Thursday, January 12, 2012

Happy Anniversary


Of all the joys that matrimony brings -- companionship, security, and bedtime spooning -- the thing I like best is this: I don’t have to wear a bra in the house.

Along with dumping tight undergarments when at home, I’ve let my once-black, then-hennaed, hair go gray; swapped contact lenses for bifocals, and replaced high heels with gym shoes.

It wasn’t always thus. In my first marriage, I remained glamorous for a spouse who deemed casual wear a rebuff. And in the eight years between the ending of that union and my marriage in 1998, I donned camouflage I deemed essential to survive the dating wars.

A bit of history of that pathetic time: Before searching for males or enlisting friends to fix me up, I updated my cosmetics and hair color, shopped Victoria’s Secret and Nordstrom’s shoe salon, and fortified my then 54-year-old ego for the possible trauma that lie ahead.

After several experiences with single men who failed to see my potential -- despite the costuming and overhaul, I marched on. For although I was enjoying my furlough from the rules and regulations of my marriage, I wanted a steady companion like my friends had. I hated being a third wheel when dining with friends, or the single relative minding the purses while couples swung on the dance floor.

So, I wrote this ad for the Personals: “DJF seeks widowed or divorced JM, 55-65, health-oriented, gray-hair, with grown children. Should be financially secure, college educated, a city dweller, and early riser. Reads NYT, listens to NPR, and watches Masterpiece Theater. Loves dogs, jazz, Stephen Sondheim, and ethnic restaurants.”

When I first met Tommy – on the street where I lived, not through the ad – I realized my preferred profile would need alteration. While his age, marital status, and most indulgences were on target, some key requirements were missing. Tommy was not Jewish, never went to college, was childless, lived on a very limited budget, and his hair – what remained – was brown.

I put aside the profile, and decided instead to be flexible – and to leap. That’s how I came to discover these attributes: Tommy was friendly, kind, curious, intelligent, and self-reliant. He was a superb athlete, a life-giving gardener to my pathetic plants, and handy around the house.

We dated, and after two years began to discuss marriage. Three close friends, who have elected to remain unmarried to their long-time partners, questioned my sanity: “Why mess up a good thing? You’ll lose your independence. Why do you want to be a wife again?”

How to explain the feeling that marriage was appropriate for us? “Boyfriend” sounded silly at 60; “partner” too business-like. “Husband.” just right. Both of us wanted to wrap our commitment to each other with bands of gold.

We considered possible dates and sites for a big wedding celebration, but instead of waiting, decided to turn a weekend in Las Vegas, already on the calendar, into a marriage ceremony and intimate wedding party.

On January 13, 1998 in the Wedding Chapel of the Treasure Island Hotel, with 16 people watching, my two daughters escorted Tommy down the aisle to a tape of “I’m Glad There Is You” sung by jazz great Johnny Hartmann.

A heartfelt ecumenical minister – who didn’t look a bit like Elvis – performed the ceremony; and in keeping with Jewish tradition, my Gentile Tommy raised his just-married right foot to smash a napkin-wrapped wine glass.

Recently in this 2012 year, as Tommy lay intertwined on the couch with our dog, I asked: “Did it ever bother you that I stopped dying my hair after we met, or that I don’t dress sexier around the house?”

He put down the remote, wrenched his eyes from the TV and focused on me. Once in his line of sight, Tommy appeared as someone who had just discovered his ice cream was really frozen yogurt -- not disappointed, just surprised.

Before picking up the remote and returning to a “Law and Order” re-run, he raised both hands in a thumbs up signal, which I interpreted as, “No, honey, you’re perfect just the way you are.”

Happy Anniversary to Tommy and me!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Seeds of Discontent



Three weeks. Three months. Elapses when I hear the seeds sprouting. Little grumbles at first, then kvetching. First to myself, then to friends. As certain as the sun will rise tomorrow, I do the leap, bail, drop out thing that I do do so well.

How am I convinced of this proclivity? I keep a journal. Faithfully, each day I record the happenings of the previous. Once entered, pen down, I re-read events of a year ago.

Oh, there is is; the familiar whining. The hour of the class is inconvenient (vocal), planks hurt my shoulder (yoga), need more money (retail gig), too far to drive (health club), no opportunity to practice (Spanish/piano). I could go on and on, but you get the pathetic picture.

Then it builds. As the pages turn throughout the year, I witness my own mental packing up. Excuses play out on each line. Blame spreads. Justifications. Then, sure enough, three (the magic number) weeks or months after the first itches, comes the inevitable leave-taking. I am shoving the songbooks behind books, stowing my yoga mat on a top shelf, ordering business cards for my newest enterprise, emptying the gym bag, and stacking the tapes atop the discarded CD pile.

You might think this sequence would lower my self esteem, make me angry at myself for giving up. Au contraire. I'm proud that I know when to cut my losses. Certainly, others may scold at yet another example of my bailing. But I counter, shouldn't I be praised for my willingness to jump in. To try out. To expand my horizons?

As you might expect, eyes typically roll as I fashion myself a hero rather than a gadfly. No matter. As long as I can convince myself that each new experience will surely travel beyond the three something, life goes on. And now, you'll have to excuse me. Tap dancing awaits.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sticking My Nose Into Other People’s Business


You call it Sticking My Nose Into Other People’s Business. I call it, Being Helpful. Notice the difference?

Here’s a reenactment to help explain my habit: I was in the aisle of an American Airlines plane returning from Boston to Chicago when I overheard (you may call it Eavesdropping. I call it, Paying Attention to My Surroundings.) two teenagers discussing their stuffed up ears. “Wait a few minutes,” one said to the other. “They’ll, like, open up on their own.”

Because I was sandwiched in between other de-planers and luggage, I couldn’t turn around and offer, “If you pinch your nostrils together and blow, your ears will immediately unclog.” In truth, another reason I didn’t swivel was because I feared I might cause the blocked teen an auditory emergency and incur a lawsuit. (Would the Good Samaritan Law have saved me?)

Another case in point: See me in Trader Joe’s strolling the aisles when I spy, er, spot, a harried young mother with two kids tussling over the shopping cart. “Ma, tell him to get off,” shouts the girl who has her mitts on the handlebars. She is referring to her sibling who is hanging off the other end. “Kevin,” the mother says, “stop annoying your sister. Get off.”

When next I observe the trio, Kevin is being carried in his mother’s arms, as if he were an infant rather than a nine-year-old, or so, boy. Oh how I want to approach the scene to relieve the burdened mother and say to Kevin, “I need help finding things on the shelves. Would you be willing to lend a hand?” I figure this would remove Kevin from the tableau, while making him feel important.

Of course, Mom might not comprehend my good intentions and cause her to call store security and warn a child kidnapper has entered the low-priced, store-brand aisles. So, I demur.

Here’s a last example: Recently, I was on the CTA -- a hotbed of Being Helpful possibilities -- when I saw a couple across the aisle studying a City of Chicago map. Their gazes went from the unwieldly paper to the transit sign above the exit doors. It was clear these out-of-towners were confused about their destination. I waited a bit to give them a chance to figure things out for themselves, thereby allowing them a triumphant moment.

Just as I was about to step over the passenger seated on my left and offer my help, a man behind the couple (I don’t know if I would’ve trusted him. He had those small beady eyes we’re always warned against.) leaned over and said, “Can I help?”

I listened to be sure Stranger Danger was providing accurate (I might have suggested Washington rather than Clark/Lake, but he was in the ballpark.) information. Mollified, I returned to my paperback. Off duty for a bit, I returned to the pages open on my lap. I found it hard to concentrate though, for a woman behind me was on her cellphone complaining to her mother about an inconsiderate roommate. I nodded my head sympathetically as I assumed the mom on the other end was doing. But, what if she wasn’t? What if she was distracted, disinterested, fed up with a whining child? Surely, this unfortunate young woman needed an older, wiser, mother's advice.

