REPORT A PROBLEM
Tony hears a loud meowing outside his window. He and his mom go downstairs and find a tiny striped kitten outside their apartment building. Mom feeds Stripey, and Tony plays catch with Stripey with pens, pencils, and bottle caps. As Tony falls asleep, Stripey cuddles by his pillow. But the next afternoon, there's a knock on the door. A boy says his family just moved in the next building--has anybody seen a striped kitten? Tony wants to lie but doesn't. Stripey scampers out, rubs against the boy's leg. The boy invites Tony to come visit and play with Stripey.
"Daddy's coming! Daddy said two o'clock, right Mommy?" Zach looks out the window.
Mommy sighs. "Want to finish our jigsaw puzzle?"
"No, I want to see him come!"
Cars pass by: Small green ones, big red station wagons, and yellow cabs. People walk by: Mr. Moore with his dog, Mrs. Jabalowsky pushing the twins in their strollers. Downstairs, their landlady works on the garden.
"Want to go outside and play?" Mom asks.
"No. Daddy and I are going to the park. He said so!"
It gets dark out.
"Let's go for ice cream," Mom says.
Next time, he wouldn't wait.
Goldie is the weirdest cat in the world.
She carries dirty socks in her teeth and brings them to me.
Sometimes she brings pencils.
When I use her pencil, I get A's!
She wants whatever I'm eating--even donuts!
She opens cabinets, sleeps with pots and pans.
She eats stuff she's not supposed to, like string. Then we take her to the vet.
But Goldie's the best cat in the world.
When I'm sad, Goldie lets me pet her.
She sleeps at the foot of my bed.
She helps me do homework.
She's the weirdest best cat in the world!
Valentin Hauy ate at a cafe.
Nearby, blind musicians wore dunce caps. They drew bows across violins and cellos, making screeching sounds.
"Bravo!" people yelled.
Valentin couldn't finish his food.
"Someday," Valentin said, "I'll prove that blind people can learn."
One day, he gave money to a blind beggar, Francois Lesueur.
Francois felt the coin.
Could blind people learn by touch? What if books had raised letters?
"I'll teach you to read," Valentin said.
Hauy started a school. Later, Louis Braille attended Hauy's school. Louis developed a system based on raised dots.
Today, blind people work in zillions of careers.
After Grandma dies, Becca pictures heaven:
St. Peter welcomes Grandma: "We've been expecting you!"
Grandpa waves. "Over here, Mary!"
"Robert! Let me tell you about the past five years."
Grandpa laughs. "You think I wasn't cheering on my Sox in oh-five?"
A girl combs a doll's hair.
"My little sister! Ann!" Grandma cries out.
"I knew you'd come," the child says. "I've been waiting!"
Grandma looks around. "I smell roses!"
"Hot dogs and French fries," Grandpa says. "Almost time for the ball game."
"Chocolate," Ann says. "Yum. Dessert."
"Hear Elvis?" Grandpa asks.
"No--a beautiful symphony!"
Grandma smiles, is happy.
If You Get Bullied...
1.Tell your parents or teacher.
2.Ignore the bullies.
3.Don't cry. They want to see you cry.
4.Pretend you're an actor or actress. Pretend what they're saying or doing doesn't bother you.
5.Find something you love, like reading or drawing or playing games.
6.Tell yourself you're great. Don't listen to the stupid bullies.
7.Many famous people got teased. Maybe you'll be famous, too!
8.Not all kids are mean. Make friends with the nice kids.
9.Don't become a bully yourself!
10. Be nice to other kids who get teased.
"I don't want glasses!" Hector said.
Batman and Spiderman didn't wear glasses. Superman didn't wear glasses, except as nerdy Clark Kent.
No other kids in kindergarten wore glasses. Kids would tease.
At the doctor's office, Hector sat in a big leather chair, read letters from a chart.
"Now the fun part--picking frames!"
His mom held out black frames, rectangular with rounded edges.
Hector squinted into the mirror. Edgar and Jason would laugh.
