Sunday, July 29, 2012

Barry Henby and the Birthday Emergency

When I first met fire chief Barry Henby, we were freaking out. 

It is a disturbing phenomenon that young children must have fancy birthday parties, preferably someplace innovative and expensive. I have never been a planner, plus I am cheap, so I was NOT a fan of this trend when my boys were having their little boy birthday parties. 
The fire station seemed like a reasonable choice for my son Joey’s seventh birthday, because what kid doesn’t love a fire truck?  Despite my reluctance to part with money, I would rather write a $150 check than have a bunch of sugar propelled kids sprinting around my house.  This was back when I actually had a corporate job and drawing pencil portraits was just a fun side gig, so I shouldn't complain about the cost, but you know how I enjoy complaining.

If you want me to hate you,
be early.
On the day of the firehouse party, being the chronically late fool that I am, some of Joey’s guests were already waiting for us when we breathlessly arrived in a rush of tangled balloons and plastic bags full of birthdayness.  If I ever invite you to anything, please don’t ever be early.  One time a friend came a half hour early to Bunko and I almost punched her.

Enduring the mild fear that seems to accompany any event where I am the hostess, I trooped into the fire house with my amused guests and excited children, only to hear that they didn’t know that we were coming.  I’d paid in person weeks before, but of course I hadn’t thought to confirm.  With a frozen smile on my face, I pleaded for mercy through gritted teeth.  More children arrived and I began mentally checking off the stuff I wouldn’t have time for, like decorations or any sense of calm, rah-rah birthday parenting.  Not that any of it mattered in comparison to dragging the whole crowd over to my messy house or out in the parking lot. 

Before we knew it, Battalion Chief Barry Henby had arrived to rescue us. 

They’d called Barry at home on a Saturday, and he’d rushed over as if it were a real emergency instead of an abnormally large boy's 7th birthday.  The party was freaking adorable.  Chief Henby was a showman, entertaining the kids and a few curious parents, while teaching important fire safety.  We loved the animated way he involved each of us, keeping a dozen second-graders in rapt order.  After his dog & pony show, we took a tour of the fire station and all climbed into an ambulance.  The kids got to try on a real fire hat while Joey got to put on the whole fireman shebang.

Adorableness worth every birthday party penny.

Joey got to sit in a big fire truck and RUN THE LIGHTS AND SIREN.  All the kids secretly despised him for getting to do something so cool, none moreso than his little brother Maxwell.  The photo below is an excellent example of how Max was a master at picking the worst times to pitch a fit.  At three years old, Max could blow a good time in thirty seconds flat, if he wasn’t the center of attention.  It amazes me that Max is the polite, sweet boy he is today.  We thought he just might grow up to be a serial killer back then.  It's a good thing he was so damn cute.

Max being Max and Joey in firetruck heaven.

All in all, I walked away thinking that Barry Henby was one heck of a guy.  I wasn't alone.  By that time, Barry had clocked many hours becoming one of Gurnee’s greatest guys.  When I started to write a book about some of the wonderful people I'd drawn, Barry graciously agreed to give me the dirt on what it's like to be a local hero, although he'd never call himself that.

Barry grew up in Tuscola, IL, a small farm town. He earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from a junior college and a BS in Law enforcement administration from Western Illinois University.  He wanted to go get some bad guys.

Barry met his wife, his soul mate of 36 years, in college.  “We had a first aid class together,” he told me.  “I tried to fix her up with some of my friends and three years later, we got married.  She thought I was rich because I bought her flowers every week, then she found out the sad truth.” 

“When I got out of college, my mom made me look for a job and I got hired as a police officer in Glencoe, IL.  I loved being a police officer.  People thanked me for arresting them sometimes because I did my job in the most pleasant way I could.  I didn’t get aggressive or nasty.  I figured I was just putting them into the system and the judge would figure out what to do with them.  I knew some police officers in different communities who let the power go to their head."

Becoming a police officer in a Chicago suburb was a rude awakening for a farm kid from central Illinois. “When I came up here, I was shocked at how many more officers were needed because of what people do to themselves and to others.  When a burglar invaded someone’s home, the victims were devastated to be so violated.  It was hard to see the outrage and anguish they felt.  Glencoe had a high Jewish population, and there were some terrible anti-Semitic phone calls.  It was a shock to see what people thought was funny and the resulting pain it caused.

