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?”

 

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.