Mr. Engle

Down the block from where I live stood an old house: white frame with a screened porch with a lazy swing rocking in the breeze on those hot summer evenings. The door was painted a bright fire-engine red and the lamp was always on in window of the dimly lit study. That’s where Mr. Engle always sat. He was 90 years old and was the only person who ever lived in the house two doors down.
I felt sorry for him because he was alone so on hot, slow summer days, I would visit him. When I would walk over, he would invite me in his living room and he would tell me things about himself. He would say how his daughter had died of anorexia years before his friends even had a name for the disease. She withered away right before his eyes. His wife died of a broken heart not long after. His son moved away, far away. So he was alone and would sit and watch television, his only connection to the world, except when I would visit him.
He would love to tell me stories of how the neighborhood was years ago. He recalled how families had moved in with young children and then how the village trustees decided to build the grammar school just down the street. Then the playground. Together we saw young trees grow taller, the street re-paved, the old playground swings changed from metal to bright yellow plastic. He would love to watch the Cubs and we would talk about them as Jack Brickhouse called the plays on his small set in the background.
“I’m not sure I want them to win the World Series,” he would say as he looked through his wire-rimmed glasses. “I like things the way they are. I’m used to the Cubs losing and living with the hope that they will always be better next year.” He never lived to see them win the World Series again.
As the years passed, Mr. Engle drove less and less. Sometimes I would go over on my bike with groceries, other times just to check in and see how he was doing. Then one Sunday morning there was an ambulance and a fire truck in front of Mr. Engle’s house. A couple of days later, his son had flown in from Arizona to bury his father. Within days, a bold red and white “For Sale” sign boldly stood on the front lawn. I went through the house one last time during the estate sale and saw strangers buying the yellowed sofa I had sat on so many times in his living room. His valued trinkets were going for nickels and dimes. A builder razed the house and put up a new brick building. A nice young family moved in with a swing tied with two ropes to a sturdy branch on the tall oak tree in the front.
Since then, I have seen other homes, nice homes, knocked down and young families move into new ones. I see the times changing right before my eyes. Somehow people think that new is better. From Mr. Engle, I have found that getting rid of the old isn’t really the answer. We can learn from those ancient buildings and ancient people. When something dies, it can never be recovered, but at the same time, I have learned to move on. Time doesn’t wait for you to catch your breath. I miss Mr. Engle – his wisdom, his lame jokes, his tears, his hopes for the Cubs. The neighborhood will never be the same without him. And neither will I, but, no, Mr. Engle, he was not the one.

My Father in Law

My father in law was a sign painter all his life.  He had dreams of being a doctor, but being the oldest of nine children in the midst of the Great Depression, that simply didn’t work out.

He was proud of his trade, though, for he was not an ordinary sign painter.  He painted gold leaf on wood and glass.  Back in the days when doctors, lawyers and businessmen would stay put for years, he would be called in to painstakingly brush their names and titles in 24 karat gold.  He would carry his black, weathered suitcase full of brushes and colors across the city to make Chicago’s professionals feel a little bit more important.  Even after he officially retired at age 65, the company would call him in need of his steady hand and skill.

            But I do not remember my him as a sign painter.  I remember him for the memories he gave to me.

For instance, I remember when I asked him to recite the Gettsyburg Address, something he was rumored to be able to do by heart.  Sure enough, at age 86, like a soldier, he began, “Four score and seven years ago…” and ended with “…shall not perish from earth,” without hesitation. 

I recall when Grandpa would come over for dinner nearly every Friday, it was like a scene out of a sitcom.  He was fussy about what he ate, having been spoiled by the home cooking of his wife of 65 years.  When it came time for dinner, my family would all sit poised over our food, silverware in hand, waiting for Grandpa to give his approval to the whole family.  He would taste the soup that was always too cold or the mashed potatoes that inevitably had too little garlic.  With his grump of approval and a glare around the table, we would proceed with the meal. 

But beneath that blustery exterior, was a man who would literally never kill a flea.  With a keen eye and lightning speed, he would catch them in the palm of his hand and let them go free outside.  He would give back change to a cashier if she inadvertently erred in his favor. He would watch television every night until, with a loud snore, his head would fall back on the couch, and Grandma would help him to bed.

I always thought having a man like that as my dad would have made my life so different. My dad was a celebrity of sorts.  In the heyday of radio, he had a talk show, interviewing famous entertainers who would come through Chicago.  He would wiggle his way backstage at the Oscars every year.  He claimed to know everyone from Wayne Newton to Bing Crosby, from Lucille Ball to John Wayne.  But a bitter divorce broke up the family, and he remarried, escaping to Las Vegas, shutting out his four children.  He continued his craft there – interviewing personalities “on the strip,” being a big shot in a relatively small town. 

I tried contacting him again late in his life so that he could begin speaking to his children, children he really did not even know.  He would ask their ages and if he had any grandchildren. His third wife had died and now he was all alone, thousands of miles away, yearning for attention from anyone at age 78.

The contrasts in these two men’s lives are as evident in their deaths as when they were alive.   My father in law died at 93, peacefully in his sleep with his wife at his side.  He had advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and did not recognize her, but she held his hand and spoke to him as if he were still complaining about her salty chicken soup. At the funeral, accompanying the tears was laughter as his three sons recalled moments of joy they had spent with their dad during his long life. 

