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


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

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?

Safe Sex and Family Planning – Twin Oxymorons

Hearts and flowers Valentine's
Happy Belated Valentine’s Day

There it goes – another Valentine’s Day, done and dusted. The annual celebration of the lusty side of love, the hearts and flowers, the candy and wine, the romance and the sex has come and gone, mending and breaking hearts as it has done for as long as I can remember.

On the surface, it’s a holiday centered on mawkish sentimentality, but seething underneath vibrates a current of hot passionate physical desire for nothing less than ending the day with a night of ardent sexual coupling. For most couples in the 21st century such pleasures, however robust, fall into the category of “safe sex.”

The “safe sex” myth
Couple at bonfire
Photo by Wesley Balten

But really? Is there such a thing? Half a century ago, in our early years as a dating couple safe sex meant “avoid getting pregnant.” Only refraining from genital intercourse offered anything like “safe sex.” I remember being warned in high school health class about possible infections, but because the teachers stayed fairly vague about intercourse itself, the cause of infection remained a mystery – and the  one sure way to avoid it – just say no, of course.

The problem with drawing a line in the sand and dropping a curtain on the other side was –  it raised our curiosity.  Just how close could we get? What was safe and what wasn’t?   As Catholic kids, we had an even more nebulous rule to follow, “Don’t do anything that was an occasion of sin.” To follow such a dictate meant being able to name the “sin” and intuit the “occasion.” Clearly, the wrongful act was “going all the way,” but how far along the way could one go before the “occasion of sin” aspect kicked it? What was the point of no return?  The moral dictum assumed one.  If you could always stop short of the sin itself, then nothing could constitute an “occasion of sin,” which is a pre-state that once achieved made sin inevitable.

If all that rattles in your head like stones in a tin can, it’s no wonder. Much of Catholic moral reasoning during our youth felt like running on a hamster wheel – all noise and getting nowhere.

Now nearly a quarter of the 21st century is already history, but what constitutes “safe sex” is not much clearer than it was in 1962. Since then, the societal mores shift dubbed the “sexual revolution” has vastly altered our understanding of with whom we are free to be sexually intimate.

Photo by Reproductive Health Coalition

Also changed is the age and the life stage at which young people become sexually active. Centuries of caution were set aside in less than a decade because the widespread availability of a “birth-control” pill caused women and their partners to believe they could decide if and when they would become pregnant, independent of their decision to have sexual intercourse.

a house of cards

As Jay and I discovered very early in our marriage, however, there is no easy fast track to safe sex, and “family planning” depends on the architecture of chance. By 1964, Enovid, the first readily available reversible birth control, was tentatively approved by some of the Catholic Church’s pastoral advisors.  It was argued that it helped couples practice “natural family planning” because it made it possible for a woman to pinpoint when she would have her menstrual cycle. Their argument convinced us and my doctor.  I began taking the pill the month before we married.

None of us knew that the medication had been rushed into production despite concerns about serious side-effects.  In 1964 Pope Paul VI convened the Commission on Population, the Family and Natality. Many representatives to the commission urged the pill’s acceptance by the church.

Surgery sutures on belly
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

Jay and I blithely gave ourselves over to a blissful life of frequent and, as we believed, now “safe” sexual intimacy.  But eight months after our wedding, I was hospitalized for major surgery on both ovaries.  I lost all by a fraction of my left ovary to tumors. My surgeon warned me against taking Enovid. Even more emphatically, he told us our chances of conceiving a child had been greatly reduced. Despite the fact that had hoped to postpone having a family until we finished school, he counseled us against using birth control of any kind.  We needed, he said, to be open to whatever possibilities for conception that might randomly occur, given the injuries to my reproductive organs.

We were not the only victims. In the next two decades, birth control medications would be linked to the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido as well as the risk of ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anemia, and pelvic inflammatory disease.

In 1968  Pope Paul VI ultimately declared his opposition to the pill in the Humanae Vitae encyclical. Jay and I never again returned to the practice of birth control, but our faith in two institutions that had been the bedrock of our youth – science and the Catholic Church was profoundly shaken.  The pope had made his declaration against the advice of the married Catholic on the commission. In the new climate of the church since Vatican Council II, laypersons knew their voice counted.  To be so blatantly swept aside when the issue at hand was clearly in their sphere of expertise called into question for us and many others, the church’s moral authority not just on family planning, but about other deeply divisive concerns as well.

life’s great maybes

Jay and I would remain members of the Catholic Faith Community, but with an expectation that hierarchy could and should sometimes be questioned for the good of the community as a whole.