I waited until I heard the click of the cellphone. Then, I turned and put my elbow on my backseat. “Dear,” I started to say. She looked at me, likely with the same sour gaze that set off her roommate. She shook her head, grabbed her purse, and as she moved to another seat, I could hear her mutter, “Knew I should’ve driven.”

Oh well, at least I tried.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Really, Really Long Distance Birthday Phone Call


“Mom, where are you?” I said. My query was directed to the computer’s screen. We were using iChat, and I was anxious to see my mother’s face.

“A minute, a minute,” I could hear her say.

I turned up the volume on my Mac and heard clicks -- a lipstick top being circled downward, a pocket mirror snapped shut.

“You don’t have to put on a face for me,” I said. I raised my voice, not only because we were using technology to manage our two-way conversation, but also, because my mother and I were so far away. Me, here on earth. Her, up in heaven.

“What kind of example would I set coming to see my daughter with a plain face?” she asked. Slowly, the colored pixels on my screen swirled and combined into my mother’s beautiful face. Blue eyes the color of Lake Michigan, Max Factor’s bold red lipstick, and pinkish rouge that highlighted her cheeks as she smiled.

“You look gorgeous as always,” I said. I was telling the truth. In all the 67-years of her life, I doubt if she had a homely minute. Even when she lay in the hospital, on the last day of her life, she remained the prettiest woman I had ever seen.

“So, you’re still wearing your hair grey,” she said. The corners of her mouth turned down, as did her voice. “And so short? Why not a little color? I liked it when you were a redhead,” she continued. “Some length wouldn’t be so bad either.”

I laughed. When she was on earth, judgments like that would sting. But with her gone nearly 30 years, I relished any of her comments. And, I was a big girl now, a mother and grandmother, five years older than she ever got to be. With age and wisdom, I realized her enormous love for me pushed her improvement efforts.

“Listen, Mom,” I said. “I have to apologize. I think I was too hard on you in my memoir."

“You think?” she repeated. The tone was sarcastic, but she was smiling. Her eyes confirmed she was kidding.

“Writers embellish,” she said. She tossed a manicured hand upward, as if to fling my apology away. “That’s what I told the crowd here. She had to have conflict, drama. What kind of an author would my daughter be, I told them, if it was blah. No fights.”

“Whew, I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “I’ve been worried about your reaction.”

“I liked the part when you said I was a good businesswoman,” she said. “That gave me the nerve to start my own company.”

“You’re in business?” I said. “That’s so great! What is it?”

“I have a clothing line,” she said. “My own designs. MinWear. One word. I have a website.”

"A website?" I asked. "I didn't know you had them up there."

"You never heard of cloud computing?" she asked. "I'm surprised; you're supposed to be such a techie."

Again, I ignored the jab. "Clothing," I repeated. Then, I recalled the awful outfits she bought for me in my childhood: the plain, scratchy green woolen skirt, the outlandish brown storm coat, the shoes with wedge heels to make me taller. And, I could see the cheap, gaudy clothing she considered beautiful for herself.

I bit my tongue. “So how’s it going?” I asked. “How are sales?”

“Well, you know the economy,” she said. She did sound businesslike. “It’s affected us up here, too.”

“I’m sure it’ll pick up,” I said. “So, listen, I got in touch to find out what you’d like you’d your birthday. Give me a hint.”

“I love all the pictures you’ve sent of my granddaughters and great grandchildren,” she said. “I show them off to my family whenever you send new ones. But, it’s hard with the iPhone you sent last year.”

I had a feeling I knew where this was going. Now that Mother was a businesswoman and needed gadgets to increase productivity, I was certain I could predict her suggestion.

“Have you seen the iPad?” she asked. Her face on the computer screen was alive with excitement. “If you can handle the shipping charges, I’d really love one of those.”

“No problem, Mom," I said. “No problem. It’s on its way.”

Thursday, January 06, 2011

January 7, 1946


The Division Street Princess
By Elaine Soloway
Chapter Five (Condensed from the original.)

SNOW MELTED; WINTER TURNED TO SPRING

On January 7, 1946, in the early hours of a Chicago morning, a six-year-old girl on the northwest side of the city was the victim of a horrific crime. When it happened, I was only one year older than that little girl, and was so traumatized by the case, that I never forgot her name, details of the investigation, or other piercing events of that year.

Before news of the crime hit the streets and airwaves, the scene that Monday in our Division Street flat was typical for a wintry day: The temperature outside was only ten degrees, so Mom fixed a breakfast of hot Malt-O-Meal for me and my 10-year-old brother Ronnie. After insisting on adding leggings to my school outfit of corduroy skirt and knitted pullover, Mom walked us downstairs where Dad was warming up the car.

If it was snowing, raining, or the weather was at all lousy, Dad would pack as many neighborhood kids that could fit into his four-door Buick, and deliver or fetch us from school -- four long city blocks away. This day, when a patrol boy spotted a half dozen of us -- bundled in fat coats, knitted caps, and neon mittens -- spilling from the Buick, he nudged a kid nearby and exclaimed, “Look--it’s just like the clown car at Ringling Brothers!”

After spending an uneventful day in second grade, I exited the school’s double doors at 3:15 and was delighted to find Dad and his Buick waiting at the curb. My father drove the same herd back home and parked in front of our store. He sent the kids to their appreciative parents, Ronnie to Deborah Boys Club, then took my mittened hand in his to enter the store.

I was on my way to my mother to get my after-school kiss when something in the Chicago Daily News caught my eye. “You don’t need to read that,” my mother said when she saw me halt at the newspaper that was spread open on her counter. I was staring at a page in the afternoon Red Streak that displayed a picture of a little girl. The headline read: Kidnap Girl 6 From Bed Here. The story under the black-and-white photograph said that six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was asleep in the first-floor bedroom of her parents’ apartment on North Kenmore Avenue, when through a window left open a few inches, someone climbed into the bedroom, kidnapped the little girl, and left a ransom note demanding $20,000 for her safe return. As I studied the girl’s photo and absorbed the report, my heart was beating so loud, I was sure customers in our store could hear the thumping.

“Climbed into the bedroom,” I repeated to myself. I slept close to the window -- just like the little girl in the story. Maybe I should switch sides with Ronnie who slept closer to the door. Back then, I never thought twice about a boy and girl sharing the same bed. In fact, I felt safer with my brother’s solid shape nearby. Anyway, other families in our cramped, immigrant neighborhood had similar arrangements: Kids would get the one bedroom, while adults took the Murphy Bed or a couch that opened for two. This worked well for my family, because once my parents tucked us in, they were free to stay up late, listen to the radio, and quarrel.

The girl in the newspaper photo -- who slept all alone in her bedroom without a big brother at her side -- had a cute round face, something like mine, and she was smiling.

She was wearing a dress with a Peter Pan collar, like the one Mother bought for me at Mandel Brothers. Under the girl’s snapshot was this description: “Hair-Reddish blond, bobbed. Eyes-Blue. Weight-74 pounds and plump. Height-52 inches. Clothing at time of abduction-blue pajamas. Disposition-Cheerful and fearless.”

As my trembling fingers held the newspaper, I studied the little girl’s picture and wondered how my parents would describe me if I were the one snatched from my side of the bed near the window. They’d say, “Black wavy hair, green eyes, 40 pounds, 40 inches (that’s what the doctor measured at my last visit), pink pajamas.” That part was easy. But certainly not “cheerful and fearless.” “Good little girl and a scardy cat” was more like it.

“Vez meir, the poor parents,” Mrs. Schwartz said, as she craned over my shoulder to read the print, and at the same time place a package of Rinso soap powder, a bottle of Fleecy White bleach, and a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes on Mom’s counter. In a fur hat that was balding in spots, a man’s long coat, and galoshes, Mrs. Schwartz looked like a Cossack stripped of his rank.

“They’ll find the little girl,” my mother said, tilting her head in my direction and shaking it side-to-side to prevent Mrs. Schwartz from going any further. “Once the kidnapper gets the gelt, he’ll let her go.”

