Nature Finds a Way

IMG_3089Many parts of the city are manicured. Huge planters line Michigan Avenue, overflowing with seasonal color. Neighborhoods have sidewalk planters and baskets of flowers hanging from street light poles. Any restaurant with outdoor seating surrounds their patrons with colorful plants and trailing vines. Chicago is the city in a garden, gloriously on display all summer, but there are still corners that defy landscaping efforts.

Most city properties leave no room for grass. Buildings reach to the edges of their lots, and paved patios cover the areas in front and behind. Yet, somehow, grass wants to poke up between the bricks; and roots, reaching from an isolated tree, will exert their power to lift a sidewalk, buckling the cement. Occasionally a grassy strip is left between the sidewalk and the street, but it won’t look like a Scott’s ad. Instead, it becomes a magnet for dogs whose ammonia leavings are not the best fertilizer. These areas degrade to a muddy mess, never looking like a putting green.

Condo and apartment buildings will have decorative planters in front, and if they’re lucky, they’re maintained by building management, because if left to the efforts of the residents, the results are variable. Plantings that once were fresh and beautiful decline to a few overgrown items, with the spaces filled in by volunteers – dandelions, crab grass, and the occasional beer can or cigarette pack to add a spot of color.

When untended, things certainly get messier. Plants spill over their boundaries onto the street and poke through cracks. Ivy that seemed like a good idea once upon a time has grown over a home, covering all of the windows. Greenery sprouts from gutters filled with leaf litter, and dirt that has accumulated around the sewer grate.

We used to have a suburban house with a big wooded yard. I learned first hand that it takes constant vigilance for your yard to look anything like a Better Homes and Gardens picture. Bushes and flower beds that were so beautiful when you moved in seem to go wild when you turn your back. That small bush has now grown to block the garage door, the sharp edging between the grass and the impatiens has blurred, deer have mowed down all your tulips, and bunnies are feasting on the herb garden. Trying to keep up with fall leaves finally broke us down and we engaged professional landscapers to help us retake the yard.

One of the undeniable draws of city life has been not having a yard to take care of. I keep a few potted things alive, but I don’t have to haul mulch, fertilize a lawn, or rake anymore. I can enjoy the beautiful plantings all around the city, and the only price I’m paying is, literally, my taxes. I recognize plants I used to grow, and see that professional and constant care helps them stay lush. But against all the landscapers’ efforts, one can still find nature gone wild.

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Klutzy

klutzI’m not a dancer or a gymnast, but can generally control my limbs enough to walk upright, carry things and chew gum at the same time. I’m fortunate to have only had one broken bone and one wound needing stitches. And yet, I am often reminded that I can be a total klutz.

The copier at work is out of paper. Someone tall has loaded the cabinet with a stack of paper packages and since I can’t reach the top, I try the tablecloth magic trick – I’ll yank the bottom package out of the stack. Fail! Multiple packages come tumbling down on my head, arms, and the copier. The worst part is the loud noise that gets everyone’s attention, not the lump on my head.

I interrupt the dishes to do something in another room, then I come back into the kitchen and walk into the open dishwasher door that’s just above ankle level. In addition to the abrupt stop and shooting pain, I bang into the countertop and the dish rack. That graceful fall went unwitnessed, but now I have to explain the multiple bruises.

Walking home after dinner, I manage to find the uneven section of the sidewalk and make a three point landing – right knee and both palms – on the cement. Curiously, my pants are intact while my knee is scraped and bloody. It reminds me of dropping a letter opener on the top of my foot. The point made my foot bleed, but my stockings were unharmed. Ah, the resiliency of modern fabrics!

In college, my dorm’s laundry room was in the basement. While I was moving things from the washer to the dryer, I slipped on a small puddle of water, turning my foot slightly to the side. The swelling and bruising that ensued was evidence to the doctor that I had broken my little toe, and surprise! breaks that small didn’t get a cast, just ice and elevation.

In addition to goofy stuff I can remember, sometimes odd bruises or scrapes just appear. What is that scab on my knuckle? How did I get that bruise on my hip? I must go through life body-checking doors and bouncing off the corners of desks while I’m thinking of something else. So, I’ll try to get through this entire day without hurting myself. Maybe full-body bubble wrap would help.

