Little Cindy Mihaloew

When I began writing personal essays in 2012, the people, places, and things I’ve loved over the years, both in Cleveland where I grew up and in Milwaukee where I live now, instantly became subject matter. The more I write about them, the more I enjoy doing so.

If I’m lucky enough to live as long as my great-grandmother Christina Badamo DiNovo Salvatore, who died when she was 98, I will have many years left to write my own stories, in spite of the fact that I came to it late in life. One of the great joys of my life at this moment is knowing that if I do live as long as she did and write every day for the rest of my life, I will never run out of material to write about.

Something else has come up that will also provide a great deal of subject matter, and that is that I am going to be taking a very important trip with my father this summer.

The trip is to Laon, in the north of France, where my father was stationed in the U.S. Air Force, where my mother joined him after they married, and where I was born ten months after she got there.

During my last trip to Cleveland, Dad asked if I have ever been back to Laon, and when I said I’d been to Europe but not there yet, he quickly replied, “I’d like to take you.”

I don’t know if my mother, who died in 2011, ever returned to Laon after leaving for the States. I’ll have to ask. But Dad has been back many times, and over the years has maintained friendships with several of the people he and Mom knew back then. I will meet many of them this summer.

I have no memories of having been in Laon but have been inextricably linked to it all these years in my heart and soul. I have the mystique of having been born on a different continent and the fun of telling people about it when it comes up in conversation. I also have a few tangible souvenirs: a teddy bear from England; a doll from Yugoslavia; a pair of child-sized wooden shoes from Holland; and a French birth certificate. I wonder what it will be like to physically be in Laon. I wonder if my spirit will feel a sense of belonging.

MOM&DADAs I write this, I realize right this second that I have never experienced this feeling, of knowing my birthplace. John, my husband, lives where he was born. My brothers live where they were born; so does my father; my mother used to visit Pittsburgh, her birthplace, all the time. Is this the way it is for most people? How many of us are there, who have never returned to the places of our birth? Does it happen to most people, that we never go back? Or do most of us stay close?

Maybe this is why I have always had this vague notion that some part of me is missing. I have this feeling that being in Laon is going to provide the last puzzle piece. I can’t wait.

When I come back from my trip with Dad, I will begin work on my first book. An octogenarian father and his very middle-aged daughter, going back to the place where their young lives are rooted. What happened then, and what’s happened since. As my mother used to point out, my daddy and I are an awful lot a like. We like the same things. We both tell too-long stories and tote cameras everywhere when we travel. We love the arts, have no problem speaking out, and are Type-A control freaks. We also complement each other; he loves to talk and I love to listen. I will warn him about this again before we leave, but I plan to incessantly interview him while we are away together. I don’t want to miss any details, and I don’t think he will mind providing them.

When the Internet exploded in the late ‘90s, there was nothing online about Laon, France. Now it has its own Wikipedia page, and there are videos on YouTube. I have learned that it is situated on a hill, which made it militarily strategic, going back to the Romans.

It is where Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit explorer and namesake of the university where I got my master’s in English and John got his law degree, was born, in 1637.

There is a famous Notre-Dame cathedral there.

There is even a primer on how to pronounce “Laon.” My mother pronounced it with a hard “n” and in a Pittsburgh accent, as in “I’m going to the bank to get a loan.” This is how the French say it:

(Side note: My father emailed me after reading this and takes issue with this pronunciation. He says, “I get two pronunciations from the French: one is like ‘Lahn’ and the other is ‘Lah-awn,’ both with the nasal French ‘n.’ It seems the first is Parisian and the latter more Flemish.”)

While in the north of France, among other places, my father has brilliantly seen fit to book us a stay in Épernay, The Champagne Capital of the Universe, and the Left Bank of Paris, where many famous writers and artists lived. My beloved Samuel Beckett lived there when I was born. While I was living in Laon, he built a cottage 70 miles away in Ussy-sur-Marne. It blows my mind that I lived this close to one of my favorite writers.

For me, looking at all these images is sort of like looking into a shop you really want to go into, but it’s locked and dark and you can’t make out much when you peer through the window.

Later this year, I will be able to see.

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Photo of Samuel Beckett: Mary Evans (apieceofmonologue.com)

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Starting with the one at my elementary school and the one in the center of Strongsville, Ohio, where I grew up, I have loved libraries for a long, long time.

My latest essay on OnMilwaukee.com is dedicated to them and other libraries I’ve loved over the years. My current favorite is the Central Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, located downtown on Wisconsin Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets, It is a gorgeous building, and I can’t go long without visiting it and its used bookstore. The picture you see above is the dome that sits atop the building, which you can also see in the exterior shot below.

One of these days I want to grab John and take a train down to the Newberry Library in Chicago. That one’s been on my list for a long time.