As for the small community – the family unit, we would discover that adding the word “planning” to the word “family” represented at best wishful thinking.  Families aren’t designed, they are astonishingly serendipitous. And we would learn to live by the motto, “We’ll know more later – maybe.”

8 children peering through banister
Phots by National Cancer Institute

“It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold

I’d truly love to hear from you about experiences, momentous or trivial, that turned out to be so different than you expected, they changed your life in some important way.

Please fill in the box.


Never Doubt, Spring Will Come

Lighthouse on frozen beach
It’s Not the Cold That Bothers Me
Elsa on cake
Photo by Raychan

Long before the animated film, Frozen, took the world by storm, I frequently claimed, “Being cold doesn’t bother me.” Tropical climes have never called to me. Summer has always been my least favorite season, the best part about it is that’s it is just a season, not a year-round condition.

Winter’s shoulder seasons, Spring and Fall, delight my senses and my heart. But, ah Winter itself! I still get a childlike thrill from the first snowfall in late autumn.  Snowy days call to me to abandon my indoor tasks and go for a walk. Snow days close the schools and become spontaneous holidays for everyone with enough to see that earth is calling a halt, begging her children to slow down.

The magic works for me every year until February when suddenly some inner busybody gets going and whines, “Enough, already, what happened to the sun.”  The reality hits that winter with its chilly winds and bleak skies, its slushy, dirty piles of old snow or puddles of sloppy, umber mud will hold sway for another month. I begin to resent my friend for being a hog, for demanding more than his share of the year.

Let’s Get Out of Here
Boots in mud puddle
Photo by Daiga Ellaby

And the yearning to “leave it all behind” takes over as it has every February since the early years of my marriage. Before we became parents, Jay and I invented a yearly ritual that we dubbed, “Looking for Spring.”  This trek was motivated by the simplistic notion that places farther south than our Chicago home had to be warmer, and, therefore, must welcome spring before it arrived on the shores of Lake Michigan. We both worked for the county, so we’d grab Lincoln’s Birthday or Washington’s Birthday (they were two separate holidays in Illinois in our early married years), take one or two vacation days, and a weekend, and start driving south, determined to keep going until we “found” Spring.

This quest was necessarily a purely personal endeavor because it’s close to impossible to find a consensus on just what constitutes Spring and when it begins. We had no clear-cut definition in our heads. Our hearts, we knew, would tell us when we crested a horizon and found Spring waiting on the other side. Usually, this meant true color of some kind – not grey or brown shades. It

yellow flowers in field
Photo by Kumiko Shimizu

could be the sight of a hill of daffodils or crocuses or just the almost neon green covering a newly budding tree. Bright colors were not the only signifiers.  Softness was the other. Winter edges are crisp, clean, dark.  Spring spreads a haze over the landscape, a light dusting, a young girl slipping a frothy gauze dress over bare limbs.

Let’s Dream

An easier world by far to navigate than the slush and snow we’d left behind, it assuaged us, making our thoughts and feeling more pliable, expanding our possibilities. Our conversations as we sped along were dream dialogues.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic, we speculated, to be always on the road, never quite knowing what the next bend would reveal? We blocked out different scenarios.  We focused often on the possibility that once Jay graduated from law school, he would apply to the diplomatic core.

1950s family dinner
Photo by Museums Victoris

When Jay had been in high school, his father had been offered a position in Saudi Arabia.  The possibility of moving to such an exotic location thrilled Jay and he urged his dad to seriously consider the move.  He spent many a family dinner mounting his arguments, trying to engage his sibling in his excitement so that they too would campaign for this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. All to no avail.

His mother would have been horrified to move to another state, let alone another country.  Her life was tightly bound to that of her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her family had lived in Chicago for three generations and were pillars of Chicago’s Irish Catholic bastion. Life away from that community was unthinkable.  Also, she had heard how women were treated, or so she said, in the Middle East.  None of that for her, thank you very much.

