Sunday, July 26, 2015


The first thing I placed in the shipping box was a container with his ashes. It was lightweight because scoops had already been removed and scattered. One batch of my second husband's remains went to Jackson Park where Tommy got a hole in one. Another was spread among the plantings outside the YMCA, his longtime gym; and one more in the park where every morning for 12 years we walked our dog.

Next, I tucked in his watch and wallet -- both decades old because he thought it foolish to replace them. I slipped his wedding ring on the watch strap, threaded it closed, and tucked it in.

Just as I was about to seal the box and affix a mailing label for Chicago, I heard, "I was wondering when you were going to get your butt home."

Tommy! My deceased spouse had decided to visit. "Get your butt home," he'd order when he was alive and I traveled away from him. He was teasing back then, and now for fun, repeating the phrase.

"I'm not surprised you're glad I'm returning to Chicago," I said, smiling as I resurrected his voice, which was clear rather than dimmed by his end-of-life aphasia. "You were never a fan of Los Angeles," I said. "Too spread out, horrible traffic, wasn't that your view?"

"Listen sweetheart," he said. "We both grew up in Chicago. We've got friends there we've known since childhood. That's not easy to replace."

My make-believe visitor was a clue it was time to take a break from packing. As I was about to continue with Tommy, another speaker seeped through my head.

"Remember I told you Princess, that I always wanted to live at State and Madison?" It was my dad who's been dead since 1958, but evidently eager to have a say. "I heard you're moving into a building downtown. Terrific; you're finally listening to me." He held a cigarette between two fingers, and when he saw my stare, said,  "Carte blanche. No restrictions."

"We're happy you're returning to Chicago, too." This was a duet. "Mom, Dad!" I said to my former in-laws, a lovely couple that came with my first marriage. "This is the only time you've returned for a conversation since you died. Why now?"

"To be honest, we were very unhappy when you moved to Los Angeles, but it wasn't our place to pry." It was my father-in-law taking the lead. "Even though you divorced, we felt sure you'd be in Chicago, in our child's life forever, watching over each other."

My mother-in-law, ever the polite one, said, "When we learned you were moving back, and picked an apartment near our dear one, we just had to come and tell you how pleased we are."

Wow, this was getting to be some pow-wow! Just as I was about to respond, another speaker joined in. I was wondering when she was going to show up. "Am I the only one unhappy that you're leaving L.A. and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren?" she said. "I finally had you all in one place, and typical of you, you're on the move again."

I wasn't distressed by my mother's opinion; I was just happy to have the chance to conjure her vision. She died in 1981, still a beauty with hair barely touched by gray. Our kids were teens then, old enough for their talent to dazzle her.

"I knew it; I knew it, back in their high school years," she said. "I predicted they'd be remarkable. " She looked triumphant, as if she were on stage with her
granddaughters, holding their hands as they accepted awards.

My in-laws soon leapt in. "Those girls are something else," they agreed, wanting to assure their DNA was also credited.

"Listen," I said to the celestial crowd. "I know you have differing opinions about my returning to Chicago." Four heads nodded. "But for now, I'd really appreciate it if you'd just watch over me and my move."

Tommy was the first to offer: "Since I'm the most recent up here, I'll be closest to your flight home. I've got that covered."

"No worries," Dad said. "I'll ride shotgun in the delivery trucks coming your way, just to make sure everything arrives on time."

 "I suppose we can handle the reserved elevator," my father-in-law said. "Oh dear," from his wife. "Thirty-seventh floor. I suppose it'll be fine."

We waited for Mom to volunteer. "When all of the furniture is in place and you're finally in bed in your new home," she said. "I'll tuck you in."

Content now, I returned to my task and assembled another box, larger this time, to hold family photographs. Everyone was coming with.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Best Of Both Worlds

I have been accused of being a dabbler -- someone who hops in and out of jobs, groups, and residences quicker than the average person.

Others have named my disorder a reaction to boredom, which involves a constant need for a new, challenging project.

Lately, I've named myself a "participatory journalist" like George Plimpton who recorded his various experiences from the point of view as an amateur -- but in my case, rookie.

I have no problem accepting these labels, although I especially like the last one, and because I have no regrets about my quick decisions.

Every job I've had, including salesperson at the Gap, specialist at the Apple Store (three months apiece), and press aide for a Chicago mayor, communications director for a school superintendent, and account supervisor for public relations firms (one year each) introduced me to new friends, challenging assignments, fresh skills, and most importantly, essay topics.

