Friday, July 26, 2013


This began as a garden post about the new dahlias and the tiny Hens and Chicks that dear Christina brought for the fairy garden and the cascading purple perennial geranium and the volunteer tomato plants that are just popping up like weeds and...

...the ripe cherries! But then I just had to tell you about the resulting cobbler and tiny hand pies that Martha Stewart's Living had the audacity to call "simple and rewarding to put together, even if you consider yourself all thumbs in the baking department." Rewarding yes, but simple, no way.

Anyway, the post starting taking on a life of its own because then I have to show you the new cute decals in Nora's room...

 ...that matched her new pink ceiling and new curtains and new little pink detailing in the woodwork...And while we're talking decorating...

...don't you love these local pride pillows I found at the new Paramour Bungalow shop (next to Hewn) on Dempster in Evanston? 60091, Represent!

This pic says so much about our summer - hours lounging on the couch watching classic kids' flicks while the guinea pig nibbles strawberry tops. This month Randy has introduced the girls to the originals of Herbie the Love Bug (rave reviews), Godzilla (surprisingly melancholy!) and King Kong ("awesome!" said Nora) and a fest of circa 1925 Buster Keaton films (jaw-dropping stunts and even more jaw-dropping racist "jokes.")

The girls' Grandpa Bob, Aunt Rebecca, Uncle Dave and their kids came for the Fourth of July.

Rebeccca and I kayaking at sunset on Fox Lake.

Cousins at the Celebrate Fox Lake parade.

S'mores next to the lake before fireworks.

This photo is about the importance of punctuation. Delicious, but least enthusiastic cake ever.

One of our favorite summer traditions - picnicking at Dog 'N Suds drive in.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Then and Now

It's a nostalgic time. My big summer project is cleaning out the basement which is a deceptively innocuous phrase hiding the grim reality of making hundreds of awful decisions about what beloved and important artifacts of the past to cull and which to keep. Like the black Post-it note I pasted inside my desk drawer at Gordon Tech so every time I opened up to grab my staple I saw my instruction to myself, written in white ink: Smile for them. And the dozens of $1.50 paperback YA novels I ordered from Scholastic and gobbled up in my teens. And the eggs I marbleized for Mia's first Easter in Wilmette, chipping out a tiny speck of shell with a needle and blowing out the raw innards until my cheeks hurt. And all the letters and cards and lesson plans for Romeo and Juliet and graduate school copy packets full of smudgy readings in 8 point type and books from my parents' bookshelves. And indecipherable journals and scribble-filled notebooks and kindly-intended gifts and incomplete projects and the past is exhausting, as if the present wasn't challenging enough.

Here's something too precious to part with:

October 2005. For Mia's third farm-themed birthday, Sally constructed a cardboard lamb for the kids to pose behind for photos, with soft wool and felt ears and a real bell on a pink satin ribbon around its neck. Flower and glitter in the grass behind him as he jumps over a fence.

Here's our big ten year old this week, as Nora peeks out.

In August 2007, when Mia was four and Nora was two, we spent a week in Saugatuck, where Sally welcomed the girls with cardboard horses to gambol around the yard.

Here they are this week, still adorable, still fun. Love has no expiration date, man.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Merry Clayton, the indelible background singer of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," came to Highland Park tonight for a screening of the new documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. In true diva fashion, she charmed the whole house, telling amazing stories of Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, making us laugh again and again, and gracing us with a rendition of "His Eye is On the Sparrow." When asked about her contribution to "Sweet Home Alabama," she said, "my voice was my protest" and it made sense: The truest thing in that song is the harmony Clayton makes.

As we were filing out, someone said, "Not guilty."

Stunned. I hadn't even entertained the possibility of acquittal. Beyond my optimism and my imagination.

See a fire is sweeping our very street today. Burns like a red coal carpet. Mad bull lost your way.

Give us shelter indeed. Shelter those boys who walk the street unarmed but for candy. Shelter those who will lose heart and those who will lose sense from this awful verdict, this miscarriage of justice. Shelter those who continue to fight the good fight against institutionalized racism, against senseless gun laws. Shelter the children, shelter us all.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Words on the Table

I'm worried again tonight, the old worry that lifted for a few recent months and returned this week. I need to talk, dear Therapeutic Interweb Audience, so here is something I wrote six years ago. I've used some pseudonyms, of course.

On Saturday night, my thirteen-year old niece sat at her grandparents' kitchen table, embroidering a kitten on a pillowcase. Michelle worked surrounded by five Scrabble players: her Grandpa Phil and Grandma Ruth, her mother and father, and me. 