A week later, his glasses were ready.
Whoa. Everything was sharp, clear. The carpet wasn't just gray but had turquoise dots in it.
"I have the power!"
Christmas stinks if you're a divorced parent. You want the ritual of cookies and milk for Santa, carrots and celery for Rudoph and gang, the pitter-patter of little feet: "Santa came!" Chances are, this year it's your ex's turn.
I told my son that Santa did something special for kids of divorced parents.
"He'll come here the night before Christmas Eve. He'll come again on Christmas Eve at your dad's."
On December 23, we left out cookies; my son went off to dream of sugarplums and action figures. He'd awake Christmas Eve morning: "He came!" A day early-- who cares?
I remember seventh grade mockery: D.S. sat in front of me, C.M. nearby. They'd pretended to ask me out, the undercurrent message: "You are ugly, bitch." Why was it so funny that God created me plain? They'd have laughed at my home life, my mother's screaming mental illness, books and daydreams my only refuge. The tormenting of the boys hurt worst; like ice cubes thrust down my back, their jeers made me realize my dreams of boys liking me were ridiculous.
Little C.B. was different--he'd grab my hat, dare me to chase him, his smile showing liking. Bless him.
Years ago, I flunked the friendship test with V., not realizing it was a test. She'd called about losing her job; we planned to meet downtown the next day for coffee.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her voice hesitant, as though afraid to impose. The weather was horrendous--subzero foot-high snow. "Sure!" I agreed.
But the next day, feeling cold and lazy, I called, canceled. Was I afraid of showing how much I cared about her friendship? Or was it just a selfish desire for physical comfort?
Somehow we never got together again. I wish I'd bundled up and gone.
At age nine, my son fell in love with baseball.
We showed up at the park one April morning for registration; T. wasn't sure he wanted to sign up. "Let's walk around," he said.
He mused, "It might be boring, such a slow game." (I prayed. "Dear Lord, let me have my Saturdays.")
Third time around the park, T. said, "I'll do it."
Ty fell in love with the intricate rules of strikes, runs, stealing bases. One coach said, "He's found his game."
In June, my brother took him to a Sox game--and a die-hard Sox fan was born.
T. is plopped on his bed, SCORE sports radio on, connected to White Sox Interactive via his laptop, his room wall-papered with 2005 World Series headlines. His sports-buddy cat snoozes on his chest.
"Mom! Come here! Come here!"
He's learned that McDougal, a White Sox player he thinks is lousy, has been sent back to the minors. "Yes!" he says with glee.
I smile, my joy in his happiness so great it becomes bittersweet, wishing J. were here to share his excitement. I know that nowadays she'd be calling him more than me: "Put your son on the phone! Hurry!"
I remember Greyhound trips when I was in my twenties—I'd set off with duffel bag, a supply of crackers and cheese. One seat mate was a Canadian who also worked with people with disabilities; he later mailed me a book about L'Arche, a Utopian community for people with developmental disabilities. In New York, I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant, long strands of wooden beads throughout, incense salting your nose. In New Orleans, I sipped coffee at Café du Monde with a young man from the hostel; I thought he was treating until later he asked for his two bucks back.
I had pneumonia when I was four; my mother carried me to the hospital on the bus, wrapped in a scratchy red wool blanket. Nurses yelled at me for crying that night: "You're a big girl. Shame on you." My first night away from home, I felt shame for my tears.
I also was introduced to race. One morning I told my mom how nice a nurse was; my mother in a whisper told me she was "colored." Excited, I looked around in search of a green or blue or purple person--but my mother meant the nice, ordinary-looking nurse.
