My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.
On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International.
He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.
And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond.
It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height).
My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.
I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again.
And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading.
Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.
funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shufflingaround in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…
photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.
how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow.how do you find a stillpoint?
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…..
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
once those double doors swing open, and the last thing you see is the back of the head of the someone you love, flat on a surgical cart, a bag of clear fluids flowing into a tube into a vein in the arm you’ve held a thousand thousand times, it’s impossible not to feel your knees go a little bit weak. as if the wind has just been whooshed out of them.
so it happened this week. when someone i love, someone i will always love and have loved for more than half of my life, was wheeled off to a surgery that would take less than an hour — though time barely enters the equation when love and goodbye and surgical blades are stirred in the mix.
you surrender. submit to the forces of medicine. pray the surgeon had a good night’s sleep, and a sturdy bowl of oatmeal besides. but mostly, i was washed over in a sense of how precious is every last filament and fiber that is the substance of that someone whose voice, whose story, whose dreams and heartaches i know by heart. i was washed over in knowing i would stand in the way of anything — any thing — that stood to hurt that sweet blessed soul. i found myself picturing him as a young child, how tenderly i would have cared for him, long before knowing he’d become the man to whom i’d wed my life. i leapt forward through time, pictured the thousand frames of moments as he and i have carved this long path that is ours now. pictured the hard choices we’ve made. the moments we’ve wept in pure joy. the hours when silence marked the hard negotiation of the heart and the soul, when humility and a willingness to soften might have been the only thing that saved us, allowed us to move forward again, the pas de deux of a promise made, and promise kept, over and over.
surgery does that. the sharp edge of the scalpel soon to be put to this person you love. waiting rooms too. you sit, fueled on old coffee and cable TV, absorbing snippets of anguish and blessed relief all around you. “fatty growth, totally benign,” you hear from two seats away. the surgeon pulling off his blue paper surgical cap, the son — or the husband, or merely a very close friend; biographies are absent here and don’t much matter, not really — collapsing into the not-so-plush back of his chair. “we’re worried,” someone else whispers, loudly enough that you all but nod in unison, a whole chorus of we’re-worried communion. and when at last you get your own good news, the news that it’s over and all is well, a woman with a wrinkled face and tight-curled hair, hollers across the room, “hallelujah!” she beams, rejoicing right with you. then, as you stand up to unlock your knees, grab your coat and your cold coffee, she closes the moment with this benediction, “have a blessed rest of your day.” and so you stop to kneel down beside her. to echo her prayer in your very own whisper.
love is the thing that saturates every cell of who you are, especially when long cold corridors and locked double doors stand between you and the someone you love. you think hard about the fragile hold you have on this thing called your life. you begin to scan the hours, consider how deeply you take it for granted that morning will come, sheets will be thrown back and the rhythms of day after day will begin all over again.
the sharp edge of love is worth pausing to consider. just yesterday, as i was turning pages in a book, i came across this one declarative sentence: “what she did best was love people.” it prompted me to ask, without pause, in our one simple life is it enough to love and love well?
i thought of that question the whole rest of the day — as i put drops in the eye of the someone i love. as we turned out the lights, and kindled the wicks when dinnertime came, because lights were too bright, lights made it hurt. i thought of that question as i tucked him under the covers, slow-cooked a fine dinner, and snipped and gathered red-berried stems into the old cracked pitcher on the kitchen table. because yesterday i was reminded sharply and in no uncertain terms what a treasure it is to love someone your whole life long, and to love that someone as well as you possibly can.
what does it mean to you to love well? and how did you learn?
in which we turn our attention to mothering’s essential compatriot…
it’s become something of a ribbing in this old house. the one who sits across the table from me most nights at dinner, he delights in jiving that he too will pen a deeply intimate account of his side of the domestic story, and he will title it fatherprayer: (subtitle not yet revealed).
it’s a play, of course, on the title of the deeply intimate account of navigating the undulations of mothering that i wrote. the one called motherprayer: lessons in loving. for months now, especially when one lovely reviewer wrote that he barely hovered at the margins (because we have an unspoken pact that i won’t spill ink on his private realm), he’s been itching to tell his version of the tales, my architectural maven whose natural landscape — in the writerly realm — is to size up towers tall or squat, to write with unswerving authority about the public square, whereas my realm is the quieter, tucked-away terrain, the one that unfolds on bed pillows and beside the old cookstove.
