Like, But Different From

writers are like, but different from actors

Writers are like, but different from, actors. Just like actors, writers can suffer stage fright. Actors rehearse their parts to perfection. They don carefully chosen costumes and make-up. Yet, at when they are about to step onto the set, that seemingly authentic rendering of reality, it all swims away from them. They can neither move nor speak. Writers freeze in front of our computers at the moment when we need to hit send and speed a query letter to an agent or publisher.

my memoir-like, but different from other memoirs

Is this book ready for a professional review? It doesn’t matter that we spent hours, days, weeks, months crafting this piece. Gone is the reassurance of writing workshop colleagues. In vain do we remind ourselves how many times we’ve edited and reedited the work. May it could be better. Or worse, was it ever any good at all? We might think our work is ready, but we worry if our query letter is persuasive.. Have we piqued an acquisition editor’s interest? Did we pick up on the right cues from what the publisher says they are looking for?

what publishers want

And what is it publishers are looking for, anyway? It’s like, but different from what they say in submission forms. Here’s what they say they are seeking. They hope their books will capture the imagination and share arresting elements on lived experience. They aim to print books that are both engaging and consequential of the highest literary merit and relevance. These books must be enlightening and inspirational. The key to all these elements, editors agree, is quality, the individual author’s ability to tell a good story.

Publishers seek books that are creative, engaging, well-written, relevant, enlightening, inspiring, and commercially viable. How does an author convince the acquisitions editor of this potential? Look for the answer in the phrase on submission forms: “Include additional information like the target audience or comparable books.”

like a best seller, but different

That brings us to the rather cryptic title of this Blog Post, “Like, But Different From.” What the publisher wants to know is what book or books like yours have sold well? Why would it be likely to draw the same audience? At the same time, they expect you to show that your book is also different from these other narratives in important ways. You need to argue that you bring something new to the argument or add to the ongoing story-not simply repeat what has already been said.

This principal is like one taught by Marian Roach Smith in her Memoir Project. My memoir’s theme must be a universal, one that resonates with many other people. My personal story is one example of that universal. When I took Marian’s class, she helped me see the theme of my memoir in this way:

What did I endure (suffer) so that I could endure (triumph)?

ying/yang of endure

I worked tirelessly to find solutions for Kristin and Johnny’s physical and mental disorders in both the health and education sectors.. I suffered because it never seemed to bring any change and things just kept getting worse.

I succeeded by being strong and achieving goals as a parent and more, thanks to my ability to give Johnny and Kristy the best chance at a good life.

an example of the universal

Like other mothers’ memoirs, my book explores the experience of raising children with disabilities and the self-discovery that comes with it.

It differs from many other narratives in that there is no eventual triumph over disability and disease. The triumph is not so much in the actual win, but in finding a community that takes care of Johnny and Kristy with us.. The book also tells a bit, but not enough, of the untold story of Misericordia, a place where angels truly live on earth.

 

Rainbow over Misericordia

 

What Am I Trying to Ignore?

Stuffed monkey covers eyes
“What am I trying to ignore?”

This is a question that Jane Friedman threw out on her blog, Electronic Speed, two years ago. (jf@janefriedman.com, Sat, Nov. 27, 2021) I wasn’t ready to deal with it, but knew I’d need to confront it before my memoir would ever make it into publication.

being overwhelmed?

Some close friends have read brief parts of the memoir. They sometimes say I I ignore how totally overwhelmed I felt as I coped with the challenges presented by two children with complex disabilities.

I ask, do I leave that reality out of the memoir or did I ignore it at the time? If I had let those challenges overwhelm me, could I have coped? If I couldn’t have coped, what would have happened to my children? Sometimes every parent asks themselves some version of that question.

not talented enough?

A more nagging concern is the fear that I’m ignoring, that I can not really pull off a successful memoir. It’s hard not to suspect my beloved husband, who tells me over and over how beautiful my writing is. After all, he is prejudiced in my favor-unlike the readers in my critique groups who minutely question details such as sentence construction, overuse of adverbs, improper period spacing, etc. But then I tell myself, their job is not to tell me what work is great. It’s letting me know how to improve. That only results from constructive critique.

story is too sad!

There’s the nagging doubt about the deep tragedy of our story. As a friend said, “It’s all so sad. I’m not sure people want to read about that.” She makes a good point, but readers will take on a tough narrative if it’s interestingly written. Nothing is all sweetness and light. Nor is parenting children with challenges all doom and gloom. I include plenty of light moments, like this one:

not always

One of the striking differences, I claim, between Kristy and Johnny is how much she loved to create works of art and how he refused to so much as pick up a crayon. Thus, one Friday afternoon upon entering Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia, I got the surprise of my life. There on the wall next to the TV hung a bright abstract, multi-colored, three-by-three framed painting, signed “John Ward.”

“Johnny couldn’t have painted that,” I challenged his caretaker.

“Oh, but he did.” She said, but giggled as she spoke.

“How did you possibly motivate him to paint anything, let alone such a complex piece?” I asked.

“Well, we wanted to hang a work of art by each guy in the apartment. All the other men were excited to take part, but every time we gave Johnny a paintbrush, he threw it on the ground. Then Sara got her brilliant idea. She spread an enormous piece of paper right where the brushes were landing. She handed him one brush after another, each with a different color. One by one they hit the floor, splashing colors in every direction. You can see the result is lively and almost looks purposeful.”