Moving Day

nestFrom the moment your newborn fills your house with wails, cries, and coos, silence is only a memory. The noise that children can make is constant while it varies in intensity and pitch. Some noises reassure you that they’re playing, some are tired and whiney, and others make you drop everything and run. Their quiet sleeping breath is a relief at the end of the day, but you crave more quiet. To sit with your book and a mug of tea, having no one ask you to get something, come here, hold me.

It shifts a bit as they grow up, go to school, visit friends’ houses, and go to camp. But these are relatively short out-and-back trips that always end up at home base. By the time they go away to college, it feels like they’re gone, but their rooms are intact, and they visit often. And then, they move out for real. It’s the expected conclusion of “raising a child” – they should be able to stand on their own two feet, literally and figuratively – and yet, we’re taken by surprise when the day finally comes. Granted, it’s not a clean break. There are still calls and visits, requests for recipes or advice on how to fix something.

Our son moved into an apartment right after his college graduation. Our daughter came home after college and lived with us for a year, and now she too is moving to an apartment. All week, boxes have been lined up in our living room (AKA the staging area) waiting for the day she could pick up the keys. Now that it’s here, the hauling begins. Lifting boxes and furniture are a true trial of my supposed gym muscles. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Moving out a child seems just as hard as birthing one.

My first apartment was filled with a bed, a kitchen table, and a Queen Anne desk I could take from home, a hand-me down couch from a family friend, and two tables that were props sold by Actor’s Theatre from a recent play. The move was accomplished with a few car trips. I had some nifty built-in cabinets which meant I could get by without a dresser. Eventually I replaced my cinderblock and plywood bookcase with “real” ones.

Now that all my daughter’s things, including my Queen Anne desk, have been moved to her new place, I’m collapsed in a chair, muscles throbbing. I’m thinking of how we’ll use her room, and what new furniture we’ll buy. It’s quiet. Here’s the silence I was hoping for, and it feels empty.

Vanishing Point

vanishing pointWhen I close my eyes, I still see the lane markers extending to the distant horizon. The road is mostly flat and fairly empty. On either side are lush green terraced fields like Zen gardens; bluish green corn stalks, precisely spaced, curving rows of soybeans. Tall wind turbines and red barns punctuate the view. We’ve spent all day driving west out of Chicago and entered a foreign land.

Due to construction, the highway was reduced to one lane, seemingly a tactic to slow our escape from Illinois. Exits touting food-lodging-gas had unfamiliar names and we even saw a relic of the 60’s: a Sinclair gas sign with the green dinosaur. I heard a joke once about New Yorkers who tried to take a drive to the country and turned back when they realized they’d hadn’t seen a deli for miles. I’ll admit, it’s surprising when you learn the whole country isn’t like where you’re from. It’s all America, right? But when you live in a big city, the wide open spaces between require an adjustment.

The road goes on and on, there are no stop lights, no traffic jams, no honking. If I’m not careful, it can be downright hypnotizing. Instead of childhood road-trip games of looking for certain makes of cars, or license plates from all 50 states, we catch up on our podcasts. Gone are the paper maps and spiffy trip-tiks from AAA. We consult the GPS and are reminded that we stay on this same road for 300 miles.

Just off the highway is a giant convenience store / fast food restaurant / gas station / clothing store. They have everything you may have forgotten at home, and many things you didn’t know you needed. That jumbo bag of flaming hot Cheetos seems like just the thing for a long drive, but we get coffee instead.

Road trips with our kids felt like the fuse had been lit. There was an undetermined amount of time we could expect them to put up with being restrained in their car seats. We’d try to postpone the inevitable with books, music, games and food. With the realization that eating an entire Stuckey’s pecan log roll was a bad choice, and cries of “are we there yet?” we’d have to stop and give them a chance to run around. Back in the car, if we were lucky, they’d finally fall asleep so we could drive in peace.

After all day in the car, we took a long walk to remind ourselves that we can move those limbs. But tomorrow we’re going to do it all again. Westward ho!

