Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Happy Birthday Mom

Today is my mother’s birthday and if she were alive to celebrate, we’d be figuring out how to place 93 candles atop her cake. But Min Elkin Shapiro, the skinniest of the Elkin sisters, died in 1981 just shy of her 68th birthday –my exact age as I write this.

I’m certain Mom would not have chosen to succumb to a massive heart attack at 68, but I do know she never wanted to be “old.” As you can see from the photographs I’ve included with this post (captions at the end), my mother remained a beautiful woman throughout her life.

To be honest, she was quite vain about her good looks. Well, with her gorgeous black hair (too thin, though, and later in life she covered it with a snappy wig), startlingly blue eyes, curvy figure, and flirty smile, she had every right.

If you’ve read my memoir, you know Mom and I had an ouchy relationship. She undoubtedly loved me, but in my mind, I never measured up. I always thought I wasn’t pretty enough, thin enough, tall enough to please her. And that my brother, Ron, three years older than I, was her favored child. (Oy, what a needy brat I was back then.)

I often wonder how my mother would critique her daughter today -- with my hair its natural gray, my wardrobe ala the Gap, and my at-home attire sweats and no makeup or bra. For her part, Mom was always fahpitzed (dressed up) – high heels, Max Factor pancake makeup, cornflower blue eyeshadow, and Fire Engine red lipstick. Wait, there’s more: mascara that required a dampened brush swiped across a tiny black circle before painting her eyelashes (I watched, open mouthed, silent), plus powdered rouge.

And even in the 1940s, when Mom dished out meals in the drab kitchen of our three-room flat, she wore her Swirl housecoat, 3-inch wedge house slippers, and clip-on earrings. “You never know who you’re going to meet,” she would tell me whenever I balked at combing my hair or fixing my face before leaving the house.

Mom did live long enough to see my daughters grow up to be teenagers, but she missed their more recent successes. She loved her granddaughters completely, and blamed me for any wardrobe shortcomings. I remember when Faith and Jill were toddlers and I permitted them to dress as they wished and to leave their tresses tussled (a rebellion against my mom’s constant primping of me?), she’d say, “That’s how you’re letting them leave the house?”

Today, as she surely reads their words or catches their performances from her special balcony seat, I can almost hear her asking, “That’s how you let them talk?” Ma, there’s nothing I can do.

After writing about my own childhood in “The Division Street Princess,” I realized I knew very little about my mom’s, or her true feelings during her 25-year marriage to my dad. Oh, I wrote what I though she was feeling, but I never asked her what was really in her head during the grocery store’s tsouris, my dad’s poor health, and their money woes. And, of course, now it’s too late. Only two of eight siblings (four girls, four boys) are alive today and sadly, neither is in a shape to provide clues.

Perhaps one day I’ll write a novel and imagine what Mom’s life was like growing up in her Russian shtetl. Or how she felt crossing the ocean at age 9 for a new life in America. And since it would be fiction, I could create a happier scenario for Min. I’d give her a marvelous romance, successful career, and sunny life. And most importantly, no matter how long she’d be alive, she’s never ever look old.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Photo Captions
1. Min and Irv’s engagement photo.
2. Their 1932 wedding photo.
3. A 1950s Division Street scene with (left to right) me, Dad, Mom, Cousin Estherly, Aunt Etta holding Cousin David, Aunt Rose with a shy Cousin Jay and Cousin Norman next to his mom.
4. Dad and Mom in the second row above Cousin Bobby, the bar mitzvah boy. Note Mom’s off the shoulder dress.
5. My brother, Ron, adorable in this toddler photo.
6. Ron again, age 19, in the Army.
7. Mom with baby Faith.
8. Mom with baby Jill.
9. Mom with her second husband, Joe. Although he was much older than Mom, he outlived her by several years. Despite the smiles, this marriage was unhappy. I think.
10. Mom and me, likely the late 1970s.

Gratitude Corner

To blogger South of the Loop for her Jan. 16 “Meet the Author” post where she gives me a thumbs-up review for my Dec. 2, 2006 Newberry Library appearance.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Odd Jobs

In 1952, at the age of 14, I got a work permit and my first job ironing dresses at a Milwaukee Avenue clothing store. Forty-seven years later, after retiring from my PR career, I signed on for a seasonal job at the Gap on Michigan Avenue. Those two odd jobs – all those many years apart – had one thing in common. I was lousy at both of them.