Staring at my son’s “creation,” I laughed so hard my sides were splitting. That was Johnny. Life was never dull with him around.

The above vignette is just one of the many charming stories the memoir includes. It’s not a simple tragedy, but also a triumph of love and joy over the worst that life can throw at us. https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/the-notion-of-fixes-and-cures

no end to questions

But other questions mount up. Is it too long? Are the chapters balanced enough? I’ve revised it nine times. How can that not be enough?

So, what is the awful TRUTH that I’m really trying to ignore?

Friedman writes that what we are trying to ignore is usually a problem that won’t go away until we do something about it.

the truth

For me, it’s acknowledging that I’m finished writing. It’s time to work on moving the manuscript toward publication. Just thinking about the process daunts me. There are many avenues to publication, but despite the many paths, few debut authors actually find their books on the bookstore shelves.

Dwelling on that reality makes me hesitate to try. Why put so much energy into something that is sure to fail? Yet truer yet is that if I never work toward publication, if I ignore even that slim chance, then failure is certain rather than possible.

“Resolving the problems I am most afraid to confront is where progress lies. It’s insanely hard psychologically, but worth it.”

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/Jane+Friedman+What+are+you+ignoring/FMfcgzGllChzgDxQDRVbDSKsVqtbGdNq

Woman and old memoir

A Time Eclipse

answering a critique

One of the joys and burdens being a writer are working with writing groups. Without their support, I couldn’t go on, but sometimes their questions feel like barbed arrows.

A critique I receive is, “There isn’t a sense of time and place, of era and world in your memoir. Readers want to be grounded somewhere and they need details that you, as protagonist sense and know, to do that for them.”

If I tie this aspect of reality to my memoir, it will have to be in retrospect and through research, because in some odd sense I didn’t truly live “through” those times in history.

one shattering moment
Riot and fire
Photo by Florian Olivo

In the world, but not of the world. This is how I can best describe my life in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The instability of the times did sometimes impact me directly. Like the moment when Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot through the neck on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

I was high above the skies of Wisconsin, flying home to Chicago from a visit to my family in St. Paul, Minnesota. As I stepped off the plane at Midway Airport, I searched in vain for my twenty-seven-year-old, red-headed husband. Instead, a burly, Chicago policeman approached me, “Mrs. Ward?”

My throat constricted with fear.  I didn’t yet know of the assassination but could sense deep unrest within the airport crowd. Had something terrible happened to Jay? Although his job as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the Cook Criminal Courts sometimes took him into dangerous neighborhoods, I never  worried about him.  I had spent hours of my life in those same neighborhoods as a caseworker for the Cook County Department of Child and Family Services. I knew safety in any urban space was a relative illusion.  Yet, here was this policeman, I glanced at his badge, Officer Andrews, asking for me.

He sensed my unease. “Your husband is fine, but I’m here to see that you get home safe.  He has to remain on duty tonight.”

That was really strange. Jay often worked late into the evening, but never all night. “Why, what’s happened?”

“Dr. King has been assassinated.  The westside of the city is rioting — fires, shooting, and looting. It’s a real bad scene. The trains are shut down. It’s not safe for taxis to come to the airport. My partner and I are here to see you home.”

skirting the turbulence

I numbly followed him to baggage claim. Our route from Midway to my Rogers Park apartment circled the city. We rode west to the suburbs, then north, back east, and finally south into Rogers Park. Because I didn’t have a key with me, the officer had to break into my place – just one of many ironies on a night when people were killing one another in anger over the death of the disciple of non-violence.

Chicago would never be the same again. The curtain that had hidden the deep resentments of its oppressed citizens had ripped away. American culture fell apart at the seams. Traditional meanings of personhood, humanity, and civility no longer held but appeared greatly flawed. I had been a civil rights activist since I was fifteen and participated in my first sit-in. Now those dreams seemed to be going up in flames, but I couldn’t stay to fight the fire.

At that moment of my life, the intensity of a deeply personal struggle overshadowed all concerns outside our family.

barren?

Jay and I had been married for four years. I was twenty-six years old, ancient by the standards of a time whose cry was “Never trust anyone over thirty.” We had been trying to conceive a child for three years, but I remained “barren” – the word I gave myself. No medical tests gave us any answers as to why this should be true. Still, like clockwork, my detested menstrual cycle arrived every month. We decided to apply for adoption and were turned down.  You’re too young, the agency worker told us, “Give it time.” Would I never be a mother?

The turmoil that arrived in the spring of 1968 made working as a social worker among the marginalized people of the city much harder than it had been.  And it had never been easy. My gynecologist speculated that perhaps the stress of my job contributed to my infertility. I loved my work but my yearning to become a mother overwhelmed all my other goals. Every time I heard the lullaby, “Hush, Little Baby,” I ended up in tears. I handed in my resignation at work – and lost my best black friend, my desk mate.  “I thought you were made of tougher stuff,” she said.  We never spoke again.

lady in waiting

Within a month sitting at home hoping to conceive became as stressful as any job.   I applied for a position as a secretary to Building Construction magazine, a job I figured wouldn’t carry the stress of casework. I got the job and soon after moved up to associate editor, work I would have killed for when I first left college.  My lifelong ambition to be a journalist, however, had been swept away by the tsunami of my drive to become a mother. I treated the position as a stopgap measure, not a stepping stone.

