Thursday, August 31, 2017

Summer, 2017

Let this temporary dross burn away in the crucible of time, leaving only the precious behind: enduring love, timeless art, radical compassion, persistent gentleness and these happy memories:

Nora played Mayor Shinn in our park district's Broadway Bound camp version of The Music Man and if she's missing from this photo you can bet her jaunty straw hat and energetic emoting are somewhere very nearby and you can also bet those two little cuties in the front just encapsulate all the joy I felt watching, singing along and crying through this lovely show.

Mia and Nora dressed up as Totoro and Mei for last weekend's Comic Con -- it's their fourth cos-play experience together and they still get such a kick being recognized and ooed over and asked for photos.

In between the trips to Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, Mia and I took a break for steak quesadillas  and Saga comics (for her) and Thoreau and tequila (for me) at Depot Nuevo. My favorite night of the summer.

And this shot is EVERYTHING. My dear darling grand-niece Caroline at nineteen months who stared for the longest time at the three of us from the comfort of her father's lap when we first walked in the door and then, after giving it a great deal of thought, burst into confused tears. Which just made her slow warm up to us all the more wonderful. For by the time we left Cleveland after a lightning quick weekend, she was giving long hugs to all of us and little kisses in the air next to our faces. A miracle, really, to watch her learn and think and discover before our very eyes. A walk to the park is a journey through wonderland. And here also is her little bestie, Brinkley, the gentlest and softest of sweet doggie friends. And see Maggie's welcome sign for the three of us on the mantle and on the other end of the mantle Maggie's photo album of photos from her trip to Nepal to perform corrective cataract eye surgery at free rural clinics. Maggie turned 30 in April on that trip and it makes my head spin and my heart melt to remember her at Caroline's age. Like it was yesterday. So proud, so in love, so happy to spend time with them.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sisters, Side by Side

Here are my beloved maternal grandmother and her sister Julia, off on another adventure. The sisters called each other "Mimi" and "Jule." This July 11 was the 110th anniversary of Julia's birth. Amelia's 112th birthday anniversary was July 13.

These dear women were the only daughters of Mateusas and Petronella Gedminas, married in Lithuania in 1892 when he was 24 and she was 20. Mateusas went ahead to America to work in the coal mines of Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania while Petronella lived with her parents. After ten years of waiting, Petronella finally took matters into her own hands and asked her parents for her share of the homestead. She made her way to Amsterdam and then to the U.S. by boat, bringing with her a down-filled feather bed and a ram's horn to shape sausage.

Petronella reunited with Mateusas in Scranton, Pennsylvania where Amelia was born on July 13, 1905 and Julia was born two years later. Mateusas worked in the coal mines while Petronella cooked on a coal stove in their coal-company owned house and carried water from a community pump for baths and washing clothes. She made a small garden for fresh vegetables and kept a few chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner. She also kept boarders to earn extra money. The neighbors would get together to help make a barrel of sauerkraut to share. The housewives made homemade soap and washed clothes on a washboard. They sewed all the clothes for the entire family and made their own bread. They managed to have a pot of homemade soup on the table every day.

As the coal mines were depleted, the family moved to Mollenauer, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburg, where Mateusas worked the No. 3 mine. The public school was on the hill near the company houses. The Catholic church and school were in the next town, Castle Shannon. The mothers bundled up the children and went down the hill past the No. 3 mine and on the road to school. The children came from Lithuanian, Polish and Slovak homes. They spoke no English when they first arrived but learned it in record time with help from the Catholic Sisters.

When Julia was nine years old, in third grade, the mines were depleted in and around Pittsburg, so the family moved farther west to Dorrisville, Illinois, to work the Harrisburg coal field in the O'Gara No. 9 mine. Sister Salatia had been a favorite teacher of Julia's and gave her several good-bye presents to Julia to remember her by. Petronella carried the family's entire life savings, $700, in a secret pocket sewn in her undergarments.

The family lived temporarily with the Klevinskas family on South Poplar Avenue before buying the Jarvis' home across the street, right next door to St. Joseph's Church. Both children attended public school and Harrisburg Township High School.

Amelia taught herself to play the piano and the organ. She put on home shows, selling tickets for five or ten cents each. The house and porch would be crowded. She made Julia play a duet with her on the piano. This started out fine, until Julia became stage struck. Her hands froze, her brain became like a big vacuum. Mimi carried on as if it were planned. She also taught a bunch of children to play an orchestra on homemade instruments. She had another group of children sing while she played the piano. The neighbors loved this entertainment.

