my newspaper career was spotty. it was launched in a basement on a dead-end street that wound through leafy lots in old suburbia. i was editor, layout wizard, and scribe. i was 9. it was the brierhill news (named for our winding lane), in which i collected esoterica and bits of timeliness from up and down the half-mile from our house at the first bend to the stockade fence at the end of the lane. i rested my career till high school, junior year, when i signed up for the underground newspaper. (yes, it was the ’70s and all things underground were cool. even for “north shore creampuffs,” as our favorite english teacher called the mob of us.) i wrote under a pen name for that paper, cuz my dad didn’t like seeing his family name attached to revolutionary ideas and high school cynicism. (i wasn’t the cynic but i assure you cynics were abundant on the masthead.) i never gave journalism another thought, not through all of nursing school and not beyond, not till two weeks after my papa’s funeral when someone wise asked if i’d ever thought of journalism, so i went home and signed up for a master’s degree in writing pithy ledes (first paragraphs) and digging for the truth. i stuck around a newsroom for just shy of 30 years.
and i’m resurrecting my newspaper-making ways today, so i can bring a summery hodgepodge––a gazette––to the ol’ maple table, while i dive into another round of page proofs, that book-making task where every drip and drop of ink on the page is scrutinized, scoured for mistakes, typos, anything that doesn’t belong on the page. it’s all-absorbing work, so i stockpiled a few bits for you to savor while i toil away. i bring you here what amounts to a shrunken features section of old-fashioned news: a bit of commentary, a recipe, and a feature i’d call the poet’s corner if i was naming things (which it turns out, i am).
on summer’s quiet
i don’t usually think of summer as a quiet season, but i suppose that just means i’ve not thought deeply enough, because in fact summer is the season of a slowness that ushers in pockets of the quietest quiet…
… of hammocks strung between trees….
…of watching a popsicle puddle…
…of sweltering heat pushing us into repose…
…of sheltering in the nearest roomiest chair woven of wicker,** that grass that eases to the curves of the bum, a shelter best appointed with feets propped, and a pitcher of minty water always in each…
…of staying out late under the stars, catching the breeze that finally comes…
summer is falling asleep with the windows wide open, feeling the rustle of breeze cross your pillow, sinking deep into the night sounds that creep in and over the sills…
summer is turning pages, slowly, slowly. until your eyelids heavy and droopy give way to the summer’s nap that enfolds as words blur and then vanish — poof! — lost beyond slumber and dreams…
quiet is idling over the grill. counting clouds. watching the cardinal fling through the trees, daring that red-winged wonder to please, please, please, come close enough to look in each others’ eyes…
quiet is early, early morning, the newborn breaths of the day. before the heat chimneys in through the windows. before sweat is the layer between you and your clothes.
quiet is the soft whir of the fan. old-fashioned cool-making sound. a sound i prefer any old day to the sound of air-conditioner clunking.
the quiet of summer is unlike the quiet of any other season. summer’s quiet is bare skin to the breeze, unencumbered by blankets. summer is porous, is screens; summer does not hide behind storm-window panes.
summer’s quiet comes when we’re too hot to move. summer’s quiet is something akin to salvation: we slow to a pause to keep from wilting or wobbling there on the sun-baked sidewalk. summer’s quiet is retreat. is survival.
**more on wicker (from our friends at wikipedia): Wicker is the oldest furniture making method known to history, dating as far back as 5,000 years ago. It was first documented in ancient Egypt using pliable plant material, but in modern times it is made from any pliable, easily woven material. The word wicker or “wisker” is believed to be of Scandinavian origin: vika, which means to bend in Swedish, and vikker meaning willow. Wicker is traditionally made of material of plant origin, such as willow, rattan, reed, and bamboo, but synthetic fibers are now also used. (ick on synthetics. [that’s the long-retired cynic raising her knack for snark.])
summer quiet is this poem, this praise poem that perfectly captures the quiet rhythm in my heart in this deep heat of summer….
Eagle Poem By Joy Harjo
To pray you open your whole self To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you. And know there is more That you can’t see, can’t hear; Can’t know except in moments Steadily growing, and in languages That aren’t always sound but other Circles of motion. Like eagle that Sunday morning Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky In wind, swept our hearts clean With sacred wings. We see you, see ourselves and know That we must take the utmost care And kindness in all things. Breathe in, knowing we are made of All this, and breathe, knowing We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out the morning Inside us. We pray that it will be done In beauty. In beauty.
“So, I’m a poetry person. And I’m a bit obsessive about it—I want to be learning everything I can about poetry and poets all the time, and I want to be thinking about poems all the time. Lately, the podcast series that has really been satisfying my need to overdo it with poetry has been the London Review of Books series Close Readings. Each episode features Seamus Perry and Mark Ford, himself a poet worth reading, talking intelligently and interestingly about the work of a significant twentieth-century English-language poet (the only exception being Hopkins, but his work wasn’t published until the twentieth century, so he fits). And each episode is very heaven. The most recent, “On Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery,” is full of information you want to know about those most significant members of the New York School. Because you’re a poetry person, too, I just know it.” —Shane McCrae, Poetry Editor, Image Journal
a polychromatic taste-bursting salad: how ‘bout no-cook (okay, grill the corn if so inspired) summer confetti corn salad, a perfect summery bounty if you’re in the mood for playing with colors….
David’s J&L Confetti Corn Salad:
*my brother David worked at a high-end catering company for a few years, J&L Catering, and when they made something he thought was extra special, he’d copy down ingredients but not measures. So measures are always to your taste.