Yesss!  We have guns.  Rock on.
“My buddy Paul and I were passionate about our jobs and VERY motivated. We were rookies with only two months under our belts, but by the end of our shift, we caught bad guys right and left, filling the jail.  It was fun to be a police officer!  We were constantly high fiving each other and enjoying the heck out of it. 

“The chief let us borrow his unmarked squad car for burglary control at night.  One night, I responded to a call with lights and sirens.  Someone pulled out in front of me and I locked the brakes, skidding into a big boulder in front a residence.  It sent the car flying onto a woman’s front porch, crashing into the house.  The lights were flashing, radiator was steaming, it was a mess.  Back then, we didn’t wear seat belts and I’d really hurt my back.  I was staggering around in pain and the lady came out on the porch, yelling, ‘Oh no!  A drunk hit my house!  Call the police!’  I said, ‘Lady, I am the police.’ 

“When I was in high school, I loved the show Emergency!  Going on rescue calls was amazing; everyone could tell that I liked it so I went to paramedic school and I was first in my class.  I wasn’t that smart, but if I hadn’t passed, I would have gotten fired.  My wife and I were thinking about starting our family and I was scared half to death of what she'd do to me if I didn't pass. 

“Today, on a rescue call, you’ll see two or three paramedics at the site.  Back then, there was only one and they relied on you to know your stuff.  One of my first saves was when we were defibrillating a guy and giving medication.  To see everything that I was trying actually work blew my mind.  To see someone hurt with major trauma, apply the skills that I’d been given, and save a life.  It was wild."

Barry also delivered a baby in someone’s home.  "Ironically, the parents were a doctor and a nurse who waited too long.  I was on the scene with a lieutenant who was on the receiving end of the mother to be, so to speak, while I was on the telephone with the hospital, letting them know that the baby was coming.  The lieutenant called me over to check something out, and then grabbed the telephone from me, tricking me into changing places.  That was something to see a life come into the world right in front of me. 

“I’d heard good things about the Gurnee fire department.  I interviewed for the chief and got on as a volunteer.  About a year later, I tested for a full time fire fighter/paramedic.  Working for the fire department has been wonderful.  I’ve helped deliver three children in town.  I was the first one in on the Warren Township High School fire.

“Hey,” Barry interrupted himself, “I don’t need to take up too much room in your book.  You just tell me when you’ve heard enough of my crap.”

What?  Was he kidding?  I loved this guy and he was more a part of my history than I’d realized.  The high school fire had happened my senior year at Warren, in December 1984.  It had gutted our school, destroying the oldest, wooden part of the building which had included the English department.  I loved to write and my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Johnson in freshman Honors English, had such a student following that older students had returned to build a stage in her room.  She had years and years of costumes, props and precious writings from the school’s creative magazine.  So much of it had all gone up in smoke with the rest of our senior year.  My classmates and I stood beside the wreckage, peering up through the charred gash that had once been the center of our school, our lives.  I was in tears.  I graduated early and felt robbed of those last happy high school days.

I remembered that the fire had been initially extinguished and we were all so relieved.  But then hot spots had re-ignited and burnt it beyond repair.

Barry corrected me with some rare frustration. “That’s not how it went down.  We knocked out the first fire really quickly and then the kid came back and started it again.  I hated how it overshadowed the incredible work we’d done on the first fire.

“Another big fire happened at a hotel in Waukegan, eight people had died.  We climbed to the sixth floor, discovering a number of deaths.  I carried a barely alive, elderly woman through the flames six floors down on the rickety fire escape while a buddy of mine helped navigate.  She was in her nightgown and had suffered smoke inhalation… it was a pretty dramatic sight.  When we got down to the ambulance, I was exhausted and rested off to the side while they put the woman on a stretcher.  Suddenly, TV cameras rushed in and my buddy got all the credit for the rescue!  He got calls all the way from California congratulating him.  He kidded me, insisting that I hadn’t actually been there, telling me I’d imagined it.

“We work hard, but hanging with the guys at the firehouse is the best.  A lot of them are young and crazy, messing with each other all the time.  When we have carrots for dinner, I can’t look away or someone will grab a carrot off my plate, stick it up his nose and put it back before I know it.  We’re always playing jokes, picking a bed up off the floor while someone is sound asleep, then dropping it.  Sometimes I can’t go to the bathroom without someone sticking a video camera over the stall.

“But when it comes time to do our job, we’re instantly focused on what needs to be done for the public.  We get it done.”

