, the crowds peered into the gloom.  Every once in awhile someone would claim to have seen a light, but it was never confirmed.  Finally, a stalwart guy, dressed in full Scottish regalia, came to the microphone.  It’s five a.m., folks,” he announced, “the sun has risen.” He began to play the bagpipes on his shoulder.

the sun does not rise

We looked at one another in disbelief.  Nothing had changed.  It wasn’t even a little bit lighter than it had been at four a.m.

Guns and balls
Photo by Ben Iwara

“My Lord,” I said to Jay. “We came over a thousand miles to see the sun rise on the third century of the American Experience – and it never rose.  This does not bode well for the next one hundred years.”

I now look back at the almost half century that has come and gone since we stood on that mountain. I feel a bit like my words were tainted with prophecy.

Protest signs
Photo by Jason Leung

“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”Gifford Pinchot

California, Here We Come!

Jellyfish in the Monterey Aquarium
we’re out of here!
Airstream at night
Photo by Stefan Widu

“We’re out of here” is most definitely the buzz phrase of the day right now.  After eighteen month or more of calling a trip to the backyard an excursion, literally thousands of Americans are taking to the road again. Among these excited travelers are a myriad of motorhome enthusiasts. Watching neighbors hitch up mobile abodes to their trucks and SUVs evokes poignant memories.

almost too good to be true
Airplane in flight
Photo by Nick Morales

One of our best motor-home escapades began in February, 1979 when an airline’s TV offer jumped out at me between segments of whatever program engrossed my four kids under age eight.  It seemed so unbelievable that I had to call the airline immediately to be certain my ears weren’t deceiving me. The airline rep assured me, however, that I had heard correctly. They were offering roundtrip tickets from Chicago to San Francisco for $189 – and for each full-fare adult tickets, a child under twelve could fly free.

I took a deep breath, “And are babies under two free as usual.”

“They are,” he told me.

“I’m buying,” answered and proceeded to acquire seven roundtrip tickets for $550.

“Wow!” the agent said, “You really milked this offer for all it was worth.”

you did what?!
Happy woman on the phone
Photo by Piero Nigro

I hung up the phone with a shaking hand. I stared at the receiver for a full five minutes before I had the courage to pick it up again. Then, I called my husband Jay. “Hi,” I said, trying my best to sound very casual, “I just booked us on a flight to San Francisco. We leave in two weeks.”

“What? A flight to California!  What about the kids? I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving them with Bodil all that time. She’s a great au paire, but she’s only nineteen.”

“We’re not leaving them. They’re coming, and so is Bodil.”

“We can’t afford that.”

“Yes, we can.  There was this great deal and I called right away to take advantage of it.”

Jay would have been well within his rights to tell me I was crazy at that point, but instead he simply said, “Cool. See you tonight.”

we really need the break!
Little boy with squirting hose
Photo by Phil Goodwin

Maybe Jay didn’t accuse me of being insane to make such a plan, but the truth was that at the moment I made the call I was over-the-wall stir crazy.  It had been an awful winter of frigid temperatures and snow storm after snow storm. Most days Bodil and I had been cooped up in the house from morning to tonight with three rambunctious little girls and one extremely adventurous toddler. My son Johnny spent his whole day turning the house into a jungle gym.  He climbed the fireplace mantles, the upright piano, the outside of staircases, and up on to kitchen counters to get into the cabinets.  By evening, Bodil and I barely had enough energy left to climb the stairs to our bedrooms.

oh, no, can we still go?

We needed a break, and sunny California sounded like paradise. Then, the day before our flight Kristy, our eight-year-old, came down with a fever. Was our trip off? I explained our dilemma to her pediatrician.

“Well,” he intoned, “She can recover in California as easily as here.  I wouldn’t give up the family vacation for a cold.”

San Franciso
Even in a hotel, I was happy to be in California.

As a result, Kristy and I spent the first three days of our trip in a San Francisco hotel while the rest of the family explored the city. But it was worth it. We had salvaged the vacation and I loved hearing the other children’s excited tales of spotting jellyfish and otters at the Monterey Aquarium.  On day three Kristy was fully recovered. Time to start trekking.

