Spirits, Good & Bad

FeaturedSpirits, Good & Bad

Halloween was brought to the New World by my ancestors, refugees from the Irish Potato  Famine of 1845-1849. My amateurish genealogical sleuthing has churned up relatives in the Irish diaspora of rural Kentucky. Burkes, Flynns and Kilroys first appear during the Famine years. Place of birth on their official census records simply say: Ireland. Lineage dead ends there since the British, who ruled Ireland at the time, destroyed native records. Of eight million people, one million died and 2.1 million poverty-stricken souls emigrated during the four years of the Famine.

In 1844, English politician Benjamin Disraeli explained the “Irish problem”: “a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien-established Protestant church, and in addition, the weakest executive in the world.” 

England left the Irish to die.

No wonder the Irish brought their dead ancestors, their heritage, their superstitions to the United States. When the harvest season ended on the night of October 31, Irish immigrants welcomed the spirits to walk among them. It was a celebration, a comfortable reunion between the world of the living and the familiarity of their dead. Little Patricks and Deirdres traipsed door-to-door on that one hallowed night seeking food for the incoming family spirits.

In short order Halloween in America became scary. Demons and witches took over, leaving me with nightmares, still. I cannot, will not watch fright movies. I get the heebie jeebies just looking at trailers for the entire Halloween franchise with Jamie Lee Curtis (though I love her).

The only reason I ever watched the movie, The Exorcist, is that the writer knew my parents and named the demon-possessed girl, Regan, after me. It chills me now even writing about her.

I’ve never been visited from beyond-the-veil by the devil, dead relatives or friends. Poets say spirit ancestors are flying around in the bodies of birds, particularly cardinals. Ethnologists have discovered that every culture honors spirits. From Christian angels to Buddhist arhats, depictions of creatures trapped between the living and the dead grace every ancient wall.

New research suggests people who experience the presence of ethereal beings, immerse themselves in practices that make the brain more porous, more receptive. I do that. I call it meditation. I don’t have the same experiences as indigenous peoples, but my twenty-minute practice of imagining my thoughts passing by on clouds, brings one nanosecond of pure joy. I choose to call this God, bypassing all the intermediaries. 

Author and mystical scholar Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes had a visit from a dead aunt as a child. She shared the experience with the multiple generations of relatives sitting on the porch of their Gullah home in South Carolina. “Let us know if she comes to you again,” said one of the aunts. Their Africana heritage incudes a shared belief that the dead come back and talk to you.

My Irish-American parents buried their heirloom traditions, including the dead visiting the living, in order to assimilate into conventional white America. Halloween was a peasant holiday to be avoided. As was St.Patrick’s Day. 

Yes, the notion of the presence of the supernatural still scares me.

But I do love birds.

Prayers

FeaturedPrayers

(excerpted from the November 2022 Grapevine, the International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous)

My mother’s cousin, Father Long, asked to meet me on the wraparound porch of the1900s-era resort hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

I had recently left my husband and was living at my mother’s house with my two-year-old boy. Assuming Father Long wanted to force feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I hung a defiant roach clip from an anti-establishment leather string around my 22-year-old neck to amplify my hippie ensemble.

He talked about my marijuana use. “Give it up, for your mother’s sake,” he said. I paused. “Are you talking to her about giving up drinking for my sake?”

Father Long started his career as a disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys’ school. Realizing I was no match for him, I scrambled out of the painted wood rocking chair and made a fast exit. I heard him call to me as I walked away, “I’ll pray for you.” 

Father Long spent a few weeks every year near Sea Girt where I lived during adolescence and young adulthood. That summer his vacation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean was interrupted by my mother’s cry for help. She wanted him to help me. My mother’s lips never parted to pray and I doubt her thoughts ever enter the spiritual realm. On the way home, I wondered how drunk she must have been to ask for help from her cousin, a soldier of God. Had Father Long been summoned to help other wayward children sprung from our very wayward relatives?

A few years later, I made it to Alcoholics Anonymous and, after six months sober, I was asked to speak at a large AA meeting in Montclair. In the meeting, I talked about my inability to stop drinking, stop smoking pot, stop consuming illicit drugs. I welled up speaking of gratitude for my father, who had brought me into the Fellowship.