Michelle giggled at Grandpa Phil growling, “No, I will not show you the score!” while he glared at us from behind his thick black-framed glasses.  She asked, “Mom, help me thread this needle.”  Grandma Ruth introduced her to the wonders of a bent wire and pressed foil contraption that pulled the embroidery floss through the needle’s eye.  She smiled as her father sneaked photos with my cell phone.  She ate chocolate cake and quietly hummed “My Girl” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” under her breath.  I think she was happy.

It was a happy scene.  I heard my brother Rob say later, “That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”  I am convinced in many ways we were happy.  Perhaps partly manufactured for Michelle’s benefit, perhaps fleeting, but it remains a kind of happiness, a hard happiness, long overdue, perhaps not earned, but as deserved as any.  I did laugh that night, even though every breath felt bruised.

All is not as it may seem here.  Michelle’s abrasive Grandpa Phil and gentle Grandma Ruth are actually her great-aunt and great-uncle.  I suspect the difference between the loving names my niece calls Ruth and Phil and their precise relationship means little to her.  Ruth and Phil raised my brother and me after our parents died in a plane crash in 1969.  I have little memory of my parents.  My brother was nine years old. 

All here is not as it may seem. Michelle’s parents sat at the same table that night, but they are divorced, necessarily.  Michelle's father, my brother, wandered out of the realm of reality shortly after her birth.  His law partners, his wife, and the government all conspired to kill him.  They, and other unknown agents, bugged his car, pumped noxious gases into his office, sent him messages through the radio and the television.  Naturally, he lost his job, then scores of others, was disbarred, divorced. 

I remember the first time I saw Rob after what we've come to call “his break.”  He had moved back in with Ruth and Phil and would spend long hours lying in the dark in the back bedroom.  He had dyed his normally sandy brown hair a dull shade of black.  He wanted urgently to talk to me alone.  As we pulled out of the driveway, Aunt Ruth watched us from the picture window, her arms crossed, her face set with concern. It was an overcast day, spitting cold rain.  Rob drove a long way into Kansas, talking little, evading my questions.  He pulled the car off the road in a field.  The tires bumped over ruts. 
“Let’s get out of the car, Cindy, and talk.”
 “No, Rob.  I don’t want to get out of the car.” 
“C’mon, Cindy.” 

He was still smiling at that point.  I was near tears, frightened.  I gripped the leather handle on the side of the car door.   I understood that Rob did not want to talk in the car because he thought it was bugged.  When we were children, he had threatened me, even hit me, like a big brother will do to his little sister.  We were not children now and my fear was not a child’s fear.

Saturday night Rob's ex-wife stayed to play a game of Scrabble with us before taking Michelle home.  When she arrived to pick up Michelle, Aunt Ruth invited her carefully:  “Would you like to join us for a game?”  My tall brother stood awkwardly off to the side, looking at the floor with a small smile on his face.  Patient and wise, Michelle’s mother barely hesitated before saying, “yes.”  She has remarried an understanding man.  Despite undependable to non-existent child support, countless disappointments, scary and confusing episodes when Rob made the girls cry, she continues to encourage her daughters’ relationship with their father.

My brother sat at the table, shaggy haired, but clean.  A week ago he was arrested on outstanding warrants.  He was able to concentrate on the Scrabble board, but muttered occasionally to himself under his breath:  “Okay. . . control.  It’s okay.  Good character . . . good relations . . . Ha ha!  No problem.”  Rob’s conversational labyrinths no longer distress us.  When he muses to me about the connections he sees between his on-line alias, the financier Warren Buffet, our father’s old jewelry business, and the name of the street where our cousin lives, I listen carefully, make a few neutral comments, but don’t contradict or engage.

I know he is brilliant.  I can’t help nodding when he says, “Cindy!  I’ve been working on a new computer program.  I’ve graphed nobility of action, honor, and righteousness against the y-axis of the involuntary human processes of the lower gastro-intestinal track, you see?”  He holds a paper napkin scribbled with pencil, wrinkled with effort.  His huge hands are thick-fingered and dry-skinned, nails bit to the quick.  I appreciate the brightness of his metaphor.  I mourn the ashes of his potential.

Years before his break, when Rob came back home at Thanksgiving from his first few weeks of college, he was dynamic and huge, shiny with excitement about this different, unabashedly intellectual life he had plunged into.

