The Women in My Family

My cousin, Therese, called me in Chicago to say my mother, Agnes, was in the hospital in New Jersey.

“You’d better come,” she said, lovingly snatching the decision right out of my hands.

On the way down the Garden State Parkway from Newark Airport Therese gave me the lowdown. All my mother’s organs collapsed at the same time and she keeled over. Emergency workers attached her to a ventilator at the nursing home and took her to the hospital. She was brain dead.

Life support. Two words that say someone must make a decision about life and death.

'We can't pull the plug until the paperwork is finished.'None of my three sisters called to inform me about Agnes. I don’t know if I spoke to them as I made arrangements to fly to New Jersey. They all lived on the east coast: Maere in New Jersey, Gael in Connecticut and Stacy in Vermont. Cousin Therese had called Stacy who remained in place, waiting to hear.

Agnes looked surprisingly peaceful, considering she’d lived her last five years in dementia and the previous fifty-five years in an alcoholic haze. I picked up her hand and noticed her freshly painted nails. Therese answered the question on my brow.

“I took her for a manicure three days ago,” she said.

My mother’s chest rose and fell as the ventilator pumped oxygen into her body. The nurse looked in and said, “You can talk to her. She can hear you.” She can? That made no sense. She hardly heard me with a live brain and certainly wouldn’t have wanted me to talk to her dead brain. Don’t be an ass, I could hear her say.

But, just in case, I whispered, “It’s Regan. I’m here.”

Therese left to care for her own family, and I waited alone for the doctor. He gave me the medical information—alcoholic brain syndrome—and said the hospital would require signatures from all four sisters to turn off the ventilator.

I called Stacy and Gael to make arrangements for them to fax their signatures. Maere, who lived nearby, said she’d come to the hospital. By the end of day she hadn’t shown and I couldn’t reach her.

I overnighted with Therese and spent the next two days at the hospital trying to contact Maere. Finally I told the doctor she was unreachable.

“We’ll have to proceed without her,” I said.

His measured response said Maere had been pleading with him every night on the phone to keep her mother alive and that she was sure my other sisters would want that as well. That threw the disposition of my mother in contention. So now the hospital required all the sisters to be present to sign, witnessed by a hospital employee.

They all came, each with different emotions.

Gael was angry that Agnes had disrupted her life. Stacy was happy to help but had to rush back to Vermont. Maere scowled at me. At the funeral, an old bartender friend confided that Maere sat at his bar those days before Agnes died, crying,“my sister’s trying to kill my mother.”

When the nurse turned off her artificial life, something tickled my spirit.

Agnes. She heard my whisper.

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Lori Lightfoot Everywhere

Lori Lightfoot Everywhere

Small souvenir dishes clutter the top of the old painted dresser next to my bed, overflowing with hair clips, earrings and obsolete campaign buttons. “Lori Lightfoot for Mayor” buttons spill out of their dish and take on a life of their own. The badges slip between pages of books, stick onto errant scarves and slide into the sock drawer. When they’re discovered I exclaim almost out loud, “what the heck…?”

When Chicago’s 2019 mayoral campaign heated up in the fall of 2018, I grabbed a half a bag of buttons from the Lightfoot campaign. A few times every day someone noticed the Lightfoot badge on my coat, and said something like, “I like Lori.” I’d then unhook my button and hand it to them. I carried extras. Whenever I slipped my hand into my pocket or dug to the bottom of my purse, I pricked my finger on one of the pins.

A month before the end of the campaign, I volunteered in the Lightfoot office making calls to arrange details for her appearances. I’ve worked in campaigns for fifty-five years and no matter how popular my candidate was, scheduling an appearance at an event

was always like pulling teeth. With Lori, as soon as I announced why I was calling, the person at the other end fell all over themselves to accommodate her. I returned a call to a business-oriented non-profit group who wanted Lori to meet their Board.

“How many Board members will be there,” I asked.

“The whole board,” he said. “About seventy.”

“Is this a regular Board meeting?”

“Oh, no. We’re pulling it together just to meet her.”

Right then, I knew she’d win.