At church, Mimi played the organ while Julia pumped the bellows in the back of the organ all through Mass. Both girls pulled the ropes to ring the bell on Sunday. They dusted and swept the church. They decorated the altar with wild flowers. Once, when they used wild cherry blossoms, the perfume was so overpowering that the priest turned deadly pale and had to cut the services short.

The mine workers were busy during the winter but were on strike in the summer. There was no welfare, no unemployment compensation, no Social Security, no disability pension, so when my great grandfather's hand was crushed, he was no longer able to work. The family moved to Cicero. When the girls graduated high school in 1924 and 1926, Amelia went to work at the Tobey Furniture Company on Michigan Avenue and Julia worked for the F.J. Sauter insurance company.

By 1931, Julia had married Victor Litwin and given birth to Victor, Jr., her only child, who would become like a brother to my mother. Amelia met Anthony Seraponas, whom she called "Tony" or "Tone" and on February 25, 1933, they were married.

Amelia's diary describes the day:

Saturday, February 25, 1933
Our Wedding Day. What excitement, what flurry! I am glad it is over. It was a lovely day, not cold. Nevertheless I was cold in church. Mother was so lovely. We had breakfast and then went to have our pictures taken. After the pictures we came back and played piano, cards until 5:00 then we cleaned ourselves up and the people started coming in. Received some lovely gifts. 2 bronze lamps, sandwich toaster, lovely crystal glasses, embroidered cloth, set of Rogers silverware, table cloth and 2 sets of dishes. The first table was served at 7:30 and 48 people were served thru the whole evening. Jule certainly worked hard. Then after the work she came downstairs and danced till 2:00 AM. The basement was a great success, with the bar and the accordion player. I was sick through the whole day. I took 3 aspirin but I got thru the day & night all right. I told Tone I certainly never wanted to get married again.

My mother Bernadette was born December 9 of the same year and her sister Joan in September of 1935. Julia had one son, Victor, who became as close as a brother to Bernadette and Joan.

You can read more about my grandmother here:

Amelia and Me
 My Grandmother's Diary

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Desert Island

Remember the weeks of shock after 9/11 when we felt like we were living in a disaster movie? The fireball images on TV looked like the work of computer graphics and that fiction was easier for our stunned minds to accept than the reality that the damage and death were real, forged by real people, not comic book super villains.

I'm having flashbacks to that same floaty sense of unreality now only the movie this time is an international spy thriller mashed up with a wicked Wag the Dog/Dr. Strangelove satire about craven villains and sycophant aides who whisper mendacious scripts in bought politician's ears.

"It's just like Veep!" I yelled at Randy when the Orin Hatch's staffer coached his vapid response to Claire McCaskill.

This sense of unreality, of floating, unsure what the next morning's news will bring and where we are headed is undoing me. I've had a headache since November 8 and a heartache to match.

My fantasies are of escape, escape but where, really, is the deepest wood, the farthest mountain cave, the tiniest desert island?

Mia slipped a penny into the Highlander's CD player to see what would happen and I can't really blame her toddler-like curious impulse, it even gives me a blast of nostalgia for those innocent days of pushing the boundaries of the physical world around her so even though she is fourteen I can't scold her just wish we could turn the car up-side-down to shake the coin out.

Because that little penny has locked in the six CDs I had in the player and those six are now our only choices. I only listen to music, really, in the car so these six random picks from my CD collection have turned out to be my desert island albums, the unplanned answer to what would you listen to forever if you had to pick and it turns out they are a pretty perfect unplanned collection. Would I have chosen these if I knew they would be my last choice? Possibly.

Our Permanent Playlist:

1. Beyonce's Lemonade, which would have made the list if I had any forethought or not, even though I skip the C/W "Daddy Lessons" and most of the slow moments. But "Hold Up"/"Don't Hurt Yourself"/"Sorry" make such a searing trio of pure female rage and goddess power that Wonder Woman herself would be proud. And because "Freedom's" fuzzy 60's throwback guitars and swampy organ and "All Night's" soaring background vocals and implied forgiveness.

2-3. Both discs of Hamilton, natch.