My dad, on the other hand, died at age 80.  It was a slow, agonizing, lonely death.  His third wife had died a few years earlier and he tried to maintain his status of a radio and television personality even when he could not afford dentures to fix his missing teeth.  Over the years, he never earned much, but most of his income was spent on promoting himself.  At age 78, he still thought he would “hit it big” with a syndicated show that millions would watch and know his name.  Instead, he fell and broke his hip, landing in a nursing home, penniless and without family.  When he died, his children had his body flown back to Chicago so he could be buried in his family’s plot, otherwise a pauper’s burial was awaiting him in Las Vegas.  At the funeral, there were no tears, no memories. 

            On his deathbed he telephoned each of his children, one by one, weakly whispering in his final moments how sorry he was.  Through his tears, he said how he should not have left all of their phone calls and pleas for attention go unanswered over the years.  He said how he wished he would have spent more time with them, being satisfied with the pride of watching them grow and share their success instead of constantly hoping for his own.  He prayed for God’s forgiveness for his being so selfish, for not realizing that his real treasures were right before him his whole life.  He realized he had been reaching for the wrong stars.

            In life, we make choices.  After my divorce, I decided to visit my in-laws one last time in Florida to explain what had happened. It was shortly after that meeting over Chinese food at a local Del Ray Beach restaurant my father in law started suffering from his Alzheimer’s. The elderly couple seemed to understand what I was trying to say about my broken marriage, but I think it was hard for them to believe that they could have raised a son who was so unkind.

No, my father in law was not the one.

Mom Trying to be Dad

My mom lived to be 97 years old, just two weeks past her birthday. It is interesting to see how someone evolves as a person from when you a toddler to when you become a senior citizen yourself. It really makes you think about how life goes by so quickly. Whether it be those who witness are gone in the blink of an eye through a tragedy or when life goes on for decades, life never seems long enough.

When I was growing up, my dad was never there. My mom, though, was there 24/7. Learning how to live on one’s own became suffocating. Life was on her terms. When you are little, you don’t understand those things. All you know is that what life is. You know nothing else. Your values often become that of a domineering parent. If you aren’t given the tools to develop your own value system, you emulate those around you. Those who you trust and think won’t do you wrong. When you find out later in life that those values were actually skewed or that they were based on the frailties of that person, you realize as you grow older that some of the mistakes you made could have been avoided if you only had the strength, the knowledge and the ability to adapt and learn from others. But you were too dense or too intellectually immature to even begin to understand that. Blame may start bleeding into the lousy decisions you made, but at some point in your life you have to take full responsibility. Some of that involves forgiveness. From an intellectual standpoint, it involves accountability. It’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s so much easier to just point the finger at someone else.

After my dad left when I was 12, my mom would always say that she could be both mother and father. She tried, but there really is no replacement for that male figure in a girl’s life. Sometimes I would ask God why do I have a dad who’s still alive but doesn’t want to see me or talk to me — would it have been better if he were just dead. At least, then I could justify his disinterest in my life. Later, I think I came to realize that he was the black sheep of the family and all he wanted to prove to his mother, his peers, himself that he was something. He wasn’t this 350-pound rotund guy with little college, but he was a guy who was important, doing important things.

I think that’s why my mom married him. Back in the 1950s, women got married in their early 20’s, maybe even earlier. My mom was 28 when my dad proposed and three months later they were married on a cold February day. My mom was an opera singer. Even then, she saw she would have a career, something unheard of for women then who were only to wear their aprons while serving dinner to the family no later than 6 o’clock. That wasn’t my mom, but when she got pregnant with my brother and then me, she had more little ones to handle than any career could handle, so she gave up singing. She would have been great — her soprano tones could fill a cathedral without a microphone. But her mother had terrible asthma attacks, so much so that it weakened her heart.

It was a hot August day in 1954. My parents decided to take a Sunday drive to get away from the air conditionless apartment. She asked my grandma to join us, but she said no. My mom’s last memory of her mom was standing at the window waving to us as we pulled away in our rented Buick. When we returned, my grandma — Busha as we called her in Polish — was slumped on the kitchen table. Dead. My mom was just 31. Her father sat in a nearby chair unaware of what was happening. He never got his wife help. Seven years later, my grandpa died, and when we left the gravesite, it was the first time of just three times in my life, that I would see my mom cry. She was alone. Afraid. She knew that life would only be filled with heartaches and problems, the very thing she thought she would avoid by marrying my dad who had promised her an opera career of his own. Little did she know, that he would go on to spend thousands upon thousand

My mM

Uncle Ted

The only solid male figure in my life as I grew up was my Uncle Ted.  He was my mom’s brother who was two years younger than she.  He was never married, although by most standards one would think we was a “catch.”  He was handsome and loved to laugh.  He was athletic and could outrun everyone in the neighborhood.  He would take time on the weekends to play baseball or tag or football or whatever we wanted to do.  My dad was nowhere around, but Uncle Ted was always there.  Even the kids in the neighborhood got to know him and asked me what should they call him.  Of course, I said,  “Uncle Ted,” and he became Uncle Ted to hundreds of kids who gathered in the Catholic school gymnasium across the street to play volleyball every week.  I think that made him proud.  It gave his life meaning.

My eighth grade teacher was a former nun.  She left the convent and decided to teach English at the Catholic grammar school we attended.  She was so nice that I invited her to come to dinner to our house because I thought she and Uncle Ted would hit it off, and they did.  But my mom would have none of that.  She didn’t want Uncle Ted to have a girlfriend, much less a wife.  She needed the attention for herself and wasn’t about to share that with a total stranger.  She convinced my Uncle Ted that Miss Devine was not right for him.  She wasn’t religious enough or pretty enough or rich enough.  She wouldn’t care for Uncle Ted over the years and he didn’t need the problems of taking care of someone else.   Miss Devine soon lost interest and married a pilot not long afterwards.  I think Uncle Ted and Miss Devine would have been a marriage made in heaven, but it was never meant to be because Uncle Ted would never want to disappoint his sister.