2-4 ears grilled corn 1 red pepper 1 orange or yellow pepper 1/2 to 1 whole purple onion 2-4 loose whole carrots, peeled garlic, to taste Cilantro
Dressing, to taste: Asian sweet chili paste Olive oil Juice of 2 to 3 limes (I also add zest of at least 1) salt and pepper to taste
Dice peppers, onion, carrot, to small dice. Chop garlic and cilantro. Cut kernels off grilled corn. Add to mixing bowl. Add dressing, stir, let sit at least 2-3 hours, or longer if possible.
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…..
in the newspaper world, -30- means “the end.” at the bottom of every reel of type flying off the typewriter, once upon a time, a big-city scribe tapped four keys to signal the end, so the typesetters knew to move onto the next big story in their end-of-day unreeling of the hot breaking news.
all these years, the -30- stuck. only i grabbed it from my typesetting keys this morning not because of an ending, really, but because a bespectacled scribe i happen to love, one whose flight i’ve witnessed from an up-close unedited perch, he’s been waiting and waiting for today. today is the day he gets his 30-year watch. thirty years of calling himself a “chicago tribune reporter.” thirty years of chasing down just about any I-beam that dared to move in this old town. thirty years of thumbs-up or thumbs-down on wild-eyed architects’ intentions to make no small plans.
but more than what’s beautiful, soaring, inspiring, or not, he sees the way the carved-out hollows and high-rises of a big american city might move the human species into communion, or tear them apart. he understands the nuts and bolts of design, but he’s keen on justice and social equity; he understands the political powers and petty feuds that sometimes stand in the way of what makes a city — and its peoples — work, or not work.
and he’s spent three decades teaching all of us, teaching anyone who turns the pages of every day’s news, to do the same. it’s a way of seeing he’s intent on not keeping to himself.
and ever since the hot august morning of 1987 when he strolled into the chicago tribune newsroom in his navy brooks brothers blazer, white oxford, and khakis — aka “the uniform” — i’ve been watching. took another year till i rose to my rank as “girlfriend,” and then another three years before “wife” was affixed to my status (we had a lot to figure out, mostly in the religion department, during those long should-we-or-shouldn’t-we years).
so i know, more than almost anyone, just how much it means to him to have hit the sweet 3-0. to know that tonight, at the annual bacchanal that is the tribune awards hoopla, he will, at last, get his chicago tribune watch. actually, in a move that is so classily elegant and fair-hearted and loving as to be a signature BK move, he’s getting two tribune watches tonight. he put in an order for a pair, one for each of our boys, so someday, both will have a relic from their papa, one he wrote soooooo many stories to snare, one that in some scant way captures the nights after nights that he kept watch over stories, called in corrections to the desk, gave up a friday night dinner, surrendered a holiday, took yet another call from a “source,” chased a hot tip. because when you’re the son of a newspaper man (and he is) getting the news and getting it right, and never ever backing down from the truth, well, that’s religion to him. and he is devout, if anything.
and that might be the beauty of nights like tonight: they squeeze you into the think-back machine. have a way of making you stop in your tracks, think back across the long arc of your history, sift for those gold nuggets of meaning. (and you know i never ever miss a chance for gazing back over my shoulder, for rubbing my palms against the fine grain of time, squeezing out every succulent drop of “significance.”)
it’s the pause in the plot that always, always holds the possibility of taking life up a notch. that slows us down long enough to realize this isn’t just a race to the finish line, but rather a slow contemplative unspooling that is best lived and best understood, most certainly held up to the radiant light, if we pay close close attention to all the unspoken strands, the subtle and poignant shifts along the way, the moments where we rose up to champion status, where we lived with every ounce of hope and faith with which we were created and dreamt into being, and where we humbly account for our stumbles, realign our compasses and set forth again.
it’s a magnificent reel, this thing called our life, and it’s most closely savored when every once in a while we watch it in slo-mo, stop-gap, how’d-we-get-here, hallelujah style. and then, to anoint the moment, we bend knee, bow head, and whisper a holy thank you.
never, ever, in a million years did i imagine this 30 would bring my bespectacled scribe — and me, and thus W and T (our two and only double-bylines) — along this most blessed road to here.
a billion blessings, BK. and thank you.
have you hit the pause button lately, to look back on the road to where you are now? what have you gleaned, and what lessons might you carry forward?
p.s. an emphatic post-script to clarify, clarify, clarify: BK is NOT leaving the tribune, merely collecting his 30-year watch. he will be writing and writing and writing. so sorry for leaving wrong impression. it’s a tribune tradition that you get your watch and get right back to work. so so sorry if i left anyone thinking this was The End…..
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?
this old house will be a newspaper house as long as fish wrap is dotted with ink. every morning, seven mornings a week, the first sound that reverberates around here — save for the pre-dawn robins who rev up their vocal cords — is the THWOP! of rolled-up papers plopped onto the front stoop (three separate wads each weekday and saturday, two on sundays). twice a year, when the bill comes due, a bill that topples into the hundreds for all that fish wrap, there’s no discussion. we don’t debate the wisdom of rolling out hard-earned cash for an inflow of ink and paper. because you never know what the news will bring. and we couldn’t live without the possibility of getting lost in sentences that swoop our hearts away. or the joy of flipping through a section and discovering a story we otherwise never would have tumbled upon. or the raw eruption of hot tears spilling on the page, as some account of awfulness carries us miles and miles from where we’re reading, and into dingy corners we’d not know were it not for the newspaper’s insistence on wiping out our ignorance and insouciance.
heck, this old house and half the people in it were practically built on the backs of newsprint. were it not for one chicago tribune’s newsroom, i never would have spied — and uncannily fallen hard for — the lanky fellow who became my lifelong paladin, and the father to our children (the two we call our only “double-bylines”).
still, not every morning brings what this one did; these words from the one spooning oat-y Os into his hungry gullet: “you’re gonna go nuts over this one.” and then he shoved before my eyes the front page of the wall street journal’s friday arts-and-culture section.
