i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?
it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.
because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?
measuring life in 8 millimeters(from 2007)
it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.
it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.
i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.
but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.
mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.
it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?
it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.
if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.
but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.
as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.
as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.
i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.
not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.
in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.
i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.
it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.
but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.
“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.
in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.
a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.
how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?
Amid the haunting tremors of this national moment, and the bone-chilling worry that something awful could erupt, the dreadful sense that we are teetering at the precipice of something precious being lost, I interrupt the breathlessness, the imploring for peace, mercy, justice and truth, to turn ever so briefly to one of the countless personal narratives that unfurls against this shadowed backdrop. Someone with whom I’ve carved a life is turning the page on one of his most consequential chapters, and, as the family historian and archivist, it must be duly marked.
This is a love story.
It begins long, long ago, inside a vaulted cacophonous chamber inside a gray stone Gothic tower, one that hugs a river’s edge as it courses toward one great lake, in the crosshairs of the American metropolis that rose defiantly from the endless prairie.
A tall bespectacled gentleman, cloaked in appropriately puddle-splashed and newsprint-stained London Fog trench coat and holey-bottomed penny loafers, strides with his signature mix of certainty + humility down the newsroom’s center aisle, past desk after factory-assembled desk, each one equipped with typewriter, ancient desktop computer, and, chances are, one of the big-city news hustlers straight out of central casting (half-drained whiskey bottles hide in file drawers, stashed behind the extra pair of brogans down where dustballs grow; ashtrays brim with stubbed-out cigarettes; expletives punctuate the rumble, a slurry mix of ringing phones, clackety-clacking teletype machines, and the endless bark of irascible editors and the copy kids who dart and dodge at every bark before it turns to bite).
Our protagonist, the bespectacled one, is noticed by a young Irish-American nurse-turned-scribe, one whose presence in that very newsroom is as unlikely as anything in her curiously-scripted life. She especially perks her ears when newsroom talk spreads word that this new fellow — this 6-foot-3 Ivy Leaguer who’s arrived by way of Des Moines, and is reputed to write “like nothing you’ve never seen” — boldly exits the newsroom on Friday evenings at six o’clock sharp (akin to walking out of surgery just before the scalpels dig deep into flesh, as Friday night is when the big bulging Sunday paper is “put to bed,” and all hands usually on deck). Word is that the reason for his unnewsroomly departure is to sprint to synagogue for Friday night service. This unorthodox (for a newsroom) orthodoxy is a.) impossible to miss, and b.) highly impressive to the religiously-intrigued Irish-Catholic ecumenical one.
(Turns out, don’t you know, he was dashing out to the door not only to bow his head and pray, but also to keep a sideways glance on any nice Jewish girl who might wander into the synagogue’s so-named Singles Shabbat, a mix-and-mingle for the 20-something minyan set. Our unreliable narrator here obviously mistook urge to mate — or at least to J-date — for religious fealty.)
It’s not long into this newsroom tale till she — our narrator — falls for him. It is longer, markedly longer, till he returns the favor. But this is not that love story.
This is her ode to his third-of-a-century dedication, devotion, middle-of-the-night perseverations to the journalistic craft, to his unswerving eye toward excellence, toward equity and justice for all in the urban grid, from the greenswards to the cloud-poking steel-and-glass arisings.
Back in the beginning of this Chicago story, he worked the city desk, just like the legions of fresh-faced cub reporters who started out eager and naive to the wily ways of Second City aldermen and crooks (sometimes one in the same), ears trained to the police scanner, ready to leap with hat, coat, and scribbler pad to the scene of the nearest atrocity, disaster, or ambulance chase.
First time the Irish-Catholic and the new-to-the-newsroom Shabbat devotee found themselves dispatched to the same breaking news was the night ol’ Eddie Vrdolyak, an aldermanic stalwart of Chicago’s famed Democratic Machine, broke loose and turned Republican, stunning his Southeast Side constituents who filed into the Serbian Orthodox church hall with their bundt cakes and their murmured words of world-is-upside-down consternation and congratulations. She soaked up color, ambiance, mood; he stuck with the facts. (A telling distinction, one that in some ways would never really fade.)
From there, the hard core of the city desk, the one who’d studied hard the intricacies of balustrades and board-and-batten, casement windows and Corinthian columns, who’d versed himself in architectural volumes from primitivism to Postmodernism, dutifully bid his time pounding Chicago pavement, but he never took his eye off that glittering ever-shifting skyline.
In the fall of 1992, a mere five years after slipping on his Chicago Tribune ID badge, he was crowned the title he had long, long yearned for: architecture critic of America’s First City of built masterpieces and no little plans. (Note: For all my wanting to, and with all my years cobbling sentences and spinning yarns, I cannot do justice to his 28 years “on the beat,” as newsroom parlance would put it. Oh, but I shall try.)
He’s sized up the likes of Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, Jeanne Gang, and the iconoclastic-in-every-way Stanley Tigerman, among the many, many.
He’s marched into architectural battle with no less than Mayor Richie Daley (e.g., the infamous Meigs Field midnight raid, bulldozing Xs through the runway, among his many go-arounds with Da Mare), Mike McCaskey and the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field brouhaha, or in our critic’s inimitable description, “Starship Enterprise crash-landed on the Parthenon”), the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field, and specifically the Toyota sign planted in the bleachers, a “wart on the face of baseball’s grande dame”), Star Wars director and Hollywood legend George Lucas (a “cartoonish mountain” of a proposed lakefront museum the critic likened the “giant lump” to a “bloated Jabba”), and, of course, the Developer in Chief, Donald John Trump, who first courted then skewered our friend the critic.