The Lightfoot office was full of young workers with names I’d never heard before. Some were experienced, most not, but they had everything under control. After a few days, I left the office with another bag of buttons. I’d be more useful walking around handing them out to anyone who expressed interest.

One day I ran into a machine politician who asked if I was helping Lightfoot.

“They don’t know what they’re doing over there. I can’t get anyone to return my calls.”

Of course they did know what they were doing. Lori Lightfoot ran an outsider campaign, untethered to old-time Chicago politics. The staff wouldn’t know—or care to know—political operatives tied to the old Democratic machine.

On the way home from a mayoral forum one evening, I hopped on the 151 bus. A young man dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie sat next to me. I recognized the uniform.

“Are you on your mission?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m a member of the Mormon Church. Do you know about the Prophets?”

I said I knew a little about them.

“Most people say Jesus will come again when all the world is wicked. But I believe Jesus will come when the righteous become valiant.”

And then he got off the bus.

Hm. Yes, that’s how I’d describe Lori Lightfoot: righteous and valiant. Maybe I should start looking for Jesus.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Returning home from work one evening I found my houseguest, Jim, wearing my almond-colored wool cardigan. I had fallen for the horn buttons on the shawl-collared sweater at the Saks Fifth Avenue sales rack a few months before. Jim was on the small side, and in those days I was large but not yet extra large. It fit him. He was out of work, out of money and out of luck.

Jim had been caught in a leather bar in the one of the last police raids of its kind in Chicago. News outlets had stopped publishing names of raid victims in the mid-seventies. But in 1983 some obtuse Sun-Times reporter or editor or publisher had decided to let one last story rip through the city to sell a few more papers, and, in turn, destroying the lives of the closeted men.

The day the story broke Jim called to say he’d been fired from his job. I left work and hurried to his apartment. He put the paper in my hands, folded to the story. I questioned why he was in that bar. 

“Regan, I’m a homosexual.”

We had been inseparable friends. I had no clue, no suspicions, no wonderings. And there I was, feeling my deepest sympathy for my best friend, yet unable to conceal my shock. I had no words of comfort. I didn’t know how to be the same friend I was the second before he told me.

The oversized couch in my second-floor one-bedroom apartment was the perfect landing for my old friend. When he lost his apartment, there was no question that he’d stay with me until he could get his life back on track. The problem is that I couldn’t keep our friendship on track. At first I welcomed his coming out. Giving free voice to his homosexuality put him on a pink cloud of joy. 

I always thought he’d been too traumatized by his marriage and divorce to date other women. Now he was suddenly talking about dating men. He was so happy in his new freedom to tell me the details. I feigned interest, but after a while I couldn’t stand listening. I resented the sweater-wearing incident but brushed it off. A few days later I came home to Jim wearing one of my dresses.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to start wearing my clothes?”

I did mind.

My dear funny sophisticated friend had transmuted into his true self. I had no room in my experience for this new kind of man and hated my own callousness. The next day I returned home and Jim was gone. He took a room in the Chicago Avenue YMCA but would not return my calls. Then he disappeared. I searched for him for almost ten years. His family eventually reported he was living in Washington. When he finally called I flew to him. AIDS had ravaged his body. I made amends without reliving our past.

We watched the first days of the Clinton Administration during Jim’s last days in the VA hospital where he died.

Jim wasn’t the first, nor the last, to come out to me, just the biggest surprise. He had been in the Army and Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the ban on gays in the military gave him reason to contact me at the last. He wanted to celebrate what he thought was the beginning of the end of discrimination against him. 

Jim died before Congress betrayed him by enacting legislation to keep the gay ban policy in place. In the end Clinton was forced to compromise with Congress and directed the Pentagon to “don’t ask” military applicants about their sexual orientation, and for those in the military, “don’t tell” you are gay. Forcing homosexuals into their military closets was infuriating. In 1993 it seemed we had come so far. But I understood. It was my same sentiment when Jim came out to me ten years earlier: it was ok to be a homosexual, just don’t talk about it. 

Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was finally repealed in 2011. In 2019 Chicago overwhelmingly elected a mayor who is married to her wife. And a man announced his candidacy for the President of the United States with his husband by his side. 

