Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bernadette's Scrapbook, Denoument

The world was kind to me yesterday, and understanding. Randy took the girls downtown for the night; they went to Comic Con and saw Us on opening weekend -- they had to sit in the front row because the theater was so packed and Mia said the audience reactions were hilarious. Randy took them to buy new bathing suits for our trip to Akumal tomorrow.

So I spent the day with Bernadette's scrapbook, but at noon, total coincidence, Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss and Motherless Mothers: How Losing a Mother Shapes the Parent You Become and Mother of My Mother: The Intricate Bond Between Generations and Mothering Motherness: Mommyhood's Motherliness (that last one I just made up ha ha but it almost belongs, right?) anyway, Hope Edelman had this conference call (four hundred people listening in, she said) specifically to discuss the challenge of loss anniversaries and she said some very helpful things.

I'll spend some time considering her news that grief counselors are now encouraging "affirming a connection to those who died" and "renegotiating your concept of your younger self" and "recognizing and honoring the biological emotion of grief." Her idea that rituals "give a structure and turn an absence into a presence" was easy on my mind. Also, "recognizing and acknowledging an emotion helps reduce its intensity." And the new book Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief  by Clair Bidwell Smith sounds interesting. I mostly loved the feeling of connection and acceptance with her gentle voice over the phone.

And then there was this essay in the New Yorker by James Marcus  about the death of his scientist father that I happened to read yesterday. 

"Our notions of emotional proximity don't really apply to our parents. They are simply too large, too looming--planetary presences that defy our puny tools of measurement."

"We were a religious sect consisting of two people, and now half the congregation was gone. There would be closure, no healing. I would simply adjust myself to a new and severely depleted reality. The world would come to an end, as it always does, one world at a time."


"'Aaron, your uncle died fifty years ago,' (the scientist's wife) said.

"'I know,' he said. 'But nonetheless.' 

"There, in a single word, is the best argument on behalf of the afterlife that I have ever heard. The dead may walk among us simply because we insist that they do. They just keep circulating, those beloved, resented, lamented figures, our better selves and interlocutors of choice, with whom the conversation never ends."

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Bernadette's Scrapbook, Part 2

The fiftieth anniversary of my parents' deaths is this week. They had been married 10 years and one month. I want to remember and honor, but the wedding album is not exactly where I can go to do so -- the happy faces on that sunny day, the pretty white snow piled around the sidewalk borders of the church, these are complicated images that stir complicated emotions.

So I go downstairs to the basement and emerge with a different album, one I've stumbled across, the pages browned and crumbling with age.  Not the keepsake of her wedding, but a memento of ten years before.

Bernadette Seraponas, granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, daughter of Amelia and Tony, older sister of Joan, denizen of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, eighth grader and then ninth grader, kept a scrapbook.
It is, believe it or not, a piece of my history whose path into my hands I cannot trace. It may have been one that made the journey with us to Kansas City, tucked away for the decades, then sent back to me by Ruth when we moved to Wilmette, or it may have always been with Bernadette's mother Amelia, then stayed in the house that Amelia shared with her sister Julia after their husbands passed away and returned to me via Aunt Julie's granddaughter. I don't know its journey or how I came to have it.

So I examine its pages with new eyes. And let me tell you, my mother had a doozy of a year.

Handwritten invitations on petite personalized stationary, fuzzy athletic letters ("N" for Nazareth Academy), party favors and my mother's neat notations on every page offer a peek into her busy days and nights. Lovely, happy girl. What a delight to spend time with her. 

She played second violin in the school band; later, she would take up the trombone.  

Here's a glorious photo of Bernadette's younger sister Joan, with her attendants at her crowning ceremony at St. Joseph's Church in Downer's Grove in May of 1949. I cannot get enough of the flowery hats and the excited faces. Precious.

Bernie's Freshman grades were Cs and Bs, but for the As in Glee Club and Phys. Ed. She received "well developed" scores for cooperation, sociability, obedience and respect. A massive addition project added to Nazareth that year was a source of great excitement.

Taken by Bernard Nesbit 5/49 during an outing.

On May 24th of 1949, Bernard Nesbit took Bernadette to her first prom at St. Pat's Boys School and wrote his name on an honest-to-god actual dance card inside a diminutive keepsake book with metallic green and sparkly silver cover. She went by the nickname "Bernie." I wonder if Bernard did too.

Here's Bernard, in a self-assured self-portrait:

Bernard was not alone in his wooing, apparently.

On this side Bruce Ford...on this side Cecil Johnston

But never fear, Bernie was no fool for love. Her heart belonged to her pup.

My true love "Whitey"

Well, she did fall for one boy. Bernadette writes, "Elmer Louis Busch, soph. Started going with Joan and then with me, 9/10/49. Nice personality and good Football and Track star. Real Cute! Broke up 2/17/50."

