Impressions of Chicago (Part 1)


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Louise and Millie

When she was alive, before she was sick, my late mother Louise (1933-2014) was asked by her older sister, Millie (1924- ), to come visit Chicagoland.

My mom, who had moved from Illinois to New Jersey, and now (reluctantly) California, did not want to come to Lincolnwood where her sister had moved into an assisted living facility.

My mother imagined that the weight and sadness of going back to the town where she had spent most of her life would be an arduous and morbid visit.

In August 2014, Louise went into her final weeks of life, her body ravaged by lung and bone cancer. She drifted in and out of consciousness. And cried out, only one word, over and over again: “Millie! Millie! Millie!”

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Instead, the visitor who came from California to see Aunt Millie last week was me.

I was on a trip visiting three cities where I had once lived: Boston, New York and Chicago.

And when I landed at O’Hare, I rented a car, and drove east on the Kennedy and exited at Nagle. I had GPS, but it was redundant.

Hungry, I stopped at a restaurant stand advertising “pop” and hot dog and fries for $4.99.

I was in Chicago. A man in the booth in front of me had tattoos on his arms: “Bears” and “Chicago”.

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The homely brick houses, the steel storm windows, the oversized green light poles, the neat stores, the spotless streets, this was my city.

But it felt strange. It was foreign. After all, I had moved out of here in 1979.

Lincolnwood Place, where Millie lives, is part of a remade industrial section of the village. It is next to a diagonally placed shopping mall with a Carson Pirie Scott and other stores, surrounded by mounds of watered and cut grass, acres of parking, and shaded by many trees.

It’s mediocre and modern with a plastic surface of prairie style. They once had trains and factories here, but that was long ago.

Across McCormick, the North Shore Sanitary Canal is now disguised by parkland with bike trails, trees, and further north, a sculpture garden incongruously placed near the sewage waters.

When I was young, an enormous, high, circular, green, natural gas tank, banded by red and white rectangular paint, stood near Pratt and the canal, looming over the flat lands like Godzilla. I imagined it was full of toilet water and feces that drained into the sewage canal.

I feared falling into that canal. I dreamed of it sometimes.

Maybe I had once heard a scary story.

Louise and Jimmy (1974)
Louise and Jimmy (1974)

In the early 1970s, one late afternoon, my mom was driving her convertible Delta 88 across the Touhy Avenue Bridge that crossed the canal, when my brother Jimmy jumped out of the open roofed car at a red light and ran down to the canal with my mother in chase.

There were always dramas like that in my family, so even last week, seeing my 91-year-old Aunt, living in the assisted living facility, right near the canal, I thought of those nightmares of shit and polluted water and the hideous gas tank, and my retarded and laughing brother as he ran down to the banks of the canal, terrifying my mother, but eventually getting caught, and dragged by his curly hair back up to the Oldsmobile.

Life was like that then. My mother worked hard at being a mother.

Louise loomed large, as she did for 52 years of my life, still haunting me in dreams, still imploring me to keep trying, to keep going, as if my life were meaningful because I was alive for her sake.

A cousin, a cynical and jaded cousin, who I adore, once called my mother “the injured party”. Meaning that my mother always assumed the injured role, wearing, with weary bitterness, a fatigue and an anger, pushed into martyrdom and meanness, her reaction to her position taking care of a retarded child and an epileptic husband.

She was always telling me how she was in labor for 19 hours before I was born, and that she would have become a famous soap opera writer if not for the fact that she chose to raise me and my brothers instead of working for the man, Bill Bell, who created “The Young and the Restless”. She knew him when she worked at WBBM-TV in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Some mothers will tell non-mothers, as parents tell non-parents, that all the hard work, all the suffering, all the sacrifice, means something. They will tell you, a childless man, that you are selfish, that your joy, earned without children, is meaningless. Those days of screaming, yelling, haranguing, they must mean something, as they once meant something to my mother who spent many days and hours throwing a whiffle ball back and forth with my retarded brother.