Now that Jay found himself plodding along the expected path – albeit as a

Building with lots of nations' flags
Photo by Oleh Aleinyk

lawyer, not a doctor – he chafed at the confinement.  If his Dad couldn’t break loose, maybe he could.  I couldn’t help but foster those dreams.  I had never meant to fall in love in college.  In my best-case scenario (girlhood dream, that is), if I married at all, it would be after age thirty.  In the meantime, I would travel the world as a foreign correspondent for some, as yet unnamed news service.  In high school and college, I narrowed down those travel dreams to places where the first language was my beloved French, which would I dreamed make it possible to span the globe as I worked.

Love, however, is one of those life events that happen while you are making other plans. Jay had come into my life and once he was there, I couldn’t imagine life without him.  My hopes of becoming a journalist had been set aside, but being a diplomat’s wife sounded like a close runner-up.

So, we talked, dreamed, drove and somewhere in Kentucky or Tennessee, we would finally find Spring. Checking into a cheap motel that accepted animals (Champagne, our tabby cat traveled with us.), we’d settled down for a few days to breathe in as much warm air and flower perfume as possible before turning around and heading back to our hometown, where flora remained frozen until late March.

Reality Check

By the time, the first crocuses and daffodils appeared outside our Chicago window, we’d forgotten our southern dreams. Studies and work absorbed our daily grind, and once again the fear that we’d remain forever infertile sidetracked our blither imagination.

What notions grab you when Spring Fever takes hold?  Please share it right here in the blog.

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!”
― Mark Twain

Mountain Spring
Photo by Mak

‘Til Death Do Us Part

Woman smoking by window
“And the two shall become one flesh”

As a young bride, naive and overly sentimental, this quote meant that once married, Jay and I would no longer be two separate people, but a new being, a couple melded into a relationship so intricate that we would be, if not literally one individual, then emotionally, at least, one being.

My thinking was an eery, contemporary twist on the words of an ancient prophet.   In his as in most ancient cultures, a person’s identity was inextricably entwined with that of their extended family, the clan. Individuality, as we understand it, fell outside the common perception. Rather, each person existed at all times in relation to others, most importantly to the other members of their family.

Large Indian Family
Photo by Martin Adams

Those families were extensive.  A given household consisted of many sons of a single patriarch living within one compound with their wives and children. All of them were of “one flesh.” The same blood ran in all their veins. Within the extended family, every choice was meant to benefit all because they were “one.”

When a man and woman married, the family recognized the wife as now one of the family, one of their “flesh.” And thus, she and her husband became one flesh, members of the same family unit with all its inherent obligations and benefits – and enemies.

Modern Daydreams

As you’ve undoubted guessed, the impressionable twenty-two-year-old woman in my wedding photos had no inkling of this erudite interpretation.  I believed that being married would cure loneliness.  After all, I was “one flesh” with another person.  He would be in some sense with me all the time.

Holding on
Photo by Brooke Cagle

I wasn’t unaware, of course, that work would keep us apart several hours of every weekday, and that in the mid-twentieth century this separation also meant no communication.   In addition during the first two years of our union, we were both in school.  Attending class, studying and commuting added to our time apart.

I had failed, however, to calculate that this schedule would mean endless days during we might not share even one meal. The only time we often “spent together” was in bed – and most of that sleeping. And even if I had more accurately gauged how few hours we would actually spend interacting with one another, I was much too young and inexperienced to evaluate ahead of the fact how utterly forlorn I would feel.  I couldn’t realize that the existential bliss of being married could not override the actuality of my isolation.

Long Lonely evenings

Evenings were the worst. Coming into a quiet, dark and empty apartment, I’d stand, hand on the door to the front hall closet, unwilling to shed my jacket.  I wanted more than anything to turn around and head back out. But in those early days, I had nowhere to go.  I had left my friends behind first in high school and then at St. Mary’s.  Because I worked toward my bachelor’s degree by piling up credits attending several different city universities on various evenings, I had no chance to make new friends. My day job as a caseworker for a foster care agency took me all over Chicago but didn’t offer opportunities to build relationships with co-workers.

woman on kitchen floor
Photo by Radu Florin

In those pre-Starbucks days, hanging out at a coffee shop wasn’t an option and it absolutely never occurred to me to head to a bar. Looking back, I wonder why, and the only reason that pops into my head is I had never known anyone who hung out in taverns or bars.  Growing up I’d only eaten in a restaurant a handful of times.  In college, there had been girls that “got away” with faking an I.D. to go barhopping – at least, I’d heard about them.  I didn’t know them.  No, I didn’t barhop because I was a “good girl.” To do so was simply out of my skill set.

