Saturday, September 27, 2008

My Ally

Someone in your childhood teaches you about love....and what they teach you imprints upon your psyche for as long as you live.

This is the man that taught me about love.

Chester, my uncle.

This picture was the essence of our relationship.

Look at his hands.

One holds me keep me safe....and the other one just steadies me....allowing me some freedom...some wiggle room....and always.... he is carrying me....and holding me up...not towards him....but outwards to the world.... a kind of go get 'em pose.

Chester lived next door to us in a small house behind our apartment building. My Polish grandmother and grandfather owned a large classic brick three story apartment house in Chicago. My parents and I lived on two floors. My grandparents lived on the first floor and we had tenants who lived on the third floor. The tenants lived there for over 25 years, a second family to me. They had a son who was a year younger and my best friend in childhood.

Chester was a constant presence in my childhood. He not only lived next door but he had the habit of coming home from work....and visiting first my grandparents for a few minutes then my family before going home.

He had a special little I knew it was him at the door. He'd walk into the kitchen....sit down on a chair and slap his lap with the afternoon newspaper...which was rolled up in his hand. "What's going on?" he'd ask.

Because my parents worked....sometimes I was the only one home.... he liked that arrangement cause I'd sit down at the table with him....and tell him about school or just stuff.

He mostly listened...which was flattering ....because as a kid you know you don't know lots about the world....but here was this man....coming home from work....and the first thing he did...was sit down and listen to your day.

He listened the details about the fight... I had with Michael, the boy who lived upstairs, or trouble at school or with a girlfriend in class. Looking back, I realize these were not hour long conversations...but perhaps minutes....with Chester listening deeply...with great intensity to a little girl upset about a boy playing unfair with a ball.

He never told me about his day. But I always felt a certain type of sadness in him....especially when he came home from work....a deep hurt and disappointment which you could almost touch.

Uncle Chester was a very intelligent man.....and when he was drafted into the army... became a medic. He was so adept at medicine....all the doctors and men he worked with....encouraged him to return to school and study medicine. When he left the service, he yearned to continue his medical training.

Chester was in his early twenties when he was discharged....and had only a high school he needed to attend college. My grandfather, a mean and selfish man, would not help him with educational expenses. He was involved in a business and wanted my uncle to work with him. A promise was for me for a couple of years...and then I'll help you go back to school.

My uncle worked...but the promise was not kept. My grandfather left the business; my uncle worked there till he died.

So when he listened to me after work...he always felt tired....a special type of tired....that made me realize he didn't like his work....but he liked me.

And if I was sick....or my dog or lizard looked funny.....or I needed help with math....or school....I went to him.

I could sense how happy my visits made it erased some of the tired that was in his life.

I was horrible at math word problems. So I visited him frequently in the evenings. He would clean off the kitchen table.....sharpen his pencils....get the big eraser out ( I wore them down with my mistakes)....and sit down in the chair...sitting up straight with much joy. "Okay kiddo...what don't you understand?"

Often when I was finished with math or whatever it was I came over to see him about...he would let me look at his machine. He had chrome autoclave unit in the kitchen....where he sterilized syringes and needles. He had diabetes ....and gave himself injections every day. He would show me the syringes....the needles....and explain how his body wasn't making insulin.

He also taught me about my grandmother's bad heart. He took the fear out of my life....about my grandmother's heart trouble and chest pain.....and taught me how to turn the oxygen tank on for her....and how to place the little pink pill...labeled "Nitroglycerin" under her tongue....and how to dial my mother up on the phone at work.

He was also my ally.

When my mother wanted me to wear these horrible expensive Italian knit suits and matching hats to church .....and I would cry because I hated them....and hated how odd they made me look in comparison to the other girls....he would step in and fight for me.

"Irene..." he would say to my mother, " for god's her dresses...not these god damn odd suits...they're not for a little girl."

I would be hiding in the next room when they argued....fingers crossed....please Uncle Chester....please deliver me from The Hideous Suits.

Once Uncle Chester bought me a dress....just like all the other girls were wearing....and I stubbornly wore it every week for months to church. I believe there were many behind the scenes fights between my mother and Chester.

One his house....on the back of an end table in the far corner of his living room. I found magazine with naked women on it. Playboys. I knew I had found something interesting...really interesting. I don't think I had ever seen a woman I grabbed the magazines...and hid behind the couch....studying and unfolding the centerfolds.

My uncle's head appeared above the sofa. "What are you doing?"


He was an avid I knew this was a good answer. Then he saw ....the Playboy magazines.....

"Come out from behind there and bring the magazines."

