A Year of Moments

I was born on the 13th day of February (a Friday to boot) so I have an affinity for the number 13, especially since so many people say it’s unlucky. I’ve always been crazy rebellious that way.

2013 went fast, the fastest year yet. In fact, it was hard to think back on what happened, so I read through this blog and searched through my planner for reminders.

Some of what I found:

January: I read The Snow Child, my favorite book of the year. (You can read about that and other Great New Books here.) I also rang in the New Year in a small, London pub with some of my favorite people.

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Sister, husband, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law at a pre-Liverpool football game celebration on New Year’s Day.

February: I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, my favorite movie of the year. I also began contributing to PDXX Collective—check them out—and passed the 1-year mark on this blog.

March: We traveled to Naples, FL with my husband’s parents, the only major travel we did this year after a 2012 filled to the brim with trips. It made me realize four big trips in a year is too many; one is too few.

April: Got to see Vanessa Diffenbaugh speak at my local theater, the Metropolis Performing Arts Center, five blocks from my house. She was charming and smart and funny. If you haven’t read her book, The Language of Flowers, you should do so.

My son started t-ball. Bestill my beating heart.

May: I submitted my manuscript to She Writes Press and later that month it was accepted. The first person I told was my husband (he was next to me as I read the email on my phone). I tried to call my mom but she was in the middle of Wisconsin so I had to send a text. My sister was in Ireland; as soon as she received my text she sent a video of her and her Irish friends cheering for me in a Dublin pub.

June: Signed the contract with SWP.

Attended Printer’s Row Lit Fest and stood in line for Colum McCann to sign my copy of Let the Great World Spin. I sweated and stuttered as I told him that my sister was in Ireland (he’s Irish). He wrote an Irish blessing in my book.

July: I spent one week at the Northwoods resort I went to every summer as a child. Everything was the same, down to the swingset. It was fantastic and trippy, and I’ve never tripped before.

August: My son started kindergarten. It was hard, but I have a feeling 1st grade is going to be much harder. Gone all day? No thank you. The day before school started, I took him on a date, his choice. We ended up at a local heritage farm, walked the grounds, petted the animals, and Henry picked up a leaf from the ground that he thought was pretty and gave it to me. It’s now pressed between the pages of my journal.

I road-tripped to Troy, OH, for Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road tour, which is becoming an annual tradition with my husband and sister, and an old friend from elementary school.

September: My husband and I celebrated our 9th anniversary. I gave him tickets to Macklemore. (He’s a born-and-raised Norwegian-Minnesotan who loves rap.) He gave me a writing desk.

I also ran a half-marathon, which my knees still seem to be recovering from.

October: 15-year college reunion. It’s hard to write that.

November: Thanksgiving in Minneapolis. 10 degrees.

December: The HerStories Project published. It’s been remarkable getting to know the fifty writers involved, and it’s a remarkable book on friendship. You can buy one for your friends HERE.

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And last but not least, I received in the mail the advance copies of my book, The Rooms Are Filled (April 2014). It’s also up on NetGalley.com, for all you book bloggers and reviewers. If you’d like to read and review it, check it out and download a free e-copy HERE.

Honestly, though, when I think back on the year, I think of my children, and of mothering. I think of teaching them to bake cookies, playing dinosaurs, riding bikes on our dead-end street with neighbors, lying in bed with them after story time, watching them sleep, kissing their soft cheeks, wiping their bums, wiping their tears. I think of sledding and strollers, discovery walks in the alley, gummy worms piled on frozen yogurt, first fish and life jackets that are too big. Sidewalk chalk and pretend lawn mowers, library books and lunch on the front porch, blueberry yogurt dripping down shirt fronts.

There are so many details in a life; the highlights tell only a small part of the story.

This week we will host Christmas dinner. My children will spill milk, they’ll talk over each other, my daughter will hold up a finger and say “Ackashee” instead of “actually,” my son will complain he’s bored and do a dance that makes me laugh, they’ll flip over their kid chairs and make a fort. And many, many other things.

Cheers to life’s moments. I hope each of you find happiness in them.

Why We Reminisce

My uncle (who makes an appearance on this blog so much, I feel like I should give him a royalty, and would, if I got any money for this; I’ve even stopped asking for permission to use his emails) asked me last month why we reminisce:

“Is it because we are fonder of the past than we are of the present?  Is it because we thought those days were happier than today, or tougher than today, or because it gives the reminiscer more credibility?

“Christy asked me once why I took photographs. This was before cell phones. I would buy several roles of slide film at a time, take a whole bunch of shots, take them to the photo shop, then a week later come back and pick them up.  I’m not sure why I took all the shots I did but I think I told Christy that it proved I was there at that particular time and place, not just physically but mentally, artistically, and emotionally.