Reading, researching and writing about the field of architecture, my workdays flowed in a calm remote from the continuing storms that tore the world as I had known it from stem to stern. Mass protests in Prague signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnam forces made it increasingly clear that our nation was in a fight it couldn’t win. On June fifth, just when it looked like Bobby Kennedy might bring the Kennedy magic back to the White House, he was gunned down in a hotel kitchen.

riot in the park

Then in August Jay, my husband once again responded to the call of duty.  This time the turmoil arose when hundreds of students and other young Americans traveled to Chicago and massed outside the Democratic Convention Headquarters. Their intention – disrupt the convention process to protest the country’s on-going involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Determined to keep law and order, the Chicago police force sent officers to disperse the protesters.  Those who would refuse to go would be arrested. Jay would be there to monitor the legal process.

As I could see on my television screen, nothing that formal or settled could have happened. The students pushed back and broke away, storming the city streets.  The police officers reacted by clubbing the protesters.  I curled up in a tight ball and prayed that Jay would get home safe. After several months of concentrating my whole being into remaining calm and relaxed, I collapsed emotionally, unable any longer to ignore the world falling apart. Jay came home, safe and sound, with some fascinating tales to tell, but I felt as battered as any protestor.

Like the phoenix

Yet, that was the month that after four fruitless years, I finally conceived. When my period didn’t arrive as it should in September, I put it down to the stress of the times, but by October I began to have hope.  I made an appointment with my gynecologist and didn’t tell Jay.  I didn’t want him to suffer the intense disappointment that would go with getting his expectations raised.

The doctor confirmed my suspicions.  He had no idea why now after all these months my reproductive system had clicked into proper order. Nonetheless, deep inside, under my heart, a new life blossomed.  Very few moments in my life have matched the joy I felt at that moment or the continued euphoria I experienced as I share the news first with Jay then with our parents. The only one I wasn’t too happy about telling was my boss, the editor at Building Construction. I loved my job, but I strongly believed that I’d be happiest being a full-time mother.

living a dream

When Kristin was born the following May, we were living in an apartment in the far flung southwest suburb of Palos Hills. It was a grassy, pleasant environment, but very isolating for me because Jay needed the one car we could afford to drive to work.  Still, I was so wrapped up in the wondrous adventure of caring for Kristin that I barely noticed how alone I was. A beautifully delicate little baby girl, she had round blue eyes that took up half the space on her heart-shaped face.  She needed to nurse about every two hours, which I would later learn is natural for many newborns, and I found meeting her needs filled my days.

On weekends, Jay and I went adventuring. Kristy did very well on car rides. Travelling through Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, we discoverded “antiquing.” The last century was so much more satisfying than the present. We returned with large and small treasures with which to furnish our home.  Kristy went along with anything and never showed a single moment of stranger anxiety. For me the nine month following Kristin’s birth were the true honeymoon period of our life.

for a while

There’s a verse in a song from Fiddler on the Roof –

  • “Now i have everything,
  • Not only everything,
  • I have a little bit more
  • Besides having everything,
  • I know what everything’s for.”

It often ran through my head in those halcyon days.  I couldn’t imagine that life could ever be better.

To say it was never again that good would be false. In the coming years, however, my life blurred the chaos of the 1970s. My stormy everyday life blurred the turbulence and tumult beyond my front door.

Kristy and Jule
Photo by John Ward

Patti wins the lottery

Children jumping for joy
another win

In my last blog post, I shared with you the story of our family’s move to 832 Belden and described it as “winning the lottery.” I invited readers to share with me any “winning the lottery” stories of their own that my post suggested.

My dear sister Patti Ward shared the following tale of dreams that come true beyond our wildest imaginations.

“I Won The Lottery!”

No monetary prize could surpass the value of the lottery I won.

I always knew where I wanted to go to college. It never occurred to me to apply anywhere else. I applied for early admission. Then, in the fall of our senior year of high school, many of my friends received their acceptance letter. But I did not.

That same year, the women-only college to which I had applied announced a merger. It would become part of the men-only university whose campus bordered theirs to the east. Because of the announcement, applications had flooded their admissions office.

Still, my faith never wavered. In April, my letter finally arrived!

You might suspect this was my lottery win… but my lottery hadn’t happened yet.

The college, anticipating the merger, had accepted more new students than they could house. And then the merger fell through. This miscalculation was my winning lottery ticket.

lucky miscalculation

Apr. 15, 2015; LeMans Hall, Saint Marys College. (Photo by Matt Cashore)

In their scramble to find room for the overflow of students, the college carved “dorm” space where none had existed before. Much to the shock of eight sets of parents, mine included, a former dance studio became the new home for eight incoming freshmen. Situated directly under the bell tower in the college’s main building, it now held four bunk beds, eight desks and 2 large walk-in closets. Like the rest of the dorm, the room was not air-conditioned. And the windows began eight feet off the ground and rose upwards towards the 24 foot ceiling. In order to reach the window to crank them open, the girls used a movable staircase. A “private” staircase led from the fourth floor to the former dance studio. The bathroom was at the bottom of the stairs and off the landing halfway up was a small room the girls used as a gathering place.

The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but we happily settled in for the year.

“the tower”

Not only the space, but the eight girls who lived there, became known throughout the school as “The Tower.” The roommates started out as L. They came from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin. But by the time the school found other arrangements, we had become such fast friends, we wouldn’t accept splitting us up.

Like all first year college students, we filled that year with exciting new beginnings. We also helped one another through the traumas of the year. Sharing these joys and trials forged a bond that would last a lifetime.