As always, many thanks to OnMilwaukee.com, especially Matt. It’s been brought to my attention that the Strongsville Library I write about in the essay was located in the old town hall, not merely an old house. Mea culpa.

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DSC_0300_resized_2Happy to let you know that award-winning daily magazine OnMilwaukee.com published another one of my essays on their site this past Thursday. This one’s about moving from one of Milwaukee’s urban neighborhoods to one of its near-South Side suburbs, titled “Moving from the East Side to the West Allis.”

For my Cleveland readers: West Allis is two parts Parma to one part Lakewood. I can’t really think of an exact Cleveland equivalent to Milwaukee’s East Side – so picture one part Gold Coast to one part Coventry Village.

Thank you to everyone at OnMilwaukee.com, and to my husband John, who is incriminated in many of my essays and my second eyes on everything I write. It’s a joy to work with you all.

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On January 18th, the spirit of a teenage boy stood alongside me in our kitchen.
He had a mouth but was mute.
He couldn’t exactly look me in the eye.

The teenage boy is the spirit of my first husband.
January 18th was his birthday.
He would have been 58 years old.

Last June I got an email from a woman identifying herself as his fiancé.
He had died unexpectedly, on June 7th, she wrote.
They didn’t yet know the cause of death.

“He had told me stories from the time you were together,” she said.
“I thought you’d want to know.”

I was grateful.
And incredibly sad.

The way this teenage boy feels.

We were married for 15 years.
The last 10 were not that good.
Instead of telling him it wasn’t working for me, I had an affair and let that be the excuse for ending it.

He found out about it via a stray message on the computer.
Then upended the kitchen table and broke all the chairs.

I moved into my new apartment.
He left for New Orleans.
A few months later he called and said,
“My girlfriend is pregnant.”

Our divorce was finalized just after his daughter was born.
He flew up to Cleveland for the court date.
Afterward we went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and held hands.
Then I cooked him one of his favorite meals.

He and his girlfriend got married and had another baby.
A son this time.
He and his young family moved around then landed back in Cleveland again.
They had a third child, another boy.

It’s funny: we never wanted children.
We wanted careers, and had a successful business together.

Now he has three kids.

I still have none.

I heard through the grapevine that his wife died in 2007.
Self-medication gone bad.

In 2011, we connected on social media.
Where he confirmed that fact.
“The last thing she said to me was ‘I love you,’” he wrote.
“The last thing I said to her was ‘um-hmm.’”

We talked about being musicians.
I told him my mother was dying of cancer.
I apologized for cheating.

“I might have stopped liking you for a while,” he wrote back,
“but I never stopped caring about you.
Talking to you again reminds me of why we became friends in the first place.”

We met when we were 16 and 17.
I lost my virginity to him the summer after I graduated from high school.
He came to visit me once when I was in college.
But I blew him off.

When I was 24, I received a letter postmarked from Colorado.
“I’m on the top of a mountain right now,” he wrote.
“I am thinking of you.”

He was six feet tall, very skinny, and long-waisted.
He wore hip-hugger bellbottom corduroy pants.
He was an awkward kisser.
He had a funny kind of indentation in his chest —
a place over his heart where his ribcage caved in and shouldn’t have.

We married in 1981.

When his fiancé wrote to me about his death, she gave me a few details:
He hadn’t been feeling right,
went to the ER,
had a massive heart attack when he got there.
There would be an autopsy.

I wrote back.

She wrote back.

And contradicted things she’d said in her previous email.

Even though it was none of my business, the gaps in her story bothered me.

She invited me to the memorial.
It would probably happen in a few months, she thought, at the end of summer.

There was no obituary.

Nothing.

Anywhere.

Something said, go to the computer.
I entered his names one by one: first, middle, last.
The results filled in line by line, as if I had the most ancient computer in the world.

I stood up from the table.
There was his photo.

And under it the words “registered sex offender.”

I paced the dining room
then the whole house.
No, no, no, no, no.
I had slept with this man for 15 years.
He had his issues.
But no, no,
NO.

This was not one of them.

I wrote back to the fiancé and told her I would not be coming to the memorial.

“I prefer to remember him the way I knew him,” I said.

She sent back a diatribe 17 paragraphs long.
Each one starting with the words
“Did you know that…” and
“I bet you didn’t stop to think that…”

Of course I didn’t.
How could I?
He and I hadn’t been in touch in 15 years.
And then when we were, he didn’t say anything about it.

“He was set up”
“red-neck cops”
“psycho ex-wife number three”
were some of the other words in the diatribe.

I don’t know
I don’t know
I don’t know who did what to whom, and when.
It’s too much.

Too much.

This boy in my kitchen.
He is looking at the floor again.
Still not saying anything.
Looking very cute like Ed Sheeran on the Grammys.