Our critic’s story began long before the summer of 1987 when he loped into the Tribune Tower. He’d grown up in a newsroom, starting out at 13 on the night shift — writing obits by night, body surfing on the Jersey Shore by day — in his father’s newsroom, a classic PK, or publisher’s kid, in Red Bank, NJ. He’d interned in newsrooms in Newark, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston. And paused long enough for a masters in environmental design at Yale. This curious chemistry of take-no-guff news hound + aesthete and well-trained critic’s eye proved a formidable match for the rough-and-tumble of Chicago, where not even the arts are shielded from shenanigans and shysters.
This explosive combo, well, exploded. Often. In shouting matches with City Hall, delivered at full throttle and no words minced. The leitmotif (toned down for tender eyes or ears) went something like this: “Don’t give me that [baloney]! Tell me the truth!” It is reported that as these shouting matches unfurled for quarter-hour chunks of time, the heads of young reporters would pop up from behind their screens around the newsroom, “like gophers from their gopher holes,” to ogle the sight and sound of a scribe at top bellow.
Truth, most often, won out. Which might explain how, along the way, the critic’s sharp eye and voluminous and tireless reporting on the inequities of the city’s bejeweled lakefront — well-appointed and abundant on the North Side, decrepit and inaccessible from poor Black neighborhoods on the South Side — would in time reshape the city map. Bulldozers literally shoved parkland to where before there had been none. And millions once unjustly cut off from the great Lake Michigan shoreline now romp on beach and trail, “forever open, clear and free,” in accord with the 1909 edict of the Illinois Supreme Court that has become the rallying cry for decades of lakefront protection. Hands down, the opening up of the entire swath of lakefront is the critic’s proudest moment. That redrawing of the lakefront came in the wake of his 1998 series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” six parts in all, that won him what a young friend of ours once and indelibly declared, “the Polish Surprise” (sound it out swiftly, and you’ll know what I mean, especially to the tender ears of a 5-year-old child).
Together, after all those decades in the same newsroom, the Irish scribe and the tireless critic (one of the rare perpetual newsroom bondings, wed in 1991) paired their names on only three double-bylines. One, named Will (now 27, and a brand-new lawyer — just yesterday sworn in virtually to the Illinois Bar from a Portland, OR, courthouse), and another, Teddy (19, and trudging through college). And yet a third: The mother of those double-bylines was asked by the critic to tag along when the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened and ready for architectural critique, since after all, the critic pointed out, she was the one who’d pushed out the double-bylined babies in the original hallowed Prentice hospital.
And now, for some undetermined chunk of time, the indefatigable and as-yet-unnamed-here critic (long ago, I made a vow that I would not write of him or our marriage, except for occasional sidekick insertions, as he was something of a public figure who deserved full control over his private life), is hanging up his London Fog, and kicking off those holey loafers. He announced his leave-taking on Twitter the other night (see tweets down below). And with lump in my throat, and tears not only in my eyes but running down my cheeks, I partake of the great newsroom tradition of clapping him out as he exits the building and the beat.
As he wrote in his own last column in the Tribune, which ran practically hidden in the inside pages of the Business section on Thursday:
When I became the Tribune’s architecture critic in the fall of 1992, there was no Millennium Park, no Museum Campus, no downtown Riverwalk, no Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and no St. Regis Chicago. There were no planter boxes in the middle of Michigan Avenue and few bike paths other than those on the lakefront trail.
Hulking public housing high-rises still stood at Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. State Street was an ugly transit mall. Little planes still landed at Meigs Field. Sears Tower was still Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world.
I am chest-burstingly proud of the brilliant work he’s written under his byline, of the countless midnights when he slunk out of bed to fix a sentence or deepen some particular thought. His devotion must rank among the rarest in the business. His love for his city and his readers kept him writing long after counterforce made quitting the easier option. We’ve seen him trailed by TSA agents at O’Hare who wanted to keep up some architectural conversation, straight to the boarding gate; stood by as he was tapped on the shoulder as far away as London or DC by a reader who recognized him and didn’t want to miss a chance to say thank you, ask an architectural question. It’s that devotion — and infinite unsung kindnesses extended to readers and would-be someday critics — that is perhaps his shiningest prize, the one that comes with no crystal paperweight, and no plaque to hang in a back corner of his book-lined office.
He’s our beloved Blair Kamin, of whom we are soo soo proud. And who has left an indelible and breathtaking mark on the city he loved, the newspaper for which he wrote for 33 rollercoaster years, and who has written his best and most lasting lines in the narrative that is our blessed little double-bylined family.
But that’s the not end of this love story. Only this latest chapter.
Here’s how he broke the news on Twitter last Friday night:
After 33 years at Chicago Tribune, 28 as architecture critic, I’m taking a buyout + leaving the newspaper. It’s been an honor to cover + critique designs in the first city of American architecture + to continue the tradition begun by Paul Gapp, my Pulitzer-winning predecessor.
During these 28 years, I have chronicled an astonishing time of change, both in Chicago and around the world. From the horrors of 9/11 to the joy of Millennium Park, and from Frank Gehry to Jeanne Gang, I have never lacked for gripping subject matter.
Whether or not you agreed with what I wrote was never the point. My aim was to open your eyes to, and raise your expectations for, the inescapable art of architecture, which does more than any other art to shape how we live.
So I treated buildings not simply as architectural objects or technological marvels, but also as vessels of human possibility. Above all, my role was to serve as a watchdog, unafraid to bark and, if necessary, bite, before developers and architects wreaked havoc on the city.
I am deeply grateful to my newspaper, which has never asked me to pull punches. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with talented editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers. They have been a huge help. Journalism, like architecture, is a team enterprise.
What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.
