As a mother and teacher, as a human being, I am emotionally affected when tragedies happen, especially when the victims are helpless, when the victims are children. I wrote this reflection after hearing the news about Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012, just days before Christmas. My sons were 11 and 13; my students were 12-14.
It’s as if I know them. But I don’t. And yet--
My God! My God!
I’m folding their clothes for the umpteenth time, the same t-shirts over and over again, by rote, the Georgia, North Carolina, Notre Dame and LSU tees go in one pile; while the Illinois, Northwestern, Texas and Chicago Bulls go in another pile; the 14 slim uniform pants and small blue polo get set to the left, always on the left, because the younger is left handed, and that’s why his backpack and lunch bag go by the left chair at the dining room table, the same chair where his red gym bag hangs with his #10 jersey; while the blue gym bag hangs on the right side with another #10 jersey with the same name ironed on the back. It’s always two piles, two chairs, two bags. The thought of only one just doesn’t compute, and I cry because I’m grateful, so deeply grateful, to have this daunting task of folding and organizing and scheduling for the sons who flippantly get dressed every morning, haphazardly pack up, and hurriedly run out the door with bags slung half-way over their jacketless shoulders.
My God! There are twenty mothers out there who will forever miss these daily vignettes, these seemingly meaningless moments and simple details, these basic reminders of who we are and who THEY are, on this day, in this time of our precious lives. My God! How many reminders will creep up on them without warning? To whom will their Christmas gifts go, the ones that Santa hid away in that secret place, the ones chosen especially for him, for her, because Santa knows they always make the “nice” list, because Santa knows them so well.
It’s as if I personally know these parents. But I don’t. And yet--
I’m in a grocery store. I reach for the hard shell tacos and turn back to pick up the soft tortillas. Both packages are in the cart, as are the cartons of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, the regular garlic bread and the cheesy kind, the grapefruit and the grapes. Two preferences, always. It’s a thought that usually irks me. What mom boils penne and spaghetti on pasta nights? What mom makes meatloaf and meatballs, serves pork roast sliced and pulled, plates grilled cheeses with American for one and provolone for the other…
Two brothers, as different as night and day, and yet they’re two peas in a pod. Their friends know them. Them. My sons. Across an entire room’s floor, they line up sports cards bought as gifts or with gift certificates from their favorite memorabilia shop owned by the legendary Chuck who’s been singing their praises for years, calling them the most knowledgeable sports-minded kids he’s ever met. Chuck knows them, too. As do their relatives who take calls for Bowl picks and NCAA brackets.
I know my own children, but I don’t know any of the victims. When I reflect, I feel as if I know them. But I don’t. And yet--
I’m in the classroom when we hear the popping sounds, like a car backfiring in the lockers and vibrating through the ceiling below our feet. The chattering of lit groups comes to an abrupt halt; twenty ashen twelve-year-old faces look to me with silent, gaping mouths. “Lockdown,” I say calmly, despite a pounding heart and shaking hands. Instinctively I lock the door, count the heads, grab the green screen to tape in the window when I notice a student taking a test in the hallway. I unlock the door without thinking, and I don’t need to say anything when our wide eyes meet, because my expression wills him into my room like a magnet. He follows my hand motion to join the others in the corner, a huddle of shivering shoulders, shushing fingers, rocking backs, and clasped praying hands. The click of the lock echoes this time, and it dawns on me that the green screen should now be red because now I have someone else’s child. The popping has stopped. I can’t risk uncovering the window, so I rush to be with my kids, crammed under desks and against the wall. One of my girls pulls my elbow, and with tears trickling down her cheeks, she whispers, “My little brother is in the first grade class beneath us.” My arms envelop her. “Everyone’s doing what they need to do, sweetie. It’s gonna be okay.” I scan the distance between our cradled spot and my cell phone in the coat on the back of my chair. It dawns on me that the principal’s lockdown code was never announced from the school office. I think I hear sirens…
I awake startled and press the snooze button with a racing heart, as if I’d been holding my breath longer than allowed. My students’ ashen faces fade into the sunlight streaming through the bedroom blinds.