My father had sobered up at Towns Hospital in Manhattan. He attended meetings on the Upper East Side and had been able to sustain abstinence during the time I was dying way out there in some other dimension of addiction. We hadn’t seen each other for five years. Then he showed up at the public mental institution where I had been sent after I overdosed at 24 years old. He suggested I go to the AA meeting on the grounds of the institution.

After I wrapped up my six-months sober talk at that meeting in Montclair, a petite, pearly lady stood out from a line of well-wishers. She approached and said, “I pray for you every day.” “What?” I asked. “Do I know you?”

“I go to meetings in New York with your father,” she said. “We helped him when he went to see you in the hospital. We told him what to say, to just share his story, what it was like, what happened and what it was like now. Like we do with any other alcoholic—and suggest you go to meetings. A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time.” 

 “And here you are.” 

That was the summer of 1971.

___________________________________________________

NOTE: Father Long was removed from the priesthood in 1995 for sexual abuse. He’s on the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington DC, lists of accused priests. He died in 2004.

Letter to the Boyfriend

FeaturedLetter to the Boyfriend

I found your book from the early ’90’s the other day. It’s the mystery about martial arts, ritual tattooing, sumo wrestling and a murderous Japanese crime syndicate. Mysteries are my favorite genre and I’ve read my share of torture and ritual killings, but no book ever frightened me more than yours.

Remember when you came to see me in Washington on your book tour? You phoned to ask if you could come over to my place. How did you know I wasn’t married? When I said no, you insisted on meeting me in the lobby of your hotel. Why were you staying so close to where I lived?

“Ok, but I’m not going to your room.” I said.

We sat in the hotel bar revealing certain truths of our lives from the past twenty-five years. Neither of us drank. You, of course, insisted I come to your room for a copy of the book. I relented, armed with my pocketed cell phone. You said I broke your heart when we were together one teenage summer. A high school teacher suggested you pour out your dejection on paper, which started your writing career. I was surprised, even flattered, to hear you’d written hundreds of pages about me, including detailed sex scenes some of which you duplicated in your novels.

I remember hiding naked with you in the basement of your parent’s Jersey Shore bungalow, listening to the undulating Atlantic Ocean, giggling at talk of marrying, concocting funny names for our children. Once, on the boardwalk, your mother’s eyes locked me down. “Don’t get pregnant,” she smiled. You returned to Philadelphia for senior year. I stayed, and went to someone else. You drove back to the Shore periodically that year, ambushed me at school and home, and tried to snare me into embracing you. You, the oversexed, body-building wrestler. You, the alpha male cornering me with your power. Did you have any sense of how frightening you were?

In your Washington hotel room I tried to avoid answering your demand, but you insisted over and over asking, “You really did love me, didn’t you?” 

“No. I just wanted the experience to write about.” I said.

“But you didn’t write. I did.” You said.

My head burned so hot I stepped outside of my body to cool off. Unaware, you gave a walking monologue on how successful you were, how physically fit you were and how you were taking female hormones to reduce whatever estrogen was active in your body. 

I scrambled out of there without the book.

A few days later multiple copies were stacked up in my neighborhood book store. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? For your old girlfriends to see your fruit on display? I bought it. In a straight-back chair at my dining room table I made it through a few nightmarish chapters, then hid the book in a cardboard box.

The book, your book, is now headed to a landfill.

Atonement: Bird on the Wire

FeaturedAtonement: Bird on the Wire

In the late 1970’s I worked at a run-down residential hotel that had been sold and was about to be renovated. The legions of accountants, lawyers, contractors and financial schemers confounded even the notable. I managed to keep them all straight, pass information one to another and generally play the know-it-all role I like.

The lead accountant, Mel, asked if I had any friends who could be temporary helpers on some new events his firm was staffing—the Taste of Chicago, ChicagoFest and Art Chicago Expo.

“Sure,” I said, “How much will they get paid?”

“Free entry, all the food they can eat, a T-shirt and a poster.”

