Tennis Racket Banjo and Other Unexpected Encounters

I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height.  During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window.  At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head.  I would close my eyes,  facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep.  For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions.  By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain.  Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.

In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation.  It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.

I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room.  Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.”  This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.”  The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void.  Then silence once again.  Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference.  Factors had been weighed.  Conclusions had been drawn.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place.  Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins.  “I AM AWAKE.  I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”

The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound.  There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.

A moment later, I open my eyes.  A very small person stands two feet from my face.  He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.

“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.

“Saxophone first.  Then tennis racket banjo.”

“What song are you playing?”  I ask him.

“Bump.”  He says.  “After that: Chick Habit.”

And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.


My life according to me

D-Day. June 6.

D-Day marks the anniversary of the Normandy landings during World War II. Twenty-four thousand U.S., British and Canadian troops landed on five separate beaches across a 50-mile-wide stretch of northern France. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control, and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front. But, “victory” took months, and Allied casualties numbered greater than 10,000, with more than 4,100 confirmed dead.

On the anniversary of D-Day this year, I officially outlived every member of my family of origin. I woke up to my 22,481st day, overtaking my father, who put his cigarette down and slid off his chair into a quick and peaceful death on his 22,480th day. I had long surpassed my mother (20,792 days) and my brother, the one most gypped of the additional days I so wish he could have seen (17,590 days).

I originally began this blog as a vehicle to post sections of my third novel as it was being written, and I titled it “My books My writing My life according to me.” With my third novel completed (at least I hope that it is completed. I would like it to be completed, not because I shirk from doing further work that might make it a better piece of fiction, but because I believe it accomplishes what I ardently wanted it to accomplish – to capture an instant in time. Altering it seems almost like doctoring pictures of the D-Day invasion. They may be more captivating, or graphic, or even more beautiful photographs, but that’s just not what happened); I am switching my blog more to the “My life according to me” thing. I have redesigned it!

Is this a grateful-to-be-alive every single day kind of blog? A bluebirds-on-both-shoulders-singing-in-my-ears sort of thing? Um, no. Well, partly. I chose the wonderful photograph above by Annemiek van der Kuil as the perfect “emblem” for this blog, as it mirrors the world that I see, where juxtapositions and ironies exist everywhere: a world that is at once beautiful and messy, where there is loneliness and separation as well as jubilant connection, peacefulness and chaos, profound pain, but always, always possibility.

The First Time I Died

The air was hot, and dry, with a burning white sky ablaze from the sun. There was no wind. It was so utterly unmoving that the scene was completely silent, like being in the movie theater when the sound suddenly snaps off and the picture continues in the dark, silent cave. “Have I suddenly gone deaf?” I thought, and I looked around to see if anything was moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I might be able to hear.

The young woman wore full native dress. A skirt that went all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the sleeve bottoms rolled to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. Her waist-length braid had been bound with a thin leather strap. She turned to glance at me when I approached the edge, briefly, then looked back down. She did not say a word. She did not say hello, which I thought was odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sat very near the edge. But she wasn’t sitting, actually, she crouched, as if it wer the most relaxed position in the world, and she wove her basket. I watched the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I thought she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I was proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who was bound up in a beautifully adorned little cocoon. The baby was wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes focused far away.

I thought they must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I couldn’t imagine how they seemed so——————

My foot slipped. At first there was just the scrape of my saddle shoe’s heel against the dry dirt. Then the grate of my calf. I felt the skin rub away and felt the first tiny droplets of blood rise to the surface. But after that I was in free fall. My feet flew out from under me and I was face to face with the hot white sky, falling, and falling.

My back hit first. I felt the sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, for less than a second. It was like the wind being knocked out of you, except I knew that it was not the wind. I was instantly surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts flew from my body in all directions at once. I died.

I lay in bed for a long time before I believed that I could breathe.

I have died many times in my dreams. This was the first.

*The term “Native American” was not in widespread use at this time.