It’s as if I know those teachers. But I don’t. And yet--
The following article was originally published in the Wednesday Journal and its website www.oakpark.com on 6/21/16.
Once the vintage Old Style sign was replaced with the guitar pick logo, longtime Berwyn and Oak Park residents couldn’t help but ask that question. For me, it represented revitalization for a place that’s embracing history and hope, a musician hangout where pick up jams abound with local flare.
The Friendly Tap, located at 6733 W. Roosevelt Road, has deep roots in our neighborhood and is typically referred to as a legendary tavern. Its goal to provide a social place for locals is still alive, and that’s where the Tap’s history will always hold a place in the hearts, both old and new, of the guests at this establishment. Now take that 70 year old goal and enter 2016, where owner Rob Pierce transforms a single business and guides its evolution into a vibrant, three-service, music and arts community with live music in the bar (Friendly Tap), a music-themed coffee experience (Friendly Coffee Lounge), and a 501c3 music school (Friendly School of Folk Music).
When I first arrived in June 2014, it wasn’t the Tap door through which I walked; it was the Friendly Coffee Lounge, and the connection was instantaneous. Back then, I was a mom and teacher who liked to write. I liked to write so much that I had spent the previous eight summers playing with a novel of Chicago historical fiction. My characters, like the Tap, had deep roots with their names and backgrounds taken from my ancestors’ census records. I embraced my genealogical history by building on the facts, but then I needed to create my own story to make the characters come to life—to make my dream of being an author come to life. I knew it was bound to happen someday; I just didn’t know when. Then the Friendly Coffee Lounge became my writing oasis. With the inspiration and support I received from this place, “someday” came with my book release celebration in January, followed in April by the title, 2016 Winner of the Soon To Be Famous Illinois Author Award, a self-publishing initiative sponsored by the Illinois Library Association and Reaching Across Illinois Library Systems.
In May, I witnessed many events of local celebration with the Friendly Music Community (a showcase for the music school students, a Craft & Vintage Market for the Coffee Lounge, and the heart-stopping performances of local musicians at the Friendly Folk Fest), so when the old sign came down and the new sign arrived on Roosevelt Road, I couldn’t help but see the parallelism between my own dreams and those of the FMC. Both have history, but after many years in the making, both are awakening with high hopes.
If you haven’t visited lately, I strongly encourage you to do so. Check out the music line up that’s packed with local talent (www.friendlymusic.community) or sign up for that music class you’ve always wanted to try. Come in the morning for a cup of Bridgeport coffee, Todd & Holland tea, or a freshly made smoothie. And if you happen to see a middle-aged writer with her laptop and notebooks at the corner table, be sure to introduce yourself. People say I’m friendly.
Geralyn Hesslau Magrady is a Berwyn resident and English teacher at Fenwick High School. Her novel, Lines--, is available at Looking Glass Book Store (823 S. Oak Park Ave) and Amazon.com. To find out more, visit her website at www.ghesslaumagrady.com.
I came to write, but I find myself in new surroundings with the sound of hypnotizing horns and guitar licks in the background; the lighting is dim. There’s a craft show on the coffee lounge side where my usual table now hosts a pile of crocheted hats; I bought a rust colored piece called "The Phoebe" even though I'm not much of a hat person. It has a big pom pom. So I’m working at a counter on the “tap” side of things. The glow of a Budweiser neon sign reflects off my screen, shining a red tint on my thumbs as they rhythmically touch the space key. I consider swapping my hot cup for a cold glass and giving in to the temptation of the “1 credit - 25¢” flashing to my left. Maybe it’s my lucky day.
“What’re ya writing today, G?”
“A blog post. Maybe some poetry.”