He sat down in the chair near the sofa.

He looked...perplexed and a bit serious at first....then softened.

I sat on their blue sofa....with a lap full of little feet wiggling in the air. I think I was 8 years old.

I remember there was a very long if he was thinking very hard.

"I think women are beautiful. I think naked women are beautiful. When I'm alone, sometimes I like to look at those magazines and think about how beautiful women are."

This was a lot of new information for me. I said nothing...just watched him like a hawk.

"So if you want to look at the magazines...and see how pretty you will grow up to can come over and look at them."

Then he stood up...and took the magazines from me and replaced them....on the lower shelf of the end table...near the wall....and out of sight to an ordinary visitor.

And so I credit him....with my first sex lesson in life.....where he imprinted on me......that nakedness and women and beauty...and men looking at them....and admiring them...and therefore sex....was very okay.

Of course...when someone is in your life for a can become complacent about them...and how much they mean to you....which is ....what happened to me as I grew older.

In eight grade....I heard my uncle's familiar knock. He walked in....sat down in the kitchen chair......but I was busy....doing something....I think I said hello to him....and when he asked me..."What's going on?" I answered...nothing....because at 12 ....nothing is going on when you talk to an adult.

He was just about to leave....when I had this intense desire to hug him....even tell him I love him....I remember the urge so clearly even now.....but I was becoming cool....and ignored it.

Hours parents called me....Chester had felt weak....Marie, his wife, has taken him to the emergency room. He was in the intensive care unit....and had suffered a severe heart attack.

"Come get me"....I kept pleading with my father....."Come get I can see him in the hospital"....please....please....please....

but my father said no....they would stay with Marie.

I ran through the house looking for money. The hospital was far away...but I had traveled on the bus alone to go downtown. I knew I could catch the Archer the Western Ave bus....but then what? How would I get to 95th street? The only person who was home was my grandmother and she didn't drive.

I cried all evening...this was the man....who stood up for me....who loved me....who fought for me.... against my mother and grandmother ..."don't crimp her spirit"....he lectured them......and I couldn't go to him. I couldn't see him.

I fell asleep in my bed....soaked with tears....and then around 4:30 in the morning....I woke up...and there was Uncle Chester....I felt him....he was right there...

"Oh" I said....he must have come home....he's okay.......but I couldn't see him....and yet....he was there....right there.....

....and then nothing.

I collapsed in tears.....I knew he was dead.

There wasn't a doubt in my mind.

A short time later....the phone....I heard my father talking.

But I knew.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Other Women in my other Grandmother

