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I haven’t written here in a long time, over a year, in fact, mainly because of three things: adjusting to a new job teaching writing at a local university (a place I love); a part-time job from hell that lasted seven months (about five months too long); and working on writing my first book.

I’m back, not only because I’m ready to write here again, but also because I can’t let 2016 end without acknowledging one of the most beautiful things I have seen this year—in fact, in all my life.

It was back in January, a gesture between two brothers that was as deeply touching as it was subtle. The brothers are twins; the older of the two is my father. It was Eastern Orthodox Christmas in Pittsburgh and at the time they were 83 years old. They turned 84 last month.

My father and my uncle are as close as everyone always says, but rarely understands, twins are. Both started college immediately upon graduating from high school, and after attending a community college their first year while working at their father’s—my grandfather’s—auto mechanic shop on weekends, they transferred to Pitt, where they both earned engineering degrees. Both brothers were called up by the Air Force within months of starting their first jobs out of college.

It was the time of NATO. My uncle traveled worlds west to Japan, my father in the opposite direction to France. When he returned to civilian life, my father also returned to being an engineer, first with General Motors, then with NASA, where he worked for nearly 30 years before retiring at the tender age of 57. He was a consultant for one or two years after that, then fully retired, devoting his time to his love of wine and winemaking, then to the farm he and my mother bought in the 90s.

My uncle eventually moved from engineering to education, which culminated in teaching high-schoolers information technology and multimedia production. He retired a couple of years ago, at the age of 81. Imagine an eighty-one-year-old teaching your kid how to edit digital video shot on an iPhone. This is how hip my uncle is. He has sent me a birthday card almost every year of my life.

These two men, these twins, are at the top of the list of the smartest people I have ever known. They call each other “Snif,” a nickname inspired by a “Tarzan” movie they saw in the theater as kids. They are identical, although my father is slightly stockier. I have vivid memories of their eight-by-ten college senior portraits hanging on the wall of my grandparents’ living room, so exquisitely rendered in tones of grey and beige, the edges softened, their cheeks tinted rose, looking more like watercolors than photographs.

Back in January 2016, when I traveled to Cleveland to spend the New Year with my father and brothers, we took a side trip to Pittsburgh to celebrate Orthodox Christmas. My father and I took mostly back roads all 120 miles to my uncle’s house, which used to be my grandparents’ house too. The last time I had been there was on a day-long business trip in the early 2000s that took me into Rochester, down the Ohio River a few miles from the former steel town where my uncle lives.

As I drove north out of Pittsburgh International Airport to Rochester, I could sense that I was getting close to the river, the way some sense the ocean is near by a change in the air. Soon, my rental car hit one of the dozens of grated bridges up and down the Ohio River as far as you can see in both directions. The tires buzzed like a small prop plane and I could see the water below through the bridge.

On the other side, there it was—“The Boulevard,” as everyone who lives there calls it, or used to call it when I was young, where my grandmother and my mother shopped at the Kaufman’s and JC Penney and the fabric store; the miles and miles of rail yards; the hills that led up to other hills that led up to still others, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The roads atop them, mostly two-lane highways, are asphalt ribbons, stretching up and down and round and round. It is not terrain for the motion sick, as my sister-in-law discovered her first time there with my oldest brother.

As we drove into town for Orthodox Christmas 2016, my father negotiated the roller-coaster roads of rural southwestern Pennsylvania as deftly as he handled the roads when we traveled together in France for three weeks in 2015. “So your father…eighty-three…how does he do?” say some people when I tell them about it. And I respond that he wouldn’t let me drive anywhere in France, he knew the place like the back of his hand, he got us everywhere safely and in style, that his brain is sharper than mine, he out-walked me, and he is handsome. Everyone mistakes him for fifteen years younger than he really is. I am glad that I take after him, in many ways.