I know that my Uncle Ted truly loved all of us.  Unconditionally.  When I would come home on weekends from college, Uncle Ted never minded driving me back — 45 minutes each way — and he would slip me $20 and tell me to spend it on something nice for myself.  I hope I shoed him enough appreciation — I just can’t remember.  When we were little, I remember he would sit in our living room watching the black and white telvision and every Sunday he enjoyed The Lawrence Welk Show — a weekly wholesome entertaiment program that featured singing and dancing that today has become the butt of many jokes.  I think of Uncle Ted and his simple pleasures in life when I think of that show.

Uncle Ted’s loving approach to life actually became his downfall because my dad sensed that we loved Uncle Ted more than he.   One time my dad came home unexpectedly for dinner — he was never at the dinner table because he had to be at the Pump Room in Booth One in downtown Chicago with the latest celebrity who floated through town.  He had to go to show openings or he even had a Mothers’ Fan Club made up of more than 1,000 women who adored him, even though he had five children at home that he barely knew their names and ages.

That evening my mother had made her meatloaf and potatoes.  Uncle Ted was sitting at the table when my dad stormed in.  He obviously was mad that his brother in law was at the head of the table, eating his food and laughing with his children.  He ordered Uncle Ted to sit at the end of the table, which Uncle Ted dutifully got up and moved without a word.  Then came the worst — my sister, just three years old,  started making fun of my dad, calling him a pig because it rhymed with his first name.   Of course, as kids, we all thought it was hysterical.  We blurted out laughing as you could see the steam coming out of my dad’s ears.  His face was so red that he finally shouted, “Shut up!  Shut up!   All of you just shut up!”

We all got up from the table and left, hoping we weren’t going to get a  beating with his famous belt or thick wooden paddle.  We didn’t see the harm because the whole event seemed so surreal with him even being present at a dinner table.  Later, we heard the adults screaming and my dad said he didn’t want Uncle Ted coming around any more.  Uncle Ted again dutifully came around less and less.  And more and more his obsessive-compulsive disorder took over him.  OCD is a terrible, uncontrollable illness.  I lived through seeing how it ultimately killed Uncle Ted.

My Uncle went from being a happy, healthy 40-something year-old man to a shell of a person who couldn’t get out of bed because a piano leg was not turned straight.  No amount of medication helped, not even the experimental kind that hadn’t been approved in the United States that was flown in from England.

My mother then signed off on what was then considered to be the best medical care — shock treatments.  They tie you to a chair and put electrical shocks through you that are meant to kill off part of your memory.   I once watched a documentary on public television on the horrors of this treatment — they tie your mouth with a rag so you don’t swallow or bite your tongue.  It is so painful that you pass out.  It became so controversial that they stopped doing it in the United States. The problem is that when I went to visit him one day following a shock treatment, Uncle Ted didn’t even know where he was.  He didn’t know that was his hospital bed.  He only asked for my brother, a priest, who was too busy helping other families and didn’t have time to spend with my Uncle Ted who so desperately needed him now.

Then came the last resort — a labotomy.  Doctors decided that they would cut into his brain and remove part of what was making him so OCD.  Of course, that didn’t work either.  When my parents were divorced and he begged my mother to move in, she refused, saying that he had to learn to live on his own.  How would that be possible?  But she didn’t want his OCD to “rub off” on her children, so she placed him in a halfway house in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago.  I was pregnant with my first child and I picked him up from this god-forsaken place and would let him spend the day at our apartment in a nicer neighborhood of Chicago.  He would stay for dinner and then I would drive him home.  Home?  Not really.  It was a bed with a roommate whose problems were worse than Uncle Ted’s.  I remember when I visited him once he had to go to the toilet and all I could hear was him trying to have a bowel movement.  He was crying and yelling in pain.  All I could do was silently cry in the chair, wondering why his own family had abandoned him.  I was newly married with a child on the way.  I didn’t know how to help him when my mother lived in a five-bedroom house as an empty nester.  When you witness and live through such callousness or selfishness, you begin to withdraw.  You try to close your eyes and pretend it isn’t really happening or that somehow one day everything will magically get better.  Of course, it only gets worse.

Uncle Ted became so sick that my mom and brother took him to the hospital and checked him in.  I couldn’t go because I was dilated to eight with my first born and the doctors wouldn’t allow me to enter a hospital for fear the fetus would pick up an infection.  So that night I called Uncle Ted at the hospital and asked him how he was doing.  I asked him if he was OK.   All he could say through his tears was that he loved me and loved my baby.  I told him I loved him, too. Those would be the last words we would speak.

The next day my mom got a call that Uncle Ted had died overnight.  He had thrown up in his bed from all the medication and suffocated on the vomit while no one tended to him.   Is it possible that someone who was so kind and so gentle suffer such a horrible death?  You try to think did God turn away for a moment and not pay attention to one of the kindest souls he put on this planet who had so much more to live for?  Instead, how was he destined to live such a miserable life that you knew he wanted to die.  I knew those words would be his last.  Life was just too harsh of a place for someone who didn’t know how to handle life’s mean turns and people’s lack of caring.  He didn’t know how to find peace in a world gone crazy.