There is a place over his heart
where his ribcage caved in
and shouldn’t have.

The photo I found is gone.
As if it had never existed.

His three children, all under the age of 20,
have neither of their parents anymore.

And I can’t shake the feeling that he ended his own life.

 

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A day or two after I published “A love letter to Milwaukee” here, award-winning daily magazine OnMilwaukee.com said, “Hey. We’d like to publish this. OK with you?”

Of course it was OK with me. I’ve long been an admirer of the online publication and its top-notch writers, and have enjoyed receiving its daily notifications in my inbox for years since it launched in 1998.

When managing editor Bobby Tanzilo asked me to continue writing for OnMilwaukee.com, I said yes again. My first official essay for them, “Bradford Beach in the wintertime,” ran this past Friday, along with one of my photos. Which, I must say, is unretouched; I used only a polarizing lens. Mother Nature is that beautiful au naturale during our cold-weather months.

As the magazine continues to publish more of my work, I’ll let you know here. I will also, of course, keep publishing my own essays here. The next one taking shape will be about my ex-husband, with whom I was friends and who died unexpectedly last year, so stay tuned.

Thanks to all of you for your support. It means the world to me.

Read “Bradford Beach in the wintertime” on OnMilwaukee.com

 

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I’ve been living in Milwaukee going on 18 years now, and every time I say it—or write it—I can hardly believe it’s been that long.

It was March 1997, and I was chasing “a relationship that is no longer,” as I tell people today. The only two folks I knew when I arrived in Milwaukee were the guy and a transcriptionist I worked with. I’d arrived in a one-way rental car stuffed with my laptop, a sleeping bag, French press, and my pet parakeet, along with everything I needed for the week it would take for the moving van to get there with the rest of my belongings.

Last week I watched the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV with John, one of his favorites at this time of year. The first time I saw the movie I thought it sappy, but this year it spoke to me on a number of levels, and not just because Wisconsin was a blue state when I moved here and now we have a Republican governor and it’s purple. In one scene in his bank office, when Violet arrives to close her savings account and hightail it out of Bedford Falls, George Bailey tells her, “It takes a lot of character to leave your home town and start all over again.”

IMG_9892_RESIZEDCharacter was far from what I had when I decided to leave Cleveland. My first marriage had fallen apart, and for the first time in my life it occurred to me that I could live anywhere I wanted.

A college roommate living in Atlanta said, “You’d like it here.”

I thought Chicago would be a good place to start over too. In terms of the relationship, it was a lot closer to Milwaukee than Cleveland, but still far enough away for me to be my own person.

“I don’t have anything keeping me here anymore,” I remember telling my mother on the back porch of my parents’ house, and that’s where the lack of character comes in. She blinked hard when I said it, and of course I knew right away that I had cut to the bone. I didn’t catch myself and I didn’t apologize—a part of me wanted to get her back for all the mean things she’d said to me over the years—but it was one of the least sensitive things I’ve ever said to another person, and I wish I hadn’t done it.

Here’s where else the lack of character comes in: I wasn’t brave enough to go to Atlanta or Chicago. I moved straight to Milwaukee, to the exact suburb where the new guy lived.

Five years later, after a cursed and torrid relationship that provided enough material for three and a half books, we split up, and I was alone.

IMG_3902_RESIZEDWhich was where I should have been in the first place.

I moved into a brand-new apartment the next town over and spent the first six months of my newfound independence sputtering out of control, dating several guys in a row and at one point two at once, thinking I might need to start a new career to get away from the old guy, who was also a freelance writer.

I landed a good job in a dysfunctional office at a large university, paid off debt, got a master’s degree, and met a man who didn’t want me to drop everything for him and become resentful five years later. I learned to rock climb. Took voice lessons. Learned to ride a motorcycle. Traveled to Europe, Puerto Rico, Canada, and almost all 50 states.

I learned to grieve the deaths of people I loved. Married a really good guy. Finally became a cat owner. Apologized to my ex-husband. Lived in the wealthiest county in Wisconsin; in a top-floor apartment with a view of Lake Michigan; in a Polish flat on the South Side. Became a better friend. Became a working musician. Got a really nice camera. Reminisced my childhood. Discovered my life’s work. Finally accepted myself.

And I realized: I thought I’d moved to Milwaukee to pursue the relationship with the guy. What I was really pursuing was a relationship with myself.

IMG_6285For that reason, I will always be grateful to the city where I’ve lived for the past 18 years. Even though I’m not from Milwaukee originally, no matter where I might go next, I will always consider it the place where I finally grew up and found my true self.

