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Category: chapter ends

the pages turned…

eric carle page turned

sometimes it’s in the immeasurable glimmer flashing by that we catch notice of the years slipping by.

so it was when i got word that eric carle, he who cut and glued the tissue-paper colors of the first childhood i inhaled by heart, he who wrote the rhymes, and pounded out the rhythms of measured bars of caterpillars and brown bears and grouchy ladybugs who ate the page, he would be among the short list of honorees at my firstborn’s college graduation.

suddenly, i was back in an overstuffed armchair. a navy plaid. one we’d bought when my belly was full and round, one we’d bought — on what for us amounted to a whim — because suddenly i was overtaken with the urge to have a sitting place, a nesting place, for me and my soon-to-be-born. that boy was not a week old before i cradled him in my arms, plopped him on my lap, perched a book before his eyes, and began to turn the page. one ear pressed against his mama’s heartbeat, and through the other ear, his mama’s voice rising and falling in sing-song brown-bear rhythm.

and so it went, through bedtimes and lull times and any time we happened to be curled together on the floor of his room, where a nook carved along the wall cradled all the books of childhood i had gathered for this and any other child.

suddenly, in my mind’s eye, in that tumble of remembering, i was perched atop my firstborn’s hand-me-down four-poster bed. he was nestled beside me, my long-legged boy in his little boy pajamas. i could see his little hand, dimpled hand, his hand that loved to turn the pages — no pages more so than the ones of eric carle.

every child has their natural-born predilection for a certain page. there must be something about the words, the rhyme, the color, or maybe just the humor deep inside. it’s indecipherable, and unpredictable, just what that book, that page, might be. but in the case of our house, our bookshelf, there was no more-loved page-turner than eric carle’s brown bear.

“brown bear, brown bear,” i can begin to recite. and i can take it — still — clear through to red bird, and yellow duck, and blue horse, and green frog, and purple cat. i stumble on white dog, but pick right up with black sheep, and goldfish, and then, skipping right by teacher and children, crescendo comes: in which, in rat-a-tat retelling, we tick through the whole menagerie of curiously-colored critters.

if i read that book once, i read it three million times. it was in these pages, i’m fairly certain, that my sweet boy learned his yellow from his blue. and for some reason, one that might forever escape me, it’s where i heard him laugh on cue, each time we came to that horse of blue. did he know that horses were not blue? is that what struck him silly?

and here we are, the pages barely touched in years. but when i got the news, the news that mr. carle would be presiding, i tumbled up the stairs to the nook in his little brother’s room where the books now stand, forgotten soldiers, stiff-backed, listing, and i pulled out the trinity of carles — hungry caterpillar, grouchy ladybug, and brown bear — and there, i turned the pages, and there i saw the years-old crinkles on a page that once upon a time must have so excited a little page-turner that he up and scrunched that charming goldfish that swims across two pages.

that the author of the cornerstones of my firstborn’s childhood would, all these years later, be there, in the flesh, at his college graduation, the ceremonial whirl that is the close of college, well, it just put a zap to my heart, and melted me. and washed me over in a sudden measure of just how many years have passed. how many pages have been turned. and made me ask, again and again, how did we get here? how did we get to this brink of college graduation, a moment that shimmered in the far-off distance, an indecipherable mirage that felt miles beyond my reach?

and as is my wont to do, i tick back across time, i hold the celluloid frames up to the light. i study one after another. measured bars all unspooling toward this moment of glory-be, he-made-it. i think of the shadowed hours, the ones when darkness descended, the ones when that blessed child bared his deepest fears and worries. i think of the broken hours, when a dream slipped just beyond his fingers’ reach. i think of the occasional glory, when that beautiful boy felt invincible and whole and understood just why it was he was planted on this holy earth.

and so there is symmetry, full circle, weaving together the beginning and the end of this particular chapter, the chapter called school life (even his little brother announced the other afternoon, as if he’d just put two and two together: “gosh, willie is about to be a real adult!”). the beginning and end here seem to have serendipitously been marked by eric carle, a fellow who found his joy, his purpose, in making shapes of brightly-colored tissue paper, and who wrote the score for a childhood measured out in the joy of turning pages, the delight of stumbling on a page that makes you laugh out loud.

