I used to write poetry. It’s been a long time, but lately, I’ve had an urge to start again. So it was interesting timing that my Christmas present from Sweetheart’s father and his wife was a volume of Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
There are massive holes in my literary education. Heaney was one of them, but thanks to D&K, that will be changing.
All the Christmas books from D&K include, somewhere inside, a photograph of a dead white guy. It’s fun to get money any time, of course, but there’s something truly special about being part of a family in which every holiday means that someone spent significant amounts of time imagining what you would love to read and went hunting for it.
Getting back to poetry, one of my favorite under-appreciated poets is Kelly Cherry. I met her when I was a baby journalist and my first editor sent me out to interview her. We don’t see each other often, but established enough of a connection to remain friends nearly 30 years down the road.
I was writing a lot more poetry then. Reading hers blew me away. It still does. I once told her – because it’s true – that my poems were like melody lines and hers were entire symphonies. Here’s one:
“From Venice: Letter to an Ex-Husband” (The Horses of San Marco)
Anyway, back to when we met. It was an interesting time. First Husband had just met Better Wife than I’d Been, and I was madly in love with a guy I now refer to (when I refer to him at all) as Mr. Perfect from the Neck Down. The first time he dumped me was just after Thanksgiving.
Like most working people in the US, where Christian culture is majority culture, I’d been looking forward to a couple of days off at Christmas.
It’s not my holiday. But I get to partake of its best parts because Sweetheart’s family is a mashup of Lutherans, atheists who grew up as Lutherans & Catholics-by-choice. Sweetheart was nine when his parents split. From that point on, it was Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas Day with Dad. That’s carried into adulthood, except now Dad is at the Mom celebration and Mom comes to Dad’s brunch. They’re what it looks like when you decide to stop letting the past get in the way of the present and learn new ways to be kind.
It makes those big life transitions so much easier. When First Husband died, Better Wife than I’d Been called me right away. (Unexpected, as BW adored FH and loved my children, but not so much me. I was fine with that – she didn’t have to be nice to me as long as she was good to them.) Together, we got the six combined kids (three apiece, ranging from 19-29) through that terrible time. At that point, I hadn’t spoken with First Husband’s father Sidney for about five years. But BW’s father was dying, and she’d just been widowed for the second time. She had her hands full. So I started calling Sidney every week to check up on him and let him know how his granddaughters were faring.
I was particularly worried because of Mrs. Sidney – I’ll call her Barbara. He’d married Barbara within a year of FH’s mother’s death when FH was 15. She had never warmed to Sidney’s children, and didn’t share his level of anguish. She wasn’t crazy for me either, but time passed. Things changed.
We’ve had lots of breakfasts and dinners together, a couple of Passover Seders (one that included BW & her family) and those weekly calls.
I’ve seen Sidney go downhill steadily since First Husband’s death.
This past June, he pulled Barbara down as she was trying to help him up after another of his increasingly frequent falls. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They gave him two to six months. Barbara, who doesn’t drive anymore, found a nursing home nearby. She visited a couple of times a week and wondered aloud more than once what, if anything, either of them was getting out of those visits. My mother is in a nursing home here, and I see lonely people with no or infrequent visitors. It’s not pretty. I had a hard time understanding the way she was dealing with things until the day she told me she’d never seen anyone die before.
She’d never seen anyone die before?
She’s in her mid-80s. I feel very lucky to have seen people die. It’s made me much less anxious about the whole process.
Now, Sidney has given two of his granddaughters that gift.
The youngest, Talia, is a 27-year-old undergrad who works as a nanny. She lives about two hours from the nursing home. Since June, she’s been there every week when she’s not in school and every other week when she is.
On Tuesday, the evening before my first day of Christmas break, she called me at 9 p.m.
“Has anyone told you what’s going on with Grandpa?”
“Ummm…..no. What’s going on with Grandpa?”
“I’m in his room. He’s dying. Barbara called to tell me they said she needs to have a CNA in his room 24/7, so I told her to tell them I was coming down,” she said. Then she said something I knew she hadn’t told Barbara.
“There’s no way I’m going to let Grandpa die alone with a stranger in his room.”
I live a scant hour and a half from Sidney’s nursing home.
“Do you want me to come down?”
She burst into tears.
“Oh, Mommy! Would you?”