“the first chapter of harper lee’s new book,” he mumbled between Os, lest i miss the red-hot scoop, the unparalleled capital-e Exclusive, the biggest leak in publishing in plenty a while, the newspaper’s literary splash four days in advance of tuesday’s worldwide release of what’s being called the reclusive ms. lee’s “new novel.”
actually, it’s harper lee’s old novel, “go set a watchman,” her first go-around with a manuscript, submitted back in 1957, when she was all of 31, to her new york publisher, j.b. lippincott.
as the book-peddling legend goes, ms. lee’s editor back then found the story “lacking,” and advised that the would-be author instead zero in on the flashback scenes, in what would become the searing tale of scout and dill and jem and atticus finch and boo radley, and racial inequity and empathy played out in small-town maycomb, alabama: “to kill a mockingbird,” the pulitzer-prize winner that went on to be named “the 20th-century’s best novel,” according to a vote taken by the nation’s librarians.
and so, before my first sip of coffee this morning, i was riding the rails with jean louise finch, aka the “scout” of mockingbird fame, as she “watched the last of georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.”
i admit to having been among the skeptical when news of this “long-lost discovery” first made headlines. i admit to suspicion when word leaked out that the 89-year-old ms. lee’s not-long-out-of-law-school attorney just happened to find the manuscript tucked away in a safe deposit box, shortly after ms. lee’s 103-year-old sister, lawyer and lifelong protector, alice lee, had died. i worried that the not-altogether-with-it nelle harper lee might have been duped. coerced into publishing something she’d not wanted paraded through the glaring light of day, to say nothing of the folderol and zaniness sure to come after a half-century’s literary silence.
well, i’ve now read every word, every word the wall street journal rolled into print, and i’m here to tell you i’ll be among the ones in line to gobble up the next however many chapters ms. lee has lobbed our way. whoever was that long-ago lippincott editor who found the first-go lacking, i beg to differ. i’d not want to miss the chance to drink in a line like this one: “love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”
or: “she was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way. the easy way out of this would be to marry hank and let him labor for her. after a few years, when the children were waist-high, the man would come along whom she should have married in the first place. there would be searchings of hearts, fevers and frets, long looks at each other on the post office steps, and misery for everybody. the hollering and the high-mindedness over, all that would be left would be another shabby little affair a la birmingham country club set, and a self-constructed private gehenna with the latest westinghouse appliances. hank didn’t deserve that.
“no. for the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood.”
dare you not to race out to add your name to the long list at the library, or order up your own copy from your nearest most beloved bookseller.
i for one will be inhaling every line, on the lookout for a passage equal to the one i just might call the greatest american paragraph ever penned, the one that makes my heart roar every time.
for the sheer joy of retyping its every word, here is one walloping passage from atticus finch’s closing argument in his defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the deep south of the 1930s. page 233 in my first perennial classics edition, printed in 2002:
“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
heck, the whole closing argument — from the bottom of page 230, clear through to the fourth to last sentence on 234 — the whole magnificent thing was enough to make me a lifelong believer in the pen of harper lee. and the wall street journal’s gift this morning — slick as it was for the newspaper owned by the same outfit as lee’s new publisher, HarperCollins, to steal first crack at the watchman — twas a mighty fine one.
and an indelible reminder of why i’ll forever be a girl with ink pumping through her veins.
what’s your favorite line, or scene, or passage, from mockingbird?
and, for your summer reading’s consideration, here’s how the journal lays out the launch of ms. lee’s latest, under the news headline, “scout comes home”:
“The first chapter of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ introduces Ms. Lee’s beloved character, Scout, as a sexually liberated woman in her twenties, traveling from New York to Alabama to visit her ailing father and weigh a marriage proposal from a childhood friend. It also includes a bombshell about Scout’s brother.”
i’ll let you read for yourself and discover that bombshell…..oh, the joy of a byline we thought we’d never see again, one that bears the name harper lee.
when i was a kid, my dad was larry tate, the buttoned-up business half of the ad-biz duo on “bewitched,” that 60s (or was it the 70s?) sit-com starring samantha.
well, he wasn’t really ol’ larry. but that’s how i had to explain it, whenever i said my dad was an ad man, and the follow-up question was always: “is he darrin stephens or larry tate?” darrin was the creative dude, the one who married the nose-twitching daffy-hearted witch. larry–and, yup, my dad–was the one who kept the creative types in line. but, at least in the case of my dad, that didn’t mean he was so buttoned-up.
my dad loved nothing more than a great laugh.
if there’s one sound i can still hear, it’s the sound of his big booming guffaw, breaking the air in a room, filling the space between walls, flicking the switch in my heart, making it glow.
i LOVED that my dad was an ad man. fact is, i loved everything about my papa. but knowing he rode downtown on the train, carried that briefcase filled with top-secret memos to clients like betty crocker, mcdonald’s, even the folks who made play-doh, well, that made me feel like i was plugged into the nerve center of our times.