It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off. Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny. -30-
you’ll note i put aside for this one time my disinclination to hit the shift key and write with capital letters (writing here in lower case is for me something akin to kicking off my shoes and shuffling around in slippers), but for the upstanding critic, i decided to pull out my big-girl keys and give him ups and downs on the keyboard scale. i’ll return to slippers, no doubt, though i do note it makes for easier reading when you can spy the peaks and valleys in each and any sentence.
in the tweets above, you might notice mention of Jon Stewart, the late-night genius, who once saw fit to enter the Chicago architectural fray, a little back-and-forth, you might say, between our hero here, the critic, and the comb-over developer who would go on to rule the Oval Office…watch here the clip of Signfeud, from the Daily Show…
i have now overflowed this space with a kitchen sink of Kamin esoterica and folderol. it is with all the love in the world, and bursting giant heart, that i thank the Chicago Tribune (where, combined, we toiled for 63 years) for bringing me the other half of our double byline. it’s been some rocket ride, and i’ll hold on tight for wherever this takes us next.
much love, BK. i am — in the great Tribune tradition of “clapping out” your final exit from the newsroom — standing and applauding. xoxox
and here’s a final twist for this week’s chair: how bout this, you ask the question this week, and i will try to answer….the annals of the newsroom are now open for the curious…..
there should have been a gathering of little wax sticks, a whole cloud of them poked into the landscape of a buttery cake, each wick flickering, sputtering sparks, as she drew in a very deep breath, ready to blow them all out.
we should have flown in from our corners of the continent, gathered at her old kitchen table, brought our stories and quirks, raised a glass or a skinny-necked bottle.
she has long been our matriarch, our mother, our chief instructor in living a good and simple life. hers is the code attributed to st. francis: “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
and she’s turning 90 on tuesday.
in our house, she’s grammy. there’s even a day of the week named in her honor, grammy tuesday, a title she earned by motoring to our house every blessed tuesday since our firstborn was born in june of 1993. she played the role of “nanny” one day a week, when he was a newborn, a toddler, straight through till the day we sent him off to college. when he was eight, and we found out he was getting a brother, grammy doubled her workload. without hesitation or pause, she announced she was coming on thursdays as well. over the years, her nanny equipment expanded to include the blue plastic cooler she filled with the fixings of whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner, one of a rotating cycle of circa 1970s dinners. if you trace back the roots of her cooking you might discern that she was the wife of an ad man, an ad man who counted campbell’s soup among his quiver of clients, and thus my mother might only be bested by mr. warhol when it comes to making the most of a soup can.
because my mother is all action, few words, the scenes that flash in the carousel that plays in my head — just like the home movies that clackety-clacked through the reel of the kodak projector she’d set up in front of the living room fireplace, every once in a sunday — are utterly silent.
watching them now, on the eve of the dawn of her tenth decade, they still take my breath away.
there’s the time at the kitchen door, when the long black limousine from the funeral home idled in our circular drive, and my mother (a widow at 50) in her camel hair church coat gathered the five of us (one girl, four boys in her brood), and intoned: “make your father proud.” she’d meant in the church where we were headed for his funeral, and the cemetery afterward, but i’d always taken it as instruction for life. and i’ve tried, oh i’ve tried.
there’s another time, in a misty winter’s drizzle, when we were motoring into the cemetery where my father was buried, and we were carrying a tiny wooden box, inlaid with brass. inside was the tiny, tiny baby girl i’d just miscarried. we’d decided to bury her beside my father, and as we drove into st. mary’s cemetery, there was my mother, standing above her husband’s grave, her foot to the lip of the shovel, already digging the hole where we would lay our baby to rest, forever atop her grandfather’s chest.
there are even — more rarely — silly times: squirting a can of whipped cream into the mouths of my boys. squirting it into her own. when i was little once we stayed up late, my mother and i, making fudge from a box. and then, leaning against the fridge in the dark, we cut out piece after piece in the moonlight. we giggled.
my mother has taught me to fix things myself, to sew on a button, to darn the holes in a sock. my mother gave me ironing lessons there at the board she unfolded in the kitchen, sprinkled with water doused from a recycled 7Up bottle she’d fitted with a hole-pocked cap, the better to moisten your wrinkles. she taught me how to get a sharp enough crease on an oxford cloth shirt, or a pillow case, should you be so inspired. (i’m usually not.) and right there at that ironing board, on a day without school, she taught me all about “the birds and the bees,” (her words) and the womanly cycle certain to come.
my mother taught me to love birds and walks in the woods. my mother woke me up most every school morning trilling lines from robert browning, robert louis stevenson, or emily D, her beloved belle of amherst. my mother taught us, over and over, not to ever let the church get in the way of God. i took it as gospel. when i came home with my jewish boyfriend, my mother who’s gone to morning mass every day of her life, pulled me aside to tell me he was a keeper. she even pinned on him her highest medal of honor, “he’s an old shoe,” she exclaimed, citing the holes in soles of his penny loafers, and the falling-down hem of his seersucker shorts. when our firstborn — the old shoe’s and mine — turned 13, and became a bar mitzvah, my mother spent months carving from wood the yad, or pointer he would use to trace the lines of the hebrew scroll as he read from the Torah.
my mother, by many measures, has not had it so easy. she’s borne heartache enough to crush a flimsier soul. but my mother — whose daily uniform of baggy, faded denim jeans, sweatshirt, and lace-up thick-soled shoes bespeaks her character — is nothing if not sturdy.
she’s not one to bellyache about the missed birthday candles (all 90 of ’em), nor the noise that would have bounced off the walls of the kitchen.
on tuesday, as on every other morning in all these immeasurable years, she’ll almost certainly get out of bed before dawn, feed her birds, sit down to her crossword puzzle, shuffle off to church, maybe take a stroll in the woods, and pour herself a “drinkie poo” soon as the twilight turns on.
we won’t be there in the ways that we’d hoped. but we will all raise a glass. as i’ve just done here, a glass spilling with words. happy birthday, mom. and thank you.
what are some of the life moments you’ve missed, no thanks to the red-ringed virus?
and a bit of housekeeping:
one, a fine friend of the chair, a master naturalist i met at a meeting of the thomas merton society, a friend named paula, had a hugely glorious moment this week when USA Today ran a beautiful, beautiful essay she wrote about the bedside vigil she kept during the final hours and funeral of a world war II veteran, and i am delightedly sharing the link here.