Having just accumulated a whole batch of new friends in Alcoholics Anonymous, I knew plenty of unemployed sober oddballs hungry for food and fun as ticket-takers and money-changers. Next thing I knew, Mel told me I had to meet “the guy” in charge.

“Come to Temple Beth Israel on Yom Kippur.” Mel said.

“What? What’s that?” I said, “Am I allowed? What do I wear?”

“Everyone’s allowed. Day of Atonement. It’s the best time to do business.”

I tried to sneak into a seat in the back and look around for Mel. After lengthy  prayers and singing, there was an intermission. Mel appeared at my side, grabbed me by the elbow and said, “Let’s go.”

All the congregants rose up, walked around, talked and laughed and “did business”. Mel introduced me to “the guy” who headed up one of Chicago’s Big Eight downtown accounting firms.

“How many people you got?” The guy asked me.

“Twenty or so,” I lied.

“Good.” Bring ‘em to Navy Pier on Saturday and get ‘em signed up. We’ll take it from there.”

In the years since, I’ve practiced atonement often — not just once a year, but almost everyday. At a recent book group studying The Jewish Annotated New Testament, I inched into a discussion of Ken Burns’ documentary, The US and the Holocaust.

“Someone told me the trouble with Jews is that they didn’t assimilate.” I said.

“The. trouble. with. Jews?”  One of the Jewish participants admonished.

“Do you hear what you’re saying?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I then attempted to overcompensate the sin of victim-blaming by blabbering about assimilation, of which I know nothing.

I once asked a musician friend to sing Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire at my funeral.

“No.” He replied.

“Aw, c’mon. Just say yes. I won’t know. I’ll be dead.”

“Better to atone when you’re alive.” He said.

I bowed to my ignorance and he agreed to sing just these words.

Like a bird on the wire

Like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried in my way to be free

Like a worm on a hook

Like a knight from some old-fashioned book

I have saved all my ribbons for thee

If I, if I have been unkind

I hope that you can just let it go by

If I, if I have been untrue

I hope you know it was never to you

God bless Leonard Cohen 1934–2016.

Listen to Bird on the Wire here.

Ageism and Activism

FeaturedAgeism and Activism

From the Board of Directors of Skyline Village Chicago reprinted from the November-December 2021 Newsletter
 
Age-related shaming can occur anywhere—the shove in the street, the cold shoulder at the cosmetics counter, the deaf ear at community meetings, and the big one—the obtuseness of the health care system.
 
Activism-Against-Ageism-2Ageism and age discrimination are different. Age discrimination raises its ugly head in institutions, corporations and housing. Experts often refer to ageism as complex and subtle. It is subtle, but not that complex. When someone addresses us as “young lady”, the implication is that young is good, old is bad. If we act flattered, we’re perpetuating the stigma. The expression “senior moment” aims to joke about aging memory loss as if it is an embarrassment rather than a normal part of getting old. One of our neighbors is often called “young at heart”. She’s an eighty year old woke grandmother who likes Chance the Rapper and marches in anti-racism demonstrations. “Young at heart” diminishes the lifelong experiences that have brought her to her own reckonings. Yes, ageism is subtle, but really, it’s not so complicated.
 
People in power have implicit or unconscious biases, baked-in at birth, passed down from generations like old recipes. Their unrealized thoughts are that people much older can be ignored because they are close to death, or they have had “full lives,” or they no longer care to survive. These never-expressed sentiments influence and often determine public policy.
 
Acquiring awareness of our own ageism warrants self-education and introspection. When we experience ageism from without, we tend to think “this is my problem,” rather than, “this is OUR problem.” Dismantling ageist thinking and behavior requires collective action, just like movements against racism, sexism and ableism. 
 
Anti-ageism activism is turning intimate suffering into public grievance. “In our society, there is this endless drumbeat of youth. We need to challenge the underlying message that age decreases your value,” says Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and a blog called Yo, Is This Ageist?
 
Recently two members of Skyline Village challenged ageism by writing letters to the editor. Nancie Thompson and Regan Burke assure us they have been lifelong submitters of letters to editors. They had no expectations their letters would be published and yet, there they were—in the same week! 
 