heck, my dad brought home a plain cardboard box, marked X, and it was a test sample of hamburger helper. we were some of the first kids in america to spoon that glop in our mouths. and we lived to give him a thumbs up or thumbs down.
the stories at our dinner table would swirl with stuff that mattered to kids growing up in suburbia in the hair-raising 60s, and the dick-nixon 70s.
we knew the ins and outs of big macs, and all about all the sugar-coated cereals packing the grocery-store shelves.
pop tarts? we had ’em early, had ’em often.
we didn’t screech on the taste-testing brakes when we crossed over the sharp lines of whatever “the clients” had fobbed on the market.
why, it was our job, our patrimonial duty, to invade enemy territory. we were the spies, me in my pig tails, my brothers in freckles and iron-on patches on knees.
we guzzled whatever the ’60s and ’70s offered. we didn’t much mind (although, for the life of me, i was deadset against hamburger helper and its ilk from the get-go, not yet appreciating the ease of dumping, stirring and filling the tums of five hungry kids).
which, in a round-about way, brings me back to the latest episode in the tale of the boys we call our double-bylines, meaning the poor little fellows (one, now not-so-little) who get to grow up in a house with a dad and a mom in the news biz.
which, on rather regular occasions, means i lope home from the office with a satchel stuffed with curiosities and delights and general conversational stimulants.
like this week, when it was my job to corral the best cookies in the land. or at least among readers of the newspaper where i type three days a week.
yup, it was the annual tribune holiday cookie contest, and someone had to be in charge of getting those cookies into the great gothic tower that is the tribune. and someone had to rustle up the 16 judges, put out the paper plates, the cups of water, the pens and the score sheets.
that someone was me.
and so, when the long hard day of nibbling and scoring was over, i asked if — please! — i might be allowed to haul home just one plate of each one of the 11 finalist cookies, so my own personal judging panel could convene.
and that’s where the sugar-saturated plate up above comes in.
that was homework for my fine little boy who’s pretty much convinced that sweets is one of the food groups. if not the most essential of the lot.
just after dinner (yup, we actually held off till after the protein and veggies; give us brownie points for that, please), we lined up the contest with great ceremonial pomp.
just like back in the tribune test kitchen, i set out cups of water, pens for each judge, and the nibbling began.
in fact, i knew full well that this was yet another one of my ploys to exercise that boy’s descriptive ways. i swooned when he launched in on the first, a glimmery snowflake of a cookie, which he described thusly: “it looks like a snowflake has just fallen with sugar and sparkles dancing on it.”
or, of a chocolate-swirled marshmallowy number: “it looks like a collage of butterflies.”
find me a full-fledged tribune judge who dished out such poetry. and this from my boy who has tussled with words in his day.
while he nibbled and spun his sugary stanzas, his papa chewed and scribbled in silence. in the end, once the last crumb was licked off the plate, we wound up with a three-way tie for first prize.
but for me, the very blue ribbon i pinned on the day was the glorious fact that, for little more than my train ride into the city, i could bring home a piece of the world far beyond our little town’s walls.
in the same way that once upon a time my daddy’s job made me feel like i had a window onto something big, something exciting, i hope my sweet boy feels just a tad more engaged with the wheels of the ever-cranking universe.
i hope that while i’m the one with the measly paycheck, he’s the one who catches the magic. who sees the power of words. who tastes the thrill of civic engagement, even when it’s just a cookie contest.
if he listens–and i’ve reason to think that he does–there’s not a page from my day job that doesn’t somehow rub off him. if not in ink, then surely in stories, in laughter. and sometimes, come the start of november, in cookies that make for fine poems.
when you were growing up did someone in your house have a job that made you look at the world in a particular way? it’s a curious marvelous thing, not oft considered perhaps, how all the ways the grownups lead their lives, are all a part of the education of the little ones who grow up so closely, thoughtfully watching. it adds a dimension of meaning to the every day. and makes that ol’ trainride not nearly so onerous. tell us how you learned to look at the world?
if, on any one of the days of this past week, i had scribbled down every last thing i was trying to hold in my head or my heart, i might have run out of ink.
there was the phone call from school, saying the little one was sick again, please come fetch.
and there was the early morning email that someone very wonderful, very brave, had died.
there was the lost assignment notebook, and the lost $40. there was the rowing jacket that needed to be claimed, and the rower, too.
there was the doctor to visit, and the milkshake to wash it all down. there was the carpool — or two — i was scheduled to run, and did, even though the player of soccer was felled by a flu bug.
there were eight lunches to pack, and three days where a can of noodle-y soup sufficed for the one spending his days on the floor in a pile of blankets.
there was dinner times four. and a brouhaha the night the little one didn’t eat much from his plate, but somehow finagled a trip to the donut shop, riding shotgun with his unsuspecting papa.
then there was the rowing trip to pack for, and the deciding which grownup would drive to toledo and which would stay home for the soccer team pictures.
there was the neighbor whose papa had died, and the figuring out who would bring dinner.
there were tomatoes to pick before they burst, and hand-me-down hostas to plant before they shriveled and died.
sometimes i wonder if maybe we’re doing too much.
if maybe i’m trying to squeeze too very much into the too-narrow skins of my sausage.
sometimes–and that list up above is barely the least of it–i think maybe it’s not such a good idea to try to live like we do.
but then, despite it all, i find myself out in the world, gathering stories, doing the work that i love, and well i can’t imagine not getting to do that.