on tuesday evening, as my mother is sipping her amber-colored refreshment, i will be ZOOMing in what amounts to the first, last, and only book tour event for Stillness of Winter. and you’re all invited! it’s a virtual book launch, courtesy of a lovely local bookstore, The Book Stall in Winnetka, and i will be reading one or two pieces, and generally delighting in seeing a host of fine faces through the screen of my laptop. it’s at 6:30 chicago time, and you’ll need to register here to get the link. it would be more than wonderful to make this something of a little chair gathering. it’s via Crowdcast and there is room for everyone!(my hope is that my brother can zoom in my mother, so we can toast her as never before…)
annals of pandemic, part xi…in which surreal spring turns to summer and we set out to build a farm…
you might begin to wonder if the dictionary at my fingertips is one in which the definitions come fast and loose. if, say, there’s hyperbole stitched in on occasion. or, is it simply the byproduct of one storybook imagination?
where, for instance, i start waxing on about a farm–so you start imagining endless loam, far as the eye can see, and perhaps a barn and silo, certainly a mooing cow with muzzle pressed against the pasture gate–and then you realize that what i mean, what i’m setting out to carve into the earth, is nothing more expansive, nor more exotic, than a plain old raised bed. a 4×8 plot of decayed leaf and loam (and for good measure a pile of old manure). a mound on which to sprout a vegetable or two. perhaps an herb, for good measure.
in other words, in the world inside my head, the one where my very own picture shows play all day long, what i see might not be exactly what’s before my eyes. (effusive and sometimes far-fetched imagination is requisite number 1 for anyone who dreams of a life of pen to page, i’d argue.)
fact is, for all my daydreaming about white picket fences and tomatoes so fresh from the vine they’re still sunshine-warmed as i unscrew them from the stem, this so-called plot for which i lift my spade and hoe, might well become little more than an exercise in rolling out a romping ground, a banquet hall, for all the critters who nightly prowl along the hardly bucolic back alley.
which brings us to calumet farm.
as is sometimes the case in a writerly family–in other words, a motley crew of folk who relish words with the enthusiasms others reserve for, say, wine or dollar bills–the tangled knot of daylily, weeds, and the occasional errant acorn-on-the-rise has already been named, though i’ve not yet hauled a single shovel to the plot. (that’s this morning’s project, putting blade to earth.)
calumet farm, outside lexington, kentucky
calumet farm, you see, is a magnificent kentucky horse farm, one my uncle danny used to run before he was killed on iwo jima in a brutal midnight raid near the close of world war II. it’s a farm where two triple crown winners–whirlaway and, later, citation–and, in all, eight kentucky derby winners ran the fields. it’s a farm where my very own papa spent his every boyhood summer, curled up reading near the barns, so the story goes.
and my beloved bespectacled mate, the one i hoped would not mind my latest fixation, well, he latched right on–enthusiastically!–once we gave him naming rights. he’s downright tickled to have our very own calumet farm sprouting on the back acreage (even if he is insisting i hoe along the alley, where it won’t disturb his line of sight. p.s. what he’s otherwise looking at is beyond me, all i see is grass and birds nibbling at the feeder…but such are the compromises that make a lasting marriage).
i believe i’ve heard him say he’ll be posting the calumet colors–famously “devil’s red” tracing the sharp edges of the pure-white barns and stables. (calumet was founded by the baking-powder folks, and to this day, that can is trademarked devil’s red.) if naming rights and colors are all i had to trade to get me a summer’s worth of fresh-plucked herbs, and one or two tomatoes, and all these hours of imagining, well that’s a deal i’ll make.
because these distractions of mine can sometimes take up more room in my brain than necessary, because i barely know my way through the tool shed, my faraway brother david, a master gardener, master carpenter, and all-round mensch, took on the role of patron saint of my plot. he’s spelled out in precise detail just the bolts and boards i need. even weighed in late last night on the contents of the 18 bags of loam and compost i’ll be mounding for the farm. when my biggest worry was whacking down the weeds, he scratched that with a simple, “google sheet mulch.” turns out those old moving boxes flattened in the garage will now be resurrected as the “floor” beneath my mounds. all i need do is slice away as much of what’s growing there, yank out roots that might have landed there over the years, and lay down sheets of cardboard. voila. instant start of compost.
once construction is done, and ben-gay amply applied to all my achy parts, i’ll begin the daydreams of what to plant. of course i picture some quaint english herbarium, as well as a bursting-with-a-vengeance vegetable plot, to boot. but truth be told, just one fistful of fresh-born dill or mint or basil, abundant and green and smelling of the earth, that’ll be enough to do me mighty proud.
there is something edifying about going beyond the confines of what you imagine you can do. and building me a farm, even a simple one by arithmetic measure, and doing so when up against an invisible plague that’s turned us upside down, it brings a sustenance you cannot buy at any grocery store.
maybe, too, it’s the turning in, the reliance on little more than our own muscles and our know-how. it’s staking a claim in this old planet, saying i can make my way here. maybe it’s emboldening in the age of pandemic to write your own survival guide. and, once again, to lean on the blessing and benevolence of this holy earth to carry us to safe-keeping.
best of all, my humble plot will always be the farm my brother david believed i could build. and his insistence, his quiet whisper, his certainty, is the bounty upon which all this will grow.
and now i’m dashing to the lumber yard, where a kind and gentle man named mike has all my boards and bolts ready to stash into the old red wagon, the wagon i will now think of as my very own farm truck.
what plots have you devised–amid this pandemic, or otherwise–to reach beyond your comfort zone, to show yourself the self-reliance at the heart of who you are, to prove to yourself you’re more than you imagine?
he came to me, as all sprites always do, when i wasn’t looking. just popped up one day inside the gremlin-filled flat-box that is my 21st-century laptop. it’s as good a place to find an enchanted character as ever there was.