I went to his funeral two weeks before I delivered my first born and I cried so hard through the entire service.  The words people were saying were lost on me.  All I could think of is how Uncle Ted had suffered his entire life for no reason.  He never knew how much he was loved.  He never understood how much his kindesses were appreciated.  His life could not have been for nothing.  It couldn’t have been in vain, yet it seemed like this Air Force veteran of World War II who learned how to build planes and could run the bases so fast until his Achilles tendon gave out had lived for no purpose.  He had no wife.  No children.  No legacy.  Just the memories of two nieces and two nephews who once they would stop talking about him, his life would become dust.  He would never even know all the tears that were shed at his funeral, only that he was now at peace.

Uncle Ted was not the one.

Pope Adrian

When I was growing up, I was the double middle child — older brother, older sister, younger brother, younger sister.  The one who needs and wants double the attention.  I remember thinking how simple life was when I was young.  It only became more complicated in 1963 when I was nine years old.  I was in the fourth grade and Sister Mary Trinitas got the word that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  She was able to get the school janitor to bring in a television and then came word that he died.  A few days later, my mother sat me down in front of the television because we were given the day off from school and she told me to watch the funeral of President John F. Kennedy.  She said it was history being made and that I would always remember it.  She was right, although then I didn’t quite understand it all.

Instead, I was dealing with shocking details going on in my own house.  We grew up in a modest Georgian house just a few miles from O’Hare Airport on a busy street.  One of my favorite things to do, especially when it was raining, was counting cars.  My older brother and I would have a contest of how many station wagons or convertibles or yellow cars or black cars would go by in a certain period of time.  I can’t imagine a child up to seven years old being amused by that for longer than a minute. We could do it for hours.

In the summer, my mother would give us an empty dishwasher liquid container.  We would fill it with water and leave a trail of drops to play hide and seek on our small block of seven homes.  You obviously had to move quickly if you were the seeker before the sun dried up the water spots on the hot sidewalk.  When I was seven and my brother was eight, we were told that my older sister was really my half-sister that her mother was not our mother but she had a different mother who died at childbirth and her little infant lived.  That was my sister, really my half-sister.  The whole story was so upsetting and the way in which it was told that my brother and I both started crying at the speckled formica table in our small kitchen when my mother tried to explain it.  I didn’t understand if she still was my sister or not.  Frankly, today I still don’t know because when my parents divorced, my older sister went to live with my dad’s mother.  My dad remarried even before the divorce papers with my mom were signed by the judge.

I remember the public park a block from our home and my brother and I would go there often until he found new friends and I really wasn’t allowed to play with the boys any more because my mom thought I was being a tomboy.  The final straw was when we played frisbee baseball and I was playing third.  I caught the frisebee on a fly and made the out, but not until my arm came straight down on a rusty metal fence we had that had sharp prongs sticking up.  It jammed right into an artery and the blood in my right arm came pouring out.  My mom rushed me to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot and that was the end of my playing with the boys.  I still cherish the few things we did together because I remember being the envy of the neighborhood when I could outrun, out hit and out throw all of the boys in every sport.

I remember one time when my brother and I were on a merry-go-round and the bullies in the neighborhood made it go around so fast when we were on it that my brother flew off.  I timed it to let go at about the spot that he flew off and I wound up skinning my elbow and getting hurt worse than he did.  Then there was another time when the bullies started a literal fight with my brother.  I had a bat and was hovering it over the bully, threatening to hit him.  I just couldn’t bring myself to crack his skull open, with his friends surrounding him, egging on the fight.  Instead, I ran home as fast as I could hoping that one of my parents would be there.  Thankfully, my dad was.  He put on a pair of pants – he always liked to sit at home with his boxer shorts on and when you weigh 350 pounds, that’s not a very pretty sight – and we jumped in his leased black Lincoln Continental and we headed to the fight.  My dad broke it up and then they headed over to the boy’s house.  The other boy definitely started it, although I think my brother got in a bit of trouble anyway for not staying away from them.

As we got older, my brother decided to go to the Catholic high school.  I refused to go to the all-girls Catholic high school that was run by nuns you only have nightmares about.  My older brother applied to Northwestern University’s School of Speech to become a radio disc jockey like my dad or hopefully a sportscaster, but after he received his letter of acceptance, he suddenly decided he wanted to be a priest and would enter the seminary.  It struck me as odd that my brother, the son of divorced parents, would want to pursue the priesthood, but so long as I wasn’t being pushed into the convent, I really didn’t think about it all that much then.  My mother was proud to say that she named him Adrian, after one of the world’s greatest popes.  Of course, he never went on to become pope, but he was revered in the parishes where he served.

My brother wasn’t one of those “thinking” priests that knew theology inside and out.  He was one of those outgoing priests who everyone loved because he gave of his time and himself.  He was loved by everyone who came in contact with him. He lives life hearing so many problems, yet he’s able not to internalize them and has a happy, peaceful way about him.  He probably only made one mistake in his life – and that was with our Uncle Ted.  He has paid for it every day of his life in guilt.  I may have guilt in my life, but it’s not about Uncle Ted.

My brother, no, he’s not the one.



I think the first words I could say as a baby must have been puppy. I loved dogs.   I studied every breed and could identify them when I saw a dog on the street. I could even tell you cross breeds when a dog was a mix of several breeds. Every waking moment as a child, I thought about dogs and the day I would have my own.  We owned a set of encyclopedias and under dogs, there were four color pages of the different breeds and I studied them, thinking which one would be the one for me.  I always wanted a collie like Lassie who would come home to me no matter how far away she was, but I knew my mother would never approve of a dog with such long hair around the house.  So I decided it would be a German Shepard, a white German Shepard. A dog that would stand out as different, a dog that would protect me from all dangers, a dog that would be my best friend.