one fine early autumn morning this week, i was tromping through parks i might never have entered alone. i was meandering along a prairie river, tiptoeing across rocks laid in the path of trickling waters. i was deep in the fronds of a fern room, all laid out by that great designer of greenspace and parks, jens jensen, the dane who fell hard for the midwestern landscape, the prairie, the rocks swept in by the glaciers, the billowing shafts and nodding heads of the grasses.
yet another hot september morn found me seated beneath a crabapple tree on a wood bench in an english walled garden beside a ruddy-cheeked englishman, one with a sketch pad on his lap, and a mug of earl grey clasped in his fist. it was john brookes, i was sitting beside, the great designer of gardens english and otherwise, author of 26 books, and something of a living legend. we were talking, he and i, about the spirituality to be found in a garden, and the distinction he makes between vines and climbers, and why one belongs in a vineyard and the other is essential for ooomph and lift in a garden.
through it all i was gathering bits and yarn for the most humbling sort of story to write (at least in my book, that is): an obituary, the distillation of one great and layered life into a mere 800 words. it is the writer’s job always, but especially here, to sift and pick, to harvest only the richest fruits from the tree of a life. to hold up mere threads that suggest the whole tapestry. to leave the reader gasping and grasping, understanding a life as its flame is snuffed out. oh, lord, let me do right.
so, yes, despite it all, despite the nights when i did not sleep, drew the bath at 3 in the morning in hopes of quelling a raging hot fever, despite the grumbling there in the kitchen, and the hauling myself out of bed to pack yet another brown bag lunch, to simmer one more pot of oatmeal, i cannot imagine a life much richer: to learn history at the foot of a great historian, to talk gardens with one of the best in the world, to talk to the still-raw widow, to ease from her the words that will tell the world of her one true and lasting love.
despite it all, i’d do it again. and chances are, soon as the page of the calendar turns, and a new week starts all over again, i will.
the variations are many, but the theme is constant: i cannot imagine one half of my life without the other, and even when they bump and collide, each half makes me so much more than a whole.
oy. forgive me. this might seem more of a lonely unspooling than reaching for common thread. except that every one of us likely has a corollary to the mayhem and triumph above: we live half-crazed lives, uphill climbs, because we believe we’ll get to a mountain top. there will be a moment, we convince ourselves, when all the headaches are swept away and the big picture is clear: the combined steps of our journey have taken us to a place beyond our dreams. how do you wrestle the dailiness of your life into a meaningful climb? do tell.
and p.s. for those of you wondering about that new tribune adventure, it’s coming next week. in the news biz schedules change with the blink of an eye. so the editors held off for awhile….
since the day i moved here, five years ago now, the storybook cottage up above has held me in its spell. oh, i don’t live beneath its shingled roof, don’t know my way from room to room, have never even turned the front-door knob.
i only wander by, and cast my wishes in its woodland garden, where trillium, in spring, bumps up against the jacob’s ladder. where snowdrops are the first to come when winter will not take its graceful leave. and where, in autumn, tall grasses swish, the wind-borne lullabye before the garden slumbers.
i wink sometimes at raggedy ann, peeking out from up beneath the turret’s peak. see her? just a wisp of her, in the upper eastern window where she bathes, each morning, in the dawn’s first-light, as rosy-fingered sky reaches up and over the great blue lake just blocks away?
the raggedy one looks down on a garden as magic as any i have ever known, save maybe for “the secret garden,” frances hodgson burnett’s secret one, of course, which by page 42 of that sinful book (i once pretended to have a fever so i could stay home from church to read on and on) was the first i fell head-over-heels in love with, imagined myself inside of, tiptoeing near the climbing roses, curling up on stony bench, listening for the robin who’d led the orphan mary to the garden’s long-lost key and then, at last, to the ivy-covered door that hadn’t been unlocked in years and years.
there is for me something about a garden, a particular sort of mind-of-its-own garden, not one all clipped and shorn and pedicured, but one that rambles, grows this way and that, that sets me to pretending, spinning yarns to match the garden’s swift enchantment.
a little more than a year and a half ago, the storybook garden that belongs to the storybook cottage that just might belong to raggedy ann, gripped me, shot me through and through with what i feared was a most unhappy ending.
before i tell you what unfolded just the other day, i’ve pasted here the passage i once told. read along, then meet me at the story’s end, so i can fill you in on what we’ll call the epilogue.
the story just below, once was published in the chicago tribune. but i wrote it right here at my old pine desk, before i had a kitchen table where i could share my stories.
here’s what now becomes the prologue, printed first in october of 2006:
I am haunted these days by a fairy tale garden that I fear has lost its gardener.
There is, not far from my house, an enchanted little garden and a storybook house to go with it. The first time I eyed it, I nearly drove up the curb. It is all trellis and turret, and delightfully low to the ground, as if curled in a humble embrace with the growing things that spring all around. It is a house that whispers, not shouts.
At the head of a stepping-stone path there’s a front door an elf might wander through, and all around there are great patches of magic, grasses and flowering vines, birdhouses by the dozens, a place lovingly tended by someone completely in tune with the rhythms of wonder and the unfolding of time, season by season.
A Raggedy Ann, toddler size, sits up in the window of one the turrets, peeking out, keeping an eye on all. More than once, I swore she winked at me. The place, I’m telling you, is bewitching.
To drive by, or to wander by, is to slow the staccato of my every day. It is to breathe in and be reminded that lovingly tending the earth reaps wheelbarrows full of heaven.
