First Grade Gun

First Grade Gun

Tyrone bragged that his friend brought a gun to school. In the six months I’d known him he’d told me a few tales, like he and his little brother went to Winter Wonderland at Navy Pier. He didn’t have a little brother, but I often held my confrontational tongue with him in an effort to give him space to be himself. I thought if I earned his trust, eventually he’d stop trying to beguile me with fanciful stories.

He was my seven year-old charge in a weekly volunteer tutoring program. During our first getting-to-know-you session we followed a Q & A script developed by the program administrators. We both had dogs. He had a baby sister. I had grandchildren. He went to a school on Chicago’s west side. I was not sure who mothered him. He mentioned an aunt and a grandmother. He proudly mentioned his father. He wasn’t explicit, and looked away in silence when I pressed for details, what does he do? I eased off to save him from having to think up a story. And really, I didn’t want to know.

The tutoring session consists of helping kids with their homework, creating art projects and playing board games. Tyrone didn’t need help with homework. I guided him while he wrote down answers to math problems and filled in words in sentences. He never got anything wrong, and I praised him for being so smart. I helped him put his homework neatly in his backpack. When I started to reach in and straighten other things in his backpack, he balked at that intrusion. He often hid a football or basketball in there and feared others would see. I surmised he was prohibited from bringing balls to school, and he thought they may be forbidden at tutoring as well. Maybe he was afraid for other reasons.

When I quizzed him about the details of the gun, he said he saw it in his friend’s backpack, that his friend found it in ththe backyard and that it had bullets in it. I asked if he told his teacher. “No! He’s my best friend!”

Research finds youth from risk-filled backgrounds who successfully transition to the adult world of employment and good citizenship have had the consistent presence of a caring adult. Tutoring programs give kids this opportunity. As a first-time tutor, I attended orientation where consistency and trust were emphasized.

I connected with Tyrone in summer camp. Some kids would point to volunteers and brag, “That’s my tutor!” Having no information about what a tutor is, Tyrone asked me to be his tutor. Yes, I committed to years-long care and support of Tyrone beginning that fall.

I doubted Tyrone’s tale about the gun, but gun-in-school carries weight. I couldn’t  bear it alone. I consulted with a supervisor. She knew Tyrone’s caregiver.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

The next week he came to tutoring with his sidestep story: his friend brought gum to school. When next I arrived for duty, Tyrone was absent. I knew he’d not return. He dropped out of tutoring and so did I.

Was I right in reporting Tyrone’s story? I doubted myself for months. I switched my volunteering from one-on-one tutoring to leading groups of first graders in meditation. A supervisor caught me in the hall one evening and casually mentioned the gun was no tale.

Tyrone’s friend had walked into first grade with a loaded hand gun in his backpack.

Remembering Revlon

Remembering Revlon

Whenever my mother dressed for a special occasion, the last thing she’d do is color her nails and lips. She’d sit in a living room chair with high heels dangling from her crossed leg and expertly paint her fingernails with a little bottle of toxic red enamel. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself. 

First, she’d soak a Kleenex in an upended bottle of Cutex nail polish remover and wipe all her nails clean. The vapors would tickle all the hairs in my nose and give me a headache but I never turned away. I’d watch her unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark bristles dripping in red liquid. With one hand flattened on the th-2antique mahogany side table, and the other hand holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get just the right amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. 

I’ve watched artists do this same thing with their paintbrushes. I wonder now if my mother could have been an artist since she seemed to be a natural in manipulating the brush. Where did she learn that? Like me, she was not the kind of person who would have practiced such a thing as a teenager. Unlike her, I’ve never managed to lay polish or lipstick on myself with such aplomb.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lip brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left hand, slide the top up with her left fingers and let it drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the lipstick brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. Then she’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips with the curved tapered brush. Next she’d brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. With fresh lipstick her beguiling red lips seemed larger than usual but not unnatural. She kept her lipstick and brush in a small leather pouch. Sometimes she left the house with only her Marlboros and her lipstick pouch.

In her dementia my mother always carried a small clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nurses gave her their old lipsticks for her purse because the sound of the click-clacking as she rifled through it calmed her down.

Unknown-1For a few years after my mother died, I entered into the ritualized glamor of painting my own nails red. I sat before a young manicurist who updated me every week on the intrigue of her affair with a rich married man. When she moved in with him and quit her job, the allure of painting my nails lost its luster. 

Journey to Paradise

JFK was still alive the September I drove with my father in his white Cadillac Eldorado down the pike from our temporary home in Washington, DC to boarding school in Williamsburg, Virginia. My head overflowed with questions. Will they have a television? What will I do after school? How will I wash my clothes? I dared not ask my father for fear he’d mock my questioning of such mundane matters. In his silence I could hear him say, “They’re nuns. They take care of people. Stop worrying.” I wasn’t worrying, just wondering. In spoken language between us, different words seemed to have the same meaning—wonder and worry, driving and speeding, drinking and drunk.

Unfamiliar signs became our talking points.

“Look there’s Fredericksburg. Did something historic happen there?”

He told me it’s a Civil War town. 10,000 slaves ran away from the plantations there and joined the Union Army.

Slaves? I had never been in a place where slaves had lived. Monticello. Is that Jefferson’s home?

I’m not sure how much I knew of Civil War history or American history as I was entering my junior year in high school, but clearly the road signs along the highways in Virginia had awakened some schooling. Petersburg and Appomattox. My premature view of life misinformed me that places I read about in history books, like these, no longer existed.

Until then, I had lived my whole life at sea level—the flatlands at northeastern Illinois’ Lake Michigan and the New Jersey seashore. The Virginia road climbed up and down between wavelengths of blue and green, tree-lined hills with wide verdant medians. My mother used to call me a nature-lover. I guess she was right. The scenery captivated me, as if we were driving through the Garden of Eden. I imagined Paradise at the end of our journey.

“What’s the Blue Ridge Parkway?”

My father loved to drive and he’d already been on Skyline Drive, the main road through Shenandoah National Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our route to Williamsburg didn’t bring us near there. Thirty years later, remembering my father’s description of the misty Blue Ridge Mountains and the hills rolling down to the Shanandoah River, I drove there myself.

At Richmond we turned southeast toward the Norfolk Naval Base, Hampton Roads and Williamsburg. I was leaving no one behind. My mother, sisters, cousins and friends lived in another place, another time with their wild summers and grey winters. A vagabond life brought me to live at Walsingham Academy run by the Sisters of Mercy, the school that housed girls from mothers who didn’t mother and fathers who didn’t father—girls who had ulcers and girls who dyed their hair.

We turned onto Jamestown Road toward my new assignment. Fear tightened my grip on reality. Had he told the Mother Superior I had mononucleosis? Got drunk? Swore? Didn’t believe in God? Had an ectopic pregnancy? Did he even know I was tired all the time, and lost? I feared and I hoped they’d care for my soul.

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?”