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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The Purloined Play Lot

Play lot

In 1984, a tiny Lutheran grade school on Chicago’s North Side received an infrastructure upgrade in the form of a small rear play lot. This was an exciting event for the student body. At the time Pilgrim Lutheran did not have a gymnasium (I believe it still does without) although the auditorium was suitable for physical education because there was no permanent seating to be considered. But a new park, hidden within the school’s property like a small faux green oasis! For a then-working class, inner city neighborhood institution, it seemed so luxurious.

The two most vivid memories I have from my days on the play lot both involve music videos. This is as it must be. In 1986 Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” from the True Blue album was everything. It definitely was for young Becky. I recall sitting on the tire bridge with a few of my little gal pals having one heck of a singalong. Knowing every lyric and note as though they were the Gospel read in First Communication class, I was the envy of all. A self-aware eight year-old with a rough home life rarely experiences that level of peer triumph.

That same year, I was enthralled by Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” – song as well as MTV experience. Trying to duplicate one of the band members’ high-wire stage floats, I stood atop the play lot’s multi-colored, metal geodesic dome structure. I’m an infamous klutz so you can probably predict what ensued. I did a half flip off the dome that concluded with my person lying on the AstroTurf in an ignominious heap, head colliding hard with the bottom rung. I escaped concussion but the Jon Bon Jovi stage diving career was over.

Last week Tuesday, the day after birthday number 38, Bob, Jude and I walked down the alley behind our building to find the play lot lying on the school’s basketball court in disassembled pieces. From my vantage point since moving in with Bob in June 2015, I’ve watched my alma mater grow in population and funding, using its resources to make positive investments in facilities and programming. I’m proud to see the institution that counts my maternal grandparents, mother, sister and I as emeritus, surviving and thriving.

But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the play lot without warning. Self-inflicted head injuries aside, nothing bad ever happened to me there. There aren’t a lot of environments about which I can say this from that period of my life. I took a disbelieving Bob for a viewing of the site on our first date. He’d lived 150 feet away from the mini-playground for three and a half years without ever suspecting its existence. It was a safe, happy space that felt like the special secret of 22 years’ worth of children who passed through Pilgrim’s hallways. Kids like myself who had no other place to channel Madonna with abandon.

I have no idea what they plan to do replace the old turf and dismantled equipment. I was hoping that the project workers would move pieces of the geodesic dome into the alley dumpster, where I’d look for an advantageous time to swipe a memento. A metal bar that may once have supported my small head. But it seems like there was an independent pickup of the play lot’s remains. I hope it means the stomping grounds of my early childhood will be rebuilt somewhere else, allowing spirited little girls to perform modern musical acrobatics.

Change is a necessary part of life, although it would be swell if it were less painful. I’m keeping an open mind. For all I know the old play lot simply made way for something even more thrilling. A place to build new memories. School starts again next week and Bob and I can always use a date night.

The Uneven Road Home

The Uneven Road Home

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.

 

In Memory of Jesika (April 25, 2011)

Jesika Stairs

Two years ago today, I lost my partner in crime, Jesika Brooke Thompson, to an almost ludricrously brief battle with ovarian cancer, the “silent killer” of too many amazing women. Her 17-day struggle with the disease, and the effort to accept life without her, has been a huge factor in my personal transformation since April 25, 2009.

I am reprinting the eulogy I read at Jesika’s memorial service, as a small way of spreading the word about this fantastic friend, wonderful daughter, partner and professional.

In less than two weeks, I will be walking with Team June/Jesika as part of the Chicago Chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). If you would like to make a donation to this important cause (and any amount is appreciated), click here to be taken to my personal page

 

I first met Jesika Brooke Thompson in September of 1992 when we were both freshman at Lincoln Park High School on the North Side of Chicago. Jesika had come over to Lincoln Park with a crew of her fellow graduates from Hawthorne Elementary school, some of whom are with us today. As for me, I was the lonely, 100 pound, 5′ 4′ refugee of a tiny place called Pilgrim Lutheran Grade School. My graduating class had 12 students, so I was both overwhelmed and excited to start my new life as the member of a freshman class of nearly 1,000.

Luckily enough, I knew a few people from a summer school program I had participated in only a few months before. Some of the students I met were from Hawthorne, so when the inaugural at Lincoln Park rolled around, I stuck close to them. That first day of classes, a bunch of the Hawthorne crowd, including Jesika, decided to grab lunch at Robinson’s Ribs across the street from campus. As I walked across the quad to meet my pals, I got a look at Jesika, and, more importantly, she had a chance to size me up. I will never forget her first words to me: “What is that thing on your head?”

