Wednesday, May 27, 2009


For the first eight years of my life, my world consisted of Lawndale Avenue from 24th Street to just a little north of 23rd Street - ending at the railroad tracks. Ours was a typical blue-collar Chicago neighborhood populated with families named Blaja, Nowak, Pavonka and Novatney. Good solid working families with their roots largely in Eastern Europe. I don't think my parents would have described themselves as poor; but, I know there was some financial struggle. That was the situation for almost everyone in our neighborhood. At the time, however, I never felt in need of anything. Most of my friends' parents were first generation Americans; but, it was not at all unusual for the households to include resident grandparents who spoke little or only heavily accented English - of varying dialects. It was to this neighborhood and to the house at 2345 S. Lawndale Avenue that my parents carried me from the share a little bedroom with my sister (and later our little brother) and to play in the hollyhocks that grew in the backyard.

In the summer, my sister, brother and I attended "camp" at Shedd Park, which was located at 23rd and Lawndale. My most memorable accomplishment at camp was the creation of a hat for the Kitchen Caboodle Contest. I made it from a strainer turned upside down, from which hung a ladle and a bunch of carrots. Shorty still has the picture of me smiling, a little toothless, from underneath my creation and holding what I can only imagine to be an award, rolled up and tied with a ribbon.

But the real fun came in the winter. Lawndale Avenue runs north and south, and after the first good wet snow, the gang of kids on the east side (us) and the gang of kids on the west side (them) would build snow forts from which we would wage war against each other. My sister and her friend, Barbara, were the oldest in our gang and were therefore our superior officers. We built our fort according to their specifications, and then fortified the battery with an artillery of snowballs. They would also send us on scouting missions to obtain provisions from friendly outposts. Mr. Blaja was the best source of bee candy (small, hard candies embossed with a bee and filled with honey), and Mrs. Blaja for plum dumplings. Shorty packed sandwiches and let us spend the entire day outside, until dusk, under the colors of our flag. But even the spoils of war take a backseat to Mother when she calls TAPS. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I don't believe it snows like it used to. Big, fluffy, wet snowflakes that came down in thick and fast you could lay on your back, look up and see nothing but white. We would let them float into our mouths - tasting as fresh as air - and hang from our lashes.

I remember the day we left Lawndale Avenue. It was the summer of my eighth year. We had sold the house and were moving to the suburbs. The moving van was packed and gone, and my parents, my brother and sister and I stood outside the house next to my father's 1955 pale green Ford, saying good-bye to our friends and neighbors. My best friend, MaryJackew, and I begged our parents to allow Mary to drive to our new house with us so we could explore our new digs. She jumped into the back seat next to me...we were giddy with excitement. A big new house! A new neighborhood! The suburbs! Apparently, there was a last minute change of plans. Either Mary's parents decided it would be too much to drive out to our new house to retrieve her, or my father decided he would not have time to bring her back home. Whatever the reason, despite our tears and pleading, she was removed from the car by her mother. My last memory of her and of Lawndale was watching Mary from the Ford's rear window. She got smaller and smaller, waving with one hand, wiping tears with the other. Our parents promised they would bring us back to Lawndale Avenue to visit. I guess life gets in the way. I never saw the old neighborhood, or anyone who lived there, again.

How shocked I was when I got a call from my son, Charlie, who was visiting his Uncle Rudy (my baby bro) in Chicago this past February. "Guess where I'm standing, Mom." "I give up, Charlie." "2345 S. Lawndale Avenue!" At first stunned silence. My throat closed, tears welled, then spilled over. He sent the attached photograph (Charlie on left, Rudy on right). The cyclone fencing is an abomination that must have been added over the years. And the front door has been changed. Ours had a beautiful, large leaded glass window, and big substantial brass knobs. But no matter. I would recognize it anywhere. It has the same face. The same look about the eyes. The same posture. I see myself standing in front of the house wearing my white dress and First Holy Communion veil. I'm holding the basket of peony blossoms my mother made for me. I see my little brother standing in almost the same spot, wearing his six-shooter and holster set - a gift for his birthday. I wonder if ghosts might be lingering there. Do we leave an invisible mark on the places we've lived? Mr. and Mrs. Blaja, my father, my Uncle Joe? Does the house recognize the young man standing there is my son? Standing where I once stood so long ago? If I listened hard enough, would I still be able to hear the clear, sweet, sad notes floating from my father's trumpet? If I wandered into the kitchen, with its wood-burning stove and deep porcelain sink, would I get a glimpse of Mrs. Blaja and my mother bustling about, making preserves or strudel? Would I hear my sister's voice reading stories to Rudy and me as we sat in the bedroom the three of us shared? Are the hollyhocks still there? The big, old tree is gone from the front yard. Many of the people who populated that little world on Lawndale Avenue are gone as well; but, the house is solidly built. It was a happy time and a happy place. I do not know the stories of the families that came after us; but, perhaps we left a little sliver of ourselves there - to act as a good luck charm.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