 Graphic by Scott Snibbe

Lucky Sweater

“Lucky Sweater” is the third entry from A January Diary, which is very much an experiment in writing.  Each of the entries from Diary is meant to stand alone, to evoke impressions much the same way as a poem does.  When the entries are taken together, as a whole, they tell a story — of sorts — in the way a gallery show of visual art tells a story, without the connections being explicitly drawn. Well, we’ll see how it goes…

It’s not like I chose. More like it chose me. I didn’t even have the idea, wasn’t walking around on the constant outlook, scanning the landscape of my life in a perpetual hunt.

But when it caught my eye, something made me look again. And with that simple second glance, I knew. This was it. Truly it. The critical armament. The charm that could tip the balance of the scales.

I ordered it. It wasn’t something that I would wear, ordinarily. Though I do tend to be a fan of Anthropologie’s boho uber chic extravagant exorbitant tatters, the fashion sense can tend towards the jejuene and seem to be designed for those size 0 and under. Still, the deep emerald green. The sparkling brooch that held the two sides together; it perfectly teetered the line between vintage treasure and cheap trash. The refined softness of the lambs wool. The three cotton flowers, in muted earth tones, appliqued across the cardigan’s front, sequins randomly strewn onto them.

“I am exactly what you need,” this sweater shouted at me. And I believed it. “I will carry your water, give your weary head a strong shoulder to lean on, rock your weary body and sing you a lullabye. ” Yes, it said all that and more. ” I will wrap you in soft warmth. I will be with you every moment. I will hear the beat of your heart, and I will know all that it feels. I will keep your child safe. All that time that you wait, I will keep her safe.”

I wore the sweater only one other time after that. A group of friends from the neighborhood wanted me to join them at a local Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. And since that marked a far cry from my usual, I figured it made sense to wear a sweater that fit the same description. Besides, it was the only item in my wardrobe that was sort-of green. And even though a dramatically over-served bar patron spilled an entire pint of beer on it while becoming increasingly overly friendly, compelling the bartender to leap over the bar, hoist said patron over his shoulder and deposit him on the curb; well, I didn’t really think the sweater was a factor. That’s not luck, good or bad, that’s just St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.


Entry #2: A January Diary

The plane was nearly empty. When my mother switched seats to talk with my aunt, I had the entire row of three seats to myself. She probably thought that if I were by myself, I would fall asleep, as my older brother had done, his knees drawn up and his freckled face squished against the seat back. His long skinny legs – like my mother’s- showed a mile of bright white sock before they disappeared into his pants leg.

My grandmother was dying, and we were racing across the country to see if we could make it in time to see her, while she was still “her.” My other grandmother had died three months previously. I missed her terribly and talked with her every night while I lay in bed. This other grandmother, the one who had just suffered a stroke, had always been more distant, in every way. She was a stranger who visited infrequently, made my mother send me to my room when I had disobeyed, and thought a disgusting menthol cough drop was a reasonable peace offering offering that I should leave me deeply grateful

Way below us was a solid floor of dazzling, puffy clouds, like a miles-deep bed that would catch us if we fell. The sinking sun shone on them like it does on a new winter snowfall, making tiny lights dance in front of your eyes from the blinding white. I believed those tiny white blue yellow bursts of light were angels. The same ones you could see in the very middle of the night if you stared very, very hard at the nothingness of the dark.

I spent a lot of time wondering if my grandmother would look like her older self as an angel, the way I had known her, or like her younger self. I wondered if she got to choose. I tried to picture her based on the one picture I had seen of her as a young woman, plain and clear-eyed and strong, her arm around her big sister.

I rested my forehead against the airplane window – wondering what in the world it was made from that could be strong enough to hold an entire airplane together – as the sun dropped below the cloud floor. The light changed to an in-between that was neither light nor dark. It was nothing. I felt perfectly suspended, floating with no effort, in an endless world between light and dark. I was eight years old, and I thought : Death. This is what death is like. Exactly and completely…nothing at all. The angels are all around. And you float.