As Mom added the column of grocery prices she had pencilled on a brown paper bag, Mrs. Schwartz interrupted her, “Put it in the book, bubbalah, okay? I forgot to bring my purse.” She spread her two palms before my mother, showing them empty, as if she was a thief proving her innocence.

I watched my mother’s face dim as she removed her ledger book from the shelf where it was hidden.

Oh, oh, another credit customer, I thought -- that’s bad for business. I moved behind the counter to put my arms around my mother’s waist, comforting her and me at the same time. “Are you sure he’ll let her go, Mommy?” I asked, warmed in the cosmetic fragrances that masked food remnants hugging her apron. Camay soap, Halo shampoo, and Max Factor makeup battled daily against garlicky deli meats and cheeses. I was grateful the perfumes had won out.

“Of course he’ll let her go,” she said, as she imprinted her red lips on my forehead and combed my hair from my face with her fingers. She turned the newspaper upside down and said, “I heard on the radio that hundreds of detectives are searching all over her neighborhood. Now go in the back and do your homework. Forget about the paper.” Calmed by her words, I walked towards the kitchen, but could hear Mrs. Schwartz, who had righted the paper, say, “It says they’re looking in boiler rooms, alleys and hallways and under porches. Gevalt!”

On my way to the kitchen I smiled a “hello” to Mrs. Friedman who was standing at my dad’s meat counter, thumping her hand on the glass. “Hurry up already, Irv,” Mrs. Friedman said. “I need a pound of ground beef for dinner.” A lantsman from the old country, Mrs. Friedman was more Americanized than the other customer. Like my mother, she was attractive, stylishly dressed in a fitted woolen coat and matching hat, and never left her apartment without makeup and high-heeled shoes.

“Hold your horses, I’ll be right there,” Dad said. “I had to pick up my princess from school. You want she should walk in this weather?” I stayed to watch my dad because I knew he was about to perform his magic act and didn’t want to miss a step. With his thick coat still on, Dad entered the walk-in freezer, returned with a slab of beef he had grabbed from its hook, and placed it on a wooden cutting board. Then, he tossed his coat to me and rolled up his sleeves. Like a spellbound assistant at the edge of a stage, I stared as Dad wiped his hands on his apron. With his twinkling dark brown eyes; and the white fabric covering his short, round body, Dad reminded me of the snowman some kids had sculpted in the schoolyard that morning. But my dad was powerful and protective. He’d never melt away at the first burst of heat.

Hugging his coat to my small body, I smelled the cigarette smoke that clung to its fibers and I flicked away ashes that fell like snowflakes onto the sawdust floor. I watched as Dad picked up a shiny cleaver and used it to chop the raw beef into chunks. With his two stubby hands, Dad scooped the pile up, then dropped it into a metal grinder. He rotated the machine’s handle with one hand, and with the other, shoved the beef through the funnel until the chunks became red braids, which dripped onto the butcher paper below.

As Dad wrapped up the ground beef, completing his act, I made my way to the kitchen in the rear of our store. When I reached the radio, I turned up its volume. The dial was set to WGN, and R.F. Hurleigh was saying how worried Mr. and Mrs. Degnan, the parents of the kidnapped girl, were. Oh no, she’s still missing, I thought. I sat down, still wearing my winter coat and leggings, still carrying Dad’s overcoat, as I was unwilling to shed their warmth from my shivering body.

The newscaster said Suzanne’s parents “were trying to raise the ransom to satisfy the abductor and regain their child safe and unharmed.” Mr. Degnan spoke, too. He was crying, and said, “I’ll do anything to get my child back. All we want is Suzanne back.”

Where would my parents ever get $20,000 if they had to buy me back? Would my aunts and uncles chip in, my Zadie? Often, I heard my parents bickering about money. Some weeks Daddy couldn’t even pay the delivery drivers, how could he find money to rescue me?

On the radio, Mr. Hurleigh said the police believed Suzanne was taken between 1 and 2 a.m. because that’s when Mr. Degnan was awakened by the sound of his neighbor’s two boxer dogs barking and the voice of his daughter saying, “But I’m sleepy. I don’t want to get up.” Her father thought Suzanne was talking in her sleep, so he did not go to her bedroom to investigate. Suzanne’s mother said she thought she heard moaning or a soft cry coming from either Suzanne’s or her 10-year-old sister Elizabeth’s room. She went to the hallway and listened at both bedroom doors and when she did not hear anything, returned to her own bed.

What if my parents thought that sounds coming from my bedroom would be Ronnie and me horsing around, and then ignore the noise of an intruder? My brother would surely wake if somebody climbed in through our window, wouldn’t he? Even if I couldn’t yell because my voice froze like it sometimes did in nightmares, Ronnie could feel the cold air. He’d save me, wouldn’t he?

That night, I searched for a star in the murky winter sky and when I found one, recited my star light, star bright prayer. I asked God to keep little Suzanne alive. I prayed the kidnapper didn’t tie her up, like in the movies. I prayed my mother was right, and that as soon as he got the ransom money, the kidnapper would let Suzanne go back to her worried-sick parents.

But the next morning, on January 8th, the headline read, Kidnapped Girl Found Slain, Dismembered, Hid in Sewer. As I read the story under the headline, I felt as if I was going to throw up: “The head, torso, and legs were found in four different catch basins near her home. Early this morning, only the arms of the victim were missing.”

“No, no!” I cried, tears falling from my eyes to the newspaper. My parents both left their work counters and ran towards me, each blaming the other for leaving the paper where I could find it. “Sshh, sshh,” my mother said, wiping tears from her eyes as she hugged and tried to soothe me. “The police will find the terrible man who did this.”

“Poor Suzanne, poor Suzanne,” I kept saying, as I buried my face in her apron. This time, with the grisly details of the murder imprinted in my brain -- as vivid as the lipstick stain my mother had planted on my forehead the day before -- my mother’s words and warmth could not console me. I continued to sob. Some tears were for that cheerful and fearless little girl with reddish-blonde, bobbed hair, and others for me, the dark-haired child who slept close to the window that opened onto frigid, nightmarish Division Street.

“Is it closed tight?” I asked my father that evening.

“The window is locked,” he said, and proved it by trying and failing to pull up the sealed window frame. “See? You have nothing to worry about.”

“Can you leave the bedroom door open all the way?”

“Change places,” Ronnie said. “I’ll sleep near the window.” In size and shape, with black hair and a boyishly handsome face, and wearing long pajamas, my brother resembled Robin in the Saturday serials we watched at the Vision Theater. But to me, his chivalry that night turned him into the bigger, braver Batman. I’m not certain why Ronnie wasn’t as shattered by the crime as I was. Perhaps because he was a boy, four years older than the victim, and more daring than I, he couldn’t imagine something like that happening to him.

It was easy to switch places and surrender my Division Street scene and my nightly search for stars, for I figured no one was in heaven listening to my prayers. Now, with my big brother between me and a possible ladder, with light from the kitchen and the voices of my parents’ drifting into our bedroom, I tried to erase thoughts of poor Suzanne.

In school the next day, one of the girls raised her hand to ask the teacher about the newspaper story. Miss Green rose from her chair, smoothed creases from the lap of her long-sleeved dress, then leaned back against her thick oak desk with her brown-spotted hands gripping its edge. “It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened,” she said, “but all of the police in the city are looking for the evil man who did this. They will find him -- maybe even before you get home from school today -- and put him in jail. You’re all safe here and in your homes. Now, let’s get on with our work.” My gray-haired teacher’s words were reassuring, but her troubled look was not.

As Miss Green turned to the blackboard, I looked around my second grade classroom. Because I was the shortest girl in the group, and the teacher’s helper, I sat in the first row first seat. My feet -- which barely touched the floor -- swung back and forth. I smelled pencils and chalk dust and studied the strips of perfect penmanship streaming along the wall above the teacher’s head. The bulletin board on my right was filled with compositions on lined paper -- two were mine, gold stars adorned their corners. Everything looked the same as before Christmas vacation, except the Santa Claus and snowmen drawings were gone. But the room felt different: bare, cold, and as colorless as the wintry view from the classroom’s enormous windows.