Running

IMG_2993This month I’ve participated in two charity fun runs, though unlike years past, I was part of the “walk” rather than the run. While I’m active and relatively fit, I don’t run anymore. But pinning a number to my shirt, stretching, and joining a large crowd at the start line brings it all back: the cheering crowds, the water stops, the mile markers, the thrill of crossing the finish line with a personal record.

Though I was never a cross-country or track athlete, after college I started to run. I don’t remember any particular reason, but it was easy to get started, I could decide how far and how fast, and it seemed to come naturally. Of course when you’re 22, any physical activity is relatively easy. Eventually, I was joining in short runs for a t-shirt and increasing my mileage.

As I threaded my way through neighborhoods and parks I’d estimate distances by time, then I’d drive the same courses to get a better measure. I usually preferred an out-and-back course because it committed me to the distance I wanted to cover. If I ran 3 miles away from home, there was nothing to do but run 3 miles back.

I worked my way up to the “Mini Marathon,” a half-marathon the week before the Derby. Mom would drop me and my brother off at Iroquois Park for the start, and drive downtown to make sure we made it across the finish line. After the first mile in the incredibly hilly park, the rest of the course was flat, lined with supporters blasting the Rocky theme from their front porches.

A colleague at work and I started running together, including one Fourth of July race when we dressed in red, white and blue, wore crowns, and carried flashlights aloft, in the pose of the Statue of Liberty. After running lots of races of all sizes, and even a road trip to Atlanta for the PeachTree 10K, we decided to tackle a marathon. We had a training plan: most days were foundation distances of 5, 6, or 7 miles, and on the weekends, we’d have a longer challenge – 10, 13 or 18. Since the race was in November, the days were getting shorter as our mileage was getting longer. There were lots of long weeknight runs in the dark.

On race day, my friend was sick and couldn’t run, so I had to do it alone. I missed having her at my side, with conversation and the shared accomplishment from so many weeks of training. I finished in a decent time without injury, but I knew I could check “marathon” off my list and never have to do it again.

On a recent visit to Louisville, I drove over some of the same paths I’d run. I even saw the water fountain at the turnaround point of my 8 mile course. For a moment I felt wistful, remembering another life, a pile of race shirts, and worn shoes. But striding along the lakefront today as runners pass me, the pace is just fine.

Family Ties

IMG_2966My memories are rich, woven from a myriad of experiences, and occasionally a tug on a certain thread illuminates the past so clearly. This week, a few important memories stand out: a card, a summer visit, Christmas, and a floor plan.

One thing I could count on every year was a birthday card from Aunt Jean. Inside the card was her large looping signature and an even bigger number proclaiming my new age. Well into adulthood, it was Aunt Jean who never forgot whether I was 39 or 45 – or older – with an exclamation mark.

One summer, my parents went on a trip and I got to stay with Aunt Jean. Her house was an exciting place to be: full of kids, mostly older than I was, a constant background of music from WAKY radio and a ringing phone. We played in the yard, I learned the merits of waxed paper to speed the path down the sliding board, and the thrill of a neighborhood baseball game. Jean’s large family gave me a glimpse into what it must have been like for her and my mom to grow up in a family of seven. The activity, the overlapping conversations, the jostling.

Each Christmas Eve we’d deliver baskets of homemade jelly to relatives, always ending up at the Gardner’s. We’d stand on the front porch singing Joy to the World at the top of our lungs until they finally let us in. We were welcomed with smiles and shouts, and wound our way through the friendly crowd to the buffet table, the carved ham at the kitchen counter, and lots of treats. Sometimes the popcorn balls were so fresh, they were still warm.

Like many cities, expanding with post-war housing, there were neighborhoods with similar homes. Our house had the same floor plan as Aunt Jean’s so that even after we moved to a different house when I was small, our visits to Aunt Jean’s kept that home fresh in my memory. Once I was visiting town with my daughter and we dropped in to see Jean and John. As always, they made us feel like the most important people in the world.

I hear Jean’s voice – “How you doing, ol’ bean?” and a warm hug that feels like home.