The owner smiles and walks toward the front window with a 12-foot ladder. Into the blinding light of what feels like the first February sunshine, he and the ladder disappear. My concentration returns to the images below and atop my bifocal line, and the view is more than I expect. Bottles of varying shapes and sizes rub up against their smooth labels, as patrons converse above the horizontal formica; side by side on swivel stools, their bodies mimic the bottles that mimic a city street of bungalows with barely a gap to ensure privacy. I don’t mean to listen, but it’s hard not hear the exploits of bellowing strangers. I’m sure their stories will play tricks on my dreams tonight. Maybe I have a new narrator for tomorrow’s flash fiction project.
I’ve never met the bartender; I only know the baristas. My initial impression is that he reminds me of a young Peter Himmelmann. I don’t know what a young Peter Himmelmann looks like, mind you, but for some reason or another—maybe it’s the eyes—I imagine a gentle soul with depth and heart. We get to talking about New Orleans, music, and a possible relocation to Portland. I can’t relate, but I can appreciate. It’s become my life’s motto. Maybe I need a drink after all.
I’ve been here for hours. Some people might view it as a waste of time because I never wrote that blog post, and I only tweaked an old poem, never wrote anything new. I could have been at the grocery store, could have caught up on phone calls or done the bills or figured out a plan for dinner. All that stuff would have been productive, more productive than sitting at a local bar, typing away at a keyboard where a Budweiser neon sign reflects off the screen. Maybe. Maybe not.
I’ve always loved the idea of handheld gifts. Not handheld electronics, but those simple treasures that fit in your palm. There’s something special about the word, handheld, that offers a sense of support. Is that why we hold our own hands in prayer, as a connection with God as we give thanks or share our worries? On several occasions I’ve given the present of worry angels. These little glass sculptures can be held when praying for people or events that weigh heavy on the mind. There are also worry stones that do the same, and I think it’s the earthly feel of the stone that aids in the humanity of our pain, no matter the depth of our inner turmoil and spiritual request in prayer. Rosary beads have this effect, too. Without consciously choosing to start such a collection, I have my mom’s beads and the beads held by my mother- and father-in-law before their final resting; I have the rosaries of both my grandmothers, women I never knew, and I find it an honor to touch each smooth bead when I say the rosary. Love and peace join the feelings of support and connection when I pray.
Not religious in its appearance, charms and coins are handheld gifts that also bring this personal touch. One particular morning, I arrived at a coffee shop and was getting my writing material together when I noticed three women at a table playing with clay. When I approached, they asked me to sit with them. I’m so grateful that I joined. I’m no artist, but clay is a perfect stress releaser. We laughed and talked while pressing round balls into flat pancakes and then molding them into whatever we desired. I learned that Jessica was my age; she was planning a long trip to New Orleans. I can’t explain why I connected with her, but when she talked, she reminded me of myself, or maybe it was the self I hadn’t yet become. She was a dreamer, an optimist. I was wearing an Emily Dickinson charm around my neck, and it felt right to unfasten the chain and tell my new friend to hold out her hand. The quote: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Jessica was the epitome of that line. She appreciated life, and for that, I appreciated her, and if we never met again, I wanted her to be reminded of her ability to touch another human being. If you’re reading this, Jessica, I hope New Orleans is treating you well, that your adventures are abundant, and that you know you are a blessing!
When writing LINES--, I wanted a character to give something of himself to another character. I didn’t know what that would be; all I knew was that it had to be handheld. At around the same time as writing this scene, a musician friend (thanks, Rob Pierce) gave me his CD called Flat Rock. Huh. Could it get any clearer? That was it. The "story" rock came from the debris of the Great Fire, and the character kept it to remind him not of destruction and loss, but of hope.
There are no little treasures like these under the tree this year. My teenage sons are getting the video game stuff and college sports apparel. But I’m okay with that because I also plan on holding their hands and telling them I love them. Yeah, that will be awkward for them, but someday they’ll appreciate that gift more than PS4 controllers.