I realize that these things could’ve happened in Atlanta or Chicago or someplace else that I couldn’t have even conceived of 18 years ago. Could they have happened in Cleveland? Maybe, but I tend to think not. You know how it is when you fall back into old patterns with the same places and the same people. Sometimes, as Sheryl Crow says, “a change [will] do you good.”

So thank you, Milwaukee.

You took me in at a time in my life when I didn’t know who I was and what I liked and what I wanted to do. You gave me the time and space to find my way in a strange new place. You gave me the courage to make mistakes and learn new things and become who I was meant to be all along.

You gave me your arts scene, your music scene, your skyline, your neighborhoods, your culture, your people. I find you just as exciting today as I did 18 years ago.

I love you, Milwaukee. I always will.

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Last month I went to Cleveland to visit my family and a few friends for the first time in a year.

I stayed at my dad’s house, my first time there since my mother died three years ago.

“We’re going to a Slovakian festival on Saturday,” he told me on my way in, “and an Italian festival on Sunday. I got you tickets.”

My first night in Ohio I stayed with Jan in her new house, with its view of Lake Erie. She’d sold the home she’d lived in for 36 years. She’d raised her two children in that house; it’s where she and Greg lived together as husband and wife; it’s where she kept his ashes after he died. Between all the parties in our younger years and all the times I stayed there when I came to town, while I may not have known every square inch, I knew many of them.

The morning I left Jan’s, we went to the lake. I almost didn’t go – I was antsy to get to the next place, an almost constant kind of pressure when you’re visiting home. But I did, and it was a thrill. Lake Erie is every bit a part of me as Lake Michigan.

In two days’ time, I saw so much of the city I love, from its East side to its West side, from the far South end to downtown. I also saw my father’s twin brother, whom I hadn’t seen in three years. Our time spent together was filled with good conversation, good food, good drink.

What I loved most about the trip was all the new things I learned.

For example:

  • Other than adoring my paternal grandfather Mike, who was Rusyn, I never really felt a connection to my Slovakian heritage until attending the Carpatho-Rusyn Vatra. Watching the performers there, I was so overcome, I started crying behind the lens of my camera.
  • “Vatra” is Slovakian for “bonfire,” which is the centerpiece of the festival. Dancers move around it and jump over it.
  • “Halupki” is Slovakian for “cabbage roll.” Cabbage and noodles are “haluski.” “Perogi” is “pirohy.” Slovakian cucumber salad is delicious.
  • Golden Pheasant (Czech) and Lomza (Polish) beers are also delicious.
  • Accomplished Slovakian singer Hanka Servická is my father and uncle’s second cousin. They stayed with her two weeks ago on a trip to Slovakia.

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I already knew that this is what I looked like when I was six months old:

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I learned that this is what my mama looked like when I was six months old.

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When Dad and I visited Mom at the mausoleum, he explained his reasoning behind including her maiden name on the front of the crypt.

“She is every bit that name as you are your maiden name,” he told me. “I wanted her to have that part of her identity.”

Putting aside the fact that in our culture most if not all women’s names come from either their fathers or their husbands, I consider this beautifully feminist thinking on my father’s part.

I learned that my Sicilian great-grandmother was married three times. Her full name was Augustina Badamo DiNovo Salvatore; everyone called her Christina. I have a vivid memory of being in her house when I was a little girl. She was making sauce and stomping around the kitchen and talking loudly in Sicilian, and I was both fascinated and scared shitless. I found out that this memory that’s lived in my head all these years took place in her house on the top of Phillips Street in Baden, Pennsylvania.

cleveland-is-the-city-browns_largeI learned that Cleveland has installed a giant chandelier in its theater district, called Playhouse Square, located at East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue.

There’ve been times in the past when I visited Cleveland that the city seemed downtrodden. On this trip, all that had gone away. Cleveland has been power-washed. It’s bright, vibrant. Ready to go.

Part of this may be attributable to LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the “Taste of Little Italy” event we went to the day after the Vatra, I saw a guy in a T-shirt that read “Cleveland is the City” and I immediately wanted it. I later found out that LeBron used those words when he announced he was coming back.

While in Cleveland, I learned from my uncle that a “Dopp kit” is another name for a shaving kit. Wikipedia defines it as: “a small toilet bag, made of leather, vinyl, or cloth, that is used for storing men’s grooming tools for travel. The name derives from early 20th century leather craftsman Charles Doppelt, a German immigrant to the United States, who invented his toiletry case in 1919.”

I learned that a beloved family member had come out of the closet.

Your papa just told me,

I texted.

I love you very much.

I learned that Jan’s things look great in her new house.

The older I get, the more people I love who die, the longer I am away from my family, the more I long for my Ohio roots. No matter where I live in the world, Cleveland will always be the city for me. I don’t yet know how to rectify these emotions I have about feeling separate from the place and people I love. About not being able to hop in my car today and go across town to watch the Browns game with my brothers.

