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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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6 Comments

  1. I think that’s one of your best written pieces to date. Being out of Milwaukee now far more years than growing up there I tend to romanticize it a great deal….. till 2 years ago when I made a very brief visit. I found much of it as always, retaining some of it’s charms but many other aspects I found dismal and oppressive. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to thumb my nose at my old home town as I always claim it when asked where I’m from however, I can say with certainty I could not live there again. Weather plays largely into my fondness for places and the dank, grey depressing weather that frequents that whole Midwestern area tops the list as a deal breaker for me. Anyway… bless all those who choose it as home. One mans paradise is another’s …..blah blah blah… nicely done Robin. You are a talented and accomplished woman indeed.

    • Robin

      Thank you so much, John. We hope to get out your way sometime and see if your weather’s all you claim it to be. Just kidding: I know it is. One of my best friends from childhood just moved to Carson City; her photos are as gorgeous as yours. I’m pretty much like John G below; weather’s not much of a factor for me either. Happy new year to you!

  2. I agree with Mr. Tiedjens – really good stuff. I have lived in Milwaukee all my life, and I still sometimes wonder why I live here when the three months of good weather end. But then, I’d be happy living in the land of my forefathers, Scotland, where it is often gray and rainy, so it may just be that weather is not a determining factor for me. I do love this city, and I’m glad you decided to bring a little more sunshine to it, and to my life, by moving here.

  3. Donald M. Mihaloew

    Hi Robin, I mean Cindy, no, I guess I mean Robin:
    This is your Uncle Don, having received your blog site from your Dad a few weeks ago. And, I am glad he did, as it was a pleasure seeing you in print. Your writing is a combination of the Slovak and the Sicilian, having deep under currents of pathos and gaity all intermingling and producing warm,heartfelt visions that pulls a reader in. Naturally, the one that grabbed me the most was the one about your four grand-parents. Many of your images were quite familiar to me, as one coming out of the same family, and yet, some were quite foreign to me thus reminding me that all of us create our own reality from the experiences we enter and then leave, and always replaying them in some way throughout our lives.

    It is rather timely that I found your material at this juncture in my life. I am writing a book on intimate partnering, having come through over forty years of a private practice in marriage and family therapy as well as having taught college and graduate courses in same. I am, as one of your professors said, locked in a terrible procrastination place. I have eight or ten chapters written, raw and unedited, and am having a bad go of going back and doing the hard work of refining what comes out so easily, even delightfully, at first. But, I am only 76 years of age and have time to understand this process in due time. Yes, procrastination is part of writing, and so is, of course, writing!! So, I press on as we all must.

    This message is just to say Hi and to tell you that of all the benefits I have received by moving to Oregon in 1968, the major regret is not having been around you and your beloved brothers. I truly mean this. And so, when your Dad used to visit the West Coast and would come to Eugene, and now Bellingham, I was so elated in the reunion of our old selves. Uncle Jack has not been as mobile in this direction as your Dad was, and so I relish what I have, always wanting more from them because I, too, cherish my brothers.

    Great “hearing” from you via your pen. I will look for more from you from time to time. Betty and I are planning to get out to Cleveland this year and when that happens, I will inform you of it in the long shot chance you could join us in Strongsville. All the best to you, Robin. Walk tall.

    Uncle Don

  4. Robin

    Oh my goodness, Uncle Don, fantastic hearing from you! I love what you say re: “the Slovak and the Sicilian.” Thanks for reading my stuff. Will write further at your email address. Love, Cindy

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