Wait. That’s not exactly true. There were some things I was good at in my Gap days. I arrived on time, absorbed my daily informational meetings, memorized the 10 Principals, dutifully wore Gap merchandise, didn’t grumble when it was my turn to fold and re-hang clothes in the fitting room, kept my eye out for sticky-fingered customers, and cheerfully moved from Denim, to Khaki, to Fleece, to Dressy.

But at the end of each day, I could barely shuffle to the subway. After standing or walking the floor for my entire shift, every aged bone in my body complained. By the time I made it home, I would sink to the couch, motion to my husband for a glass of Chardonnay, and wonder what I had gotten myself into.

During my three months on the job I never took home a paycheck, instead spent every discounted dollar on Gap clothing. That’s why to this day, you’ll still find me in my uniform: black t-shirt, boot leg denims, Steve Madden kids-sized boots. Courtesy of my oddest job.

To learn if others had similar odd job experiences, I asked several friends to share their stories. First up is Jimmy Carrane, co-author of “Improvising Better” and host of Studio 312 on Chicago Public Radio. He’s also taught at The Second City, Annoyance and IO-Chicago. Jimmy’s next “One Day Improvisation Workshop for Everyday Folks” is Saturday Feb 24th, from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. in Andersonville at 3 Pear Studio at 5219 N. Clark Street. For info, write to jcarrane@aol.com or call 773-528-0433. Jimmy’s story:

“Two things actors desperately need - to be recognized and to make the rent. This job was neither. It was a birthday party for the CEO of The Fruit of Loom Company. The hosts needed four actors to go to his posh Streeterville condo, dressed like The Fruit of The Loom Guys and sing Happy Birthday. I don't remember exactly what piece of fruit I was, but since I was short and fat at the time, I know I was not the Banana or the Grapes. Let's say I was the Apple. I don't want to sound bitter, but the fat guy is always the Apple.

“The condo was in a very fancy building near the Drake Hotel, and in those days I was not taking elevators, because of my claustrophobia, so I walked up the 11 flights of stairs in my Apple costume and tights. When I got to the place, the self-important caterer shoved me into a room with the three other actors as if I was a piece of, well, fruit.

“Two hours later, the caterer let us out and took us to the living room to sing Happy Birthday to the CEO. The room was filled with Chicago royalty. People like Kup, his wife Essie, Neil Hartigan. Celebrities I had only seen on TV or read about in the newspaper. I had never been so close to these kind of powerful people, and at the same time, disguised as a fat Apple, felt so far away.”

Tony Brooks has a happier story. Tony (that's him in the middle of his beautiful family) has been a contributing journalist to sports magazines since 2005 and specializes in profiling sports legends in his “Where Are They Now” publications. Here’s Tony’s contribution:

“In 1981, with a political science degree in hand, I went to work at an Investment Banking firm, and oddly enough, 26 years later, I’m still there. But the real odd job came in 1995 when a mother of one of my Sunday school students asked me to recommend a good high school for her son. I had a few opinions, but told her I would do some in-depth research. To my surprise, I could not find any books on Chicago-area quality high schools. So, with the confidence of having been an Honors English student and a decent writer, I self-published a book called The Ten Best High Schools in the City of Chicago.

“For more than 20 years, I had suppressed my desire to write before finally taking that first major successful step for that perplexed mom. Also, I have always wanted to write about former Chicago star athletes and “where are they now?” stories. Four years ago, when my uncle Lemuel T. Smith Jr. (a former star basketball player at St. Elizabeth) passed away, this passion was ignited and for the last two years, my new on-the-side job has been freelance sports writing. I’m a regular contributing journalist to The Chicago Sports Review and Black Sports The Magazine. In the February edition of the Bear Report Magazine, I will have my first article published about catching up with former Chicago Bears football players. Life is good, and so are Odd Jobs.”

Susan Stone is a well-known storyteller, teacher of the art, and a published author who has been honored with many awards. She offers us two looks at her odd jobs:

“A graduate degree in theatre didn't help me get a job. I was 22, living at home and decided to waitress for the first time in my life at a family eatery in Skokie. I schlepped platters of burgers and fries, salads, and corned beef sandwiches in a crowded, noisy, bustling restaurant.

“Every day we’d get a ‘bank’ to make change and every evening we’d return the bank and keep the remaining money as our tips. But I regularly came home crying because I had no tips, likely giving the wrong change (math not being my strong suit) to my customers. Once, I could’ve made some real money when I slipped on a wet floor and contemplated suing. Instead, I quit.