Lose one, Win One

At the end of freshman year, our New Yorker returner home for good. Her Tower friends had helped her ride the storm of losing her twin sister, but now she needed to be with family. Her mates were sad to see her go, but understood.

With the beginning of the new school year, the “Tower” added my best friend from high school to our number. Once more we were eight. No longer in the Tower itself, we roomed scattered through the dorms. Our bond, however, remained as strong as ever. Being loved by this group alone would have been a lottery win.

enduring win

Who could have known it would not end there? Graduation was simply another new beginning.

Years went by. We gathered for weddings, celebrated news of births, and cried as our parents slowly left us. As we approached our 60s, we searched each other out and made a plan to meet up. What fun we had. It was as if the years had melted away. The difference now was we had more stories to tell.

Our little group of eight, now fondly referred to as The Great Eight, or Gr8 8, moved into using technology. We formed a private group chat where we could keep even closer tabs on day-to-day events. Shortly before Covid hit, we established a weekly Zoom gathering. Every Wednesday evening at 8:00 p.m. we hop online to share events of the week. It’s so familiar-like being back in the dorm room, The Tower, when we were freshmen. When one or more of us can’t make the gathering, someone sends out a recap on our group chat.

the true prize

The other girls are married with children, grandchildren, so there is always something to share. I am the only single in the group. For me, it has become a lifeline. My siblings, nieces and nephews know how important these women are to my life. They know not to call me on Wednesday at 8 pm unless it’s an emergency. Family is, of course, first in my life. But the point is these seven women ARE family to me. They are my sisters. They have been there through my triumphs, my trials, and my losses. They have supported me when I couldn’t do it for myself. Our lifelong friendship sustained me better than financial wealth ever could.

So if you want to know what it’s like to win the lottery, look at your friendships. There I found the biggest prize of all!

by Yaroslaw Sluraev

Where We Left Our Hearts

vagabond life – sort of

Throughout most of our married life, Jay and I have lived a somewhat vagabond life. Until 2016, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, we always lived either in the city of City of Chicago or within an hour’s drive of the metro area. Within those boundaries, however, we switched abodes frequently. In fact, we have had 16 different residences. If I included all those moves in my memoir, they would run away with the story.

Because my special kids, Kristy and Johnny, are the heart of my memoir, and their sisters, Carrie and Betsy, are its pulse beat, I focused the memoir on them. All those little anecdotes I wrote about our various moves hit the cutting room floor-or, with a few exceptions, showed up in my blog. Today is one of those exceptions.

real home

Chapter Two contains this one-sentence summary. “In the spring of 1975, we moved three blocks west into an enormous Victorian row house that needed tons of remodeling.” What an understatement in every way! We lived in that row house, 832 Belden, longer than anywhere else. Our children “grew up” there. It was home for 27 years, and in our family, we all still think of it as “HOME!”

How we came to live there is a most unusual tale.

finagling a break

In December 1974, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Jay and I planned a trip to New Orleans. I had spent a bohemian summer there during college and yearned to visit my old haunts. Jay, a jazz music buff, had always wanted to visit the clubs on Bourbon Street. We hoped for a second honeymoon experience. Bringing along three little girls didn’t fit the plan. I couldn’t, however, leave Betsy behind because she was still nursing. Could someone stay with Kristy and Carrie for a few days? Easier planned than executed. Neither of our moms was up to the task.

We appealed to Frances Johnson, an older woman who had sometimes stayed with the children while we slipped out for a “date night.” She and the girls were comfortable with each other. And Frances knew exactly what to do if Kristy had a seizure while we were gone. We also arranged asked Evie, the teenager next door, to come in the afternoons to help Frances out. That Evie’s mom, nurse Dee, was less than a minute away in an emergency gave us the final assurance we needed to make the break.

I knew it was a risky decision, but deep inside the core of my being yearned for a chance to step away from the twenty-four/seven vigilance of my everyday life. What I must cope with every single day regularly depleted my emotional strength. To maintain my sanity, I needed to replenish my resources.

second honeymoon

Thus, on Wednesday evening, December 18, 1974, we settled into the Commodore Hotel, a grand, old hotel with a three-story lobby blinking with crystal chandeliers. New Orleans favored us with pleasant weather, a little above average temperature for that time of year. We explored blocks and blocks of the French Quarter and the Garden District on foot. We had a list of galleries to visit and restaurants to try. I also wanted to show Jay the places I hung out in when I spent my nineteenth summer in this fascinating city, my very first solo adventure.

Betsy’s sleep patterns set our mealtimes. An energetic, restless child, she found remaining still and quiet in a restaurant highchair for over ten minutes past her limit. Instead, we fed her little picnics in quiet corners of the city. Then we nestled her in her umbrella stroller and took in the sights until she fell asleep. At that point, we ducked into the nearest restaurant for a quiet, gastric feast. On the evening of our anniversary, we entrusted her to the hotel’s certified childcare worker. Betsy and this competent, kind woman meshed so well together, I wished I could take the caretaker home with us.

unexpected welcome home

Returning to Chicago after midnight on Sunday, we crept silently into the house. We intended to drop everything and slip into bed, but Jay noticed a vast pile of mail on the dining room table. Some unexplainable urge impelled him to check through it. One envelope stopped him. A former law partner had sent a letter from his home address. Curious, Jay ripped it open. The note inside read, “This dropped in our mailbox. We’re happily settled in our place, but thought you might be looking for a bigger house. Best, Jack.”