“Can we go to the book store?”
That question was followed by a description of the store my preschoolers had in mind. It was usually Fillmore’s, the closet sized charity shop worked by aging volunteers, with its narrow space of two long towering rows of donated books, walls packed and back tables strewn with boxes and piles of hardcovers from long ago. With its smell of basement storage, we took deep inhales before entering and then held our breaths until exiting. And that wasn’t a bad thing; it was more like the feeling a young boy gets when his grandma hugs a bit too tightly, as if he’d suffocate if she kept that strong hug one more second, and all the while he doesn’t mind the embrace because he knows its joyful aftereffects will linger. Fillmore’s was the place where we found non-fiction sports books, mostly basketball coffee table collections (who knew?) and football encyclopedias, athlete biographies and autobiographies—it’s no wonder that their current sports knowledge could challenge any ESPN commentator. It didn’t matter what they selected each time we visited, and I swear this might be where these kids learned to read. They just liked going there, sitting on the thread bare rug and flipping through pages or running their fingers along the dusty spines on the shelves.
What they, and I, particularly enjoyed was the hunt. Everything was in disarray, and that turned our trips into adventures. (There’s something to be said for finding treasure amidst chaos.) My guys would remember the approximate vicinity of their last purchase, and that’s where they started, but never ended. Once, low by the rickety legs of a card table, there was a stash of uncategorized works, and that’s where they eyed a bunch of president books and atlases—it’s no wonder they got interested in history and placed in geography bees, the older boy winning the coveted title his eighth grade year. After they located the prized carton near the “new” section, they sometimes returned to that prime spot just to spend an hour scrounging through the contents of rubber-banded stacks of old baseball cards—it’s no wonder that their present collection is enough to open our own card shop. (Well, thanks to Fillmore’s for that, but also to Heroes Sports Cards and Memorabilia, another local hangout from my sons’ childhood memories.)
“Can we go to the book store?”
Sometimes that meant taking a ride into the city to check out Powell’s, or to the suburbs to check out Half-Price Books or the Frugal Muse. Sometimes that meant heading to the next town over to check out The Magic Tree or The Book Table. These places, thankfully, are still in business, but not Fillmore’s. And the question still comes up, but the place to which we go is not Fillmore’s. And of course I miss it, but I’m grateful that our home holds the joyful aftereffects of Fillmore’s. Most importantly, though, I’ll forever relish the fact that my sons had the opportunity to experience a life of simple pleasures, a life of memories created in the humble aisles of a used book store.
“Dad’s on his way to the hospital.”
That was all I needed to hear when picking up the phone at 3:00 a.m. Panic set me in motion. Shoes, wallet, cell phone. Brush teeth before heading out. Thank God Dunkin Donuts is open for coffee. Oh God, please be with him. Whatever is going on, we both know he’s afraid. It took 30 minutes to get to the hospital where my mother, two brothers, a sister-in-law and niece were seated in the ER waiting room. No one had been allowed to see Dad yet; the other two brothers were on their way. When my out-of-state sister was contacted, she, too would be heading to Chicago.
When the paramedics took him from the house, Dad couldn’t breathe.