while i will leave unpenned his rendition of the homefront (should he ever decide to traipse into the personal), i will encroach only far enough here this morning to offer my own version of a tribute to his indispensable fathering of our two beloved boys — and to consider the role of these men in the care and feeding of our children.
i’m blessed — beyond words — that the father of my children has stuck around all these years. i don’t take that for granted, not when i know and love women for whom that hasn’t happened, through no commission of their own. i watch friends i love shoulder every blessed dilemma and decision, from the kid at college with debilitating strep, to how to scrounge to pay the monthly rent.
the truth is, around here, we both came from houses where forever meant forever. so the occasional rough patch was met not with searching for nearest exit, but knowing we’d stay at it till we found our common ground. i’d be a fool — or big fat liar — if i pretended we’d not hit such skids along the way. it’s been nearly 26 years, after all, and we’re human, and somewhere along the way — in a world where work and home are tenuously balanced at best — there’s bound to be the chapter where one feels pushed aside, while the other shakes his head. or one parent’s idea about the wisest way to steer a kid is pretty much foreign to the other.
but this is not an ode to long-lived marriage (though that’s fertile ground that some day i could be convinced to take on…), so i’ll leave that there, and move on to fathering, and the miracles i’ve witnessed from front row.
the first clue i ever had that the man i married would be quite fine in the fathering department was, i suppose, when i met his own father — the dearest man, a gentle man, a man who could — and did — sit for hours at the Shabbat table (always positioned near the challah, or braided bread, which he’d tear off in little nibbles to punctuate his stories) telling tales, absorbing long answers to well-placed questions. he was a journalist, after all, an editor, and he was fluent in the art of asking and answering questions. the famous tale about my husband’s father is that in the raw first days after he sent his first-born and only son off to college, he was so distraught he whiled away the hours hosing out the garbage cans for days on end, in hopes of keeping his mind off how much he missed the kid. and he sat down and penned a letter — ink on paper — every single day, straight through to thanksgiving of his son’s freshman year, when the kid pulled his father aside, and whispered that maybe he could stop now, the kids in the dorm had caught on to the daily paternal letter-writing. and it was getting a little, um, embarrassing.
the second clue came not too many weeks before our firstborn was born, when, one night before sleep, the father of said child said, out of nowhere, “you’re not gonna recognize me; i’m going to turn to mush.”
and so he did. he cradled that baby as if the whole of the universe rested in his arms, as if one wrong move might crack off a limb or send the little bundle spilling to the floor. every night, when we’d stroll to the el station to greet him after the long day he’d been away, you’d have thought he was welcoming the president of france (or frank lloyd wright, more fittingly) to his company. the poor kid would be smothered in kisses, and questions — even at two-months-old.
if you asked our boys to tick off the top three words that come to mind, they might reel off these: cautious. devoted. old-fashioned in the dearest way.
i might say the same — after all, we’ve all been keeping watch on the very same subject, all three of us from particular vantage points.
i know there are papas aplenty devoted to their children, but in this house, before my very eyes, i’ve watched that word take on layers and layers of truth the likes of which i’d never before witnessed. yes, he’s unswerving when it comes to a few fine truths — no driving on the highway till you’ve proven mastery of side streets and stop signs; no taking cabs home from the airport (at any hour of the day or night) when your papa can just as certainly be waiting for you at the baggage claim — but the core of all of that is how deeply seriously he takes his job as being No. 1 protector of his boys, and all of those he loves.
if my boys have a moral core — oh, they do! — it comes in large measure from their papa, who lives by a code indelibly inscribed, one weighed in the pages of ancient text, one from which there is no dilution. we’ve all witnessed him going to the mat for a principle he believes in (note: see trump v. kamin, a battle spelled out in too-tall, too-showy alphabet letters). but, here in the confines of home sweet home, i’ve watched him insist it’s no big deal to drive 15 hours to watch three minutes of a crew race because no kid should be without cheering squad, even in the B boat of a novice squad for a race they didn’t win. i’ve seen him take a train to a cab to a far-flung soccer field — in a snowstorm, mind you — abiding by the very same 90-percent-of-life-is-showing-up principle.
because he’s a fellow with a predilection for holey T-shirts and shorts a size too big, we rib him fairly endlessly (in part because we take seriously our job to keeper our prize-winner duly humble; but too because he is such a darn good sport, and the basso-profundo of his belly laugh could warm the coldest bone in this old house).
