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I moved to Milwaukee in April 1997. That October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer.

A few weeks after my mother’s diagnosis, her mother—my grandmother—died of a heart attack as she stood at her bathroom mirror in Pittsburgh. She had been beyond worried.

Mom’s doctor wanted her to start treatment right away, but that all had to be put on hold until after the funeral of one of the most beautiful women I have ever known. When it was over my mother gave me the long strip of pink (my grandmother’s favorite color) tulle with “GRANDMOTHER” in gold letters that had been stretched across the back of her coffin. I rolled it up and put it in the top drawer of the dry sink my grandfather built for me.

My mother and I stayed with my grandfather for a few days, cooking and freezing meals for him, doing some housecleaning, and just sitting around the kitchen table talking. At my grandfather’s insistence we also started going through my grandmother’s things and packing them up.

“You’re such a trooper,” my mother said to me.

We drove back to Cleveland, leaving my grandfather to face his grief alone. I returned to Milwaukee the next day, and my mother started chemotherapy and radiation to try to shrink the tumor in her left breast. After her initial treatment ended, her doctor scheduled surgery to remove the breast.

The week of my mother’s surgery, I couldn’t sleep at all. I kept wondering what was going through her mind, how she felt as she lay in her bed, as she looked at her body in the mirror, knowing that what was there today would not be there tomorrow. Nothing would be the same again.

Soon after her surgery, I went in for my yearly mammogram and got a phone call first thing the next morning. “We need you to come in,” said the nurse. “We found something.”

They showed me the film and the anomaly: a fluid-filled sac the size of a small olive, with weird little chambers. “I’ll recommend a good surgeon who can aspirate it,” said the radiologist, and just as I started to feel relief he added, “and then we’ll do a biopsy.”

I don’t remember why I was outside when I called my mother about something so private, but I do remember sitting on the curb looking into my car tire as we talked. My mother, who had a history of not always saying the kindest things, especially when things weren’t going well for her, was calm and strong and wonderfully sweet – an earth mother. The way I’d always yearned for her to be.

“You’re going to be fine, honey,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

A few weeks after my mother’s breast was removed, I was on my back on a table while the surgeon stuck a needle into my right breast. He didn’t use an anesthetic, and he was digging around trying to find the fluid filled sac. All I could think of was my mother.

“Stop,” I finally said, my face soaked with tears. The surgeon said I could reschedule at the front desk. I walked out and never went back.

My doctor scheduled me with a different surgeon, who gave me plenty of local anesthetic, found the offending mass quickly, and aspirated it on the first try. The empty sac was absorbed by my lymph system and never showed up on another mammogram.

On my next trip to Cleveland, I was walking past the bathroom in my parents’ house when my mother called me in. ”Close the door,” she said.

I turned to her.

“Do you want to see my scar?” she asked. And before I could say yes or no or anything else, she hiked up her shirt. Where her left breast used to be was a smooth red scar, curved like a quarter moon.

“I’m impressed,” I said, and bent toward it a little more. “Really impressed.” It was the mark of someone with great respect for his patients, and for women.

She looked into my eyes. “Do I look okay?”

Of course she did. She was perfect.

Five years later, my mother was pronounced in remission from breast cancer. During a period of time when I was finishing graduate school and she and I weren’t talking, a mammogram turned up something suspect, in my left breast this time: a strange little isthmus that I could barely see on the film but that had the radiologist up in arms. It had to come out. My husband came to the appointment with me and good-naturedly chatted with the doctor and nurse as my left breast was numbed, a cut was made, and a tube stuck in, followed by a surgical device that obliterated the isthmus.

The doctor inserted a tiny lead ball to mark the spot in case the biopsy came back positive, and gave me a cloth ice pack to stick in my bra. Nothing has ever felt as good as that ice pack. The isthmus turned out to be benign. Today when I get my mammograms, that little lead ball shows up on the film as bright as the North Star.