When I got there, he was actively dying (unconscious and in a state of possible semi-awareness). He was also agitated. I rousted the nursing staff when I found out that his last dose of morphine had been about two hours before.
I had Talia call Former Sister-In-Law, who was in from Texas and had taken off from her job to be there. (All I could think was – Lord, please don’t let him die with me in the room and NOT her). SIL and her lifelong best friend arrived at about 11:30. By 5 a.m., when they left to nap and shower before returning later in the day, Talia’s sisters had flights. Alex was coming in at 1 p.m. and Liza, who’d just seen him a week before, would arrive the next night.
Barbara showed up at about 8:45. The Hospice Nurse was there and told her she might want to tell him that it was okay for him to go.
She sat by him. She took his hand and said, “You’ll be in a better place, and we will all be okay.”
Then we went out for breakfast. She offered to split the bill. I didn’t let her.
I dropped her back at her place for a hair appointment (she lives in one of those all-inclusive assisted living complexes), hit up the grocery store for some provisions (a box of clementines, some grapefruit soda, a green plant) and headed back with food. Talia ate the to-go breakfast I’d gotten her and took off to fetch Alex from the airport.
We were alone for a bit.
I told Sidney that we’d all be okay and I’d keep up the weekly calls to Barbara. I played my guitalele and sang a bit for him, and then Vicky the Hospice Nurse, who turned out to have a great voice, showed up. We harmonized on songs we couldn’t remember the words to and told Sidney we were worth every penny he was paying us.
I also told him that for a man whose stock lines included “I’m not big on long goodbyes,” he sure seemed to be stretching this one out.
Then, I remembered that I had Mandy Patinkin singing Yiddish songs on my iPad (Sidney was a big fan of Yiddish songs). So I put that on for him. Alex & Talia arrived, then Cathy. When my daughter-in-law Abbi showed up a little after 3, it was okay – better in fact – for me to head out. The room wasn’t that big and at that point I was just extra baggage.
I sat beside him. I gave him a kiss.
“I’m not big on long goodbyes,” I told him.
Then, I made my way back to Milwaukee, exhausted but just in time for Christmas Eve with the in-laws.
Talia called at 8 to tell me Sidney had died, with Alex and Talia each holding one of his hands, Cathy with her hands on his head and Abbi sitting nearby.
When we were little, my sister and I really wanted a Christmas tree.
We did not want Christmas.
We had no problem with Christmas, but we were perfectly happy with Hanukkah. We liked being Jewish. We loved potato latkes and we got eight night’s worth of presents. So we never felt as if we were missing out on that score. Plus, as a religious minority, we got to partake in a fair share of Majority Culture’s fun. We sang Christmas carols in the school concert and participated in classroom gift exchanges.
Outside of school, Mom let us stand in line so we could sit on Santa’s lap (we always told him we were Jewish and he always wished us a Happy Hanukkah). And our parents took us on an annual nighttime ride around the city during which we oohed and ahhed at houses and houses dressed for the season. They’d pull over, leaving the car running and the heat on, giving us time to take it all in – block after block of lights stretched across houses and dripping from gutters, lit crèches and nativity scenes, rootop Santas and pine wreaths on front doors. If the curtains were open, we might get a glimpse of the family’s tree, festooned with ornaments, boxes piled below.
Then we’d go home to our darkened house. Debby and I never talked about how desperately we wanted a tree. Not to each other, and certainly not to our parents.
We never spoke of it.
It seemed too – blasphemous. Which was not a word either of us knew at that point in our lives. But Debby and I understood that a Christmas tree had no business in the rabbi’s living room, no matter how much the rabbi’s daughters wanted it. And boy, did we want it. A big ol’ fir tree strung with lights and popcorn chains, dripping with silvery strands of tinsel and delicate glass ornaments and maybe even candles you could really light.
We were about seven and eight when we solved our Christmas Tree Lust problem to my satisfaction. (I had a genuine “shock and awe” moment when I learned much later that Debby had, for years, also been decorating a triangular tree-like object she kept hidden on a shelf in her bedroom closet).
Mom & Dad regularly threw us out of the house on weekends.
“Go out and play!” they’d say. It was cold and inside was nicer. But they were in charge.
So we’d put on coats, hats, snow pants, mittens, scarves, grab sleds or whatever and head off looking for what to do and other kids with whom to do it.
One of those days there was just us. We’d walked the neighborhood looking for other kids, but everyone was busy or not home. I’m not sure who got the idea first, but it was just past Christmas. Discarded trees were everywhere.