A flyer slipped out of the envelope. The McCormick Theological Seminary, it announced, was leaving its Lincoln Park campus and moving to a new site on the Southside of the city. The seminary was about to sell the whole campus. This included the administration and classroom buildings, the dormitories, the chapel, and the library. Most significant to us, they were also selling the fifty-two Victorian row houses that surrounded the campus.

Each morning on his way to the Fullerton “L” stop, Jay had often walked past these stately redbrick homes. He had not understood they were owned by an institution, let alone a seminary. Could one become ours? It seemed impossible.

dream the impossible dream

Betsy stirred in my arms. If she woke, it would be hours before I could get her back to sleep. So tiptoeing precariously up the winding staircase, I held my breath and winced when the door to the girls’ room creaked as I shoved it with my shoulder. I stopped. No one woke. I snuggled her next to Carrie in their double bed without bothering about pajamas. Despite the late hour, the flyer Jay had unearthed from the pile of mail had startled me into a fully alert state. Was there a chance that we might purchase one of those elegant row houses? I had to find out.

As much as our snug little house at 515 Belden had worked as a safe cocoon for three years, by 1976 we had outgrown it. We had to move, but prices in Lincoln Park had been rising steadily. We worried we’d have to go back to the suburbs. This could be our chance to stay in the city, to live where we felt most at home. When I got to the bottom step, Jay was rummaging through a small chest in the front hall. “Where’s the checkbook?” he asked.

I could feel my eyes widen into saucers, “You’re not buying a house, site unseen in the middle of the night!”

He laughed, and the freckles danced on his cheeks. “Maybe I would if I could. But no. These houses are going to be sold by lottery. To be part of the lottery, we have to register by noon tomorrow and twenty-five dollars is the registration fee. If we had waited until tomorrow night to open Jack’s letter, we would have missed our chance.”

lucky lottery house

The lottery was the seminary’s plan to keep the houses affordable for families with moderate incomes. The assignment of the houses by the lottery system was complex and took several weeks. When our turn came, we chose 832 Belden without seeing the interior (the renters would not open their home to perspective owners). But we felt certain it was a magnificent house because it was on a corner, which meant it would be brighter inside than many row houses. It was also somewhat wider than the other homes in its row, and jeweled, intricately designed lead-glass windows graced almost every window. We took our chances and never regretted it.

Our first year in the new house was an adventure of discovery- of all that needed to be repaired. Twenty years passed before we finished remodeling the house, but it was one long labor of love. When we finally moved, we did so only because Kristy’s health made it necessary.

832 Belden
Our New Home

Tiny Brick Home

At the zoo with the girls
still writing, almost there

If it seems to you, dear readers, like I’ve been writing my memoir for a decade, it feels even longer to me. The first step, the part I described to you as “vomit draft,” went swiftly. Since then, it has been a long, painstaking process of sorting the chaff from the wheat. Determining which moments best exemplify what it was like to mother my extraordinary family challenged me daily. Along the way, I have had to cut some favorite memories from the book-length memoir. Rather than have them disappear into the ether, I have from time to time chosen to share the “left-out” moments here on the blog. Today’s post is one of those times.

seeking a city home

In December, the post about Betsy’s birth ended with our family’s move back to the city of Chicago from the Western suburbs. In the memoir itself, this move is glossed over to make room for more compelling moments in our family life. It was, however, not without a certain amount of drama.

Once Jay and I made up our minds to move, we spent the next four weekends trudging into the city, seeking a new home. Wishing to stay close to the park and the zoo, we followed leads to rentals on the streets within walking distance of those locations. Most apartments in the area were located old three-story brick buildings. Although we were willing to take on the three-staircase climb to the right apartment, we couldn’t locate one big enough for our family. We tried the new high-rise buildings that now lined the park from Michigan Avenue all the way to Sheridan Road. Again, the apartments were smaller than we had hoped. Kids and their equipment take space. And time was running out for us.

Jay and girls
Lots of kids; lots of stuff

goodbye suburban home

As soon as we had decided to move back to the city, we had put our Western Springs house on the market without using a real estate agent. We held an open house on a crisp February Sunday. The house sold late that afternoon. It completely took us by surprise. When we had purchased the home three years before, it had been on the market for six weeks. Having been in such an emotional rush to get back to the city, we had done no market research. We didn’t know that the demand for single-family dwellings and urban rentals in the Chicago metropolitan area had skyrocketed. We had underpriced the house. The young couple who saw it that day knew immediately they were getting a bargain and had snapped at it.

now what?

Instead of being upset, we were relieved. I was especially happy that I wouldn’t be spending weeks trying to get and keep the house inspection ready. That could have proved impossible while I cared for three children under the age of four. But with our home sold, the pressure to find a city dwelling intensified. We continued to find apartments that had one of two drawbacks. They were too small or too expensive.

first city home

So we finally found the affordable sublet at 2400 Lakeview. We were so relieved that we jumped at it. Although extremely modern and lacking the charm we craved in a home, it was enormous. It had a huge main bedroom and two other spacious bedrooms, as well as a good-sized kitchen-dining area and a big living room. The entire apartment faced west, with floor-to-ceiling windows in every room. Best of all, the building’s front doors opened right across from Lincoln Park and the Zoo was two blocks away.

the venture begins

Six weeks after Betsy was born, the moving van pulled up to the tiny clapboard house in Western Springs. Three husky guys loaded our six rooms of used furniture into the van within a couple of hours. But it took them the entire rest of the day to get it all up the service elevator at the glass tower we had chosen for our new home. Almost as soon as we moved in, we realized we had made a terrible mistake.

this won’t work!