“That still doesn’t explain to me why I like to reminisce and since I started thinking about it last night I decided I would not reminisce until I figured it out. The one thing I do not want to be is a has-been, someone who lives more in the past than the future.”

Dave & Keith Null

My dad and his little brother, my uncle

Here is my response–three weeks later, I’m sorry to say. I’m also sorry it’s not half as eloquent:

“It took me way too long to respond to this.

I am the same way; I worry that my glasses are too rose colored. I tend to pine for the past; not sure why. And it doesn’t even have to be my own past. As a girl, the Civil War was my favorite thing in the world and I was sure I was born in the wrong century [I’ve since recognized the upside to things like washing machines, antibiotics, and toilets]. I know during the present, I will miss it; when the kids do cute things, I know there will be a point in the future when I cry for these times.

It’s getting worse as I get older, so I’m trying hard to have a more positive outlook and live presently. I’m going to blame my parents for all this.”

As usual, when I began writing this post I didn’t know what I was going to say. As I wrote, I came up with a few thoughts, and I think together they start to answer why we reminisce:

I think life already lived is something like childbirth–you forget the immediacy of the painful and you’re left with the pleasant, the interesting, and the wonderful. Reminiscing about those parts is also, therefore, pleasant.

My grandmother, on the left

My grandmother, on the left

People also generally love tradition–traditions provide comfort and security in the known. Traditions create bonds, shared experiences over and over. Reminiscing is probably a cousin of tradition.

Mostly, though, I think reminiscing is storytelling. It is sharing your story, a story in which you are the main character. It is validating your life, a documentation of sorts, but more than that. And when shared, your story–your life–is passed on. As the tagline above says: “When telling stories we are engaged in a democracy like no other.”  We each have a voice. We are each important. We each were here.

Reminiscing is like writing, like photography. It’s not so much about living in the past as it is about telling your story–sharing it with others so they can laugh, cry, and tell you it’s all going to be okay.

Katie

So, my sister might be blushing right now because she didn’t know I was going to write this post. Or maybe she’s not blushing–she’s the youngest in the family so attention is an old friend. This is how she used to smile for the camera:

I’m five years older than she is. When we were kids, she followed me everywhere. She followed our brother, too, but he was even older and usually wanted nothing to do with us. Some of my friends got annoyed but I never minded. She was entertaining and I was quiet. I liked to observe and she liked to ham it up. Still does. It’s not a surprise that I’m a writer and she’s a therapist for children with disabilities who sometimes slap, kick, and bite her.

We called her Katiebug. Our favorite game was chasing each other around my bed. We called it, appropriately, “Chase Around the Bed.”

She often sat in her little chair and let me teach her everything I knew on the chalkboard in the basement.

Can you not tell our personalities from this picture?

She snuck in and slept with me many nights. Other times, she knocked once on the wall adjoining our rooms. I knocked in response to say goodnight.

That was a long time ago. She’s moving to Ireland for a year on Wednesday and I’ll miss her.

When she started high school, I was off at college. We grew apart and I lost track of the details of her life. She got tripped up for awhile. We almost lost her to a lousy boyfriend and too many drugs. What’s important is she got back up. No one forced her. We just surrounded her with worry and love and she stood up all on her own.

I didn’t figure out how much I would have missed her until she came back to us. That’s when I realized I almost had a life without her friendship.

We’ve stacked a lot of memories in the last eleven years since our first road trip, memories that fill our cups and flow around us. They scatter–were those biker maids from Utah or Colorado? Did we see wild mustangs in Wyoming or South Dakota? Did we climb that promontory in Ireland at Dunmore Head or Garraun Point? And which road trip did we experience what “soft shoulder” meant?

Late night chats in the dark of unfamiliar hotel rooms. Songs and conversations to fill the hours and the roads, past sagebrush and rocky mountains, truckers and giant windmills. Pine Ridge. Starved Rock. Dixon. We share a desire to make memories. It is purposeful, diligent, and carefree.

Don’t get me wrong–we’re sisters. We used to fight to wake the dead. She can still throw me a look that makes me want to wipe it off her face with my foot. But they’re fewer and farther between as we get older. And luckily, she still thinks I’m perfect.

She says she’s a bit terrified to move to Dublin. Of course. Everyone would be. But here’s the thing–not everyone would still go.

Slainte to you, Katiebug. I love you more than my luggage.

Meet: Sandlot, Sissies, and Rabbits

The storytellers are back. This is the second installment in a series of remembrances of life in Franklin Park, Illinois in the late 1940s and early 1950s. You can read the first post HERE.

