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

Truly, A Heart Full of Mercy

Johnny reads during the speeches.
bright memories

For thirty years, our family shared the care of our two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, with Misericordia Home, a residential and learning center for persons with multiple developmental disabilities. Many treasured memories of our family’s time at Misericordia live in my heart, but the ones I remember best are times when its generosity of spirit lit up like a giant Christmas tree.

a giving heart

In 1985, when we took our son John for his first visit to the school, we shared a dinner with a friendly group of fellows in one of the Village Homes. At the end of dinner, one resident pushed back his chair. “I’d like to stay and have desert with you,” he said, “but it’s my night to volunteer at the homeless shelter.” His words solidified my trust that Johnny would find love and empathy among his new housemates.

heart big enough for the entire world

Some years later, the students at the Learning Center engaged in a geography program which focused deeply on one nation each year. Through their studies, they became aware of hunger in the world. This realization heightened the gratitude they felt for the abundance of care they received at Misericordia and motivated them to help those less favored. With their teachers’ help, they organized an on-campus “Walk for Hunger.” Family and friends pledged funds to support the walk.

please, stay off the grass

Johnny’s dad remembers that bright October day as though it happened last week. The residents, staff, and some parents gathered outside the Learning Center. Sister Rosemary gave a rousing opening talk–and then asked the participants to stay off the grass because landscapers had recently seeded the lawns.

the last shall be first

Johnny’s pace was a slow slouch in the best of times. So, his dad had stationed them at what he believed to be the end of the line. But no, at the end of her speech, Sister pointed out the direction of the walk. It put Jay and Johnny at the front! For a while Johnny set the pace, but then Sister broke ranks and walked on the grass to get around him! Soon, everyone followed suit. By the time father and son arrived back at the school’s gym, the organizers were putting away the refreshments. That didn’t matter, the spirit of joy and generosity of the day still lives in my husband’s stories, which he is willing to share with anyone who will listen.

Neither of us ever tires of telling the world how blessed we are to be a part of the Misericordia family.

 

Johnny has a party in the Mis greenhouse restaurant.
Jay and Johnny in Mis Greenhouse Restaurant.

A New Baby Ushers in an Unexpected Change

Newborn Betsy and Jule in hospital

This won’t be in the memoir even though it completely changed my life.

baby number three

On an unusually mild January morning in 1973, I awoke to the powerful tug of a contraction across my belly. Our third child would be born that day. Jay and I determined we didn’t want to spend the entire day in a hospital. We calmly woke Kristy, age three and a half, and Carrie, age two, and fed them their breakfast. By the time we called Jay’s mother, the contractions were coming closer together. While we waited for their grandmother to arrive and watch the girls for us, I sat in our big oak rocking. Kristy and Carrie nestled around my belly, and I gently sang and rocked to soothe them and myself.

labor at the movies

“Gramma Mary,” as they called her, arrived in a half hour. Jay and I hurried out and went – to the movies. (We didn’t, of course, tell his mom where we were going.) The film Sleuth, with Michael Caine, was playing at the Hinsdale Cinema. Its suspenseful plot let my mind ride above the increasingly intense and rapid contractions. When a contraction started, I’d grip Jay’s hand, he’d look at his watch, time it and whisper the duration to me. The solution to the mystery eluded me, and I was determined to remain until the movie ended. We heard loud whispers in the row behind us. One of which was a shocked, “I think she’s having a baby.”

off to the hospital

Movie over, we sped to the hospital. When the emergency room nurses realized the intensity of the contractions, they summoned the obstetrician. They sent Jay straight to registration and me right into Labor and Delivery.

There, a resident doctor examined me. “She’s nine centimeters and dilating rapidly. Have you called her obstetrician?” he demanded.

“Yes.” a nurse replied. “As soon as emergency informed us they thought she was pretty far along.”

“Good, well, get her husband up here. He can do the paperwork later. This baby is coming now.”

Two interns slid me onto a gurney for the hurried ride to the delivery room. Jay in his heavy khaki overcoat and Dr. Halama, my obstetrician, rushed through doors at opposite ends of the room like a choreographed scene in a stage play. My doctor wore a tuxedo, which the nurses helped him cover with a surgical gown. I laughed, “Where were you?”

And then I gasped in pain. I panted through the contraction, trying my best to keep my breathes even. Jay stood at my side, holding my hand and gripping it so hard it hurt. Hospital regulations had prevented him from being present for Kristy or Carrie’s births, so we had changed doctors and hospitals so that he could witness this one. The enormous pressure in back and lower belly subsided a little. I repeated my question to the doctor.

birth of our party girl

He laughed. “I was at the cocktail hour before a friend’s dinner party. This baby is making me miss out on fresh lobster.”