Let’s keep it up. Write your own letters to the editor the next time you hear, see or read ageism. 
 
The links below will take you to contacts for your own submittals of letters to the editor.
 
 
While you’re at it, email us examples of ageism you’ve experienced: info@skylinevillagechicago.org. We’re compiling a list for Skyline’s advocacy work. Don’t worry! If we use your example it will be anonymous unless you tell us otherwise.
 
Thank you for your contribution to this important effort.
 
Skyline Village Chicago Board of Directors
Phyllis Mitzen, Sandra Herman, Evelyn Shaevel, D Clancy and Regan Burke
 

Eight Things I Learned in the E.R.

Featured<strong>Eight Things I Learned in the E.R.</strong>

A doctor I’d never seen peeked around the curtain of my Emergency Room cubby hole and softly announced I have clots in my lungs.

My entire joyless face broke into an involuntary smile.

“That’s great news,” I said.

The doctor pulled his head back, turtle-like, as if he’d delivered the news to the wrong patient.

“There’s a simple solution, right? No surgery? Just pills?”

“That’s right,” he said.

In the thirty-six hours I’d been in the E.R. I’d learned a few things.

First of all, most hospital employees say “E.D.”, as in emergency department, rather then E.R. I was in the E.R. because I couldn’t catch my breath. A few hours of oxygen fixed that. Nurses and doctors kept saying, “it’s good you came to the “E.D.” Everytime I heard it, I thought of those commercials for little blue pills. On the other hand, when I hear E.R., I think of George Clooney.

Second, a nurse asked me if I wanted to be admitted. Was that my decision? My friend Kristina, who came to rescue me from fear and confusion reminded me that we have to say “I want to be admitted”, to satisfy Medicare. If you hesitate in making that declaration, you’ll be farther down on the waitlist for a bed upstairs. And let’s face it, if you’re seventy-five years old and find yourself in the E.R. with tubes in your nose, you’re going to end up admitted upstairs.

Three: There are no beds, no blankets and no extra pillows. The board you lie on is a padded gurney. The E.R. is a whistle-stop on the way either back home or upstairs. No need for frills.

Four: The E.R .does not have food service. You may find out about the secret stash of turkey sandwiches, graham crackers and apple juice. But no one’s in a hurry to get you food. If you toss it, well, there’s the clean-up. 

Five: The call button for the nurse is like an emotional support dog. It’s a comfort lying next to you, but won’t answer your call for help if you need to drag your tubes and drips to the bathroom down the hall. 

Six: The E.R. has all the equipment for all the tests. It’s designed to get results fast. When someone says, “you can have a CAT scan here or you can have it upstairs”, get it done in the E.R. The upstairs equipment is for the entire hospital and there is a long wait, even for someone with clots in the lungs.

Seven: Watch for clues. When a doctor says we want you to take Eliquis but it’s expensive, that’s your clue to call your friend and find out what online Canadian pharmacy she uses. And yes, buying drugs from Canada is legal.

Eight: There are a lot of doctors, nurses and technicians coming and going using words you’ve rarely heard. Call in a savvy friend like Kristina, to rehash the diagnosis and the prognosis. 

Most important of all: take a breath and let them take care of you.

Featured

WGN Interview with Bob Sirott: “Campaigning then vs. now”

Regan Burke is author of “In That Number: One Woman’s March Up From the Streets of Protest To The Halls of Power and Beyond” and political organizer. She’s worked in the campaigns of Adlai Steve…

Click to hear 10 minute interview: Campaigning then vs. now

From left, President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter participate in the State Funeral for former President George H.W. Bush, at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

Learning & Leaving the Real Estate Business

FeaturedLearning & Leaving the Real Estate Business

Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what the Bible passages stating “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with 1973 modern America. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God. It wasn’t easy.

“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,” Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working outside the home. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my second bad marriage.

I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey, answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”

A couple appeared one day when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.

