Vampire Portrait

Vampire Portrait

The portrait represented my not-surprisingly-sad six-year-old self. People told me as far back as I can remember that I looked sad. Some would even ask why I looked so sad. How does a small child answer such a question?

The oil painting, a three-by-four foot gothic with a gilded oil-rubbed frame looked like an antique. I have a vague recollection of my mother taking my two sisters and I to the artist’s home in Washington, DC, where we had moved for a few years after World War II. We all sat for separate portraits. Mine was the only one the artist completed before my father ran out of money. The artist gave them all to my mother nonetheless and it was one more reason for me to feel superior to my two sisters – my portrait was the best.

I was painted from the waist up seated in a mahogany armchair. Dressed in black velvet with a rounded white lace collar, I held a doll similar to the one my father gave me when I had to stay home from school with the mumps. He bought her in the gift shop of the hotel where we lived when we were evicted from our home. The painting’s forest green background mimicked the dark green velvet of the doll’s coat.

Our family moved around the Midwest for many years before my mother left my father in 1960 – Terre Haute and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Clayton, Chicago and Lake Forest. Those childhood portraits made it through all the evictions, storages and moving vans until I finally got married and my mother gave me my portrait. I hauled it through my own two marriages, divorces and geography. Wherever I hung it, someone inevitably asked who was that sad little girl. I once wanted to rid myself of it when a friend said, “It’s your heirloom.” And so I brought it to a new home in Chicago, where I returned after a stint in Washington, DC during the Bill Clinton years.

My home of 15 years is the first condominium where I’ve had a storage locker. I don’t have a lot of storage items. I figure if you can’t wear it, sit on it, or hang it on the wall, there’s no point in keeping it. For a few years my sad childhood likeness laid in darkness in the basement next to some pictures of my grandchildren and a large suitcase.

Then one day, I needed the suitcase for a two-week trip to San Sebastian, Spain with my California friend Cappi Quigley. I thought I’d bring the portrait upstairs while retrieving the luggage. I couldn’t find the keys to the locker’s padlock so I asked Marcel the building engineer to meet me in the lobby with a bolt cutter. We descended to the basement where Marcel unlocked the steel door to Locker Room B. We located the locker assigned to my condo unit.

The padlock was gone and so were all the contents of the locker.

My Secret Years

My Secret Years

The Secret Years by Regan Burke

It’s been 40 years since I left the marriage. I had been sober for almost a year, he for three. We met in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was a hippie and he had been in the Army during the Korean War. We told ourselves we’d bridge our generational, cultural and intellectual divide with love. I brought my delightful six-year-old son, Joe, into the marriage.

A small group of spiritual seekers in AA brought us to a cozy bible study that recruited
prospective believers to a Sunday service replete with emotional, old-fashioned hymns. I made deep friendships there. Kind and accepting fellowship was new to me. I’d grown up thinking sarcastic banter and raging all-night arguments with ever-present booze qualified as chit-chat. My addiction got off to an early start as the legal drinking age was not adhered to in my family.

When I got sober, I hungered for a new family with a clear consistent recipe for living. I easily succumbed to the succor of an evangelical Christian cult. This authoritarian, bible-thumping church required women to submit to their husbands – even when the husbands battered the wives. I returned every time to a husband who tried to smack me into the kind of wife he saw in his neighborhood growing up. I craved God’s love through the approval of the church elders but I had a wild, willful, rule-breaking past that was hard to tame, no matter how hard my husband tried. To this day, the congenial backslapping that people use to emphasize the punchline of their stories, can trigger in me a subconscious fight-or-flight response.

th-1The day of the fight, I raged around the house rattling anything in my path when I discovered the husband had walked out with our joint checkbook. He was going to drain the account. I climbed into my 1963 Volkswagen bus and headed to the bank. There he was in the strip mall parking lot slinking into his 1970 Ford Mustang. I floored my van and slammed right into the back of his Mustang. He tore out down the two-lane highway. I pursued him, crashing into him every time he slowed down.