he’s my sprite of an irish cousin — third cousin, in fact (i let him do the math) — and he came to me out of the ether, and filled me ever since with doggerels and ballads and pictures and stories, all thick with a brogue. he’s filled in — as much as he possibly can — the wide and deep vacuum of history on my papa’s side of the family. the straight-from-ireland side. the side i knew least about, but wondered most about, because it’s the side i see when i peek in the mirror, and it’s the side that belonged to my pa. and, well, it’s mythic to me.
it’s a tale filled with ocean crossings, and childbirth deaths, and heartbreak hard upon heartbreak. one uncle was struck by lightning, when he ran to hide in his kentucky tobacco barn from a midsummer storm of biblical proportion. (the uncle who found him — his kid brother — might have drowned his sorrows, dying of liver disease years later.) another was slashed in his tent in a midnight attack on the japanese island of iwo jima. before he shipped off to war, that uncle — danny was his name, my dad’s oldest half-brother — ran the legendary calumet (horse) farm, just outside lexington, kentucky. and the triple-crown champion, whirlaway, was one of his stable.
in my cousin paddy’s telling, there is plenty, too, to make your chest swell. and your eyes grow misty. and some that just plain raises your eyebrows. among the latter: there’s the uncle who served as a jailer in a wee kentucky town, and while trying to lock up one of the infamous hatfields or mcCoys found himself bit in the head by the rascal. (no fool, that uncle up and hightailed it to the california coast, far as he could get from hillbilly feuds).
a few months back, dear paddy sent along a treasure in the form of a slip from the ancestral recipe tin: the very irish soda bread served at the family homestead hard by the bridge in kildimo south, in the county of clare, in the west of the great verdant isle.
if you’ve poked around here for more than a minute or two, you know that i consider the kitchen a mystical magical place, a room where you can bring old souls into your midst through the simple stirring or sifting of flour and soda and sugar.
so it was that i found myself the other afternoon with fists deep in the pillowy mound of flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk that is the beginning and end of the true irish soda bread. no sugar! no raisins! paddy exclaimed, shaking his fist at the kitchen profanity.
as i brushed the mound with the last dabs of buttermilk, and, not an hour later, pulled the golden loaf from my sputtering oven, i good as felt my grandma mae peeking over my shoulder, her breath on the back of my neck. close as i’ve ever felt to the one whose genes are mine (in a rare moment of heart-baring, my pa once told me how much of her he saw in me — she’d died years before i was born; and i sensed over all the years that he said very, very little because it hurt too, too much).
because paddy himself is inimitable — and purely lovable in his unfiltered tongue — i’m unfurling the recipe just as he wrote it, swear words and all. his vernacular spice takes it up more than a notch in my book; a soda bread with swears is the way it should — and ever will — be.
be sure to slather with good irish butter.
Paddy’s Irish Soda Bread
(West Clare Recipe)
There are only (4) four ingredients in Traditional Irish Soda Bread, Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Buttermilk. No More No less. I don’t give a tinkers hoot in hell what you’ve read, eaten, or heard! You put anything else in it you are not making Irish Soda Bread. I first had this bread served by Great Aunt Katherine Ni Shannon Marrinan at the Anna Bridge House in Kildimo South, Clare in 1970. She baked it over the turf fire. Yep had the Irish Butter and the Orange Marmalade for the first time as well with strong cups of Irish Tae. Kitty Ni Shannon Downes also made it for me at the Half Door in Miltown Malbay and it was just as grand. It’s especially good after a night of drinkin’ the porter…….settles the stomach before ya go to bed.
(Use a Dry Cup Measure for the flour – Not a Liquid Measure)
4 cups(16oz) of Gold Medal Bread flour
1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Salt
14 Oz of Buttermilk
Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk. Using a spatula or your hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft but not wet and sticky.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. Knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, then pat the dough into a round, about 1 1⁄2 inches thick. Place it on a baking sheet and using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the center of the dough reaching out all the way to the sides. Then brush over the loaf with a bit more of the buttermilk.
3. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped, about 30 minutes longer. Serve warm. Cut in semi-thick wedges.
4. Now then get yourself a couple slabs of Kerry Gold Irish Butter. Yes it really does make the difference when eatin’ Irish Soda Bread. And I don’t want to hear from any Mick blatherskite goin’ on about it being too “Dear”. Shut the hell up Paddy and cough up the shillings.
5. Orange Marmalade. King Kelly was the best. Came out of California. I used it for over 30 years. However, Smuckers bought them out then discontinued the King Kelly Brand and Recipe. My friend from the County Mayo likes the “Dundee” brand but what the hell does a bitter ole Mayo Man know about anyting? If ya like the bitter side of tings then get it. I suppose I’m stuck with Smuckers until I can find something even vaguely close to King Kelly….Jayzus…..Dundee Indeed…..
6. Now go buy some Irish Tae. Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea or Plain Barry’s Irish Tea. I like Barry’s Irish Breakfast but sometimes it’s just not available. I’ve been known to drink Tetley’s Englash Breakfast Tea but keep your gob shut about it. I may be a Traitorous gobshite but you’d be an Informer!