My mother remained in remission from the breast cancer, but developed a number of other health problems, including a cancer unrelated to the breast cancer. It metastasized to her hip and lung; it was the lung cancer, she was fond of saying to me, that was the nail in her coffin.

She died four years ago this month, just three days after her 75th birthday. If she were alive today she’d be 79 on October 30th, the second-to-last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2015. On her birthday I will be in Cleveland celebrating her memory with my father, brothers, and other family members and friends. I may get there too late to join them all at the mausoleum, but will be there in time for the dinner. I’ll go to the mausoleum the next day.


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One of the more pleasant surprises in my life has been discovering that Jacques Marquette – Jesuit priest, 17th-c. French explorer, and namesake of Marquette University, where I got my master’s degree – was born in Laon, France, where I was born too.

When my father and I visited Laon in June, some of his friends there knew all about Père Marquette. Dad’s friend Bernard was the one who pointed us in the direction of a plaque devoted to him, which turned out to be a park, which turned out to be right behind our hotel.

I told Bernard I was writing about this for here in the States, and he went into town and took pictures of the house where Marquette is believed to have been born: 52 Rue Châtelaine. The essay was published earlier this month in Thanks to them, and a hearty thank you to Bernard for going up the hill to snap the photo.


Parts of two streets in Laon are also named for Jacques Marquette.

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28. July 2015 · 12 comments · Categories: Stories


This is the back entrance to the former United States Air Force base near Laon, France, taken last month. Beyond the padlocked gate, the road extends about thirty feet then disappears into overgrowth.

I was born here, beyond the gate, in a hospital on the other side of the field that – along with so many other buildings – is no longer there. Although the base itself has been closed many years, it is still there, a quiet stretch of land, its gates all locked and the front gate guarded.

In the 1950s my father was a first lieutenant here, in the Maintenance & Supply Group of the 38th Bomb Wing. He received his orders to report to active duty serving NATO two months after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with an engineering degree and starting his first job at General Motors in Indianapolis. He married my mother five days before her eighteenth birthday in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and left for France two days later. My mother joined him there four months later, and I was born nine months after that.


After my mother died in November 2011, my father, who had last visited France in the 80’s, went back to Laon and Paris and all the other places he and my mother went to the two years they lived there.

Last fall he invited me to go. “I know you’ve been to Europe,” he said, “but have you ever been back to Laon?”

I hadn’t. It was on my list but kept falling to the bottom. “There’s still time,” I would think, year after year.

My father made all the arrangements and wrote an itinerary that was a work of art. He contacted all his French friends—people he’s known for years—and got us all together for champagne in the garden, Algerian food in the penthouse, and home cooked meals on sugar beet farms. Working our way between Paris and the Champagne-Ardenne and Picardy regions of France, we stayed in a 350-year-old hotel in Laon; an urban bed-and-breakfast in Saint-Quentin; a former mansion on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay; a small hotel in Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique within view of a castle that had been destroyed in World War I; a gîte in Vivaise; and a boutique hotel in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.


I’d brought an iPad Mini with a keyboard, a journal, eight pens and pencils, and three notebooks—that’s how sure I was that I would write every night about what I had seen, heard, and felt each day. It turned out that there was just too much to see, hear, and feel; all I could do was take it all in. The rest would have to wait.

The base where I was born is about ten kilometers (six miles) northwest of Laon, nestled in between the towns of Crépy, Vivaise, and Couvron-Amencourt. I had always understood the city of Laon to be my birthplace, but I know now that I was born closer to Couvron, and that the base is often referred to as the Laon-Couvron Air Base. It’s all in perspective; what had existed only in my imagination all these years is now fleshed out.