Eventually I was able to get up enough steam to bulldoze him off the road and cram him into a tree. The impact forced all the doors in the van to fly open, but otherwise there wasth-2 no damage to me or my vehicle. I turned around and drove the speed limit home, parked my van, went inside and fell into bed, believing I had killed him. I slipped into a deep sleep relieved from the cares of all the world.

I was awakened by two elders from the church. The husband escaped unharmed.They had spoken to the police, vouched for my good character and vowed to admit me to a mental institution immediately. No charges were filed. I spent three months in the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, NJ. My son Joe stayed with a church family. The marriage lasted another two years.

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung
A crow caws in the gingko tree on the corner. The rising sun shines through the outdoor tree branches. Their shadows dapple my bedroom walls.

I wake early to catch the glory of each day’s wall art, to meditate with the trees in their seasons. Outside, Ozzy the dog and I stop long enough under the gingko tree to allow its fanning leaves to breathe a fresh day into our early morning walk.

th-1My favorite place is anywhere there are trees.

I love them for all the usual reasons: pretty, green, shade. The deciding factor on my condo purchase 15 years ago was the swaying branches outside the wall-to-wall windows. My home is on the 3rd floor of a 20-story high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. When I first saw the place, the three ash trees in the parkway had reached a height equal to the 4th floor.

It was like living in a treehouse.th-3

Last year the City of Chicago’s Forestry crews euthanized my treehouse. The ashes were slowly killing themselves by feeding Emerald Ash Borers, those exotic hungry beetles from Asia. I mourn my ash trees. I thought they were immortal.

My mother, Agnes, taught me the pragmatism of trees. Stacy was born 11 years after me, and Agnes insisted I walk my baby sister around on sunny days. Her constant reminder stays with me, “Be sure you stop under the trees so the baby can see the shadows swaying.”

“Women should always have babies in the beginning of summer,” Agnes often said, “in case they are colicky, they will be soothed by leaves swaying in the trees.” She muttered “idiot” under her breath anytime another mother announced the birth of a baby in any month other than early summer.

And indeed, three of her four babies were born in May, June and July. She pretended she planned it that way.

My one and only baby, Joe, was born in May. His 1st summer was spent on his back under the trees outside in a baby carriage. Inside, he spent his time in a crib under a window of trees, syncopating his first gurgles with the sound of leaves rubbing together in the breeze.

Agnes was right about nature’s tranquilizer for infants, but she never claimed it worked for adults. She wouldn’t have been caught dead contributing such unsophisticated, sappy remedies to adult conversations. Her tranquilizers were beer and scotch and later, valium. She spent some of the last years of her life demented from these potions and gazing at the trees in verdant Vermont.604909-44011-10

Trees soothe me anywhere, in any season. Joe absorbs tree balm while minding his wooded property. Carl Jung tells us Agnes simply passed on the inheritance – the collective unconscious of Irish tree worship that supposes tree fairies live in high branches watching over us. My mother’s life was rooted in addiction that mimicked a life-sucking aphid. Yet, she uttered words that gave me and my son our love for trees, a priceless, ancient, tranquilizing inheritance.

IN MY MIND AT THE VIAGRA TRIANGLE BY REGAN BURKE

IN MY MIND AT THE VIAGRA TRIANGLE BY REGAN BURKE

They call it Viagra Triangle because old men gather on benches lining the sidewalks to ogle young women. It’s Mariano Park, at the confluence of State and Rush Streets in Chicago. The shaded, pie-shape park is surrounded by a hotel, a 57-story condominium and successful late-night restaurants.

I sit near the 100-year-old fountain with my Scottish Terrier, Ozzy. A young couple at a table next to me punch away on their cell phones. He’s dread-locked wearing jeans and a factory-faded t-shirt. She’s sandaled in a dated, longer-in-the-back orange dress; over-dyed black hair, sunglasses.

“Look! stock market’s up,” she says. “Dude, I should’ve bought that when you told me. 1237041_439591126154325_771983775_nWhat’s this? We never ordered a CT scan.”