This is Elmer on Sunday, November 6, 1949, in the Seraponas's Hudson Avenue front yard, before the elms grew tall, before the other houses filled this bit of country and turned it into a neighborhood.

The day before, playing for Hinsdale in the Homecoming game, Elmer scored two touchdowns against LaGrange, including a 20 yard catch in the end zone with one minute, fifteen seconds to go. With a final score of Hinsdale 26, L.T. 24, the win was the first time in 22 games that the LaGrange Soph-Freshman team had been beaten and the first time Hinsdale had beat them in 13 years. Elmer and Bernie went to the Homecoming dance that night. "Nice dance," writes Bernie.

Playbills for school productions of Joan of Arc and Our Hearts Were Young, a Sweet Sixteen corsage from Barbara Bentley on the 9th of December, a formal with Elmer on the 19th and dinner at the Chicken Basket after, "Loads of fun!!

December 29. "Invite from Ellen Rudd for a brunch. Had lots of fun talking with kids. Liz Bunker, Pat Healy, Robin Boldenweck. Peggy Pratt, Donna Allen, Alice Cox and others stayed after and Mrs. Rudd did the Charleston. Just a Panic! Lots of fun.

"Elm was mad but we straightened it all out. Bonny's a doll. Fuzzy's going away after New Year's."

That same night, Mari Jo Engrstrom's slumber party. "Had loads of fun--didn't sleep until 5:30 AM to 6:15 AM. Party before slumber party. Elm came over and we fooled around."

On the next page, "My first card from a College Man. Tom Cox -- darling fella, at the present going with Judy Boldenweck. That's how I met him. Danced with him once --Divine."

Tom flirts: "Hi Bernie! Sorry you didn't get this before Christmas, but I was trying to find a card pretty enough to suit you, and couldn't do it --so I settled for this one, OK? We should get to know each other better because we're both equally crazy. My best wishes to you both for a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. Be good, Bernie, and sometime we'll get together again, huh? Always, Tom.

In February, Bernie attended "a lovely wedding." The invitation from Cecelia Vrtis was handwritten. Donna Stewart went to Europe and sent a postcard of the Cunard White Star ship "Queen Mary." Bernie's sophomore English class wrote a scandal sheet including this cute bit: "BERNIE SERAPONAS and ROBIN BOLDENWICK have been helping the Soph. treasury along! How? Bernie plays a wonderful game of poker and Robin is an old hand at Canasta.

Sister Joan Marie hosted a Canasta party on the 17th, "about 20 girls came and everyone had more fun." Bernie writes nothing about breaking up with Elmer that day.

On February 26th, the family celebrated the Golden Wedding Anniversary of Bernie and Joan's Uncle Victor's parents, Petronella and Stanislovas. Bernie calls Petronella "Grandma Litwinovich;" Grandpa Stan had died and Grandma would pass away five years later. Uncle Victor was the husband of Bernie and Joan's mother's sister Aunt Julie Litwin. The last name seemed to have gone through as least two iterations; Petronella and Stan may have originally gone by the name Litvinavicus when they came from Lithuania. To add to the name confusion, Uncle Victor had a son Victor (who later had a son he named Victor -- my cousin.) Victor the Second ("Vicky" in the pic below) was a dear friend to Bernie and Joan, frequently squiring my mother to dances.

Vicky, Bruce F. and Cecil J.

Joanie, Bernie and two other girls went bowling on March 11 and there were lots of plays to see that month: a program about St. John Fontbonne and a "Television Party" in the refectory eighth period on St. Patrick's Day ("Had lots of fun") and at Hinsdale Township High School, Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Sorcerer" and a production of Heaven Can Wait on the 10th where Bernie saw Ernie with the new girl he was going steady with, Susie Taylor, a junior.

"Elmer Busch. 1st Steady (last too, I bet.) Started going together Sept. 10, 1949. Broke up Feb. 17, 1950. Elmer was a swell fellow, very nice, very funny and considerate."

There's an entire page of reverie and tribute to her track and football-star ex, including snippets of song lyrics: "Why is it you came into my life and made it complete?" 

But Bernie bounced back, did you have any doubt?

Ticket stubs (80 cents) from the Twin Open-Air Theater at 87th and South Cicero Avenue, Bernie's first date with Tom Bomkamp. "Went to Drive-In; before that went bowling. Swell time Tripled with Martha Tee--Bernard Hisky and Ray Bomkamp--Jean ? 3/26/50"

Three days later was a CSO radio concert with Barb Bentley at the Eighth Street Theater in Chicago. Student Council elections followed in May with my mother winning Sophomore class president. The class of '52 gifted her and the other class officers with a Spiritual Bouquet -- inside a card signed by 42 girls in the class was notification that the officers would received 500 Masses and 500 Rosaries.