The other day, though, the staccato picked up as I was stopped at the stop sign across from the storybook house. I saw streams of finely dressed folk pouring down the sidewalk, into the elfin front door, in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon. This isn’t a holiday, I thought. But then a synapse connected: Those fine clothes were funeral clothes. Oh my goodness, something in the storybook was amiss.
And then, sure as could be, the next morning, flanking both sides of the garden walk, standing sentry for any passerby, were two giant funeral wreaths, one a sumptuous circle of red roses, the other a sheaf of blood-red gladioli.
I am haunted now by the storybook house, and its autumnal garden. Haunted because I am afraid the woman who loved there might be no longer.
Sad thing is, I never met her. Only saw her as a constant stooped figure, bent over her trillium and her scilla in the spring, deadheading her jonquils, cutting back and transplanting through the summer, raking and staking well past the first frost of winter.
I can barely breathe now when I drive by, wondering, worrying. What happens to a garden when a gardener dies? Who will feed the birds that have called her little patch home for decades and decades?
For now, Raggedy Ann keeps an eye on the place. I won’t be able to bear it if she, too, slips away some day when I drive by.
I mourn for the woman who tended the earth with all her heart. I mourn for the trillium and the jonquil and the clematis that will no longer be cajoled and tucked back and talked to, as I often saw her, lips moving as she moved from this to that growing thing. I mourn for all of us who might not have the storybook garden to calm us in the midst of our modern-day madness.
It is a wicked thing when a garden and its gardener do not live happily ever after.
–end of tribune story–
not long after the story ran, i found an email in my tribune mail box. just a few sentences in, my heart caught in my throat. it was an email from the storybook gardener herself.
she’d been stopped, she said, as she turned the sunday pages, drawn in by the drawing of a raggedy ann that ran beside my story, running down two columns. she started to read, and soon knew that this mysterious writer was writing of her very own garden.
she’d not died, she wrote me. but her dear, beloved husband had. suddenly. achingly. without a warning.
and all the bustle i’d come up upon, and the funeral wreaths standing guard by the front door, were indeed for someone loved, now lost.
the garden and the gardener were, oh, yes, deep in mourning. but the words i’d written had not rattled her, so much as soothed her, she wrote. to know that her garden brought so much magic to even one odd passerby.
i should stop by, she wrote. i should visit her in her storybook garden, or inside the magic cottage she now shared with only one limp ragdoll.
for 20 months almost, i’ve kept an eye out. i’ve knocked on that elfin door. i’ve spied evidence of her being there, a just-dropped trowel, a pile of leaves. but not once did i ever see the magic gardener herself.
until just the other dappled afternoon. when the sun played peek-a-boo through her maple leaves, and i saw her slight bent frame, hard at work.
i leapt from my car, i called her name. i tiptoed through her ferny thicket, felt my heart pound hard against my chest. i told her who i was, reminded her that i’d once written of her garden.
she needn’t be reminded. she’d waited, she said, all these months. had wondered why i’d never come.
oh, but i have, i said, a little bashful, a little sad that i’d not maybe tried harder. hadn’t thought to drop a basket or a note, tucked it by the door.
somehow, though, more words–scribbled, folded, left behind–didn’t feel enough, didn’t feel the thing to do. i’d been inclined to meet this soul in person; to know the hands, the eyes, the heart, that made this place call out to me.
here, sit, she said, patting her mud-rubbed palm on just the moss-laced stony bench you’d expect sprouting from her woodland trails.
we talked for the better part of an hour. she offered me anything she grows, to divide and migrate the few blocks south, to my still-getting-off-the-ground patch of earth.
uncannily, time and time again as we talked of achy hips and sudden deaths and how her garden grew, i felt as if i’d known her for a long long while. found myself delighted through and through by just how much our roots, our tales, entwined.
maybe, though, that’s what happens when you’ve imagined yourself in someone’s garden. thought about sipping tea on chilly afternoons, tucked behind her stained-glass kitchen windows.
or maybe, it’s simply magic, long seeded in the hearts of those who share a fondness for a sparrow’s nest tucked under eaves, and ragdolls who nap away the day up in attic windows.
as shadows grew, and i knew my stay might be getting in the way of some dear plant’s undivided attention, i couldn’t help but think how it was that her undying grief had brought us so round-aboutly together, sitting here, side-by-side, in her most enchanted garden.
and how this beauty all around us grew, despite the dappled darkness.
kindred souls discovered where the lilac bloomed, and mayapples nodded in the filtered sunlight.
the story, once imagined, had no happy ending.
but the story, real, i now knew, was like so very much of life: it is shadowed, yes, but only just in spots.
and, here and there and everywhere, new life is pulsing; pushing, bulging, shouldering the clumps of dirt, straining to break through the crusty-shell of earth.
no longer merely make-believe, the storybook gardener and the writer begin that time-worn art of cultivating friendship. drawn together oddly, they carry on as if their story’s meant to be.
which, just maybe, it truly was.
have you made a friend thanks to a garden? or some odd-unfolding circumstance? have you some inkling there’s someone not far from where you live, who just might be your long-lost soulmate, not yet discovered? do tell…
the little one was shlurping up the last bit of waffle a la jam, running way behind this morn, when he called out, “excuse me, can i have my sports section?”
he didn’t seem to mind the strawberry dribble running down his cheek. but he did mind when i–the one charged with shushing him out the door and down the sidewalk, somehow sweeping to the schoolhouse door before the whistle blew–did not oblige.
demurred, in fact, with a simple, and emphatic, “no, sweetheart, we’re late.”