“Cindy!” he bellowed, “listen to this!”  And he posed, one foot forward, knees bent at the ready, one grand hand held out towards me.  It was the pose of a hill-striding Romantic poet, the stance of a Greco-Roman wrestler. 

“None of them knew the color of the sky,” he intoned dramatically.  He was so excited, so exciting.  I giggled.  It is the first line of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” an account of lifeboat survivors after a shipwreck.  Rob would go on to earn two degrees in engineering, marry a beautiful and intelligent woman, become a lawyer, have two daughters.

Now he lives in sad little motels, pays cash for everything, works construction gigs for a couple of weeks until his lack of focus, temper, paranoia and baseless prejudices get the better of him.  He frightens the secretaries.  He won’t take medication and he cannot be forced into treatment as long as he is not a threat to himself or others.  Acknowledging his illness is anathema to him.  He calls the poverty, near-homelessness and barely managed chaos that mark his life now simply “a reversal of fortune.”

My brother does love his children dearly.  He just can’t take care of them.  Through half bitter, half hopeful laughter, Aunt Ruth and I say of the girls, “Hey, great and happy people rise from adversity.”  His oldest daughter is an A-student, a college sophomore living in a sorority house, on her way to medical school.  We say with conviction, “She’ll be fine,” to comfort ourselves.

Earlier that day, I had watched Michelle, my brother’s younger daughter, play the character of Fiona in a local theater’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s young adult novel The Giver.  She possesses a natural presence on stage, with none of the overly earnest Annie-style emoting I’ve come to expect from non-professional child actors.  Her father is no longer allowed at her performances.  Not since the night of A Christmas Carol when he began talking back to characters on the stage and yelled with incomprehensible anger at Michelle in the lobby after the show. 

“You just don’t know what to do,” his ex-wife confided to me.  “It’s scary.  You feel so sorry for him; you know he can’t help it.  But it is frightening.  Michelle was so embarrassed.”

Before my sister-in-law left Saturday night, I overheard Rob thank her for coming, then say, “Miss you.” 

There is no loneliness like his.

A therapist recently told me that current medical therapies can make miraculously rapid improvements for those inhabiting the murky spectrum between bipolar disorders and schizophrenia.  Miraculous in the sense of a matter of weeks.  I don’t dare to entertain this kind of hope.  I cannot afford the luxury of believing my old brother could come back.  My brother is here now.  We must take him as he is now, flawed, transformed, sometimes frightening, but here.

I sat at that table as a sister, a niece, a sister-in-law, an aunt.  I played Scrabble and ate cake in a different world than the one I inhabit in my own home where wife and mother are my primary identity.  It felt strange and a little empty to have no child’s pressing and immediate needs to distract me from the game.  That night I would brush no one’s teeth but my own.  I would step meekly into pajamas with no need to wrestle a kicking and thrashing wild lemur-child into hers.

I had flown in that morning from Chicago to see Michelle’s performance.  My husband Randy stayed home with our daughters, at his suggestion.  “You’ll have more time for your work,” Randy had said, arguing for me to travel alone.  “Less distractions.”  It is true - our girls are two and four.  Their constant needs – for a steady stream of calories, diversion, reassurance – and their mercurial moods fill my hours when I am with them.  If Nora were here, little Nora who stands no higher than my hip, she would walk up to me as I played.  She would put her head in my lap and suck her thumb, bobbing a little and humming to herself.  “Mommy,” she would sigh, with no other purpose than to hear the word, to identify her feeling.

I sat at the table and the 600-mile distance I felt from my new life, my good life, as a wife and mother drew out none of the humor, none of the irony here.  It pulled only the poignancy from the scene.  I waited my turn in the game, left with a “Q” I couldn’t find a way to use and I felt deeply sad.  Impatience and frustration rose in me.  I wanted my girls.  I wanted them here on my lap.  I had to slow my mind, remind myself I am here for Michelle, for her play, for the book interview I will do tomorrow.  I will fly home tomorrow night.

The next day, when I would tell the story to Randy, we would laugh at Uncle Phil, the surly and sore winner of the game.  I would wonder yet again at Aunt Ruth’s patience for her grumpy husband and her skill with defensive letter strategy.  Retelling the news of Rob’s recent temp job, in front of a tax office, in costume, would reduce me to helpless gales of somehow proud laughter.  I would marvel at the miracle of the few moments of peace shared by this cobbled together family around the kitchen table.  I would remember that even when I despaired on this trip, lonely and desolate, driving through barren housing developments carved out of Kansas prairie, missing my corner of Illinois and its tall canopy of oak trees, I could console myself, knowing I was only a few hours away from my daughters and my purpose filled life.