Anyone who’s ever been in ER can relate to the dread when first seeing a loved one hooked up to countless beeping machines, needles piercing bruised skin up and down the arms, and for us, cracked dried lips forced open to hold the tube that kept my father alive. His hair was plastered back, not in his usual side part, so his face became fully visible—his pale face. The uniform gown hung off his shoulders to reveal patches that attached his chest to monitors with numbers I didn’t comprehend. His body, covered in a thin white sheet, appeared shorter than the strong man’s vertical posture I knew as a child. And as Mom sat beside the bed in a chair, and Phil stroked her back, and Steve and Bob stood bravely by the curtain, I walked up to Dad and took his hand in mine, gently as to not disturb the reddened tape which secured the IV. I had two rosaries with me. My St. Pope John Paul II beads dangled on the left of our clasped hands, and my grandma’s beads dangled on the right. It was Grandma to whom I prayed with eyes closed. I began with a Memorare, followed by the routine Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and then started talking in my head to a woman I had never met. She was Dad’s Mom, and old pictures showed that we shared the same cowlick. I spoke to her with an unconscious ease about motherhood and wondered what my dad was like when he was a kid, and I asked her to hold his hand through mine because, having two boys of my own, I like to believe that every son feels safer when he’s got his mom by his side. I prayed to Grandma to join me, as parents do, in supporting this stage of “life.” I don’t know how long the conversation lasted, but I remember that once in a while I felt myself smile as if I heard her response, and I remember feeling a calm come over me as if everything was going to be okay, no matter the result of this tragic night. I opened my eyes to find the blood pressure screen in clear view, as if no other machinery existed. I almost giggled, which might have seemed inappropriate for the circumstances, but my heart bounced at the sight of the numbers. She was listening. Those numbers were her way of assuring me that she was there, as she had been there when Dad entered this world, as she had been there when I entered this world, too.
“What’s does that say?” I asked out loud to whomever was behind and around me.
“130 over 68,” one of my brothers replied.
“Say that again, please.”
“He was near stroke levels when they brought him in.. 130 over 68 is unbelievable,” said another.
“Now say it without the word ‘over’.”
“Geralyn, it’s been that way ever since you closed your eyes. It’s a good reading,” Phil explained.
“1-30-68,” I whispered and smiled. “That’s my birthdate.”
Whether Dad was going home with my mom here on Earth or going home to his mom in Heaven, I was at peace because Grandma answered my prayers. Everything would be okay, and it is.
I’ve never been a morning person, let alone a walking morning person, but something has to give. Life has gotten so hectic and busy, and I’ve lost momentum with my health and exercise. So, last night I decided to set the alarm for 4:50 a.m. in order to get my “stuff” completed by 5:30 and head out the door—not to embark on a fast and sweaty pace, rather, to leisurely stroll, to get myself going, to find brisk inspiration.
It was unsettling, this nighttime/not nighttime hour when the skies were just as dark as they were when I fell asleep. My first observation—everything was silent, eerily still, as if the gods pressed pause, and I was the only one not controlled by the command. I say “gods” because that was my second observation. In the heavens, the crescent moon and her shining companions were brighter than I remembered for a “morning” view. With no hint of the sun, the blackened sheet remained crisp with little cut-outs of light, like a grade school constellation project. A joyful Diana hovered over me in a slow waltz, and then I got lost in the silence again. My feet crunched on fallen leaves, and the wind blew strands of hair out of my ponytail and across my face. Every once in a while I’d pass a house and hear the slightest whoosh of a shower head or see a kitchen light turn on, simple reminders that daily life was on the horizon. The horizon. There was a fading from above; deep navy waned into a line of royal blue that swept above the trees and rooftops. Could Aurora be on Diana’s tail? I wondered how many city folk might have been up and about 144 years ago on October 8, trudging to work on Chicago’s desolate streets, unaware of the conflagration that would prevent such a walk for months, years even, to come. Hidden in the stillness of the Crosby Opera House with the curtains and gilded molding, the stage lights were waiting to illuminate once again the replica of Guido Reni’s fresco, Aurora, where images of the Goddess of Dawn led a parade of twelve figures dancing around their God of Sun, Apollo. These figures, the Hours, would see this day as their last back in 1871, as swirling flames would soon transform the painting, the building, the entire district and surrounding neighborhoods into ashes. What tragedy was in store for my geographical ancestors!
My head peeked upward, and there she was. I didn’t have time to relish the moment, so I introduced myself before climbing the stairs of my awakening home.
Good morning, Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn. My name is Geralyn, Goddess of the Pre-dawn Walk. I hope we meet again!
(An old essay from 2011, maybe?)
“Are you from Elmwood Park?”
“No. I’m from Chicago.”
