Dwell Deeply in the Only Life We Have

Old diary and photo with flowers

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

Being honest isn’t easy

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

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

craft is a given

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

and so is imperfection

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

but lying is unacceptable

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

digging deep is essential

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

yet unbelievably difficult

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

can I do it?

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

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

I can only try

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

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

 

 

Too Old to Sing Rock ‘n Roll?

Woman hiking in wilderness
“Old age is not for wimps”

Man on exercise bikeThe woman in the photo was slender with clearly defined muscles rippling along her arms, torso and legs. Her eyes squinted fiercely, staring directly at the camera, in a face lined with wrinkles. Long grey hair pulled haphazardly into a bun at the nape of her wiry neck escaped in strands caught in the sweat pouring off her furrowed brow. Scrawled across the bottom of the poster, bold letters read, “Old Age Is Not for Wimps.”

Every time I exited my gym locker room, dragging my thirty-something self toward the weight machines, I paused mesmerized by that woman.  I was determined to be her, to be fit and ready for anything in my elder years.

“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” 
― 
Jean-Paul Sartre

Then and Now

I’m so glad she’s not here to judge me now. I bear no resemblance to my ideal. There have been times over the last thirty years when I approached my goal. There was that year I went to the gym three times a week.  And a different year when I woke in the dark to run three miles every weekday morning.  For almost five years I met a friend at 6 a.m. to walk two miles almost every morning. When my younger daughter was getting married, I hired a personal trainer and joined Weight Watchers for eight months.  I love those mother-of-the bride pictures!

More recently, I spent a spring and summer, working out three days a week, and building up my walking until I could walk 20 miles in a day. By October, I trekked 30 miles in one day as a participant in CureSearch’s Ultimate Hike program, a cause that has raised over 5 million dollars in the battle against childhood cancer.

Drinking by the fireplace
Photo by Sergio Solo

And it’s ageism, far more than the passage of time, that makes growing older harder for all of us.” 
― 
Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

But after the hike, just as before, I slipped into my old couch potato ways.

There Comes a Time

Now, I’m beginning to pay the price. I don’t stroll as quickly as I once did. I’m out of breath if I climb more than one flight of stairs. I fall more easily. And all this scares me.  Am I becoming an elder wimp?

The time when my motivation for losing weight and getting in shape was mostly to appear more attractive has come and gone. It’s become more a matter of life and death.  Not death in the absolute sense, but the death of the freedom to be myself, to be a person who choses what she can and cannot participate in.

I’m not alone in recognizing the now or never of this proposition. The authors of “Aging with Freedom,” a fantastic website that explores multiple aspects of transitioning into the “golden years,” studied the supposed connection between early retirement and early death.  The literature clearly indicated that it’s what you do in retirement, not when you retire that makes the difference.

If you use early-retirement to exercise more and replace or improve work with other social connections and purpose, early-retirement is good for you. It can dramatically improve both longevity and quality-of-life. https://agingwithfreedom.com/2018/03/27/early-retirement-health-odds-good-or-bad/

Women doing yogaThere go my hopes that exercise doesn’t matter anymore!

I’m looking for motivators and “tricks” and best practices to pull myself away from this computer and out onto the sidewalk or into the gym.  If you know of any, please take a minute to share them in the contact box.

I promise to let you know if I try your ideas and how they work out.

Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. Billy Graham

 

 

This Other Little Life

girl and cat
Things that go bump in the night
Dark living room
Photo by Morgan Vander Hart

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

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

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

Antique bedframe
Photo by Bianca Capeloti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Litter of kittens
Photo by dimitri Houtemann

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

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

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

Cat looking out
Photo by Alireza Attari

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

Kitten on bed
Photo by Anthony de Kroon

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

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

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

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

Cat under blanket
Photo by Vinicius de Moraes

Safe Sex and Family Planning – Twin Oxymorons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contraceptives
Photo by Reproductive Health Coalition

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

a house of cards

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

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

Surgery sutures on belly
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

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

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

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

life’s great maybes

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

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

8 children peering through banister
Phots by National Cancer Institute

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

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

Please fill in the box.