But it pulls at my heart a lot lately.

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Photo credit, T-shirt: homage.com

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I launched this website well over two years ago. It’s about time I started writing about my brothers.

In my family, I am the oldest of four children and the only girl. I have three brothers; we are all two years apart. Our mother had me when she was barely 19, and all of us by the time she was 25.

I have this memory of being taken to the hospital by my dad after one of my brothers was born. The rest of us kids were too young to be let inside to visit Mom and the new baby, so Dad walked us across the lawn and we looked up, up, up (it seemed so high at the time but the hospital was only three stories). I shielded my eyes to see her. There she was, leaning slightly out of the window and waving at us, a pin-dot in the sky. We waved back.

The only other memory I have from this period of my life is looking out a back door and seeing grass and, beyond that, thick woods. Everything was emerald green. In my mind this is Indianapolis, where we lived after Dad left the Air Force and got his first civilian job. Nowadays I wonder if I was really looking out the back door of the house my parents bought in Cleveland.

I was in my own little world during these very early years of our family. I suppose most young kids are. Once I started kindergarten my own little world burst wide open. I remember a lot about school — the smell of those big fat crayons, my teachers, pulling my underwear off with my snow pants in the coat closet — but I don’t remember much about interacting with my brothers. I do know, though, that some good seeds had to have been sown with them, because these days we are too close and like each other too much for that early period to have meant nothing.

People sometimes say to me, “I bet since you were the oldest and the only girl, you were like a little mother to them. I bet you kept them in line.”

My answer is always, “No. Far from it.”

sc0022a67aMy three brothers had a camaraderie that was special. It took root in the late 1950s and continues to this day. I was always in awe of it. They spoke a special language with each other; there were all kinds of inside jokes. They didn’t set fire to ants with a magnifying glass, but threw mashed potatoes and spaghetti noodles on the ceiling when Mom wasn’t looking. They sometimes stayed stuck up there for weeks.

My brothers dressed the dog in Dad’s clothes and chased her around the yard in them. They were great observers, and gave names to things that most of us aren’t even attuned to. On a family trip to Niagara Falls, they made up names for the front ends of cars like “Denny-Denny.” On trips to Pittsburgh, where our grandparents lived, a high-rise bridge along the turnpike east of Cleveland was the border between Ohio and Africa. They had names for each other like “Roast,” “Big George,” “Farmer,” “Skimp” and “Thip Stick.”

Pretending they were wearing giant berets, my brothers dashed around the house balancing the couch cushions on their heads, shouting, “I come from France!” They named the sound the swing-set made when someone swung on it too hard and it pumped out of the ground: “A-boochy-trail-ain’t-lousy-doom.” They referred to legs as “fat choppers” and hands as “meanos.”

I think that if you asked them how they came up with all these names, and all the others that aren’t even mentioned here, they would laugh and tell you they don’t exactly know. Or they might attempt to explain, then shrug, then laugh. The best creative concepts — pure imagination — can’t exactly be explained.

It might have been easy for an only sister to feel like an outsider to all this, but I never did. My brothers are smart, funny, and entertaining, and the things they say make me laugh. They made all of us laugh. They were, and still are, the reason family dinners were so much fun—and it wasn’t just because of the strand of spaghetti stuck to the ceiling by a thread over Mom’s head.

The older we got, the more at odds my middle brother and I became with each other. He was feisty and mouthy and liked to tell people what to do, and my attempts to check him backfired on a regular basis. I once wrote on the wall upstairs that I hated him, then taped something over it to hide it. When my mother found it, she gave me holy hell.

Years later, my middle brother and I realize that the reason we hated each others’ guts back then is because we were, and still are, exactly alike.

ME_BOYS_SANTA 2When I go back to Cleveland, I often stay with my baby brother. We have had the most amazing conversations sitting around the kitchen table. He is deep and soulful and even-tempered. He is also one of the strongest people I have ever known. He and my oldest brother are married to two of the sweetest women in the world, and they have given me two nieces and two nephews. When we get together, it’s as if we saw each other yesterday. I am immediately brought into the fold, and for this I am always grateful.

My brothers have been extraordinarily kind to the men I’ve brought home, even when there was no good reason to be. The first time they met John, they reached out and pulled him into the fold, and he’s been there ever since.

I think about my brothers every single day. I miss them very much, and more each passing year. There are times in Milwaukee when John isn’t around that I wish I could get into my car and go pay them a visit. When I was young, I used to wonder how my mother and father could go for a year or two without seeing their siblings. Now I am that person, and it bothers me.

The tradeoff for living a long life is that bad things happen. My brothers have loved, lost, survived, and started over, and so have I. The four of us are middle-aged now but our souls are young. I see it every time we get together.