I march with Jim in love and spirit in saluting these and other saints who refuse to allow themselves to be excluded from American life.

Screwed by Gary Hart

Screwed by Gary Hart

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I responded to a reporter about presidential candidate Gary Hart.

I was in Denver working on Hart’s campaign in May 1987 when The Miami Herald front-paged a photo of Hart in Bimini aboard the sailboat, Monkey Business, with a blonde beauty on his lap. Hart tried to conduct a normal campaign, but after a week of hounding from the media for answers to questions about his extramarital affairs, he dropped out of his race for President.

When the Hart campaign folded, I dispirited myself away to Indianapolis to manage an unpromising U.S. Senate campaign. I should have gone home to Chicago to look for a job there instead.

Six months later, Gary Hart changed his mind and started working his way back into the race. The day before Thanksgiving I was contacted by a reporter from the Gary Post-Tribune for a comment about the rumor that Hart was getting back in. My friend, Roger Ebert, a newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, always cautioned me in my political work to never talk to the press.

“You’ll just screw yourself,” he said. “They’re out to trip you up.” 

Roger’s advice?  Say, “No comment.”

I heeded his advice religiously until this particular reporter caught me off guard. I picked up the phone on my way out the door to Roger’s vacation house in Michigan. I’d been invited to Roger’s legendary Thanksgiving party in 1987 and was looking forward to a weekend of great food, real characters and loads of laughs. I never gave the reporter’s call another thought.

Roger Ebert loved people. He bought successively bigger houses in Michigan to accommodate weekend guests. During those weekends we’d take caravan excursions to the used book store in Niles and to art and antique stores in Lakeside. At home we played poker and watched movies. In his well-stocked kitchen everyone chipped in to make big family style meals. Roger told the same funny stories over and over. I was his biggest audience and his biggest target. He teased me relentlessly about all my losing campaigns.

“If you wanna place winning bets on who’s gonna lose, find out who Regan’s working for,” he’d say to any gathering.

On that Saturday Roger returned from the store in New Buffalo with the Sunday papers, bagels and cream cheese. Someone brewed up a pot of coffee and the weekenders gathered at the big old dining room table. All of a sudden Roger screamed that I was onth-6 the front page of the Gary Post-Tribune. When he read the quote aloud, he laughed so hard he could hardly spit it out.

“It’s his (Hart’s) swan song. This is like a lover who woos you, then dumps you, then comes back, asks forgiveness, woos you again and dumps you again. I’m not falling for it.” Said I.

I never lived it down. For the rest of the day, all the next day and nearly every time I saw Roger for years afterwards he recited my quote.

Gary Hart did get back in the race. And I did help him get on the ballot in Illinois. He got four per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, then dropped out again.

My candidate in Indiana lost.

But I gave Roger one big priceless punch line.

——————————

R.I.P. Roger. We miss you.

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

On the afternoon of November 23, 1963, I walked through my empty high school cafeteria to pick up the receiver hanging from the pay phone in the corner. As I said hello, I noticed the cooks in the back of the kitchen huddled around a radio. My mother, Agnes, was on the line.

“Are you all right?”

When I was fourteen-years old, I had immersed myself in the 1960 presidential race. Agnes hardly listened to me when I talked to her about it (what adult listens to a fourteen-year-old) but when it came time to vote, she asked me what to do. She didn’t want to vote for a Catholic. Now she had to report that my hero, President John F. Kennedy, had been shot. She was visiting a friend and suggested I catch the bus from Williamsburg to Washington to join them. I was under no one’s legal custody but my father had given the boarding school nuns orders prohibiting me from seeing my mother. I frantically called my father and asked if he’d sign off on letting me go to her. He said no.

I slinked over to sit with the downtrodden cooks listening for any morsel of hope. There was none. We lamented together—me and the Black kitchen workers in southern Virginia, slave descendants, whose hope for civil rights laid in the Kennedy White House. My sorrow could never touch the depth of theirs. They comforted me, as if my heritage had also been clouded by the despair of violence. They made me theirs. I was in the company of saints.th-8

The nuns had us boarding students go to chapel throughout the weekend then allowed us to fill our other hours watching TV. The next week I visited my father for Thanksgiving. While he and I were sifting through the magazine rack in People’s Drug Store at DuPont Circle, the store radio blurted out President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that Florida’s Cape Canaveral would now be known as Cape Kennedy (ten years later Floridians changed it back). 