But coming home to an empty place was also well out of my range of experience. I grew up in a home that was the antithesis of empty. My mother stopped working outside the house when I was born and remained a stay-at-home mom until my youngest sibling went to high school twenty-nine years later.  In those years, especially as a pre-teen, I yearned for solitude, something I could only find by hiding on the old glider behind the big coal-burning furnace in our dungeon-like basement.

At college, the only time I spent by myself was in the toilet stall – and that doesn’t really count because it was a communal bathroom with several stalls, a row of showers, and two bathtubs.  The rest of the time, whether working in the dining room, going to classes, or heading for mixers at Notre Dame, other girls surrounded me.

Votive lights, statue in chapel
Photo by Josh Applegate

Going to the chapel was the only way I could get some “alone” time.  Of course, I wouldn’t be the only one there, but, at least, each of us withdrew to a quiet corner to pray. Yet, although never alone, I was often lonesome.  Part of a big community, but belonging to no one person.

Now I was married, a life state I expected would rid me of lonesomeness.  At last, I thought, I’d be living with one person for whom I’d be the first priority and with whom I could do everything.  Instead, evening after evening I walked into an empty living room and then wandered into a cold kitchen, lost in dreams about the delicious, mouth-watering meals we would have together someday – when we were done with school  -when we could start a family.

feline rescue

But those days were a long way off. So, I  chose a slightly modified route to comforting companionship.

girl and cat
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I adopted a kitten.  Here was one dream I could actually make happen.  I’d never been allowed to have a cat because my mother loathed them.  I never knew why.  But this, I realized, gazing around the small apartment was my very own home.  I could make the rules.  I ruled that Jule could have a cat.  And she did.

It wasn’t a perfect answer.  I still had a lot to learn about overcoming loneliness, but my little grey tabby, Champagne, helped a lot.  She gave me someone to care for.  She took me out of myself when Jay wasn’t home.  And when he was home, she delighted us both.  Nurturing her together activated the true process of “becoming one flesh.” Her life and being were equally precious to both of us.  To  love someone else equally and together was one of the most important Lessons that Love taught us.

Feeling lonely in a relationship or in a crowd is a common human experience.  How have you coped when this happened to you? Let us know.

Being alone is very difficult.” – Yoko Ono

Fireplace Mystic


Just Add Fire

Everything’s better with a fireplace. Any room in the house – even the bathroom. Any restaurant. Lobbies of buildings. Overnight accommodations of every kind. An outdoor campsite. Conversely, the absence of a fireplace diminishes.  The space without a hearth lacks a heart.Drinking wine by fire

For me, a living space without a fireplace never fully functions as a “home.” Whenever I’ve allowed myself to briefly move into a place, however well designed, that couldn’t boast a fireplace, I wasn’t able to settle there.

I have no way of explaining this deep yearning. The blazing flames in my home fireplaces warmed my heart more than my limbs.  For that, I’ve been dependent on central heating. Gas or electricity provides the heat necessary to prepare my food. Yet, there it is – the pull of the hearth, an instinct burned into my DNA that thrives beyond necessity.

Come and Gather

When I recounted the story of our disastrous honeymoon in an earlier blog post, the one pleasant moment in the story pictured me ensconced before a huge stone fireplace, settled into a big, soft couch, my injured leg propped on an ottoman warmed by the blazing flames, whose fiery dance held me mesmerized.  For that brief period, I could forget my pain and disappointment.

Stone fireplace
by Ostap Senyuk

Why did the lodge have that gigantic hearth?  It certainly didn’t need it.  It was well warmed by a central air furnace. Yet, you know as well as I do, that no self-respecting ski lodge can hope to be successful without an apres-ski spot to gather around a fire – oh, sure, there can be a bar.  In fact, there must be, but it could be fatal to not also include a fireplace.