Barry told me that it isn’t enough just to fight fires and protect the public.  They need voters to support their fire department with taxes in order to get the training and equipment they need.  "We have to get out there and show the public what we do,” Barry stressed.  “I believe strongly in the customer service aspect - how we treat the public.  We send get well cards, signed by the fire chief and the paramedics, to anyone who lives in Gurnee when they are involved in an ambulance call with us.  We have birthday parties for children.  We open our doors to college or high school students looking for technical/vocation education, and have them ride along with us.   We're among the best fire departments in the state on customer service."

And it does make a difference.  Barry did a demonstration for the kids at school stressing the importance of having a home fire exit plan.  Children should know two ways out of every room, families must have a meeting place outside.  Our kids came home from school determined to make an exit plan, which we did.  Barry was featured on a fire department poster that I saw hanging at the kids' schools.  His friendly, capable face made you feel safer just looking at him. 

In 2006, I saw in the newspaper that Barry Henby was chosen as the Gurnee Days honoree, nominated by the people of Gurnee. I called the Gurnee Days group and suggested that I draw Barry for his recognition dinner. They loved the idea, if it was free. For once, I didn't worry about money.

“What an honor!” Barry exclaimed.  "I guess it's my small town roots, but I think you should help your neighbors.  I cut the grass for some of my senior neighbors, give them a hand if they need help, take down their Christmas lights.  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?" 

I presented Barry with his portrait at his honoree dinner in front of 250 people, who each knew him personally.  “My mom came up from central Illinois,” Barry smiled.  “She was so proud!  That was really something special.  My sons shaved their heads to match dad’s balding head.  I thought there were lots of deserving people and I just felt so humbled to be chosen.  It was like an everyday guy got recognized, and people seemed to get a kick out of that.
"My wife gets uneasy with some of the accolades.  She was a good sport, but she doesn’t like being the center of attention.  You can take one look at my wife and know why I fell in love with her, she is such a beautiful lady." 

A few years after Joey’s party, we ran into Barry in line at Ace hardware. My kids recognized him instantly and stood up a little straighter, brightening at the prospect of rubbing elbows with a local celebrity. They poked each other and whispered loudly, peeking at him.  I said hello, shook his hand and reminded him that he’s saved the day for Joey’s party. He acted as though he remembered (it takes a good fake-rememberer to know one) and proceeded to pull magic tricks out of his pocket for the kids. He did a little show for them, right there in line, which as much gusto as if he were performing for a roomful.  I asked if he always walked around with magic in his pocket.
“Of course!” he said, as if there wasn’t any other way to live. 
In 2010, Barry retired after thirty years of service to the Gurnee fire department.  With so many important accomplishments, so much to take pride in, Barry probably doesn't remember the September day in 2003 that meant so much to a frazzled mom trying to show a sweet little seven year old boy how very much he's loved. 

Our hero.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Confessions of a Corporate Flirt

During almost all of my corporate life, before I became a full time pencil portrait artist, I worked for, or with, my father.  When I work hard, I feel my dad's influence.  When I play hard, it's there too.    If there is a repetitive ticking noise somewhere, both of us react like we've been poked with a fork.  My son Max has it too... it's cool and a little scary how it works that way. 

Every job I ever had was due to my father's connections or his computer consulting business.  I worked for him summers and weekends from the time I was thirteen and full time for five years after college.  We developed a closeness that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.  At work, you use all your abilities... social, emotional, logical.  While in the trenches, you get to know your coworkers better than you know some of your dearest friends.  I surprised my dad sometimes with the things that I accomplished at work.  I surprised myself.  I'm glad we had that chance to get to know each other so well, even if I still have Vietnam flashbacks about some of it.

Working makes me tired.
Working for family can be challenging.  My dad used to say that somebody was always in the room who shouldn't be... a father when there should have just been a boss.  A crabby teenager or hungover college student when there should have been a diligent employee who wasn't secretly napping on her office floor.  Eventually, the financial and emotional strain was just too much, and I left my dad's business for Hewitt Associates, where my husband Joe was working.  The decision to leave my dad was so difficult, I used a spreadsheet to weigh the emotional toll, money, daycare issues.  How in the hell do you measure hurting your dad?  It was the hardest choice I've ever made.

Karma rewarded my anguish with the best time I would ever have at work for the rest of my life.  That includes my current job which entails goofing around writing stories before I draw pictures in front of the TV.