 

Never Doubt, Spring Will Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

yellow flowers in field
Photo by Kumiko Shimizu

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

Let’s Dream

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

1950s family dinner
Photo by Museums Victoris

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

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

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

Building with lots of nations' flags
Photo by Oleh Aleinyk

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

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

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

Reality Check

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

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

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

Mountain Spring
Photo by Mak

‘Til Death Do Us Part

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

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

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

Large Indian Family
Photo by Martin Adams

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

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

Modern Daydreams

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

Holding on
Photo by Brooke Cagle

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

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

Long Lonely evenings

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

woman on kitchen floor
Photo by Radu Florin

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

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

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

Votive lights, statue in chapel
Photo by Josh Applegate

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

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

feline rescue

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

girl and cat
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

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

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

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

Being alone is very difficult.” – Yoko Ono

Ever Shifting Midnight Mood

Northern Lights

Do you run into the same debate every year that I do?

Two men conversing
Photo by Product School

On one side there are the “naysayers,” those folks who contend that New Year’s Eve is a whole lot of hooey (or some other even more disgusting load). Some deplore the debauchery, wage war on “excessive” food and alcohol, fear an increase in accidental fatalities of many kinds, and remind everyone else that the “new” year will be no different than the “old.” – happy and sad in all the same ways. To demonstrate their rejection of the noise, nonsense and “people in funny hats” they’re in bed by nine p.m.

Others argue that it is a holy season, best celebrated with sacred ritual, contemplation, reflection, and repentance. The stroke of midnight finds them on their knees – praying.

Firewords
Photo by Andreas Dress

Tipping the other end of the seesaw are the “yay-sayers.” Even the most diehard naysayers know what they do – They have FUN! Or, at least, they attempt to do so.  Whether they succeed or not is an open question.

In the early years of our marriage, before we became parents, Jay and I “threw” a New Year’s Eve party every year in our tiny apartment.  I say threw deliberately because all those occasions were tossed together extemporaneously. At some moment after we’d survived Christmas with our families, it would hit us that NYE was just around the corner. We’d blissfully ponder the swank affairs available throughout the “toddlin’ town,” immediately realize we couldn’t afford even a glass of champagne at one of those venues, and without taking another breath announce to one another, “Let’s have a party.”

Parties, you might note, also cost money.  But, no, Jay and I are not only ultimate yay-sayers, but we also eternal optimists. We weren’t about to let our $5/week grocery budget stand in our way.  We had a commodity more valuable than mere currency.  We had friends!

Time to dial some numbers. (And yes, in those days we still had a dial-up telephone.) “Hey,” we’d announce, “we’re having a party for New Year’s Eve.  Yep, that’s right – this coming Thursday. Can you come?  You can? Cool! What can you bring?”

Two glasses of white wine
Photo by Element5 Digital

Not that we were completely freeloading hosts. A trip to Woolworth’s (I still find life without a local “five ‘n dime” more challenging than it needs to be.) and a couple of bucks laid down meant I headed home with a bag, filled to the brim for conical hats, streamers, crepe paper, and horns.  Our guests provided the booze and the food.  We provide the place and the fun!

Well, in all honesty, I cannot take credit for all the fun.  Some of that goes to our brother-in-law Bob.  At that time, Bob was a carney.  He actually traveled all over the Eastern United States with a carnival. He managed several amusement rides at county fairs and church festivals in the days when you didn’t have to travel to Orlando to be scared witless.

Bob’s sweep through the backroads of the Southern states put him in regular touch with the folks that brewed “hooch,” home-made alcohol of uncertain proof. Compared to liquor store prices, those spirits were dirt cheap – they were a fraction of the cost of the branded products.  Why? Well, their producers didn’t pay taxes. So, whenever our brother-in-law returned home at the end of the carnival season, he came bearing “gifts” That throat-searing, gut-wrenching liquor was his contribution to our New Year’s Eve blasts.

Clear-ish blue liquor
Photo by Marcel Straub

In fact, it contributed most of the “blast” to the affair. Neither Jay and I nor our friends were used to drinking much alcohol.  When we did, we shared a beer at a picnic or while watching a football game. Those years preceded the country’s love affair with wine. (Our contemporary growing consumption of wine didn’t kick off until the 1990s.)