I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change and racial integration espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The pro forma Owner arrived in short order with a contract but when faced with the couple doubted that he could provide their choices of tile, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him to be too encumbered by his own cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on negotiating for the decor at a later date. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice charging me and the Owner with discriminating against the black couple from Princeton. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.Unknown

I sat for a deposition and feared a discrimination law suit would follow me around for the rest of my life. It dragged on for months but never went to court.

I was scoring glass in the workshop when Adele brought me a news article. The NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property.

“See?” she said, “they were shills.”

 Good for them.

Remembering Jim Cummins

Remembering Jim Cummins

“I got fired,” he said over the phone one spring afternoon in 1979.

“What? I’ll be right there!” I sprang from my desk yelling, “I have an emergency” and bolted out the front door of the Ontario Street hotel where we both worked—he at the front desk and me in the back office.

Jim Cummins and I were nascent members of Alcoholics Anonymous and I feared the worst—that he was drinking again. Lately he had been showing up too late for work, taking too many smoke breaks and wisecracking about too many hotel guests.

Jim’s furnished one-bedroom on Delaware had lower-floor gloom characteristic of downtown Chicago apartments. The coffee table, overstuffed brown couch and chair blended together into the beige carpeting. A glass ashtray loaded with butts sat atop newspapers strewn all over the coffee table. No beer cans. He hadn’t shaved. His shirt was wrinkled and hanging out of his trousers but otherwise he looked the same guy I’d seen two days earlier.

“Sit down and read this,” he said, handing over a Sun-Times opened to an article buried in the back of the paper. The blunt headline read, “Gold Coast Leather Bar Raided”. The article contained facts about the location, the owner, a description of the leather get-ups and the names of eleven men who were arrested. Jim was listed. I read, then read again, looking for an explanation. Abruptly I burst out laughing and fell headlong into uncontrolled hysterics as I slid off the brown overstuffed.

“What the hell were YOU doing there?” I said from the floor. 

“My dear, I’m a homosexual. I was participating.” 

“You are NOT! What? Were you looking for someone?”

Jim said he thought I would giggle at the news but he didn’t expect he’d have to convince me he was gay. We talked long into the night about the history of his secret. He had been expelled from the seminary for improper behavior, served in the Army, was married, had a child, divorced, worked in the newspaper business, was an actor, voted Republican—all the while hiding his true nature. Beer and gin helped wage the battle against his Irish-Catholic guilt until he hit bottom and sobered up. 

When our employer, the hotel manager, read the article he promptly called Jim and fired him. Jim joined others from the raid in a class action suit against the city, but he was gone before it came to trial. Mayor Jane Byrne ended police raids on gay bars after her 1979 election, the same month as Jim’s arrest.

Jim stayed sober but had a difficult time landing another job. He started dating, tried but failed to form a lasting relationship, lost his apartment and lived on my couch for a while. I lost track of him. He’d moved to Washington DC where he cooked meals for homebound HIV patients. In 1991 I visited him at the Veterans hospice in Washington, the day before he died of AIDS. He’s the only dead person I ever said good-bye to.

Mystery of The Matching Shoes

Mystery of The Matching Shoes

Chicago’s annual Printers Row Lit Fest is a red-meat feast of books. For two days bibliomaniacs don their Walgreen’s readers and shuffle from table to table in the two-block long chow-down of book delights. Lone readers never look up, never reply to vendors, never talk to authors. They’re intent on finding the books they need to satisfy an obsession that never ends—to be alone with their books.

Then there are the book lovers who hold vendors hostage yakking about their favorite books and authors. And others with their dogs and friends, happy to be outside talking to neighbors, catching glimpses of book titles they may wander back to.

In 2021, my publisher asked me to stand behind the Tortoise Books display to promote my book, In That Number

“Oh, you’re the author? What’s it about?” strangers asked.

“It’s a memoir about politics.” I answered.

The publisher interjected, “She was a hippie who worked for Bill Clinton. She met Putin.”

I had no idea how to initiate conversations about my book, never mind promote myself. I signed a few copies, but not many words passed between me and the buyers.

At the 2022 Lit Fest, memoir writing teacher, Beth Finke, organized a program, “Unlocking Memories and Uncovering Stories” with two of her students who had published children’s books. Beth moderated the discussion.