still gulping, he protested: “but you can’t interrupt my morning schedule.”
oh. so sorry. hadn’t realized, sir, that what we had here was a routine, a way of being, a moment on which the day depended.
of course i’d noticed that, morning after morning for the last few days, while the rice chex soak up milk, you, my slugger sweet, soak up RBIs and ERAs and all those alphabet equations that long ago and always have escaped me.
but i had not heard the sound of cement drying, and this becoming what it’s been for ages long before you and who knows how long into the beyond: the rite of little boys and sometimes girls obsessed with all things round and flying through the air, cracking off of wooden sticks and diving through the dirt.
you have joined the ranks, my little reader, of those whose day begins with the shaking out and creasing of the pages where all the world’s a horserace or a ballgame or a wobbly putt rolling toward what might be a rodent hole but, in fact, was put there for the purpose of men and women wearing god-awful-colored pants and shoes with little nails jutting out from underneath the toes.
you, too, now scour the front page, search for what you call the headline, the score of last night’s game. and then, you bore inside. you up and rise off your stool or chair, you dive head-first into the somethings you call “the standings.” you report, out loud, all sorts of names and numbers. and by then i’ve lost you, i am sad to say.
just this morning, as i combed the house for keys, ran back for one last swallow of caffeine, you were broadcasting in spanish, no less, spitting out the scores–“quatro to uno,” you barked–for those who cared not to know in english.
quite impressive, little boy. you who months ago could have cared no less for all those scribbles on the page. you who thought you’d never read a number or decipher all the letters crowded there together, a herd masquerading as a word.
in a world where newspapers are whirling at the center of a storm, where few and fewer see the economic sense of printing news on paper and plopping it on your doorstep–such service, and such fear, will we go the way of the milkman and the knife sharpener, those door-to-door deliverers of goods and service, long lost–someone needs to understand the power of the third section from the front. the one marked plainly, sports.
it is from here that whole lives of depending on the news are born, are launched, are set in motion.
i have watched it time and time again. my brothers, four, my own boys, first one, and now the other.
it is reading, yes. but it is so much more. it is learning how in this dog-race world you measure up. it is boiling down the game of running bases to charts and graphs and teeny-tiny type. it is drama on the field–and life–condensed to bare-bone stats.
it is the way a boy with spoon in soggy flakes first reaches out beyond his little world, into that of world beyond.
what’s on the screen at night, becomes his in the morning, there in black-on-white, just beside his cheerios and wheaties, his waffles and his raisin toast.
it is the breakfast of champions, with a splash of milk. and orange juice on the side. hold the pulp, please. pass the syrup.
i find it wholly charming to watch as little boy begins to sift through all the chaos of the world, and claim as his the simple practice of nose-diving deep into the sports page.
at least you get no grass stains sliding into home.
do you make sense of your world through daily rituals? how and when did you learn to order your day through the religious practice of some sense-making routine? do you too have your breath taken away watching little children grow, take on the ways of grownups all too soon?
sometimes, when i am writing a story for the newspaper, it actually hurts to leave out whole chunks of what i’ve gathered. a hundred thousand times i’ve cut and cried, leaning mightily on the words of one mr. hemingway: “a story’s only as good as what you leave on the cutting room floor.” it’s a line we whisper to ourselves as we wave goodbye to bits and threads we love, but cannot use. only so much you can squeeze onto those blank white pages, before they wrap the next day’s fish. or, in the case of my mother, line her birdcage.
lucy’s story, the one i told on mother’s day, is one of those ones that would have left me aching, feeling unfinished, if not for this holy sacred place where there is always room to finish every story.
my job, as storyteller, is to propel the reader through the piece, to condense, refine, suggest, spell out, depending on the day and space.
my preference, as storyteller, is to meander. to take my time, peek in corners, poke beneath the covers. listen. really, really closely. let whole thoughts unspool, and not just cut and grab.
i understand, of course, that readers mostly want to get to the point, and then move on to tidy up the kitchen table, get the kiddies out the door, pick up the dry cleaning. be done with it.
but this place here, this table with so many chairs, is wholly discretionary. you take it, or you leave it. this is whipped cream and maraschino cherries. you don’t have to pick just one, eenie-meenie-minie-moe.
so curl up, rest your chin on your palms, and your elbows on the table’s edge.
there is more to tell you about blessed lucy, and her mama rosa, the two i introduced you to just yesterday, or if you picked up a chicago tribune, you might have met them back on mother’s day.
for you just joining us, lucy graduated saturday with a degree in bioengineering from the university of illinois at chicago. she’s been in a wheelchair since she was 9. she found out when she was four that she had a rare degenerative disease, spinal muscular atrophy, which has left her arms and legs rag-doll limp, unable even to turn the pages in a heavy book, sometimes too tired to lift a peanut-butter sandwich to her lips.
her mama, rosa, has been the arms and legs that lucy cannot use. for six years. all through college.
she has opened doors, laid out books and papers, cut up lucy’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. at night, she rolls her, side-to-side, three times before the dawn.
i condensed all of this in the story. but what i didn’t get to spell out were some of the everyday obstacles that would have felled a lesser duo.
for instance, lucy and her mama–who is not fluent in english–rode the CTA’s blue line train every day to campus, a one-hour ride if all unfolded as it should have. but, often, it did not.
sometimes, the elevator in the train station near campus wouldn’t work, so lucy and her mama would have to re-board the next incoming train, take it on downtown, where they would transfer to another line, and take that train back out to campus, to a station that didn’t require an elevator.
or, sometimes, when it rained, lucy would worry that the rain would muck up the battery that operates her wheelchair, which would loosen the cable to her joystick, and she’d be stuck–with a 420-pound wheelchair that her mother couldn’t push if she wanted to.
just last week, riding in for her very last exam, a two-hour grueler in her hardest class, lucy spilled a bit of gatorade from the bottle she was sipping during the ride. the sticky liquid got into the battery of her wheelchair, and when they got to campus, to take the exam, the wheelchair wouldn’t work. they had to turn around, go home, get the back-up chair, and start the trip again.