Our worlds were rocked a few years ago when our mother died ten weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, and some of us have lost dear friends too. Life has taught the four of us that what we have at this moment in time may not be here tomorrow or next year. This is another thing that bothers me about being in one state while my family is in another. I’ve gained a lot these past 18 years by moving away, but I’ve missed a lot too. I want to soak in all I can. Before it changes. Again.

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It always cracks me up when a reality star whose marriage proposal was just accepted says, “I am the luckiest man in the world,” or a character in a movie says, “I am the luckiest woman in the world” after she gets the gig. Although I understand the emotion behind the statement, I like to think that there are all kinds of other people in the world feeling just as lucky; there can’t be just one.

So when it comes to my brothers, I won’t say, “I am the luckiest girl in the world.” I will just say that I am unusually blessed to have not just one but three wonderful brothers.

I hope you are just as fortunate, in some kind of way. That is my fondest wish for you.

 

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After 11 years of living on Milwaukee’s East Side, John and I decided to call it quits. We moved at the tail end of May, a few weeks after I last published here.

John actually lived there a year longer than I—twelve years—and he’d lived there once or twice before, in his younger years. When we met in 2003, I was living out in the country in a brand-new “luxury” apartment with its own washer and dryer, private garage and entrance, and the first walk-in closet and master bath I’d ever had. A stone’s throw away from a pretty little pond under high-tension power lines, the complex was still under construction in parts.

John was living in a historic Art Deco building on Prospect Avenue on the East Side. It was a regular stop on an architectural walking tour and had a view of The Big Pond: Lake Michigan. The first time I visited him there we sat among dozens of unpacked boxes, and made out on the only piece of living room furniture he had at the time: an overstuffed black leather chair.

I moved in with John in April 2004, four months before our wedding. I brought as many clothes and shoes as I could jam into one tiny closet in the old one-bedroom apartment; my grandmother’s old jadeite dishes; my most beloved books and CDs; and a few small pieces of furniture. We stuffed the rest into a rented storage space with a bright orange door.

There were two coin-operated washers and dryers in the basement, which we competed for with about 50 other tenants. There was a small courtyard out back. In order to park on the street day or night, we had to buy stickers for our cars. Finding a parking spot was as difficult as finding the washer and dryer not being used when you needed it.

The noise outside was almost constant: buses, drunk college students, FedEx trucks, ambulances, car alarms, all-night frat parties, firecrackers. Crews pulling all-nighters on ruptured sewers, crews hanging off buildings for weeks tuckpointing old bricks. Somebody hollering, somebody getting robbed, a woman screaming, loud pops. It was quietest in the very early morning around 5 a.m., and during the holidays, when three-quarters of all East Siders left town. They were heavenly, these times, these days.

We lived within walking distance of Milwaukee’s best restaurants, clubs, taverns, shops, boutiques, galleries, museums, and parks. We walked so much that we sold one of our cars, and began renting an off-street parking space for the one we kept. We rented garage spaces for our two motorcycles. I sorted through my storage space with the orange door and gave away some of my belongings. We moved the rest to a storage space in an old warehouse four blocks away, next to the Laundromat and the sushi place.

There were old people, young people. Professional people, working-class people. Some, not many, with strollers. Some well dressed, some you could smell as you walked by. There was a Mercedes parked outside our building and a rusty old SUV parked across the street. The police came on a regular basis to apprehend the neighborhood pervert, who exposed himself to women who passed by his front window; his car was a brown Ford Taurus held together with gray duct tape. There was the corner store where all the alternative kids worked, the Mob joint two doors up, the import shop torn down to make way for a Whole Foods.

There were the elderly you see before winter sets in, who aren’t there in the spring, whom you never ever see again.

And there was this—the view of Lake Michigan from our dining room.

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I started taking pictures of things I found on the sidewalks everywhere I walked: graffiti, fall leaves, a magazine rack, angry notes to people who parked badly.

There were the tenants in our building: the 65-year-old bleach-blonde, overly tan chain smoker who lit up in the elevator and wore leopard-print leggings. Shortly after she moved out, she died of cancer. There were artists, musicians, ex-punk rockers. The owner of a legendary record store in town, a retired Navy officer. Lawyers. Professors. The woman who watched our cats when we vacationed. One tenant gave cello lessons in her apartment and played her baby grand piano in the middle of the night drunk. Another played French horn for the symphony and seemed to wait until I was on conference calls with clients to practice.

There was the French Canadian who stole the wreath on our door. The two chain smokers below whose smoke filled our apartment. The loud talker who lived there before the smokers. The unemployed carpenter who moved next door who ran saws and drills all day and night. His fiancé, who started playing her music and movies loud the day they moved in, who looked at us crazy when we told her we could hear it, who is still officially one of the biggest bitches I have ever known. The tenants who moved heavy furniture across bare parquet floors at 3 a.m. Who had parties after bar-close at 3 a.m. Who left the gas on the stove on when they moved out.