This is my favorite picture of the Other Women in my life. My grandmother, Martha, on the left, my eccentric aunt Helen in the middle.... and my her early twenties before she married.
They were the opposite of my Lithuania grandmother....the expensive leather shoes, the mink tails tossed over shoulders, the look of upper class American ladies rather than peasant.
The Polish ladies of my family wanted nothing to do with the old country. They wanted to be new and modern and American. Although my grandmother spoke Polish to me...she never allowed me to speak Polish back to her...only English. Martha was an excellent cook and an admirable seamstress but she never taught me to cook or even to thread a needle for the simplest of stitches.... I was to be totally American.... and in her eyes womanly practical skills... belonged to the servant class.
Whereas my Lithuania grandmother wanted me to take up my place in a line of feisty women unafraid to roam the woods looking for Polish grandmother wanted me educated and pressed into the mold of society's elite.
The tug of war between these two lines of women was a constant in my life .....and perhaps my Polish ladies would have won......except for the death of my grandmother's youngest child whom she had late in life.
His name was Eugene. He drowned during a family picnic by a lake at age 16. He stood up to change positions in an old row boat, lost his balance, slipped, hit his head on the edge of the boat and sunk like a rock to the bottom. My excellent swimmer....who won medals in the army for swim meets.....dove in.... but could not find his body in the murky lake water.
My mother and my grandmother.... sunk into the type of total grief that consumes spirit and heart. They were often so distracted by their sorrows and memories.....I escaped from their ambitious plans.
Throughout my childhood, I thought my uncle died just before I was born....because his death...his life story....and the sadness draping our house seemed so fresh....happiness....good times....roll on the floor belly laughing....was an insult to his memory and legacy in the family. It's only when I acquired some decent math skills in 5th or 6th grade ....and read his tombstone....I realized he had died not a year or two before I was born...but six.
That's why I like this picture....of the women.... taken before Eugene died...when my Polish grandmother still had sparkle and an impish smile. I never knew that grandmother. I only knew ...a soft sad...woman....who never forgot her son's death.
So it was this grief, this ever present mourning....that gave my Lithuanian grandmother a chance to influence me.....because the Other Women were weakened by their constant presence in the past....where Eugene lived.
When I look back at my maternal line....especially my mother who still lives in Chicago....I often feel a sadness for their social naiativity. They poured so much effort and had so many dreams and hopes for securing a place in the upper crust through me...(trust me...I had a hundred dresses, little matching shoes and hats)..... but they never really knew the true requirements for the social status they wanted for our family.
When I left for college and left the old neighborhood....I could see what they couldn't......... we didn't have an address with a "Cove" or "Shore" in it ...I went to a university out on the prairie instead of an Ivy or Almost Ivy school.....and our family had names like Zigmund and Rudie and Irenka.
The Other Women didn't understand the nuances of old money....or the educated elite ....and so they were aiming a canon with me in it.....without realizing.....that only people shot from specific canons with specific proportions reached the promised land of society.
In the end..... my Other Women thought I had done "well enough".....they never understood....why I had so little ambition for the things they wanted so mother's greatest insult....was "You're turning out just like her"...a reference to my Lithuanian Grandma who preferred prowling i the woods than prowling the aisles of Neiman Marcus.
Living in the south has reacquainted me with status and society.... the right addresses... the right side of town.....the right connections...even the right color blonde....
but it is of no consequence...
I'm a hybrid....someone who is educated and worldly enough to see one side....yet my tongue can forget to say the th in words ....and I actually eat and then....
I used to be angry at Eugene.
Hated him actually....a dead guy who saddles me with his masculine name....a guy who stops me from having a good time in my own house.....a guy we must visit every week at the cemetery....
. the end....the weirdness of living with a dead relative....sort of skews your perspective....
for better or worse there's lots of stuff in life I view as societal hokey pokey....for better or worse....I have a timer on my shoulder that says....hey life and time can run out....and when you feel this way.....each friend or love that leaves....each thing you fuck up hurts a bit more....because the clock in your soul is going tick tock.
One group of women put a clock in my belly and one woman...put flames in my cheeks....not the easiest combo....but certainly an interesting one.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Mischief of Spiders in the South in Early Fall...

The last few mornings....I've looked out my front door and smiled.

The spiders are must be the end of summer.

Each September when it begins to cool down......hordes of small spiders nest in my bushes.

Each morning......there's a hundred small nets of hope strung in the bushes....bright white and dipped from dew.

By afternoon, when the dew dries.....the little webs are wispy and thin....almost invisible.

Such a very fine dressing to a very plain bush.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What would Grandma do?

I keep thinking about my Lithuanian grandmother....ever since I made "the medicine" and posted that picture of us together a few entries back.

I don't have many pictures of her. My mom, as I mentioned, was not pleased with my grandmother and thought by keeping us apart....I wouldn't "favor" her. So there's not many pictures of us together.

The one I found from my wedding day....she's hugging me before I left the church. She's wearing her formal going-out babushka (scarf) and her good black coat (which she owned for 20 years). ( By the way....I never had red hair.....all my pics are faded ..I'm sad to see this one is so washed out.)

My grandmother was....a feisty transplanted peasant from the old country.....a tough opinionated woman...with deep wrinkles around her mouth....from pursing her lips in disapproval at so many people and so many things. She worked for the parish priest for many years, keeping his house tidy and cooking dinner for him. He often complained to me she was "fattening" him up .....which she took as a great compliment. My Eastern European relatives all st rived for a bit of thickness which indicated good health, strength and stamina.

My grandmother felt the priest suffered from "paleness" too....I don't think she pinched his cheeks....but she did make medicine for him. She told me she couldn't cure his paleness....because it was from a lack of "female" the medicine was more like a band-aide than a cure.

My grandmother appeared to be married/involved with two men most of her she never took medicine for paleness....she told me she took medicine for "vigor." I didn't have a clue what she was talking about as a kid....but I know exactly what she is talking about now. Go grandma!

Just thinking about her....seemed to revive my spirits this week. Remembering all those baby jars of medicine in her pantry, thinking about her carbo-toxic diet and the big dog she had.....who instinctively shadowed her tiny owner.....Grandma would curse at her in Lithuanian for being in the way.....the dog....totally ignored her and continued her gaurd duty.

Grandma rose every morning, at 4am, ...because she had so much living to much to attend to....disapprove of.....and comment on. She had fight.....she had spirit....she lived her life her way....until she became too ill in her final years to live at home. I visited her in the nursing her with my toddler daughter before she died.....she wagged her finger at me and told me to make medicine and don't get pale.