My uncle is handsome too, but he looks a little tired when we arrive at his house. His complexion is wan and he wears a bathrobe and a knit cap much of the time that we are chilling in the front room, where the TV is. In all fairness, not too far off from what I look like when I’m chilling at home on a day off.

My uncle is active as always, as evidenced by his whiteboard wish-list on the kitchen wall, full of the names of all the restaurants he wants to go to, and rows and rows of colorful Post-Its covering two kitchen cabinet doors. They are a work of art, the manifestation of a mind and dreams at work. There are gourmet spices on the kitchen counter, imported pastas and hi-tech cookware on the professional-grade metal rack in the dining room, and a selection of Eastern European beers I’d never tried in the brand-new stainless steel refrigerator around the corner where my grandmother’s china cupboard used to be. Every room in the house, excepting the living room and TV room, is stacked with file boxes from “Costco’s,” as my uncle says in his Pittsburgh accent, the kind that come four to a pack that you have to put together. It occurs to me later that his very ordered and practical self may be already packing up the house.

Beyond the boxes, the house is a museum to the time that my brothers and I were little kids, rolling up and down the grassy hills in our good clothes, climbing up and down the fruit trees planted out back, throwing not-yet-ripe grapes from the arbors at cars whizzing by on the road out front. The house is covered in cream-colored aluminum siding, but the breezeway and garage are the same grey-blue cedar siding the whole house was covered in when I was a little girl. It feels waxy to the touch, but there is always the danger of getting a sliver.

Inside, all of the furniture is still the same: the formal couch on spindly wooden legs that my grandmother used to keep covered in plastic; the dining room table and chairs, in the same place as when I was a child; the old buffet. The cuckoo clock still hangs on the wall but is still and silent. I imagined the blue-green vinyl covering the basement steps still holding some of the molecules that my nine-year-old Red-Ball-Jet-sneakered feet had ground into them. It stood in tribute to a different era, to relatives who’ve been long gone whom I still love. I almost hated to use my devices there.

When my uncle emerged from the bedroom in his Rusyn costume for our Saturday-night celebration of Orthodox Christmas, his complexion was bright. The party, which started out in the 80s with a few of us sitting around the dining room table eating raw garlic and drinking honey, had grown to 100 guests that night. Most of them were Slovak, and I was related to them. My father and uncle were the happy emcees. They drank vodka. Younger family members kept plunking their young children onto their laps and taking pictures on their smartphones. My two oldest brothers were there. I met two cousins that up to that moment I had only had social media relationships with. The food was wonderful. We were the last to leave. My uncle drove us all back to his house in his new van, retracing our steps along the Ohio River on The Boulevard, where the steel mills used to belch bright orange flames into the night sky.

The next morning we all took turns getting out of bed. My uncle, in his robe and knit cap, stumbled into the kitchen and made some coffee. He came into the dining room where it meets the living room and just stood there, his hands deep in his pockets, waking up.

“Good morning,” I said from the couch.

“Good morning,” he said back, and just then my father emerged from a back bedroom.

“Good morning, Snif,” he said, and kissed my uncle on the cheek. My uncle kissed him back.

Two men who are twin brothers who are now older than both their parents were when they passed. Who lost their baby brother in early October to cancer. Who have a seen a lot in their 84 years, all the while sustaining a deep, abiding, and impressive friendship and respect for each other. The kiss was, still is, and will always be one of the sweetest things I have ever seen in my life.

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In January 2017 I will again be traveling to Pittsburgh for Eastern Orthodox Christmas, which takes place on the 7th. The photo above is of my father in Laon, France, where he was stationed in the U.S. Air Force, during our trip there together in 2015.

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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 OnMilwaukee.com 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 OnMilwaukee.com. Thanks to them, and a hearty thank you to Bernard for going up the hill to snap the photo.

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

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28. July 2015 · 14 comments · Categories: Stories

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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 OnMilwaukee.com.

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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.

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

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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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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:

SIX-MONTH CINDY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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