“In January, that’s ridiculous.” I retorted, and then gasped again. “Count,” I shouted to Jay and tried to pant in rhythm with his slow, “1…2… 3.”

Dr. Halama wheeled his stool over to the bottom of the delivery table. “The baby is crowning,” he said. A nurse stepped to either side of him, instruments I couldn’t see in their hands.

“There’s the head,” he announced. Excitement blocked my sense of pain, but my body contracted and shoved.

“Slow down. Try not to push. I’m easing a shoulder out,” the doctor said.

A nurse turned to me. “I’m sure it’s a girl. She has such a beautiful face.”

Across from her, the other nurse shook her head. “No, look at those broad shoulders. It’s going to be a boy.”

“Just let me push,” I begged. “Then we can settle this.”

“Just a minute. There, got the other shoulder. Good work. Okay, one last push.”

I bore down with all my strength, felt the pressure of the little body sliding down the birth canal, and seconds later, a high-pitched cry filled the room. “You have a girl,” the doctor told us, holding up the screaming, failing little human being.

hello betsy!

“Give her to me,” I demanded. I couldn’t stand to see her cry. They cut the cord, wrapped her in a soft blanket, and laid her next to me. “Hello, Betsy,” I whispered.

Betsy’s birth was the catalyst for an unanticipated upheaval.
She and I remained at the hospital for three days. She had been born on Saturday evening at 6 o’clock. On Sunday, Jay brought Kristy and Carrie to the hospital to visit their new sister. They couldn’t visit the maternity floor, but the baby room had windows along a corridor outside the ward. I stood on the other side of the nursery and watched as the nurse rolled Betsy’s bassinet up to the window, lifted her out, and showed her to the toddlers on the other side. The tiny bundle instantly fascinated Kristy, but Carrie caught sight of me. She lifted her arms and wailed, “Mommy.”

a trip to the zoo

To distract Carrie, Jay took the girls on an excursion to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was unusually mild for a Chicago January that week. Going to the zoo was a logical choice of diversion. The Brookfield Zoo, however, was much closer to our home in Western Springs. Still, Jay drove to the Chicago Loop and then north to Lincoln Park. He wanted to take his children to the city zoo, the one that held many fond memories of our pre-suburban days.

As far as I know, they had a wonderful time, but I never really heard about the zoo at all because what followed was much more momentous. On the way back to where he had parked our car, Jay passed a “For Rent” sign in the window of a building that sat on the south edge of Lincoln Park. It stopped him cold.

When he and I had frequented the Zoo in the early years of our marriage, we always admired these stately buildings that lined the south end of Lincoln Park. He couldn’t resist taking a peek. He fell in love with the apartment and discovered, much to his surprise, that the rent was in our price range. Wheels started turning in his head.

Jay has questions

That evening, he left the girls with his mom and rushed to the hospital, full of his discovery. Betsy and I had spent a quiet day. She was a champion nurser, and I knew enough about breastfeeding by then to let her nurse at will. Well rested and feeling at ease with the world when he arrived, I listened calmly as his story burst forth. He finished with, “I want you to see this place. It is unbelievable!”

By the following Saturday, one week later, I was exhausted. Jay’s mom had returned home. He was back at work. Juggling the needs of three small girls was exponentially harder than caring for two little ones.

Jay had made an appointment for us to view the city apartment that afternoon. Tired as I was and as crazy as it seemed to take three small children, one merely a week old, out into the rapidly dropping temperatures of a Chicago winter, I needed to get out of the house. Any excuse would do. The ride would entertain the girls, and I could nurse the baby on the way to the city. As we sped east on the Eisenhower Expressway, it was with growing excitement that I watched the skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop fill the horizon. We swung around Buckingham Fountain. Its ornate sculpture encased in ice delighted Kristy and Carrie. While we drove north along Lake Shore Drive, they both pressed their little noses against the window to watch the crashing waves of the winter lake.

The rental agent waited for us at the central door of the apartment complex. There was no elevator, but the apartment was on the first floor. Its spaciousness overwhelmed me. Twice as large as our home in Western Springs, it had twelve-foot high ceilings in every room but the kitchen. The rooms included a formal library with its own fireplace. Painted buckled on walls. The kitchen appliances were decisively vintage. Doors squeaked on their hinges. The bathroom floors had cracked tiles–but there were three bathrooms!

But I questioned. Why are we here? We have a home. We’re settled, right? Betsy had been whimpering throughout the tour. Kristy and Carrie ran from one empty room to the next as though in a gymnasium. Without warning, the noise, or maybe my increasing uneasiness, got to Betsy. She let out a loud, piercing wail.