“In my current profession, I have a ‘biggest nightmare’ story that could serve as an odd job. I was hired by the Chicago Botanic Gardens to tell scary stories for Halloween. I put on my best witch duds over layers of sweaters, and was seated on a truck with hay (aka a hay wagon), which was actually a very noisy tractor-type truck. It was a dark, freezing, sleeting October night. I stood on the first car of the flatbed truck with lights glaring in my eyes, blinding me. I held a microphone in my shivering hands and bellowed stories over the grind of the motor to an audience who couldn’t see me or the passing garden scenery. I don't think anyone could hear the tales. A nightmare gig for Halloween.”

Jill Stewart is president of Stewart Communications, a public relations and marketing communications firm that works with organizations focused on health care, housing, community development and other important issues. Jill’s Odd Job story follows:

“Maybe this is a common experience; maybe it was unique, but it sure was memorable. I was 18 and had just finished my freshman year in college. I had been a retail clerk the previous summer and was looking to make more than $1.60 an hour, the current minimum wage.

“For six days (after the five-day training period), I sold encyclopedias in Akron, Ohio. Each day at 2 p.m., we met in downtown Pittsburgh (my hometown) outside the building where we had been trained. We were then driven in a van 113 miles to Akron. At approximately 5 p.m. we were dropped off on a street corner in a residential neighborhood with a sample book and the driver’s promise to return at 10:00 p.m.

“For five hours, I pounded the pavement, knocked on doors and when admitted, told my prospects of the wonders of the American People’s Encyclopedia by Grolier Publishing, complete with the transparencies and overlays.

“I sold exactly one set of encyclopedias (“only a dime a day”). Qualifying for the payment plan involved having a working telephone number and only one of my prospects made the cut.

“My boyfriend – beside himself about the job’s safety – talked me out of continuing.

“The experience played to my entrepreneurial spirit. It played to my ability to sell and persuade, and not surprisingly those traits showed up later in life when I started and ran my own business.

“But times have changed. I don’t regret selling encyclopedias. The experience gave me a lot of stories, and insights about myself. But I cannot imagine allowing my own 18-year-old daughter to do the same thing in these very different times.”

Gratitude Corner

To Kelvyn Park High School's Career Day for introducing me and "The Division Street Princess" to its students (pictured).

To alumni magazines from the University of Illinois Chicago and its Master of Urban Planning and Policy Program for featuring us in recent publications.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Words to Live By?

At sundown on January 6, in memory of my father’s death, I’ll light a Yahrzeit candle and let it burn in its special container for 24 hours. Then, as tradition suggests, I’ll use the candle lighting ceremony to reflect on Irving Eugene Shapiro's life. I’ll recall Dad’s easy smile, salesman’s charm, and barrel body. But mostly, I’ll remember his infamous declaration: If I can’t eat, I’d rather die.

Today I wonder – after a lifetime of morning scale readings, measuring spoons, diet books, and weight-loss schemes – is it genetics, my own sloth and appetite, or was it Dad’s pesky proverb, that charted my preoccupation with poundage? And are others similarly swayed by pronouncements by loved ones? To learn, I queried a few friends and submit their contributions:

Karen Carpino (pictured below), president of Karen Carpino Design, a Chicago-based firm that provides Interior Design, Home Staging, and Model Home Design, offers this:

"Mon puo fare piu buio della mizzanotte, said my dear Italian aunt, Mary Ungaro. English translation: ‘Darker than midnight it cannot get.’ Whenever I'd be in a dilemma I could count on Aunt Mary to offer these words. However, over the years I've discovered that sometimes life can certainly shade darker than midnight. And although she's gone for many years, I find her phrase pop to my mind when I'm in a crisis, large or small. You see, I've come to realize this old Italian proverb (and Aunt Mary) have done their job on me. The gift in these words of my ancestors is what I've found most precious in life - hope, always hope.”

Jerry Gleicher (pictured left) is a sales representative with On Time Promotions a Morton Grove-based distributor of promotional products that serves clients locally, nationally and internationally.

(Jerry's company produced the jazzy aprons my family wore in this photo shown below that was taken at Women & Children First bookstore.)