Our formerly spacious one-bedroom apartment grew unbearably cramped. Our two cats had nowhere to go; every once in a while we’d open up the door and they’d half-heartedly walk up and down the hallway, then come back in and crash on the bed. We had too many books. Too much furniture. So many dishes that we used our dishwasher for storage. Everything was coated with dust from the cat litter and dirt from the city. Every time I wiped the TV screen clean, it came back black.

The company that owned the building did not respect the building. Repairs were designed around getting the job done as quickly and as cheaply as possible, without regard for the integrity of the beautiful old place. When roofers accidentally cut into the wire that supplied our electricity, maintenance ran conduit all up and down and around the dining room to patch everything together, rather than hire an electrician. One of the tenants in our building was screamed at by a passer-by because none of the glass on the sides of the front and service doors matched.

“I know what you mean, lady, but I have nothing to do with it,” said the tenant.

Our building manager was wonderful. Then she got married, and her husband became manager by proxy. He was not so wonderful. We started smelling liquor on them in the elevator.

We had four different sets of next-door neighbors the last six years we lived there. The last was a short, bald forty-something guy who was around all the time. There was an out-of-town girlfriend who visited every other weekend, and a different woman every weekend she was not around. When the girlfriend visited, there was almost always some tearful exchange through our neighbor’s locked and closed door, during which she would pound on the door and wail over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, let me in, let me in.”

Then it was fall for about two minutes—typical Milwaukee—then winter set in. That’s when we noticed the cigarette smoke.

Our building was not a non-smoking building. New tenants were encouraged by management to smoke outside as a courtesy to their neighbors, but our neighbor did not—would not. Because he was around all the time, our apartment reeked of smoke almost all the time.

We duct-taped where the old baseboards met the old floor. The smoke found other holes and cracks to come in. By the time we moved out, there was duct tape everywhere. The owner didn’t appreciate our complaining. “We can’t make him stop smoking,” they said.

Winter lasted a full seven months. At the end of it we said, “We’re outta here.”

Moving was a bitch. Packing up a severely cramped apartment and a severely cramped storage space was more than exhausting: it was insane. We decided we didn’t want to stay on the East Side and rented a small house with a big garage in a suburb by the ballpark.

It took us hours and hours to clean the apartment. Everything had to be wiped clean before it was packed. Water buckets instantly became dirty. The ancient wooden window frames, with their dried and cracked paint, were impossible to get clean. The walls were peeling in all the places where the rain got through the brick. The ceiling plaster was beginning to bubble again. We cleaned that which hadn’t been cleaned in years.

Before we left, I took one last picture of the lake. It was in what I referred to as its neutral state: solid dark blue, no waves, no clouds.

As if to say, “Nothing to see here. It’s OK to go now.”

We took one last look back at the apartment we had lived in twelve and eleven years before closing the front door for the last time. It looked grey and saggy.

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17. May 2014 · 10 comments · Categories: Stories

sc001392c4This year marks, well, let’s just say a significant anniversary of my high school graduation—one of those reunions my parents used to go to that made me wonder, “What’s the point?”

This is among the questions I’m asking myself now, because my high school class reunion is at the end of July and I’ve got a decision to make. Upon first hearing about it, I wanted to go. But now I’m having second thoughts, and here’s why: social media has put a dent in the thrill of the class reunion.

In his December 2011 story “Remember Me From Yesterday?” published in The New York Times, Douglas Quenqua writes, “There are people for whom seeing old classmates in person will never lose its appeal. But the institution feels a bit deflated now that, thanks to Facebook and similar sites, nobody really has to lose touch anymore.”

One of Quenqua’s interview subjects, who’d recently attended his own high school reunion, puts it this way: “Social media has robbed us of our nostalgia.”

When I joined Facebook in 2009, I was finishing up graduate school. One of my best girlfriends from high school had emailed me to say, “Hey, a bunch of us just signed up on Facebook, you should join us.” I immediately complied, and in one weekend I was connected with a hundred people I went to high school with. It was glorious.

I rekindled friendships with people I had really loved but hadn’t seen in years. Some people I wasn’t close friends with but decided, “What the heck?” In their profile pictures some people looked like their high school selves, except older; others were not recognizable—the same kind of thing you contend with at an actual face-to-face high school reunion.

I became Facebook friends with my brothers’ classmates. Old boyfriends. Kids who’d moved away junior year. “Class of…” groups formed. Three or four women from my class emerged as the “den mothers” of all our high school Facebook groups, and all of a sudden high school felt cliquish again. “Mini-reunions” were organized: small gatherings in our old hometown at local bars and restaurants for whoever could drive or fly back for them.