The apartment confined me and the children indoors more than expected. Getting two toddlers, their tricycles and a baby in her stroller onto the elevator before it closed turned out to be an ordeal I didn’t undertake lightly. I had looked forward to sunsets, but hadn’t realized that all afternoon, I would need to draw the drapes against the glaring Western sun. The sunless rooms depressed me, but the girls needed to nap and I needed to fix dinner. I had expected to meet other moms in the park, but met only nannys. We started looking for a better living situation.

small brick home

We did not find another apartment along the park but discovered a cozy little brick townhouse just two blocks away at 515 Belden. Besides two bedrooms and two baths, it had a basement family room. The kitchen was tiny, but the living room had a real wood-burning fireplace and sliding doors led to a small enclosed patio. As a true bonus, the townhouse came with a designated parking space, an asset worth its weight in gold in the crowded city.

this will work!

There was one glaring difficulty. The house’s three stories were accessed via a winding, open iron staircase. Could it possibly be safe for our three little girls? Especially if you considered that the oldest had epilepsy. The cozy charm of the house held us so enthralled we convinced ourselves that this staircase was not intrinsically more dangerous than any other. After all, we wouldn’t be living in one-story homes all our lives.

settling in

The townhouse was one unit of sixteen that formed a rectangle around a central courtyard of connecting walkways and raised flowerbeds. Most of the residents were couples, but it thrilled the three other families in the complex to have us moving in. Our most immediate neighbors, the Hauns, were a godsend. The mom Dee was a nurse to whom I often turned to for solace and advice, as Kristy’s epilepsy became more serious. Their younger daughter Evie became the girls’ babysitter and my mother’s helper for the next several years. She was the first of many young women without whom I am convinced I could not have survived with my sanity intact. Evie remains a dear friend, even as I write today.

still a heart’s place

Also, while living in the tiny brick house, I met one of my dearest friends ever, Elizabeth Katzmann. Elizabeth, who now lives in Minnesota, recently visited Chicago. While she was there, she and her husband went to the “old” neighborhood and took a photo of 515 Belden, which they sent to me.

Receiving that photo inspired me to write this post-my 100th Blog Post!

Evie Haun and my girls
Evie, Betsy, Kristy & Carrie at 515 Belden

  • “Where we love is home- home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”

The Good Life

Candy Day volunteers get ready to got out and beg.
candy on a mission

If you live in the Chicago Metropolitan area, this weekend you cannot miss a major fundraising drive. This coming Friday and Saturday, over 10,000 volunteers head out to the street corners, bus stations, train stations, and groceries stores of this bustling city and suburbs to beg. Wearing bright white and red aprons, they approach everyone they meet with a friendly smile and the request, “Help Misericordia.” As they do so, they offer the recipient a delicious packet of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans and a small card explaining the work of a magical place that is the home for over 600 persons with physical and developmental disabilities.

As you’ve learned from other blog posts, two of my children, Kristy and Johnny, once were lucky enough to live at Misericordia. The good work goes on and parents continue to be grateful. Here’s one mom’s story. I’ll let her tell it in her own words.

one mother’s story

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 40 years since that day when two of my best friends and I drove my son Jon to move into Misericordia South. He was only four and a half years old. I knew he needed the care they could offer him, but it still was one of the toughest days of my life.

tears into triumph

“I could not know then that it was also the beginning of what would become a rich, fulfilling life for my son! For the first six years, even though I saw how he thrived at Misericordia, I felt guilty and sad whenever we took him back after his frequent home visits. I would cry on the way to our house. But as the years rolled by, I slowly realized that Jon was not only happy at Misericordia, he prospered there! Every member of the staff adored him. Endearingly, they called him “Chocolate Eyes,” offered him the special attention, loving care, and stimulation that he needed. Then, when he came home each weekend, his brother and sister and all their friends outdid themselves, constantly entertaining him. His was a ‘good life.’

“When Jon was ready for school, he took the bus from Misericordia to Oak Park for elementary, middle, and finally high school. I had the privilege of serving as ‘honorary room mother’ throughout his school years.

exciting new challenges

“Midway through high school, Jon moved to Misericordia North and became the first resident there to have a g-tube! Pam Dreyer, the Head Nurse, told Jon it was his job to teach all the other Mis nurses about g-tubes, and he loved this great new challenge!

“Moving to Mis North meant Jon transferred to Park School in Evanston. He loved his new school environment, but was especially excited about the many new opportunities, like the art studio and the bakery, that he found at the North campus. His good life had become even better.

“His life got better yet when the McGowan Home opened its doors. One of its original sixteen residents, Jon moved into this beautiful home designed especially for residents who depended on wheelchairs. Windows and tables sat at wheelchair height. Rooms featured wide open spaces. Hallways were also double wide. An extra big elevator served its two levels. With its open-plan living-dining-kitchen, it had a true family style of living. And true to the Misericordia form, the staff were exceptionally caring and competent.

good, better, best

Jon loves everyday at Misericordia
Jon Lives the Good Life

“Jon’s life continues to be rich and full, and over the years, he has grown in ways I never dreamed possible. He’s busy every single day, and he has the advantages of art and music therapy; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; as well as recreation and leisure activities, such as opportunities to go bowling or take part in Bob & Madge’s sing-alongs. He also regularly spends time in the fitness Center, gym, and pool areas. And somehow, despite his busy life, Jon ‘finds time’ to come home to visit regularly!

a second family

“Misericordia long ago ‘adopted’ both Jon and me into what I consider to be our second family. I love volunteering, spending time with Jon both on campus and at home, and interacting with the amazing staff and the other residents and their families. And as I age, I sleep better at night knowing that Jon has a real ‘home away from home’ where his caretakers genuinely love him and where he is safe and happy. Blessings and my heartfelt thanks to Sister Rosemary, Fr. Jack, Mary Pat O’Brien, and the entire Misericordia staff who work tirelessly to make Jon’s life so happy and healthy!”