Bottom two photos: Winged Victory, also known as Nike

A Wee Ball

Entry #1: A January Diary

That cat seemed to love that little boy nearly as much as she did. From the time he was able to pick up the ever-spreading, quite portly Bo, Dylan would careen around with Bo eternally spilling out of his arms and sliding every which way, while Dylan staggered under the weight. The loving, philosophical Bo just let it all happen, trusting, she supposed, that he was close enough to the floor that serious, lasting damage was unlikely. Bo let himself be carried from room to room, and hoisted on to various pieces of furniture, and shoved through holes in the cat climbing tree, often purring through the entire journey.

Dylan would finagle Bo on to the sofa, look up at her and say, “Want to snuggle him with me, Abuela?” To which the only reasonable reply, even while she prayed that she would not tear up and be unable to explain this to a child so young was: “of course I do.”

Bo slept with Dylan at night, and spent most of each day in his room as well. They had a favorite game they played, where either she or Dylan would look up from reading, playing trains, racing around the house doing laps, measuring various things with his animal measuring sticks, jumping from couch to couch, making a fort, and suddenly say: “What a minute! Where’s BO!?”

At which point they would dart around the house, pretending great alarm, venturing from room to room while saying: “I don’t see him in here. Huh. Where in the world could he be?…” until at last they would end in Dylan’s bedroom, where Bo invariably lay curled into a wee ball, a mountain of blankets surrounding him.

On New Year’s Eve, the final day of a rough year, Dylan said to her: “Buela, want to play a game with me? I’m going to curl up with Bo, and you cover us up with all the blankets you can find, and pretend that we’re a present, and unwrap us!” Dylan glanced at Po, then made himself into a ball that replicated the exact positions of the cat’s head and paws. He raised his head to say: “Make sure you start with OG blanket. On top of me. With the fuzzy side down.”

OG blanket was followed by second OG, then 3rd OG, then a baby blue electric blanket, then a fluffy down comforter. When any trace of living creatures had been thoroughly obliterated into a shapeless heap of fluff, she said: “Oh! Look!! A present!!! I wonder what in the world it could be?!?! Oh boy oh boy, let’s unwrap it and see. Let’s take off the wrap…why…there’s nothing here but more wrapping paper!” She proceeded through each blanket layer, pretending pouty frustration each time a peeled off blanket exposed no marvelous surprise.

When at last Dylan was revealed, she exclaimed: “Why look! It’s a boy! A lovely and wonderful boy! Not to mention a cat.”

“Again, Abuela, again!! Make Bo and me a present again!!!”

Dylan tucked his head and folded into a ball, and she thought: how in the world did he get this idea? This magnificent idea? And piling the blankets atop him, on New Year’s Eve, it seemed to her that this was the best idea she had ever heard. She could not imagine anything as lovely, as perfect, as making herself as small as she possibly could, being covered by a mountain of tenderly embracing warmth. Smaller and smaller, she could be swallowed by this cozy cave, until she disappeared altogether. Until she would not have to see the things January would bring.*


*This is a work of fiction. In real life, the cat is female.

On-Line Dating: A Glimpse at the Rage and Hatred behind Orlando, Baton Rouge, the Republican National Convention, the Country in General, and the World at Large

I admit it. My parents were Republicans, though they came to that same track from vastly different sides. My father grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, part of a sizable extended family of first-generation French all struggling to keep their children fed. He was so far down the hand-me-down line of cousins that his feet were forever crippled by shoes that never quite fit. My mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Naval officer, raised in frequently-changing “quarters” where servants cooked and cleaned and manicured the grounds. My mother remembered, with great fondness, how her parents sent the help home each evening and did the dinner dishes themselves, so they could chat about their day.

