Nature and Nurture Argue in the Stairwell

In the early spring of 1996, my mother, younger sister and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. At the time, my parents had been separated for two years (they have yet to divorce – closure was never their thing). Yet mom continued to pay the mortgage on the dilapidated childhood home in which my unemployed father squatted (see previous parenthetical snark). The housing budget was tight.

We’d been living with family, but the free rent that came with my maternal grandmother’s flat in North Center had become a price too high to pay. Never a fan of her only child, my mother Gloria, Nanni’s vindictive bitterness toward her two granddaughters became more pronounced with age and the mental deterioration caused by stroke and Parkinson’s disease. When Nanni spread a rumor across the block that I’d borne and hidden a secret child, even the emotionally sedentary and intellectually resistant Gloria could perceive change was in order.

Uptown was a few years away from full gentrification in the mid-1990s and so while a bit snug for three nearly adult women, two cats and a freakishly large 140-pound golden retriever, the apartment we chose had original wood detailing, a separate living room and dining room and a full kitchen pantry. We may not have loved all of the circumstances that brought us to Winnemac Street, but my sister Jenny and I had mad affection for our new place. With its natural lighting and dissociation from the destructive hoarding of our father, and mercurial bullying of Nanni, 1262 West looked and felt like the sweetest freedom $475 a month could buy.

The excitement of setting up home, several months before I’d leave it for the choral adventures of South Africa, followed by freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, still shines brightly in memory. Several years from discovering our mother’s long-running identity theft scheme, which put me in bankruptcy court, and left Jenny and I to rebuild on our own, peace and freedom felt possible as never before.

My younger sister and I put our belongings wherever it felt right – calling out to each other as we unpacked, singing loudly along to CDs blasted from a boom box. In sprit and practice, it was just the two of us. Gloria worked a third-shift nursing job. Jenny and I readied for school, prepared dinner, studied and slept, dodged Jehovah’s witnesses and army crawled across the floor to avoid windows as Chicagoans riotously celebrated the Bulls’ latest NBA Championship. Just us and our pets. A couple of young urban women undertaking a dry run at adulthood.

I remember a few other things quite vividly about that spring move to Uptown. One of them is the sound, more like a death rattle, of my mother attempting to carry her half of a chest of drawers up a single flight of stairs. The highboy-style bureau had belonged to my grandfather, Poppa, who died in July of 1993. In 1996, my mother smoked three or four packs of Virginia Slim Ultra Lights per day. This was a rather neat trick considering she worked in a hospital operating room for 75 hours a week. But I suppose if one avoids healthy food, exercise, house cleaning, bill payment and certainly, the conventions of parenting, it frees up extra time.

The afternoon my mother tried – and failed – to move the dresser left a vivid imprint on my 17 year-old imagination. And of late, I return to the memory more often. On that day in 1996, Gloria was 39.5 years of age – the same spot on the progression of life I presently occupy. She had two teenage daughters (versus my own childlessness) and had long given up on expecting days better and more exciting than ones already passed. The hopelessness was conveyed by the programmed end to end lighting of cigarettes that occupied her waking hours. She was chain puffing her way to conclusion – with internal resignation and a blank stare for the world around her.

The memory of Gloria huffing and gasping, grip on the tall dresser slipping between sweaty hands after a mere seven stairs, is endlessly depressing. Even at the arrogant, immortal-feeling age of 17, I knew a 39 year-old was not, in common practice, an old woman. But there she was, almost fully gray-haired, wearing disheveled, dirty sweats, DDD-cup breasts swinging low and saggy in their bralessness, lighting up her next smoke even as she was clearly unable to breathe. And I hated her intensely in her disregard – the lack of self-care matched by unconcern for the example offered. I thought to myself, swore rather, “That will never be me. I will never let myself go that way.”

Reader, you probably know what happened next. Flash ahead 22 years to the first morning of 2018. I’m 39.5 years old, 30 pounds overweight and pathetically out of shape. Bob and I live in a third-floor walkup condo building and I need a couple breathing breaks to travel those stairs. Every morning I look out the window of our North Center home office, and into the fourth grade Pilgrim Lutheran school classroom where Gloria and I both studied.

