Kicking up the milky stairs we head to the second floor, Gallery 201, 19th Century French Impressionists. We shimmy and shiver onto the planked floor, shh! Into high ceilings we rendezvous with my Impressionists. I show them off to you as if they are my own. Here’s the Renoir fruit bowl and there’s Manet’s train station. Oh! and the Degas dancers and Monet’s gardens.
You stagger at what to look at next, having studied but never seen the flabbergast of beauty before you. I suck in my cheeks in a quiet whistle to the tune of the hush in the gallery, swaying with silent vibrations.
Don’t call me senior. I’m old. This is what old is, looks like, sounds like. My old may not smell like your granny. My old moves slow. Stand aside. Wait for me. Hold the door.
My old eats cooked vegetables. So take me to that restaurant. My old says f**k too, so give me that freedom. My old is curious and just because I can’t remember your name doesn’t mean I can’t hear you.
Oh, and sometimes I can’t hear you.
My old needs your company. They just told me loneliness kills. I already knew that.
My old loves to ride the bus, to look out, to see the changes on Clark Street from Chinatown to Rogers Park. My old likes change. Did you hear I didn’t?
My old feels close to heaven—like how much closer can I get? Like, can I get closer without moving into the next day, or the next week, or the next minute?
The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them knowing they were headed straight to hell when they died. In 1956 we rented a four bedroom tudor built into the cliff on Lake Michigan in Wilmette, Illinois, having moved from a month-long stay in a downtown Chicago hotel where we landed after our eviction from Clayton, Missouri. To the east, the view of the lake was obscured by an over-propagated evergreen garden leading a quarter mile down to a rusty wire gate that opened to the beach. My mother hired seventeen-year old twins to watch my sisters and me on the beach so she’d not have to dress for the day and be our lifeguard. And those twins came with boyfriends—who had boats. The teenagers taught me to waterski and by the end of the summer I had my feet sloshing around in the rubber boots of a slalom, skiing far out into the lake, so unmoored at the edge of the world that I often forgot to let go of the tow rope when we we came back to shore for the drop-off. None of them were Catholic and I silently mourned for their souls, asking God why He’d be sending them to hell when they obviously didn’t deserve it. After all, they had shown me where heaven is.
Sitting at the foot of my parents bed one day, I saw a television commercial for the opening of Old Orchard Shopping Center in the next town over.
“Where’s Skokie?” I asked my mother.
“That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered.
At 10 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I wanted to ask my mother how Jews were living near us and not in Jerusalem where they lived at the time of Jesus. She detested answering my questions and would have accused me of stupidity, a criticism I already couldn’t stand, so I sat back and wondered if Skokie was, in fact, hell.
When winter arrived in Wilmette I could hardly contain myself. The only thing separating me from the sledding hill next door was a mammoth pile of snow huddled around evergreen growth and a chain link fence next to our house. All the girls and all the boys, all ages and all sizes came to slide down Suicide Hill. Firemen hosed it at least once a day turning soft snow into cold hard ice. Traditional sleds, too dangerous for the slippery terrain were cast off—piled up in a Flexible Flyer junkyard off to the side at the top of the mountain. Flat cardboard slabs were the most valuable commodity. I shredded straight down on the cardboard, sitting down at first, then up on my feet. Eventually we, the first snowboarders, traded our cardboard for our boots and slid downhill on our feet.
Girls and boys had equal status on Suicide Hill. There were no rules, no lifeguards, no snowguards no unofficial guards. We all raced down the slope expecting no prize, bumping each other off into snowpiles like soccer balls, soaring like heavenly rockets. Winter stuck in our noses, but our fevered bodies rollicked in unfastened coats flapping in the wind. Medics and parents came to bandage limbs and scrapes. Ambulances carted broken bones off to Evanston Hospital. Exhaust smoke obscured our vision of cars double parked on Michigan Street where parents yelled Let’s Go!
And when the stars came out we went to No Man’s Land for hot chocolate where I eyed my non-competing competitors. We belonged together, heaven or hell.
Yeah, that’s right. And guess what? 50% of the people you meet you don’t like.
But I like everybody and everybody likes me.
Nope. They don’t. You don’t.
The lady at church in St. John’s knit, pearls and Ferragamo flats? Does she ever say hello? How about the guy who leads the meditation group? He preaches mindfulnesss but stops short when it’s time to tune in to you.
And you? Do you really like the lady in the lunch group with her pinched red lips that never stop moving?
Ok. Ok. But 50%? I think I like 75% and 75% like me.
No. They. Don’t.
The truth of it? The guy in the park who stands up and gives you his seat? He hugs you just so he can feel your boobs. You hate that but you’re nice to him ‘cause you think he likes you.
From: Regan Burke
Sent: Monday, January 15, 2018
To: Xxxxxx Xxxxxxx, Church Administrator
Subject: Snow Removal?
Xxxxx: Today I was slipping and sliding with other passers-by on the sidewalk in front of the church. A woman fell and as people were helping her up there was grumbling about the sidewalk not being shoveled. Someone said, “figures, it’s a church.”