Bonny Petute Paddy Shannon
may your days be filled with the swirls of long-ago tales, and homespun heroes. and this:
May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
what’s your family heirloom, of the kitchen variety?
this one’s for paddy, who has unfurled his heart and filled mine. much love from your ol’ cousin babs…
it all started when the dishwasher broke. well, not the whole story. but this latest installment in the look-back machine.
the little green light on the old reliable dishwasher, the one that’s scrubbed up after graduations (grade school, high school, college) and christmas and bar mitzvahs (twice), the one that’s worked monday through sunday for a good 13 years, it started to blink incessantly. i tried every trick in the book but could not get the blinking to cease. so i looked it up in that all-purpose answer box, the internet, and discovered the blink that won’t stop is short for “call the repairman.” so i did.
when he arrived in the depth of the latest cold snap, the kind man with the toolbox asked for the instruction manual (not so sure it’s a very good sign when the repairman wants to check the manual). that’s what led me to the cobwebby corner of the basement, where one creaky file drawer led to another and suddenly i was staring at a row of neatly filed manila envelopes, each one bearing my scribble. each one with a label of sorts: “bk beginning,” “+BDK msgs,” “memories — BAM/BK.”
this certainly wasn’t the clue to how to work the dishwasher, but i was decidedly sidetracked there in the dark in the basement. i reached for the stash titled “memories,” and out slid a slice of my long-ago past.
the very first thing i found, in a crisply typed envelope addressed to me at the chicago tribune, was a letter from one of the loveliest priests that ever there was. a long lean gray-bearded runner with the gentlest dark-blue eyes, an irishman who walked about the neighborhood in his irish cable-knit sweater, doffing his irish-wool cap and pausing to listen to all sorts of sidewalk confessions. father fahey was his name, father john fahey, and the letter i held in my hands, the letter he’d typed in april of 1989, it literally, was a letter that would change my life.
not too many weeks before he’d written the letter, that gentle-souled priest had answered the door of the rectory, and ushered in me and the tall bespectacled fellow i’d fallen in love with. the one who was decidedly jewish, and not at all sure what to do with an irish catholic — this one, in particular. we’d knocked on the rectory door because we were looking for answers, looking for a way for a jew and a catholic to begin a journey we never wanted to end. we had an inkling that we’d found in each other something we might have always been looking for. except for the part where i was catholic and he was jewish. that twist in the narrative plot was making it tangled.
we knew father john to be wise, the sort of soft-spoken fellow to whom you could bring your worries and woes. so we climbed the grand winding staircase behind him, and sat ourselves down across from his armchair, up in his study at the top of the stairs. father john listened. and spoke only three words: “follow your bliss,” he told us, as if a buddhist koan we were to decipher. we’d climbed to the top of the priestly stairs to be handed a three-word instruction.
we tucked those words snugly into our pockets and chit-chatted just a little bit longer. then we left and, some weeks later, the letter arrived. paper-clipped to the letter was the “business card” of another priest (do priests have business cards? well, in this case, in the case of a priest who always claims “i’m in the god business,” a business card it was).
gentle john the priest wrote that i should “take [my] love for Blair, and [my] search for God into [my] heart, and patiently, prayerfully wait for the answer to come.”
and then, in the very next paragraph, he typed: “God may be responding immediately.”
holy cow! that is some service!
father john then proceeded to tell me that he’d just bumped into a priest who happened to mention that he’d pulled together a group, “jews and catholics, who are living through the religious test which their love presents.”
“i think that some are married,” father john wrote, “some are thinking of marriage. i immediately thought of you, and so i asked for the priest’s card.” call him, he tells me.
and so i do, i do call the priest with the business card, and the tall bespectacled one and i knock on his rectory door. and he, too, ushers us in, and sits us down in chairs, and tells us words we’ll never forget: “i’m in the god business. god is love. you’re in love, so how can i help you?”
we explain; he responds: “there’s one God. you both pray to the same God, but you pray in two different languages.” he paused long enough to shoot us a look that meant he meant business. in short order, he shooshed out the door: “go with God and go in love.”
so we did. the priest with the business card has been there all along the way. and so was a rabbi, the one who two years later would marry us (along with another priest, an old friend of the family). they were both there in our tiny back garden, in the days just after 9-11 when the whole world shuddered, but we cradled a newborn baby, and it was the day for the baby’s blessing, which is like a baptism, but it comes in two religions. they were there at two first communions, and two bar mitzvahs. they’ve been there again and again.
and that was 30 years ago. and 31 years ago tonight, the tall bespectacled one walked into my apartment for the very first time. i can still see him rolling up the sleeves of his white brooks brothers button-down. can still see him taking a seat at my tiny circle of a kitchen table, can remember how while i pulled foil-wrapped salmon packets from out of the oven, he told me of a thai soup he’d eaten the night before and how it “was a symphony of flavors.” i remember my ears perked at the description. i remember how something else perked at the rolling up of the sleeves.
i can’t say i’d spent much time before then considering the notion of love at first sight, but i know i felt a thump in my chest that night, almost the minute he walked in the door. and sitting here now at this old, scratched maple table, listening to him pull the carton of milk from the fridge and the special K from the pantry, i can conjure that thump in a heartbeat.
and i gaze over at that letter, the one father john typed, sealed, and slipped into the mail chute all those years ago. and father john is gone now. (by the way, he too followed his bliss, left the priesthood, married a widow (his best friend’s widow), moved to northern california, and died a few years ago…) but his letter, unearthed just this week from the dark of a drawer in the basement, it’s a treasure.
no wonder i saved it.
it saved me. and us.
happy 31 years to the bespectacled one, though this day does not mark the day that you fell for me. that would come later, months later. i’m the one who counts this day as the very beginning. i knew what i knew when i knew it. in time, you knew it too.
the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts
the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…
it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.
what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.
as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.
consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.
but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.
as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)
she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”
inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”
and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.
apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.
some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.
thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.
i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.
the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.
right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.
this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.
and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.
but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.
i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.
was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made?
p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”
the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….
funeral mass on iwo jima for soldiers who died on its soils, april 1, 1945
amid this summer of deep discontent and dyspepsia, i’ve been visited by an almost mythical faraway sprite — a cousin really, a distant cousin — who has opened for me long locked vaults of family history, and drawn before me the not-so-faint outlines of heartbreak and who came before me.
i signed up for a 14-day free trial of ancestry.com. figured i might learn a thing or three about the irish, german, and eastern european roots of my beloved and me, roots that trace directly to our pair of boys. i had no illusions of finding fine-grain stories, of hearing the voices of long ago come reaching out of the depths. i carefully marked my calendar so i’d remember to un-subscribe on day 13, get in and out without much trace.