When I was 10 years old my mother finally gave in to my tormenting her and told my dad to find me a white German Shepard. We drove to somewhere on Chicago’s south side. I thought I was getting a purebred registered AKC dog. Instead we went to a small grey two-story house made of painted wood boards now chipped and faded that was in dire need of work. We went to the back door and looking down a few concrete steps into the basement entrance with a sewer drain was a litter of German Shepards. Some of them were white. I got to pick the one I wanted and immediately I was drawn to this little dog that was somewhat shy, but immediately came up to me and wanted to be my friend.   I knew he was the one.

When my dad paid $75 for the dog in cash, we were promised the registered papers would come in the mail, but I knew they never would. I had read much about pure bred dogs coming from fancy breeders and I knew immediately this was not one of those places, but by the time we made it home in the car, I didn’t even care. I loved this dog like no other. His name would be Rex. Strong, simple, masculine. He peed on the car seat and on my clothes from excitement, and I was afraid my dad would slap me for it. The stench from the dog not being washed in days stunk up the car. I was hoping that didn’t matter. But the bigger problem was when we got home. My mother insisted that Rex would never be allowed upstairs. He would be relegated to the basement and would not ruin the living area of our small home. My mother taught me to make scrambled eggs and the real treat was when I would wake up early Saturday mornings before anyone else got up, closed all the doors, and let Rex into the kitchen where he so looked forward to the human food I would make him. And then we would take a long walk where we talked. I always felt like he understood me.  But other than those few minutes every week, whenever I wanted to be with the dog, I had to go to the basement. He wanted to be outside, but I couldn’t be outside with him all the time especially during those cold Chicago winters, so I took a clothesline and tied a long line to his collar so he could run up and down and forth and back on the patio. Still, he felt the resentment of being locked in a basement and not being with the family.

Little did I know that this resentment would develop into an intense love and protectionism of me, and a resentment of the rest of the world. He would want to kill everyone who came near me out of a skewed love for me like no other. I would sit in the yard and hold him in my lap as I rocked him back and forth like a baby, even as he got bigger and would talk to him and confide my troubles and my worries. He seemed to never tire to hear my voice.

Another problem, though, was that he never learned to be housebroken. In fact, he had it mixed up and thought it was the opposite. Even when I would leave him outside for hours to go to the bathroom, he would hold it until he was let inside and he would race to the corner to pee on newspapers I placed there, which ultimately ruined the tile. One day when my dad drove us to school, Rex got away from the leash that tied him up outside all day and he chased our car. When my dad stopped the car, Rex would run away. This went on for a half dozen times and my dad was going to take us to school with Rex running behind the car the whole two miles. I was crying for fear he would get hit by a car in the street as he tried to keep up with us. Finally, with one last lunge, I was able to grab him and bring him back and tie him up.   My mother was becoming more and more impatient, but then one thing occurred that was the ending of my ownership of my beloved Rex.

I fed him one morning before school and took him outside to tie him up for the day and at that very moment a high school student was walking with his friends on the sidewalk to the nearby high school. Rex went after them past the gate like a fierce wolf, biting the student on the ankle when the boy hadn’t done anything to provoke the dog. I tried to step on the leash to stop him, but just missed it, so I couldn’t stop him. The high schooler held his cut ankle, yelling obscenities at me, as my mother worried that his parent would be visiting her about the attack dog. Rex had become vicious for resenting being locked up for so long. My mom said that we had to give him away. I cried and cried, so she compromised that we would give him to another family to take care of him and I could visit him and still consider him my dog. We placed an ad in the local newspaper and found a family about 15 minutes away. Most weekends, my mom would drive me there to bring the dog food so I could visit him until one day when we pulled up, he growled at me. My own dog had forgotten who I was and barked and showed his teeth like I was a stranger. I cried and realized that this was never going to work so I told my parents that it was OK to give him away. They found a woman whose husband had recently died and wanted a protector dog.  I’ll never know if that was a true story or if they were taking him to be euthanized.

It was a Saturday morning and they loaded him into the car and drove away. I wanted to go with, but they wouldn’t allow it. They didn’t want me to know where he was going. I stood at the gate and watched them drive away. I couldn’t stand watching the car in the distance, Rex’s face looking at me in the back window, so I ran after them, but they never slowed down. I would never see him again. They only told me that the dog jumped on his new owner with delight and peed on the floor as he wagged his tail, but the new owner didn’t care. She was so delighted to have such a beautiful dog who immediately seemed to love her. I had lost my best friend.

Rex wasn’t the one.

Copyright — 2014



That’s what we called my grandfather. He didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Polish, other than Dziadzia (“ja-ja”) which means “grandfather.” He died when I was seven and he was 85. A frail man who loved to drink his coffee with his toast, I only recall him coming over maybe once a month from the “old folks home” in which he was put. We lived in a small house squeezing five children and two parents into three bedrooms, so there was no room for him. His wife had died when I was six months old, so I don’t remember my grandmother at all other than one faded black and white cherished photo, edges worn away, of her holding me shortly before her death. I was told she was a living saint, living through World War I, emigrating to America, helping those around her in the Depression when she barely had anything herself. She prided her herself on baking everything from scratch and then sharing it with those who had nothing.

She died a horrible death. She had terrible asthma and medication in the twentieth century isn’t what it is today. She would heave terribly, gasping for breath, particularly when it was hot or her allergies were intolerable warmer weather. Then came the summer of 1954 – it was August and it was in the 90’s for days. My mother decided to take her three young children for a Sunday ride and her last memory is waving to her as she stood at the window of their modest apartment in Chicago’s Polish neighborhood. The white lace curtains she sewed were parted as her sad eyes seemed to know that it may be the last night she saw her newly married daughter who already had three young children instead of the famed opera career she had dreamed of and worked for her whole life. She was literally waving goodbye forever. When my mother returned, her mother was at the kitchen table, her head resting on the formica.  She was dead.  She simply couldn’t catch her breath and her heart gave out trying to help her for the last time.