That is Cynthia and Jon’s story.

one of many good life stories

What is almost unbelievable, but true, is that Jon’s story is a typical Misericordia story. So, please, if you live in the Chicago area and pass a Candy Days volunteer, drop a donation in their can and enjoy a packet of Jelly Bellies.

You don’t have to live in Chicago to help. Thanks to the internet, Candy Days now has a virtual presence as well. Check out the link below.

Our Virtual Candys Days fundraiser is underway. No need to wait until the last weekend in April to donate!! You can donate now or create your own fundraising page! It’s quick and easy, just visit:

Donate to Sister Rosemary’s page: https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordia-candy-days-2023/participant/SrRosemaryConnelly

Set up your own fundraising page: https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordia-candy-days-2023

https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordia-candy-days-2023/

 

Candy Days Banner
Here Comes Candy Days!

Not Quite Empty Nest

Jay and Betsy at the beach shortly after college graduation.
pondering the empty nest syndrome

What exactly is an “Empty Nest?” Many people ponder what it means when the kids in which we invested so much time, energy, effort, and love grow up and move out. Speculators give equal space asking what happens if those same kids stick around into adulthood.

For Jay and me, although there came a time when our four children no longer laid their heads to rest nightly in their childhood bedrooms, our “nest” never truly emptied. Caring for our children turned out to be a lifetime commitment. Yet, I always recall the summer Betsy, our youngest daughter, left home once as a bittersweet time.

a daughter’s dreams

Ever since she had been in grade school, Betsy had dreamed of a career in broadcast journalism. For that reason, she attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, an institution renowned for its communication majors. For the first semester of her senior year, Betsy headed to Los Angeles to work as an intern at Paramount Studios. That afforded her the chance to work with Henry Winkler on a show he was producing.

The whole time she was in California, I couldn’t stop telling people about Betsy’s wonderful opportunity and I called her frequently to see how the job was going.

lose their gleam

For Betsy, however, the reality of L.A. plummeted her and her dreams into an unexpected pit. While Winkler was a great boss, the low-level position she had as an interview editor meant she worked alone for eight hours a day in a small cubicle at the back of a vast set.

In Boston, she had lived in a small studio apartment from which she could walk to school and her part-time job at a real estate office. In L.A., she shared an apartment with three other girls. She had to commute almost two hours to work.

For most of our conversations, she was too tired to talk. The eager lilt had gone out of her voice. I would set the receiver back on the phone and wish I could reach out and hug her.

what happens now?

By the time Betsy finished her internship, she found little day-to-day joy in her position. She wanted to talk to Jay and me about it when she came home for Christmas, but our home situation had unraveled so quickly with Kristy’s additional problems. She bit her tongue at home.

After the holidays, she returned to Boston to finish her last semester of college. In June, 1995, Jay and I, Betsy’s older sister Carrie, three grandparents and six aunts and uncles, descended on Boston for Betsy’s graduation. After the ceremony, the crowd drove to Cape Cod for a weekend of celebration.

Sea change in our family

Early the next morning, I sat on a high porch overlooking a wide expanse of beach covered with rocks and seaweed left behind by the retreating tide. I took a deep breath of the fresh acerbic air. Yesterday, our family crossed a boundary; it split into two halves. Jay and I belonged to both halves.

We were the parents of two adult daughters who had college educations and professional aspirations. Capable of making their own way in the world, they were champing at the bit to do so. A sea gull swept down toward an incoming wave with a high squeal that made me think of babies–yes, hopefully that family would welcome new babies someday.

Whatever Betsy and Carrie’s futures brought into our family life, it would be mostly out of our hands, totally their own decisions. It would exist in a sphere separate from the tight-knit circle that had been our family for a quarter of a century.

the uncertain future

This did not mean, however, that our nest was empty. Because, although our other two children, Kristy and Johnny, lived in residential schools, caring for them remained a central focus of our lives. Our weekends continued to include them, making room for their individual needs, preference, and disabilities. Major decisions about their welfare would be ours until…

The seagulls cried again, the wrenching squawk that echoed the sound in my heart. Because only death-ours or theirs-would end our responsibility for Johnny and Kristy. And I could hope for neither. Losing them would open up a void as deep as the ocean before me. My death could leave them unprotected.

the here and now

“Mom, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” Betsy stood between me and the railing. “Were you asleep?”

“No, just thinking.” I smiled. Her wide eyes sparkled and gleamed. “Come inside. I’ve made raspberry pancakes.”

“Sounds yummy. Will you keep making those when you come home?”

“That’s something I need to talk to you and Dad about. But after breakfast.” She held the door open for me to pass into the kitchen, a madhouse of conversation, cooking, eating, and washing dishes.

I remained in the kitchen until the last dish was in the dishwasher; the pans were clean and stowed away, and the counters gleamed. As I hung up my apron, Betsy walked in. “Great, you’re done. Come on out on the porch with Dad and me.”