“We have to go,” I told Jay.

“We’ll get back to you,” he promised the agent.

the choice we didn’t see coming

We rode back to Western Springs in silence. After dinner, Jay walked across the living room floor singing to Betsy while I gave the girls their bath and got them to bed.

Once I returned to the living room, I settled in a huge armchair, a Salvation Army find, so comfortable that we still have it today. I nursed Betsy off and on over the next two hours. Jay made us cocoa. And we talked. We relived every detail of the apartment and imagined how we would live there, how each room would function for us, how we could decorate it. Our imagination pictured living in the city again, close to the zoo, the park and the lake. Jay spoke of how easy it would be to get to work.

What was holding us in Western Springs? We definitely didn’t plan to stay for the rest of our lives. But didn’t we need to stay in the suburbs for the sake of the excellent schools? Maybe. We had just assumed that, hadn’t we? Kristy was only three, two years away from kindergarten. That gave us plenty of time to explore the city school situation.

By ten o’clock, we were ready to move. “I’ll call the agent in the morning,” Jay said. But when he called the next morning, the rental agent told us another family had rented the apartment late Saturday evening.
That stunned us both. I fixed breakfast in silence. He hunched over his scrambled eggs and bacon. I held Betsy in the crock of one arm so I could nurse while I encouraged Carrie to eat some eggs from a spoon. Kristy pushed her eggs around in patterns on her plate.

When he finished, Jay sat straight up in his chair. “It wasn’t about the apartment–not really. We’re still moving back to the city, right?”

I smiled and nodded.

photo of buildings
Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

Side-by-Side on Different Paths

Jule and Jay, mid 1960s
hovering over life

“Life happens while you are making other plans” is a popular cliché, but for me the true theme of my life was, “Life happens because you aren’t able to plan.” Sometimes, I simply failed to take the time to think ahead and work out the consequences to decisions I made. Other times, insurmountable barriers blocked the path I chose, and I had to re-navigate my life. This pattern began when I was twenty-three and my gynecologist upturned my world with the news that I might be infertile. Until his fateful words, I expected to wait to have a child until I finished my education and established myself professionally. Instead, I put my career plans on hold and threw myself into trying to get pregnant.

professional promise in an envelope

Exactly one year later, I was home from work sick with the flu, but new life bloomed in our tiny abode. I had not conceived, but our cat, Champagne, had. Fuzzy, grey-striped kittens cavorted in every corner of our living room. The kittens couldn’t hold my attention, however, because earlier that afternoon, I’d pulled a bulging envelope from our mailbox. Addressed to my husband Jay, it was from the Illinois Bar Association. Thick meant it had papers for him to sign, which signaled he had passed the bar.

Tense with excitement, I counted the minutes until he would arrive home from work and see the envelope sitting in the middle of the card table. Following his June graduation from law school, he accepted a position as an Assistant State’s Attorney, but keeping the job depended on passing the bar. He’d be over the moon. He loved his job, its fast-paced rhythm, the intricacy of the court system, the dealings with police, judges, defense attorneys, and defendants. Every day he headed out the door affirmed in his choice of profession.

one more wish

I pulled my knees up to my chin, and Champagne jumped from my lap to check on her little ones. As I waited for Jay to appear on the walk outside our apartment, I couldn’t help wish I was pregnant. Then everything would be perfect.

We hadn’t shared my infertility with our families, but they were asking questions. Barrenness sounded biblical to me, not a condition of the twentieth century. Yet, here I sat, an apparently healthy twenty-four-year-old with a womb as unresponsive as Sarah’s in the Old Testament. Champagne jumped back up and rubbed against me. “Too bad you’re not an angel in disguise,” I told her. “Maybe you’d be the one sent to tell me God had answered my prayer.” Her deep green eyes held mine solemnly. I could have sworn she understood.

The front doorknob rattled. Jay was home! I sat perfectly still, anticipating the moment he’d see the letter. But he walked right by the table and up to me, “Feeling any better this evening?  … Oh!” he jumped because he almost squished a kitten under his heavy work shoes.

“I’m fine,” I said. “More than fine.”

He twisted his head, “What’s that grin about?”

“Look on the table!”

“Holy smokes. Is it THE letter?”

I nodded. He grabbed and ripped it open. And jumped, hitting the ceiling with both hands. “Passed! I passed.  Your husband’s a real lawyer now, honey.”

celebration time

Euphoria swept over us. We ignored the budget and ordered Chinese takeout. We celebrated and talked past midnight. How strange it would be to be financially stable. Passing the bar assured him an immediate, substantial raise. By the next week, his salary would double what I brought home. It made our heads swim to think what that could mean. Dreams piled onto one another like a child’s house of blocks, colorful and covered with dozens of images.