but here’s the undying truth: we know deeply and certainly that he’s a prize beyond all measure. and we’ve two boys who’ve grown up — and grow still — knowing their papa would be there for them upside, downside, no matter what life throws at them. he’s their first and last defense. and no one, nor anything, could get between those boys and the ever-faithful heart of the papa who loves them endlessly and without measure.
happy blessed father’s day, to all who’ve been so blessed.
what lessons in loving did you learn from your papa?
dispatch from the land of aches and pains: it’s day five of fever here. the sort of fever that keeps your head splat atop the pillow, unable to lift it for more than a few minutes, and then only because you’ve run out of reasons to talk yourself out of moving. it’s a whopping case of strep + influenza (which is not to be confused with plain old flu) and it feels like someone poured bottles of toxins down my gullet. i don’t think i’ve ever spent so many hours sleeping in my life, and it’s all i can do to sip a cup of tea. but the fun part is that i’m not alone — my sweet mate is on it too. he started it, in fact. but his stopped at terrible cough and achy all over, and i apparently went for the premium plan, adding strep and full-throttle influenza to the mix. thus, we’ve had a fabulous week of empathy. i moan, and he concurs. i hack my lungs out, and he joins in too. he’s been the very best nurse that ever there was, and i must say there is something deeply blessed about being so so sick you can’t even pretend you’re anything but. all vulnerabilities are exposed. all frailties front and center. and you are so grateful for all kindness, from the way he peels you a clementine in the middle of the night, to the way he presses his back against yours to warm you when your teeth are chattering and you can’t shake the chills. when i think back to the fellow in the newsroom i had a crush on all those 29 years ago, i hadn’t a clue how magnificent he would be when i needed him most. he’s shown me, over and over, this week.
sending love from the land of counterpane. and p.s., i got my flu shot, but apparently this year’s batch didn’t do the trick….
have you ever been bowled over by the pure loving compassion of someone whose carried you through some mighty dark hours?
maybe it’s because we shared a glass. maybe it has something to do with sleeping on the same sheets for the past 18 months. (oh, i mean i changed the sheets and all, but even when i did our arms and legs were still stretched out on common threads). egad, we might have even touched. our toes, i mean our toes.
what’s happened, though, is most peculiar. i once resided with a fellow who harumphed at the notion of a blog. i still recall him–quite vividly, in fact–with his gray hooded sweatshirt pulled up and past his ears, sitting at the banged-up kitchen table one dreary weekday morn, spooning little Os into his mouth, while i pranced by with camera.
“i will not be blogged,” he bellowed. and i of course demurred. i’ve only once or twice trespassed across that line–and that was to make nice. and he, of course, responded with a mighty grin.
but now, it seems the anti-blogger has come around, crossed over to the dark side. why, even as i type, he is on a train tap-tapping at his keys.
stranger than fiction, truer than truth, we are now a two-blog household.
he of course is blogging boldly, about that thing he loves, the size and shapes of towers, and how we build our cities. i too write of that i love, the little things that unfold around us, our hearts, our souls, our wings, our stumbles.
seems he’s taken rather quickly to this whole new world of laying it on the line (he seems to lay it nearly every hour, on the hour). and seems the world is taking rather quickly, too, to every word he writes.
there is irony aplenty here, so much in fact, i need to scrape it off the walls. but i’ll leave all of that to your imagination.
i’ll offer these few points:
you’ll get a chuckle, yes indeed, at the fact that weeks ago he was moaning–over mashed potatoes, if i recall–that there might come a day when he’d get merely 10,000 to 20,000 hits.
i choked, i really did, nearly spit my spuds across the table. thought of all the mornings i arose before the rooster even crowed. i realized, i did, that in 18 months of all this finger exercise i’d only just barely scraped the 20,000 mark (and half of those i fear, were me simply clicking past the chair, on the way to other places).
in fact, just the other day, his first official day, he clocked a stunning 6,000-something clicks. i did a little checking, flipped through the pages of my calendar, where i confess i scribble all my clicks on the days that i hit “publish.” took me, for example, from aug. 24 to dec. 10–a full 14 weeks, or 76 meanders–to get that many clicks. and his were on the single day he launched, for cryin’ out loud.
oh, not that i’m comparing. not that i’m feeling one bit, um, overshadowed.
just that well, after all of this, i am now the other blog in this ol’ house.
mostly, i sit in pure amazement at the power of the internet, when it knows where to find you. i scratch my head, trying to figure out just why it is you and me might be the only ones who visit here today.
just a week or so ago, i was getting up at my most delicious hour–that would be five bells from the noisy clock downstairs–and the stretched-out someone right beside me, groggily inquired as i rose, “getting up to blog?”