4. The soundtrack to the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie which grows and grows in my mind the more I think about it. The slow burn of building desperation as the struggling folk singer of the title hustles his way to another gig, another place to lay his head for the night. The Gomer Pyle soldier with the voice of an angel who will surely soon be Viet Nam cannon fodder. Lovely Carey Mulligan's harshness which first seemed oddly out of place but now works in the context of a piece about motherhood and fatherhood's incompatability. How the threads of fatherhood fear and responsibility repugnance and vulnerability weave together with AND WITHIN the gorgeous music until it's Eraserhead meets Bound for Glory. Plus an indelible cat.

5. Inside Dave Van Ronk, a double album on one disc by the actual New York folk singer inspiration for the Coen Bros. film. The real singer may not have been the hapless asshole that Llewyn is, but his music, oh jeez, what a collection, funny songs and the dreamiest paean to cocaine that I've heard since Eric Clapton and beautiful violent ballads of dead children, abandoned children, a tortured and murdered ship's apprentice and all in his unforgettable raspy voice.

6. Joanna Newsome's latest album Divers. Newsome will always make my list but given a choice, I may have gone with an earlier, folkier album like The Milk-Eyed Mender yet this new one is a thing of wonder too, just witness that rising groove and climax telling the strange history of the fantasy land of Sapokanikan, her most propulsive song since "Good Intentions Paving Company."  The girls and Randy can't take her high soprano or odd twists of melody so this album is destined to be heard only when I'm alone.

Another story from Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, probably my favorite:

The Lama of the Crystal Monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because of his legs, may never leave again. Since Jang-bu seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu's question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, "Of course I am happy her! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!

Mike and Christina come over on Saturday night and after steaks and trout stuffed with herbs and overdone salmon with a fantastic mustard-honey-mayo-dill sauce, Randy brings up his dusty guitar and amp from the basement for Mike and I grab Nora's sticks and we jam to shouty, sloppy versions of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Dream On." I'm just slamming the melody on the drums or matching the rhythm of any guitar riff I remember and throwing in some nonsense fills with a cymbal crash accent here and there but god it feels good to bang away and wail SEWED MY OLD BLUE JEEEEEEEEEEANS! and after ten o'clock, bring it down for the sake of our poor neighbors and croon a little misremembered "Pennies from Heaven" together. The overhead light shone down on us at the dining room table, laughing at the Instagram videos Mia just shot and labeled "Help Me" and "My parents are drunk" although I was sober as a judge, the table an island of light in the darkness.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

All the Mothers' Day, 2017

Aunt Susan, me and Aunt Ruth

Mia and Aunt Joan
No one can replace your mother, but you can be loved and mothered by many. People commonly use the village metaphor, but the baker in me prefers to think of this cobbled together love as the pieces of a pie. Many women in my life, friends, cousins, aunts have all filled in the circle of need for me. Men too, my husband, colleagues, teachers, even works of art and yes, even my children. Here has been unconditional love, there has been rich compassion, here gifts and hugs and advice, over here has been silent understanding. There was a woman in New Orleans in the summer of 1986; I sat in her kitchen and she asked me about my life with immediate intimacy and made me feel so welcome and wanted, I will never forget her.

My mother's sister and my father's sisters have been the biggest slices of goodness and giving in my life. They all rose to help and teach me. Aunt Ruth, of course, did the lion's share of raising me, bless her. Aunt Susan babysat my siblings and me before and in the weeks after my parents' disappearance; her gentleness has always been a balm when I see her. My father's lovely sister Joan opened her home and her heart to me so many times; she left us in 1994 and we miss her so much. I have another Aunt Joan, my mother's only sister, and while we love each other, I know that that love is mixed with an amount of unavoidable pain. We look at each other and we both see shadows of Bernadette.

There's a boy at school who lost his mother this winter is the worst way possible -- suddenly, violently and in the next room. I don't feel right telling him my story; we are not that close, but when I ran into him in the hall on Friday, I pulled a box of Thin Mints out of my bag and pressed it into his hands. He was walking with another teacher when I passed him going the other way -- it looked something like an escort during the passing period. He had some new marks on his face.  

"Thin Mints!" he said. "Ms. Fey, I love you." "I love you, too" I called as I went on to the tutoring center. I had been hoping to run into him and had put aside the cookies just in case of a chance meeting. It wasn't much but I know how agonizing a holiday can be.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Romeo and Juliet Breaks My Heart (In a Good Way)

I must must must tell you a story about our Reading class where the freshmen have been struggling with Romeo and Juliet for the last few weeks. The text grows more and more beautiful every time I read it, but you know, for these kids the language is largely impenetrable, and the text is a dense ancient wood with only a few shafts of comprehensible light in the darkness. So we work our way through, translating, trying to give the kids as much info as we can reading out loud and watching movie clips and reading the ever-helpful graphic novel and slogging away, line by line by line.