Where was Dsiadzia? In the next room, oblivious to her life-and-death trauma. He was a simple tailor in Poland and when he brought those skills to America, he found a terrific job with Hart Schaffner & Marx. When his wife came ten years later, they had two children, my mom and my Uncle Ted. Life was good until my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother, a monsignor in the Catholic Church died. His other brother kicked them out of the apartment building he owned. My grandfather lost his job. He lost his sanity.  He was never the same. My grandmother took care of him for decades, divorce not being a reality in this new country of hers.

I never really knew Dziadzia but the only significant event that happened was when he died. My mother never seemed close to him, but after we went to his funeral mass and then to the cemetery, we walked back to the car and it was the first time I saw my mom cry. My mom never cries. She taught me to be strong. I wondered why that time was so emotional for her since she didn’t seem very close to him. She could have had him at our house more often, but no one ever seemed to want to pick him up and bring him to sit in a house that was quite raucous, certainly compared to an old folks’ home. No one wanted to bother with a man who couldn’t speak English and seemed like a burden.   But at that moment, she just broke down and cried at the car, probably realizing that now she no longer had any parents. Maybe that’s a scary thing in life. But when you grow up as independent as I did, I don’t see things that way. To me, it’s all about the relationship you have with that person when they are alive. If it is distant and meaningless, a person’s death doesn’t really matter. It mattered how you treated them during life, then there is no guilt. Few tears.  You did all that you could. If you don’t speak to that person on a regular basis or have any dependency on them for your existence, I’m sure they think the same about you. Living, dying. Isn’t it all the same if you didn’t talk to them or build a meaningful relationship with the person, even if it’s your immediate relative?  When my dad’s wife died, my brothers and sister decided to go to her funeral.  My dad threw us out.  He asked us to leave.  He did not want us there.  We quitely left.  Forget that she was the one who wrote us the nasty notes.  Forget that she would never put our calls through to him, saying he was too busy to speak to his children.  Now suddenly we were the bad guys for trying to pay our last respects to a woman who meant nothing to us.  We did it out of respect for our dad, and it meant nothing.  Even in death, some people cannot forgive and it is a lesson that is passed on to your children as they learn to be as hardhearted as you.

I always thought I would grow up one day to be a U.S. Senator. I thought I would have an impact on thousands of lives. I thought I would use my intelligence, my strength, my vibrance for life to help as many people as I could while I would make a mark in my life. When I saw that was never going to happen, you realize all you can do is have an impact on the few people around you and as you get older, instead of that circle becoming larger because you know more people, that circle becomes smaller. Your family members dwindle and do you really have friends? Or do they quickly learn to live without you? It’s all part of the heart of darkness.

Dziadzia wasn’t the one.

copyright 2014

Mean Guys


Mean Guys

Junior high should have been the best time of my life. We had just moved into a new house my mom and dad built – brand spanking new to her specifications. It was on a double lot right across the street from the church and Catholic school we attended. Instead of it winning friends, it gained me every enemy in my class. The Catholic values that were supposed to be so important instead gave way to envy and meanness one could never imagine. My mother was so embarrassed by my father’s leaving, we weren’t allowed to tell anyone. Not even the one friend I had. I learned how to keep secrets. It’s a trait that has served me well in life.

I was always a little overweight in grammar school but the guys would make fun of me like I was obese. I had dark circles under my eyes. I was constantly called “Raccoon.” They would call me other names and would make fun of my dad because he was a celebrity of sorts. While their dads did things I didn’t know, my dad was in the paper and on the radio. He would interview Hollywood stars who came through Chicago. He was a big shot by some people’s standards. There was a comedian named Jackie Vernon who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. With a deadpan face, he would talk about sad things that would happen to him in his life and the audience would howl with the guy’s hang-dog look and approach to life. He would talk about this guy who had a dog – he would mention my dad by name and people would laugh at the name, thinking it was made up. It was real. It was my dad.

The kids at school would pick up on that and make fun of everything I did. They even played a game called “cobbing” girls. I always seemed to be the butt of them taking their spit and throwing it at you – on your clothes, your hair, your face. Where were the nuns? On the playground, there was little supervision. I hated the lunch hour because it meant everyone hung out with their friends. I had none. The one person I had, Mary Beth, would later betray me and really wasn’t a friend at all. I drew deeper into my dark hole. I would try to volunteer watching little ones so I could stay inside. Sometimes I inevitably had to be outside.

One day a player on the eighth grade basketball team was cobbing people. I told him if he threw it at me one more time, I would beat him up. He laughed at the challenge, thinking that a five-foot-two girl couldn’t take him on. Instead, he took the biggest piece of spit ever and threw it at me. Before he knew what happened, I lunged at him and had him on the ground. I was on my knees bouncing up and down on his chest while pinning his arms to the ground. People were around us in a circle not knowing what to do, then suddenly someone came up to us and said that Sister Michelle wanted me. It must have been God intervening because I really don’t know what I would have done next. The big baby was crying for everyone to get me off of him but no one would touch me for fear they would be embarrassed next. I got off of him and went inside to find out what the nun wanted. I think everyone must have thought that she saw the fight from inside and discipline was next. She instead asked me about some inane thing she needed for class. Looking back, maybe she did witness it and never said anything about it.