i wonder if i might wiggle my way through the crush of all those college kids, and yank the wise man’s sleeve, and whisper my almighty thanks for the animation he stitched into our long ago just-beginning picture-book days?

red bird carle

who wrote the score of your childhood, or a childhood you’ve been blessed to watch up close? which picture books can you close your eyes and still recite, page by page, word by word?

on this particular morning i am particularly tied to my firstborn, who is about to step into the defense of his thesis, his 180-page page-turner. with all my heart and soul i offer up this morning for his prayers and dreams to come tumbling true….

love letter to the cobbled city by the bend in the river charles…

river walk

dispatch from 02139 (final edition)…

the parabola of time has caught up with me. it’s the morning i couldn’t imagine. the end of the year i could hardly wrap my head around, long long ago when word of it first flickered across my imagination, when i knew i couldn’t say no, but could not figure how i’d say yes.

i turn back into a pumpkin in precisely 23 hours and 49 minutes (as of the moment i typed that calculation), when the big jet plane huffs and puffs and in a somersault of gravity defiance and aeronautical wonder hoists its belly off the runway, pointing toward sky, toward home.

home.

trouble is, i’m leaving a place that’s come to feel like home. when i lope round the bend onto franklin, just past petsi’s pie bakery & cafe, when i spot the curlicues of victorian frou-frou that bedeck our triple-decker at 608, i start fumbling for my keys. i know there’s a place up there, the aerie, where the breeze blows through, where the walls of books whisper sweet somethings in my ear.

true, i am headed home to a place that knows the secret hiding coves of my heart, to the muscled city that dares to rise up from the prairie along the great lake’s ruffled edge, to the creaky stairs of my old house, to my rambling roses now blooming in a tussle all along the white picket fence.

i’m headed home to the place where the walls are covered in black-and-white snaps of people we love, the people who came before us. to the place where two rooms at the top of the stairs are chambers that forever hold the frames of childhood that loop for both of my boys. i’m headed home, oddly enough, to the hand-me-down jug of the jolly quaker oats fellow my papa brought home from work a long, long time ago, and for reasons that could never be charted is way more priceless than old pottery has reason to be.

home is equal parts hodgepodge and heart. it’s quirky and lumpen. it creaks and it groans. sometimes you have to bang on the hot-water spigot just to get it to dribble. home soothes us nonetheless, kneads the knots out of our worn-down spirit at the end of the day.

and that’s what i’m coming home to: the real-deal, deep-soother rendition of that place where we lay down and breathe.

but before i zip the last of my bags, before i slip the key in the door one last time, turn and blow a kiss, i need to riffle through my cantabrigian* memory box one last time, pull out a few of the blessings i’ll never forget, won’t leave behind.

if there’s one frame that will forever spring to mind, it’ll be that meandering walk down by the charles river (the one pictured above), under the london plane trees, past the boat houses that hug the banks, dowagers of the past. it’s the walk that carried me, countless dawns, to my stone-walled monastery, where the monks always welcomed, and the votive candles patiently awaited the matchstick that lit them aflicker. mile after mile, week after week, we’d take to that path, the tall one, the professor, and i. it became our early-morning ritual, mostly on weekends, when we’d have a rare chance to catch up on what each other might have been up to in the long spaces between.

i’ll miss my kaleidoscope of neighbors here on franklin street: white-haired nan, of the caribbean-painted cottage, nan who fell in love with a civil rights compatriot, and wept fresh tears on my stoop just last night, as she clutched a framed photo of the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed gentleman she lost to cancer nearly two years ago, after 40-some years of marriage. nan, who found in cambridge a place where, back in the ’60s, no one looked twice at a white-skinned woman arm-in-arm with the black-skinned love of her life.

i’ll miss sarah, sarah who looks as if she’s just come in from blueberry picking in maine or, truer still, stepped off the pages of a children’s storybook with her sun-kissed hair and faintest freckles and that twinkle that never leaves her eye. sarah who came to the door with a tinfoil-wrapped platter of chocolate-chunk cookies on the day we arrived, and again last night, on the eve of departure. “bookends,” she called them. she is just that sort of across-the-way neighbor. and i will love her till the end of time.