In June, she received "my 'First Telegram' from (Hot Lips) Pat Moore." The Western Union paper reads: ARRIVED MILWAUKEE MEN CLAMORING DATES FOR NEXT SEASON. LIVING UP TO NICKNAME. PAT

Bernard Nesbit graduated that spring from St. Pat's. I giggle to see how Mom labeled his commencement announcement: 
"From Never-Say-Die B.N."

Summer brought double dates with Herbie Fingerhut at the Ricardo Restaurant (Our Dishes Are Sterilized) and the Oh Henry at 8900 Archer Road in Willow Springs. Herbie, Darrell Pallard and Irene Lazansky signed the back of the red paper Oh Henry menu for Bernie. It is noted inside that the three of them drank 75 cent champagne cocktails while Bernie had a .20 orange soda. "Heaps of fun!"

On August 9, Herbie and Bernie doubled with Mary Ann and Rip (Hernan Ripley) to the Aragon Ballroom. The postcard keepsake reads, "HE WHO HAS NOT BEEN AT ARAGON KNOWS NOT WHAT A PARADISE IT IS."

August 20, the foursome went to the Museum of Science and Industry and Chinatown where my mother stole a white cloth napkin embroidered in red from Guey Sam's restaurant. Unrepentant, "This is all I got!"

In a penciled box: "Today is September 10, 1950. One year ago I had my first date with Elmer Busch. My 1st steady boy friend."

Then, also boxed off: "Today is Sept. 17, 1950." The sentences below that are scribbled out. Mother!

 A Sweet Sixteen Party at the VFW hall. "Fine Party and had lots of fun!"

 Four nights in October, performances of "Valiant in God's Service: A Choric Pageant" for the Golden Jubilee of the Sisters of St. Joseph. There were Choral Readers and Pageant Scenes with Flower Girls, Jailers, Widows and Indians, and Dances with French Frontier Peasants and The Call of Virgins. Pat Healy played the Blessed Virgin and Bernadette was St. Joseph. "All of us worked real hard!"

A "Coketail Party" on Halloween at Pat Healy's, then a Nazareth dance sponsored by the Announcer newspaper staff of which Bernie was Vice-President and writer. She went with Donnie Stewart ("Riot!") but noted "Had fun before and after but not during the dance."

Pat threw Bernie a surprise party for her 17th birthday in December.

On the 27th my mother went to the Nazareth Academy Snowball winter dance with Don Carel ("real nice"), tripling with Robin Boldenwick, Martha Vrtis and their dates. "Lost my dance program!" Danced with Phil (Mary Ann's steady, "Slurp"), Tom, Tony (P. Healy's date) and Dan.

And then there is a last page: "This is Dec. 31, 1950. The last day of the old year 1950 and with the closing of this old year I will close this scrapbook. It has been wonderful keeping a scrapbook and remembering all the swell times I've had. Good-by, Bernie."

Thanks, Mom. I loved spending the day with you.

 On the back of this photo, yes, it says "To Bernie from Bernie."

Monday, March 18, 2019

Bernadette's Scrapbook, Part 1

It's a sad season; the sixtieth anniversary of my parents' wedding was last month and the fiftieth anniversary of their deaths is this week. I find solace where I can, so an internet meme moves me like an answer to a prayer I didn't know I had said. The pretty graphic asks, "Grieving?" then states with bracing confidence ("Wow!" I think,  "Someone actually knows how to do this?"):  Perform a Ceremony. 

Which I prefer ten thousand times to sitting in my gentle therapist's office so I do. Or as least I try. 

I go downstairs to the basement, not to the finished part of the basement with its clean drywall, but further back to the dark part by the furnace with the exposed low beams overhead and raw walls, to find the boxes Aunt Ruth meticulously cataloged and organized and sent to me from Kansas City when my girls were little. They are full of photo albums and letters and church business and bank statements and other ephemera that traveled with me and my siblings when we moved in with Ruth and Phil's family. (My favorite notation of hers is the one that accompanies a packet of letters to my mother from boys who did not become my father: "You may want to keep this separate." Oh dear beloved pious, cautious and fastidious Aunt Ruth, we are so different.)

My intention diving into the wreck of old boxes is to unearth the photos of the crash site. Two years after the borrowed plane disappeared, after the states-wide hunt that strangely uncovered the wreckage of another plane crash, months after the insurance investigation... Two of my father's brothers traveled to...

Full stop.

