When she was alive, before she was sick, my late mother Louise (1933-2014) was asked by her older sister, Millie (1924- ), to come visit Chicagoland.
My mom, who had moved from Illinois to New Jersey, and now (reluctantly) California, did not want to come to Lincolnwood where her sister had moved into an assisted living facility.
My mother imagined that the weight and sadness of going back to the town where she had spent most of her life would be an arduous and morbid visit.
In August 2014, Louise went into her final weeks of life, her body ravaged by lung and bone cancer. She drifted in and out of consciousness. And cried out, only one word, over and over again: “Millie! Millie! Millie!”
Instead, the visitor who came from California to see Aunt Millie last week was me.
I was on a trip visiting three cities where I had once lived: Boston, New York and Chicago.
And when I landed at O’Hare, I rented a car, and drove east on the Kennedy and exited at Nagle. I had GPS, but it was redundant.
Hungry, I stopped at a restaurant stand advertising “pop” and hot dog and fries for $4.99.
I was in Chicago. A man in the booth in front of me had tattoos on his arms: “Bears” and “Chicago”.
The homely brick houses, the steel storm windows, the oversized green light poles, the neat stores, the spotless streets, this was my city.
But it felt strange. It was foreign. After all, I had moved out of here in 1979.
Lincolnwood Place, where Millie lives, is part of a remade industrial section of the village. It is next to a diagonally placed shopping mall with a Carson Pirie Scott and other stores, surrounded by mounds of watered and cut grass, acres of parking, and shaded by many trees.
It’s mediocre and modern with a plastic surface of prairie style. They once had trains and factories here, but that was long ago.
Across McCormick, the North Shore Sanitary Canal is now disguised by parkland with bike trails, trees, and further north, a sculpture garden incongruously placed near the sewage waters.
When I was young, an enormous, high, circular, green, natural gas tank, banded by red and white rectangular paint, stood near Pratt and the canal, looming over the flat lands like Godzilla. I imagined it was full of toilet water and feces that drained into the sewage canal.
I feared falling into that canal. I dreamed of it sometimes.
Maybe I had once heard a scary story.
In the early 1970s, one late afternoon, my mom was driving her convertible Delta 88 across the Touhy Avenue Bridge that crossed the canal, when my brother Jimmy jumped out of the open roofed car at a red light and ran down to the canal with my mother in chase.
There were always dramas like that in my family, so even last week, seeing my 91-year-old Aunt, living in the assisted living facility, right near the canal, I thought of those nightmares of shit and polluted water and the hideous gas tank, and my retarded and laughing brother as he ran down to the banks of the canal, terrifying my mother, but eventually getting caught, and dragged by his curly hair back up to the Oldsmobile.
Life was like that then. My mother worked hard at being a mother.
Louise loomed large, as she did for 52 years of my life, still haunting me in dreams, still imploring me to keep trying, to keep going, as if my life were meaningful because I was alive for her sake.
A cousin, a cynical and jaded cousin, who I adore, once called my mother “the injured party”. Meaning that my mother always assumed the injured role, wearing, with weary bitterness, a fatigue and an anger, pushed into martyrdom and meanness, her reaction to her position taking care of a retarded child and an epileptic husband.
She was always telling me how she was in labor for 19 hours before I was born, and that she would have become a famous soap opera writer if not for the fact that she chose to raise me and my brothers instead of working for the man, Bill Bell, who created “The Young and the Restless”. She knew him when she worked at WBBM-TV in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Some mothers will tell non-mothers, as parents tell non-parents, that all the hard work, all the suffering, all the sacrifice, means something. They will tell you, a childless man, that you are selfish, that your joy, earned without children, is meaningless. Those days of screaming, yelling, haranguing, they must mean something, as they once meant something to my mother who spent many days and hours throwing a whiffle ball back and forth with my retarded brother.
There were some mothers, back then, in Lincolnwood, who rode to the tennis court in their Cadillacs, who played cards, who had maids who cleaned their houses, and men who drove to The Corner Store on Cicero to get milk and ice cream and cigarettes. There were some mothers, back then, who vacationed in the Bahamas and Acapulco, whose kids came back tanned and freckled, just in time for the cold Chicago winter. And there were mothers who went out to eat, instead of cooking dinner every night. There were mothers who shopped at Old Orchard, who played golf at the club, who got their hair colored at Water Tower Place.
But my mother was not one of those mothers. And she let us know that she was better for not taking care of herself in pampering and luxury.
She ran up and down the stairs with loads of laundry.
And sometimes, at night, later, every single night, she drank vodka and grapefruit juice and smoked True Greens down in the basement with her friends Eve and Eli as the Fifth Dimension played.
But who remembers the mother who cared? Her ashes, her inconceivable death, sit in my garage, on a shelf in Van Nuys.
Aunt Millie is still funny, wise, and lovely. And living in an apartment where her paintings, books and photographs are basically the same ones she had when she lived in Glencoe in the 1960s and 70s. She never throws anything away.
She was so elated and thrilled to see me. And I felt the same way about her. After all, we both represent living embodiments of beloved dead people. She is the sister of the only mother I have. And the daughter of my favorite grandmother of all time: Bertha Lurie.
I had expected, from family reports, that Millie was “losing it”. But instead, her sagacity and intellect, even dimmed somewhat, outshone those of us who live in that bookless, vocabulary starved world of text messages, Instagram and Facebook.
91-years-old. Born 1924. Five years before The Great Depression. Seventeen years before Pearl Harbor. Thirty-nine years before Kennedy died. She was up and alive and breathing and living in Chicago when Al Capone was killing and Hitler was still in prison in Munich.
On Wednesday, I went to have lunch with two women who were old friends of my mom’s from the University of Illinois and Sigma Phi Epsilon: Judy Mamet and Jane Sherman.
I drove down to Lake Shore Drive, and exited Montrose, and found myself at Jane Sherman’s apartment. This was the same building, Imperial Towers, where she had lived in the 1960s and as a child I always drove past it thinking of her and that twin-towered, concrete and glass edifice tiled with aquatic, gray marine patterns. I later found out that Jane and her husband had only moved back here last year, in 2014.
I was truly in déjà vu land.
And more so when I parked on Hutchinson Street; a historic district full of Prairie Style homes.
Before I picked up Jane (what a“Mad Men” name!) I walked around the houses, shooting architectural photos.
As I looked through my lens at one property, a pillowy bottomed young woman in nylon shorts, walking two dogs, yelled out at me, “I do not give you permission to shoot photos of me!”
She came out of nowhere, and screamed it. And I told her I had no intention of shooting photos of her.
Later on, I was down the street still photographing houses, when she walked past, an enormous pink cased Samsung phone in her hand, filming me as she walked her dogs.
I was in that familiar land of the crazy Chicago woman, the kind of female who was all around me growing up, like the neighbor who used to spit on our lawn when she drove up at night because she hated my parents.
But the other kind of Chicago woman, nearly rational, always romantic, the kind who still calls herself a girl at 80, dresses up for lunch, perfect hair and make-up, and orders a martini at 12:30pm, those were the two ladies who took me out to Gibson’s on Rush Street.
Judy and Jane had a purpose for bringing me here. My parents had first met here when this spot was a nightclub, Mister Kelly’s.
After lunch, we went inside, and looked at the old photographs on the wall of the former space. Glamorous, elegant, and legendary, it’s where you went to hear jazz, where you went to impress a date, it’s where you went to go out and have a grand time.
And somehow, in 1958, that is where my parents first found each other. And that’s how I got here. And that’s where I went back to when I went back to Chicago last week.