“no, merely writing in obscurity,” i shot back, quite proud of my early morning sense of humor.
it’s not every woman who can a.) take the dismal comparison, and b.) find something still to laugh about.
so there you have it.
fact is, i more than many on the planet understand the yins and yangs of feeding this here blogging beast. i know what it is to worry all the time, to wake up in a sweat, to wonder who might think that you’re a fool, and, worst of worst, what in the world will you do if, at any hour, the computer won’t turn on.
fact is, as always, he is doing a mighty job. i would not be lying if i said that long ago i fell in love, in part, with just how much he cares, and how triumphantly he makes it matter.
i worry of course that once again he works too hard. and frets too much.
of course, i understand the bumps and bruises, and the exhaustion to the point of flopping to the floor.
what i don’t get is how in the world can it be a bad day when you only get 10,000 hits?
dearly beloved loyal readers, bless you–all three of you–who continue to come back for more. ‘twas too tempting a morsel to pass up this chance to poke a little tease at me and my beloved blogger. here’s hoping it is tossed and caught in the same shared jovial spirit. truth is, in these fretful newsprint times, i stand up and applaud anything that draws a reader. and so i wish the hooded one smooth soaring to the highest heights. i’ll be here, holdin’ down the fort. a job i attempt to manage…..
p.s. the photo up above is the smiling picture of the author of the skyline, the latest blog wholly endorsed by the chicago tribune. they ran a lovely post about it earlier this week. seems they recognize a good thing when it’s in their grasp.
it’s a class to which i’ve not been admitted. but i take notes. the tests will never be mine. but i keep watch from corners, wince when learning takes its lumps, and savor all the triumphs.
it’s boy school. and i think we might be up to some new level here, the 300s, maybe, the ones for upper classmen, even though the boy enrolled, the one up yonder trying to tie a knot before dashing to a train downtown last eve, is merely a high school freshman.
the headmaster, and chief instructor, is, no doubt, my firstborn’s father. there are, of course, visiting professors–uncles, teachers, men with roles to model. but mostly–and of late–it is one-on-one tutorial, and it might well last a lifetime.
it started, long long ago, with blocks and building towers. the little one i loved–now a manchild–sat for hours on the floor with his tower-loving papa. they stacked oblong blocks of maple as high as they could go before the whole thing toppled. the little one learned the intricacies of load and balance, and eventually, how to sweep his heart up off the floor when the tower finally crashed.
there was, for a semester that stretched across quite a string of springs and summers, baseball for beginners. that pitching thing never came too easy to the one who now dreams of being a philosophy professor.
his papa tried, oh, he tried. i can still hear the ball banging against the house in our teeny tiny city yard. can still see them out the window, in the mostly-empty lot next door, running bases, steering clear of the apricot tree sheared to only stump and sawed-off limb, smack dab in centerfield. that sorry stump had once bloomed, like real live inhale-able art right outside my window, but one odd afternoon it was attacked with saw and hatchet by the wild-haired lady who let the players play there, and gave them lemonade when the inning finally ended.
i watched as father and son became obsessed with collecting baseball cards. i was there when the banged-up rusty scarlet tin came home from the papa’s boyhood bedroom. i remember…
how the two of them sank deep into a world of names and numbers (some in print so small i could barely read it then, and that was before the old-lady glasses became essential to my getting dressed each day). how that child, and his dear best friends, could trade all day and night. how the numbers seemed to mean something. and how they knew them all, upside down and sideways. and how the man i married seemed to have some uncanny storehouse of knowledge i’d never known about. he remembered plays–you know, who threw to who, whose feet slid where, who swore, who was a sorry loser–from ancient times, but re-told them as if he’d just then seen them on the TV.
i shook my head, and kept right on wiping down the stove. or cleaning out the sink. or maybe even opting for a game of solitaire. bleary-eyed at all the ball talk.
ah, but now, now i’m listening in.