To me, the city of Laon has an urban neighborhood feel. If Milwaukee’s East Side, the coolest place I’ve ever lived, had medieval buildings and a Notre-Dame Cathedral in the art history books, it would be Laon. It is the capital city of the Aisne department (what we might call a county) in Picardy. People young and old work and live there. It is a tourist destination; many of the travelers we met were English. Americans are pretty rare here, we were told, much less a father and daughter traveling together, and people were curious about the way we spoke. At night the sidewalks outside the restaurants and taverns are filled with tables and people. It is a vibrant place that is quiet when it needs to be.

In the countryside on the way to Crépy, Vivaise, and Couvron, you can see Laon off in the distance, high on a plateau made of rock and sand and chalk. When you are in Laon, you can see small towns dotting the farm fields. It makes me wonder if this place is why I have always loved the city and the countryside, but not suburbs.

Our last weekend in France, we stayed in Vivaise and drove over to Couvron in the hopes of seeing the base, but the best we could do is look through the main gate at a paved road that ran the length of it. The guard made a phone call to see if he could let us in, but came back apologetic. I put on my sunglasses so he and my father couldn’t see me crying, not because we couldn’t get in, but because something inside me was saying, “This is it.” If it’s true that our souls pick the precise time and place to realize our earthly selves, then this was my place. The gate is locked but I am free. I cried for the next two days.


I will be giving my father serious shout-outs for the rest of my life for this experience, starting with these: first, the man can drink. Second, he drove us everywhere, and when we weren’t driving, he was walking my ass all over tarnation. Third, my father’s French friends are wonderful. If you can tell a person by the company he keeps, then my father is a stellar human being. I look forward to keeping in touch with them all.

Our first dinner out in Laon I took a long look across the table at my 82-year-old father. “You do not look your age,” I blurted, “at all.” My father has always been fit and youthful and still is, and I want to be that way when, God willing, I am 82. I will always be indebted to him for what he has given me – in life, and on this trip.



I plan to publish several short essays about our trip to France, and have started to write a book. In the meantime, if you have never seen your birthplace, I strongly recommend that you go. I can’t yet articulate why it’s important. Just go.



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The Lincoln Village neighborhood in the city of Milwaukee is a wonderful mix of new and old, and European, Latino, and African-American. I did a lot of walking in France, and the week after I got back I continued the trend and took a four-mile walk up and down Lincoln Avenue. Here’s the story at

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13. June 2015 · 5 comments · Categories: News


Sorry I haven’t been here in a while, but it’s been a crazy past couple of months. Mostly because of working as a substitute K5 teacher in the inner city since February, doing all it takes to run a decent classroom, then wrapping it all up at the end of the academic year.

It about killed me. Physically and mentally, it’s a younger person’s game. But now that it’s over I can say that it was a good experience. I’m really glad I did it. I learned a lot about myself, specifically the depths of my impatience and love. I had the good fortune to work with the most congenial faculty ever, talented educators I have a great deal of respect for. I was the third teacher my kindergarteners had this year, not a good situation by any means; they did not want to listen or buy anything I had to offer, and who could blame them? I found out I’m a firm teacher who can be mouthy, who likes to use pop culture examples to make points, who is capable of showing love. Eventually, first thing every morning I was greeted with lots of hugs from six-year-olds, a wonderful way to start the day. Somehow we muddled our way through. They graduated on June 4.

An especially sad moment in the four-plus months I spent at this school was the sudden death of the father of one of my students. One of the last bits of writing I did was an essay about his funeral for It was one of the saddest and most beautiful events I’d ever attended.

Very soon I am off to Europe with my father to visit the place where I was born. It is a trip whose planning has been in the works for some time now; the place has been part of my mental landscape forever, and it will be mind-blowing to finally see and experience it.

When I come back I will be writing a lot for clients and about the trip, beginning work on a book, and starting a new series of essays on growing up in Cleveland. I will also resume writing Living Commentary essays for, who’s been very understanding about my recent two-month absence from their pages.

I hope your summer is off to a great start. See you again soon!


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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.







Photo of Samuel Beckett: Mary Evans (

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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 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, 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 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, 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.



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,

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 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, 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


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