Thus, even shot-glass size helpings of the “hootch” that we consumed at those parties transformed us into bon vivants for the night.  We found life weirder and more ridiculous with every hour.  The music we chose for the stereo became louder and more raucous as the conversation turned to laughter and giggling, and some couples drifted into a corner, losing all regard for decorum.  We did always manage to keep an eye on the clock and tune in the radio to the broadcast from State and Randolph for the midnight countdown.

In fact, the only “disaster” that ever occurred was when the “mayor’s casserole” exploded. Mayor Richard J. Daley’s wedding gift to Jay and I had been a silver chafing dish that held a glass casserole dish and sat on a silver stand over a Sterno burner.  Because we valued it highly, we only brought it out for the NYE party.  That proved to be bad timing.  As 1967 slid into 1968, a loud explosion rocked our dining area. Suddenly the middle of the table was engulfed in fire, a fire that surrounded the “mayor’s casserole.”

A  brave unknown threw a pan of chilled shrimp onto the fire.  Jay raced to the kitchen to get water.  Guests poured out the front door.  Someone else threw a heavy winter coat over the now diminished flames.  We had extinguished the fire.  (Thanks, perhaps, to those who spend midnight in prayer).

But the beautifully ornate silver casserole had disappeared.  In its place remained a blackened, scarred, ugly piece of metal. When it cooled, someone threw it into the trash can behind our apartment.  The pretty silver lid had been in the kitchen. For years I hung onto it – a useless reminder of our days of glorious foolishness. Jule kissing Jay at midnight

 

“New year is the glittering light to brighten the dream-lined pathway of future”
― Munia Khan

 

I’d love for you to share right here on these pages, your best, worst or funniest New Year’s Eve memory.

Love,

Jule

People toasting with wine
Photo by Kelsey Chance

Honeymoon Disaster

Skiers on Mountain Top
Twenty-Something “Logic”

Successful honeymoons are all alike. Every disastrous honeymoon is disastrous in its own way.

December is a whirlwind of celebration in our family – a birthday, an anniversary, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  We do it all and we do it up big. Perhaps, Jay and I got this going because we’re still trying to wipe out the blot on the page that was our honeymoon, a misadventure if ever there was one.

Advent Wreath
Photo by Waldemar Brandt

Naively, we set it up that way. Getting married during Advent was until recently frowned upon in the Roman Catholic Church.  In the church year, this is a season of preparation and reflection, not festivity and frivolity. Had we heeded that ancient wisdom and chosen a more sensible wedding day, our honeymoon may very well have been blissful.

The minds of twenty-somethings, however, are not known for wisdom. And we were no exception. Immediately following Jay’s sister’s wedding in October, it seemed perfectly reasonable to plan one of our own to take place six weeks later. The Saturday before Christmas made eminent sense because we would both be on school break. Being married during a festive season chimed for us with romantic fervor.

Jule and Jay's Wedding Photo

In photos taken on my wedding day, I am truly beaming and dewy-eyed. No hint in those pictures that many of the guests became stranded in an icy underpass on the way to the reception or that the caterer took the lids off the food an hour early and everyone who did make it ate cold food. Undaunted by such setbacks, we took off in a snowstorm for northern Michigan and our skiing honeymoon.

Not Necessarily a Time for Everything

Skiing? Honeymoon? Those two words sound odd together because there are very few people in the world for which they flow smoothly in the same sentence. And we were not among them.

Vintage hotel room
Photo by Lina Castaneda

The idyllic oblivion that carried us through the wedding mishaps refused to let us be daunted by the icy roads and dense fogs that dogged our journey north. After several hours, we arrived cold, wet, hungry and happy at our shabby-chic inn on Traverse Bay.  Okay, more shabby than chic, but the beds were comfy even if the rooms were chilly.  And we had enough heat between us to overcome that obstacle.

The real calamity waited for the next morning. We headed for the ski slopes at a nearby resort, one of us a seasoned skier, the other one a complete neophyte. We intended to bridge the gap by signing me up for ski school. Once that was settled, Jay kissed me goodbye, hoisted himself on a J-bar and was literally up and away. I stared at the tall, thin boards in my grasp. My heart sunk. I couldn’t possibly learn to maneuver on such outlandish objects. I felt every bit the deserted wife.  And I’d only been married three days.

