Friday, August 21, 2015

A Toast to Treasured Friends

You know how some friends remain steadfast, even when you sometimes go five years or more without seeing them in real life? You know how some friendships encompass not only your friends but their entire families?

I'm lucky enough to have some friends like that. I met Pat, who I used to call Patsy, when I was 11 years old, and she went on to become my best friend during high school. She was matron of honor when I got married, and I was maid of honor in her wedding a few months before mine. 

Pat even came to visit when Marty and I moved to England. She and her cousin Pam and I were a triple dose of trouble when we were teenagers. Pat's little brother Jimmy was a good friend of my younger brother Thom. And Pat's older brother Howie and I were pen pals of a sort when he was stationed in the Pacific.

Pat's dad died many years ago, but her mom is a more recent loss and we all miss her. Every New Year's Eve I think of her dad and his potent, steaming glug and I can't hear of a Polish food without thinking of Pearl, Pat's mom. I'm sooo glad I got to see Pearl again a few years ago. She had health problems, but she still had a great smile and a wonderful sense of humor. (She needed one, to put up with our escapades.)

Jimmy is an artist extraordinaire and a fabulous banjo player. Pam is also an artist - one of her paintings hangs on the wall next to my desk. Pat's talent is dancing, and I'll never forget her 16th (?) birthday, when her mom gave her a big dancing ballerina doll to celebrate her accomplishments in Orchesis.

That's the backstory, leading up to my wonderful, wonderful day yesterday. The weather was perfect when I went to meet Pat and Pam at the Art Institute of Chicago. (When my daughter called it a museum, I disagreed. "What would you call it then," she demanded. "A house of art." She thinks I'm nuts, but I still think that describes it better. However you describe it, people like it - a lot. (Okay, so maybe it is a museum.)

We enjoyed the Degas exhibit, and the always-breathtaking Monets, and then we had lunch outside at the awesome Art Institute restaurant, Terzo Piano.We ate outside with a view of Millennium Park and a nice selection of Chicago's skyscrapers, remembering when the Prudential Building was the tallest building in town.

We took a stroll through Millennium Park after lunch, took some pictures by the Bean (real name: Cloud Gate) and then Pat and I sat at a sidewalk cafe and reminisced about old times, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and killer seagulls in Cornwall while Pam, Howie and Jim took a 2 1/2 hour Segway Tour. Pat and I, fueled by memories of our spectacular klutziness, kept a safe distance from those wheeled behemoths. Pam said it was fun, and by the end of the tour she said maneuvering the Segway had become second nature, but I think Pat and I made the right decision. 

The first time I saw New York, it was with Pat - well, and with my husband, too. First time I saw New Jersey, Pat was there. And Fort Lauderdale, too. Pat has seen every house Marty and I have lived in, except one, and we've lived in a lot of houses, all over the place. 

As teenagers, Pat and I knew each others' houses as well as we knew our own. She could stroll into my house at any time and be sure of a welcome - well, apart from That Night. I must have slept soundly that night, because when I woke up, every bra I owned was frozen solid in the freezer, I'd been pummeled with silver dragees (cake decorations) and every picture in the house was ever-so-slightly crooked. I don't remember how I got back at Pat, but I'm sure I did eventually. And then there was the mystery of the fried chicken under the bed, but that's another story.

I could drop in on her at any time, and I often did. I'll never forget the time Jimmy let me in and said, "She's in her bedroom." I followed the sound of typing, but couldn't find Pat. I finally figured out she was in the closet. Pat was the fastest typist I knew, but I don't think I ever did discover the attraction of typing in a small, enclosed space.

We've met up occasionally - in New York, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Chicago, London and Las Vegas. No matter how much time has passed, we always have a blast.