and i’ll miss jane, eighty-something jane, who was born in a double-decker down the block, and has never left, spending her days leaning up against the cyclone fence or shuffling in bedroom slippers and top-knotted headscarf up and down the cobbled slopes of franklin and putnam and bay, the rectangle that defines her life’s landscape.

i’ll miss the harvard book store, and the coop, and the sun-drenched cambridge public library, my holy trinity of literary haunts, where books come curated by brilliant minds who know just which words will swoop deep into a reader’s heart and stir for a good long while.

i’ll miss the polyglot stew that rises up from the round-the-world crowds in harvard square, and the letters from the cambridge public schools that always come translated in at least 10 languages on the backside of every page. because here, in the 02138s and 9s, no one assumes english is the first language.

i’ll miss the intellectual bunsen burner that is 02139 and 02138, the zone the new york times proclaimed “the most opinionated ZIP code in america,” where ideas are the coin of the realm, and the shabbier the khakis, the holey-er the button-down, the better.

i’ll miss the body parts of cambridge that come pierced, stapled, studded, stretched and permanently inked in tattoos that know no end. i’ll miss the leggings in rainbow colors that peek out from underneath shorts that barely stretch across bums. i’ll miss the most eloquent cardboard pleas from the homeless folk who station themselves all along mass avenue.

i’ll miss the eastern seaboard, and the magic in the mist that coaxes rhododendrons and roses and dogwood and lilac to grow to proportions i never knew possible.

i’ll miss the breads of massachusetts and maine, just up the road. “when pigs fly” is my bakery of choice, and don’t be surprised if i lug home a suitcase packed to the brim with raisin-studded whole-grain goodness.

i’ll miss cambridge from dawn till starlight. i’ll miss cambridge when, plonked on an old wicker chair on my summer porch, i look up and catch the moon rising. i’ll know that a mere 1,000 miles away, that same sliver moon shines down on the charles, and the cobbled lanes that rise up from its banks to the hill i called home.

it’s a holy place, the place that opens your heart, that teaches you lessons. most of all the one where you find out that one simple “yes” made it all possible.

bless you, 02139.

quaker oat man

*cantabrigian: a quirky latin-derivative adjective for all things harvardian or cambridge, englandian. took me most of the year to pick up on it, so i’m passing it along, providing the shortcut for you.

so that’s it, chair people. cinderella’s ball is winding down. only cinders by the hearth, come morning. though i couldn’t be more twitterpated at the thought of swooping through the clouds to touch down in sweet home chicago. forgive the cambridge-centric year; twas a promise to mamas who wanted in on every drop. or at least the week’s highlights. we’ll be back to musings from the home front soon as i unpack the 27 boxes now motoring along the massachusetts turnpike. can’t believe i’ll next type from my old pine desk, but tis true.

from the bottom of my heart, bless you and thank you for the solace, the comfort, the wisdom you brought to me here at the table, where each friday i plugged in, and felt zapped with all your goodness. blessings. and love, the chair lady.

and so she wrote….

this is it.

end of chapter. start of new…

but, before we finish turning the page, before i sit and stare at a whole blank page of the newsprint of my life, i want to sift through a few old, yellowed sections. i want to remember. to spool forth thanksgiving. to send smoke signals out to people and places far far from here.

i want to hold up this moment, these moments, this chapter. i want to grace it with abundant blessing.

i walked out of the newsroom yesterday afternoon, my last day there. i had to leave early. i laughed. even my last day i sort of flubbed, if you want to call it that, because my little one had invited me to the fifth-grade wax museum, and i wasn’t about to miss it — he’d spent the better part of two months crafting and memorizing and dramatizing the life of PT barnum, and it just so happened the show’s opening was the very close of my newspapering.

so, instead of staying in my desk till the bitter end, i had to throw on my backpack and dart out the door, a mother’s best move so very often.

i didn’t pop champagne. didn’t turn out the lights at the billy goat tavern, that subterranean watering hole that’s doused so many a newspaper scribe’s parched, dry gullet.

but there was coffee served in the conference room yesterday morn, and all the folks i type with, they huddled around, took seats at the table as if it was any everyday meeting.