I started off at Hewitt as an ITS person.  I forget what that stood for, I-something Technology Service? Anyway, I was a computer helper like the Saturday Night Live skit with Jimmy Fallon ("MOVE!") The funniest part of this job was sending official sounding emails to associates about their naughty files cluelessly stored on the network.  People would FREAK. OUT.  "Um, oh, crap, I don't know where that came from, I swear, somebody must have saved it there by mistake, not me, oh God."

My excellent porn sniffing abilities led to a promotion in less than six months to a software specialist. There the real fun began.  I was the resident building expert for Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint), which I liked, although I was faking the expert part.  I worked in a big open room with seven guys, all in their early twenties.  I was in my early thirties, but felt fifty sometimes, because young guys are full throttle and I'm no delicate flower.  I had to keep up, no matter how disgusting it got.  Our DTS (desktop services) room was far away from the rest of the work world and it was a nasty slice of heaven.

And in that testosterone soaked room, I fell in friend-love with Jason.

I liked all the guys, but Jason was particularly hilarious (check!), adorable (check!), a former Marine (yum!) and a great talker.  If you know me personally, you might have noticed that I'm a bit chatty.  Jason and I talked our heads off about everything... home, work, rumors, love.  Jason was dating a Hewitt girl named Jennelle and he was a goner.  I gave him advice and drew a pencil portrait of them as his gift to her. 

I am a shameless flirt.  I can't help it.  If I think a guy is funny or smart, I try to rein it in.  But I never had a date in high school, I had ONE DATE in college.  When I wasn't busy slumming it with assholes, I was wondering if I would ever, ever find someone.  Once Joe rescued me, many of my insecurities disappeared.  I bartended for a few years after I discovered that Joe liked sitting at home way, way, way more than I did.  I found my flirt and she's been inappropriately showing up whenever cocktails are involved ever since.

Considering the atmosphere, I'm surprised there wasn't ever alcohol in the DTS room.  But even sober, I was a little more flirty than I probably should have been with Jason.  Work friendships between men and women can be a slippery slope; emotional intimacy can be just as dangerous as physical.  But Jason loved Jennelle and I loved Joe.  So we play-flirted in the sweet safety of our respective, rock-solid relationships. 

Meanwhile, I got a taste of being a 20-something guy.  For a full hour, every day after lunch, we played a video game called Unreal.  I had never been a big video game player, but Unreal revealed to me why it becomes obsessive for some.  Unreal was a shooty, wandering around game that involved finding bigger and bigger guns to blast each other in the face with.

Look at me, I'm a gamer.

The end of your gun was you, and the people running around in the game were the actual guys in our office.  This is an everyday boring concept in the world of gaming, but for me in 1998, it was hysterically new and intoxicating.  

The Zumpinator was awesome.
You picked a character from a few different juiced up robot looking choices. I picked the busty, slutty looking female ones and called myself the Zumpinator. Jason was always hollering "ZUMP!!! I SEE YOU!!!" at the top of his lungs from his cube across the room when I tried to hide and snipe him. Being the only girl and a novice player, I held my own. Our quiet, nice manager tried to ignore that we were totally screwing around, but it must have been hard with the constant yelling and laughing and not even pretending to work even a little.  Sometimes he came out of his office and said, "Guys.  Really?"  There was no stopping us.  Plus, we weren't even supposed to have games loaded on the network in the first place, but everyone in the room was a kick ass tech. So they manipulated the system and nice boss looked the other way as long as we actually got some work done.  Which we usually did.

Every day, I looked forward to going to work.  It was fun and funny and I was proud of my ability to not flinch too much at the absolutely vile atrocities that Jason and his friends would casually show me on the internet.  "Hey, Zump!  Come here a sec," meant trouble.  I pretended that I didn't have nightmares about the delightful video clip they shared entitled Beer Poop.  I'll never look at Braveheart the same way again.  Jason and I were like detectives, keeping a careful log of a married chick's constant visits to one of our married cohorts.  Now they're married to each other.  See?  A slippery slope.

Not long after I left my father's business, my dad admitted defeat after a long, bloody fight against bigger competitors and rising costs.  The timing of me leaving just before his business folded provided great material for my future therapy.  He joined the Chicago consulting firm where I would eventually get fired in six quick years. "They could really use a Wendy," my dad told me, and that was the end of my best job in the world.  The new firm offered me more money and the chance to work from home.  I was about to get knocked up with Max and my little family just couldn't pass that up. 