Mrs. C. changed when M. came to live in our sorority. M., blond hair, chirpy voice--we once compared her to a canary--tried to kill herself. Mrs. C., our housemother, became motherly, had long talks with M. She encouraged me when I tried to be M.'s friend; one Friday night M. and I walked a mile and saw "The Orient Express." But the last June day, after M. left, Mrs. C. again became formidable. Without emotion she asked for keys, again the rule-giver who'd coldly rebuked me for entering the kitchen barefoot, for presuming the house was a home--
My first memories of my mother are of a gentle-voiced woman; once when I broke a record, I waited until she got home to confess, rather than tell my no-nonsense grandmother. But when I was seven, my mother was rushed to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. She came home different. She swore continually, stopped washing her clothes, stopped combing the silky hair I used to consider beautiful. Fired from her job, she cursed former bosses relentlessly, and the Catholic Church and family members and neighbors she believed were "out to get her" and sneaking in to poison her coffee.
When I first heard about slavery in fifth grade, I thought Sister U. was joking. People owning other people? People weren't things. People thinking skin color made a difference? That would be like thinking eye color made a difference. I waited for laughter that never came.
I was born the year fellow Chicagoan Emmitt Till was tortured and murdered while visiting Mississippi relatives. My Irish-American family never mentioned Emmitt Till; I never heard of him until I read "Sophie's Choice" for college.
Years later, when my biracial son turned fourteen, I did not want to imagine Mamie Till Mobley's suffering.
S. and D. rented us a basement apartment in Humboldt Park; they were from West Virginia. "We think our tenants should live as good as we do," S. said. Indeed both their apartment and ours had plush carpeting, ceiling fans with decorative glass fixtures, fluorescent lighting over sinks. When we moved in, S. baked us a pie; when my mother died, S. brought down lemon cake. They returned to West Virginia before little T. was born, before big T. and I divorced. But for little T.'s first birthday, they sent a huge toy firetruck; they still send surprise Christmas gifts.
I hated summer when I was a child; unlike most kids, I counted the days until school would begin, not end. I dreaded the last day of school. Summer meant staying home with my mentally ill mother in a smelly, stifling apartment--she cemented windows shut against imaginary prowlers. She'd scream nonstop for hours when I came home after daring visit a friend. I'd take a good long breath of fresh air before entering our house. I am still angry; like Jenny in Forest Gump throwing stones at her childhood home, I want to scream, "How could you let her?"
Riding the Red Line.to the White Sox game, I read "Moll Flanders" while my son listens to his iPod. I'm trying to figure out why Defoe's book is a classic--episodic plot, characters without names. Suddenly I read Moll's words as she contemplates giving up her children: "to neglect them [children] is to murder them." Memories of my own childhood are still like open sores--aunts who wanted me aborted, a father who didn't but abandoned me nonetheless, an ill mother who considered me a possession. Yet I think of another author--Maya Angelou--and her refrain: "Still I rise."
Mother's Day, I woke late, fed cats, scooped litter, made coffee, grabbed the Sun-Times. Ready to sit down with coffee and do morning pages, I saw an envelope. My son's penciled handwriting: "To Mom: Happy Mother's Day!"
Inside, a typed sixteen-stanza poem:, ending: "So on your glorious day we shall go to a Sox game/ I love my Sox, Ozzie, and the Hawkaroo/ But most importantly I LOVE YOU."
A week later, moms at a party talked of fine meals, gifts from husbands--but when I told of my poem, other moms envied me.
Thank you, God, for my son.
I tell Cathy about 100 words; she smiles. "You could write about us sitting here having coffee." Yes, I could, I am--she, my son, and me leisurely sipping drinks in the Field Museum's Corner Bakery after touring the pirate exhibit, learning about the lives of pirates--we're impressed that when capturing a ship, pirates would ask crew members if their captain was good or bad--good ones could become pirates, bad captains, well, man overboard. I'm sure Cathy and I both remember having coffee with Maggie, both trying to recreate those days, both being substitute Maggies for each other.
Happiness tinged with sadness. A. and J. visit for a pre-birthday celebration, arriving before ten a.m.; I fix coffee and toast. We watch the Memorial Day parade, and my DVD of Bruce Springsteen's Barcelona concert. Then A. and J. take my son and me to Chicago Joe's for lunch, key lime pie dessert; waitresses sing me Happy Birthday.