She opens her laptop. “Look at this. It’s right there. How did they miss that in radiology?” Returning to her phone, she reads, “Dan says, ‘I remember now. I saw that on the X-ray and asked for a CT.’ That radiologist is a dumbass. He’s gonna be in big trouble.”

He nods. “Remember? We asked the patient about this?”

I wonder if they work at nearby Northwestern Hospital and if I know the poor patient.

An oversized white truck turns the corner at Rush and Bellevue. Big black letters on the side say, “We Buy Houses. Cash. Call 847… “. Do they mean they buy the contents of the houses and haul them away in that truck?

14903_701500873252390_6713285813608226359_nHere comes a German Shepherd tethered to a small athletic woman. Great. I’ll have to hold Ozzy tight. I wish he’d stop trying to defend me from big dogs.

“Is your dog friendly?” she asks with her gentle giant sniffing around.

“Sometimes,” I say. Ozzy growls and tries to wriggle to the ground. “Yours?”

“Oh yes. We got him for protection but he doesn’t even bark.”

“Protection from what?”

“Oh you know, intruders.”

Intruders? I don’t ask. I wonder if it’s experience or paranoia that motivates her. Ozzy springs off my lap and gets a sniff of the German before shifting his attention to an encroaching pigeon. I slacken the leash. Ozzy lunges. The pigeon flutters up and the German Shepherd crouches in fear. Jeez. They must have moved in from the suburbs.

Two young women in high heels and sleeveless, skin-tight dresses approach carrying Starbucks cups. They sit; the blonde crosses her long, bare legs sideways and leans back in the chair. They light up. An old man chomping on a cigar shouts from a nearby bench. “YOU CAN’T SMOKE HERE.”

“Oh yeah?” says the blonde, “What about you?”

“Mine’s not lit,” he says.

“Mind your own business,” she says.

“It is my business. YOU CAN’T SMOKE HERE.”

“Where’s the sign?” she says.

The brunette changes the subject. “When’s the new coffee shop opening?”

“Oh that,” he says. “Who knows? Fourth of July maybe. It’s pathetic. They’re turning the park into a yuppy Gold Coast hang-out.”

“I’m glad they’re cleaning the place up,” she says.

“Don’t leave your butts on the ground,” he says.

IN ANOTHER MIND AT THE VIAGRA TRIANGLE

The news isn’t so bad – just a little emphysema. Not bad for 75 years of hard living. “Okay, okay,” I told the doc. “I’ll stop smoking cigars.” Two hours and I’m finally outta there. It’s still nice out. I think I’ll walk over to the park and rest in the shade for a while.

Oh now look what’s happened. Why didn’t they start fixing up the coffee stand sooner. Now everyone is sitting outside with a mound of old green tarp spoiling the view. They never do anything right around here.

At least the benches are out. It looks like they got new tables and chairs. Humph. Not enough of them. What are those things over by the fountain, Adirondack chairs? In the middle of the city? Man, are they out of place. These people don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

I’m glad Ruth didn’t live to see this. She’d hate her favorite little park getting all gentrified. We used to sit right over there on Friday nights with the Bellevue neighbors. We laughed at everyone’s stories from their week at work and mulled over who was going where over the weekend. Everyone relied on Ruth to bring the newspaper’s list of events. And she was the one who spotted famous people walking by. God, I remember the night she eyed Reggie Jackson strolling around Rush Street with a big white girl on his arm. That must have been the summer of 1980 when the Yankees were here playing the White Sox. Ruth really loved the Sox.

This bench is new. Comfortable though. I’m going to chew on my cigar for a while. No, doc, I’m not going to light it. I just like the feel of it in the corner of my mouth. Yeah, it gets a little soggy and the juice from the tobacco seeps between my teeth back to my throat. But this can’t hurt anything. It’s the smoking, right? The damage to the lungs. Emphysema. I wonder if that’s as bad as lung cancer. Naw. The doc never said I’d die from emphysema. Anyway, I’m not lighting up.