Later. Just trying to write about the crash photos stymies me. I stutter at the keyboard, I sink into reverie, I can't put on paper what seems clear in my head. Please understand, my slowing to a stop at the keys does not feel like incapacitating grief or the fatigue of depression. I know these pictures; they are not gruesome or graphic -- two years had passed and the leaves....The wreckage is settled onto the ground among the fallen brown leaves and the narrow tree trunks of the hillside in Tennessee. The flat hunks of crushed aluminum are difficult to recognize as the pieces of what was once a small red airplane.

Full stop.

Later. I'm not crying, I'm not emotional, I feel like nothing close to confusion, but words fail me. I stop trying to write about it, know that I'll return later.
Later. The world helps me, though, probably as a reward for my continued search for answers. The world likes searchers and the grateful and those who continue to hope, right? 

At school, I scribble, "Word work is world-defining, reality making" in a margin of chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby, the chapter where poor Midwesterner Jimmy Gantz, "no comfortable family standing behind him," reinvents himself into the Great Jay Gatsby.

My pleasure re-reading this book for the third time is part awe at Fitzgerald's gorgeous language and his devastating psychological understanding, part wincing self-recognition in Gatsby's dream-striving, part joy in the feeling of getting my mind blown, but a large part gratitude.

I am so grateful for the dawning that I will never ever understand my loss and I will never ever stop trying to understand.

Later. And the world helps me again: Back in December Randy gave me earbuds for Christmas, yay! that have transformed my workouts from dutiful slogs around the park district indoor track to Podcast Vacations! Whee!  

Nancy Mades-Byrde on the Salem Witch Trials, Jim DeRogotis and Greg Kot's Sound Opinions for music criticism, Rachael Maddow's Bag Man about Nixon's crooked and unrepentant vice-president Spiro Agnew, a bit of Slow Burn about Watergate and then dear colleague Ashley suggested I try Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History, a podcast about "things overlooked or misunderstood." I thought Brown v. Board of Ed was one thing; oh no, reveals Gladwell, it is something else altogether. 

Revisionist History had an amazing theory about country music's lyrical specificity and a couple of episodes defending faulty memory, and then I came across one, the last in season three, about a Freudian explanation for why Elvis kept on messing up the spoken bridge of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" when he performed it live. 

"Parapraxis" is Freud's word for mishearings, misreadings, faulty or abnormal speech acts. We call them "Freudian slips," the greater point being that there is always meaning in these errors.  

Michele Press, of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute describes them in this way: "unconscious ideas that are trying to find expression but because they are unacceptable, they may emerge when one is unguarded."

We listen on the podcast as Nashville singer songwriter Kaci Bolls struggles to remember a song she wrote about her mother. Gladwell admits to his embarrassment as Bolls stutters and stumbles, then comes to the realization that parapraxis is a gift. "Mistakes reveal our vulnerabilities. They are the way the world understands us."

Of course it's hard for me to write about this. Of course I can't. Of course I keep trying.

This is William Styron's Nat Turner after the death of the young girl he loved: "For how long I aimlessly circled her body--prowled around the corners of the field in haphazard quest for nothing, like some roaming dog--how long this went on I do not recollect....I arose again and resumed my meaningless and ordained circuit of her body, not near it yet ever within sight as if that crumpled blue were the center of an orbit around whose path I must make a ceaseless pilgrimage."

I've been trying to write about my ceremony all month and writing about anything but. Even though my Saturday moments sitting on the living room floor with an eighth grader's scrapbook in my lap were an entire pleasure with revelations delightful, and not at all painful. She's a real doll, my Bernadette is, let me tell you. I want to tell you. And, believe me, dear reader, I will.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Terribly Moving

Brandi Carlile visiting women at the Washington Corrections Center as part of her Looking Out Foundation, performing her utterly real and beautiful poem, "The Mother." The women in the audience laugh at the line, "the first thing that she took from me were selfishness and sleep" and again, at the line about her daughter trashing her car, but the poignancy of these mothers separated by the state from their children is palpable. 

These are Carlile's lines that slay me, every time:

And they've still got their morning paper and their coffee and their time
And they still enjoy their evenings with the skeptics and the wine
Oh, but all the wonders I have seen, I will see a second time
From inside of the ages through your eyes

Bill Hader having dinner with Tobias Wolff and George Saunders. "I was so nervous I don't think I ever stopped talking, sabotaging myself by flooding the conversation." The New Yorker profile of Hader goes on to note that George Saunders had a different recollection of the night: "I woke up that night thinking I was having a heart attack, but it was only a back cramp, caused by having laughed so much at dinner."

Jordan Baker, taking her leave of Nick Carroway in the denouement of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:

"Do you remember...a conversation we had once about driving a car?"
"Why--not exactly."
"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I?"

Yes, she's privileged and white and selfish and careless but the girl has feelings and she nails Nick, nails him to the wall. He's no innocent either.