Needless to say, the basketball player – and for that matter no guy – ever threw spit on me again. A sadder note was 25 years later at our grammar school reunion, three guys – not the basketball player – came up to me separately and apologized for making fun of me through junior high and high school. Looking back they said they felt so guilty over the years for being so insensitive. They didn’t know that to make matters worse that my dad had left and every cruel joke about him only stabbed me further, being the only one who knew he wasn’t there to protect me or even care about me. Every stab wound only serves to make your skin that much thicker. And your heart that much darker. While other girls rolled their Catholic school girl skirts up and giggled over boyfriends, I stood alone, never invited to anyone’s house. I even took four of them to a Beatles’ concert – tickets my dad got for free. I couldn’t even buy girlfriends, so soon I stopped trying.

No the guys in school, they weren’t the ones.




I remember thinking how jealous I was over the years growing up hearing that word. “My daddy is helping me with my math homework.” “My daddy is driving me for ice cream.” “My daddy is going to build my science fair project.” What was my daddy doing? Busy getting married to a new woman before the divorce with my mother was even final. I was 12. Before then, I didn’t think that anything was wrong in our family. I remember the Christmas that I found out that Santa didn’t exist when I saw my mom and dad running with gifts from a hidden closet and putting them under the tree. I remember when I would sit next to my dad on those few Sunday dinners when he would join us (when he wasn’t busy with “work”), and he would let me sneak a sip of his Meister Breu beer even though I was only six years old. I remember when he would come home late at night and I would wait up knowing he stopped at Walgreen’s for bags of candy that he and I would eat until the bags were finished. I remember when he took a paddle to my older half-sister and hit her so hard on her elbow that I thought he cracked her bone forever, as I cried cowering at the stairs. I remember how he had us kneel in a corner for the smallest infraction of rules he made up on the spot. I remember how he had my mom call me from a block down the street as I played with a friend, forcing me to return to the house to change the television channel for him because he didn’t want to get up and walk the five feet to do it himself (before remote control devices existed). I remember the callouses on the bottom of his feet that he would have me cut off and I choked down the vomit when I was eight, nine and ten years old for being forced to do such a deed, while my mother did the dishes in the kitchen nearby.

Life is made up of memories – they can be happy ones that you cherish your whole life or traumas that you don’t know how to get rid of. Somehow I have forgotten any of the happy thoughts – or there are so few in my life that they are drown out by the din of the traumas. Like the day my dad left. Imagine not knowing that your parents even had a problem, and then one Saturday morning your parents get into a raging fight. Over what, who knows? I’m twelve and they are yelling half in Polish. My dad storms out of the house into his leased black Cadillac sitting in the front circular driveway. My mom yells to my brother, “Go get his clothes! Go get his clothes!”   My brother, a year older than me, dutifully goes to the bedroom on the first floor and grabs a bunch of white underwear from the top bureau drawer and runs them over to my mother. She takes them and throws them at his car as the white clothes go flying in all directions. He screeches out of the driveway, causing black tire marks that remained there for months, another memory etched into my mind. No, really a trauma. As I stood at the family room window watching this unfold, I began to cry. Was dad coming back? It didn’t seem like it, and, of course, he never did. Except the one time he returned with his lawyer.

Apparently he had been watching and waiting for my mom to leave – to run an errand. One day, about six months later, the minute she pulled away, he and his lawyer rang the doorbell. Eight chimes. My mother had instructed us never to let anyone in. No one. My dad begged, yelling through the intercom, that he just wanted to come in for a minute. My older brother’s naïve reaction was what’s the harm? It’s our dad. I said, no, we were instructed not to. And it crossed my mind, even as a twelve year old, that if he wanted to come in, he could wait the ten minutes for my mom to return and she will let him in. It also scared me a bit that he was with a man I didn’t know – his lawyer. Who knows what they wanted? To try to take some things from the house? My mother thought it was always to take my little sister as a hostage of sorts. You can bet it wasn’t that. His new wife would never want to take care of a kid. He had some albums. Maybe he wanted those. Maybe to take some of my mom’s jewelry. Who cares? But I told him we couldn’t let him in and to wait for mom to come home. Instead, they took off. I’m sure not too many children have a memory like that embedded in their brains. They say to learn how to let go? To learn how to forget your dad trying to steal “things” from your house but not interested in visiting with his children? How do you forget such selfishness? Such greed? Such anger and hate? Instead, it becomes a part of your DNA. You realize that it is part of who you are. You can’t escape it and then you begin to live off of it. You have to.

About two months after that, my dad came to get us for one of the few visitations he fulfilled. He would take us for an hour to go bowling – a bowling alley where he could get us in for free with a friend. After we bowled, we were driving on the expressway – it was mid-July and the thermometer was high in the 90’s, typical weather when you think of Christmas. My dad passed out our belated holiday gifts that he had never gotten around to giving us. Actually, you could see it was junk he had collected over the months that was free. My brothers got some airplane stuff. My sister got some stuffed animals. And when I opened my box, I got puppets. Wooden puppets you play with on strings. My brothers laughed so hard, I thought they were making fun of me – maybe of him. It was then that he told us that he had a new wife. I began to cry in the back seat. I couldn’t handle all that was happening. We were pulled over on the side of the expressway when he gave us the gifts and a Chicago police officer pulled up behind us. My dad said to act like I was sick. Act? I didn’t need any acting lessons. I truly felt sick about all that was going on. My dad told the officer that he stopped because his daughter in the back felt sick. The officer took one look at me and immediately believed him. My dad said she’s getting better, though, so we’ll be off. And he took off for our house.