Yes, I, the skinny 14 year-old white fish swimming for the first time in a huge, multi-cultural pond, had dared to wear a bandanna to class. I had some misguided notion that it made me look tough or cool. Of course Jesika called me right out, not for the last time in what would turn into a beautiful 16-year friendship. You see that was Jesika’s way. The more she loved you, the more she enjoyed poking you in the ribs, reminding you never to take yourself too seriously, or get too big for your britches.

The last time I saw and spoke to Jesika in person was April 10th of this year. It’s so hard to believe that was just six weeks ago. Though we had grown and changed so much in the last decade and a half, Jesika’s final words to me were as memorable as the first. By the this time, Jesika was aware that she was ill and carted around an oxygen tank and mask to help her breathe better. One would have thought this challenge might subdue her sarcastic side. Not so.

For a few years now, and much to the embarrassment of my husband Eddie, I have been illogically attached to this puffy, long black winter jacket I bought at H&M. The thing may be ugly as sin, but it’s warm and that’s all that matters to me when it’s 30 degrees below outside. Am I right? Jesika had taken a few swipes at this coat over time, but I forgot all about this as I spent time with her at the apartment she shared with her partner, Kevin Smith. It wasn’t until I put my jacket on to go home that I was reminded I ought to have had the presence of mind to wear something else. Because out came Jesika’s quiet and serious voice with an important question: “Becky, why do you always have to wear that? When you gonna buy a new coat?”

I told this story of our first meeting, and shared this piece of the final conversation I had with Jesika, because they are two beautiful and funny bookends to a friendship that spanned half my life. I couldn’t do anything remotely foolish or uppity if I wanted to escape Jesika’s notice. She kept me, and so many of us nodding our heads right now, honest. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I loved her for it.

Now that doesn’t mean that Jesika lived to giggle at the ones she loved, even if it sometimes felt that way. Jesika also had a way of letting you know when she believed in you, that she was 100% behind you, your biggest fan.

I had so many stupid ideas when I was a teenager: trying out for the high school dance team for instance, when I don’t have a lick of rhythm. Going to the homecoming party freshman year, though I was warned by someone we all know well that it would be “ghetto and stupid.” But you know what? I followed through with those plans, and guess who stood right by me as I made a fool of myself? Of course Jesika. She might tell me once I would be sorry if I made up my mind to do something I’d later regret, but that never, ever stopped her from supporting me. She was even willing to endure the same embarrassments if it meant I didn’t have to stand alone. What an amazing gift.

Recently, and in a sorry economic state such as the one we’re facing right now, I made the decision to leave the stable comfort of my 9-5 job and strike out as a freelance writer. I had 6 years of undergrad and grad school to prepare me for this moment, in addition to the simmering will of a dreamer. But I feared what others might say. Did I have enough talent? Was I crazy to give up my solid income at the age of 30 for such a potentially risky endeavor? Would I live to regret taking a chance, and have to endure the ego check of crawling back to the corporate world? For as many doubts as I had in myself, Jesika made it clear that she didn’t have any. She was a registered follower of the blog I manage with my sister. Her only teasing complaint when I published my first piece in StreetWise newspaper last month, was that she’d have to hit the street to get what she called “her daily Becky fix.” Again for a moment, I have to stop and marvel that conversation took place only a month and a half ago. But that was the Jesika way: tickle you with one hand and hug you with the other. For everytime she kidded me for leaving my Facebook profile picture up too long, she would end her message by throwing in a reminder of how proud of me she was.

Maybe the reason I find it so hard to believe she’s gone, even a month later, is because I still feel Jesika behind me in so much that I do. When I walk through the mall and see a kiosk selling the latest model of pink Blackberries, Jesika is there. A week ago, as Kevin and I stumbled around the Lemont cemetery in the pouring rain, looking for Jesika’s burial plot as my worthless high heels sank in the mud, I could almost hear the heckle of Jesika’s generous laugh.

It doesn’t seem real, right or fair that a person so young, intelligent and hilarious be taken from us in such a sudden and terrible way. Sometimes I still have to sit quietly and repeat the words, “Jesika is gone.” Otherwise, I might let myself believe she is just out of town, catching a Janet Jackson concert with one of her many friends scattered across the nation. At a number of points in the last month, as I spoke to Kevin, or my husband, about my great friend Jesika Thompson, I felt as if I were choking on my own selfish desire to bring her back. I was Jesika’s side kick, not the other way around, and I wondered how I could keep moving forward without her love and support.

