Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Memory Lane


I walk down memory lane because I know I will run into you there.
-Unknown

The cemetery is just past the race track. You’ll remember the area when you see it. Do you see Tebels’s yet?

‘What’s that?”

That old supper club. The one grandma and grandpa had their 50th wedding anniversary. The place where we went for lunch after we buried Aunt Joyce. Best perch I’ve ever had.”

“I didn’t come home for Aunt Joyce’s funeral and I must have been seven when grandma and grandpa were both alive. Stay on the phone with me.”

My dad was describing landmarks on every corner as if he was sitting in the car next to me. One of five boys, dad grew up not far from here. I saw a picture of the house once.  It couldn’t have been more than 1200 square feet; home sweet home to a family of seven.  An architect might call the clapboard bungalow a shotgun house because if you shot a gun from the front door into the house, the bullet would travel straight out the back door. The house sat in the shadow of the steel mill that once lured my grandfather and great uncle to the south side of Chicago.  

As the family story goes, the boys left their farm in Minnesota in search of work during the Great depression. They were digging ditches along the banks of the Mississippi for a WPA project in an effort to feed themselves and send enough home to save the farm from foreclosure.  Soon the mail carrying the wages of three imposing Nordic boys had dwindled to just two envelopes. One brother caught something from the mosquitos. My grandfather and his surviving brother were escorting his body back on a train when they heard a man speaking their native Norwegian dialect. The man was headed to Chicago to work in one of the flourishing steel mills. The hope of steady work was enough to make the two brothers get off the train that day. They both worked at Acme steel for fifty years. My two uncles put in another fifty years each at the same mill.  Most of the industry collapsed in the 1970’s, sending the Scandanavian immigrants who settled the once blue-collar neighborhood packing. The children of the millworkers, like my uncles, fled deeper into the woods of the suburbs. The original neighborhood became the new home to families migrating from the crime ridden projects of downtown Chicago.

Uncle Sam, the oldest of the five Dyrhaug boys, was the first to follow in Grampa’s footsteps in the mill. He was the first to move to Northwest Indiana, only 15 miles but a world away from the neighborhood where they grew up.  He was the first to retire from the steel mill and the first to become a widow. The second oldest of the boys, Uncle Bob, followed the same exact path. Today, it was Uncle Bob’s turn to lay to rest his bride of 48 years. Aunt Patti was always my favorite aunt. She was everyone’s favorite everything.

I spotted Tebel’s and the racetrack not far after. As predicted, the cemetery was on the right. The name was Memory Lane. I reluctantly turned in.

Usually it was Christmas parties at Aunt Pat’s that got us all in the same room for a few hours and even those gatherings were spaced a part by several years.  I can count on my hand how many times I have seen my cousins since I graduated college. These were the kids I chased fireflies with in the summer to the bottom of the hill where we swung on a tire swing until we were too hungry to stay outside any longer. There were ponds to ice skate and wooded hills to snowmobile through in the winter.  They are the cousins who piled into the back of station wagons for road trips to the family cabin in Wisconsin. The same cousins who turned Uncle Bob and Aunt Pat’s unfinished concrete basement into a place of discovery and adventure. Once we tried riding skateboards down the stairs into that basement.

Somehow, we survived our invented games, cars without seatbelts, bikes without helmets, trampoline’s without nets as well as restaurants where hand washing was optional and secondhand smoke was a given. Now, Marky goes by Mark. He is an accountant with two girls ages 7 and 9, about the same age that we will always be in my memories with my cousins. Mark’s little sister, Jill, has teenage daughters. Together, they will ensure their 73-year old father is never lonesome. But first, they must bury their mom.

Even though Aunt Pat had been sick for five years, no one was prepared for her loss. I don’t know what was worse, watching my uncle try to unsuccessfully stifle his crying or hearing Patti’s grandchildren howling in the way only children who have suffered a painful injury noisily bawl.  Everything reminded them of her, a ring, a joke, the TV remote. With each reminder, the tears returned hot and unrelenting.

Colon cancer spread to her liver. The treatment was a dress rehearsal in dying everyday. Patti finally refused to prolong the inevitable. Doctors sent her home with Hospice’s phone number and a couple of months to get her affairs in order. That was two years ago. Her illness forced Uncle Bob to finally retire from the steel mill to care for Aunt Patti full -time.  He became a vegetarian and an expert juicer. He read everything on Holisitic medicine and was the first in the family to discover new health documentaries. His vitamin concoctions bought them years together. From feeding, bathing and dressing, he took care of her until the very end.

And I would do it again. These last few months were the most intimate in our marriage.” He said between sobs.


*
After the wake, twenty of us ended up back at Uncle Bob’s.  My cousin Sally and I picked up more PBR while her husband picked up pizzas. The pizzas, another destination on memory lane, were cut in squares, not slices, and smothered in sausage, peppers and onions, another Southside thing.  On our way back from the beer run, Sally pointed out two local landmarks that were not on my original map of memory lane.  Our Lady of the New Millenium was built for the Diocese of Chicago. The 8,400 pound stainless steel statute of the Virgin Mary, was recently moved to a shrine outside Sally’s massive church. The town of St. John has a population of less than 15,000 and St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church could probably accommodate the entire town.  The 34-foot tall Madonna does not look out of place next to this mega church. The statue’s loving and lifelike expression reminded me immediately of Aunt Pat.