Nonetheless, I trudged after the bright young woman who assured a collection of other adults, all of whom appeared fairly stressed, that we’d be skiing “in no time.” Not true.  When Jay came to collect me for lunch, I could finally stand on the skis without immediately tripping, but I certainly wasn’t “ski-ing.”

Photo by Harrison Moore

After a hearty burger, he told me not to worry and headed for the slopes. My eyes followed him until he was a blur at the top of the mountain. Then I trudged by to ski-school. By the end of the second day, I was the last in my class still not “skiing.” My classmates had hit the hills – albeit the bunny slopes. Reduced to practicing with the kids’ class, my mood darkened every day.  Only the fabulous nights saved our marriage from being one of the shortest ones on record.

Calamity Jule

Downed skier

Photo by Clement Delhaye

And then that ended.  On the fourth day, I begged Jay to let me try skiing with him.  He chose the easiest of the trails. Heart in my throat, I slung a leg over the J-bar and managed to slide off at the top without crashing into the snow.  With much encouragement, I pushed off.  Suddenly the world raced by and I had no idea how to stop it or control its direction. I panicked, dug in my poles and flipped over backward.

Jay slid to stop, knelt beside me, and whispered “Jule” in hushed tones.

“What?” I barked back.

“Thank, God. You’re okay,” he answered.

“I am not,” I retorted. “I can’t move my right leg.”

Another skier alerted the ski patrol.  Rescuers arrived and I was carried down the mountain on the back of a very burly, good-looking hunk.  Sadly, I was in no state to appreciate that unique opportunity. At a nearby clinic, we discovered nothing was broken, but I had torn all the ligements in my knee and sprained my ankle. I would be on crutches for several weeks.

Girl by fireplace
Photo by Jon Tyson

The next morning, Jay set me up on a big cushy sofa in the front of a roaring fire, an Agatha Cristie mystery and a thermos of hot cocoa at my side.  He advised that I rest and sleep.  He’d see me when the slopes closed.  That lasted one day.

Honeymoons, I insisted that evening, were meant to be spent together. We need to move to Plan B, which as it happens was non-existent.  But we couldn’t go “home.”  Our apartment wasn’t available for another week.

Salvage Operation
Fox Theater Detroit
Photo by Josh Hammond

Instead, we drove to Detroit where we spent our first Christmas with my grandmother and treated ourselves to “Mary Poppins” at the Fox Theater.  It was the most enchanting moment of our honeymoon.  The movie was our “spoonful of sugar.”

It meant that for the next fifty-five years, we remember the ups and downs of the Honeymoon Disaster with fondness rather than bitterness.

We had vowed “For Better, For Worse,” and in one week of Love’s Lessons, we learned how very true that promise would be.

Did your honeymoon live up to your dreams?  What Love Lessons did you learn on your honeymoon?  We all have so much to share with one another.  Please do so right in the comment box.

Gratefully,

Jule

Your honeymoon tells the world–and maybe you–who you are.

GINGER STRAND, Inventing Niagara

http://www.notable-quotes.com/h/honeymoons_quotes.html

Frankie’s Catches Fire

Restaurant fire

“Frankie’s Catches Fire,” the headline read last January. Oh, no, I thought, not another one.

As the years fly by, many places that we cherished for the memories they evoked have, one by one, bit the dust. Jay remains the “love of my life.” Yet, it’s still hard to see empty space or alien edifices taking over where there once a cherished memory dwelt.

The little chapel where we vowed “for better or worse” transitioned into a school auditorium when St. Mary of the Woods Parish built a grander church, filled with spectacular stained glass and acres of marble, but no echoes of our hopeful promises.St. Mary of the Woods

On one of our many sojourns to northern Michigan, we discovered that the fine old Victorian Inn in which we had honeymooned had vanished. The past winter, hot flames fed by frigid winds had consumed its antique wooden frame, leaving behind only ashes and no incentive to rebuild in a style no longer considered practical.  We wandered the field at the edge of the harbor, but it was impossible to make out even a vague outline of the once elegant rooms.