So I've got to tell you about the wonderful day in First and Second Period when we put the kids in groups with a section to paraphrase into their own words, then act out for the class. We were working with Act III, Scene 1, where Romeo's friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's fiery cousin Tybalt in a street fight, setting in motion the final inevitable cascade of tragedy.

The scene opens with Mercutio, our resident jester, teasing the good Benvolio by accusing him of being a hot-headed fighter. Now we all know that dear Benvolio only raises his sword to part fighting fools so this speech is a gentle joke at the expense of a friendly and favored character.

(Whenever I think about Benvolio, I think of a freshman I had in 2002, the ego-less and cooperative quarterback on the freshman football team, who asked me, "Hey Ms. Fey, why can't you keep teaching after you have your baby?" And he laughed with wide eyes and a big open-mouth smile when I said, "I could! But I want to take care of the baby. And they eat about twelve times a day! And they POOP about twenty!")

Adorable Dash Mihok as Benvolio in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version Romeo + Juliet

So our freshmen were working in groups on their passages and Sugar, Dristian and Mayla were grappling with these lines:

Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says, “God send me no need of thee!” and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

Am I like such a fellow?

Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon mov’d to be moody, and as soon moody to be mov’d.

And what to?

Nay, and there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrell’d with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath waken’d thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter? With another for tying his new shoes with old riband? And yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!

Copyright ©2005-2017 by
Visit for details.

Mesmerizing Luigi Sotille as Ned Alleyn playing Mercutio in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Shakespeare in Love

I sat with the three kids and told them my story about the quarterback and read them some of the lines with all the inflection and drama I could muster and they were totally getting it. "What's tavern?" asks Mayla and "What's hazel?" "What's quarrel?" We worked through it and it was so exciting to see the light break through. At the end of the period, Imee the English teacher collected their work and made a copy of the script for each kid in the group to perform the next day.

The day of performances one of the kids drew a background of houses and trees on the whiteboard and Christine the Reading teacher brought in placards with the characters names strung with yarn to hang around the kids' necks.

The three kids got up in front. Imee had put down a wide rectangle of purple duct tape on the floor to designate the borders of the stage. Dristian gave an overview of the scene, then Mayla as Benvolio and Sugar as Mercutio began the scene.

Mayla/Benviolio: Let's go home. The Capulets are looking for us. We don't want to start a fight.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are one of the angry people. You walk into a bar and pull out your knife for no reason.

Mayla/Benvolio: Am I that type of person?

They were doing great. Mayla put on a smile to show she how sweet Benvolio is. The irony in the casting was that this lovely girl is the one I need to remind nearly weekly to use her words instead of slapping other kids.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are as stubborn a-a-and moody as anyone in Italy. 

Sugar's stumble may have been because he was a little nervous. His one hand held his script, the other was tucked into the pocket of his red hoodie.

Mayla/Benvolio: And why is that?

Mayla gave Sugar the stinkeye.

Sugar/Mercutio: If there were two of you, you'd kill each other! You'd pick a fight with someone who has a bigger beard than you! You'd a pick a fight with someone who has the same hazel eyes as you. Your head is always thinking of fights, like an egg is full of meat. And like an egg, you always get beat!

And with the egg line, the class LAUGHS. They laughed, a quick little bubble of joy despite the rushed, monotone recitation, the swaying awkward stance of the actors distracted and concentrating by the work of reading, eyes down on their papers.

Sugar smiled as he continues: You'd  fight someone across the street because they woke up a sleeping dog. Didn't you fight someone for wearing a jacket before Easter? And another for wearing shoes with old laces? And you're teaching me how to fight?

Mayla/Benvolio: If I fight like you describe, I would be worthless.

Sugar/Mercutio: Oh yeah, you are worthless.

ANOTHER LAUGH! this time, with a taunting "uh-oh" and "oo" thrown in to heighten the tension.

Mayla/Benvolio: The Caps are coming.
Sugar/Mercutio: Let them come, I don't care.