This is the same mystic that lured Jay and me into abandoning a relatively spacious one-bedroom apartment with a dining room and an eat-in kitchen in Rogers Park in the Spring of 1968 to move to a more expensive, much smaller apartment at 747 North Wabash.  As I write, that address sits smack in the middle of a very high-rent district of Chicago. When Jay and I made our move, however,  the area was a bit on the skids.

Bohemian decorated room
Photo by Nasim Keshmiri

Rush Street, once the center of Chicago nightlife, had lost its luster. Its brightest lights were those of the all-night laundromat.  Shops on Michigan Avenue had boarded up windows and moved to the suburbs. For us, what the neighborhood lacked in glamor, it more than made up for in Bohemian allure. Our new home, a studio apartment, had been built in the 1920s as a haven for artists. Bouncy cork tiles covered the floor. The ceilings soared twelve feet overhead, and three mammoth windows flooded the room with unwavering light. Best of all, and the true reason we moved, the main wall featured a wood-burning fireplace.  Never mind that it didn’t actually have a kitchen per se.  Rather the tiny oven and fridge were stuck in a closet as were the narrow sink and the two-burner hot plate.

Moving to that apartment marked a major shift in our lives. Jay had not only finished law school but had passed the bar and was a practicing attorney. Earning my bachelor’s degree freed me from attending classes and paying tuition. I took advantage of my liberty to sign onto a less secure position – that of an associate editor/secretary at a trade magazine whose office was walking distance from our home.

No longer obligated to spend our evenings studying, Jay and I created our own version of the bohemian lifestyle. True, we both had regular jobs with demanding hours, but those were our only obligations. Childless children of healthy parents, we utilized our nonworking hours with lively abandon. At night we crawled out our window and onto the roof of the building next door and drank cheap wine while gazing at the Chicago skyline eight blocks away. And we left the windows open at night and burned small cozy fires even in the summer.

For a year, we relinquished our biggest concern – our infertility. We allowed ourselves to completely relax into being “just the two of us.” With both of us working, we could afford an occasional meal out and the neighborhood offered a plethora of choices. The best possible entertainment was happening just three blocks away.  Michigan Avenue was awakening from its mid-twentieth century slumber.  Every day, the John Hancock Tower rose higher and higher against the crisp blue of a Chicago winter sky.  By the time, construction topped off in May 1968, many of the boarded-up storefronts along the “Boule Miche” had shed their shutters.  New retail shops and restaurants joined the stalwarts who had held the fort through the hard times.

John Hancock Tower
Photo by Drew Hays










It wasn’t, of course, just our little neighborhood that underwent a titanic transformation that spring. A multitude of new winds swept the country and the world in 1968. Some were strong, fresh winds of new ideas. Other malevolent storms brewed in hatred and fear. All restructured the world Jay and I knew as children.  When we did finally become parents, we confronted far different challenges than our parents could ever have imagined. Many engendered by the changes of 1968.

How those major shifts engaged and altered ourselves and our lives is a tale for another post. But then, as now, we continued to find solace by curling up and contemplating the brightly leaping fire.

It seemed — in 1968 — the possibilities of peace and brotherhood could be realised that very year. We’re still working on it.

  • Donovan, during a performance for “Beatle Week” in Liverpool (27 August 2006), as prelude to singing “Hurdy Gurdy Man
Photo by Everton Vila

Revel in Tough Weather

Photo by Alisa Anton

It’s Not REALLY Winter unless …
Snow in Portland OR
Photo by Freddy Do

Winter no longer regularly serves up blizzards for me. Winter reality in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest can be chilly, will certainly be wet, but snow is a rarity.  So, rare that quite a light snowfall can close the schools and make the hilly streets of Portland undrivable. Inevitably, of course, that causes those of us who have migrated here from hearty climes to laugh at this city’s citizens who freeze up right along with the temperatures.