“good thing i hadn’t gotten around to giving away the old chair,” she said matter-of-factly. good thing, too, she added, she’d originally set out for campus four hours before the exam.
earlier in the semester, the only elevator in the building where she took her hardest class was broken for a week. she had to miss a whole week’s lectures, relying on the notes that someone else took for her, never quite totally grasping every concept in a class called Pattern Recognition, which has something to do with understanding how an automated machine–say, an MRI–analyzes data to make a diagnosis.
for a woman who takes half an hour just to write one page of painstakingly-looped letters and words and sentences, she said there was nothing she could do but watch closely as her lab partners precisely measured out chemicals–in fractions of a milliliter, sometimes–with the glass pipettes that are so essential and so taken for granted in every science lab.
same thing, she said, when it came to intricate wiring that had to be tracked and secured for circuit panels in a bio-instrumentation lab. she watched, and absorbed without the tactile learning that comes from fingering each wire, screw and micro-tool.
but what sticks with me as much as the heartache over how hard her road was, and how she not once complained, is what lucy had to say about her unshakable faith, once lost, now found. and a friend whose light still illuminates her way.
“when i was little i was real religious,” said lucy, sitting in a study room in the engineering building at UIC last week. “when i stopped walking, i became an atheist at the age of nine.
“i was depressed from nine to 15. ‘why did i have to be born with a disability?’ i kept thinking.
“but then i thought about how would the world be different if everyone was perfect? would everybody be super vain? they would never think of helping anybody else. what if? when i finally accepted my disability, it felt like a lot of bricks had been lifted off me.”
lucy, who is 24 now, says she wouldn’t change one thing in her life. “i’m not blind, i can hear, i can speak, i can use my mind. i think i finally just got tired of being depressed. i thought, ‘i’m never gonna walk, why be sad about it?’ being sad about it, isn’t going to change it.”
it was a college religion class, one on catholicism, actually, that really opened her heart, she says. the class was assigned to read one of the writings of Pope John Paul II, who suffered from parkinson’s disease. the writing, an encyclical titled, “The Gospel of Life,” she says, revolutionized her thinking about her own disabilities.
“i used to feel like a disability was a punishment. after reading the pope, i realized it’s another beautiful form of life.”
reading the pope’s words, she said, “kind of helped me bring my faith back in God.”
her mother, rosa, never lost it. even though she says her deepest desire is to see lucy stand and walk.
“you know why i think God is very good,” rosa asks. “lucy cannot walk; my other daughter can. what i can’t see in one, i see in the other.” it is the same, she says, with her two sons, one of whom is in a wheelchair (and a freshman at the university of illinois at urbana-champaign), and one of whom is not.
this, from a mother who must speak up for her daughter in the cafeteria line, because lucy’s disease won’t allow her to speak much louder than an amplified whisper. she can’t bark out a request for the baked ziti that is her very favorite lunch.
the one thing that lucy still misses, she says, is her privacy.
“before i’d hide notes all over my room. after i stopped walking, i couldn’t keep anything hidden. everybody always had to know everything.”
lucy says she learned patience from her best friend, giovanna, whom she met when she was eight, and who died when she was 13, from SMA, the same disease that lucy has.
“she taught me to have patience. i didn’t want people to help me, i wanted to do everything for myself. when i first met her i could walk. to all of a sudden be in a wheelchair…”
it was practically unbearable, lucy says. giovanna, she adds, “taught me determination.”
giovanna was full of grace, as lucy tells it. and giovanna, i think, bequeathed her grace to lucy.
and that is most of what i wanted to tell you about two fine souls who rolled into my life last week, and now will never leave.
one of them, a woman who finds justice in the divine equation that has two of her four children in wheelchairs, motoring around college campuses, refusing to rein in their dreams, now inspiring far beyond the boundaries of their colleges.
the other, a woman who sees the wisdom–and the beauty–in a world where our imperfections compel us to reach beyond our limits, to be each others’ arms and legs and hopes and dreams.
those are the lessons i learned at work this week.
it is no wonder why i call this storytelling business not just a job but a holy sacred calling. how blessed i am.
how blessed, lucy and rosa trevino, not trapped at all by a life in a 420-pound chair on wheels. but rather, teaching as they roll, inspiring as we lope behind, trying to catch their holy shining wisdom.
bless you if you stayed to read this story. it was long, i know. but it feels so deeply essential. your thoughts….
the photo above is one i took at lucy’s graduation. months ago, she ordered that certificate of gratitude for her mother, just for graduation day. because the print is small, i’ll spell it out: “thank you for all your love and support. i would not be where i am today if it wasn’t for you. i feel so grateful to have you in my life. today is my day, but i dedicate it to you.” and then she signed it, lucy trevino. it took minutes to push the pen through those 11 proud but simple letters. the lilac chiffon you see behind the certificate, and the sturdy hands, those belong to rosa, who was beaming all day saturday, mexican mother’s day.