But my mother and father, born in 1919 and 1920 respectively, prided themselves on their social liberalism. And like all children who grow up with all parents, I had nothing to compare them to, and therefore no idea how truly remarkable this was considering the time and place. My mother worked as a chemist during part of World War II, and never tired of telling me how she and her lab mate shared a beaker to drink water from. He happened to be African-American, though in Norfolk, Virginia in the mid 1940’s, one said either “Negro” or “colored.” She never thought a damn thing of it, as she would have said herself.

I thought my mother might explode with pride when a new child moved into my 4th-grade classroom in the middle of the year, and became my best friend. She was Mexican, from the country itself, and I thought every single thing about her was wildly exotic and perfect – her flowing, jet-black waves of hair, her circle skirts with donkeys and cacti and such. I walked around my house saying her name, slowly savoring each syllable of E-LO-DI-AH. E-LO-Deeeeee-Ahhhhhh. And when Debbie Allison – one of those prim 10-year-olds whose youth is an entirely wasted slog in their march toward the thin-lipped spinsters they were born to be – conspiratorially whispered in my ear, “I don’t like Tommy Whitesong; he smells funny,” I was completely baffled about what she meant. All I could think of was when my father’s cheap after shave (that I had undoubtedly bought for him) was around for a bit too long, it took on some rather rank undertones. I told all this to my mother when I got home; and whereas my mother was not one to throw her arms around anyone or make a show of feeling, she did straighten her skirt and say, “good for you.” Tommy was one of two – count them, two – black children in my elementary school. Even as a kid, I thought it must be kinda hard to have just one other person who was like yourself in an entire overcrowded school, and I thought Debbie Allison was a mean little twat.

My father’s best friend was always “Uncle Bill to me.” He lived at the top of the hill where our street began, and we lived most of the way to the bottom. Every year he brought his whole family down during the holidays so his kids could play with the Lionel trains that ran all around our Christmas tree; and we would go to their house for a dinner of potato latkes (certainly one of the best things ever) and an evening of dreidel. A few times a year, he would come to our house by himself, right around the time I was going to bed, and I knew that he and my father would either hole themselves up in our little den, talking into the wee hours of the morning, or they would set up a card table in the living room and play chess, in virtual silence, for just as long. My parents were involved in numerous bridge clubs and neighborhood groups and medical-related stuff that kept them socially active, but Uncle Bill was the only real friend that either one of my parents had.*

So here I am, 60 years old, trying to gather all the various things one has to gather in order to [re]enter the world of on-line dating. Years ago, I ran into someone who referred to this world as The Wild West – meaning a vast land where there are no rules, a whole lot of very bad behavior, some good souls, and absolutely anything can happen. He nailed it. And, into this maelstrom, one has to proceed with the lowest possible expectations while maintaining eternal, even if faint, hope. You have to believe that whatever it is you seek is 1) out there, somewhere (it is), and 2) you can find it (um….).

At this point, fifteen years after my divorce, I believe myself to be a seasoned and skilled decipherer of on-line profiles. If I may quote from Joan Crawford addressing the PepsiCo good old boys: “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” Perhaps I should add that the line was preceded by her saying: “Don’t fuck with me boys!” What this attitude translates into is that I am very, very selective in communicating with anyone. Believe me, this is not a case of me passing up terrific potential guys, this is a case of me saving both parties additional wear and tear on our fragile sense of hope. When I was an on-line dating newbie, I wrote a nice note back to each and every person who took the time to write to me, just as the daughter of Mary Barbara Mills had taught me to do as a necessary part of maintaining a civil society. What I found was – people will then argue with you, often with frightening intensity! They will badger, bully, name-call, hurl insults – all in response to a very lovely note that wished them all the best! Last week, I forgot my own rule (Do NOT Write Back!) when I received a note from a guy who seemed very decent, and worked in a field quite similar to mine. I wrote back, told him that I really wanted to find someone in an entirely different line of work, for balance, and I wished him well. He completely went off on me. At length, and with a degree of rage and hostility I can’t imagine feeling, let alone directing it at a complete stranger?!