I think it was very wise counsel.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Making Medicine...Or How to Fight Paleness

I decided to make medicine tonight.

I was feeling a little pale.

My Lithuanian grandmother worried I was prone to "paleness"....a condition characterized by a lack of rosy cheeks and a robust outlook.

She cured me when I was a little girl.... by pinching my cheeks and giving me a shot of medicine accompanied by a few pretzels or salty potato chips--because, as everyone knows, salt holds your color.

My grandmother felt my paleness was the result of poor mothering. My mother was Polish and my Lithuanian grandmother believed Polish people couldn't possibly do anything right.

Grandmother was also suspicious that my mother wanted to squash my spirit which she believed was part of my Lithuanian bloodline. She saw herself ....and me.... as descended from a line of tough feisty women who doctored people in the rural countryside.

When I arrived at her apartment in my mother-approved little dresses , black patent leather shoes and white gloves (my mother used to make me wear white gloves to church).....she scowled at me.

She wanted me to "be a lady" but ....she didn't want me to be too soft.

When I left her house.....I always returned home..... red-faced and strong.... a shot of whiskey flaming my cheeks and enough starchy peasant food to herd oxen.

My mother would go berserk when she saw me.

Her sensor which detected both alcohol and peasant carbohydrates ... would go auuuuuwoooogahhhhh when I walked in the front door.

She'd stop my visits to grandmother for months...which made me sad.

As I made medicine tonight.....I felt close to my grandmother and wondered what she'd think of me.

I'm sure she would have approved my stint as a nurse. I think she would have pursed her lips in disgust at my travels in Asia and Africa....but in the end....would give them a grudging nod of approval.

She would have been pleased I was a wife and mother....but Grandma had....well..... an interesting arrangement with my grandpa and another man for many many years....and I could picture her pinching my cheeks and wagging her finger at make sure I never forgot "the spark"....she was well into her 60's and still dying her hair with tea bags so she wouldn't show any gray to the gentlemen who lived with her.

As far as my current job and situation in life.....I was puzzled......would think corporate work was the equivalent of wearing white gloves and a little dress? or would she be pleased to see me gritting my teeth and working hard?

I'll wait till the medicine cures in a couple of weeks....and ponder this .....

I've got some kielbasa in the freezer and I know where I can get some pierogies.....I may tap a friend for a few latkies......

perhaps with a belly full of medicine and peasant carbs .......I'll be able to see more clearly.


Fill 1/3 of a container with fine clover honey

Cut up...... in assorted sizes....plump unblemished stems of Lithuanian cactus

Add the stems to the honey

Add very good whiskey to fill the bottle

Gently roll the bottle till everything is blended.

Cure for 2- 3 weeks. Cactus pieces will sink to the bottom when ready.


Me and Grandma

She always wore little gold earrings. Her hair turned pink after years of dying it with tea bags to keep the gray out. She stuffed a scented handkerchief in her cleavage. An 85lb Weimaraner ( sporting hound) was her companion for many years. I'm 5"4".....obviously she was short in stature but not spirit.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pooping in the bookstore.....

I just joined an online community of booksellers....
and browsed all the stories about bad customer behavior.....
pooping in the store....
in the elevator....
behind the bookshelves.....
and in front of the music department.....
I laughed so hard I had to rest my head on my desk.....
I mean....are people shitting in Walmart or Target????
or are they just running over to their favorite bookstore when they have the urge?
Why save it for us?
Why not do it in Sam's club with those wide spacious aisles?
Or Best Buy where Geeks could analyze it?
Or better yet in a UPS store, where brown can move you?
Geez...someday we may be required to post a warning on our front door:
Caution: Books are exciting to some people, if you have a lose sphincter, irritable bowels or are prone to browning yourself when stimulated, please wear a Depends for the safety and comfort of your fellow shoppers.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What I heard without Electricity.......

The house was so quiet this afternoon without ceiling whirrs of the a/ music glasses clinging in the the dishwasher.....
and then I heard something....outside
kids screaming.....laughing.....walking dogs in small groups and laughing.....
The power outage.....brought the kids outside on this warm beautiful sunny day after the Hurricane Ike slapped us. I never realized how many of them were shut-ins with their electronic games and computers and digital this or that. For the whole could hear them crying.....hear them delighting in scrambling outdoors.
Maybe we should have mandatory power outages every Sunday from 1-4......a sabbath from all the electronics and distractions which clog up our days....a chance to chase the kids outside and say "play".......
but after the blackout...yes please turn on the power......
after 19 can get pretty cranky without watts
and I'm tired of asking everyone around me.....
"Is the milk still okay?"