The same "no regrets" applies to all of the neighborhoods I have convinced my spouses to move into. In my first marriage of 30 years, we lived in 15 different apartments, condos, or homes. Dear Tommy, who had lived in the same house for 25 years before I wandered into his life, was schlepped to three homes in 14 years. Since his death in 2012, I've lived in two different apartments, and now -- drum roll, please -- I'm ready to leave Los Angeles and return to Chicago.

So at lease end, I hope to move to an apartment in one of the high-rises in Lakeshore East, a location that will put this participatory journalist in the midst of the city's vibrancy and near friends and relatives -- some of whom could use support as they care for aging partners, or need a pal at their side for their own medical procedures.

This reverse move may come as a surprise to my readers and to viewers of published photos, all of which praise Los Angeles. These examples of my delightful eight months here with family and celebrities are accurate; there was no exaggeration.

But, being the quick decision-maker that I proudly call myself, I recognize I'm better off in Chicago, a city much easier to navigate for an older woman who elects not to drive. While my hometown does have its struggles, it has moved ahead on tough urban issues, such as a reliable and speedy public transit system, addressing homelessness, and creating a downtown viable for residents, college students, retail, and visitors. And then there's the pizza and hot dogs.

My decision doesn't mean I have flunked here, or have regrets about the cross-country move, for I have learned things about myself, which wouldn't have occurred if I hadn't done the shift.

For example, with a Metro senior citizen pass, I get to far-flung shopping centers and doctors' appointments. I find fulfillment by volunteering at a nonprofit agency, and by attending weekly Torah study. I have made a good friend -- another grandmother transplant -- who drives and shares her favorite L.A. highlights. And, I took a 6-week workshop on How to Write a Half-hour TV Comedy, completed an original pilot and a spec script, and gained a manager who continues to seek opportunities for me.

All of the above was accomplished relatively easy for a speed demon like myself, but the primary reason for my move to Los Angeles was much trickier. Because I had not lived in the same city as my daughters for 25 years, and since I was unfettered in Chicago (no husband, house, dog, car, debt), I thought the time was right to jump into their world.

It turns out that my daughters' whirlwind lives are already over-stuffed with career and family responsibilities. While they try to include me in as many events and gatherings as possible, I find myself insatiable. No matter how often I see them, it is never enough for me. Trying to make up for lost decades, and likely attempting to fill the void left by Tommy's death, I turned needy and greedy -- features unbecoming to me and difficult for my beloved daughters.

But, instead of considering this decision an abandonment of Los Angeles, I'll add Bi-Coastal to my labels and have the best of both worlds. For special events and family celebrations, in harsh winter months, and when the itch for something fresh enters my brain, I'll return to the city of treasured children and grandchildren, temperate climes, and glitter.

And when my L.A. and Boston daughters book a visit to see both Chicago parents -- hopefully with grandchildren in tow  -- they'll have my new playground as an attraction.

Just think of the essays that await us.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The door was locked, so I took a seat on the floor opposite the office of my new therapist. Because I was early, I wasn't unsettled about my blocked entry; and I resisted taking it as a sign that this latest round of soul scrutiny was off to a bad start.

However, if she (let's call her Sarah) didn't arrive by my appointed time, then I would rise, dust myself off, and chalk it off to evidence that therapy need not be a weekly calendar notation.

But a few minutes before the hour, Sarah appeared -- breathless because she had ridden over on her bike. She apologized for the locked door and I was speedily ushered into a room that felt as familiar as a childhood bedroom.

There was the three-cushioned couch in a subtle grey and floral pattern, the side table with a box of Kleenex and bottles of water, landscapes and other serene artworks on the walls, a facing armchair in matching upholstery, with its own side table of clock and notepad.

In my 76 years of life, I have turned to therapy a handful of times. My slim record is not because I disdain the practice or am reluctant to reveal my secrets. Au contraire, I love therapy! Fifty-five minutes focused on me, a sympathetic witness to my angst, a collaborator in my version of the story; who wouldn't relish the experience.

All of my sessions were jump-started by a query. Some visits continued weekly for nearly a year; others curtailed in a few months.

Sondra (fictitious, too, but interestingly, all of my therapists' names did begin with the letter "S") was my first, sometime in the late '80s. I was lured to Sondra through an article she had written about weight issues. I was a perpetual dieter, and thought Sondra could help me untangle my eating issues and enable me to drop 10 pounds.

But somehow during the very first session, our theme veered from my heft to my marriage, both of which were affecting my happiness. I can still see Sondra from those long ago days. She was wearing a loose-fitting tunic top and matching long skirt. Shrink wear, I thought at the time, flowing, unrestricted, the better to encourage comfort and open dialogue.