Back to yesterday. Pat and I met up with Pam, Howie and Jim at The Betty, near Chicago's Fulton Market, where we were joined by Jim's son and daughter and more family and friends. I think there were ten of us altogether. We polished off a stack of pieroges and cringed at memories of czarnina (duck's blood soup, a Polish specialty). We had a little alcohol and a lot of tapas, some of which were out of my comfort zone - octopus with the tentacles clearly visible? I don't think so! The tapas-style menu was a fun way to feed our large group.

I hadn't seen Jimmy since I was skinny and had red hair. He's no longer the little curly-haired banjo virtuoso, but he's still in many ways the person I remembered - only now he's a grandpa of twins! Howie, who had a full beard last time I saw him, is now a very talented dancer, and he regaled us with stories of his recent cruise to Spain. It came as no surprise that he basically danced his way across the Atlantic. It was a lot of fun getting to know the younger generation of Pat's family, too.

It was hard to say good-bye after such a fun day. When Pat and Pam dropped me off outside my condo building, I saw my daughter coming up the street. I had a weird moment of déjà vu as my past and present collided.

I hope we won't have to wait years before getting together again - next time hopefully our husbands will be able to join us, and maybe my kids will come, too!

Getting old(er) isn't always easy or fun - we griped some about blisters, bunions and the impossibility of wearing high heels anymore. Things change, inevitably - loved ones lost, illnesses endured, blood pressure to be watched, and the occasional frustration of forgetting a name. I'm no longer the skinny redhead, but I remember enough of our "golden youth" to recall it wasn't all sunshine and roses even then.

But it's nice to be able to look back and remember good times with old friends. And it's even nicer to create new memories with the same friends. Here's a toast to you, my friends - new and old. Thank you for making my life so much richer because of your friendship.

*Pat and Jimmy took a bunch of pictures yesterday. I don't like getting my picture taken, but these will have historical value. I'll share some of the pictures later.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Summer in the City

Recently, I was kind of surprised when a couple of people asked me how I was adjusting to life in the city after living in the suburbs for so many years. I was surprised because there really wasn't any adjustment period for us - apparently we're city people. It just took awhile for us to figure that out.

It's not like we're strangers to the city. Marty and I both worked in London and in downtown Chicago, and for awhile he even commuted to New York from Northern New Jersey. We still kick ourselves for buying a house in Kent, in what was described as Greater London, instead of getting a place right in town back when we lived in England.

When we bought our house in Cincinnati, we liked the idea of a big back yard for the kids to play in, and we purposely left part of it wooded and wild. We enjoyed all the wildlife and we especially enjoyed our big deck, although we never really used it to entertain. In a relationship with one extrovert (mostly) and one introvert (mostly), we rarely did adult entertaining, although there were always lots of teenagers around.

We'd been thinking of downsizing at some future date when we were informed that we'd soon be grandparents. Neither of us could imagine living five hours away from our grandchild, so we instantly began the daunting project of clearing out and renovating our house. It was a big job and we have minimal talent as rehabbers. We can handle paint and wallpaper but our project included painting the entire house inside and out AND removing wallpaper that had gone out of style several years ago.

Marty and I have recently become hooked on Fixer Uppers, the Property Brothers and other shows of a similar nature. We feel pretty good about everything we did to fix our house up for sale, but if we'd been watching these shows back then, I think we would have done more drastic updates.

Anyway, we got it done. And by the time we were finished, we eagerly looked forward to moving into a 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo in the city where we wouldn't be tempted to save everything. That's the danger of a two-car garage and a full basement. There's room to store all the kids' kindergarten drawings, all the Christmas decorations, all of pretty much everything.

We gave away thousands and thousands of books, yet still managed to bring 65 cartons of books with us. And now I'm shopping for a bookcase again, after giving away several of them before we moved. At least I'm only looking for a small one this time.

The biggest adjustment, once we settled in, was realizing parking was always going to be an issue. Theoretically, parking is available with our building, but there are limited spaces and new ones only become available when someone moves or dies. Our number may come up for a parking space in 15 years or so. So we decided to sell our car.