OK. Onward. Wild west. Expectations sub-low. Hopes, um, in tact enough, I hope, to be awakened if there is reason.

Last weekend, I received on on-line approach from a guy who seemed…pretty good. Cute, a bit off the beaten path, fun-loving and witty, and seeming to be genuinely seeking something of substance in both a woman and a relationship. I responded. We emailed back and forth, safely and anonymously through the site, throughout the afternoon. At one point he asked me what I do for work; I responded that I was a clinical social worker in private practice. He wrote back: “It’s completely unhealthy to spend time with people less fortunate than ourselves.”

Earlier in my life, I would have assumed that he was joking. I probably would have laughed. But, lo these many years of life later, instead I wrote back and asked: “Are you serious?” He replied: “Absolutely, yes. That has been my experience.”

We were, as of that moment, done. Out of curiosity, I went on-line and started researching. I wondered just what percentage of the people in my own country, and then the world, I should shun from here forward if I followed this credo. Using income alone as the determining factor, this handy rule would save me from any further pesky interaction with more than 65% of my fellow citizens, and wow, certainly well over 80% of the people on the planet. While I was pondering the complexities of the term “less fortunate,” and the multitude of things that covers beyond money, my phone indicated that a new message had come through.

Yep. New note from The Guy. “I mean, these people have undoubtedly stolen from you, right?”



Is this guy seriously suggesting that the “less fortunate” will eventually steal from you? No! He’s suggesting that they have already! Somehow what came to mind was shoplifting, a frequent rite-of-passage in the upper economic brackets. I mean, my daughter’s acquaintances who did a very brisk business in shoplifted Abercrombie merch out of their middle school lockers were among the wealthiest kids in the school.

I did the on-line equivalent of un-friending someone on Facebook – I un-favorited his ass!

Deep breath. Wild West. Onward.

Next morning, approach received from a cute guy with a wonderful, open smile, looking for a Real Relationship. He had lots of pics of himself at various charity events looking very dapper and sincere, a give-back sort of a guy who made himself interesting by being interested. We exchanged emails back and forth, both of our interest clearly piqued. He indicated he would like to talk on the phone, thereby taking our relationship to the next on-line level; and though I hate talking on the phone with strangers, I agreed that it made sense. He suggested that I text him when I was free to talk later that day.

I did, and even though he had originally said he’d wanted to talk, he immediately blew up my phone with a flurry of texts including additional photos of himself in various locations, various tidbits of news about his day, and a number of questions for me. Hey, I’m pretty flexible, and I hate to talk on the phone, so OK, texting it is. After flitting across various topics, such as his workout routine (de rigeur for men on-line and over the age of 50), he said: “Hey, both of my parents were born in Italy. I’m 100% Italian. What’s your background?”

I said: “My father was 100% French, first generation. My mother was essentially a WASP.”

He: “Are you Jewish?”

Wait, are there people who honestly don’t know what WASP means? Is he double-checking if I perhaps converted at some point?

Me: “No.”

He: “Good.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “I don’t get along with Jewish women.”

Here I am again, saying for the second time in as many days: “Are you serious?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “Because they’re whining, nasally, pretentious, drama filled, high maintenance, boring women.”

I am…utterly dumbfounded. And sad. So sad. There is certainly nothing I can say to a gent in his late 50’s that can possibly alter his views, and this is neither the time nor the place. The only thing to do is…move along.

Ding! A new text comes through: “…also, they never ever take their wallet out to buy a man a drink. In other words they’re cheap as shit.”

So, no, I am not surprised when I go to my computer each morning, and see the headlines that summarize the latest unimaginable tragedy. I’m shocked. I am filled with grief. I am disheartened to varying degrees of near-paralysis. But I am not surprised. In the world of on-line dating, where one might easily expect people to be on their very best behavior, a murmuring level of anger, blame, prejudice, aggrieved bitter rage – all of these lie barely below the surface for so many people.

I am sure that each of the men I encountered believed that their perspective is entirely justified.