I discontinued therapy when my marriage improved (I still had the extra 10 pounds), but returned after my husband's surprise leave-taking in 1990. I went solo for a few sessions, he joined me for one, and despite Sondra being charmed with him, my spouse had his foot determinedly out the door.

My next bout of therapy was with a woman we'll call Stella, and it was to her whom I would come back to over the coming years. Stella is regal, with salt-and-pepper hair, and dressed in the requisite draping wardrobe.

Our first round was very short term, perhaps only three visits. I had only one question: if I was so unhappy in the marriage, why was I still crying about its demise?

"You were married for 30 years, sadness is normal," she said, which satisfied my need for any further sessions.

I returned to Stella in 2009 after my second husband, Tommy, and I had been together for 13 years. “He's a jerk,” I told her. “When we first married, he’d write me love letters, hide syrupy Post-it notes in my gym bag. Now, nothing, and on top of that, he says inappropriate things to strangers.”

As our appointments and Tommy's odd behavior continued, something new was added to the mix: he lost his ability to speak. Stella suggested a visit to a neurologist, and that's how my husband's dreadful brain degeneration was diagnosed. Once I realized his unsettling symptoms matched the illness, I ended therapy and transitioned from puzzled wife to compassionate caregiver.

Before I left Chicago for Los Angeles at the end of 2014, I had a few more sessions with Stella. She listened as I questioned my motivation for the move, and like a professor watching a student puzzle out an unsolved math theory, she sat patiently while I tossed pros and cons.

Yesterday, I had my second appointment with my LA therapist, Sarah. It began in a more traditional fashion. Her outer office door was unlocked, so I settled on a chair in the waiting room. Exactly at the appointed hour, she opened the door to her private space. As I unleashed my backpack and removed my hat, and placed both on the cushion next to me, Sarah uncapped her pen and placed a notepad in her lap.

"So, here's my question this week," I began.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

How To Fight

I hung up on her. Our 30-minute battle exhausted me and I needed to retreat. Instead of a neutral corner, where a trainer urging me to re-enter the ring would tend to me, I dropped into the cushion of my lounge chair. My abrupt halt to our cell phone conversation didn't make me feel like a champ; instead, I felt flattened, as if I were an over-the-hill boxer.

I returned to the paused TV show I had been watching before the phone call. As the images on the screen moved from scene to scene, and characters' voices bounced from one to another, I realized I couldn't focus. So, I left my viewing chair and paced as I rehashed my recent fight.

First I cried at our mutual behavior. Then, I fumed. I built a case against my foe and layered it with past arguments. I found the pattern, and while the themes were not fresh, my response was new: I had fought back. With cell phone to my ear, I yelled at her. And while the hot exchange left me exhausted, I was glad I had held my ground, gone toe-to-toe with my tough opponent.

This experience spurred me to review my squabbling style, as well as the one I had witnessed in my childhood. I propped two pillows on my bed, stretched out, and let the file tape flow across my brain.

In my 2006 memoir, "The Division Street Princess," I wrote this about my parents' quarrels: "Whenever I heard their arguments, Id duck for cover, like a recruit frightened of battle. And although the two of them never came to blows and seemed to recuperate quickly, my wounds took longer to heal."

Forgive me for the marketing, but I just love that sentence. I believe it was this early experience that led me to the style I chose for my first marriage. I was determined to not repeat those painful scenes, so when I felt injured by my husband's actions, I chose silence. I sulked; complained to friends, let my children fight my battles -- anything to not engage. And so, during our 30-year-marriage, the two of us constructed a wall. Tiff-by-tiff, the bricks grew taller and more impenetrable with each year, until it toppled in divorce.

In comparison, my second marriage was a pleasure cruise. We sailed along -- watching the same TV programs, walking our dog, taking occasional vacations -- and on the rare instances we argued, it was always Tommy who said, "Let's not be mad at each other. Let's talk about it." A few words, maybe a tear from each of us, hugs, and then it was over.

I remember once, when my first husband was at our house -- gratefully, we had stayed friendly through the divorce and in the subsequent years, and Tommy enjoyed his company -- my second husband and I began to squabble. I can't remember what the issue was, but we tapped lightly, as if we were first-time kids in the ring.

"Why couldn't we have done that?" my first husband had said, as he watched Tommy and I  tussle, and then make up quickly.

He was wistful as he asked this, and at the time, I answered, "I have no idea." But I do: my parents' union had infiltrated that first marriage and successfully silenced me.