There were some mothers, back then, in Lincolnwood, who rode to the tennis court in their Cadillacs, who played cards, who had maids who cleaned their houses, and men who drove to The Corner Store on Cicero to get milk and ice cream and cigarettes. There were some mothers, back then, who vacationed in the Bahamas and Acapulco, whose kids came back tanned and freckled, just in time for the cold Chicago winter. And there were mothers who went out to eat, instead of cooking dinner every night. There were mothers who shopped at Old Orchard, who played golf at the club, who got their hair colored at Water Tower Place.

But my mother was not one of those mothers. And she let us know that she was better for not taking care of herself in pampering and luxury.

She ran up and down the stairs with loads of laundry.

And sometimes, at night, later, every single night, she drank vodka and grapefruit juice and smoked True Greens down in the basement with her friends Eve and Eli as the Fifth Dimension played.

But who remembers the mother who cared? Her ashes, her inconceivable death, sit in my garage, on a shelf in Van Nuys.


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Aunt Millie is still funny, wise, and lovely. And living in an apartment where her paintings, books and photographs are basically the same ones she had when she lived in Glencoe in the 1960s and 70s. She never throws anything away.

She was so elated and thrilled to see me. And I felt the same way about her. After all, we both represent living embodiments of beloved dead people. She is the sister of the only mother I have. And the daughter of my favorite grandmother of all time: Bertha Lurie.

I had expected, from family reports, that Millie was “losing it”. But instead, her sagacity and intellect, even dimmed somewhat, outshone those of us who live in that bookless, vocabulary starved world of text messages, Instagram and Facebook.

91-years-old. Born 1924. Five years before The Great Depression. Seventeen years before Pearl Harbor. Thirty-nine years before Kennedy died. She was up and alive and breathing and living in Chicago when Al Capone was killing and Hitler was still in prison in Munich.


 

On Wednesday, I went to have lunch with two women who were old friends of my mom’s from the University of Illinois and Sigma Phi Epsilon: Judy Mamet and Jane Sherman.

I drove down to Lake Shore Drive, and exited Montrose, and found myself at Jane Sherman’s apartment. This was the same building, Imperial Towers, where she had lived in the 1960s and as a child I always drove past it thinking of her and that twin-towered, concrete and glass edifice tiled with aquatic, gray marine patterns. I later found out that Jane and her husband had only moved back here last year, in 2014.

I was truly in déjà vu land.

And more so when I parked on Hutchinson Street; a historic district full of Prairie Style homes.

Before I picked up Jane (what a“Mad Men” name!) I walked around the houses, shooting architectural photos.

As I looked through my lens at one property, a pillowy bottomed young woman in nylon shorts, walking two dogs, yelled out at me, “I do not give you permission to shoot photos of me!”

She came out of nowhere, and screamed it. And I told her I had no intention of shooting photos of her.

Later on, I was down the street still photographing houses, when she walked past, an enormous pink cased Samsung phone in her hand, filming me as she walked her dogs.

Imperial Towers and Hutchinson St.
Imperial Towers and Hutchinson St.

I was in that familiar land of the crazy Chicago woman, the kind of female who was all around me growing up, like the neighbor who used to spit on our lawn when she drove up at night because she hated my parents.

But the other kind of Chicago woman, nearly rational, always romantic, the kind who still calls herself a girl at 80, dresses up for lunch, perfect hair and make-up, and orders a martini at 12:30pm, those were the two ladies who took me out to Gibson’s on Rush Street.

Judy and Jane had a purpose for bringing me here. My parents had first met here when this spot was a nightclub, Mister Kelly’s.

After lunch, we went inside, and looked at the old photographs on the wall of the former space. Glamorous, elegant, and legendary, it’s where you went to hear jazz, where you went to impress a date, it’s where you went to go out and have a grand time.

And somehow, in 1958, that is where my parents first found each other. And that’s how I got here. And that’s where I went back to when I went back to Chicago last week.

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Judy Mamet and Jane Sherman

The Retraction From Life


Weaker, yet still alive, still able to speak, Louise M. Hurvitz was in her wheelchair, in the sunshine near the glistening Marina boats, when she told me she wanted to eat a steak.