This was my youthful response to many years of the same residential question. Growing up on the last "O" blocks on the city limits, I never swayed from my obstinate declaration that I was, and always had been, a city girl. In all practical terms, those words were technically accurate, but there were many winters when I wondered if my city, too, had thought I was from Elmwood Park, having never seen a plow and witnessing my four brothers and father breaking backs and spirits on the mounds of powder and slush and frozen patches that paralyzed my neighbors during vicious months of blistering temperatures, dangerous ice, howling winds, and that never-ending drifting snow. The cars would spin and bounce down our street; near-miss collisions and fender bender parking were a daily occurrence. But we participated in the infamous city-living spectacle, which put the rubber stamp on our true address—we placed lawn chairs on the street, marking Dad’s spot for the family station wagon when he went to work.
The residential question paused briefly when the area codes changed. Elmwood Park became the 708 area, while we city folk maintained our 312 status. There was no denying where I was from. The line in the sand had been drawn. If I had a 312 phone number, well then, I was definitely from Chicago, and I took pride in that fact. I didn’t want to be a suburbanite. I didn’t want to be perceived as anything but a working class girl. That’s what I thought Chicago was because my parents grew up in the city with their working-class families. I heard glorious stories about “the old neighborhood” (not understanding, of course, that all the “old” places - homes, schools, hangouts, etc.- had been long gone, torn down or fully dilapidated beyond recognition of their memories). I wanted to live in their city forever. After all, Chicago was a nostalgic place and an exciting place, too. Sure I went to school in a suburb each day, and I went to church in a suburb each Sunday, but didn’t the real fun happen in the city? Field trips to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium—they were in Chicago. MY Chicago. Even when I attended college in a suburb, we always looked forward to Schubas or the Green Mill, the Wild Hare or the Empty Bottle (depending on our musical whims.) The city was alive all the time. It never slept. It kept rolling on and on without stops. I admired that energy, and every time I picked up the phone to dial a 708 friend, I was reminded of where I lived, in a city unlike their town or village. So when the area codes changed a second time, when the 312s got split, and we became a 773, we were still Chicago. Maybe not the historic city, not the downtown city or lakefront city or ethnic city or inner-city, but still “city.”
Then the big blow came. The dreaded zip code frenzy.
Our phone number started with 773, not 708. Our address was listed on an “O” street, not a numbered one. Our city was listed as “Chicago." We were NOT listed in the meager suburban directory, but in the mega book of the city directory. So why, why, did my fine Chicago abandon us? “Big Tony” was our alderman; we had massive block parties that sometimes got a bit out of hand; we walked to our local dollhouse-sized branch of the Chicago Public Library system; we biked to Hiawatha and Shabbona parks; we took the bus to Cubs games. Heck, Mom took the bus to her job as a deli worker every day, too. We were Chicagoans! Why did we get pushed on to the Elmwood Park zip code? Couldn’t they handle just a few more blocks of 606s? All of my city friends had a 606 beginning... 60634 or 60635. But I was being forced to concede to the dreaded suburban 60707. The boundaries were announced, and our little square of 16 blocks (eight streets with two blocks each), would have to take a big gulp, swallow our pride, give in to the woeful zip. That dreaded suburban zip.
My parents are still there in our humble home of city living. Mom still takes the bus when she needs to, and Dad still shovels out the street, but his car is parked there most of the time now, so no need for lawn chairs. During the warmer months, those chairs are on the front porch where they sit and look out at the new neighbors and new generation of children who head west toward our old suburban Catholic school. They’re still Chicagoans with a 773 area code, living on an “O” block, with a city address and an Elmwood Park zip.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that zip code confusion, it’s this: no matter where I place my head at night; no matter where I travel or work or raise my kids; no matter my phone number or full address, whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I still say I’m from Chicago. I guess it’s just my kind of town.
Originally posted at http://www.chicagowrites.org/my-kind-of-town-contest-winners/