and so she wrote….
this is it.
end of chapter. start of new…
but, before we finish turning the page, before i sit and stare at a whole blank page of the newsprint of my life, i want to sift through a few old, yellowed sections. i want to remember. to spool forth thanksgiving. to send smoke signals out to people and places far far from here.
i want to hold up this moment, these moments, this chapter. i want to grace it with abundant blessing.
i walked out of the newsroom yesterday afternoon, my last day there. i had to leave early. i laughed. even my last day i sort of flubbed, if you want to call it that, because my little one had invited me to the fifth-grade wax museum, and i wasn’t about to miss it — he’d spent the better part of two months crafting and memorizing and dramatizing the life of PT barnum, and it just so happened the show’s opening was the very close of my newspapering.
so, instead of staying in my desk till the bitter end, i had to throw on my backpack and dart out the door, a mother’s best move so very often.
i didn’t pop champagne. didn’t turn out the lights at the billy goat tavern, that subterranean watering hole that’s doused so many a newspaper scribe’s parched, dry gullet.
but there was coffee served in the conference room yesterday morn, and all the folks i type with, they huddled around, took seats at the table as if it was any everyday meeting.
being journalists, they rattled off a few great questions: what was your favorite story? how many jobs have you had here at the tribune? how did you meet blair (my mate of 20 married years, my dear friend and “crush” of nearly 25)?
i loved the question about the favorite story. took time to answer that one with plenty of heart.
i’ve been pondering it for the last couple weeks. in fact, i decided a while back that my own private chapter closing would be the day i climb to the attic and sift through the boxes and crates of old yellowed newspaper clips, to read and remember, to run my fingers over the grainy photos from long ago, to absorb through and through the holy walk that was this chapter.
but, without even yanking the rope that lowers the door to the attic, i can sift through a few stories here.
after all, all of you here at this table, have been behind every breath of this passage, even when you hadn’t a clue.
there is much to remember as i flip through the pages of all of the years.
one has to be the story i wrote about the farmer who lost her soldier son, and turned to the fields to till through her grief. i sat beside her one hot summer’s day on her creaky old porch swing, down on a farm where the trees scratched the sky. i wrote what she said, what i noticed, what stirred in the air. and once that story hit the paper it somehow wound up in faraway maine.
there was a fellow who worked in some shop up there, and when he sat down to lunch one particular day, he found the chicago tribune spread on the table. he picked it up and read the story about the farmer and all of her sorrow. he put the paper back down, and went back to work.
but that night, driving the two hours home, he couldn’t stop thinking of the story — and the farmer. so he turned his truck around, and drove back to the shop. he tore through the trash cans till he found it, the newspaper section with the farmer, standing out in her field looking skyward. he rolled up the paper, tucked it under his arm, tossed it onto the passenger seat and drove home. he stared at that paper for awhile, then he got brave. sat down and penned a letter. addressed the envelope with nothing but her name and the name of the town he read in the dateline of that newspaper story.
to make a long story short and sweet, here’s what happened: he wrote, and she wrote. back and forth for the better part of a year. even a phone call or two. he invited her to come up to maine. she did. she went back home and put her farm up for sale. they farm together in the north woods of maine now.
all because he read her newspaper story.
another favorite is the one about the pigeon man of lincoln square, a curious fellow, a fellow who struck me right away, a fellow whose story i had to find out.
he used to sit on a fire hydrant along a busy city street, and dozens of pigeons flocked to him, perched on him. i nearly swerved out of my lane the first time i saw him. i drove back quick as i could, talked to him off and on over the course of a few days. went up to his attic apartment, the place where he kept his pigeon-feeding supplies and rested his head. i wrote his story. wrote how he struck me as some sort of st. francis of the city.
three years later, that old man with the crooked spine was shuffling along another busy street when a van up and hit him. he fell right there on the sidewalk, died before they got to the ER. as they lifted his body onto a stretcher, the police told me he was clutching a laminated copy of the story i’d written three years earlier.
those might be the bookends of my shelf of favorites — a start and an end.
but in between, there would be so very many. the trek across america, all on my own, back in 1984, as i traveled to see and to hear — from the rio grande valley to the mississippi delta, from pennsylvania steel mills to backwoods in maine, from salmon fisheries in northern california to farm towns in iowa — just what it meant to be hungry in america.
or the night when i stood, nose pressed against the crack between ballroom doors, and watched prince charles swirl on the dance floor with all of the ladies of the oak brook polo club.
or the mother, long long ago, who had a sweet boy with down’s syndrome whose smile i will never forget. or the father whose daughter lay dying of anorexia nervosa. or the little boy who fell through the ice of lake michigan but did not die, and so i kept vigil with his mama and papa as the whole city watched and waited and held their collective breath.
after all those 30 years, when i think back over the breadth and depth of humanity i have scribbled into my notebooks, soaked into my heart, i sigh a mighty sigh and whisper one solitary truth: it really was the voyage of a lifetime.
and i am so deeply grateful and humbled and blessed.
i wrote one last column, a “Dear Reader” goodbye. i sent it to my editor the other morning, but i don’t think she’s letting it run in the paper.
so i will end this meander with the one column that no one else will ever read.
these are the last words i typed for the chicago tribune, where i worked from june, 1982, to february 10, 2012:
There is a breathtaking tradition in newspapers when one of the ink-in-the-veins scribes leaves the newsroom for the very last time: Everyone at every news desk stands up and “claps out” the exiting reporter, a parade of final applause that is, in every way, the highest salute.
I want to reverse that tradition on this, my last day in this newsroom. I want to be the one who stands and applauds all of you, dear readers — even though I’m the one leaving.
I want you to know that for the last nearly 30 years I have poured my heart into each and any story, because as journalists we get to be the eyes and the ears and the heart for all of you as we go about the business of gathering stories. We ask questions, listen hard to answers, and soak up the scene, so we can bring you to the news as much as we bring the news to you.
I want you to know that it has meant the world to me to be trusted to tell you those stories. And I want you to know that I treasure our connection, a very real connection. I have saved — and will carry home — your emails, and your letters. Alas, I will have to leave behind a few glorious voicemail messages, some of them saved years ago. I consider all of them — penned, or typed, or recorded — the prizes of my life.
I will miss you.
And I thank you for inviting me into your homes, to your kitchen tables, and your favorite armchairs, for all of these many very rich years. I leave this newsroom in very good hands, and in very good hearts.
Bless you all.
Your grateful scribe,