I sat in the front row, soaking up the ethereal juice of a room of twenty-five or so people attracted to children’s literature.

The two presenters, Sharon Rosenblatt Kramer, and Bindy Bitterman, sat on either side of Beth Finke at a table covered by a floor-length black cloth. Beth, a published author herself, introduced her student-authors in her usual lighthearted manner, exuding pride in their accomplishments. She asked questions about how they got started and their publishing processes.

Sharon Kramer’s book, A Time for Bubbe, published by Golden Alley Press, blossomed from one of Beth’s memoir writing prompts, “all the time in the world”. It’s the story of her six-year-old grandson visiting his great-grandmother in her high-rise. He punches all the elevator buttons and she responds, “Don’t worry boychik, we have all the time in the world.”

Bindy Bitterman’s  Skiddly Diddly Skat is a self-published cat and mouse story written in limericks, accompanied by a QR audio code.

Sharon Rosenblatt Kramer, Beth Finke, Bindy Bitterman and the Matching Shoes

Halfway through the presentation, I noticed two sets of matching shoes sticking out from the tablecloth, under Sharon and Beth. Did Sharon and Beth coordinate their shoes? They looked like soft-souled, black canvas with round grey tips. The feet moved slightly every few minutes, always in unison. For a second I thought they might be mice. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

Then all at once the tablecloth ruffled and a black Labrador stuck her nose out from under the table, flopped her head down and resumed her subservient posture at Beth’s feet. I’d forgotten that Luna, the seeing eye dog, uses those four black feet with grey pads to lead Beth around town.

Luna solves the mystery of the matching shoes

Hmm. Would the mystery of the matching shoes make a good children’s story?

__________

  • Click here to buy A Time for Bubbe by Sharon Kramer on Amazon.
  • Purchase Skiddly Diddly Skat by Bindy Bitterman here
  • To purchase Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, click here

Life Before the Great Resignation

Life Before the Great Resignation

Off the elevator straight ahead, Hazel stood behind the barren counter in front of her glass-entombed office. There was no private space for her to fuss with her gelled-straight bob or smooth her suit skirt. Payroller eyes stretched to catch a glimpse of her to report back to the boss. He wanted to catch her making personal calls or reading a magazine at her desk so he could threaten to fire her or move her to the archives in the basement.

He directed supervisors to inform workers that there is a waitlist of qualified applicants for their jobs. People who fear for their jobs work harder, he told me. I didn’t tell him I feared for my job and it made me hate him.

Desk photos of family weddings and barbecues were discouraged. Spending any more than fifteen minutes in the restroom was prohibited without a doctor’s note. Workers returning late from lunch were docked. If they were chit-chatting about their weekends when the boss walked by, they’d be called into Human Resources the next day for the great inquisition.

“Do you like your job?
“Do you like your co-workers?”
“Is there any place you think you can improve?”
“Do you have enough to do?”

Every question was loaded, fraught with danger. HR reported findings to the boss using verbal shorthand only the two of them understood.

“Hmm,” he says.
“Yes,” she says.
“No raise?” he asks.
“No.” she says.

HR liked to please the boss. He thought low-wage workers were trying to take advantage of him and the system by getting away with as much slacking on the job as they could.

The twenty-something son of one of the boss’ friends got hired as a manager. He had an office with walls and a window, kept his door closed and handed out assignments on the cusp of their due dates. Workers were blamed for not meeting impossibly tight deadlines and the son of the friend got promoted.

Every few months the boss required workers to perform an audit of their time. They logged every activity at every minute of their workday. I allowed workers under my supervision to log their time at the end of the day. I had hoped to spare them the demoralization of feeling undervalued. The boss found out and had HR demand that I account for my own time, minute by minute.

I took sick leave. HR called and said I had to come back to work. Instead, I called a lawyer. On my walk home from psychotherapy, I got caught in a freakish Midwestern squall and ducked into Bloomingdale’s. The lawyer rang to say he negotiated disability leave for a few months, then I could retire.

And right there in the housewares department a ten ton block of despair lifted from my shoulders.

“Do I ever have to go back?”

“No,” he said.