I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning. I used to walk up Britta, carrying my baseball bat and glove.  By the time I got to the high school [Leyden] at the end of our street, I usually had enough kids to start a small baseball game.  Everything was sandlot in those days.  I did the same thing during the fall and we ended having a football game.  During the winter we could get into the high school gym and play basketball. Sundays were the exception.  They locked everything up but we just climbed over the fence and did our thing.  Many times we were kicked out and one time we were driven to the police station to get a lecture from the sergeant in charge.  We didn’t get in trouble,

The house on Britta Ave, Franklin Park, 1979

just a little scared.  However, that never stopped us.  We were back in the gym the next Sunday.   –Dad

Dave and I lived the farthest from school. We would head out in the morning and first we would get Bill Rush, then the McCarrons, then the Hill twins.  Often Rusty Erickson and Terry Denges would be with us also.  It was not uncommon for there to be 10 or more of us by the time we reached school.  We would often stop at the bakery on Franklin Avenue for donuts or sweet-rolls; we must have used our lunch money to pay for them.

On cold, snowy mornings we would often stop at Judge Hart’s crossing shack to warm up.  Judge Hart—not really a judge, but I think a retired justice of the peace; everyone called him “Judge,”—had a little shack with a potbelly stove at the railroad crossing.  And every time a train was coming, he came out of the shack to notify people when it was safe to cross the tracks.  Kind of like a crossing guard.  On cold mornings, he let us all pile into the shack to warm up because the tracks were about midway from our house to school. We never ever took a bus or rode our bikes (that was considered sissy), and many a winter morning it was cold, cold, and many a winter morning it was snowing.

What I find truly amazing is that most kids today would choose to be driven to school each day whereas we felt it far more interesting, and maybe more grown up, to be able to walk.  –Keith

Keith is right.  You were considered a real sissy if you took the bus to school.  I used to walk up Nearborn street because I thought it was closer for some reason. That is where I met the Hill twins and Dave Mudgett.  They told me I couldn’t walk up their street unless I joined their gang. I immediately joined their gang. –Dad

Franklin Park was very blue collar.  Most of the kids I hung around with did not have parents with a college education.  They worked construction or in the factories.  At one point there was a TV special about Franklin Park and that it was the largest small industrial town in the nation.  This was the reason our property taxes were so low and there was such an excellent school system in F.P.  To this day I believe I received the very best elementary school education possible. –Keith

My dad in the early 50s, about 7th grade

Most of the kids I knew had some type of part time job for their spending money.  In the summer we mowed lawns and in the winter we shoveled sidewalks.  I remember that in the beginning I charged 50 cents.  A year later I raised my price to $1.

My first paper route was in the fourth grade.  I pulled my wagon to deliver The Franklin Park Journal after school.  Sometimes Keith came along to help.  On Saturdays I went to the homes and collected the week’s fee.  In the 7th grade I delivered the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times every weekday morning before school, riding my bike and flipping the papers onto the porches.

I bought my first baseball glove using my paper route money, at a place called Trossen’s Sporting Goods. Mr. Trossen had a daughter who was a few years older than me. I used to go in there pretending to look at different sports equipment.  I just wanted to look at her.  –Dad

Even though our area was not considered rural I felt a real sense of open space.  On the other side of the tracks behind our house, aside from one sawmill, it was open prairie all the way to River Road.  Tom Webber, Dave Mudgett and I used to hunt rabbits all the time in those fields.  O’Hare airport was nothing but prairie back then, with the exception of the O’Hare golf course.  Dave and I used to get on our bikes with our golf bags over our shoulder and ride out for an 18-hole round of golf in the summer.  That must have been around 1954, 55, 56.

Then when the jet planes came into commercial use they pretty much closed Midway Airport because it was surrounded by residential neighborhoods and the jets needed longer runways so O’Hare became the airport of Chicago.  That changed everything.  Motels popped up everywhere along Manheim Road.  The kitchens that prepared the airline meals popped up everywhere to serve the various airlines.  Everything that supported air travel popped up in and around Franklin Park.  The prairies began to disappear.  At the time it didn’t bother me because I was getting into the upper grades and more interested in Barbara Larson than bagging a rabbit.  –Keith

O’Hare Field, 1950s

Meet: Life in Franklin Park, 1948-1955

Both my father, Dave, and his younger brother, Keith, are storytellers. 

They live across the country from each other, Keith in Oregon and Dave in Illinois. If I could have, I would have gotten them in a room together, given them a beer, and pushed, “Record.” As it is, I asked them to write to me about their childhoods in the late 1940s and 1950s in Franklin Park, Illinois. Below are their emails. (Storytellers tend to drone on, so this will come in two parts. Maybe six.)