That was on Monday, August 18th. She ate a hamburger that night, and a slice of pizza on Tuesday night. She was 8 months into her Stage 4 lung and bone cancer.

Nurse Linda said she was looking great.

Then on Wednesday she began to call for her sister “Millie”. She was up all night, and then asleep all day by morphine and Lorazepam. In periods of wakefulness, her glazed eyes no longer looked at me, but out into nothing.

She was no longer able to speak. I went every other day to see her, knowing she was entering death.

A blue booklet left by hospice, Gone From My Sight, explained how the bedridden dying walked out of life. We noted her symptoms mirrored in the book.

The late afternoon sun was bright in her bedroom on Friday, August 22nd. She screamed that her head hurt, her back hurt, everything hurt. She wanted me to shut all the drapes. I abided and put the room in darkness. Foreshadowing.

She was in her last days. Nurse Bertha said if she ate she would stay alive. And then on Friday, August 29th, Labor Day weekend, hospice came and said, “no more food or water”. She was given 72 hours.

All weekend were the pleasures of Los Angeles, the beach and the beer, the walks along Abbot Kinney, the barbecues, I partook of some haunted by an upcoming phone call.

And then on Sunday, August 31st at 11:30 PM we were called and told she was breathing irregularly. We got in the car and rushed down to the apartment. My brother and sister-in-law were at her bedside. A nurse helplessly held the nasal end of the oxygen tube against her open mouth.

She was gray faced.

She was gasping for breath.

I replaced the nasal oxygen with a whole nose/mouth mask. Nurse Linda arrived. The hospice nurse came. It was about 2am and we did not know how long she would live. Exhausted we left. And an hour later I was in bed when my brother called.

“I hate to tell you this but Mom has passed.”

All the fighting for her life, all the medications, the food, the physical therapy, the chemotherapy, the consultations with UCLA medical doctors, the cat scans and the other radiology, the organic smoothies packed with nutrients; all the equipment, the oxygen, the ointments; everything done to keep her alive and going. Done.

Her body was pronounced dead by a doctor. The cremation company came to the apartment to wrap up and remove her.


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We held a home service for her, almost a week later, on Saturday, September 5th.

Andreas Samson, my friend who writes Up in the Valley, attended and wrote a touching description of the bittersweet “party”.

There was food and drink, old photos on the flat screen television, a Spotify soundtrack of her beloved music (Frank Sinatra, the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert). Relatives who had never seen her sick, showed up to pay their respects.

And her life was presented selectively, with an emphasis on the young, beautiful, vivacious, pranking, intelligent, subversive sorority girl and network executive.

She, who died at 80, mothered a retarded boy, took care of an epileptic and ill husband, worried and fretted over children, finances, nightly meals, laundry and cleaning, her daily travails were wiped away or spoken of in one sentence salutes at our remembrance.

For 52 years, I had grown up and grown old with her. I knew her love and her craziness, her exasperating circular questions, her sparkling memory for names, faces, and events.

She, who drank vodka and grapefruit juice, and later switched to red wine, was probably an alcoholic. She was full of shame over events she had no power over, castigating and punishing herself.

But she fought hard to protect and to nurture, and daring to venture out of Lincolnwood, IL, moving to suburban NJ where she set up a new life with her family at 47, exploring Manhattan, New England and the East Coast with the curiosity and passion of a young woman starting out life.

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She sold airplanes with a male friend, a pilot and airplane broker who lead a life outside of norms, a man who was later convicted of stealing money from his customers. He flew Louise and our family, often, to Albany, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, Manahawkin Airport, Miami, East Hampton, Nantucket, Block Island, all around the Eastern Seaboard. American life was seen from 8,000 feet, little houses and little lives across the vast expanse.

She went into the city to see plays with my father, to walk neighborhoods, to buy groceries at Fairway, see exhibitions at the Metropolitan, attend concerts and events at Lincoln Center.