I walked out into the storm and lifted my face into the downpour. I let it wash through me until I no longer felt shackled to the boss, the job, the fury, the fright of it all.

Freedom.

The Shoes

The Shoes

No one told us about the shoes.

Truth be told, we didn’t know much about the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. My colleagues and I at the Department of Education were too busy. Busy with our new jobs. Busy in the heady Washington scene. After all, we were political appointees of newly-elected President Bill Clinton. 

The Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, revealed in a private moment that he thought his Deputy Secretary, Madeline Kunin, should have had his job. As a feminist, an immigrant, and a Jew she successfully ran for governor of rough-hewed Vermont three times. Like many survivors of the Holocaust, Kunin’s political courage developed in her core at an early age. She voluntarily lobbied for better education, health care and reproductive rights as a young stay-at-home mother. 

Like a hen with her clutch, she rounded up the staff at Education and arranged for a special tour for us of the Holocaust Museum before its grand opening in 1993. At first I thought she’d lead the group of Assistant Secretary level who’s-who’s. After all, Madeleine Kunin’s name is among those carved into the granite exterior of the Museum. But no, Deputy Secretary Kunin accompanied us staffers on the bus.

As a group, we were from all parts of the country. Some knew people from education circles. Some knew each other from the Clinton campaign. Our clucking enthusiasm escalated as we gathered in the Hall of Witness.The Museum staff beamed. We, their initial visitors, crowed about our staggering first-look. The architecture appeared contradictory: industrial and elegant, light and shadow, wide and narrow. Initially the exhibits were background to our huddled getting-to-know-you conversations rather than observations of incomprehensible evil. We skimmed family narratives, peered into replicas of boxcars and camp barracks, listened to eyewitness recordings.

At some point the way narrows, and Museum visitors have no choice but to crowd into a shadowy passageway. It’s meant to replicate the cramped trains and camps. Then all at once our eyes adjusted to a large dark room illuminated by several downlights drawing attention to the floor.  Shoes. A field of shoes. Men’s leather wingtips, women’s pumps, children’s oxfords are all piled up in an erratic display of magnificent personal remembrances. My stomach cramped. And then I saw them. Baby shoes. Tiny Mary Jane’s like I used to wear.

It wasn’t imagination that told me what happened to that child. The proof was all around me: the photos, the documentation, the accounts of survivors. The shoes told the story. The Jews wore their best apparel in the forced-leaving, believing they were being transported to a better place to live, not a place of torture, starvation and extermination. 

Shoes confiscated from prisoners at Majdanek, Poland Concentration Camp (photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum). 60,000 Jews were exterminated at Majdanek between October 1, 1941 and July 22, 1944

I hung onto the railing and wept.

Sixteen years later two of my grandchildren, ages ten and twelve, and I traveled to Barack Obama’s Inauguration from our hometown Chicago. At a visit to the Holocaust Museum they followed the life of a brother and sister in a special children’s exhibit. When we got to the shoes, they whispered.

“Are those hers?”

“Are those his?” 

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

“The Trouble with Harry”,  a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock black comedy about a dead body, tickled my mother’s macabre sense of humor for years. In the movie, a group of five small-town oddballs try to keep Harry’s dead body hidden. After they bury Harry, they dig him up and re-bury him five separate times to try to solve the mystery of his death. Each has a story about why they think they killed Harry. In the end, a kooky doctor pronounces that Harry died of a heart attack.

I don’t recall my mother ever going to the movies, but she joked around about “The Trouble with Harry” and loved watching Alfred Hitchcock films on TV. The movie isn’t funny by anyone’s standards, except my mother’s. She couldn’t wait to crack open the new issue of the New Yorker every week and show us the latest Charles Addams cartoon. Charles Addams, creator of the Addams Family franchise, concocted neither violent nor diabolical characters. They were goulish goofs, like their dark-humored animator. And, like my mother.