It rained all weekend, except for Monday, so we didn't go fishing after all. I'll make it up to Shorty. I had to go ahead and plant the Brugmansia notwithstanding the thunder and lightening, and I did get a lot accomplished inside the house. Yesterday, I started stripping the wallpaper in the kitchen. My heart wasn't in any of it, though. Most of the weekend was spent watching my old friend, Amber, as she drifted toward the end of her life. Amber is (oh...was...that's right) a very old, long-haired ginger tabby cat that walked into my life, tail held high in the air, about 14 years ago. I don't know why she adopted us. I only know that one fine day she glided through the back door, said hello to the dog and the other cat, and set up house. Her fur was as soft as down, and, as is true with all great beauties, she took much pride in her appearance. But she was adventurous as well as vain. When Amber wasn't grooming herself, she was dozing and dreaming. There is no doubt in my mind that she lived a very Walter Mitty existence...traveling to the top of the pyramids...being entertained by Amun-Re at Karnak...flying a Sopwith Camel over London...crossing the Delaware with George Washington...but always making it home in time for dinner and a snuggle on my lap - when everything else came to a halt for the requisite under-the-chin-scratch she expected. For the last two weeks, she was on three medications to treat various problems, and she actually rallied. But, things began to fall apart on Saturday, and on Sunday she made her last trip to the vet. She didn't appear to be in any pain. Although I realize it sounds as if my trolley has fallen off its track, I believe she looked at me and told me it was okay. That she was ready. Yesterday, there were fleeting moments when I almost forgot. When a ray of sun would peek through the clouds, I'd glance up to see if she was sleeping at her favorite spot to catch the warmth. Then I'd say to myself, "Oh, that's right. She's not there." I will miss my pal very much. I am grateful she lingered with me awhile and hope she's having a wonderful adventure - perhaps sailing the seas with Marco Polo. No surprise there. She was, after all, always destined for greatness.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Three Days

At last - a three day weekend looms large. I am so excited about the prospect, I am simply beside myself. Every weekend for the last month, I've had something on the calendar playing havoc with my household "to do" list: a trip to Virginia (although I had a marvelous time), staying in bed sick, Mother's Day weekend. Then, Fate tried to throw me a curve ball; we got put on a trial docket for the day after Memorial Day, which meant working all weekend to prepare. I must have done something right at least once in my life, because the case was transferred to a different judge at the eleventh hour, and his calendar is full next week. Oh, joy. Oh, divine rapture. Hallelujah. But now, my mind is working at a feverish pitch trying to plan three full days of doing something substantive around the house. I had a similar feeling one day almost 25 years ago. The fact I remember it with such clarity may seem odd to you; but, I've always said that - for me at least - ordinary days are far more memorable than the "special" ones. Maybe that's because making special days special always fell to me (as it does to most wives and mothers) and I was left exhausted and relieved when the special day was over. But I digress. It was a summer day in 1985. My children were 5, 3 and 14 months. John and Charlie were sitting at the kitchen table; Kit was in her highchair next to them. It was lunchtime, and there was the usual clatter and clanking and chatter and squabbling. I puttered around the kitchen while they finished their meal, then gathered up their dishes and went to the sink to tidy things up. After a very short time, I became aware of a blessed silence and looked around to see that they had all fallen asleep: the boys with their heads on their arms at table; Kit sitting up, head on the headrest. It was the first time they had all been asleep at the same time during the day. What to do with this precious time? Should I paint my nails? Should I grab a book? Should I phone a friend? You see, I had no plan for this contingency. It never occurred to me I might have 15 minutes of complete and utter peace. I was not prepared. The moment passed, activity resumed, but I learned a valuable lesson.

