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!

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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.