Big applause and finger snaps. One of my favorite moments of the school year.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A South Florida Vacation with a Tween and a Teen

Travel with little kids is a different animal than travel a few years later and while you're grateful for the ease of what has loosened up, you can bear what's harder by knowing these are yhe last few trips you'll take together as a family, deep sigh.

Take the rooms. You used to be able to get by with two double beds snd s single bath for four, now you may need to dig deep and give the girls their space for the sake of peace snd sanity. So worth it to keep down the bickering and isolate girl mess.

All four of us smile at the sturdy toddler boy on our flight into Orlando who still qualifies for a lap seat on his patient momma, but I have amnesia about those days.

I hope you'll try downtown Orlando at some point; it is a real city, after all, and Spice is a cute spot next to Lake Eola to catch up with family after a stroll with the girls' grandma around the lake. Dear Grandma Lulu is fading away but her face still lights up when she sees her son and hears the greetings of her grandaughters. Our lakeside walk, past the familiar bandshell now painted rainbow bright in tribute to the Pulse victims, past the Sunday farmer's market, past egrets and swans both white and black, past turtles who sun themselves on mangrove roots we have no idea how they climbed, this walk gives us precious time together even if Grandma no longer speaks to with words. We describe what we see to her, like I did with the girls before they could speak, and she dozes a bit in the sun, as they did too, as I wheeled them through their new world.

We leave that afternoon for a three hour drive to Miami. Randy's playlist includes the Butthole Surfers' "Moving to Florida."

First thing you need to adjust to at the Fontainebleau is that bikinis are apparently acceptable everywhere and a little dab of crochet cover makes the trnsition to evening. Freak out a bit because DJ David Guetta played the nightclub here the night before we arrived and Frank and Sammy a few decades before that.

Did you know scenes from Scarface, The Bodyguard, The Sopranos, Goldfinger and that mesmerizing, hilarious American version of Jacques Tati, The Bellboy, were shot at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel? Ukraine-born Morris Lapidus designed the hotel which was completed in 1954 and the latest renovations have left the gorgeous mid-century modern details intact. The burnished stylized "F" shaped door handles look straight out of Rat Pack days, while the chandliers overhead in the lobby were reconceived by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei after Lapidus's originals. There's beautiful black and white bowtie marble floors in the lobby and elevators and a free-form version of the same signature bowtie in the shape of the largest of the several palm shaded pools.

You'll spend afternoon time with the kids in those pools, sipping orange water and giggling at all the Pitbull and Nicky Minaj lookalikes then you'll get a little overloaded and need something natural right over the dune where waves, sky, wind and views forever wait. The cute front desk had said the water was chilly for him but your pool warmed skin loves the bracing thrill and in a few minutes it's warm as a bath again. Floating in the turquoise are garlands of bronze lacy seaweed studded with tiny hollow berries that pop in a delughtful way betwwn my fingers.

But before the pool and beach there's a pilgrimage down to the Art Deco hotel row on Ocean Avenue. The girls may remain largely immune to the architectural joys of the rule of threes and the subleties of coral and sea foam pastel, but one block over lies shoppy shops to satisfy. Lunch could be Big Pink or Puerto Sagua, two stops I enjoyed with Aunt Ruth and Aunt Susan on Ruth's 90's birthday trip but we'll need to skip the wonderful Bass museum this time because it's closed for renovation.

Grab a Citibike from the rack, adjust the seats and off you go up the shady boardwalk between the sand and the hotels. Whee! The views of the beach on one side and glimpses of secret pool enclaves to the other side keep us entranced on the too short trip back up to Millionaire's Row. My favorite of the hotels? The Confidante, whose name in that kitchy Miami cursive font makes me sigh with pleasure.

The drive from Miami to the Keys turns scenic all at once when you turn on Card Sound Road running parallel to  Route 1. Deep mangroves line the narrow two lane road and Alabama Jack's, recommended by Orlando brother-in-law, pops up out of nowhere. An unassuming sign bext to the dumpster but the parking lot is full of cars. An old school open air crab shack on the water (do they call these watery mangrove mazes "bayous" like in Lousiana?) with beat-up lisence plates from every state nailed to the walls. My first blackened mahi mahi Rueben (delicious) and the girls' first taste of conch fritter, indistinguishable in its sweet crispy batter but still off-putting to our silly sqeamush girls.

A few more miles and we're at the Martha Stewart-recommended Playa Largo,


Yeah, it was a tough trip. I might write more about it later but for now, I'm just going to leave it at that.