being journalists, they rattled off a few great questions: what was your favorite story? how many jobs have you had here at the tribune? how did you meet blair (my mate of 20 married years, my dear friend and “crush” of nearly 25)?

i loved the question about the favorite story. took time to answer that one with plenty of heart.

i’ve been pondering it for the last couple weeks. in fact, i decided a while back that my own private chapter closing would be the day i climb to the attic and sift through the boxes and crates of old yellowed newspaper clips, to read and remember, to run my fingers over the grainy photos from long ago, to absorb through and through the holy walk that was this chapter.

but, without even yanking the rope that lowers the door to the attic, i can sift through a few stories here.

after all, all of you here at this table, have been behind every breath of this passage, even when you hadn’t a clue.

there is much to remember as i flip through the pages of all of the years.

my favorites?

one has to be the story i wrote about the farmer who lost her soldier son, and turned to the fields to till through her grief. i sat beside her one hot summer’s day on her creaky old porch swing, down on a farm where the trees scratched the sky. i wrote what she said, what i noticed, what stirred in the air. and once that story hit the paper it somehow wound up in faraway maine.

there was a fellow who worked in some shop up there, and when he sat down to lunch one particular day, he found the chicago tribune spread on the table. he picked it up and read the story about the farmer and all of her sorrow. he put the paper back down, and went back to work.

but that night, driving the two hours home, he couldn’t stop thinking of the story — and the farmer. so he turned his truck around, and drove back to the shop. he tore through the trash cans till he found it, the newspaper section with the farmer, standing out in her field looking skyward. he rolled up the paper, tucked it under his arm, tossed it onto the passenger seat and drove home. he stared at that paper for awhile, then he got brave. sat down and penned a letter. addressed the envelope with nothing but her name and the name of the town he read in the dateline of that newspaper story.

to make a long story short and sweet, here’s what happened: he wrote, and she wrote. back and forth for the better part of a year. even a phone call or two. he invited her to come up to maine. she did. she went back home and put her farm up for sale. they farm together in the north woods of maine now.

all because he read her newspaper story.

another favorite is the one about the pigeon man of lincoln square, a curious fellow, a fellow who struck me right away, a fellow whose story i had to find out.

he used to sit on a fire hydrant along a busy city street, and dozens of pigeons flocked to him, perched on him. i nearly swerved out of my lane the first time i saw him. i drove back quick as i could, talked to him off and on over the course of a few days. went up to his attic apartment, the place where he kept his pigeon-feeding supplies and rested his head. i wrote his story. wrote how he struck me as some sort of st. francis of the city.

three years later, that old man with the crooked spine was shuffling along another busy street when a van up and hit him. he fell right there on the sidewalk, died before they got to the ER. as they lifted his body onto a stretcher, the police told me he was clutching a laminated copy of the story i’d written three years earlier.

those might be the bookends of my shelf of favorites — a start and an end.

but in between, there would be so very many. the trek across america, all on my own, back in 1984, as i traveled to see and to hear — from the rio grande valley to the mississippi delta, from pennsylvania steel mills to backwoods in maine, from salmon fisheries in northern california to farm towns in iowa — just what it meant to be hungry in america.

or the night when i stood, nose pressed against the crack between ballroom doors, and watched prince charles swirl on the dance floor with all of the ladies of the oak brook polo club.

or the mother, long long ago, who had a sweet boy with down’s syndrome whose smile i will never forget. or the father whose daughter lay dying of anorexia nervosa. or the little boy who fell through the ice of lake michigan but did not die, and so i kept vigil with his mama and papa as the whole city watched and waited and held their collective breath.

after all those 30 years, when i think back over the breadth and depth of humanity i have scribbled into my notebooks, soaked into my heart, i sigh a mighty sigh and whisper one solitary truth: it really was the voyage of a lifetime.

and i am so deeply grateful and humbled and blessed.

i wrote one last column, a “Dear Reader” goodbye. i sent it to my editor the other morning, but i don’t think she’s letting it run in the paper.

so i will end this meander with the one column that no one else will ever read.

these are the last words i typed for the chicago tribune, where i worked from june, 1982, to february 10, 2012:

Dear Reader,

There is a breathtaking tradition in newspapers when one of the ink-in-the-veins scribes leaves the newsroom for the very last time: Everyone at every news desk stands up and “claps out” the exiting reporter, a parade of final applause that is, in every way, the highest salute.