 

the adventure begins
California Redwoods
Photo by Martha Bergmann

We picked up our rented GMC motorhome and turned its nose south on the fabled Highway 101. Our first day, it rained so hard, we could barely see the way in front of us. Any moment, we thought, we’re going to pitch into the Pacific Ocean, but we pressed on. Just as night fell, we spotted a blinking neon arrow pointing to a campground. Jay swerved off the road and into an invisible driveway. Because we could barely see the other trailers and couldn’t discern any anyone assigning spots, we simply pulled into an empty slot.  The children were already sound asleep. We gratefully crawled into the couch bed. Bright sunshine woke us the next day. Gigantic redwoods surrounded us. They took our breath away.

as dreamers do
Pacific Coast
Photo by Eric Muhr

The rest of the journey felt like a dream come true. Any scenic viewpoint with a parking spot big enough for our giant vehicle compelled us to stop.   We had no schedule. At every stop, the kids got out and played. When it was possible, we walked down to the beach and searched for shells and driftwood or took off our shoes and wades in the shallows. At some of the beaches, we were treated with the sight of seals resting on rocks so close we felt we could reach out and touch them.  Other stops offered plummeting waterfalls just a short hike from the parking lot. Every day the ocean breezes were warm and enticing. Taking each day as it came, we were continually surprised by the unfamiliar beauty of the ocean and the shore – so different in every way from our ordinary stomping ground – Lake Michigan.

one minute, one hour, one day at a time

It took us ten days to drive to San Diego. Theoretically, because it is 500 miles between these cities, we could have driven it in eight hours.  That gives you an idea of what a slow pace we had set for ourselves.

California wine countryWith four little kids along, touring wine country wasn’t a top priority, but we wanted Bodil to get the full flavor of California so we did stop at Buena Vista winery, a very quaint and charming place, which had been a winery since 1856, except during American Prohibition. There we enjoyed a picnic lunch while we drank in the view along with the wine. We didn’t know we were sipping a beverage that had been judged the top wine in the 1976 World Class Judgment of Paris. For us it was just part of a very pleasant family outing.

oceans and windmills

Monterey PenninsulaAlthough I was the only member of our troupe who enjoyed seafood, I did convince everyone to eat at a beautiful bay-side restaurant in Morro Bay.  There I treated myself to the oysters. Six weeks later when I became very ill with Hepatitis A, which the doctors traced to an outbreak in Morro Bay, I could only be very grateful that the rest of my family had shunned seafood and, thus, remained well.

Street in Solvang CAJust south of Morro, we veered inland to the Santa Inez Valley so that we could visit the town of Solvang, a town founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants that has clung to its culture and language. We had heard it was like visiting a little bit of Denmark right here in the USA. Stopping there was a must for us because Bodil, our au paire, was from Denmark. The town thrilled her – especially being able to hold a conversation in Danish with a total stranger!

Solvang’s authenticity made Disneyland, our next stop, all the more glaringly artificial.  At least that’s how it felt to me.  To my children it was magical realism come alive and they loved the entire day we spent there. The amusement park was plenty of La-La Land for me. The next day we head out of Los Angeles.

to top it off – a safari!

Elephants at the San Diego ZooWe got no argument from the little ones because we told them our next adventure would be an African safari.  This was not too far from the truth. Once we boarded our vehicle in the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) and headed out into the 1600-acre reserve, we were about as close to being on safari as most people ever get. Once we saw how vast the exhibit was, we wished we had saved more days. We and our children could have spent many more hours in that awesome location.

But time was running out. Our return flight was the next morning. Over dinner that evening on the San Diego Pier, Bodil and I tried to talk Jay into the idea that he could fly back to Chicago while we stayed in California with the children for another week.  He wasn’t buying!

I promised myself I’d be back. But I never returned.  Life is short.  And the world is very big.  Even more distant shores lured me from home on future journeys.