and then, after i’d pulled the plug and skittered away, paddy shannon found me. paddy is a cousin plenty removed. we share the same great great grandfather, he told me in his first message. if i was willing to share my email, he told me, he had plenty to share.
within a day i had photos of the old family home, a hodgepodge of sod walls and windows and doors built between two bridges in a wee little place on the map not too far from the eternal tide of the atlantic, in county clare in ireland. i scribbled notes, drew diagrams, to try to trace and re-trace these lines and roots. i followed biographical bits — birth, death, burial — struggled to keep one daniel j., one teddy, one patrick straight from all the others (there are multiples of each, a few fine names used over and over and over, ancestral prize to those so christened).
i read once again of mothers who died in childbirth (on christmas day, no less), and filled in narrative. narratives of heartbreak, of loss, and starting over again.
i was particularly struck this time around (for i’ve gone down these roads before, with far less detail, never before guided by my very own ancestral guide) by the heartbreak that visited my grandma mae — how one of her brothers was struck and killed by lightning when he ran for cover in the tobacco barn on their kentucky farm in a rainstorm described in biblical proportions in the front-page news. how the other brother, the one who lifted his brother’s limp body, tried to revive him, how he died years later of cirrhosis of the liver (i couldn’t help but imagine the heartache that drove him, likely, to drink). i read how my grandma married the widower with four young children, and how four years after they married — he 44, she 35 — she gave birth to her one and only child, my papa (i imagined what a treasure he was, the unlikely and long-awaited firstborn).
and then this week i read the most i’ve ever read about the big brother (my uncle) who was like a papa to my papa, a brother named danny whom i’d always been told was destined for some degree of greatness. i knew he’d run one of the great kentucky racing stables, calumet farm, just outside lexington (he’d left university to learn racing from the ground up, literally starting as a stable boy and rising to business manager of the farm that trained whirlaway, a kentucky derby legend). i knew he’d signed up for the army at the height of world war II. but this week i found out that he’d been plucked for an officer’s college at harvard, had written a regular horse racing column in the lexington herald, and when pearl harbor was attacked in december 1941, he’d been on the california coast at the santa anita track, where he’d remain with the horses for months (racing was shut down in the wake of the attack and no transport of horses allowed), and where — my brother wisely hypothesized — his decision to defend these united states might well have been sparked. my uncle danny wrote a stirring anthem on the obligation to serve, one that ran with a grainy black-and-white photo that couldn’t hide the handsome lines of his bespectacled face, in the pages of the sunday herald-leader of lexington, on january 10, 1943, eight months after he himself had enlisted, and 10 months before he set sail for iwo jima.
and then, because my ancestral guide was himself a marine and stirred to understand how an army air corpsman came to be buried in a marine plot in the national cemetery in nicholsville, kentucky, i read the gruesome details of how my uncle danny and 14 others died in a pre-dawn banzai raid on iwo jima, on march 26, 1945, the very last battle of that awful siege of the japanese island. at 4 in the morning, some 300 japanese soldiers — ordered to stage a final suicide attack — rose up out of miles of caves, surrounded the tent camp not far from the beach on the southeast corner of the island, lobbed grenade after grenade and then, one by one, called out “banzai,” before charging into the tents with bayonets that slashed and beheaded.
my uncle, a first lieutenant at his death, was among the ones buried there on the island, in a military grave with a makeshift funeral mass preceding (see photo above). his father, my grandfather, would later have his remains exhumed and moved to kentucky, where he was laid to final rest beneath one of the white granite gravestones that stretch endlessly across the bluegrass he so loved.
it’s all a narrative that had mostly escaped me. my father — who’d been the one who answered the door when the soldiers came bearing the telegram and the news that danny had died — barely ever spoke a word about it. as my third-cousin paddy put it, “I hope this helps in understanding your Uncle “Danny’s” Service and Death and why your Da never spoke of it. It was to say the least a Horrible Place, and Horrible way to die.”
dear blessed paddy, my patron saint of genealogy, was so moved by danny’s story, he sat down and wrote a doggerel, an irish-intoned ode to the life and death of a little-known american soldier.
my own “da” has been gone now for 37 years. but all week, all summer really, i’ve been swirling in the mists of the past, his past. i’ve ached to hear him fill in the details, to fill my ears and my heart and my soul with the depth of the heartache that stilled him to silence.
there is much to mourn in the stories i’ve turned up this summer. and, just as emphatically, there is much to inspire. it’s a history rife with tragedy, and yet — and yet — it’s a story that goes on and on. triumph over loss. rising up from the unbearable.
and in the summer of 2018, when the world all around shatters me, i am holding onto shards of the past and breathing in the will to not be succumbed.
what family stories do you hold, and learn much from?
well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.
sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.
and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.
what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.
in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.
am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?
as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.
i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:
“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”
how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?
it’s been one of those weeks that’s found me sifting through drawers, sifting through history, following threads hither and yon.
there’s a particular drawer, in the old pine writing table across the way from here where i sit, and it might as well be my holy of holies. it’s where i stash particular love letters, and every mass card from every funeral of someone i’ve loved. it’s where, apparently, i’ve stashed the polaroid snapshots of my firstborn lying bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed in the children’s hospital ICU, the day after he flew from his bike and broke his neck. and where i’ve tucked the recording of my then-little one’s long-ago phone machine greeting, a delectable slur of words that always left callers confounded — and me charmed, beyond words.
it’s been one of those weeks where threads seem to be pulling me this way, then that. one question leads to a search. another leads to the creaky old stairs that unfold from the attic.
i’ve been discovering shards and treasures all week. i’ve bumped into more questions than answers. why, oh why, do i have a silver coin from 1909, one with abe lincoln’s bust on the front, and on the back the words, “for merit in an essay on abraham lincoln”? who won this, and where is this prize-winning essay? and how did the coin come to be in my drawer? might it be from my grandmama mae, the irish school teacher who bore my sweet papa? might my love of words flow directly through her bloodline? and might my boys’ love of abe be their genetic inheritance?