The oddness I felt Saturday night, this sadness I feel about my brother, seems relatively new, cumbersome but necessary, a stiff pair of boots at the advent of a long winter.  For years I could recite the facts, “our parents died in a plane crash . . . my brother was nine years old . . . we lost our brother and sister in a car accident seven years later . . . ” but I did not allow my mind to catch on the jagged edges of that break.  I needed to float sadly above.  Now I am a mother and I look at my brother with the beginnings of an understanding of what he has lost and of the vastness of their absences from his life.  Mother.  Father.  Brother.  Sister.  Wife.  Children.  Self?  Does he miss himself?  Does he remember his old self?  Does he miss the capable, confident person he used to be?

In The Giver, a young boy in an unnamed totalitarian state is given the responsibility of receiving the collective memories of his community.  The day he takes on this role, he reads a list of instructions for his new life:  You are no longer required to be polite.  You may ask anyone any question.  You may not ask for pain relief and you may not ask to be released.

Motherhood forced me to blaze through previously held illusions about delicacy and caution.  I probe mouths with my fingers for buttons, pull out elastic waistbands in public to confirm a suspicious whiff.  I bark “Slow down!” at vans and teenagers gunning down our side street.  So now, armed with no more strength than I ever had, but with less fear, now, simply because I can, I dare ask, I dare try to work through our hard family questions:  What does it mean for my children to have mental illness in their history and perhaps, their heredity?  Where does a wife’s love go when her husband involuntarily turns into a different person?  How does a smart and talented thirteen-year old explain to her friends that her father is not like other people?  Would Rob’s illness never have emerged, remained egg-like, small and unrealized inside him, if our parents were never lost?  How do we distinguish difficult personality from emotional or mental disorder?  And most difficult of all:  How can I help him?  How does tough love apply when we have so little leverage, when he disappears for weeks at a time?  How can we deny him the cash, the rent, the bail he asks of us if our rejection leaves him homeless, defenseless?  What power do we have if his illness prevents him from ever recognizing rock bottom? 

Our father, a man who clung to self-sufficiency, left for Rob’s inheritance a genetic and tenacious independence.  I have heard the stories of our father insisting to work his own way out of tough situations:  wrenching the roof ladder inch by inch along the gutter-line while he perched on the top rungs; defrosting the frozen engine of his prop plane with a Mustang’s exhaust and a length of hose; wrestling control of the same plane when the engine stalled high over Mexico City; finally, fatally, misunderstanding the severity of the weather while behind the controls one stormy March weekend.  I see a similar myopia in Rob, who once recommended Don Quixote to me without a trace of self-consciousness or irony.

Saturday night, after Michelle left for home with her mother, Rob said goodnight to Ruth and Phil and me.  He has a new job that starts this week.  I wish him well.  He shakes my hand formally, pats my arm from a distance.  “You’re alright, you know that, Cindy?”  He glances at me, his head tipped low.  Steady eye contact is difficult for him.  I may not see him or hear from him for a while.

When he was a teenager and I was not yet, we stood in the garage with the door up and watched a summer rainstorm.  Sheets of rain hit the driveway hard.  The trees bent as if to break in the waves of wind.  When lighting flashed, our whole street lit up in a new green way, suddenly looking reversed as if north was now south.  It was exciting and loud and the entire scene framed by the open garage door was full of motion, the trees waving their leaves like go-go girls shaking their long hair.  Suddenly Ron burst out of the garage, ran out into the rain and danced and yelled, waving his arms and spinning in maniacal circles, invited by the storm.  I completely understood.  I laughed and laughed at the antics of my big brother, prince of the storm, a young Lear to be.

Here are the rationalizations, the ugly bargains I draw with myself in moments of capitulation:  Yes, my brother had more time with our parents, more years to save away memories – but immaturity protected me from fully understanding their loss.  As the older brother, he stood before me, taking the full brunt of the stoning.  It may have driven him mad.  We don’t know.  Rob’s transformation alighted twenty-four years after the trauma of losing both his parents, seventeen years after our brother and sister died.  Was it only some diabolical coincidence?  “Of course,” say some who hear his story.  “Of course he is this way.”

I need to walk away from the words we left on the table, the hard puzzle, an ending of the game when we are all trapped with extra letters, no words to spell.  I’ll go back to my little ones, and tell them in the simplest, most truthful, most healing language:  Mommy is home.  I missed you.  Give me a hug.  I will return and feel the relief of tears quickly stopped, of fears easily soothed.