Was husband #1 jealous that I had landed in a stable second marriage, or was he wondering it could've been different if I had only learned how to fight?

It isn't as if he and I hadn't booked therapy appointments way back then, where each on our own time would spill our secrets, our unhappiness, and our frustrations. But somehow, those scholarly souls couldn't solve our problems, and so after our three-decade marriage and a six-year separation, we signed the divorce papers.

After my most recent clash with a dear one, I pondered how I had journeyed from watching on the sidelines in my childhood, to righteous silence in my first marriage, to simple taps in my second, and finally, to the loud-mouthed, hotheaded battler I had become. Was it age that had toughened me, a conviction I was the injured party, or a desire to see only what I wanted to see?

It's likely my opponent and I will take a few days to lick our wounds. We'll kvetch to friends about the other's stubbornness. Then hopefully, we'll edge our way back towards each other, and to love.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


I used a fingernail to lift the silver circle on the key ring. When there was enough of an opening, I pushed the hole in my new YMCA fob through the circle until it closed and sealed.

That's when I felt a tap on my shoulder, soft as a feather, but familiar.

"Finally." It was the voice of Tommy making himself heard in my head at the Hollywood-Wilshire YMCA.

My response to my deceased husband was mental, rather than aloud, as I didn't want those in earshot to think me loony. "I knew you'd show up at the Y," I said, as I pictured Tommy in his tank top and shorts, his body trim with muscled biceps and calves.

At once, the small chest of drawers that stood at his side of our bed appeared in my mind's eye. Second drawer; that's where his gym clothes lived. Neat piles of tank tops and shorts, most purchased from thrift shops, for my husband of 14 years was as slim in his spending as he was in body.

I could see him choosing the outfit he appeared in during this imaginary visit. First, he'd have removed from the closet the gym bag he had used during his 40-year membership at Chicago's Lakeview Y. His weathered shoes would already be stowed, along with a towel. Would he find the note I had left him?

Tommy taught me that. At the beginning of our romance -- both in our 60s at the time -- he would write tender Post-its and hide them for me to find sometime during my day. Imagine, at that mature age, being reminded there was this fellow who thought I walked on water.

I hadn't learned this sentimentality previously, but I leaped in, stowing my own notes to Tommy in one of his gym shoes, or in a drawer, surprises I knew would light his morning.

Sadly, it's not all mushy stuff when I recall my guy and his beloved Y. Much of that switched to spy games when in 2009,  he was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Degeneration and lost his ability to speak. To be certain I would be contacted if anything happened to him when he was not under my watch, I bought him a medical ID bracelet. The band’s metal plate was engraved with his name, his illness, and my cell phone number.

But, my Tommy refused to wear the band. I didn't pressure him because I figured the gym was his sanctuary, free of a hovering wife. It was the place where he didn’t have to talk; where he was proud of his three times a week attendance, and routine of 33 minutes on the elliptical, then 20 minutes of weight lifting. At the Y, he was a strongman, not someone needing a medical ID bracelet.

"Hel-lo, are you still here?" It was my fictional Tommy waking me from a scene that he evidently didn't want to revisit.

"Sorry, honey," I said, miffed at myself for clouding his drop in. "Were you surprised to see me here, signing up at a Y rather than some fancy health club?"

"I knew you'd come around eventually," he said. "Sure L.A.'s sunshine is great and the glitter is fun, but I knew you'd wind up in a place that felt comfortable, familiar. And affordable."

Ah yes, there was my budget-minded buddy reminding me of my, um, tendency to fudge finances. "Have you been keeping an eye on me since I landed in California? Were you worried I'd be living on credit cards and wishful thinking?"

"Well, I can't say it hadn't entered my mind," he said. "But, it's more than the low membership fee that makes me happy to see you here. It reminds me of the days we'd go to the Y together. Remember when we first married, the time I took you on a tour and showed you how to operate each machine?"

"Of course I remember," I said, as the slideshow slipped across my vision. Before then, Tommy had been a long-time bachelor, and I felt his pride as he paused in his instructions to introduce me to all of his gym pals.

"My wife," he'd say, puffed as if he had won the state's lotto.

"He's the best," his cronies would say.

In real time, my Strength Class was about to begin, so I shook my head to tuck my spouse back to my brain. I entered the Women's Locker Room and placed my belongings in an empty space. But before closing the lock, I rummaged through my gym bag to be certain I hadn't left anything behind. My fingers probed each corner.

Could a long-ago note be hiding somewhere? Nope, all gone.