When we got home, my brothers told my mom the news about dad’s new wife and they went out to play two-square on the patio. I stayed inside and watched my mom cry for the second time in my life. It was the finality of it all — no hope of reconciliation. That there was someone else more important in his life and it would never be us. I wondered how my brothers could just laugh it off. Why was it such a trauma for me?

My mom didn’t work and wanted him to support us, as he should, especially having married such a wealthy woman. My dad and his new wife would have none of that so they moved to Las Vegas. He told me later it was to get away from all of us. One day, right before they permanently moved, he took us to another free place – ice skating lessons at Michael Kirby’s. Just as I got off the ice, he hugged me so tight and was crying, I think. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, his mouth smothered into my shoulder, but something about that he had to move. He had to leave. I was so shocked he was doing this in public. It violated the code that my mother ingrained in us – no public display of what was happening. I just stood there. It felt so odd that my dad wanted to hug me. I was about 14 now and it was the first – and the last – time he hugged me. What should have been a great memory stands out as just another trauma, adding to why I never learned how to be affectionate.

No, my dad – he’s not the one.


I have never been able to forgive my dad. Perhaps it’s more about forgiving myself. I still haven’t been able to do that either. But the worst thing you can do is pass on these feelings of bitterness on to your children. Although that’s difficult when you’re with them every day, the least you can hope to achieve is that they are able to recognize that it’s wrong and not emulate it.

My daughter wrote her thoughts about what her grandfathers meant to her in a college entrance essay. I think my children get it if you read what she wrote:

A Portrait of Contrasts

My grandfather was a sign painter all his life. He was proud of his trade for he wasn’t an ordinary sign painter. He was of the dying breed who painted gold leaf on wood and glass. Back in the days when doctors and lawyers and businessmen would stay put for years, he would be called in to painstakingly brush their names and titles in 24 karat gold. He would carry his black, weathered suitcase full of brushes and colors and his short stool across the city to make Chicago’s professionals feel a little bit more important.

He had dreams himself of being a doctor, but in the early 1900s, the oldest son of nine children didn’t have the luxury of going to school for years. Instead, he learned a trade and used his earnings to put his youngest brother through medical school who would go on to be one of the city’s most respected surgeons.

Even after he officially retired at age 65, the company would call my grandfather in a day or two a week for his steady hand, his skill and reliability. But as years passed, companies started finding cheaper alternatives to list their names – prefabricated lettering that could be more easily transported and reused after an office move.

I recall when Grandpa would come over for dinner nearly every Friday, it was like a scene out of a sitcom. He was fussy about what he ate, having been spoiled by the home cooking of his wife of 65 years. We would all sit poised over our food, silverware in hand, waiting for Grandpa to give his approval. He would taste the soup that was always too cold or the mashed potatoes that inevitably had too little garlic. With a grump of approval and a glare around the table, we would proceed with the meal. But beneath that blustery exterior, was a man who would literally never kill a flea. He would catch them in the palm of his hand and let them go free. He would give back change to a cashier if she inadvertently erred in his favor. He would watch television every night until his head would fall back on the couch with a loud snore and Grandma would help him to bed.

My other grandpa was a celebrity of sorts. In the heyday or radio, he had a talk show, interviewing famous entertainers who would come through Chicago. He would wiggle his way backstage at the Oscars every year. He claimed to know everyone from Wayne Newton to Bing Crosby, from Lucille Ball to John Wayne. But a bitter divorce broke up the family, and he remarried and escaped to Las Vegas to shut out his five “burdensome” children and a “pestering” ex-wife. He continued his craft there – interviewing personalities who entertained “on the strip,” being a big shot in a relatively small town. I never met him, and it wasn’t until my mother contacted him again late in his life that he began to speak to his children, children he really didn’t even know. He would ask their ages and if he had any grandchildren.

The contrast in these two men’s lives are as evident in their deaths as when they were alive.   Grandpa died at 93, peacefully in his sleep with Grandma at his side. He had advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and did not recognize her, but she held his hand and spoke to him as if he were still complaining about her salty chicken soup. The tears were so great that my younger brother, then eight, was afraid to sit through the funeral – his first encounter with death. There also was laughter as his three sons recalled moments of joy they had spent with their dad during his long life.

My other grandfather died last year. It was a slow, agonizing, lonely death. His new wife had died a few years earlier and he tried to maintain his status as a radio and television personality even when he couldn’t afford dentures to fix his missing front teeth. Over the years, he never really earned much and anything he had obtained from his new wealthy wife’s hefty divorce settlement was spent on promoting himself. At age 78, he still thought he would “hit it big” with a syndicated show that millions would watch and know his name. Instead, he fell and broke his hip, landing in a nursing home, penniless and without family. When he died, out of sympathy, his children had his body flown back to Chicago so he could be buried in his family’s plot, otherwise a pauper’s burial was awaiting him in Las Vegas. At the funeral, there were no tears, no memories.

At least, on his deathbed he called each of his children, one by one, weakly whispering how sorry he was in his final moments. Through his tears, he said how he shouldn’t have left all of their phone calls and pleas for attention go unanswered over the years. As the morphine intravenous dripped, he said how he wished he would have spent more time with them, watching them grow into successful adults and being satisfied with the pride of watching their success, instead of constantly hoping for his own. He prayed for God’s forgiveness for his being so selfish, for not realizing that his real treasures were right before him his whole life. He had been reaching for the wrong stars.

It is a lesson I will long remember: to cherish the gifts we are given in life, to make choices that touch those closest to you. The love will flow from there to countless others without even knowing.