And that is how it begins.

*My parents remained unshakable in their Republican ideals, in the way of a woman born into great privilege whose much-adored parents never missed an opportunity to decry how FDR had ruined an entire nation, and a man born into a fatherless home of endless want who had lived his very own American Dream of rising from the great unwashed to become A Doctor; and who therefore believed with all his heart that this was, indeed, a land of opportunity where anyone with a whit of determination could pull himself up by his bootstraps and succeed. And, perhaps he was right, for his time. If “anyone” was white. And male. And not needed to work from such an early age that dreams could not even form.

Last Sunday

My foster grandson will turn three in less than two weeks. I unexpectedly got to spend the day with him last Sunday. I had planned to attend my longest-time friend’s ballroom dance competition that day, as it was the first time it worked out that I could finally see – and celebrate – what has been her passion for several years now. As grandson D is an easy-going child who sees wonder everywhere, he has accompanied me on many great adventures in his young life. I decided to bring him along.

He was fascinated by riding in the glass elevators at the Hyatt, likewise the oversized lobby furniture he scrambled into with great triumph. As it happened to be the day after Halloween, the lavish costumes of the dancing couples didn’t strike him as particularly noteworthy or unusual. He sat upright in his chair, watching the dancers attentively. After each brief dance was over, he clapped heartily, hopped off of his chair, and said with enthusiasm, “Is it over? Can we go back to the car and go home now?”

Each time, I said, “No, not yet! Just a little while longer, OK?”

On the drive back home, he chatted about the trains we passed, the differences between various construction vehicles, and where the passengers waiting on the train platforms might be going.

He was clearly headed in a philosophical direction at that point. And make no mistake, the following conversation was deeply philosophical, with all the curiosity, underlying wonder, and joy at the ability to reflect that entails.

“Tiabuela (which is what D calls me, as in a Spanish conflation of aunt/grandmother), do you know what I’m doing right now?”

“No, D, what are you doing?”

“I’m picking my nose! Do you like to pick your nose, Tiabuela? Do you do it very often?”

“Um, sometimes I pick my nose. Not very often really.”

“I love to! It’s a really good thing to do! If you don’t pick your nose, how do you get your boogers out! You have to get your boogers out!”

“Well, usually I get a Kleenex, and then I blow my nose into the Kleenex.”

“Hmm. I blow my nose sometimes. It’s way better to pick it.”

“I’ve noticed that you do it quite a bit.”

“Know what I’m doing now, Tiabuela? I’m eating my boogers!!”

“Uhhhhh, D, yuck! Don’t they taste yucky??”

“No! They don’t taste yucky! They taste good in my mouth! I like the way they feel inside my mouth! And they don’t make my stomach hurt! They’re not yucky, and they don’t make my stomach hurt.”

“So, some things make your stomach hurt?”

“Yes, but not boogers!”

There was a brief lull, as D gazed out the window and…seemed to be chewing.

“Well,” he said. “What about eye boogers! Do you pick those?!?”

art, top to bottom: Henri Matisse, Robert Henri, Pablo Picasso

A Painting of Memory

I lived in the company of ghosts. I know now that they were ghosts. But I also know that they were indeed company.

The house where the vapors lurked has 9 main rooms, not counting baths and laundry and storage and closets. Of those nine rooms, I inhabited five. I used only one of the three baths, one of the 6 closets, none of the storage areas.

A small room off the main part of the basement had clearly been designed for cold storage when the house was built in 1914. The wooden door at its entrance was at least four inches thick, the door of a vault. An ancient Frigidaire ice box still sits inside, its bottom compartment open and yawning, appearing expectant for the ice man to make his daily rounds, lugging the enormous block of ice that would keep the perishable foods cold and fresh for the next 24 hours.