A. and J. are parents of my bestfriend J. who died eleven years ago. I think A views me as a substitute J., and I view A. as a substitute J. We help cushion for each other the blow of losing J--
My father told me the story of Bloody Hand O. When the Celts set forth in rowboats to conquer Ireland, they made a bet--whosoever's flesh first touched Ireland would be king. Well, our ancestor, good ol' O, was rowing fast, furious--and then his oar broke. But O was not only ambitious, he was resourceful--he grabbed his sword, cut off his hand, threw the hand to Ireland. Yup, his flesh was the first to touch Irish soil, yup, he became king of Ireland. Check the O family coat of arms--a big red hand sits front and center.
Birthday. I wake up late; my son and I had planned to visit the Art Institute, but he's stuffed up with head cold. D. and A. call; M. and E. send e-cards. T. and I order Hot-N-Ready pizzas from Little Caesars, watch "Night at the Museum." I feel loved. Yet I hate the new number attached to me--it sounds old. "You are old," my son says, "all parents are old. Everyone over 30 is old." What can I say--I'm from the "Don't trust anyone over thirty" generation. M. didn't live to be 54. She'd say shut up, enjoy.
Birthday blues. Fifty-four seems so old--not like how I feel--should I change, be like others, laugh about senior moments, eagerly lap up fifty-cent senior discounts at McDonald's? I usually forget age; one time I accidentally offended a young woman at a write-in. She pondered whether it was OK to have swearing in a young adult book. I said, well, young people swear. She took offense: "I don't!" I didn't mean young people now swear more than we did--just, well, we swore, I'm guessing young people do still swear, or why was she putting it in her book?
I haven't had birthday blues like this for years. Not one person related to me, except my teenage son, remembered my birthday. None of my half-siblings, not my godfather/uncle who remembers driving my mother to the hospital but doesn't recall that he's my godfather. On my mother's side, I know it's guilt--realizing they didn't do enough when I was a kid, living with my mother's perpetual screaming oaths, the welfare and food stamps, the serial evictions. Their own childhoods too similar to mine, they had to escape. On my father's side, half-sibs are scarred by their own childhoods. Still...
The last week of the month I set aside for submitting my work to agents and book editors; my pile of rejection letters is growing at an impressive rate. I feel so frustrated! In one magazine, an agent writes of how she scorns writers who send the exact same packet to her as they send to her fellow agents. No, instead you're supposed to do your homework--research agents, read the acknowledgement sections in books, study Web sites, network, go to writer's conferences and hobnob, make some sort of connection in your query letter. OK--so when do you write?
One year ago, end of May, I took the day off and did final tweaking on R. and the Cousins before submitting it as my MFA thesis; I can't remember how I celebrated the next day--maybe on Sunday T. and I went to Chicago Joe's brunch. It had been a long two years struggle, but I'd completed my novel, completed my degree.
This year, I take a day off to recommit myself to writing--and discover a new coffee shop, independent, not a chain, a beautiful four block's walk away, vegan cuisine, eighties music--perfect for inspiring my muse!
Overheard at the coffee shop:
"So what do you do?" the young woman asks the man; he's also young, thin with eyeglasses.
"I'm an attorney." Dramatic pause. "I love saying I'm a lawyer but hate being one--it's incredibly boring."
He's my opposite--I love being a curriculum designer but envy the wows my brother gets for being a professor, the wows people get for being lawyers, doctors. The way I used to enjoy the wow factor when I said I went to NW though I hated its cold snobbishness.
I was smarter when I was younger--I left NW.
1991. You were born on your due date, Mike Ditka's birthday. Uncle C. drove your dad and me to the hospital, stayed in the waiting room the whole time, called Grandpa immediately; Grandpa laughed in happiness. At 8 a.m., the nurse said, "You have a visitor." Whirring of wheels--Auntie J in her electric chair. She stayed the whole day, worried I barely knew how to change a diaper, incensed that the nurse made you cry--how dare she wash you? We left the hospital Sunday morning, took a cab straight to Auntie J.'s so her mom could see you.
The Tip Jar