Then at some point he ventured, “We could start saving to buy a house, one big enough for kids.”

My heart froze. “If we have children… if not, it would feel empty living in a house, just the two of us.”

He took both my hands in his. “Jule, it’s only been a year. Dr. Grimes says your body had to heal from the surgery before we can count on any eggs being produced. It’s important you don’t get negative. That’ll just stress you out and make things worse.”

I leaned against him. One of things I loved about him was his optimism, but I wished wouldn’t make infertility sound like something that would just fix itself. I was just so tired of living my life in a holding pattern while his life moved forward in such a defined direction.

“Maybe I should leave Children’s Division. Take a break. The doctor suggested that maybe the stress of the job was contributing to my problems.”

“But you love what you do.”

“I enjoy helping kids have a better life than they could have, but I don’t love the struggle. They can’t be with their natural families because all kinds of awful things happened to them there. And yet, they very often yearn to go “home” no matter how caring their foster family is.  There’s never a truly suitable answer. After three years at the agency, I am understanding why some of the older caseworkers are so jaded.”

a possible new future

“But what would you do if you quit?”

“I could go to school full time instead of just at night.” Where had that come from? Had I been chafing all along, frustrated by the slow pace of my crawl toward a bachelor’s degree?

“Could we afford it if you quit?”

My heart clenched a little that his first response was practical rather than supportive, but the rest of me was roiling with excitement. I wasn’t giving up on this idea. “Let me work on it, okay? I just need to juggle the budget a bit.”

He looked over at the letter propped against the salt and pepper shakers. “Tonight, though, we’ll celebrate this victory. Your next campaign can start tomorrow.”

He reached over and ran a finger down my cheek to my chin, traced the outline of my neck down to the barely visible crevice between my breasts.  Keeping his hand in place, he stood, circled the table, and bent over me. “I think I’m ready for bed,” he said. “How about you?”

I leaned all the way back to stare into his grinning face. “This would be a perfect night to become parents,” I murmured.

“Can’t hurt to try it,” he agreed.

the hard part

A month later, I stood, shoulders back, arms at my side, fists clenched just outside the door of my supervisor’s office. I admired and respected Mrs. Geis not just for the keen understanding she brought to our work, but how sensitively and deftly she molded untried young women, barely into their twenties, into capable, caring but effective caseworkers.

I dreaded telling her I planned to quit, to leave behind the children that had grown to be like nieces and nephews to me, the fosters mothers that “mothered” me even as they cared for the children I brought them. Building these relationships took time and dedication. Every time a caseworker left the agency, the families in their caseload experienced disruption, sometimes serious enough to capsize a placement.

Resigning felt like a betrayal.

Over the last two weeks, I had created a budget that would allow me to quit working for the six months it would take to earn my degree and to pay for the courses. But I shrunk from taking the next step.

“Mrs. Ward, did you need something?” My eyes flew open. The petite Mrs. Geis stood in her doorway not a foot away.

“Oh, I, ah,… I need to talk to you.” I felt like a schoolgirl called to the principal’s office.

“Come in then. You are pale as milk. It must be serious. I hope you’re not ill again.” She laid a small hand on my arm.

“No, no, I’m fine.” Silence gripped me.

“Sit down, please. You’re clearly agitated,” she said and closed her door. She sat on the other side of her battered wooden desk. Suddenly, a sweet grin broke out on her narrow face. “Are you expecting a baby?”

I wished I could lie. Being pregnant was a better reason than just quitting. I could not, however, sit there forever saying nothing. “No, I’m not having a baby.”

“Oh, my dear, I’m sorry to hear that. I know how badly you’ve been hoping for a child.”

Her concern for me drew a sigh. “But I am leaving Children’s Division.”

She nodded her head slowly. “I’ve noticed that you seem strained lately. If a case is particularly troublesome, I might step in.”

“No, it’s not that at all.” I didn’t want her to think I simply couldn’t cope. “I need to finish college. It’s just so slow going to night school. If I switch to full-time in January, I’ll graduate next August.”

“A wise decision, I agree. Can you make it work financially?” she asked.

“We can, unless I get pregnant. That would be a whole different ball game. But I’m not going to just sit around and wait for it to happen.” Both my hands flew into the air. “With my husband done with school and working, we can swing the tuition and a little sabbatical from work for me.”

“As much as we’ll miss you, I applaud this move.”