The storage room has built-in shelves that run along two sides. In one corner of the shelves, the Lionel trains from my childhood lay in their original boxes. People have told me that the old boxes are often as valuable, or even more valuable, then the Lionel trains themselves. This matters not at all, as far as I’m concerned. Their value lay in the fact that playing with the trains, as they wound around our Christmas tree each year of my childhood, was the only time my father ever got down on the floor, on his hands and knees, and smiled the whole time.

On the other side of the shelves, the HO trains from my ex-husband’s childhood lay in boxes that had been neatly labeled, and packed, and shipped to us by his mother. Of his three siblings, we had been designated The Keepers of the Trains. I asked him if he wanted the trains when our marriage ended. I asked him several times. He always said yes; but he never came and got them. Eventually he moved far away, with the trains still in their neatly-packed boxes, shipped to us at great expense from his parents’ house in West Virginia.

So many things were just like this – the shards and shreds of a life gone by. Like all people who marry, we came from two separate families, and we joined together to make our own new family. I became the Keeper of the Trains, a role I chose freely, without burden or regret – because I understood that there may come a time when someone would want those trains.

I lived among closets filled with the history of others, because any of the things within them might be needed at any time. Or perhaps the rooms themselves might be needed, as they have been many, many times as my children – and several of their roommates, and friends, and significant others, and spouses – needed a place to live, to call home.

They will not need this again from me.

It is more likely, in fact, that the time could come when I am moving towards my twilight, that I might need sanctuary from them.

I rattled around a great deal of space, in case I might be needed.

In my new home, I have three closets which are not even full. Both of the train have been given to my children, and hundreds of the other things we brought from our old families and collected with our new one.

I lived in the company of ghosts. I know now that they were ghosts. But I also know that they were indeed company.

Photographs by Richard Nickel

Tragically Unhip, Tales from Logan Square

I said to my daughter, “Once I’ve been out and about in my new hood for a while, such as we are now, I begin to feel like I am inappropriately un-dyed, un-pierced, and un-inked.”

She looked around the cafe for a minute and said, “Well, not everyone is dyed.” Then she added, as if this were sure to make me feel better somehow, “but everyone is also about 30 years younger than you are.”

I have done it. I have gotten myself moved out of my home of 32 years in the suburb/small town/social experiment by the lake known as Evanston; and I have relocated to a lovely apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. The move was, and still is, a roller coaster combination of wrenching myself away and fleeing with unfettered glee. I said to my friend the other day: “it’s kind of like when you break up with someone after a long-term relationship, and you know that person is totally not right for you. So even though you don’t miss them, there are things that you miss about being in a relationship.

I have begun a new relationship, and feel all the thrill and trepidation and mystery and hope that entails. Here’s the thing: Logan Square does indeed have its share of hipsters, meaning street corners filled with plaid shirts, one pant leg rolled up, huge sunglasses, ink sleeves, ink calves, top knots, and forgodssake, little babies in strollers wearing fedora hats. I am an open-minded and tolerant person, but that is just wrong. Babies are supposed to wear giant, floppy, silly sunhats while they are still too young to protest, not giant sunglasses and fucking fedoras.

Another thing that requires an adjustment on my part is the beard situation. A high percentage of men walking around are sporting extremely long, scraggly, Duck-Dynasty worthy facial hair. In other words, they look very much like my son did when he walked out of the woods and into my sobbing arms after his 5-month backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. His sister, who hiked the Trail with him, looked fit and pink-cheeked and aglow with good health. My son, on the other hand, was doing an outstanding impression of a starving, homeless person – an impression that was greatly enhanced by the beard and the fact that mice had been chewing holes in his stocking cap, not to mention his frightening thinness.

It required a great deal of will to restrain myself from my desire to force feed him continually for the next couple of months while he returned to his normal size. Anyway, this is a problem now because I’ve clearly developed a weird association in my mind between long, scraggly beards and starving. I know it’s not cool when I run into my next-door neighbor (on his bike, all inked up, beard wafting in the breeze) and mention to him that I just got back from the grocery store if he’d like me to dig out a few cookies.

I, as it turns out, am tragically unhip.

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