The New Yorker Jan. 25, 1958. Charles Addams

About the time I became aware of my mother laughing about dead people, the nuns were teaching my sisters and me the Latin Requiem Mass to sing at Cathedral funerals in downtown Indianapolis. The quaint practice of using children to sing at Catholic funerals developed in the Middle Ages with boy choirs. Females were not allowed to participate publicly in sacred music until the mid-19th century. I attended thirteen Catholic grade schools and the nuns in every single one managed to squeeze rehearsing the Requiem into the girls’ weekly schedule.

At the funeral of the father of triplet girls who were in my third grade class, the eight year-old daughters processed up the aisle behind their father’s casket. White veils shadowed our bewildered choir faces as we peered over the pews and chanted the Requiem in Latin, Eternal rest grant him, O Lord”.

It’s as if we wished the dead father a deep dark sleep.

Leading up to the day of the funeral, the shock of a young father’s death did not escape nervous chatter. I sensed my parents had questions about how he died. Perhaps that’s the case with every death. Like Harry, isn’t the first thing we ask, “how did they die”? And don’t we always wonder if there was something suspicious about the end of a person’s life? All closed-door gossip was put to rest with the triplet’s father in the clearing at the Requiem Mass.

In the 1970’s the Catholic Church decided to celebrate the living dead, shining in God’s light forever, as well as lament the finality of the deceased’s eternal rest. My mother had a low opinion of her Catholic Church, but approved of celebrating souls living forever, perhaps floating around in the light of the cosmos, like Charles Addams’ characters.

I’m no longer Catholic. However, influenced forever by the nuns and my mother, I accept the mystery of the two seemingly contradictory notions in the Requiem.

Requiem aeternam dona eis: eternal rest grant them. 

And,

Lux æterna luceat eis: let eternal light shine upon them.

the Before Times

the Before Times

Is there life after covid-19? The latest reports say we’ll never be rid of it. Every week In the past two months at least two people I know have come down with the virus. All fully vaccinated.

When a friend recently revealed that she can’t remember what the shutdown was like. I reminded her she’s still working from home. Working remotely could be on the life-after-covid list if your definition of life-after isn’t back-to-normal. I recommended Elly Griffiths latest novel, “The Closed Room.” In that book, the protagonist, Ruth Galloway, receives a voicemail from a prime witness coughing up an urgent message to call her. When the call came in, Ruth was stocking up on toilet paper and cat food at the supermarket. By the time she returned the call, the witness had died of covid.

At the beginning, March 2020, dramatic shutdown rules came on too fast. As I sauntered toward an afternoon celebration at my neighborhood church, I waved to one of the pastors dashing toward the redline.

“Headed home! The church is shutting down,” he shouted.

“What? Everything? Even the exercise classes?”

“Everything. Starting tomorrow.”

I whispered the news to a circle of friends, as if it were a secret.

“All our classes will be on Zoom,” one said.

“What’s Zoom?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

After covid, conversations are peppered with “before covid” and “before the pandemic.” My favorite, “in the Before Times” sounds like an era. The Before Times. There’s a definite marker.

Before covid I attended church and had spontaneous lunches with friends. During covid and now after covid, Sunday is a day like any other. No church. No ad hoc “let’s grab a bite”. Time, no longer marked by ticking off a schedule of events that includes travel, is measured by brushing my hair before I click on my Zoom square.

Indoor group amusements proliferated for a time until the phrase “super-spreader” caught fire. I felt immune for life after triple vaccinations and a mild case of covid. But these days I read my immunity has waned  and a new variant is out to get me.

At my first indoor group event post-shutdown, a lovely friend aimed her big red pursed lips at my cheek.

“Nooo! I can’t do that!” I said.

Partiers who had bragged incessantly on Zoom chats for the previous two years about mask-wearing, lining up for vaccinations and social distancing, embraced and kissed as if covid had been eradicated. In order to protect myself from this affectionate mob, I sat down. It worked for a while until latecomers greeted me with a drapey hug.

I left the party when I could no longer muster up the necessary social graces to keep friends at arms’ length.

At the Goodman Theater recently I had a slight panic attack when the usher said they no longer require vax cards, only masks. I didn’t fear catching the virus. I feared theater bosses were presuming vaccinations don’t matter. Or, don’t work.

Oh for the simple worries in the era of the Before Times!