This shocked some of our friends, but since there is a Zip-Car lot right across the street, a train station less than a mile away and bus stops to the city only two blocks away, it's not as if we were stranded.

We live in a building with front desk security, neighbors who've lived here for years, and friendly shop owners all around. We also live 5 minutes from our daughter and less than a mile from our son, daughter-in-law and our two beautiful granddaughters. We're two blocks from a nice sandy beach and about the same distance to the Museum of Science and Industry. There is ALWAYS someplace to go and something to do.

Yes, it was hard to give up my garden. But there is a courtyard garden in our building and a nice, private garden in the back with a decorative water fountain and places to sit and read. And, yes, I miss my friends in Cincinnati. We haven't been back for frequent visits, as we assumed we would, but hopefully we'll stay in touch and get back when we can. And sometimes our Cincinnati friends come up here.

And one HUGE plus is our wonderful view of Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan, which is awesome at all times of year and in all kinds of weather. We loved our yard in Cincinnati, but it's hard to top our view! (Even in this picture, which was taken in frigid November.)

If we feel like going out to eat, there are places nearby or, if we're feeling adventurous, we can go into the city and try someplace new.

Oh, and one other thing - we didn't have to shovel any walks or driveways last winter. Okay, I'll admit it. Winter in Chicago is not high on my list of favorite things. But the summers here are pretty glorious. It's a decent trade-off.

So - how are we adjusting? We're adjusting just fine, thank you. Kind of wishing we'd tried the city life years ago. :-)
Dear Google,

Thank you for all the posts to my Blogger dashboard informing me of European Union requirements to post details about cookies. You go on to say this is for people who live in EU countries. Since, as my profile states, I live in Chicago, IL - which is still in the United States - I don't understand why I am being inundated with these notifications. Your Help Topics don't address this issue.

Confused in Chicago

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Question of Balance

Early on, I knew I could cross one potential career choice off my list. Sadly, I'll never be a tightrope walker. (I can barely even watch tightrope walkers!) It's something of a miracle I never broke any bones in the years I enjoyed ice skating. When I put on roller skates, everyone else in the rink risked injury. Notice a pattern here? When it comes to balance, I make Inspector Clouseau look like a prima ballerina.

No two ways about it: I'm a klutz. It's like walls are a magnetic force, drawing me close so I'll bump into them as I walk through a doorway. I am super cautious while walking on ice, walking up stairs, walking in general. I've fallen flat on my back, fallen down more stairs than you can shake a stick at - and I have the wonky knee and broken blood vessels to show for all the times I sprained and/or broke my ankles and tore ligaments in my knees.

I slipped on wet marble steps while wearing smooth-soled new shoes the time I had the worst break. A cat shot past me while I was carrying a load of laundry downstairs another time. And then there was the time I stepped out of the car smack onto a patch of black ice. My feet flew forward, the rest of me flew back - I think for a second or two I was suspended in air before I hit the ground with a very un-Lipizzaner-like thunk.

My mom blames it on my crawling, or lack of it. I was an early walker - I went from horizontal to vertical at about 8 months and I never looked back. Skipped crawling altogether - even then my knees were probably squealing, "Hell, no!" My mom read someplace that we develop our sense of balance as we learn to crawl, so she blames my general clumsiness on the whole no-crawling thing. Too late - I'm not going to try and rectify that now.

In this clumsy manner, I'm leading up to a related topic - finding balance in other aspects of life. Writing, for instance. I have a love/hate relationship with writing. On the one hand, I get antsy if I go for any length of time without writing SOMETHING. Once I get in the routine, I usually enjoy the process, even if the result rarely turns out the way I hoped/planned/intended. I have a slow learning curve, and I have a lot more experience in writing non-fiction than fiction.

Also, my brain is a little weird. I'm pretty sure all writers have weird brains, some more than others. To the extent that weirdness can lead to unusual story ideas, that's a good thing. Reining in the weirdness to keep an unusual story from sliding into the what-the-heck-was-she-thinking zone requires a fine hand and a sense of balance. I have to wonder - if I had learned to crawl, would I have an easier time keeping my stories on the somewhat straight-and-narrow?