The afternoon Chicago Daily News bore the headline, Killer’s ‘Butcher Tub’ Found, Janitor Quizzed. Why did they have to say “butcher?” I asked myself as I read the paper someone had stuffed in the trash. Daddy’s a butcher; he’d never chop up a little girl.

The newspaper said the police were questioning a janitor about Suzanne’s murder because they found “the dissection chamber” in his building: “The police were encouraged because they found bits of flesh, blood and hair in the drains of three of the four washtubs. The police then realized this was where Suzanne was hacked and sawed into five or six pieces after being strangled.”

Hacked, sawed, strangled -- these were not second-grade words, but I knew what they meant. It was as if a Grimms’ villain had escaped from his fairy tale page and was running loose in Chicago -- wicked beyond even the authors’ ghoulish imaginations. The next day’s paper -- that I snuck a look at when my parents weren’t nearby -- reported that the janitor was no longer a suspect and the police released him from custody. Suzanne’s killer was still at large, maybe even looking for his next little-girl victim.

That night, long after Ronnie had fallen asleep, I lay awake and imagined Suzanne’s terror. My heart was beating so loud, I was surprised it didn’t wake my brother. Despite the cold night, I sweated as I envisioned the killer hacking Suzanne into pieces. I squeezed my eyes tight to erase his hand lifting a meat cleaver above his head, then slamming it down on Suzanne’s 52-inch body. I scooted to the foot of the bed, slid down, and padded to the bedroom door. I could hear my father’s heavy snoring. If I climbed into my parents’ bed now, I’d surely wake them. They needed their sleep for work, I thought. Stop being such a baby. Go back to bed. Try being fearless for once in your life.

My parents must have been as frightened as I was, because every day the killer was at large, they’d ask, “Where are you going? Who are you going to play with? What time will you be home?” I wasn’t allowed to play outside -- which was fine with me -- but I still was terrified at night.

One evening, I could hear the radio playing in the kitchen. Above my parents’ usual squabbles, I could hear Mr. District Attorney about to begin. But when the announcer said, “The Case of the Three Steps to Death,” I heard footsteps bolt to the radio. Then, Eddie Cantor came on.

As days passed without the killer being found, the newspapers reported that, “frightened and angry parents were demanding action from the police. Mayor Kelly and Chief of Detectives Storms promised to stay on the case until little Suzanne’s slayer was apprehended.”

Suzanne Buried While Flowers Dance In Wind was how the Chicago Daily Tribune described her funeral on January 12, 1946: “Somehow, the flowers seemed symbolic of the pretty, little, blonde-haired child who had fallen into the hands of a butchering criminal last Monday morning.” My parents had given up trying to shield me from the news because that was all people were talking about anyway on Division Street. As I looked at the newspaper pictures of Suzanne’s small coffin about to be lowered in the ground at All Saints’ Cemetery, I burst into tears. What if that was me shut in a box, buried deep in the frozen dirt of Jewish Waldheim? What if I never saw my mother, father, or Ronnie ever again?

Snow melted, winter turned to spring, and still no breakthrough in the case. Finally, on June 29, a newspaper headline read: U.C. Sophomore Seized as Burglar; Surgeons Tools Found in Room. Five-and-a-half months after Suzanne Degnan’s kidnapping and murder, the police matched “husky six-footer” William Heirens’ fingerprints with those on the ransom note left in her bedroom and arrested Heirens for the little girl’s murder. Along with two sets of surgical instruments, the police found guns, and items stolen from two women whose homes had been burglarized in 1945 -- one woman’s throat had been slashed, the other had been smashed in the head.

In Heirens’ parents’ home, the police found in the attic “40 pairs of women’s underwear and a homemade scrapbook of Nazi leaders.” The police also linked Heirens to the murder of 33-year-old Frances Brown. After he had shot and stabbed the woman, the killer took a tube of her lipstick and wrote on the wall above her bed, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” Fifty days after his arrest, and to avoid the electric chair, Heirens confessed to three murders, including Suzanne’s. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. The next day’s paper read, “Walking the streets at night is now a bit safer, now that the werewolf is in chains.”

(William Heirens, accused of the murder of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan, is photographed by police. Photo by Bill Knefel, July 3, 1946. As published in the Çhicago Sun-Times, Inc. Çopyright 2005. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. Reprinted with permission.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Scaredy-Cat


This afternoon, I join Janie Isackson's Ethnic Chicago class to answer questions the DePaul University students have after reading my memoir, "The Division Street Princess." Thirty-four questions await. The first sent me thinking. It read, "If you could go back in time, what is the one thing that you would change about your childhood?"

That's easy. I'd toss my timidity. This excerpted selection from Chapter 3, Safe on our Shores, explains:

In July of 1944, my sidewalk play was simple and cautious because I was small for my age and a poor athlete. I snapped a rubber ball down and up, lifting my right knee as I recited: A, My Name Is Alice. My right hand palmed the ball, my left pressed my light-weight cotton skirt flat against my thigh so my underpants wouldn’t show. Because of my timidity, I admired girls who were tougher and braver, like Franny Jacobs—or F.J. as she preferred to be called.

“A tomboy, shmutzik and wild,” my mother had said when I first revealed my reverence for this older girl. I had just come in from playing outside, and Mother was combing my hair with her fingers when she unleashed her criticism, using Yiddish from the old country for emphasis.

“What kind of girl is that? A mieskeit. Makes up a name for herself. Does whatever she wants. Oye veh, her poor parents.” As my 31-year-old mother used a Kleenex moistened with her saliva to wipe dirt off my face,” she went on, “little girls should act like little girls, not wild Indians.”

I hated it when my mother tidied me up like that, trapping me in her firm hands like a feline pawing her kitten. I suppose I should have been used to it, for that was my mother’s reaction whenever she caught me coming in from play. Whether she was downstairs behind the cash register of our grocery store, or upstairs in our flat fixing supper, she’d interrupt her chore to attack my unruly hair and food-spotted mouth. Then, she’d seal my cleansing with, “Stand up straight.” What was she grooming me for? I often wondered. If it was to be a glamour girl like her, it was a lost cause.

Just once, I would have loved to have her welcome me with open arms—like the statue in Humboldt Park—instead of with nail-polished fingers poised to rearrange me.

When my mother harped on Frannie Jacobs, I didn’t defend or argue, because I was a good little girl who never talked back. Mostly I kept my hero worship to myself. I envied everything about F.J. She was skinny and tall, and nimble like Jane in the “Tarzan” movies. She could outrun any boy on the block, or push back if one were to lay a hand on her. Her wardrobe—untucked shirts and boy’s pants—must have been her choosing, unlike the dull matching outfits Mother laid out for me each morning.

And F.J.’s sandy-colored hair stood where the wind had styled it. She could hop off her brother’s bike without skinning a knee, and if she did scar, she’d display the mark proudly, as if she were a sailor with shore-leave tattoos. And I never saw her cry, not once.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer Days on Division Street




Condensed from Chapter Three of
"The Division Street Princess"
SAFE ON OUR SHORES



Summer was the best time to be a kid on Division Street: School was out, daylight stretched past usual bedtimes, best pals lived on the block, and our playground was right outside our front door. True, our concrete field lacked grass or gravel to cushion a fall, and there were no regulation bases or home plates that our neighborhood park offered. But because Humboldt Park was seven blocks away at Sacramento Boulevard, and it was rumored that puny Jewish kids might get hassled by tough Gentiles, my age group stayed close to home.

Unlike Humboldt Park’s splendid shade trees, fragrant blossoms, and tranquil waters, our summer backdrop on Division Street consisted of brick apartment buildings, ground-floor businesses with plate glass windows, and cast-iron lampposts. To be heard by playmates, we had to shout above the screeches and horns of passing streetcars and automobiles. And the scents that assaulted our noses were gasoline fumes or cooking odors from open windows in the flats above our heads.