I want to reverse that tradition on this, my last day in this newsroom. I want to be the one who stands and applauds all of you, dear readers — even though I’m the one leaving.

I want you to know that for the last nearly 30 years I have poured my heart into each and any story, because as journalists we get to be the eyes and the ears and the heart for all of you as we go about the business of gathering stories. We ask questions, listen hard to answers, and soak up the scene, so we can bring you to the news as much as we bring the news to you.

I want you to know that it has meant the world to me to be trusted to tell you those stories. And I want you to know that I treasure our connection, a very real connection. I have saved — and will carry home — your emails, and your letters. Alas, I will have to leave behind a few glorious voicemail messages, some of them saved years ago. I consider all of them — penned, or typed, or recorded — the prizes of my life.

I will miss you.

And I thank you for inviting me into your homes, to your kitchen tables, and your favorite armchairs, for all of these many very rich years. I leave this newsroom in very good hands, and in very good hearts.

Bless you all.

Your grateful scribe,

Barbara Mahany

-30-

-30-

back in the old days, when i started out in the newsroom, that nurse who’d wandered in off the street, in search of a great story to tell, we pounded out stories on typewriters, on triple-thick pages.

at the bottom of any news story, to let the desk know you were ending your tale, you typed “-30-”

and so, today, -30- is the keystroke of the day.

my phone rang just minutes ago. i’d been jumpy all day. had put off typing here, because i wanted to see if finally i could tell you, could let the ol’ cat out of the bag.

here’s the cat, squirmed from the sack:

my days of newspapering at the chicago tribune are nearly through. they told me just now that my request for a buyout has been “allowed.”

what that means is that next friday will be my very last day to walk into the great gothic tower, the one with the flag waving up against the clouds. it will be my last day to tuck my badge in the little card-reader box and to see the light flicker green. it will be my last day to call out “hullo,” to ricky the guard who always starts my day with a big fat smile.

it will be my last day to shuffle over to my cubicle, to sit down among the cards and letters and books piled high.

it will be my last day, after nearly 30 years, to type, “barbara mahany, tribune reporter.”

but i have utterly no intention of hanging up my story-gathering cape, or retiring my deep and unending dream of telling stories that wend their way straight into the deepest corners of the human heart.

something was born here, where we pull up chairs.

i learned a way of writing here that i can’t muzzle.

it is a way of writing that every once in a while found a place on the news pages. and whenever it seeped out into the world of readers, i got plenty of notes. heartfelt, beautiful, make-me-cry notes. from readers.

oh, i will miss those readers.

i’m leaving because i want to be free to find and to tell stories that burn to be told.

i’m leaving because i’ve achingly missed being here in this little typing room, where the birds flit by, and the sun slants in, where the sacred dwells all around me and through me.

oh, sure, i’ve managed to find moments of joy on the el train. i love rumbling through the city. but i don’t so much like locking the door behind me each morn, and not coming back till the day is nearly done.

i love slow cooking while i type.

i love being here when my little one leaps through the door.

this is the thing that took so much courage: to finally, after so many years there on the edge of the high dive, take the final big bounce and jump through the air.

it’s not easy leaving behind a once-every-two-weeks paycheck.

it’s not so easy letting go of the knowing — till now, anyway — that my stories would always find a place to land, without me having to peddle too hard.

but i finally, finally dug down deep to where the answer was crouched. i finally reminded myself how brave i could be. and how deeply i want to see if my words and my stories and my heart can make a difference. can make this world just a little bit more compassionate. can shine the light on some lost soul in the shadows. or some phenomenal hilarious character whose life might make us all want to get up and dance.

i am taking a big fat chance on me and myself.

i am believing that somewhere deep down inside me, i can stand on a mountaintop and whisper long lines of poetry.

i am holding a candle in the dark, and believing a long line of wicks will flicker, one at a time.

i am being brave, and teaching my boys not to be afraid. not to be bound. to march, always, to the sound of the drum that they alone hear.

i am begging for grace to come raining down.

i will keep writing this story, one word at a time.