these are the questions that keep me awake. and won’t let me rest till i unearth the answers.
long long ago, standing in the kitchen of the house where i grew up, i remember leaning into my father’s shoulder (he was wearing the navy velour pullover he so often wore, and i can conjure the nub of that cloth even today — 36 years after the moment), and my father spoke these words that have echoed ever since: “you have a real sense of history.” it was one of those moments when suddenly something you’d not known appears as the most obvious truth in your life. my father died less than two months later. so the words became prophetic. the words have become my divining rod. i follow history. i sift through old letters and artifacts. i study old photos, the ones now faded. i try to make sense.
and i can’t bear to let history — to let story or love, for that’s what so much of a history is — crumble to dust in a drawer or the attic.
which is why i was a bit frazzled this week when i realized that years of my old newspaper stories are all but lost in the cobwebs. it’s intricately complicated, i found out, to pluck certain stories from the digital archives. without a date and precise headline, it’s nearly impossible. which means a good 20 years of bylines might never again be unearthed. which, mostly, won’t matter. but among those two decades there are stories that poured straight from my heart, and i can’t bear the thought that they’re never to be pulled to daylight again. they were, each one, a love song to or about someone or something that mattered. they were moments in my story that i’m not ready to bury.
which is why i decided that, every once in a while, when i find one, i’m going to lovingly paste it here, a digital scrapbook of bylines gone by.
this is the first, a love letter, really, to the very fine soul who picked up his hammer and built the nooks and crannies of this old house and the one before it, a construction of love beyond what we’d dreamed.
Being graced by the hand — and soul — of Jim January 04, 2004|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune staff reporter.
At my house, his name is Jim.
I still remember the first time he walked in, walked in to talk about taking down walls, putting up a dormer. One minute, I’d never seen him before, the next minute, I’d known him all my life.
I still remember standing out by the sidewalk, watching the roof come off our old house, leaning against the wrought-iron gate next door, and he told me, in the most matter-of-fact way, “My dad always said to leave behind a footprint wherever you go.”
Jim leaves footprints. In the form of a box-bay window the architects hadn’t drawn, but that he knew was just what we wanted, to make the trees feel like they stretched right into our room, or, rather, to sweep the window seat right out into the limbs, making a treehouse of what might have been simply a room for a bed.
In the form of drawers that glide in and out as if on Rollerblades, making me feel elegant every time I reached inside for a lumpy old sweater.
In the form of bookshelves that wrapped around me in my little room, making me feel hugged and safe and home — very much at home.
It didn’t take long for all of us to fall in love with Jim & Co. The whole summer they were at our house — Jim and Tom and Bri, the musketeers three — my husband couldn’t wait to vault out of bed and dash over to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where he’d return with a box dripping with sugar and round puffy blobs. My little boy took to sitting on the stairs, watching. He had a big red tool kit that he started lugging around. He put on his safety goggles and he built things in the back yard. Boats. A race car. Bigger boats.
That was at our old house.
I didn’t want to leave it behind because I couldn’t bear to leave behind the magic that Jim had pounded into its walls, its windows, its tucked-away secrets.
Jim, you see, is indispensable, and not just because he wields a mean hammer. Jim is indispensable because what he builds goes far beyond the blue lines you see in the drawings. Jim is indispensable because he knows, without words, the poetry of walls and windows and doors, and all they hold for those of us who hatch our dreams at home like eggs in a nest.
So when we moved, it was pretty simple: We brought Jim with us.
In fact, we bought a house that I could see only through the lens of Jim and all that he could do. I saw right past the ugly tile in the kitchen, the tile someone loved so much they glued it right up the wall once they ran out of the floor. I saw right through the bathrooms with the vanities that looked as if they took three oak trees to build them, they were so big and bulky and in the way.
That was almost a year ago. And in that year, slowly, patiently, whenever he had a minute in between building other people’s houses, he’s been pounding magic into this house, as if it really mattered.
And the point here is: It does matter.
Every single day, most likely for the rest of my life, this house, these walls, these windows, will be the ones that shape my every day. It is within these rooms that I will take in my first waking breath each day and every other breath that forms my every word. It is through these windows that I will look out at the world and drink in the fuel of my dreams. These are the nooks I will curl up in. These are the stairs I will climb, every time it really matters, and plenty of times when it really doesn’t.
But the point is, because his hand is here, everywhere I look I feel his soul, and the soul of something much bigger that speaks to me in a soft still voice, in every room.
Where once upon a time there was a single-car garage, and where after that, just before we moved in, there was brown-striped vinyl wallpaper and nubby carpeting all shredded by a yappy dog, there are now floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcases, and two window seats that stretch out beneath the windows. It is nearly a re-creation of the little tiny room of my dreams I had to leave behind in the house that is no longer ours.
Only this one is better, because I get to stay here forever, and because Jim & Crew pretty much built it from memory, trying to mend the heart that got wrenched in the move.
By the time we’re finished, pretty much every room is going to be graced by the hand of Jim. He’s building a corner cabinet for all the books my little boy has yet to read, and I have visions of us curled up for hours there, for years and years to come. He’s already built a wall of bookshelves for my husband, a wall that could only be called majestic, so elegant and mighty as its fine-honed pilasters reach for the ceiling, and hold my husband’s anchor in the world, his library of books about all the ideas he treasures most.
My 2-year-old, who picked out shoes at the shoe store because they look just like Jim’s, took on a refrain this summer that pretty much echoed the truth in all our hearts. He walked around the house, and whenever he noticed anything amiss, he proclaimed matter-of-factly: “Jim fix it.”
Jim, he fixes everything. And not just with his hammer.
and, now, that one is saved, tucked away in my treasure box, here at the table…..
have you ever discovered — in the nick of time — that some treasure of yours was nearly lost? and if so, how did you save it?