Sally drove me down the road to the town’s original tourist
attraction, “Shoe Corner, also known as “The Intersection of Lost Soles.” I imagined the motherly statue was tall enough to peer beyond the hills where horses graze to watch over this strange intersection. My cousin couldn’t tell me with certainty how it started, but thousands of mismatched shoes are tossed along the road every year. In the summer, the piles stand as tall as the corn, in the Winter, they could be mistaken for odd drifts of dirty snow. One local legend explains that a man’s boot showed up first, then a single lady’s dress shoe. Within a few weeks, the shoes appeared side by side along the road next to the four way stop. By the end of the first summer so long ago no one remembers when, children’s shoes showed up next to the man’s boot and ladies heel. The shoe family has been growing ever since.
*

We arrived at the house where something resembling one of our best family parties was underway. My Uncle Jimmy, the youngest of the brothers who recently retired as a special ed teacher in an inner city school, was telling the story of how he discovered the joy of manicures and pedicures. Apparently, Jimmy was turned on to manscaping by my Uncle Kenny, the middle child of the five, who retired from the phone company and moved to Arizona.

“Let’s plan a get together of all the brothers this summer, I bet we can find a salon to give us all manicures and pedicures at the same time. We will bring our own PBR.” Jimmy made a toast.

The laughter soon faded to quiet attention as someone mentioned that one of Patti's grand daughters found two four leaf clovers on the day she died. I found a beautiful feather in my path the same night. I picked it up as instinctively as one picks up a penny. I have always believed feathers to be a sign of angels. At the time, I was unaware that my favorite Aunt was taking her last breaths. I didn't share the feather story as I didn't want to be judged for my childish beliefs. I was silently relieved when my cousin Sally and Uncle Sam spoke of the swarm of lady bugs that suddenly appeared when they were searching for a cemetery for Aunt Joyce. My Aunt Joyce loved lady bugs. They took it as a sign that she approved of the remote country plot. A few weeks after she died, Sam and Sally were inside their huge church when a lady bug landed on them, another sign from above they concluded. I didn't remember our family being so superstitious. Is that where I picked it up? 

At midnight, Sally and I said our first round of goodbyes. We became sidetracked first by the basement stairs. The basement is now finished as a spacious office and laundry room. Now, only pictures remain as reminders of the amusement park that was once located underneath the house. Still, it’s a kid’s paradise. Aunt Pat made it a home away from home for her grandkids. Beyond making visitors of all ages feel welcome she made them feel like they belonged. There was always enough food, enough room, enough laughter; there was always more than enough at Aunt Patti’s.

We found our way back to the kitchen, which had been transformed into Pat’s dream kitchen with all granite and custom cabinets right before she got sick. She never really got a chance to entertain in it. Now, there was this beautiful party unfolding missing the hostess.  She and Uncle Bob never got around to traveling either. While he was putting in his time at the mill, she worked at a trucking company. Maybe, they had plans for something more than their simple life someday. But I didn’t sense that putting off remodeling or missed vacations were among their regrets.  Now for the first time, there wasn’t enough of something.

“I really believed she was going to get better. I thought we would have more time.” Her daughter Jill confided.  Jill couldn’t imagine not having her mom around. There wasn’t an inch of her childhood home that didn’t hold a memory.
*

The next morning, Sally and I returned as everyone else was having breakfast and getting ready for the funeral. It was grey and drizzling, appropriate weather for what we were about to do. I told Sally to go in without me, I wanted to take some pictures of the pond. There was a patch of puffy dandelions growing next to it. The kind that are a rare find in Florida. A few months ago, I wrote a story about making wishes  for Hadley. Cole, Hadley and I had recently found some dandelions while picking flowers and had great fun making wishes like the story. The more I walked, the muddier it got. My heels were sinking with each step. But I wanted to take a picture of that pond. I wanted a picture of those dandelions to show Hadley and Cole. I squatted down to get a few pictures and when I stood up, I realized there was an entire field of dandelions beyond the pond, just like the field I described in my children’s story. I thought I imagined such a beautiful place, but maybe I remembered it? Soon I was picking a bouquet and thinking of what I might wish for. At first, I wished that my husband would be as devoted to me as Uncle Bob was to Pat. I wished my kids would miss me someday the way Pat’s kids and grandkids sorely long for her. I wished that my children would know the comfort and security of a homecoming like this one. Finally, I realized those wishes all boiled down to just one. I wished that I could somehow make my family feel as loved and accepted and connected as my aunt made her family feel.


I went straight to the airport from the funeral to meet up with  Kenny and the kids, who were already on our summer vacation in Canada.   When we finally reconnected, I showed Cole my pictures. He just smiled and handed me his phone. His pictures revealed that he had also found a field of dandelions."They reminded me of you. Me and Hadley made wishes while you were gone."

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