So, here come three full days to "do something." I have a house that is too big and bosses me around, always throwing something at me that needs doing. I feel I need a strategy. I want to face Tuesday morning with the warm satisfaction that something substantive was accomplished. That I had not squandered the long weekend. I promised Shorty I'd take her fishing on Saturday morning - I warned her it would be early. If we leave at 6:00 a.m. we can be at the pier in 5 minutes and fish until 10:00 a.m. Four hours will just about do us in, anyway. (I'll sit and read Slaves of Solitude waiting for the fish to bite, thereby doing double duty, clever me.) So, I must develop a strategy from about 10:00 a.m. Saturday through Monday evening. Certainly, all the downstairs windows need to be squeegeed and the tops of the ceiling fans dusted. I want to re-organize the pantry and the spice cabinet and re-line the kitchen shelves. My double-flowered Brugmansia came in the mail last week, and I've got to get it into the ground...a good time to get the garden tidied up and put down the landscaping fabric I bought months ago which is still rolled up in the trunk of the car. I'll go to Home Depot to get the picket fence I want to install around the patio. If I get it on the way home Friday evening rather than Saturday, I can save "long weekend time." While there, I might as well get replacement tile for the laundry room/back bathroom. These are the only two rooms in the house where linoleum tile was installed and the dog has found a way to eat several sections. I'll make a mental note to get ceramic this time. Actually, if I go to Sears on Thursday evening to get the paint for the upstairs hall, I'll be in even better shape with time. So, Saturday: fishing, heavy cleaning, garden tending and re-organization. Sunday I can install the fence, or at least begin, and Monday I can paint the hallway. Monday evening, I'll put tuna steaks on the grill and make Doctordi's Shiitake Mushroom Sauce.

Then, come Tuesday, I might actually yearn for the sight of my office: bulging desk, incessant phones, relentless deadlines and oh, those lovely crises!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bonjour Empty Wallet

I stopped by the book store last week to pick up my most recent order, Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton. They keep the "on hold" books at the far end of the store making it necessary to walk past all the tables and stacks loaded with books of every stripe and all colors dazzling the eye, their fragrant newness hitting the olfactory nerves. It is a very conniving and most unfair practice. This set up was no doubt the brain child of some marketing expert - maybe the same one who said, "Let's sell double mocha latte while we're at it." The gauntlet is a difficult one to run successfully. Back home, in a precariously teetering pile, are the books I want to get around to reading - preferably in my lifetime, before my heirs sell them all at a garage sale in an effort to settle my estate. Intellectually, I knew I should run as fast as I could to the pick up desk, glancing neither to the left nor the right nor dead ahead - staring only at the floor. I already own more books than I could possibly ever read -even if I spent every waking, breathing moment doing nothing else. Alas. As Pascal once said, "The heart has its reasons that reason does not know." And in my dotage I have concluded that the heart and the mind seldom act in one accord. There was a faint twinge of guilt as I plunked Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan and To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield onto the counter. It was assuaged when I decided to call them "late birthday presents."

Bonjour Tristesse is a very short "coming of age" book, under 200 pages, and I should have it finished by tonight. It was written by Francoise Sagan in the early 1950's when she was only 17 years old and apparently made a huge splash at its publication. From what I've read of Sagan herself, it is also a bit autobiographical. The novella reads very easily; nevertheless, I am not yet convinced it deserves the amount critical acclaim it received. I will be patient and wait to turn the last page before I cast my verdict. It was a great financial success for Sagan, who spent the money as quickly as she could in typical teeny-bopper style - on clothes and a fancy sports car. But, I guess it's all relative. Back inthe 1950's a paperback book cost about fifty cents; today they run about $12.00. Oh my...that thought has just sent me into a paroxysm of guilt once more -- does that mean...could it be...could I be reading a shiny, red sportscar!!?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When The Hurlyburly's Done

On May 1, I began to get sick - a very rare occasion for me. By Saturday, May 2 I was in bed and stayed there until Monday doing little else but coughing and nose which time I moved to the couch in the library. I alternated between the couch and bed until Wednesday, when I dragged my germy self back to my office. Luckily for my dear work peeps, I have a door I can close. I was also very careful to disinfect anything I touched - I even remembered the door knobs. So far, no one else has gotten sick. That was almost a week ago, and I'm still not well - so I suppose I have to break down and see a doctor. But, what really disturbs me about the last two weeks is the slightly Macbeth-ish fog that seems to have settled itself on my simple, quiet life - like pervasive dust. For reasons I cannot quite figure out, the people around me who are usually in fine fettle and good form, seem a little gloomy. There is, for instance, something bothering our senior partner. A usually gregarious and affable fellow, he has been exhibiting what I can only describe as a "flat effect" for the last few weeks. And Shorty...she's upset and angry that I called her doctor and set up an appointment for the two of us to go in this afternoon and discuss memory problems. (Hers, not mine. Although sometimes I wonder...) Maybe it's just my cold, but in short, for the last two weeks or so, my life seems to have tilted a little off its axis. Torqued, as it were. Strangest of all - I have not wanted to read. I've tried. I pick up a book and stare at the page - but I make no progress. And, I have neglected this poor little blog space. (Not that it's much of a loss to cyberspace).