A few years later as we rode along Touhy Avenue on Chicago’s northside on our way to the airport, we witnessed the swinging arc of a wrecker’s ball crashing into the truly ugly, but to us beloved, walls of “The Purple Motel.”  Ah, the wages of sin are death.  But our uppermost sentiment was not residual guilt but deep frustration that we couldn’t find a way through the cyclone fencing surrounding the deconstruction site.  We would not have even one grossly lavender brick to serve as a souvenir.

Building deconstructing
Photo by Davidson Luna

 

The motel joined the list, along with so many of the lovely Art Deco buildings along “Boule Mich” as we had loving called Michigan Avenue when we were young and first in love.  Back in those days, rather than the bustling upscale shopping area one finds today, fine old shops, bastions of the early twentieth century were going out of business.  There were almost as many empty storefronts as going concerns.  And Jay and I loved it that way. Strolling from the curve of Lake Shore Drive south to the Chicago River and back provided us with unhurried free entertainment. Once the John Hancock Tower went up and the avenue regained its popularity, we felt like strange tribes had invaded our private preserve of romance.

Now another announcement of loss!  But, no , as it turned out restaurant workers had managed to contain the fire and the South Bend landmark was saved.

Such relief.

In the mid-1960s, Frankie’s had been a crowded, yet surprisingly quiet, hang-out, a perfect place to listen to jazz and have long heart-to-heart discussions. Many an evening Jay and I spent all evening Frankie’s without noticing that there was another soul in the place.  We drank endless refills of root beer for me and the real stuff for him.  We solved the problems

Couple in window
Photos by Tao Heftiba

of the world and the difficulties of the university system. We embraced our hopes for our nation and for ourselves. We discussed music and movies, philosophy and religion, politics and sports, families and friendships.

We never actually spoke of love, but it was the subtext of every conversation. The more we learned about each other, the more we wanted to know.  The more we knew, the less we could imagine living without this person. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when on Dec. 5, 1963, Jay slide a small leather box across the table.  But it did.  It took my breath away. Intuiting a reality and staring it in the face are two entirely different experiences. I opened the box.  Inside lay a small class ring. It was an exact replica of Jay’s Notre Dame ring.

Notre Dame did not allow fraternities on campus.  The tradition of Two class rings“pinning” could, therefore, not take hold in that culture.  Instead, a form of pre-engagement, unique to that university, was “miniaturing.”  This meant that a young man committed himself to a permanent relationship with a young woman by offering her a miniature of his own class ring. (My post-feminist awareness cringes at the term, but this is now, not then.)

The ring fit perfectly.  That, as it turned out, was pure good fortune.  Jay had not realized that the rings had to be ordered ahead of time.  When he decided to ask me to commit to him, he casually went to the college bookstore to buy one of the rings and heard the bad news that it took six weeks to acquire one. But, lo and behold, a miniature containing a stone that matched Jay’s had come back into the store that morning.  The young women for whom it had been intended said, “No.” Jay blithely went off with the ring to offer it to a girl he felt pretty sure would say “Yes.”  And she did.

But, over the years, I’ve often wondered about that other girl.  Did she ever regret it?  Did they change their minds? Is she still living with her true love?

Love’s lessons I’ve learned can be harsh, but sometimes what begins as loss can turn into a win.

“I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic for the past, but after all I suppose that is the only thing one can be nostalgic about.”
― James Rozoff

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/sentimentality

Have you had a favorite place disappear on you?  Tell us about it.

Many Ways to Arrange a Marriage

Road between Autumn Trees
Once Upon a Thanksgiving

Arranged marriages are not the norm in modern Western society.  Yet, there can be times when either with full intent and by accident, a parent can help “arrange” a marriage for his or her child. My mother-in-law, Mary Brophy Ward by a simple act of kindness, inadvertently nudged her son into a deeply committed relationship with me much more quickly than had been his intention.

In early November 1962, Jay and I had just resumed dating. We had met the year before on a blind date, but nothing had sparked between us. Jay thought I was the kind of girl he hoped to marry someday, but he was a long way from such a serious undertaking. As for me, I was in the midst of falling deeply in love with another guy to whom I would become engaged within a few months.