Look at these two babes. What’s with those shoes? How can they walk on this old brick sidewalk in high heels? Ruth used to wear high heels. She gave them to the Salvation Army
when her arthritis got bad. I wonder if anyone ever bought them? She had great legs.

Oh shit, they’re sitting right in front of me and lighting up. I can’t stand it. I’m dying to light my cigar. Their smoke is too much. “Hey, you can’t smoke here!”

1005890_10151648151400606_1631618218_n“Oh yeah?” says the blonde, “What about you?”

“Mine’s not lit.”

“Mind your own business,” she says.

“It is my business. YOU CAN’T SMOKE HERE.”

“Where’s the sign?” she says.

The brunette wants to know when the new coffee shop is opening.

“That yuppie joint? Who knows? Fourth of July maybe. It’s pathetic. They should’ve done it before it got nice out.”

“I’m glad they’re cleaning the place up,” she says.

“Yeah. Hey, can I have a light?”

 

Gastronomical Paradise, Almost, in Dali’s Spain

Gastronomical Paradise, Almost, in Dali’s Spain

by Regan Burke

As we reached for the Iberian cured ham and tomato bread, we jerked back in our seats when someone shouted “call an ambulance!” Our boss had an asthma attack and we followed him to the Figueres hospital. The restaurant, El Motel, 90 miles north of Barcelona and 40 miles south of the French border inspired the most famous chef in the world, Ferran Adrià to create his restaurant, El Bulli in nearby Cadaques on the Mediterranean Sea.

In the weeks before, my three colleagues and I traveled from our office at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on official business to Barcelona, we vowed to eat at the celebrated El Motel restaurant. I arrived a week before Secretary Richard Riley and his staff to arrange the logistics for the conference events and to find a typical Catalan school for the Secretary to tour. Serendipitously, a principal formally invited the U.S. Secretary of Education to visit her school in the dusty country between Barcelona and Figueres. The children celebrated him with an American musical performance that added hours to our day. With official business out of the way, we headed for the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. My colleagues, John Funderburk, Jay Blanchard and David Frank stewed in anticipation of lunch at the table of chef Jaume Subiros.

Dali said of his museum, “The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” At first glance his entrance looks like a quaint three-story red th-4clay castle. Looking atop the turret one sees huge cement eggs. The exterior walls are peppered with what foreigners think are baked dinner rolls, but Catalonians know the scatological Dali created the organic sculptures to resemble excrement pies. The aphrodisiacs inside include Dali’s surrealistic art, holograms, a vintage interthactive Cadillac and his crypt. We frittered away longer than planned and in the end found Secretary Riley and his wife, “Tunky”, resting in the Mae West living room.

Drenched in Dali elixir and blanched by a long day in Catalonia without sustenance we made our way north on the Avenida de Salvador Dali away from the “theatrical dream” and toward the gastronomical paradise of El Motel. The U.S. consulate in Barcelona booked our table and we were greeted with all the ruffles and flourishes of royalty. Low blood sugar and parched228566_1 thirst dragged us to a round table full of tea roses and peonies overlooking the dry Spanish countryside. Yes, yes! We agreed to start with plates of Iberian ham. The shared plates would dish up seafood croquettes; rice with sea cucumbers, rabbit and sausage; clams with candied tomato & lemon grass. The chef had prepared fresh Catalan custard for dessert.

As the Iberian ham was placed before me I looked up in horror to see Secretary Riley turning beet red, struggling to breathe. He recovered overnight in the Figueres hospital. In our Barcelona hotel the following day we were comforted with simple ham and cheese sandwiches before leaving for the airport.

The Ubiquitous Iron

The Ubiquitous Iron

 

Regan Burke, May 2016

When Joe was born, my mother arrived with an iron and ironing board so I could iron the baby’s clothes. My mother, Agnes, went to church at the ironing board. It relieved her hangovers, and calmed her nerves. In every house we moved into she found a sanctuary for ironing – a laundry room, spare bedroom, basement.