One editor gently mentioned an issue of consistency in one early story, while another story had issues with tone. When reading thrillers - and when watching taut, suspenseful movies - I appreciate a shot of humor to give me a break from the tension, however briefly. The trouble is, when I try to do that in my own stories, the brief flash of humor tends to become a short trip to Bizarro World. I'll start yo-yoing back and forth between dark, sometimes even gruesome scenes and humorous (hopefully) antics that leave the reader going, "Whaaaat the...?"


I'm happy to say I haven't walked into any walls for some time now. Haven't broken or sprained an ankle in thirty years or so. Haven't even fallen on the ice in about five years, despite the many opportunities for that to happen. Maybe I'm more cautious now, or maybe I've developed a sense of balance after lo, these many years.

I hope this means there's hope for my writing. God knows, I have a way to go before I reach the level of proficiency I'm aiming for. (Don't get me started on grammar! Spelling? Nailed it. The rest? I do my best, and pray for a sharp-eyed and patient editor.)

Meanwhile, I'll take it in stride when my two-year-old granddaughter handles those slippery sidewalks better than I do. She did learn to crawl before she walked.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Adaline's Treasures

I have a tote bag that I originally bought to use as a diaper bag for the times I went out with my infant granddaughter. Now she's almost 2 1/2 - and potty-trained - so I use it to carry extra hats, gloves, scarves, an umbrella, and other odds and ends.

When I cleaned the bag out recently, I found a lot more oddities than I'd realized. Somewhere along the line, my tote bag has become Adaline's treasure bag. As we walk along, she picks up little treasures and says, "I'll just put this in your bag, Gwamma, so we don't lose it."

The treasures she's collected include:

*a broken purple balloon

*a fairly large stick (suitable for dragging along iron fence rails in order to make a lot of noise)

*a pine cone

*a couple of crabapples

*a maple leaf (that she picked up and said, "Look, a maple leaf!" Good guess!)

*broken graham crackers (remains of school snacks)

*a variety of barrettes she's removed from her hair

*two packs of Curious George fruit snacks

*a battered box of yogurt raisins

*a vintage Smurf figure

*a small rock

*the remains of a "kitty cat tail" - from a container of ornamental grasses

*a penny she found on the bus

My own kids treasured their blankies above all else. Adaline has a couple of blankies but they never held her interest for long. In addition to the collection described above, Adaline is never without a baby doll - she has some nice dolls, but her favorites cost about five bucks at Walgreens (I'm pretty sure Walgreens and our small local toy store are her favorite stores in the whole world).

As the Biblical saying goes - sort of: "Where your treasure is, there is your heart."  In the eyes of this little girl, there are treasures everywhere. I hope she continues to find joy and magic in the little things.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Tantalizing, Tremendous Far-from-Terrible Twos

In 2012, I became a Grandma for the first time. I swear, I was NOT one of those parents who is constantly after their kids to procreate. I thought I'd be well into my dotage before I became a grandma - if then. (My daughter, whose cousin-slash-best-friend had a horrendous labor, frequently expressed her misgivings about having kids.) In fact, when my son called to tell me his baby news, I flat-out didn't believe him. By the time I saw an ultrasound picture, I was in love.

My husband and I had been thinking of downsizing at some point, so it wasn't a difficult decision to pack up and sell our house in Cincinnati and move to Chicago, where I grew up, so I could help with child care. I started babysitting for Adaline when she was six weeks old and I love every minute I spend with her. My daughter Jessica moved to Chicago from Florida so she could be closer to Adaline, and she takes an active role in Adaline's daily life. In June 2014 Adaline started attending day care, primarily so she could associate with other kids. I had misgivings at first but she's clearly thriving there. She adjusted very quickly to the new routine. Nowadays, she eats lunch and takes her nap at day care and I pick her up (sometimes with Auntie Gecca, sometimes with Grandpa) and she comes back here to play until Mommy and Daddy pick her up.