Nonetheless, the kids who lived on busy Division street or on nearby side streets like Campbell, Haddon, or Rockwell, considered ourselves charmed in 1944 -- the year I turned six --to have Chicago sidewalks as our playground.

All sorts of games took place on the hot pavement: Boys hurled pink Spauldings against brick walls to score runs, girls bounced balls and played jump rope and hopscotch, and everyone shot marbles, cast yo-yos, rode second-hand Schwinns, and roller skated on metal wheels that had to be clamped to our feet.

My child-sized summer seemed to be far from the world events that had gripped our country ever since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor three years earlier. Although I caught bits of news from my parents, or from Movietone newsreels, newspaper headlines, and evening radio broadcasts, I was untouched by the war -- like most of my playmates. We knew about D-Day on June 6, 1944, when a million Allied troops under General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in Normandy. But our families were intact: Our fathers were either too old or unfit, and our mothers sweated in cramped, humble kitchens, or behind store counters. If there was a Rosie the Riveter in my neighborhood, I didn’t know her.

Still, I was reminded daily of the war through public-spirited signs that were plastered on Division Street’s storefronts, “Buy War Bonds and Stamps. Keep America Free. Let’s All Back the Attack With War Bonds.” In the comics, Little Orphan Annie urged me to collect scrap metal, Joe Palooka joined the Army, and Terry --of Terry and The Pirates-- fought the Japs. And advertisements that my mother read to me from Life Magazine combined products with patriotism, like the one for the $10 Royal Stetson Playboy hat my father stored on the top shelf of our hall closet, “Loose talk can lengthen the war. So--whatever you hear, whatever you know, whatever you learn, don’t let it get to the enemy. Keep it under your Stetson.”

Despite these constant cues, I felt safe on our shores, believing my Division Street was a million miles from World War II, a million miles from danger.

Summer days on Division Street, children claimed our concrete playing field, but by early evenings, we’d relinquish a portion to our parents. The sidewalk in front of our store was the customary gathering spot. And since our block was made up of six- and twelve-flat apartment buildings -- absent of porches or stoops -- the adults, like their creative children, improvised.

“Here, put them here,” Mrs. Levinson said to her husband Saul one evening that July, as she pointed to a spot to the right of our grocery’s front door. Rose Levinson was the apple of her husband’s eye, as well as of her three sons. Mr. Levinson, bulky as my dad, was schlepping four metal card chairs -- two for his wife and him, the others reserved for my parents.

Although our store usually shut its doors at five -- when my mother flipped the light switch and my father reversed the “Open” sign -- on muggy nights like this one, they kept the doors unlocked until the last kid had been dragged upstairs for bed. It was Mom’s idea to extend business hours. “The kids will want ice cream,” she said to Dad, “why let them get it from the truck?”

Despite my mother’s prediction about the summer evening’s trade, it was adults, not kids, who would draw my parents from their seats to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, Kayo, or seltzer, or a pack of Chesterfield’s or Pall Mall’s. The kids were like Alan Levinson who was tugging on his father’s shirt and hoping up and down at the sound of the Good Humor bell. “Pa, it’s coming,” Alan screamed, “I need two cents.”

As Mr. Levinson reached into his trousers’ pocket for loose change, Mrs. Levinson turned to my mother, put a hand on Mom’s aproned knee, and said, “Min, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” my mother said, waving away her friend’s apology. “Let him enjoy.”

On that July evening, the Friedmans and the Rosenbergs soon joined the Levinsons on the sidewalk. Each newcomer carried a card chair that squeaked as it was unfolded. These were the same chairs that were stored flat in a hall closet, then opened weekly for rounds of Pinochle and Gin Rummy, or Canasta and Kalukee. This night, as our neighbors settled in on their metal chairs, the men unbuttoned shirt collars and lit unfiltered cigarettes, and the women fixed their eyes on their wild kinderlach on the concrete stage before them.

A few of the men, including my father, shunned chitchat and folded damp arms under heads, and leaned back against the brick building. Subdued by a day of labor, several helpings of heavy Jewish cooking, and gasoline fumes from the street, they schloffed. Nothing could rouse our dozing fathers -- neither the screams of their flying children, nor the sounds of radio programs that leaked from open windows overhead. The crackley broadcasts of The Goldbergs or The Jack Benny Show, with their familiar characters and easy going plots, lulled -- rather than disturbed -- the drained men.

With my mother wrapped up in her conversation with Rose Levinson, and my father out for the count, I joined a game of Ring-A-Leevio in progress. Richie Freedman was “It.” He was leaning into the lamppost, eyes closed, and counting to 100. Like the rest of the gang, I ran to hide, and picked the passageway between our apartment building and the next. Although it was dark in there, I wasn’t scared because I could hear Richie’s loud count, and the rise and fall of adult voices. When Richie yelled, “Olie Olie Ocean Free,” we all leapt from our hiding places and raced to touch the metal post before Richie could tag us.

As I sped to the goal, I pretended I was Jane in the jungle, free and fearless, flying through the air on a ropy vine. With Tarzan’s imagined yell trumpeting in my ears, I turned my hands into fists and pumped my small arms as hard as I could.

But as I neared the post, Alan Levinson came flying in from another direction. Like fighter planes in the newsreels, the ones that exploded in midair combat, Alan and I smashed into each other and fell backwards to the merciless pavement. As we lay groaning, our mothers sprung from their chairs and sped to our splayed bodies.

I tried to hold back tears as my mother inspected my arms and legs. “Meshugganas,” she said, after assuring there were no broken bones. “That’s what you get for playing rough.” Then, after performing her on-the-spot clean-up and pocketing the used Kleenex, she kissed my forehead and returned to her chair. Afterwards, I wore my Mercurochromed-bruises proudly, unlike some of the other scars I collected later that week on Division Street.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Insomnia


I stood terrified at the coffee-grinding machine. I had dumped my decaf into the chamber, placed the empty can below the spout, turned on the machine, and out the coffee poured. And poured. And poured. The last customer had evidently left coffee in the chamber. What if it was regular, full bodied? 100% caffeine? Just the possibility of caffeine in my post-dinner coffee would keep me awake.

The incident got me wondering about my sleep issues. I can fall asleep easily, but after four hours, my eyes pop open, my brain is in gear, then it’s toss and turn. Or milk. Or melatonin. Or Tylenol. Anything to lull me back.


I think I figured out where my insomnia began. As expected, it goes back to childhood. On Division Street. To confirm, I reread a particularly harrowing chapter from my memoir. It provides a clue to present day sleep problems. See if you agree.

THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS

Chapter Five (Condensed)

“Snow Melted; Winter Turned to Spring



On January 7, 1946, in the early hours of a Chicago morning, a six-year-old girl on the northwest side of the city was the victim of a horrific crime. When it happened, I was only one year older than that little girl, and was so traumatized by the case, that I never forgot her name, details of the investigation, or other piercing events of that year.

I was on my way to my mother to get my after-school kiss when something in the Chicago Daily News caught my eye. “You don’t need to read that,” my mother said when she saw me halt at the newspaper that was spread open on her counter. I was staring at a page in the afternoon Red Streak that displayed a picture of a little girl. The headline read: Kidnap Girl 6 From Bed Here.

The story under the black-and-white photograph said that six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was asleep in the first-floor bedroom of her parents’ apartment on North Kenmore Avenue, when through a window left open a few inches, someone climbed into the bedroom, kidnapped the little girl, and left a ransom note demanding $20,000 for her safe return.

As I studied the girl’s photo and absorbed the report, my heart was beating so loud, I was sure customers in our grocery store could hear the thumping. “Climbed into the bedroom,” I repeated to myself. I slept close to the window -- just like the little girl in the story. Maybe I should switch sides with Ronnie who slept closer to the door.