Snapshot

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 6.09.01 PMBirthdays seem to come around all too often and dates that used to seem far away get closer with increasing speed, so the year 2020 doesn’t seem that far away. It’s in the news these days because of the upcoming Census. Questions are being reviewed and circulated, people are sought for part time work, and we all learn the meaning of decennial.

Mandated by the Constitution to determine state representatives and taxes, the Census started in 1790 and is carried out every 10 years. When it started it must have been a daunting task in a new country with towns and settlements spread over the countryside; travel on horseback; parchment and quills. Census information includes names, ages, and professions of the people that are counted, and those details are kept private for 72 years. A few years ago, the census released its 1940 results to the public online, so I decided to see if I could find my family.

An online search of the records was challenging because they are organized by Magisterial Districts and blocks whose numbering system is opaque to me. But armed with city, state, county, and a street name, I could narrow it down to 34 pages of scanned documents. Poorly scanned documents that looked like someone had tried hard to flatten them on the copy machine but their decades-old folds wouldn’t let go. Finally I found the names I was looking for.

The handwritten records looked like old report cards, or letters from your grandmother. Beautiful longhand listings all of the people who lived in the home: my grandmother and her 7 children. The listing included first name, age, and employment. The kids (my aunts, uncles and mom) ranged in age from 21 to 8 and the two oldest included occupations. A separate section at the bottom of the page had a few blocks for “supplement questions” though I’m not sure what would trigger those questions, or if they randomly applied them to certain rows of the larger form. My mom, the youngest of the family, was listed in that section with a “Usual Occupation” of “baby.”

Poring over the document with my mother, we could see all of her neighbors, and an aunt and uncle who lived a few blocks over. Mom paused on one name and explained that this was the neighbor who had rushed out in the street to pick her up after she was hit by a car. What?! I had never heard this story before. It took this written evidence to dislodge the memory from my mom’s past.

I understand that the 2020 Census will be the first to be primarily administered on the Internet, though I’m sure some door-to-door work will need to be done as well. The results will be tabulated on computers and the records will be neatly printed for future generations to review in 2092. I hope they find it as interesting a snapshot of their family’s past as I do.

Summer

IMG_2102It has been a quintessential Chicago Week. Last Sunday, we went to a Sox game and I wore layers including long underwear, a turtleneck, my winter coat and gloves. This Sunday is over 90 degrees, and I’m pawing through my box of summer clothes for shorts and a t-shirt. I think it was spring on Tuesday. While Memorial Day weekend officially kicks off summer, it’s the special activities, more than the temperature, that confirm it’s here.
Growing up, summer used to mean a three month vacation from school, filled with days at the pool burnishing my tan. Going to the movies, a birthday slumber party, and big family cook-outs. Muggy days spent weeding the garden and discovering what bugs lived under the stepping stones. Making jelly and going to the State Fair. Taking refuge in the one room we air-conditioned, and then sleeping in front of an open window with the attic fan pulling in the slightly cooler night air. The smell of Sea and Ski, the sting of the sun burn I got anyway, mosquito bites, and the tick tick of June bugs on the screens.
After graduating from college and landing my first full-time job, the harshest realization wasn’t that taxes got withheld from my pay, but that there was no three month vacation. Instead, there were a mere 10 days that were supposed to take the place of a summer break. Summer fun had to be squeezed into evenings and weekends. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day were suddenly more precious.
Summers took on a different feel with kids. They had the summer off, but we did not, so we explored the range of summer day camps, art and theatre programs, and sleep-away camps when they were older. We tried to work in a big family vacation that would get all of our kids’ cousins together at the beach. While in town, we’d spend some time at the neighborhood pool, catch fireflies at night, and toast marshmallows over the dying coals after grilling burgers and hot dogs. The kids also got to be “unaccompanied minors” on flights to visit far-flung family members.
Now what makes it summer? It starts with switching winter clothes for summer ones, pulling out sandals and sundresses, getting a pedicure for the aforesaid sandals, and buying a high SPF sunscreen. Visiting a street fair, choosing sidewalk seating at a restaurant, buying new sunglasses. Going outside without having to bundle up, but carrying a light sweater just in case. Checking out the summer blockbuster movie with popcorn and a Coke. Reading a stack of great books from the library, and eating fresh corn from the farmers’ market. Sitting on our terrace, enjoying a cool cocktail and watching the sun set. Ahhh.