The sidewalks are often not shoveled by the time a lot of us get to our exercise class at 10:30. And, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, a lot of us are not as sure-footed as we’d like to be which makes getting to class when it snows a bit more treacherous.
Please do everything you can to get the sidewalks cleaned and salted (black ice!) around the church as soon as you can in the morning.
And perhaps there could be a line-item in the next budget for “good neighborliness” which would include shoveling and salting or sanding the snow and ice from the sidewalks around the church?
From: Xxxxx Xxxxxxx
To: Regan Burke
Regan: Thank you for your note related to snow removal.
As I’m sure you know, the church was closed yesterday in observance of MLK Day. Sidewalks were cleared early this morning. We’ll continue to attend to snow removal diligently and and thoroughly – as always.
Your use of the image below from the Daily Mail of an unfortunate woman taking a fall in Manhattan to suggest a Xxxxxx Church circumstance seems odd – to say the least.
From: Regan Burke
To: Xxxxx Xxxxxxx
Dear Xxxxx: The photo is a example of what many of us who come to class are afraid of when approaching the church in the winter. Indeed there are people who don’t come to class when it snows because the sidewalks around the church have historically and notoriously been and continue to be treacherous. In other words, this is not a new problem and it’s a big problem, not just to us but to our neighbors as well. I doubt our neighbors understand why when the church is closed we don’t clean our sidewalks. I don’t understand that myself.
When I came to church at 10:15am today the sidewalk at the side entrance had not been touched. This is the accessible entrance for many of us who come to class on the bus or walk. So the snow was not in fact “removed early this morning” at that entrance.
I walked around the church this afternoon and the sidewalks on two streets, tho they were shoveled in the morning, were far from safe – the salt made them slushy and slippery. Did you take a walk around yourself?
The City of Chicago says: “Many people rely on walking and transit as their primary way to get around, and without a wide, clear path through snow and ice, it is especially difficult for people with disabilities, seniors, and children to walk safely.”
According to the Municipal Code of Chicago property owners and occupants are responsible for keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice. Can we not, as a church, not only adhere to city ordinances, but be actively compassionate when it comes to our friends and neighbors especially “people with disabilities, seniors and children”?
From: Xxxxx Xxxxxxx
To: Regan Burke
Yes, I did walk the perimeter of the building early today. I don’t agree with your assessment at all.
As my note below says, we’ll continue to attend to snow removal diligently and thoroughly — as always.
We don’t drink gin in the winter, she said when I came home drunk. As if I knew this. As if there was a difference in what I drank when I was just fooling around with my friends, just having fun, just looking at Jim and just trying to feel something I read about in the book in the drugstore.
The northeast winter had its grey, bone-chill beer, scotch and wine. But why no gin? When I said this later he said you’re so white.
And it took a lot of gin in the winter for me to finally get it.
I floated out of Northwestern Medicine’s Echo Lab, Stress Bay 3, onto the evening sidewalk four days before Christmas. All Chicago was scampering out of work, race-walking to the bus, flocking into Gino’s East and hurrying over to Michigan Avenue for holiday bargains.
Months earlier I’d run out of breath one block into my morning walk. My mind decided since I’d been overweight my entire adult life at seventy-one years old I probably had a deadly heart problem. The doctor ordered a stress test. Before I made the appointment I tried to heal myself with a no-salt, no-sugar, no-carb diet. The condition persisted. Then I thought God might heal me—if only I could remember to ask Him once in a while. In Stress Bay 3, injections shot my heart rate sky high, my breathing stretched to its outer limits, then it all parachuted back down. The whole test took ten minutes. I figured if I didn’t have a heart attack after that, God had absolved me of my lifelong mashed potatoes intake.
Flying high down Superior Street toward the twinkling Magnificent Mile, I came upon a two-foot long sprig of red eucalyptus looking up from the sidewalk.
“Hmm, this would be good to put in the vase I just bought for Bill.” I scooped up the sprig and poked it down through the tissue paper in my Crate and Barrel shopping bag. Rounding the corner at Nieman Marcus I spotted more red eucalyptus sticking out of the cement urns in front of the store.
“Oh, good, I’ll just lift another bunch.”
And there it was. Ancestral habits. Within a block I’d turned from a scavenger to a thief.
Ripping down the street toward the Water Tower it occurred to me there may be some more items for Bill’s vase outside the stores on Rush Street. I found perfect branches of red plastic berries in the four planters on Quigley Seminary’s sidewalk. I took one from each pot. Lovely.
As I came up to Oak and Rush, I stopped myself from stealing birch branches from Barney’s pots because Oak Street Bank across the street recorded activity outside. I’ve binged on enough English crime shows on Netflix to know I didn’t want to get caught on the bank’s video.
And so within five blocks of finding out my heart is not going to kill me anytime soon, I became an all-out criminal.
The next day at coffee, I spilled the beans to a normal friend. He diminished the crime saying they throw all those decorations away after Christmas anyway—trying to let me off the hook or perhaps saving himself from admitting his friend is a thief. I shared my thievery at a 12-step meeting. We all laughed as we often do whenever someone is vulnerable enough about their character flaws to tell on themselves—no letting me off the hook in that room, where God allows for admitted imperfections.