Dreams fade

Someone had lowered the awning against the sun. Jay basked in the shade, slouched in an old wicker rocker. “Hi, Betsy, has called a family council.”

I plopped onto the sofa next to him. Betsy perched on a stool at our feet. She might have been six years old again. “So, let’s hear your plan.”

She pushed her shoulders back. “I’m staying in Boston.”

Jay nodded. “When you had little to say about L.A. at Christmas, we gathered you weren’t going back. But why stay here? Your college friends will scatter now. You’ve got roots, friends, and connections at home in Chicago.”

“True, but I’ve got a job here.”

“A broadcasting job?” we both burst out at once.

trading dreams

Betsy shook her head and rushed ahead. “Tony, the owner of the real estate firm I worked for during college, wants to hire me full time. He’s offered me twice the money I could make at any starter job I could get in the television industry.”

I slumped in my seat. “But you’ve wanted to be a broadcaster for so long. I thought real estate was just a temporary thing.”

She put her hand on my knee. “I did too, Mom, but I never realized how good I would be at selling or how much money I could make in this industry, and…” She gazed down and away. “I didn’t have what it took to succeed in television.”

“How can you say that? You only spent a few months there.” I shoved my hands under my legs to keep them from gesturing.

“People said things…things that let me know I’d never get in front of the camera, and even if I gave up on that, making it as a producer, which is the first level that pays a living wage, would take years.”

“But, honey, you’re giving up on your dream.”

She shook her head. “I’m not. The dream wasn’t what I thought it would be. And it wasn’t my only dream. I’ve always wanted to travel–a lot! Working in real estate will give me the money and the flexibility to make that dream come true. Life’s a trade-off. This is mine.”

Betsy and Rich in Australia
In Australia with Rich

When had my twenty-two-year-old party-girl become a philosopher?

“Cased closed,” intoned Jay. “Let’s hit the beach.”

 

Bringing Back the Blog

Heart-shaped loaf of bread
happy spring

With great glee, I announce the sling has come off and I’m typing again.

So, here’s the first issue of JuleWardWrites for the new year (if you are like me and your year begins when the first flowers pop their heads out of the grass.

where i left off

My last post shared a couple of poignant vignettes about our son John and his experiences at the wonderful residential facility for persons with physical and developmental disabilities, Misericordia Home.https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/truly-a-heart-full-of-mercy

Those stories inspired other to write to me with permission to share their own stories of their equally wonderful “Mis” experiences.

Many of the people who love Misericordia are those who volunteer there. Today one of them, Terry Baugh, tells you his story.

hearts and flour

“Misericordia held a warm place in my heart even before I heard about the Hearts and Flour Bakery. My friends, Barb and Dave, had undertaken a long and nearly impossible search to find a nurturing place for their son, Seth, to live. When he was accepted at “Les Mis” as they fondly refer to it, the search ended, and Barb moved to Chicago to be close to Seth. Visiting Barb in Chicago and volunteering at the bakery was a great opportunity for me to catch up with my friend and spend a week working hard and feeling great about every day.”

hairnet? apron? gloves? go!

Volunteering for the bakery at Misericordia was a satisfying experience in giving back for Terry. The bakery is a hub of activity, with experienced bakers and novices, like him. He volunteered in 2019 just before the holidays. Christmas music played in the background and staff and volunteers and residents cheerily greeted each other as new people arrived for their shifts. Got a hairnet or hat? Apron? Gloves? You are ready to go.

just like downtown

The organization of the bakery was–and is — amazing. Every step for baking, cutting, and packaging is well thought out. It was fun to package soda bread, operating a packaging machine just like the bakery downtown. Over the days, Terry was there, he worked on a lot of different stations, but he loved the brownies the most. Bakers mixed large batches of brownies, baked sheets of brownies, and finally flipped them to prepare for cutting into heart shapes. There is a proper technique to getting all the hearts you can out of a sheet and then evenly powdering them with a gentle tap on the sifter. Packaging is always part of the production cycle — stacking the brownies in boxes and sending them on their way to treat a lucky recipient. They are such a delicious and simple treat!

sister rock-star

Beyond all the baking tasks, Terry loved being at Misericordia and seeing the operation. “Sister Rosemary has rock-star status in my book.,” he claims. “The caring staff, the amazing facilities, and the meaningful ways of raising money that Sister Rosemary created to support this amazing facility is something to admire.”

working the line

Besides the unique operations of the bakery, Terry met some lovely people while “working the line”. Weekly regular volunteers, school groups, families whose children were at “Les Mis”, or had passed on, were there helping and sharing wonderful stories. And he loved visiting Seth’s house, his classroom, and meeting his friends and the residents who helped the bakery.

make giving easy

Take a hint from Terry, “if you are looking for a way to give back, a way to spend an extra afternoon or day a week, or a way to open your heart — consider volunteering at the “Les Mis” Hearts and Flour Bakery. They also make gift giving easy. Shop here! 

For information about volunteering at Misericordia click here -> https://www.misericordia.com/volunteer/get-involved/

Heart shape in powdered cookie
Almost too good to eat

COPING WITH A BROKEN ARM

right now because my arm is in a swing I’m doing all my composing by dictating and for me that doesn’t lend itself to very creative writing, so for now I’ll be taking a break from blogging.  my arm should heal by the mid-March I will begin publishing again then.

enjoy the rest of winter

Jule