Snowstorms and blizzards created many of my best memories. One of the

Chicago El Stop
Photo by Brantley Neal

most outstanding of these hit Chicago the third year Jay and I were married. The snow already fell steadily in large, lacey flakes as I trudged home from the Morse Ave “El” stop to our Roger Park apartment at the corner of Ridge and Pratt. Jay, who had driven our faithful Beetle to his job as an Assistant State’s Attorney on the southside of the city left work at six, but traffic was so bogged down, he didn’t push through our door, covered with snow, until 8 p.m.  I was extremely relieved to see him.  The TV reports were dire. (It’s when I remember such an anxious time that I am a little bit thankful for cell phones.)

Snowstorms were a known quantity in Chicago.  We fully expected to awake the next morning to find the streets plowed, sidewalks shoveled, and people grudgingly trudging off to work, muttering “Thank God, It’s Friday.”


Snow encrusted streetTwenty-three inches of snow fell that night and the blizzard only abated somewhat as the sun rose on a city transformed into an alien arctic world. Jay and I were fortunate to have made it home. According to Chicago Tribune stories about the storm, thousands of people were stranded in offices and schools. Approximately 50,000 vehicles and 800 CTA buses were abandoned on the streets – and then buried in the snow.  All public transportation, including the elevated commuter train, was shut down. (

The event was reported to be a disaster for adults, but a holiday for children.  By this standard, my husband and I, although 24 & 25 years old at the time, landed squarely in the kid category.

As soon as the snow stopped around ten in the morning, we triple-layered ourselves into the warmest clothes we had and headed out looking for adventure.  And, wow, did we find it. Heading east toward Lake Michigan a little less than a mile from our home, we laughed as our feet sunk deep into tundra at every step. But burning high energy kept us warm and encouraged.

Our quest took us to a winter wonderland.  Along the lakefront, mighty

Frozen waves
Photo by Curioso Photography

storm waves had frozen and then mixed with snow to form caverns and natural forts in every possible shape. And all through and over this enchanted stark white city swarmed children of all ages. Their brightly colored snowsuits flashed red, orange, blue, green and violet as they careened down icy slides and jumped off the tops of hardened mounds into piles of softer snow. Their laughter rang loud and clear in the crisp, frigid air.

We longed to join them but were curious about the rest of the city. Leaving the lakefront, we headed south to Lake Shore Drive.  It was almost impossible to discern where the beach ended and the road began.  The only real clues were the dozens of vehicles stranded poking up at various angles through the drifts along the expressway. Across this kaleidoscope of jumbled cars, buses, and small trucks, the city skyline edged a sharp line against a pale blue sky.

As a phenomenon of the blowing winds, just beyond the drive, a path of

Park benches in the snow
Photo by Jack Cohen

sorts was scooped through the mountains of snow on either side.  With the foolhardiness of youth, we decided to head for the Loop. It was crazy, no doubt about it, but going back to the confines of our tiny apartment when this once in a lifetime experience had happened right outside our front door didn’t feel like even a remote option. We were not alone.

Hundreds of other Chicagoans also came out to explore the magic.  Everyone spoke to everyone else. And although Chicago is a friendly city, ordinarily strangers pass one another by.  But not that day.  That day there were no strangers in Chicago.  The blizzard formed us into one strong community sharing a common experience.  Suddenly we had lots to say to one another.

Jay and I began our trek shortly after ten that morning.  By three o’clock, we were just wandering into Old Town, which lay nine miles from our home. That’s when the angels, who were guarding the city that day, came to our rescue.  Although the blizzard had closed most businesses, many Chicago taverns had remained open – all night.  They were still buzzing the next afternoon.  Neither the bartenders nor most of their patrons could get home. Thus, the taverns had become temporary shelters.  One of these, Piper’s Alley on Wells Street made room for us.

Tavern in the snow
Photo by Josh Hild

Sometime later, my memory is hazy about that part for obvious reasons, we stood in the long line at the payphone to call Jay’s fellow Assistant State’s Attorney and good friend Danny Weil.  Danny had an apartment above another Wells Street Tavern.  His couch served as our bed for the night.  By Saturday morning, the elevated train was working, if somewhat sporadically. Our adventure was over – but we learned another of Love’s Lessons well – sharing tough times with someone you love can transform hardship into splendor.

We’d love to hear of a time when what could have been disastrous turned into a grand adventure for you because you were together.  Hope to hear from you.


Couple behind waterfall
Photo by Theodore Vasile

 “Bad weather always looks worse through a window.” — Unknown