I believe most people who know me well would call me an optimist, a happy cat who always lands on her feet. But lately, I've been getting the oddest feeling that something is off kilter - out there. I guess I'll just ride it out until this vague malaise wears off - until people around me start getting happy again.

Oh, yes. One other thing. While I was lazing about in bed with a bottle of Vicks tucked under my nose, I had one of those home shopping network TV shows turned on. They were selling make-up. The model, who we were told was 70, stared into the camera looking a sad and forlorn "before." Suddenly and for the first time in my life, I feared death. Don't ask me why my thoughts flew thus...I could not tell you. But the grim reaper...the black immediately what came to mind. I promised myself that when I go, dammit, I want to go in full-makeup! Ah, yes, "When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won." Macbeth 1.1

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dandy Lion

Work has left me utterly and totally mentally drained. I'm looking forward to the weekend to re-charge my batteries. But, I've neglected my little blog all week. So, let me tell you a story about my dad.

My parents were married during World War II. Their wedding picture shows two remarkably pretty people - he in his army uniform, she in a navy blue suit with her hair swept up. Dad was a musician and a band leader and his job (military occupational specialty) was to entertain the troops who were fighting near the front. They would have seemed an odd pairing, I think. He grew up on the tough streets of Chicago, whereas my Mom was a country girl who raced her horse bareback across her father's farm fields, jumping streams and fences. Nevertheless...

There wasn't an instrument made that my father could not play, but his specialty was the trumpet - he was a true Cornet Man, and I am certain he seemed a little dangerous to my petite and Catholic-schooled mother. Perhaps that was part of the draw, thereby disproving the notion that girls always fall in love with Heathcliff but always marry Edgar Linton. I told the following story this Spring at another site. But since I must get back to the daily grind and finish a project, I'll cheat by repeating it once again:

The wonderful Wizard of Oz was on TV again this weekend; and, when the cowardly lion referred to himself as a "dandy lion," it reminded me once again of a ritual that was practiced by my Slovenian family (and, indeed, other neighborhood families with similar Eastern European roots) early every spring. At that time of year, my dad would venture into the forest preserves around the Chicago area to look for and harvest the young, tender dandelion leaves that had awakened after their winter sleep. He'd take large paper grocery bags and his knife - a wicked looking thing with a leather handle and a steel blade especially meant for dandelions - and off he would go to forage for the delicacy that the whole family eagerly awaited. Sometimes, he'd agree to take one of us kids along; but, he preferred going it alone, unimpeded by children who would necessarily divide his attention from the task at hand. Dad would start just before dawn, and would not return until the sun was low in the sky bringing with him bags filled to the top with the pungent greens. As it grew dark, aunts and uncles would arrive at the house to pick up their "share." I can still recall the earthy, musky, garden-y smell that came from those bags. My mother would dump our portion into the deep kitchen sink and begin the task of meticulously cleaning each blade. Dandelion "season" lasted for only a short time - before the leaves became too bitter and tough. I have lived through 60 springs, and dad has been gone for nearly 20 years. Yet, Spring remains "dandelion season" for me. After years of living in dandelion exile, I learned that I could buy organically grown dandelion greens in the produce section of the Fresh Market grocery store. I once again became a "dandelioness." In his dandelion hunting days, Dad would always reassure us that, "I know where no dogs go." I trusted him with the faith of a child back then. Although every once in a while, as I lay in bed at night - the bedroom windows open to the spring breezes - I'd entertain the disturbing thought, "How does he know that right now, in the dark, some dog has not found his dandelion crop?" Er...some ideas are better left unexplored.

You can harvest dandelion leaves from your own yard if (a) you do not have a dog or cat (b) do not use pesticides, and (c) do not use plants that are growing near a highway or roadway. However, if you are relying on your lawn for enough greens, you cannot have a reasonable expectation of a good harvest unless you have absolutely no "lawn pride" and your lawn is a source of irritation to your neighbors. Better to find a good, organic source. Dandelion greens are slightly bitter, like arugula/rocket.

Dandelion Salad:

Young, tender, preferably organic, dandelion greens (about as much as you would need if you were making a lettuce salad for 4).

6-8 slices of bacon
6-8 small new potatoes, unpeeled
4 eggs, hard cooked - they should still be warm
3 T. apple cider vinegar (preferably unfiltered)

Wash and thoroughly dry dandelion greens. Boil potatoes until tender. Cut into quarters. Cut hard cooked eggs into slices. Cut bacon into small pieces and fry until brown and crisp. Remove cooked bacon bits from pan, but reserve two tablespoons of bacon fat. Add cider vinegar to pan, whisk up the brown bits, until warm through. Add potatoes and eggs to greens, toss with warm dressing,sprinkle on the bacon. Eat immediately, while warm.