Hat Season

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 12.00.59 PMLately, I feel strangely underdressed without a color-coordinated topper, tilted fascinator, or something with a wide brim to complement my suit or dress. Between the Derby and a royal wedding, it seems that all women are wearing big, beautiful hats. While I love to see fancy hats, they are part of another world.

Decorative hats are reserved for royalty, celebrities, fashion shows, or magnificent church ladies. While on display in historical films, I don’t see women in hats very often in everyday life other than the knitted or fleece kind for self-preservation in winter. Even in the coldest temperatures, I only wear a warm hat to and from the gym. Why? Because I’m worried about hat hair. I’m convinced that a hat will mash down everything I’ve tried to arrange through blow-drying. In reality, I’ve learned that it doesn’t really make that much difference. I may deign to wear a hat home from work (but never to work) and find that my hair looks just the same when I take it off.

A hat certainly makes a statement: “look at me!”, “watch out or I’ll poke you in the eye!”, or “what has landed on my head?!” Some of the colorful hats I saw at the royal wedding truly completed the outfits, while others looked like afterthoughts or downright attention-getters (woman with the spiky white feathers, I’m looking at you). The ones with visible headbands looked like a half measure. Derby hats are just as fanciful. Setting aside the ones that include a replica of Churchill Downs, or integrate an actual mint julep, Derby hats rival anything one would see at Ascot. TV coverage zooms in on the beautiful women and their hats so that one almost believes that everyone in Kentucky dresses this way all the time.

Special occasion hats are lovely, but they aren’t practical in a windy city. No one wants to wear a chin strap to hold it on, and many of them look like they could achieve some loft with the right amount of breeze before they go rolling down the street like tumbleweeds.

There is one person who doesn’t seem right without a hat – Queen Elizabeth. Calling her regal is correct and redundant at the same time, but she does look the part. Her hats go with her lovely coats, brightly colored intentionally so that she is easy to spot in a crowd. I may be mistaken, but she seems to only wear proper hats. OK, there were some styles that looked like bathing caps in her past, but at least she avoids the crazy fascinators. And whenever she removes those hats, away from the crowd, I’m sure there’s a stylist nearby to return her coiffure to its perfect form.

Mother’s Day

thumbnailI awake to the muffled sounds of shared secrets coming from the kitchen. Little chefs are working on a surprise, so I feign sleep until they burst in with a tray of French toast, fruit, tea, a flower and a handmade card. Breakfast in bed is an activity for Mother’s Day when the kids are young. Exciting, endearing, and usually followed by washing the sheets.

Preparing and presenting this ceremonial meal is one of the first times you realize how easy cooking looks when mom is doing it. Making scrambled eggs just firm enough; keeping the toast warm enough to melt the butter; not sloshing the tea. But when you’re so proud to bring your attempt in on a tray, every mom expresses appreciation, even if the food bears improvement. I’m pretty sure my mom hugged me so I couldn’t see when she tucked some of those eggs under the toast.

As a child, I didn’t suffer from low self-esteem, but I always enjoyed it when something I did would make my mom happy. Whether it was cleaning a bathroom so that she didn’t feel compelled to clean it again, weeding the garden to save her some of that back-breaking labor, or making her tea just right. Somehow we know our mom will love us, no matter what, but it’s especially sweet when you know you’re not making her try too hard.

I probably never thought about it till I was a mother, but you retain this role forever. No matter how old your kids are, you never stop being their mother. I’ve grown to accept that they can make their own decisions, work through challenges, and manage most life skills. When asked, I’m happy to share my arcane knowledge of writing a check or filing taxes. In turn, they share great books, TV shows and movies I might otherwise miss.

This Mother’s day my children aren’t bringing me a tray, but they’re doing something pretty impressive: getting their bearings in adult work life and crushing it. And for that, I’m happy to make my own breakfast.