Back then, I never thought twice about a boy and girl sharing the same bed. In fact, I felt safer with my brother’s solid shape nearby. Anyway, other families in our cramped, immigrant neighborhood had similar arrangements: Kids would get the one bedroom, while adults took the Murphy Bed or a couch that opened for two.

The girl in the newspaper photo -- who slept all alone in her bedroom without a big brother at her side -- had a cute round face, something like mine, and she was smiling. She was wearing a dress with a Peter Pan collar, like the one Mother bought for me at Mandel Brothers. Under the girl’s snapshot was this description: “Hair-Reddish blond, bobbed. Eyes-Blue. Weight-74 pounds and plump. Height-52 inches. Clothing at time of abduction-blue pajamas.Disposition-Cheerful and fearless.”


I studied the little girl’s picture and wondered how my parents would describe me if I were the one snatched from my side of the bed near the window. They’d say, “Black pigtails, green eyes, pink pajamas.” That part was easy. But certainly not “cheerful and fearless.” “Good little girl and a scardy cat” was more like it.

The radio was on and its dial set to WGN. R.F. Hurleigh said the police believed Suzanne was taken between 1 and 2 a.m. because that’s when Mr. Degnan was awakened by the voice of his daughter saying, “But I’m sleepy. I don’t want to get up.” Her father thought Suzanne was talking in her sleep, so he did not go to her bedroom to investigate.

What if my parents thought that sounds coming from my bedroom would be Ronnie and I horsing around, and then ignore the noise of an intruder?

The next morning, on January 8th, the newspaper headline read, Kidnapped Girl Found Slain, Dismembered, Hid in Sewer. As I read the story, I felt as if I was going to throw up: “The head, torso, and legs were found in four different catch basins near her home. Early this morning, only the arms of the victim were missing.

“Poor Suzanne, poor Suzanne,” I kept saying, as I buried my face in my mother's apron. Some tears were for that cheerful and fearless little girl with reddish-blonde, bobbed hair, and others for me, the dark-haired child who slept close to the window that opened onto frigid, nightmarish Division Street.

“Is it closed tight?” I asked my father that evening.

“The window is locked,” he said, and proved it by trying and failing to pull up the sealed window frame. “See? You have nothing to worry about.”

“Can you leave the bedroom door open all the way?”

“Change places,” Ronnie said. “I’ll sleep near the window.”

In school the next day, one of the girls raised her hand to ask the teacher about the newspaper story. “It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened,” Miss Green said, “but all of the police in the city are looking for the evil man who did this. They will find him and put him in jail. You’re all safe here and in your homes."

The afternoon Chicago Daily News bore the headline, Killer’s ‘Butcher Tub’ Found, Janitor Quizzed. Why did they have to say “butcher?” I asked myself as I read the paper someone had stuffed in the trash. Daddy’s a butcher; he’d never chop up a little girl.

The newspaper said the police were questioning a janitor about Suzanne’s murder because they found “the dissection chamber” in his building: “The police were encouraged because they found bits of flesh, blood and hair in the drains of three of the four washtubs. The police then realized this was where Suzanne was hacked and sawed into five or six pieces after being strangled.

Hacked, sawed, strangled -- these were not second-grade words, but I knew what they meant. It was as if a Grimms’ villain had escaped from his fairy tale page and was running loose in Chicago -- wicked beyond even the authors’ ghoulish imaginations. The next day’s paper reported that the janitor was no longer a suspect and the police released him from custody. Suzanne’s killer was still at large, maybe even looking for his next little-girl victim.

That night, long after Ronnie had fallen asleep, I lay awake and imagined Suzanne’s terror. My heart was beating so loud, I was surprised it didn’t wake my brother. Despite the cold night, I sweated as I envisioned the killer hacking Suzanne into pieces. I squeezed my eyes tight to erase his hand lifting a meat cleaver above his head, then slamming it down on Suzanne’s 52-inch body.

As days passed without the killer being found, the newspapers reported that, “frightened and angry parents were demanding action from the police. Mayor Kelly and Chief of Detectives Storms promised to stay on the case until little Suzanne’s slayer was apprehended.”


Snow melted, winter turned to spring, and still no breakthrough in the case. Finally, on June 29, a newspaper headline read: U.C. Sophomore Seized as Burglar; Surgeons Tools Found in Room. Five-and-a-half months after Suzanne Degnan’s kidnapping and murder, the police matched “husky six-footer” William Heirens’ fingerprints with those on the ransom note left in her bedroom and arrested Heirens for the little girl’s murder.



The police also linked Heirens to the murder of 33-year-old Frances Brown. After he had shot and stabbed the woman, the killer took a tube of her lipstick and wrote on the wall above her bed, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”

Fifty days after his arrest, and to avoid the electric chair, Heirens confessed to three murders, including Suzanne’s. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. The next day’s paper read, “Walking the streets at night is now a bit safer, now that the werewolf is in chains.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Ronnie Shapiro


In 1948, the tiny country of Israel gained statehood, President Truman defeated Governor Dewey, and my brother Ronnie became a man. While the first occasion was significant for Zionists, and the second for Democrats, it was the latter event -- Ronnie’s Bar Mitzvah -- that was the year’s highlight for the Shapiro family of Division Street.

Several months before my brother’s rite of passage -- which was scheduled for May 22, less than a week after his 13th birthday -- my grandfather visited us in our grocery store to discuss the ceremony, and a celebration. “Just the shul, Pa,” I heard my mother say to her father as they gabbed near the cash register. “Ronnie will read from the Torah, we’ll have a Kiddush with wine and sweets in the synagogue, and that’ll be it. We can’t lay out money for a hotel party.”

"Mashuggena,” Zadie said, leaning across Mom’s counter to shake her bony shoulder. “My first grandchild born in this country and we don't have a simcha? What will people think -- we’re too cheap to throw a party?” Wearing a well-worn shirt rolled up at the cuffs, and brown slacks stained by the wooden crates of ice-packed fish he schlepped into his store, my grandfather didn’t look like someone crazy for a fancy-dress fete.

“Let’s have a party,” I said, echoing my grandfather. I was standing at my mother’s elbow, wearing my store apron over a plain blouse and skirt, but I quickly envisioned myself dressed in fancy party clothes and dancing to the melodies of a Kay Kyser-like orchestra.

“Look Pa, look here,” Mom said, and pushed a copy of the Chicago Daily News in front of her father. “A&P, Jewel, National.” She was flipping through the newspaper’s pages, and paused to place a flat hand on several of them. “Full page ads. How long do you think our customers will shop at our small store when they can go across the street or down the block to a supermarket where they can have aisles of stock to choose from at cheaper prices?”

“Maybe you should listen to your father, Honey,” Dad said to Mom. “A little party, maybe we can swing a little party. I heard President Truman say on the radio that good times are ahead. All those returning GIs with money to spend, all those new houses being built for them.” Dad’s face brightened with his words and I could easily see him swaying to the music, living it up in a good-looking suit -- double breasted perhaps to mask his girth.

“Please, Mommy, a party,” I said, thinking such a festivity might cheer my folks, perhaps lighten the gloom brought on by the loss of old neighbors and store receipts.


Mother looked around the store that was now empty of customers, glared at my father’s hopeful face, and my smaller version, then shook her head. With one hand she brushed back loose hair that has escaped its nest atop her head, then pulled off a clip-on earring. She rubbed the sore spot the earring had given her and placed the plastic jewelry on the counter. Then, she moved the newspaper from Zadie’s line of sight and shoved it in front of Dad’s. I stood on tiptoes to see, too, and watched as she turned stacks of pages. When she reached the real estate ads, she slid the newspaper back and forth between her husband and father as if she were dealing a hand of Pinochle. “Vets down payment $1,000,” she read aloud. She looked up at the three of us bent over the ads and pointed to black-and-white photos of houses.

“Do you think these ranch homes, New England colonials, three-, four-bedroom houses are on Division Street?” she asked. Mother’s sarcastic questioning silenced me, but the men’s weak stabs at a response reminded me of one of our favorite radio programs, "It Pays To Be Ignorant." That silly quiz show was funny, though, and Mom was deeply serious.