She read the NY Times and Bergen Record voraciously, keeping herself informed on culture and politics. The papers piled up in wet and musty mountains stacked in the garage.

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She loved her new home in the woods, a place where the windows were always open and the rooms smelled of rain and leaves and florid humidity. In the spring, summer and early fall, the back deck, suspended on the second story of the house, was her outdoor space, a place of reading, eating, entertaining and midnight conversations by candlelight.


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She lost my father after his long and agonizing brain disease, an illness that took 4 years to progress, rendering him an invalid.

But after he died, in her apartment in the Marina, she became a devoted grandmother and somehow earned the respect and awe of children who had once only seen sadness and burden in her exhausted eyes.

She was valiant onto the end; never giving into death, never acknowledging that life was less than the entirety. An iron dome of denial was her shield.

She was more than she ever admitted to being. She was magnificent in her life force, in her refusal to die, in her love for life.

 

 

 

 

The Dark Wit.


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One of the ladies looking after my cancer sick mother Louise said she was a “sweet lady”.

There are other adjectives I might use but “sweet” never paired with her.

Mordant, witty, nervous, quick, intuitive, emotional, sad, empathetic, petty, vicarious, excitable, energetic, humorous, treacherous, dark, vindictive, resentful; these are also her traits.

She came up in the Depression, living in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood that she shared with her older sister, her parents and a boarder.

Her father was a dentist, her mother made hats and they aspired, as Russian immigrants, to see their children educated and prosperous.

She had few things, but books, Sinatra records and Hollywood.

One day, reading, she was startled by Monarch butterfly and spent the rest of her life running away from them. In 1969, she was almost hit by a car, on a family vacation, when she ran into the street to avoid one in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Why did she fear butterflies? What would Freud think?

She was not a rebel, but a rebel with children.

Born in 1933, her college wardrobe at the University of Illinois was largely borrowed from friends. Her parents struggled to pay the $75 a semester tuition. In photos, back then, she wore dark lipstick, long skirts, cashmere sweaters and her hair was neatly curled and sprayed in place.

Cousin Elissa said Louise was always “the injured party”. My mom believed in the good fortune of others, their successes, their achievements, their blessings. And she fervently and sadly came to imagine living under a curse.

It’s unfair to eulogize and wrap up another person’s life in selected events presented by subjective opinions. But I am her son, duly positioned for such thoughts and imagined journeys into my mother’s conscience.

She hated doctors, rabbis, and God, but loved the strong men on screen, the noble and not so noble characters who made love, lived life in the public eye and went to the White House.

She loved Bruce Jay Friedman’s 1970 play “Steambath” which portrayed a Puerto Rican bath attendant as the Almighty and his bath as Afterlife.

God was a sick fucker. He made deformed children. He allowed war and suffering.

We used to crack up at Passover, my mother and me, when we read the Four Questions. “Why is this night different than all the other nights?” put us into hysteric laughter. My father was not amused.

But she lit the yartzeit candles for both her parents every year. One was put out on January 13, 2014, and stayed unlit when she fell to the floor of her apartment and was rescued 20 hours later.

She hated God but loved her parents. One President of the United States became her God.

Working at WBBM-TV in 1960, she was eye-to-eye with Kennedy and Nixon at their first public debate. As Time Magazine later put it, she voted for Kennedy at face value.

Naïve in the ways of the Mad Men, she did not believe men cheated, but was always quick to believe in the duplicity of women.

She was not sweet.
She is not sweet.
She is angry and full of love.

She is made of that particular strain of Russian Jew who came up hearing violins, futile prayers, flickering candles and melancholy music, who cried often and drowned in tears running from death and fearing for life.

She is made of winter in Chicago, that sullen city of ice and snow, chapped lips and dry skin, loud radiators, frozen waters and people pushing into trains and streetcars, buses and sidewalks; small people numbering millions, passing by the heroic towers of the Wrigley and Tribune buildings, alive in life and moment; sparkling, electric, a place of marquees and nightclubs, Rush Street and Michigan Avenue, fur coats and the Drake Hotel.

And then silence.