Jerry says his dad’s words of wisdom actually served him well:

“My father, Paul, always told me, It doesn't matter much what you sell so long as you sell lots of it. Another of his favorite phrases was, If you never had a chance to steal, that doesn't make you an honest man.

“My dad owned a small gas station on the corner of Division and Paulina, and his words and work ethic motivated me throughout my life. ‘Be a good husband, father and grandfather,’ he said. And I think he’d be proud of me in that aspect of my life.

“Dad’s been gone for 30 years and my older children and all of my nieces and nephews still talk about him. He was the first person I knew who could make you think you were the number one person in his life. After his death all of his grandchildren claimed to be his favorite and could prove why.

“I only hope the people in my life will remember me as lovingly as they do my dad.”

Robb Packer, (shown in this photo with Joya Fields on his left and Iris Nelson on his right), is the author of "Doors of Redemption: The Forgotten Synagogues of Chicago." He offers this tale:

“When I was a little guy in the 1950's and my family was about to visit friends or relatives, my dad would make sure we had a little something to eat, because you never know. I would always ask my dad, ‘what do you mean, you never know?’ He wouldn’t answer, but would just tell my mom to make something.

“Years later he explained it all by telling us the family legend of the unforgiving meal: Back in the late 1880's, my grandfather was invited for dinner to an uncle's house. This being an unusual occasion and my grandfather and grandmother not having many invitations (they were newly married), they gratefully accepted.

“They prepared for the evening by dressing in their finest Sabbath clothes (the uncle they’d be visiting was very wealthy), and arrived at the appointed time to find everyone sitting around drinking coffee, nibbling on cakes, and smoking cigars. Somehow he got the idea it was for dinner, not just an evening of chatting.

“And ever since that time, until my dad passed away, we never left for an evening at someone else’s house without first having a little nosh. Because you never know.

As for Jim Passin, (photographed here as a young lad) president of Jim Passin Productions, a company specializing in Documentary, TV Production, Computer Graphics/Animation, Post-Production, Original Music, and Digital Photography, here’s his story:

“It's New Year's day. My wife, her sister (Minga The Dark), and I wait for friends to drop over for the traditional New Year's Day celebration featuring delicious blintzes (made by Minga), applesauce (also delicious, made by my wife, Nancy), and Champagne supplied by our guests. Hopefully that, too, will rest pleasantly in the delicious category.

“I have, this year, only one resolution: to loose weight. One would think I'd have more. I stopped smoking, years ago along with most other fun things, and find that as time passes, I can find fewer and fewer things to give up or that ever needed giving up or changing in the first place. Another resolution might be to stop thinking of myself as perfect. This is hard to do. Those who know me will undoubtedly snicker about now.

“Yet, today is indeed a signal year in the arc of my life. It marks the last day of carefree seasonal gorging. There's my birthday, Thanksgiving, Presidents' Day, Flag Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and anyone else's birthday, anniversary, casual dinner or bar mitzvah I might attend. These are all good and fully certified occasions for gorging. Also, most any other time when food is present. On this account I tend to agree with Elaine's father.

“However, if I still want to be able to look down and see my shoes, among other things, my heart tells me that it is now time to let go of gorging. I used to think that a day without a good gorge isn't worth living. But lately my wife's words have been ringing in my ears, A day without fruit is a day not worth living! She says this often. It is her mantra. Words to live by indeed, by gum! So, I enter the New Year and to those 'words to live by' I might add my own: Never eat anything bigger than your head. This will be my mantra.

Q: Is it still OK to gorge on fruit?
Happy New Year!”

Now that we’ve heard from my friends, I think it’s time to retire my dad’s questionable words of wisdom and instead remember the blessings he passed on it me: his love of family, passion for books, lust for life, and exuberance for Chicago and its characters. And when I strike the match and light the wick to honor his memory, that’s what I’ll hold dear.
Then, I’ll head over to Smoque BBQ, our neighborhood’s newest restaurant, and order a sliced brisket sandwich with fries on the side. And as I savor each juicy bite, I’ll imagine Irv relishing the very same delicacy in the heavenly hereafter. Enjoy, Dad, enjoy.

Gratitude Corner:

To the Chicago Tribune for naming one of the best books of 2006.

To Quill for featuring me on page 165 of their office supply catalog. (Today I am a pencil, stapler, etc.)

To Maryann Mullan for choosing my memoir for her book club’s December discussion topic.

A deep bow to all, and to everyone else who made 2006 a year to remember for my book and me.