But that’s just it. I don’t have to. Jesika is right behind me, as she always has been. She will always be young, fresh and healthy. I don’t remember an old or sick version of my friend, just the bright light that she was. If there is any comfort to be found in the gaping wounds of her loss, perhaps that indelible image of Jesika’s teasing laugh, her unyielding support, is what will get me, and maybe some of you, through this difficult time.

What the 1980s Toy Industry Teaches the 2014 Gun Lobby (August 31, 2014)

Replica_Uzi

I was two years old in 1980, young enough to experience everything the Me Decade had to offer across the full spectrum of childhood – toddler to pre-teen. As a 36 year-old adult, I remain imprinted by the decade’s pop culture (punk, pop and yuppie), politics (regrettably, I voted for Reagan in the first grade mock election at Pilgrim Lutheran School) and material goods.

As pertains to the latter category, as someone who spanned the ages of two to 12 across the 1980s, I feel qualified to comment on the era’s unofficial status as the Golden Era of Toys. My younger sister and I pined for the first editions of many of the greats that live on today: Nintendo, My Little Pony, Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake and more. Toys R Us was the most magical land this side of Chuck E. Cheese, and it was possible to love Cabbage Patch Kids and Garbage Pail Kids at the same time without a hint of irony

It was also possible to get hurt. Before the 1990s phenomena of helicopter parenting emerged, leaving no edge unblunted for Little Johnny and Jane, the Slinkys were made of metal. Earnest efforts could be and were made by the mischievous to unwind and turn them into long, thin saws. Children across the nation pulled Big Wheel emergency breaks while riding downhill at top speed, sometimes producing a gnarly spin effect that just as often launched you into a hard surface. And the day wasn’t really complete until you’d given your sister vertigo from the comfort of the family hallway, atop the Sit ‘N Spin.

Of course we know what happened. Parents got tired of the same nausea, cuts and head injuries and complained to manufacturers. The toys became safer. Goodbye Big Wheel parking break, hello hard plastic Slinky. Not quite as fun as the former models, but the great thing about kids is that if you give them a year or two they become a new demographic. Generation X was full of goth ennui by the time it noticed its cousins no longer swallowed little green army men.

I’m using a juvenile parallel to make a larger point, but the comparison is no joke. If rules and regulations pertaining to the manufacture, sale and usage of toys can evolve in response to a threat to children, why as we so dangerously and resolutely opposed to following suit with guns? In 1992, toy versions became required to have an orange plug or be entirely brightly colored to signify them as such. But we continue to allow the real thing to kill and otherwise scar our youngest Americans.

By now we’ve all had time to absorb the story. A 9 year-old in pigtails accidentally kills her weapons instructor while wielding an Uzi at the appallingly named Arizona attraction, Bullets and Burgers. While this tragic vignette has grabbed a multitude of headlines, it is far from an unusual occurrence. According to a July 2013 New York Daily News report:

“In the almost seven months since Adam Lanza’s demented slaughter of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary first-graders and six adults, at least 40 more children age 12 and under have died from accidental shootings across the United States, according to data compiled by the Daily News.

Those numbers do not include children killed by adults. Add those tragedies in, and about 120 innocents ages 12 and under have been killed by guns since Newtown.”

Despite the proliferation of child psychological terror and death by the collective relaxing of gun limits (literal and culturally), it never seems to be enough to shake the zombified Second Amendment zealots out of their trance. And you can always count on the cynical, heartless and tone deaf NRA to know just what to say. In the aftermath of the Arizona tragedy, RT.comreports, “Powerful US gun lobby, National Rifle Association, took the opportunity to present on social media ways children can ‘have fun at the shooting range’ following the horrific accidental killing of a shooting instructor by a 9-year-old girl in Arizona.”

At some point, as the 80s evolved into the 1990s, parents, manufacturers and lawmakers came together to decide that the safety of our youngest citizens was worth supporting. That’s right. Business, Congress and people working together for a common cause, a just cause. Toys didn’t suddenly become the stuff of black market trade, and no one lost their Constitutional right to play. The materials ad features just changed a little bit. It was logical.

How did we get here? How did we get to fourth graders being taught to view the handling of a semiautomatic weapon and the consumption of a hamburger with equal casualness? We won’t let our grown children show up for job interviews without us, but we’ll let the babies wield Uzis? And before you Internet trolls start your work, advocating for everyday common sense such as keeping weapons of war from the arms of kids, is no threat to your freedom.

It’s broken. It’s sick. And for the sake of our children, the limitless reach of guns has got to stop.