“Thank you for understanding.” I stood, eager to leave, but at the doorway I turned. “Telling the foster mothers I work with is going to be even harder than telling you.”

one of many new beginnings

We couldn’t know when I started classes at Roosevelt University in January, 1967, while Jay moved to the Narcotics Court at the State’s Attorney’s office that we had laid the cornerstone of our marriage.

From that day until he resigned from his law firm in 2007, Jay would pursue his professional life with unwavering dedication. For however many hours of each day it took, for however many days of each week it required, he devoted them to being a successful attorney.

During that same period, my life spun in kaleidoscopic cycles.

food healthy wood apple
Photo by Julia Fuchs on Pexels.com

Some Sneak Previews

Jule and Johnny in the yard

For the last eighteen months, I’ve been inviting you to come along as I struggle to write a memoir. The memoir focuses mostly on the challenges and special joys of parenting my two children with disabilities. But I cannot isolate those experiences from the rest of my life.

I must, however, limit the number of pages-and, therefore, the number of tales I tell. Twenty original chapters slimmed down to twelve as I came close to the final version. So, some of those tidbits will appear as blog posts here on “Jule Ward Writes.” As the final version of the memoir shapes up, you and enjoy these vignettes. Maybe they will even whet your appetite for reading the book when I publish it.

To Be A Dolphin

“When I grow up, I want to be a dolphin,” my three-year-old son stated emphatically as I read him a picture book about adult occupations. Me, too, I thought, oh, me too!

Although thirty-eight years old and the mother of four young children, I still wondered when I would grow up. When would my real life begin? Could I possibly wake up and this nightmare I had stumbled into be over? I hugged his sturdy, warm body against my chest, rested my chin on his soft curls, and gazed into our little side garden. His sisters would return from school in an hour. From then until bedtime, a sort of low-key chaos would fill our old Victorian rowhouse. And that was the best-case scenario. That was if no one–not me, not my little boy, and not his oldest sister Kristy had a seizure.

epilepsy reality

If one of us went down, the chaos spiraled down into pandemonium. All other activity ceased. And God help us if there was soup boiling on the stove or a bathtub filling with bubbles. That couldn’t matter. First, turn the seizing person to their side, so they didn’t choke on their own saliva. Then, slip something soft under their head to avoid nasty bruises, and grab a clean towel if they were bleeding. Next, loosen their clothing so they could breathe a little easier. And wait. Wait until their limbs stopped flailing, their eyes returned to the center of their sockets, and their breath slowed to a more normal pace. And wait some more. Wait until they could get to a chair or bed to rest and come back to us, wake up, confused and sleepy, but ultimately fine. Or so we hoped.

On this autumn afternoon in 1980, my toddler son and I squeezed together in a singularly uncomfortable mesh and metal lawn lounger; his chubby legs anchored mine in place. A dozen large, hardcover books covered our laps. Johnny’s favorite, “Oh, What a Busy Day!” lay open to a page where winsomely drawn children imagined themselves as doctors, ballerinas, sailors, chef, and other sundry paying occupations. Clearly my son found the imagination of the illustrator quite limited as he announced, “When I grow up, I want to be a dolphin.”

never grow up

I nuzzled my nose into his yellow gold curls and thought, “And why not?” Deep between my heart and lungs lodged the certainty that evolving into a sea creature might be the only way I could keep from drowning in the reality of my everyday life.

I lived my here and now as a bizarre paradox. To an outside observer, it would seem I lived the life of a typical late twentieth-century middle-class, stay-at-home mom. Yet, every day, I woke up in terror that I lacked the resources to fulfill my role.
An illusionist, a trickster, I pulled coping mechanisms out of my ringmaster’s hat, creating a chimera of a brave, but beautiful life. I may have wanted to cry out, “I’ll never make it out of here alive,” but I said, “I’ve got this. It’s not that different from anyone else’s life, not really.”

brave front

My false optimism persuaded far too many people that I didn’t need their help, didn’t want their solace, would hate their compassion. There is no such thing as “normal,” I convinced myself. Everyone’s life has challenges. Everyone had to cope. I never wished to be someone else, to have a different life, to have different children. Rather, I yearned to live this life with as much savoir faire as everyone thought I did.

“Earth to Mom.”

Oh my God, the girls were home from school. I hadn’t heard them come through the back gate. Johnny had drifted to sleep in my arms, undoubtedly dreaming of dolphins.

“Kristy’s bus will be here soon, Mom,” Carrie’s voice broke into my reverie.

I carefully slid Johnny’s plump, warm body onto the chaise lounge. “Stay with him. I’ll go meet the bus and then we can have snacks.”

Back to reality, whatever that was.