“No,” she said, “the houses are in the suburbs. You think the veterans are going to keep their families in the city with the noise and the schmutz? They’re like everybody else--they want peace and quiet. They want better schools for their kids, garages, backyards.”

Zadie took the newspaper from Mother’s agitated, skinny fingers, closed its pages and turned the paper upside down so only the Sports page emerged. “I’ll pay for the party,” he said.

"No, Pa, no,” Mother said, shaking her head. She used her thumb and its neighbor to stroke her reddened ear, then used the other hand to return the earring to its lucky place.

“Only a loan,” Dad said to his father-in-law, then offered his hand, man to man, for a shake to seal the deal.

My mother looked at her father and mine, waved a hand in the air as if it were a white flag signaling surrender, and left the counter. I followed behind her and when I caught up, put an arm around her slim waist, and said, “Don’t be sad, Mommy. It’ll be fun. Ronnie’s party will be fun.”

“Deeper and deeper,” she said - more to herself than to me. She removed a balled up Kleenex from her skirt pocket and dabbed at the mascara that had escaped her lashes.


Ronnie’s big day was finally upon us. On the mild May morning of his bar mitzvah, our family walked in silence to the Austrian-Galician shul on California Avenue. My brother was wearing the new suit that Mom had finished shortening the night before, and I was in a stiff green dress with a Peter Pan collar and puffy short sleeves. We followed behind our parents, and I watched -- hoping that this time -- they might hold hands for the stroll. But Dad, in his double-breasted herringbone suit, held a cigarette in one hand, and used the other to remove bits of tobacco from his lips. Mom, outfitted in a gray silk shantung dress that shimmered with each of her high-heeled steps, kept her gloved hands tight on her pocketbook. With her black felt hat and veil (the “rooftops of Paris look”), Mother was the unquestionable beauty of the bunch.

Once inside the synagogue, Ronnie and my dad proceeded to the men’s section on the first floor and Mom and I went upstairs to join the women. After a long, tedious morning service, my brother went up to the bimah, then climbed atop a wooden Coca-Cola crate to reach the podium. Our grandfather stood at his side, and using his one good eye and a yad pointer to track the squiggly alphabet, guided Ronnie confidently through his biblical passage.


In the evening party that capped Ronnie’s coming of age, my dad -- exhilarated from his son’s morning performance and proud of the shindig he was hosting -- drank more glasses of schnapps than he could handle. We had all linked arms to form a ring for the hora Israeli folk dance and were whirling around the floor. Several of my young uncles took turns breaking from the ring to dance the kazatska in the center. With arms folded across their sinewy chests, they squatted almost to the floor, shot their legs alternately out in front of them, then hopped upright with a whoop. We clapped and cheered to egg the boys on. But when my shikker father leapt dizzily into the spotlight, I became alarmed. Didn’t the doctor tell him to watch himself? To stop smoking? To lose weight? Didn’t the doctor warn Dad that his diabetes could weaken his heart as it did his feet, his gums? He had almost lost a limb to gangrene, and I had already witnessed Dad’s false teeth floating nightly in a drinking glass. What other part of his body would be next to fail?


Yanking the elbow of his herringbone suit, and shouting to be heard over the orchestra’s horns and relatives’ hoots, I screamed, “Daddy, stop, you’ll get sick!”

With his brown eyes as bright as the morning’s Eternal Flame, Dad brushed my anxious hand from his sweat-soaked suit, and slurred, “I’m having a good time, Princess, let me have a good time.”

As for the Bar Mitzvah Boy, throughout the evening, partygoers stuffed cash, checks, and savings bonds into the pockets of his new suit. Afterward, when we returned home from the hotel, my parents and Ronnie went into our bedroom to count his haul. “You take it,” my brother said, as he handed them a stack of money. He was leaning against the pillows, looking exhausted from being onstage from morning to night. “You can use it to pay Zadie back,” he yawned. “I’ll keep the savings bonds.”

I watched from the door of the bedroom, toothpaste foaming in my mouth, as first my mother, then my father turned down Ronnie’s offer. “No, no,” they said -- both with tears in their eyes -- “it’s your money, you keep it.” After a few back-and-forth rounds, with tepid refusals on our parents’ part, Mother said, “You’re a wonderful son.” She kissed him on the cheek, then crammed the money inside a dresser drawer. “A real mensch,” Dad added, kissing his son’s other cheek. Then, with Ronnie and I looking on, our parents hugged and kissed one another. My brother and I stared at them: This was an unfamiliar embrace! It was as if Adonai -- mindful of Ronnie’s study and sacrifice -- had slipped into our Division Street bedroom, and performed a miracle right before our astonished eyes.

More Photos of Ronnie

















Photo Identifications
1. At the Bar Mitzvah, Ronnie and our Uncle Hy, 22 years old at the time.
2. Irv's Finer Foods. Ronnie, our dad, me, our mom, and our Aunt Mary.
3. The shul. Photo courtesy of Robb Packer, copyright 2005. The Doors of Redemption, The Forgotten Synagogues of Chicago.
4. A shikker dad with Uncle Hy at Ronnie's Bar Mitzvah.
5. Me, cutting a rug at the party.
6. Ronnie as an adorable baby.
7. Pvt. Ron Shapiro
8. Ronnie, second from the left at the book launch for "The Division Street Princess."
9. The cover of Ronnie's memoir, "Making Happy."
10. Ronnie and his wife, Norma, on a recent trip to St. Augustine, FL.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I'm All Ears


Pull up a chair; I'm all ears. Don't be embarrassed because you find yourself turning to me for advice. Many other souls -- lost, confused, or indecisive -- have made the very same pilgrimage. But before you surrender your woes, you should be forewarned there’s a hitch in my mode of problem solving.


First off, while I am a certified expert (photos of more well-known counselors are included in this post) in a variety of subjects, I know my limits. If you stick to relationships, child rearing, weight loss, memoir writing, and Macs, it'll be smooth sailing.


But if instead, you are querying about fashion, travel, sports, financial planning, religion, nightlife, deep sea diving, dog obedience, cooking, home decorating, sewing, crafting, carpentry (I could go on, but am trying to limit this to 500 words.), I'd suggest a Google search.


If you are like the hundreds (okay dozen, um, handful) of callers who ring me up, you're likely to begin our conversation with the standard, "Do you have a minute?" Now, others might respond to that question with an exasperated sigh, but for yours truly, it’s positively lyrical. "Absolutely," I invariably respond, pushing away my mate who's wondering when dinner will be served, or my pooch desperate for some tummy-rubbing attention.


With coffee cup in hand, I settle into my office chair, and depending upon the problem, either log on to my computer, retract a folder from my resource files, flip through my Rolodex, pull books from the appropriate shelf, or simply listen. There's likely to be a number of uh-huhs on my end, which I can assure you, doesn't signify inattentiveness, just eagerness to jump in once you've paused in your downloading.


If you're wondering where I have the chutzpah to claim wisdom in my handful of fields, consider this evidence: In the realm of Relationships, although my first marriage ended in divorce, it did last 30 years and my ex and I are on friendly terms, even vacationing together as a family. Also, my second spouse and I will be celebrating our 10th year in 2008.


Re: Childrearing. Have you met Faith or Jill? Need I say more? Weight loss, down from 119 to 102 and have kept it off for more than 10 years. Memoir-writing, check out the title of this blog at your local bookseller. And as for Macs, I may not be on par with the guys at the Genius Bar, but can hold my own with any of Apple's other black t-shirted personnel.


Now, as to the forewarning I hinted at: If you turn to me for counsel or problem solving, do not expect it to end there. While you may be satisfied your issue has been resolved, I, on the other hand, may not be ready to let go. I may have to press on, refuse to dislodge even when you plead, "That's fine, that's all I needed to know." Well, maybe that's fine for you, but I haven't gotten to the root of the problem. Surely there's more we can discuss to clarify the picture. And when I contact you tomorrow to learn how my advice changed your life, I'll expect you to answer the phone and not screen my calls.