Two-year-olds suffer the stigma of "Terrible Twos" and I remember my own kids exhibiting some challenging behavior at this age. From the standpoint of a grandma (and my daughter shares my thinking on this), I absolutely love Age Two.

The most fun part, for me, is listening to Adaline discover the power and joy of being able to express her likes and dislikes, and to ask questions - lots of questions. She's changing physically too, of course. Adaline has learned to jump and bounce and do somersaults. She isn't particularly tall, but she's tall enough to reach the kitchen counters now, and she can climb on chairs to see what's on the table, too. She's curious about everything, which means no one has any privacy in the bathroom any more. Potty training has begun in earnest, at her insistence, and she likes company when sitting on her little potty.

I raised two kids - a boy and a girl - so you'd think I'd have this parenting routine down pat. I'm the oldest of five kids and I spent a good chunk of my life babysitting and doing child care at home, so add on that experience. But every child is different, and so much happens when kids are growing, it's easy to forget. I'm something of a worrier - years of reading mystery books has me constantly imagining Worse Case Scenarios - but I try not to get bogged down in what-ifs. I try to use reasonable safety precautions without overdoing it.

Sometimes I learn from my mistakes, and other times I'm reminded how joyful life can be from a toddler's perspective.

1. When little girls want to play with lipstick, they REALLY want to play with lipstick!

2. When a two-year-old colors, he or she is going to end up covered in colors, too. The same goes for food and drink - no matter how careful they are, two-year-olds always end up wearing food and beverages.

3. If there is an opportunity for a two-year-old to get soaking wet, they will do it.

4. Two-year-olds are endlessly fascinated with potties

5. Two-year-olds are disguise artists!

6. Best of all, two-year-olds love to laugh (especially when Auntie Gecca comes to play)!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

In My Life #1 - House Memories

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain

- "In My Life," Lennon-McCartney

I was reading a book the other day (Susanna Kearsley's THE ROSE GARDEN) that was so evocative, it made me look back on places in my life. The story is set in Cornwall, so my first memories were of my first visit to Cornwall in 1975. But then, since my granddaughter is never far from my thoughts, it got me wondering about her. She's been coming here regularly since she was six weeks old and she's two years and a few months now. As often as she's been here, I wonder how much she'll remember our place when she's older. If we're still living here by the time she's school age, I'm sure she'll have some memories of it, but maybe not. If she does remember it, I wonder what things she will remember.

My grandparents moved to Evanston, Illinois in the 1940s and they lived in the same house there until I was married. When I moved back from England in the early 1980s, my grandparents moved to Adams, Massachusetts, the town where my grandmother grew up. My grandmother was eager to rediscover the town where she had so many memories of her own parents and grandparents, but I was sad that the house I'd known my whole life was no longer going to be in our family. I'm the oldest of five kids, and as our family grew, we moved several times - mostly within the same Chicago suburb - to houses that could fit us all. The new houses were great, but my grandparents' house had always been the constant.

The house itself was a typical red brick bungalow, a style common in the area from about the 1920s-1940s. It had a detached garage backing on to an alley and a miniscule backyard. The basement could be reached from inside the house or by stairs out in back, and we kids were discouraged from playing down there. My grandmother said it was cold and dirty - the attic, reached by a steep staircase at the back of the house, she called "hot and dusty". I loved the attic but was rarely allowed up there unless my uncle Jim invited me up to see his train set. The main thing I remember about it is that it belched smelly, oily smoke. My uncle Dave stored his WAA-MU show treasures up there, too, but I wasn't allowed to touch those. The only other things I remember seeing up there were stacks of National Geographic magazines, a red child's car of some kind and, I think, an old bicycle. (The American Pickers guys would have found some treasures there, for sure!)