On Facebook I met up with an old boyfriend. My last night in town for one of these mini-reunions, he took me out to dinner and I shouldn’t have gone. After he dropped me off and peeled out of the driveway, I got a weird message, then another, then another. Things got stalkerish. He started friending my friends on Facebook and continued sending me unwanted messages and emails.

To alleviate the situation I made the decision to disconnect with several high school friends on Facebook. I promptly received an eleven-paragraph message from one of the den mothers, in which she admonished me to just keep quiet and look pretty.

I will tell you, frankly, as a friend,” she wrote in a Facebook message, “that ‘un-friending’ people you [and he] may have in common looks over-reactive.”

By the sixth paragraph, she was in a frenzy:

I REALLY am getting more annoyed about it. You are almost forcing people to choose sides in some personal and psychological battle, and it is getting old and weary already.”

I dropped out of our “Class of…” Facebook group. She in turn blocked me from the group.

While back in Cleveland for my mother’s funeral in 2011, a friend told me that this same classmate—a fervent genealogy buff in addition to everything else—had posted in the Facebook group she blocked me from that she had traced back her family and my family, and discovered that we were related. She also posted my mother’s obituary there.

Upon hearing this, I sent her a message requesting that she remove the posts, for the sake of our family’s privacy. Her response:

Reminder… Your family published it in a PUBLIC newspaper. The information was already out there.”

On my family being related to hers:

Facts are facts. I don’t like the fact we are distant cousins either, even if true…”

Then this:

You consistently piss on people who only want to do nice things or say nice things about you. What is wrong with you? Yeah, I will take it down, though I can also explain to everyone, that even attempts at nice gestures and comments, and celebrations of you or your family, apparently upset you. I am sure they will all understand…”

(My father was livid about this when I told him about it earlier this year.)

Is it any wonder that part of me doesn’t want to go to my high school reunion?

It’s not just this person, it’s also the extreme-right conservative spewing hate on everyone’s timeline; the guy who demanded, and I mean demanded, that I meet him for drinks before my flight out of Cleveland and got vitriolic when I said “no”; the one who posted racist jokes; the guy who commented on a photo of me on my motorcycle, “This combines two fantasies of mine.”

I could go on. All of us who are on Facebook can. I really wish I could just put all this aside and go to my high school reunion, and keep quiet and look pretty.

But I can’t. I am a feisty, tell-it-like-it-is kind of gal, and not everyone likes it. But I have never seen the inside of the police station in my old hometown, and I am not about to start now. If I go to my reunion, there are people I will love to see there. But there will also be people I now know way too much about; whom I don’t want to know any more about; whom I don’t really want to see or talk to; whom I would prefer remembering the way they were in high school.

In a recent study at the University of Colorado–Denver, Christopher Sibona surveyed 1,077 Facebook users and found that “the most likely person to be unfriended is a high school acquaintance.” The most common reasons? The person posts “polarizing comments often about religion or politics” and “frequent, uninteresting posts.”

In another study looking at “the emotional impact of being unfriended,” Sibona found a range, from being surprised or bothered, to amused or saddened by being let go. When I unfriended several high school acquaintances during the stalker incident, one of the people I let go accused me of “having a screw loose for disconnecting with so many of us.”

When—and I know it’s when, not if—I see this person at my class reunion, it’s an understatement to say that things stand a chance of being awkward. Multiply this times the 30 other people I’ve also unfriended. Times another five for the fervent den mother.

sc0019d02aMy father recently told me, “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t go to your reunion. The older you get, the less fun they are anyway.”

Maybe, maybe not. But I do know that I prefer remembering high school on my own terms, not through the lens of self-appointed, self-important den mothers or lost souls or anyone else for that matter. In 2009, I was a little too attached to the past, and I regret it, although I did learn something valuable: living in the present is where it’s at.

I say this, but I don’t consider myself very good at it. The older I get, the more nostalgic I get, and I can over-think the future into oblivion. But the former high school classmates I admire and enjoy hearing about most on social media are the ones who clearly live in the present. They are happy, doing good work, and continue to expand their worlds, even after all these years. They have no expectations of you, even when they discover that you started going by your middle name in the early 90s for professional reasons. My former high school classmates who go with the flow are un-phased by things as trivial as this.

Others want you to be who you used to be, not according to you, but to them.

Will I go to the reunion? I’m still not positive. I’ll get back to you on that.

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Douglas Quenqua’s “Remember Me From Yesterday?” in The New York Times
Christopher Sibona’s studies on Facebook unfriending

None of the boys pictured here have ever stalked me. A few of them may have drunk-Facebook-messaged me though. 

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