“Hear that? Never forget where you were when you heard that,” he said.

Washington sputtered that weekend in the aftermath of the assassination—no one moved except the crowds advancing to JFK’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. 

At eighteen and without a driver’s license I capitalized on my father’s somber distraction to hone my driving skills with his car, visiting school friends who were home for the holiday. Everyone was glued to their TVs, trying to settle their own emotions. So I, having red-lighted my feelings, spent time alone learning to navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the notoriously confusing Pierre L’Enfant circles, Key Bridge, Pennsylvania Avenue and the cobbled streets of Georgetown. I stayed in the Northwest part of the city sensing something sinister about Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast Washington.

I cruised by the home I’d occupied with my parents and two sisters a dozen years before, wondering what happened to our family. I had no idea what alcoholism was nor did I realize I was living in the consequences of that untreated disease.

Schoolyard christs

Schoolyard christs

 

I can’t remember which grade school.

The girls double dutched on the noon

Ignoring my new-girlness.

Pulled me to them. Here! Like this!

Grab the ends and swing in time.

Each hand holding a dirty ol’ clothesline

Syncopating with the girl at the other end

While one of ‘em waited for the perfect time

To lift up and jump into the bend. 

Then Now! my turn to switch my place

Lift up and jump to the slap slap slap

My keds catch, the old rope wraps

And all the girls laugh with grace

For me who doesn’t deserve it

The new girl who hasn’t earned it

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

On November 8, 2016, I settled into an election night victory party in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The first bit of bad news came over the TV early: Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Evan Bayh lost. Wizened political operative Keith Lesnick flashed a guttural look, “That’s bad.” 

Fourteen hours later, fellow campaign volunteer Susan Keegan and I drove home to Chicago. We had no victory, no trophy, no good news. What we did have was despair, hopelessness.

Years before, in April 1992, I returned from a grueling 90-hours a week job in the Bill Clinton primary campaign. A psychiatrist treated me as if I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Within a few weeks, Hillary Clinton came to Chicago to speak at a women’s forum. I stood alone in the back of the room, away from the crowd. Someone came to me and said Hillary wanted to see me backstage. She greeted me with a teary hug, said she was sorry I left the campaign, asked if I would consider working at the Democratic Convention in August. I told her I was too tired, that I wouldn’t survive. She understood, thanked me for all I did to get the campaign off the ground and assured me her door was always open. We parted as friends, equals really. When I later worked in the Clinton Administration, I saw her many times. My admiration for her superior intellect increased, always undergirded by her unscripted and genuine kindness toward me. 

I felt a thousand little cuts during the 2016 campaign, watching her withstand the cruelest name-calling and ugly attacks not only by her opponent but by my own friends. For months after the election I felt like she died, like I died, like the country died.

At the end of that bleak November, I looked out over out my MacBook Air, watched three crows bounce from bare tree limbs to the ground and back—caw, caw, cawing at each other about their Thanksgiving dinner. I believed they knew me, saw me looking at them. They restored me, enlarged my soul, allowed gratitude to seep in, grateful for them if nothing else. I wondered for the millionth time since election day what Hillary was doing.

All of a sudden, something popped up in the corner of my screen: “White House forced to reverse course on Trump’s golfing.” I instantly broke off communing with my wild pets and opened the link to this urgent story. I don’t dislike golf, but I’m not interested either.  th-3  th-4Unknownmsnbc-logo_0  However, I had involuntarily begun to relinquish my time to so-called breaking news. I clicked. The next thing I knew a little box appeared with a photo of a pair of shoes I coveted. Hmmm, I wondered if those were on sale. I clicked. As I lifted out of my chair to take a break, I saw two pop-ups I had to read first:  “Is a ‘deep state’ subverting the presidency?” and “Bald Eagle Population Booming In Chicago.”  

It’s two years later and this compulsion, this savage addiction is my sentence for seizing the fantasy that something is going to happen to reverse the outcome of the election.

Any day now.