The basement was my grandfather's territory. The main part of the room is where he propagated begonias on an old ping-pong table, with GRO-lights hanging from the ceiling. There was a closeted area where he stored hyacinth and narcissus bulbs on shelves, along with packages of Jell-O from the 1940s and canned food from the same era - my grandparents' version of a fall-out shelter, I guess. Under the stairs there were cabinets I wasn't supposed to fool around with. I remember finding some of my Uncle Jim's Big Little books there - chubby little comic books. My grandmother thought they might be valuable one day so we weren't allowed to play with them.

At the back of the basement was my grandfather's work table. I never saw him make anything there, but I was fascinated by the heavy iron vice that was clamped to the table. (How my brother and I managed to make it through childhood without smashing our fingers on that thing, I'll never know.) At some point - before I was born, I think - my Uncle Jim lived in a room walled off at the end of the basement, across from the worktable. It was pretty scary, not the least because of a picture hanging over the bed that showed a train that looked like it was about to chug right off the canvas. 

The upstairs - the main part of the house - was of far less interest to me as a kid. One of my earliest memories is of the curtains that were in my grandparents bedroom (until they remodeled with a more stylish but less memorable fabric). I remember laying in bed, staring at the old roses when I was too little to know what they were.

 My grandfather and I would have big bowls of blueberries for breakfast, with lots of milk and sugar. And then he would show me his collection of silver certificate one dollar bills. I'm afraid those might have vanished during the move to Massachusetts, since I never saw them again after that.

I can't remember where the clock was - in the living room or the dining room - but I remember whenever I spent the night there, I'd fall asleep to the loud ticking of the clock. I've always loved that sound!

My uncle Dave got married when I was four - I was the flower girl in his wedding - so I don't remember his room at my grandparents' house. My uncle Jim, who is about ten years older than I am, slept in the back porch bedroom for awhile, but the middle bedroom, next to the bathroom, is the one I always connect to him. The wallpaper in that room - until it was redone when I was a teenager - had a white background with a gold and green pattern like spokes on wagon wheels. One day I noticed that some spokes had letters penned between them and - what a surprise! - they spelled girls' names! I was into Nancy Drew books at the time and I felt like I'd stumbled across a secret code. My uncle, who didn't want his current girlfriends to know he had a list of former girlfriends hidden in his bedroom wallpaper, bribed me to keep quiet about it. 

The kitchen and dining room were my grandmother's territory, but they weren't much interest to me. I did like the built-in china cabinets, but I'd like those more today than I did when I was a kid. I liked the living room, especially when my grandfather got a big log fire going in the fireplace. He had a habit of laying down on the carpet in front of the fire and taking a nap. He also did that sometimes when there wasn't a fire going, and when the family was visiting. The first time my soon-to-be-husband met my grandparents, he was shocked to see my family calmly stepping over my grandfather's body as he slept on the living room floor. We were used to it, but it looked like a crime scene to him! The living room also housed the grand piano my grandmother played with her arthritic fingers, accompanying my grandfather who, with his amazing tenor, was a regular soloist at their church. I also loved a painting that hung over their sofa - a painting that is in my bedroom now. I don't know anything about it, but I still love it.

My grandfather was treasurer of Northwestern University for more than twenty years - my parents and aunts and uncles went there, but no one from the current generation. I used to love going to the WAA-MU shows every spring, and I'll always think of the Northwestern campus as a sort of extension of my grandparents' house.

My grandfather was an avid gardener but since his own yard was small, he grew a lot of plants at his victory garden. I remember we'd stop at Miss Margaret Reiter's house to get rhubarb from the giant plant in her backyard. Miss Reiter also worked at Northwestern University.

I could go on and on about Dr. Hedge's Annabelle hydrangeas growing next door to my grandparents' house, my friends Linda Smith and Jeanie Hamer, and the other neighbors. I remember going carolling once or twice in their neighborhood, and going to the carillon service at the Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve. I hope my granddaughter has lots of memories of our place. I know my kids have lots of memories of their grandparents' houses, too!