Ike rolled over us

Wow. What a night. Trees thrashing around. Massive veils of rain.
Leaves and twigs flying everywhere.....and we're not even that close
to Texas !

Some branches down. A little water damage....but power now
for over 10hours.....neighborhood strangely quiet without the hum of
air conditioners...just happy birds twittering...relieved to see

In another hour or so...I'll start worrying about the food in the
freezer and for now I'll hunt for that can of
starbuck's coffee I bought on a whim and pull up the window blinds and
see what the day brings.......

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Family Legend.....

Before I headed off to college, my feisty Lithuanian grandmother handed me a plant and a bottle of whiskey.

She told me the plant, a variety of aloe, was from Lithuania and was an offspring of a plant that her mother and before that..... her grandmother had used in making "medicine".

The aloe plant has babies in the summer, small tender shoots that sprout from the bottom of the plant, which she transferred each fall into a pot to root them so the historic plant line would continue.

She used the aloe in many of her home-made medicines. She cut it open and smeared it on burns and bites. She advised sucking on split stems for stomach and intestinal problems and finally....she would cut it up in small chunks and toss it into a potion of whiskey and honey which cured or fixed everything else which ailed you.

My grandmother always told me I came from a long line of village midwives and healers and she wanted me to cherish the plant and its offspring and continue to make medicine even if I was headed off to some strange city called Omaha to study in a university.

I kept the plant on my dorm window and even made the medicine a few times in college although I suspected most of my friends thought the medicine was just a nifty excuse to drink whiskey.

I doubted the Lithuanian origin of the aloe because I know my grandmother came over in the Eastern European immigration wave of the 1916's and I couldn't imagine her bringing over a pot of cactus through Ellis Island.

She mentioned she carried it in a rag but history classes taught me her voyage by land, sea, and then train to Chicago would require over a month of traveling and a plant in rag would either rot or dry up.

I still have the plant she gave me and propagated three more pots. She always had 4 pots of the cactus...three on her window sill and one pot on the porch as a safeguard in case something happened to the other plants. They are ugly and wild and each year I trim them down .....because they get woody ....and so big they sometimes crack the clay pots.

Last summer, I pruned them as usual in July and usual...... forgot about them the rest of the summer.

In September, I was raking leaves in a dark spot off of the driveway when I noticed something green in the middle of the leaf pile. I separated the leaves and gasped. One of the fragments of the aloe which I tossed away two months ago had grown small roots and was green and thriving in the middle of a dead pile of leaves.

I remember standing up and feeling my neurons snap.

Good god, she could have carried the plant over from the old country. If the plant could survive, untended in a dark pile of leaves....wasn't it possible it could survive a dark voyage of a month or so in a moist rag kept with her belongings? or in her purse? I was shocked....the family legend could be true.

I immediately went online and discovered cactus and aloe plants were common in parts of Lithuania and were often used in traditional healing remedies. I looked at the scraggly pots of cactus and realized my great great grandmother could have used the offshoots in some remote village.

Today I was working in the yard....and took two babies from an old plant and put them in a new pot. The babies are from the plant my grandmother gave me over 25 years ago when I headed off to college. If the story is true....this line of cactus is at least 92 years old.

My daughter is coming home for Christmas.....and somehow I have to impress upon this modern young woman....that she needs to take an ugly pot of spiny cactus home to her townhouse. I have to somehow convince her she needs to occasionally water the plant....keep an eye on it..... and in a couple of years when the plant is full grown and the humidity is low....take the babies and make three more pots. Keep three pots together and keep one someplace else as a safeguard. I suppose I will even show her how to make the medicine.....realizing she will think I am absolutely nuts.

But it is time to transfer the cactus....time to give a piece of it away to my daughter....and tell the story and hope some odd day....she will be look at it with wonder..... could it really be this ugly cactus has been cherished by so many generations of women?

What a very strange hold a line of women together.

the new babies in their pot

the original plant


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

We're Soul Mates TOO!!!!!!!!

Move over're not the only one sharing Miss Sarah's soul........



Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Whooeeee Matees....Gustav is slapping us.....

I was planning to blog about the tip of Gustav having fun with us.....
tree limbs knocking on my roof, big big trees swirling in our yard....rain....debris.......
but when I googled an image for "wind blowing" ....I got the nice trees above....

and this....

which is obviously more fascinating.........

but I'm clueless as to how it fits the subject of "wind blowing"......

Any guesses?


Monday, September 01, 2008

A totally random observation......

Okay....I admit to thinking the click of high heels on a hard surface is rather sexy.....
but the click of a horseshoe? Geez you could be tailed by a group of