Couple walking in woods
Photo by Tom the Photographer

My engagement shattered the following June.  After a long, lonely summer, I returned to college and invited Jay to a party on campus. I’d been on his mind. So, it was a welcome call. We began to see each other every weekend, usually to walk from St. Mary’s to Notre Dame and join dozens of other couples dancing to the sound of crooners the Huddle DJ preferred. Cheap, pleasant fun, it was a good, nicely-paced way to get to know each other. We both liked what we discovered.

Meet the Parents

Jay’s parents had tickets for all the Notre Dame football games. Routinely, they drove to South Bend from Chicago, attended the game, met Jay after ND lost (it wasn’t quite the same team in those days), and took him and a bunch of his friends to dinner.

The first week of November, Jay invited me to meet them. His sister Maureen was a freshman at St. Mary’s.  She and her roommate, another Maureen, would be joining us as would Maureen’s parents, who were visiting from Oregon. In those days games always started at noon and ended around three-thirty. So, after the game, we all met in Jay’s small single room in Dillon Hall for soft drinks before going out. We barely fit in the small space, which was already jammed full with a twin bed, desk, desk chair, bookcase, and lounge chair (still one of Jay’s stables). In order for us all to fit, a crowd that had grown to include Jay’s best friend Jack and his former roommate Phil, I sat on top of his desk (oh, to be that slim and nimble again).

Jay’s dad, John Francis Ward, was a member of Mayor Richard Daley’s cabinet and a no-nonsense guy when he was around family (though we had heard he could be quite a cut-up when out with friends). Mr. Ward was perturbed.

Model heart on med book
Photo by Robina Weermeier

Jay had entered Notre Dame three years before as a pre-med major.  By the end of his junior year, he had completed all his pre-med credits – and decided he didn’t want to be a doctor! His senior class roster was filled with Russian Lit and Political Science courses. His dad must have been brooded over this for a few weeks because suddenly in front of everyone he confronted Jay. “Well, son, if you aren’t going to be a doctor, then just what do you plan to do with your life?”

Priest with Chalices
Photo by Shalone Cason

The whole room hushed. Jay turned white. His freckles stood out against his pale skin, and then he gave a slow smile. “I’m going to become a priest,” he said. His timing was unfortunate.  I had a mouthful of Pepsi just sliding down my throat. It caught there.  I choked and sputtered and splattered Maureen who was sitting on the desk chair with a spray of sticky soda.

When I got my breath, I realized all eyes were on me. I could feel the warmth of my blush start on my neck and flush up to the roots of my hair. I switched the focus to Maureen. “I’m so sorry.  Are you okay?  Here I have a hanky.”

A Simple Invitation

As things calmed down, Mrs. Ward came over and engaged me in conversation. Something must be happening between her son and this girl, and she wanted to know just what.  In the conversation, it came out that I wouldn’t be going home for Thanksgiving because the trip to Minnesota was too long for the short break.  She immediately invited me to come and have Thanksgiving with them.

It wasn’t until we were married that I learned that Jay was horrified by his mother’s invitation.  He felt it defined a certain seriousness about our relationship that he had not quite come to accede to yet. But he couldn’t very well take back his mother’s invitation.

Our first Thanksgiving together was beautiful and seemingly uneventful. I came in on the South Shore electric train in the morning, enjoyed a day basking in the warmth of his large family, stuffed myself as people do on Thanksgiving, and took the last train back to South Bend that night.

Thanksgiving meal
Photo by Stephanie McCabe

As low-keyed as that Thanksgiving holiday was on the surface, at the fundamental level it marked a turning point. I spent my first holiday ever with a family not my own, moving a little further into life away from my origins. Jay, for the first time, actually saw me in the midst of his whole family, celebrating with them in their traditional way. And it felt just right.  After that weekend, he knew he could never again imagine “family” without me.

So many times Love’s Lessons have come to me during life’s celebratory seasons.  It seems that the heightened sensitivity to human connection that is integral to the holidays helps to forge new bonds as well as to cement older ones.

Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie

Tell us about your first Thanksgiving with a significant other.