No, Agnes did not iron for a household of four children, did not present us with ironed sheets and pillowcases or freshly pressed school uniforms. Her ironing was reserved for her alone. She laid out her oxford cloth shirts or linen dresses on the ironing board, placed a dampened dish towel over the garment and pressed down with a hot iron until steam th-3rose up, then moved to another spot, re-dampening the towel when it dried out. Her eyes winced at the uprising of clean hot steam. The acrid smell of damp cotton or wool down below flared her nostrils. As she conquered the wrinkles at hand her furrowed malcontented brow smoothed out. Agnes’ younger sister, Joanne, after a few bourbons always eulogized her with, “Your mother loved to iron.”

Forty-nine years later I still have the iron Agnes gave me. It has a hole in the top for water which is converted to steam in the hot iron and whooshes out of the 39 holes on the sole. The sole is stained from undistilled water and from those years when I fell for the convenience of spray starch. Numerous falls off the ironing board onto a hard floor have blunted the tip. The faded red, white and blue settings sit atop a dulled black heavy plastic handle which is wrapped with a discolored turquoise electric cord. I can still see myself in the mirror-like shine of the chrome sides. And it still works.

I should have discarded it long ago. I’ve packed it up and moved it from every place I’ve lived since 1967 always keeping it in the corner of the closet shelf over my clothes. I’ve tried to replace it with new irons, but they last only a few years and I go right back to the trustworthy General Electric 39-holer.

Wrinkle-free fabrics have made Ironing unnecessary now. Lower-end baby boomers and their offspring don’t even know how to iron. When it became fashionable or rather acceptable to wear wrinkled linen in the 1990’s I chucked the old ironing board. Something stopped me from discarding my vintage iron, however. I still use it to press scarves on a folded towel laid out on the dining room table.

At craft fairs I see old irons decorated with decoupage and sequins transforming them into doorstops and  bookends. Maybe I’ll spray paint my iron anniversary gold and give it to my son on his birthday next year. I’ll paint words on the bottom: Happy 50th Birthday To Us. Will he wonder why I kept the iron my mother gave me all these years? I certainly do.

“Get Off the Bus” by Annette Bacon

“Get Off the Bus”  by Annette Bacon

Get Off the Bus

th-1I made the 146 bus after a quick run and put my Ventra card on the reader. It did not beep so I tried it several times. The driver said that I had an 85 cents negative balance. I apologized and said that I only had a ten and a twenty. She said I needed to get off the bus. I started to leave and this guy shouted, “Don’t, you do not have to get off the bus. I am calling the CTA.” “She can’t throw an elderly person off the bus due to lack of funds.” People were staring at us and I decided to get off. I ran across the street to my garage and took some quarters out of my car. I ran back to the bus stop as the other 146 bus had arrived. I put the quarters in the money holder. I looked up and saw the people from the first bus getting on. The bus driver said, “What’s happening?” “Thth-3e bus behind me is empty.”

The same guy that was yelling on the other bus said, “I’ll tell you what happened, the other bus driver threw this elderly woman off the bus and that is against the law, so I called the CTA. And there she is!” He was pointing right at me. I cringed again and tried to pretend I was reading. The same guy called a friend and said the whole story again so loud I could hardly stand it. He ended the phone call with,“And I told the CTA I want this bus driver relieved of her duties. She did not have her badge on either!” I panicked. Someone was getting fired due to me? The woman was probably a single mom with four kids. When we arrived at my stop on Michigan Avenue, I jumped off and ran into the Fourth Presbyterian Church sanctuary. I said a prayer for this woman and asked God not to let her get fired.

As I went up the stairs of the church, I could feel my blood pressure was up and I felt like I was flying. On the second floor I walked into Buchanan Chapel and tried to calm myself. I couldn’t decide if I should call the CTA and identify myself as the “elderly woman”. Then I could ask them not to fire her. The system was so huge I knew this would not make sense. They would think I was deranged. Meditation was the answer. Afterwards I took my “elderly woman” body up the elevator to my memoir writing class at the church’s Center for Life and Learning.