the lessons these days are like the peeling back of the genetic code. the lessons here are all about how to be a man. and i don’t mean some global sweep. not the politics of manhood. nor any sort of wretched macho diatribe. there’s no room for that in the raising of a thinking, feeling soul–at least i don’t think so. and if there is, i’ve closed my eyes and shut my ears for the imparting of such stuff.
what i’m talking here is far more charming. it is all the basics: how to hail a cab. how to stanch a nick while shaving. how to shine a pair of shoes (and mind you, the man i married was first described in adoring terms by my mother as “old shoe,” a phrase born perhaps of the gaping holes in his penny loafers, and the less-than-ironed shorts that had long lost their hem).
what color belt belongs with shoes of black, and shoes of brown. (these things don’t come intuitively with the gene pool here, i tell you, it involves some teaching.)
why, i’ve heard whole paragraphs on the navy blazer. and the essential nature of what i heard referred to as “the uniform,” and how once you had it assembled (preferably on hangers, not heaped on closet floor, i pipe in, my maternal contribution, in case anyone is listening), you could just about go anywhere, do anything, your growing heart desires.
if it sounds intensely sartorial, it is not. there is in this comprehensive course something so sweet, so loving, i know men who would weep at hearing of it.
i know men whose fathers loved them very much. but somehow they never got this all spelled out. and what was lost was not only a sense of how to get your socks on in the morning, but the very notion that along the mountain climb they had both guide and hand behind their back.
in the whole of parenting, there is occasional mention of teaching children how to ride a bike, or swing a bat, or mix a chocolate cake.
but this art of steeping a child in how to step into a civilized, grown-up world, it is often overlooked. it’s quite easy to miss.
sometimes, with all the shepherding and signing-up of children, the most essential thread of parenting–the teaching, day in and day out, for years and years and years, through every phase and tumble down, and every scraping off the floor–is simply barely given airtime.
but to miss it, don’t you think, is to wholly miss the point. and all the grace. and noble beauty.
one generation trying with all its might, and accumulated mistakes, to smooth the bumpy road for the next one up the pike.
if i were not the mother here, if i were not hearing bits i’ve never heard spelled out, i might, too, miss all this. i know, as the only girl among four brothers, i never heard such things. perhaps, a sister pays no heed in quite the way a mother studies how her boy becomes a man.
perhaps, too, it is in hearing all this acquired knowledge being passed in chapter and in verse, it rubs raw, just a bit, the fact that i’ve no girl to whom i can whisper all the things i know about trying to be a woman. geez, what to do with the little bit i know about mascara?
it is tender stuff, this transferring of time-tried truths. it melts my heart to watch the father of my firstborn care enough to shine the child’s shoes before his first high school dance (never mind that he got the polish all over the kitchen floor, or that he tried to do it without a cloth, and thus his pointer finger was black as night for a day or two).
i nearly wobble as i hear the ping-pong volleys late at night, punctuated by all the talk about what to look for in a college, and how one fine prof might just change your life.
it is at once heady and knee-buckling, this esoterica and plain old sidewalk smarts.
it humbles me to hear it. i wonder, did i have some deeply buried clue when i fell in love with him, that the man i married would so finely, keenly raise a son?
just last night, i watched the child shave without a nick. i peeked around the corner as he tried, and tried again, to knot his father’s tie. i tried not to sigh as he slipped on that navy blazer, became a man, grabbed his nearly-tattered tome, the odyssey, and bounded down the stairs, and out the door.
the train downtown–to meet his father for a worldly sort of lecture at a club where that blazer was expected–he nearly missed. in fact, he hurdled up the ramp with just a minute and a half till that hissing hulk lurched into the station.
that class, train catching on time, he’ll try again. a boy does not become a man without a few retakes along the route.
and, if he’s truly blessed, a teacher who wholly understands the art of knowing when to turn the page, and when to let the pupil learn the hard way.
trusting all the while that someday the student, by then a man at last, will be the sort who, in turn, as he once was taught, will impart his very best to some young boy who has no clue what to do with razors and blazers and all those manly mysteries.
have you watched a child–boy or girl–learn the ropes tied to adulthood? are you, like me, without a child of a gender that’s your own, so all that wisdom–most of it learned the hard way i assure you–has no place to go, no deposit box? do you remember being pulled aside and showed the little things that made you feel the world was a place you belonged, and just maybe could conquer?