At the turn of the New Year, Bob and I undertook our first co-habitational household project. We converted the unused, uninsulated, enclosed porch at the East corner of our two-bedroom condo into a full-fledged office space. We installed an electric fireplace and Bob assembled a new desk and chair while I cleaned five years of grime from windows, floors and walls. The Lady Cave – where I work from home on Mondays and write on nights and weekends – has become my favorite room in the house.
In an environment overrun with the testosterone of a marathon running man, a male kitty and dog, Meko and I have found our own X-chromosome respite. She stretches out in front of the fire on the new Memory Foam bed that Bob bought for her. I type, read, journal and think with the joys of warmth, companionship and lumbar support. It’s simply delightful.
On weekday mornings, I like to sit in the Lady Cave for a minute or two before the madness begins. As I collect my thoughts, I often find myself looking into the window across our alley, where Pilgrim Lutheran School’s fourth and fifth grade instructor prepares for the day’s lessons. I attended this parochial school myself from 1983 – 1988, returning in the fall of 1991 to graduate in June 1992. My mother Gloria also matriculated from Pilgrim in 1969, and my maternal grandparents were deeply involved in church and school activities starting in 1961.
As I passively watch the teacher ready her classroom, I sometimes feel the conflict between coming home and returning to darkness. 28 years ago my own fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Kiehm, probably performed the same routines. It’s a comforting idea of continuity. My time at Pilgrim was mostly happy. But in February 1988, I did not enjoy the luxury of a safe, warm, healthy household. Despite the palliative care school brought in the way of routine, normalcy and opportunities for achievement, my family was “that” one. The parents were bizarre and probably crazy. The children were unkempt, underfed and exhibited behaviors of the abused. The grandparents were well-meaning but seemingly helpless to keep their daughter and son-in-law from disgracing the family’s institutional legacy.
When these thoughts become too uncomfortable, or I’m aware that I’ve been staring too long, I turn my gaze rightward, North, to the buildings that remain of the former Ravenswood Hospital. It’s where my great-aunt Gloria worked for many years and where her namesake niece, my mother, attended nursing school. During the summer of 1993, my younger sister and I made daily walks between our grandparents’ apartment and the hospital’s hospice unit, where our beloved Poppa lay dying of congestive heart failure. The property has since been converted to a French school and senior housing development, but the façade that represents so many memories remains intact. Last summer when Bob and I would walk past to the grocery store, I’d ask him to stop with me for a moment. I wanted to see the bricks that protected the only man before my partner whose love was truly unconditional. As though my penetrating gaze could will more of Poppa’s long absence into presence.
When I walk out our front door and move South or West, I see a string of places and spaces along Irving Park Road that represent the paternal side of my history. The BBQ joint where Biasetti’s Steakhouse once stood. My grandmother June was a waitress there for decades. My father worked as a part-time bartender there in the early 1980s on Saturday nights. It was a real treat when our mother would take us there for Cherry Cokes (before Coca-Cola introduced the store version) and a visit. We’d sit on the high barstools listening to our dad have interesting conversations with regulars, feeling very important.
Up the street there’s O’Dononvan’s (formerly Schulien’s), another restaurant where June waited tables as a single mother raising six children. Across the road, at Lashet’s Inn, my dad and his brothers were able to buy beer while underage in the early 70s. The whole brood attended St. Benedict’s Catholic grade and high school, at the corner of Irving and Leavitt. My sister also completed her freshman year of secondary there in 1995.
As I make my new home with Bob and our pets, the ghosts of the past lie literally everywhere I move, visible even from the snug confines of the Lady Cave. During our quarterly check-in, I spoke with my therapist about the confusing feelings that can erupt from the tension. I’ve painstakingly built a present suffused with love, acceptance, peace and positive direction. I walk past landmarks of great childhood joy and silliness that remind me I’ve made it to 37 years old with important pieces of selfhood intact. That resilience and consistency makes me smile.
At the same time, I live amidst pockets of jarring trauma, with the phantoms of those both treasured and rejected as frequent companions. There is harmony and justice in coming home to live my way – no longer the pawn of the confused and dangerous. To be able to remake the neighborhood in my own vision of late-30s harmony. I stare the demons down every day knowing I’ve won, building new memories free of hurt.
Yet I’m not made of steel. I can’t totally disconnect then from now, even though the eras do sometimes seem as though lived by different women. I offer no conclusions. They’ve yet to be written – pen in the air, eyes peering from my favorite room toward the past and future.
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