But I'm all ears.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Short Fuse


Stand back, I may be about to blow! In the past, you could've described me as mild-mannered and been spot on. But as I age, I find myself easily erupting; and some recent flare-ups have made me wonder: Am I alone in my new volatility, or are other traditionally tame people experiencing similar behaviors? And, is having a short fuse so bad?

To start you thinking, I've shared two tantrums and hope you'll confess to a few of yours. For inspiration, I've included pictures of some famous hot heads.


Here goes: In my childhood (see "The Division Street Princess"), I was the classic good little girl. I can't recall ever talking back to my parents, raising my voice, or stalking off a sidewalk game. If challenged, I'd likely cry, or run home to mommy. Adolescence continued the same pattern and first marriage tussles typically ended in silence rather than a strong defense.


I admit to losing it a handful of times with friends, daughters, or second spouse. But I don't count these as authentic blow ups because my anger dissolved in tears. The following blow-ups, though, where absolutely no aqua was in evidence, made me feel 10-feet tall.


The first occurred on the CTA Blue Line. Husband Tommy and I were seated near exit doors when a male passenger leaned over the metal bar, smiled at the two of us, then dropped his pants to show off his …..



Because Tommy was partially blinded by a patch over one eye (recent cataract surgery), he didn't catch what was going on. I, instead, leaped from my seat and erupted in profanities. "Get the f@#$ off the train!" I shrieked. I don't know who was more startled, the flasher, other passengers, or me. I continued screaming until the offender slinked off the train, hiking up his pants on the way out. I felt like Wonder Woman!


Number two for your enjoyment took place during a discussion with a neighbor (known to be a feisty guy). We were in the midst of a debate, when he switched from the topic at hand to a personal attack. "You're retarded if you believe that!" he threw at me. "Shut the f@#$ up!" I returned. (You'll note I have a preference for a particular epithet.) He continued on, Tommy intervened, then pulled me home. Again, no tears, just a feeling of triumph.


(In the interest of full disclosure: I wound up writing my neighbor a note apologizing for my outburst because I realized his anger covered a raw spot. “Let’s put this behind us,” I suggested. He happily agreed. But I still count my initial rage as evidence of new boldness.)


I can't guarantee future outbursts won't find me dabbing my eyes and seeking a tissue. And I can't predict what will set me off. So, this will have to serve as fair warning: Watch out who you're messing with. I may be short, but…

Monday, August 13, 2007

Keep In Touch


In the past, I've failed to keep in touch. You've complained I don't call often enough. And as for letter writing, well, we've both neglected that quaint courtesy. But all that has changed, I promise. You see, my daughters bought me an iPhone for my birthday and now I can't keep my paws off the buttons. So call, text, let's catch up.

After receiving my iPhone (it was the first time in memory I lunged for the gift rather than the birthday cake) and swatting away my grandson who kept trying to snatch it from me, I reflected back on telephones of the past and the scenes they conjured.


Back in the 1940s (described in my memoir), I clearly see a small, spindly telephone table with a shelf for the Yellow Pages. When the telephone book wasn't a booster seat for me, it lived in its cubbyhole and grew tattered and smudged. A black, rotary dial phone topped the table; and my inventive father somehow anchored a pencil to that stand using string and rubber band.


I can't remember our phone number on Division Street, but my husband Tommy swears his prefix at the time, on Chicago's far northwest side, was Gladstone-something. Maybe my brother, Ron, although three years older than I but with a better memory, can come up with the long-buried name.








The Princess phone (It lights up!) was introduced in 1959, and that image finds me sitting on the floor of a narrow hallway in the one-bedroom apartment I shared with my mother. The phone was mounted on the wall, so I wound the cord around my fist while I yakked with my fiancé/first husband. During some of those daily calls, we considered eloping because we were both furklempt from the wedding arrangements. (We didn't elope, but interestingly -- to me, maybe not to you -- second husband Tommy and I got married in Las Vegas, somewhat of an elopement.)


During those same years in the late '50s, my mother Min was employed as a switchboard operator for American Linen Supply Co. After toiling behind a counter wearing a stained apron in our mom-and-pop grocery store, the new job was one she relished. I can still see her returning home at 6 p.m., her gorgeous blue eyes as bright as my illuminated phone, bringing tales of how her fingers zoomed across the board.

All of the other long-ago phones have faded from memory; the only images tied to them are rings that brought exceedingly good or bad news.

As for cell phones ("mobile" now, I guess) I was a slow subscriber, believing them primarily useful in case of emergency or for ordering pizza on your way home from work.

But because I've been a M.O. (Mac Obnoxious) since 2004, I have lusted for an iPhone since it was first unveiled. But the price tag kept us apart. My daughters -- evidentially witnessing their mother's desperate need for an object to love and pamper (other than themselves) -- on Aug. 10, presented me with the perfect gift.

Sadly for Faith and Jill, now that I'm armed with my clever iPhone, and have mastered Text Messenging, those poor dears are continually being harassed by their mother's: "hi, luv, how r u? xoxo"

I'm still w8ing 4 their reply.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Nap Time


If you and I happen to be in the middle of a conversation, and my eyelids start to lower and my head falls forward, don't take it personally. Check your watch. The big hand is likely on 12 and the little on 1, signaling time for my nap.


Daily 1 p.m. naps are a strict rule in the Soloway-Madison household. To assure that postal workers, UPS drivers, Watchtower evangelists, or other doorbell ringers heed our sacred hour, Tommy and I post a note on our mailbox pleading for silence. Our visitors likely pause as their fingers near our bell, read the well-worn sign, and believe their compliance protects a sleeping baby from stirring. Whatever.


Before you deride our daily habit, you should know that health experts praise nappers, and also that many famous people were fervent nappers. First, the benefits of napping: In a Feb. 13, 2007 article in The New York Times (my absolute favorite newspaper and source of all of my boorish conversation starters; i.e. "According to an article in today's New York Times…), "napping at least three times a week for a half-hour was associated with a significantly decreased risk of death from heart disease." Since most of the relatives cited in my memoir succumbed to this particular scourge, I'm up for any remedy that might stave off the family inheritance.


A website devoted to the subject (did you doubt it?), adds "nature intended that we take a nap in the middle of the day." Also, "an afternoon nap as short as ten minutes can enhance alertness, mood, and mental performance."



Second in my evidence are these famous nappers, whose accomplishments in life should further convince you of the practice's perks: Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and several more from yet another website on the topic.




These noteworthy schlufflers likely have their own excuse for their siestas; mine is related to the hour in which I awake: 4 a.m. Please do not suggest I stay up past my usual bedtime (9 p.m.) to encourage later awakenings. Others have offered this and the result is by 10 p.m. I am wide-awake, then struggle to fall asleep, finally drop off at 1 a.m., and pop up at my traditional early hour. It's hopeless.


As for Tommy, I don't know his defense. He sleeps soundly from 10 p.m. to 5:45 a.m., returns for a morning nap from 7:45 to 8:45 a.m., and joins me in our joint 1 p.m. nap. Lest you think my spouse is aged or infirm, know that he is a vigorous guy who recently made the front page of the Lakeview YMCA newsletter.


And naturally Buddy, our 9-year-old Golden Retriever, accompanies Tommy and me for all bedtime snoozes. Flat-dogging* it on our bedroom floor, Buddy is happy to be part of our daily ritual. The only problem is that our dog's superlative hearing allows him to detect the footsteps of the postal worker, UPS driver, and evangelist. Duty calls, Buddy barks. Goodbye naptime. For me, of course. Nothing disturbs my Tommy.

*I have tried several times to take a photograph of Buddy in his flat-dog position. Have you ever successfully crept up on a sleeping canine and attempted a flash? Not possible; this one will have to do.

Yawn…. Honest it's not you. Time to…zzz, zzz, zzz.