I looked at her. She looked at me. We looked around, and chose. For the next two or three post-Christmas seasons, we would set out, hunting for the perfect discarded tree. We knew nothing of shape, or symmetry. We looked for tinsel, and types of needles, and whether we could get our hands around the trunk to drag it home. Then, we could imagine it had been in our living room, decorated with popcorn garlands, strung with lights, hung with tinsel and dripping ornaments.
Even though I only imagined one tree inside the house, there was usually more than one laying in the road outside our living room window. We’d see one that was just too perfect to resist (particularly if it still had tinsel slung over the branches) and add it to our collection.
My sister and I never talked about it. My mother and father never brought it up.
Decades later, after my father was long dead, I finally asked my mother what they’d thought about it all.
“We’d laugh,” Mom said. “And then, the night before the garbage truck came, your father would go outside after you were in bed and drag the trees next door to Dr. Cantor’s house.”
I’ve been looking forward to it since June, when he’d got cast.
Tommy is a ridiculously talented singer, actor and bass player who’s done a fair bit of work locally, but this is the biggest thing he’s been in since I joined the family. And he’d been a Twisted Sister fan in high school. If I’d ever heard a Twisted Sister song , I wasn’t aware of it (I was married to First Husband and too busy with babies to pay attention to ‘80s hair metal when it was happening), but I knew the name Dee Snider and that he was big for something. So I was thrilled for Tom and excited to see the show. We were going to drive down and stay at a friend’s house, then stop to see First Husband’s father on the way home. He’s not in terrific shape, and I try to visit him once a month or so.
Ironically, however, Downtown Chicago was closed for Christmas. Driving was a non-option. Thanks to our sister-in-law J, we didn’t find this out the hard way. This is the e-mail she forwarded Friday morning:
“Subject:IMPORTANT – PLEASE READ Lights Festival Information
The Magnificent Mile Association’s Lights Festival Parade is going to be this SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 22nd. There are events that occur from Oak Street to the South Side of the Chicago River throughout the day on Saturday.
Street closures occur throughout the Broadway Playhouse neighborhood during the day and evening. The attached notice defines streets and times of the closures. Please know it will be EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO CROSS MICHIGAN AVENUE LATER IN THE AFTERNOON AND EVENING. Closures will begin as early as 7am and end as late as 10pm.”
She wondered if anyone wanted to ride the train with her. P, my mother-in-law, did. So did we. I arranged for a dog sitter (and cat feeder), called our friends M&G for a ride and met up with J and P at the train station. P bought us a hotel room – our anniversary is Thanksgiving Day and that was her gift – and off we went.
After settling in at the hotel, walking along my side of Michigan Avenue (the parade was in full swing and I had a great view of peoples’ backs and the tops of floats) I managed to score us a dinner reservation at Deca, thanks to Fadi and his colleagues, who were staffing a hot chocolate stand outside the Ritz-Carlton. (Evidently Lights Festival Parade night is a big one for downtown restaurants and our hotel’s restaurant was full-up.) Three filet mignons later, we headed to Water Tower Place and the theater.
J’s parents and other family members were there. So was Sweetheart’s sister, her boyfriend and several of her friends. We took up the center section of two rows, and marveled at a guy with a dreadlock long enough to stuff into his back pocket.
Then the lights went down, and Dee came out and settled himself into the comfy leather chair in a nook at stage right set up as a study. He picked up a book and began to read the story of Daisy Cutter, a hair-metal band whose following had moved on decades before the curtain rose.
The show was silly, heartfelt, and a whole lot of fun. The music was great – all four actors played and sang (no lip-synching necessary), and the costumes alone – designed by Dee’s wife Suzette – were worth the price of admission. (Imagine technicolor Louis XIV crossed with stripper vibe times four, and you’ll kind of get the idea.)
The playbill said it ran 100 minutes (no intermission). It felt a lot quicker.
Afterward, Tommy introduced us to his castmates, and to Suzette and then Dee. Both hugged P and told her how much they adore her boy and what a great mom she clearly must be. (They got that one right.) They were gracious and open-hearted with the rest of us, too, as you can see from the pictures.
If you’re in Chicago between now and January 4th and want a silly, uncomplicated laugh – even if, like me, you’re Jewish, go. You won’t be sorry.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).