i can’t imagine that all this living i’ve done, all this collecting of hearts, has not been a serious chapter in the education of bam.

i’m not looking for fame. i’ve seen that pass by the best of the best too many times.

i am looking for simply one thing: to live my every last day with full heart, and full soul, and full courage.

and that’s the thing i’ve been wanting to tell you.

now, we all know.

thank you for giving me wings.

ever grateful,

your bam

holding hands

it’s been a long time since i leapt off the high dive, felt the whoosh of my body — bare skin, wet suit — free-falling through air.

it’s been a long long time since i last mustered the courage, flung myself out into the unknown.

but, i was reminding myself, i’ve done it plenty before.

i can do this.

there was the time, long long ago, when my mama and papa drove me downtown. to the hospital, they told me. you are going to get better, they told me. and i did. but not before being scared out of my wits.

and there were long nights in college when i had no clue where i was headed. but one saturday night in the library i decided i knew. and i decided that to get there i was going to snare myself a solid line of straight As. so i did.

there was the night my papa died. and i never wanted to exhale the breath in my lungs from before he was gone. could not bear to take in a swallow of this new oxygen, depleted of the great love of my life at the time, my hero, my papa.

but i did.

not too many weeks after that i picked up a telephone and told a man on the other end of the line that i was a nurse, but i wondered if maybe they’d have room in their school to teach me a thing or two about writing.

he did. so i did.

and then, not long after that, i walked into the great gothic tower of a newspaper i’d grown up reading. i bumped into a fellow who wore purple high-top tennis shoes, and spilled chunks of oil-drenched salad all over the pages, my pages, that sat on his lap. he read along, looked up, said, “i think i can use this.” i let out a yelp. said, “i think you just made my life.”

not long after that, the lady in charge of plucking recruits out of the masses, enlisting them in the summer army of interns, she called me up, called me in for an interview. last thing she said to me in that tiny broom closet of an interview room was this: “around here, you sink or swim.” i looked her straight in the eye and said, plainly, “i’m a swimmer.”

and so it’s gone, over and over and over again.

we forget sometimes, until we need to remember, just how brave we can be.

and then, once we remember, the oddest most curious things start to happen.

once we stare our fears in the eye, once we decide, okay, universe, we’re not going to be bound anymore. not going to stand here, frozen in time and space, thinking of all the things that could go wrong, might go wrong. we’re going to step off this ledge, and try that free-falling move once again.

once we do that, just as goethe, the great german philosopher, long ago said, “at the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to support us.”

in other words, all around, from out of the darkness, folks start extending a hand. taking our shaky one in theirs, and holding it soft and tight.

the phone starts ringing, and people say things that give you tingles up your spine. because how did they know–out of the blue–that you needed to hear those very words at that very moment?

emails pop into your mailbox. and you click here or there, not really thinking what you’re doing, and next thing you know you are reading something that slides right sweet into the place where you needed it to be.

might be that the fellow you married — a guy known to be plenty cautious and not keen on rash, irrational moves, pretty much the life-long grounding rod for your high-wire act — keeps telling you you’re doing the right thing.

might be your 10-year-old boy, who lets out a whoop, pipes up during dinnertime prayers, “dear God, thank you for the bravest mommy there ever was.”

trust me, i’m not launching myself into space. not about to set up a colony on the moon. not tackling a cure for cancer.

just putting one foot in front of the other.

but, for the first time in a long time, headed in the direction of my heart. instead of the way that’s been slow-dripping, leeching the pink right out of my cheeks.

and once i got through the talking to myself, reminding myself i’ve moved my own personal mountains before, i have been utterly and joyfully buoyed by the power, the knowledge, the wisdom, of the universe to make like a marvelous tunnel of hands and hearts, each one reaching out, giving me the nudge, the squeeze, the full-throttle embrace i need to keep this free-fall from feeling like a death-dive.

instead, i am slowly, solidly, catching the wind.

and one of these days, i just might look down and realize i’ve started to soar.

what a bummer. can’t let you in on specifics. not yet. will when i can. but in the meantime, what freefalls have you knowingly, bravely, stepped into in your life, and who were the great good souls who reached out and let you know you were going to be all right, and no one was letting you splat flat on your face? what are your moments of personal courage?