When my husband and I walk Jude together, we pass the same two-flat on Wolcott where Nanni played her Machiavellian head games. I may not smoke cigarettes – completely turned off as I was by mom’s perpetually bad breath, yellowed skin and nail beds – but on New Year’s Day, I face an uncomfortable reality. The roads to 40 might travel on different metaphorical continents, but she and I arrived at the same physical health destination. I look, sound and probably feel more like Gloria than I’d promised 17 year-old Becky I’d allow.

And yet for all the unwanted physical parity, my mother and I are different women. At 39, she lived as though she’d already died, while I know I’ve only begun to reach full potential. Our symbolic duality reckons with a self-aware determination that marks my character alone.

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Illinois is the New California (May 27, 2010)

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Despite what appears to be the inevitable ascent of the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cup Glory (!), those of us in the Prairie State don’t get a win that often. In sports, we are a long suffering people. The Bears have not won anything since 1985, the 1990s glory days of the Chicago Bulls are long gone, The White Sox brought it home in 2005 (but honestly, say what you want, the Sox have never been “Chicago’s Team”), and the Cubs? Well, let’s not go there.

We are the State that brought you the bootlegging empire of Al Capone, as well the long reign of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and “outfit” politics. We are the land of unionized crime, and the entity that has sent two of its last three Governors to Federal prison (once the legal formalities of Blago are complete). Last Fall, we also suffered an embarrassing first round exit from the IOC’s final decision making process to determine the host City of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Ah yes, we have much to be proud of. No wonder we are also known for our drunkeness.

If it appears that I am guilty of conflating Chicago with the State as a whole, that is by design. Downstaters can howl all they want about Illinois being more than just the Windy City, but facts are facts. Chicagoland (City and suburbs) represents more than 75% of Illinois’ population, and roughly the same percentage of its economy. Take Chi-town out of the equation, and we’re left with just another agriculturally centered Red-leaning state.

However, it is not our legacy of losing, corruption, crime and other forms ignominy that I wish to write about today. As a career advocate for human services in Illinois, I would like to call attention to the sorry, pathetic state of lawmaking, and the attempts by the legislature to pass a fiscal year 2011 budget that make the more publicized financial problems of California and New York appear tame.

The Illinois State Senate is preparing to vote on a package, likely by the end of the day, that does nothing at all to address a badly needed increase of revenues. A 1% income tax hike, responsibly proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, has been shot down over and again, not because lawmakers feel the funds are not needed, but instead because it is considered politically disadvantageous to stand up and do the right thing. The solution, according to these officials, is to attempt to balance the budget, and catch up on backlogged bills, by placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of the social services community – providers who care for children, the aged, the mentally ill, the abused, the homeless and substance abuse addicts. Yes, kick the weak and overworked while they are down. Brilliant!

Under this budget providers will be forced to operate where contracts and funding levels can be changed or cut at any moment. Key points include:

• An Emergency Budget Act that makes funding even more uncertain by giving the Governor unprecedented power (until January 2011) to make additional cuts.

• No human service organization will know about contracts to take affect July 1 for several more weeks, thereby dumping the costs of a quick shut down on the community, clients and staff.

• The Governor will be able to cut budgets at any time.

• There is no solution to late payments; they are simply kicked further down the road.

• There is no comprehensive solution to inadequate human services funding, or the larger issue of the State’s slow descent into insolvency.

If we slice through the political jargon here, what this basically means is that a budget will pass, but no one will know know anything about it until the Governor decides how the money will be allocated. Huh? Last time I checked, the State was not a monarchy. Unacceptable. Don’t we have a right to know where our tax money is going and how it is being use?. Isn’t the point of a budget process to sort all that out upfront? Nope, instead, weak and scared lawmakers are passing the buck right back to Quinn and telling agencies to lobby him for some of those lump sum dollars. What did we hire these people for?

Let’s not wait for the November elections to tell these turkeys how we feel. Call you legislator TODAY and demand better. If you don’t know who your district reps. are, you may access the following website to figure it out:

http://www.elections.state.il.us/DistrictLocator/DistrictOfficialSearchByAddress.aspx

In our cynical age, activism is often derided as both nerdy and pointless. That’s what they want you to believe because if you stay quiet, the status quo can continue unmolested. Let’s demand better Illinois! Let’s show the rest of the nation that we may produce a lot of silly headlines, but we have some backbone too.