Dave and Keith as boys in Minnesota

I have a lot of juicy stories.  Your dad, on the other hand, has none.  He was a very boring kid.  Always had his head in books, memorizing statistics.  To this day he can tell you Ralph Kiner’s batting average in 1954, and you’ve never even heard of Ralph Kiner.  Or how many minutes into which round Max Schmelling knocked out Jack Dempsey in 1938.  And he was doing all this while I was pulling Deldra Sue Bitner by her ponytail behind the old oak tree and having my way with her.  Of course I was only six at the time and I’m not sure exactly what my way was but I knew I was having it.  –Keith

As usual Keith is wrong.  Max Schmelling didn’t knock out Jack Dempsey because he never fought Jack Dempsey.  In Schmelling’s first fight with Joe Louis he knocked Louis out in about the 10th round.  Louis went on to become the heavy weight champ and had a rematch with Max Schmelling.  Louis knocked out Schmelling in the first found. The fight lasted about 2 minutes and it was one of the most brutal fights I have ever seen. Louis broke Schmelling jaw, cracked two of his ribs and knocked out a couple of his teeth. –Dad

The day we left our house in Pontoria [Minnesota], from which Ponto Lake is named, we had all our belongings piled high and roped onto an open-top trailer. I remember [oldest brother] Bob coming out of the house with his bow and stuffing it alongside the trailer between a couple pieces of furniture.

I believe we arrived at 3523 Britta Ave. in August, 1948.  I would have just turned 4 the month before. Our dad backed the trailer up to the front porch and everyone started unloading.  Dave and I asked if we could take a walk around the neighborhood and we were told not to go too far.  We walked up to the high school [Leyden], about a block away, which at the time had a very large park next to it with trees and grass and baseball fields, and tennis courts. It was a foggy day and I got all turned around.  I can remember Dave knowing which street was Britta and we eventually found our way back.  –Keith

Franklin Park in the 1950s was a noisy, industrial town. When we first moved there, I was amazed at how many people and cars there were. Most of the industry was made up of small machine shops such as tool & die makers, gas stations, small steel manufacturers, etc.

Our home was part of a subdivision built after World War II. The adults on our street were all nice people.  Most of the men in were tough and they had tough kids. They were primarily blue collar men who fought in World War II.  There were some white collar workers but not many. They all knew me, Keith and Bob.  If they saw us doing anything wrong, our parents heard about it.

Just about everyone drove a Ford or a Chevy.  For a short time in the early 50’s, our dad owned a Hudson.  They don’t make them anymore and with good reason. It might be the ugliest auto ever made.

I still remember my first day in Franklin Park.  Our family jumped out of the car and rushed inside.  I saw a boy across the street and went up to him and put out my hand and said, “Hi, I am Dave.” He hit me in the nose. I learned early that I had better learn how to fight or I was going to have many bloody noses.  –Dad

There were trains everywhere–the Milwaukee Road train yards to the west, the Proviso yards to the south, the Soo Line yards to the north.  The only direction free of train yards is to the east yet you had to cross the Soo Line tracks to get east.  And, there were no overpasses or underpasses. It seemed as though we were always getting caught by a train.

Dave’s story of getting a bloody nose the first day reminds me of one of my early encounters of a similar nature.  I was maybe 4 or 5, and our mother would often send me up to the IGA local neighborhood grocery with a list of items she needed along with the money to pay for them.  As I was walking up Britta, I encountered Huey Whitside, Les and Howard Wagner, and the Bondlow kid.  Well, they stood on the sidewalk and said I couldn’t pass. Howard was the most vocal and he shoved me down. I got up and ran back home.

Mom asked why I had returned so soon and without the items from the store.  After I told her, she suggested I walk on Addison Street and then I wouldn’t need to go by that group anymore.  That’s what I did for a long time.  I never did grow to like Huey, but the Wagners and the Bondlow kid were o.k.  –Keith

We either walked or rode our bikes everywhere.  There was also a bus stop at the end of our street, which took us to a shopping area called Harlem and Grand.  I used to go there to buy records.

I will admit that sometimes we rode our bikes to places that our mother would not have allowed, usually to a place called Blue Pool in Des Plaines.  We had to ride down River Road, which was a very busy street.  I used to go with a boy named Mike Taylor, who was one year older than me and a bit on the wild side.  Sometimes we’d get on the bus to Chicago. Then we’d take the L Train to the south side, mainly Indiana Ave, to see where the “Negroes” lived.  Those neighborhoods were not dangerous but it was a long way from home for an 11-year-old.  –Dad