The day I left Unreal, Jason and all my hilarious boys, my voice choked with tears when I tried to yell, "The Zumpinator has left the building!"  I'd been with them less than a year. 

"Ahhh, Zump," Jason teased as he hugged me good-bye.

Jason and Jennelle had a destination wedding on the beach.  They reminded Joe and me of us... a real team, happy and laughing and made for each other.  They got a house and geared up for the next step.  Jason was a family guy and he was great with our kids when we visited them and they wrote GO BEARS all over his Wisconsin driveway. 

"Your kids suck," Jason cheerfully observed.

When I started my full time portrait thing, Jason asked me to draw his parents for an anniversary gift.  We didn't talk as much as we used to, but all I had to hear over the phone was "Zuuuuuump!" and we were back in Unreal mode.

I don't remember Jason telling me he had cancer.  Maybe I blocked it, because it was way too close to home.  He didn't talk about it much in the beginning, when he and Jennelle were frozen with fear. I sat with him during a chemo session and we laughed and chatted while my stomach was in knots.  Some of the people in the room with him were like living cadavers.  Jason is one of the most full of life people I've ever met.  What if...

Not to worry.  My Semper Fi friend banked some artillery, kicked cancer's stupid ass and their son Callan miraculously came into the world.  Jason and Jennelle were swept into the nonstop grind of working full time and new parenthood.  Joe loved Jason too and saw more of him than I did at poker tournaments and work.   Jason ordered a portrait of little Cal with their big bulldog, Spike.  He nagged me to make sure that he was represented somewhere on my pencil portrait website (right here).  Some friendships don't require a lot of interaction. Our bond has been built and it's there whenever we need it. 

One day, Joe was working in his home office (his lazyboy with his laptop on his lap in front of the big TV) and he stopped rocking with a sudden gasp. 

"Holy shit,"  he looked up at me in shock, "Jason just texted that Jennelle wants a divorce." 

Conversations with Jason were with somebody brand new.  Gone was the happy go lucky, smart ass goofball.  Here was a boy crushed to his core.  The pain in his voice killed me.  And that constant question, "Why?  Why?"  She wouldn't listen, she didn't care.  It was all business now about splitting time with Cal, the house, money.  He beat cancer.  How could he have lost her?

The honeymoon phase doesn't last forever and maybe there had been some signs, some warnings.  When you think you're in it forever, there is all the time in the world to stop playing games, lose weight, quit smoking.  And then forever is gone and there was nothing Jason could do to bring it back.  He begged and opened up to Jennelle in complete vulnerability, admitted his failings, promised the world.  But she was done and forever was ice cold.  She told him that his pleas made him seem weak.   Bitch.

I told Jason that he was funny and true and smart and a great dad.  When we jokingly talked about who we would choose for each other if one of us were hit by a bus, Joe chose Jason for me.  I told Jason that eventually hooking up with someone new was probably going to be fun. I told him, with complete sincerity, that he was a catch. 

"Really?" Jason asked, in pain.  "Do you really think so?"

Yes, I do.

Conversations with Jason are different again, now.  They are with yet another Jason.  This Jason works out constantly and looks more and more like the Marine he once was.  He tells me about girls and asks for my advice sometimes, but doesn't really need it.  Last year he asked if I'd draw another portrait for his parents.  This one was celebrating their new family.  Jason, Cal and his wonderful, supportive parents at Cal's first Packer's game.

Eff off, Jennelle.

Jason was thrilled with it and hung it in his new bachelor pad, a beautifully decorated house just right for a boy named Cal and his dad.  Jason happily pointed the portrait out to his friends at his housewarming party and introduced Joe and me like we were family.  I put together Christmas cards for him blending a photo from the game and my drawing of Lambeau on the front, and the Jason and Cal parts of his parents' drawing inside.

Jason recently had a 4th of July party and told me we needed to come.  "You'll get to meet the girl I've been telling you about!" he confided. 

We didn't make the party and I haven't met the girl yet.

She better be worthy of my friend, because he is one in a million. 

Zumpinator, out.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Coming to America

About a year after I started drawing full time, I raised my prices for the first time.  I was tired of hearing that my pencil portraits were “reasonable.”  I like money.  A lot.  I’m not interested in being a bargain.  In fact, when it comes to getting cash for my time, I’m fine with being right on the verge of rude but hopefully not obnoxious.  That's a hard balance to find sometimes.

Rome Gulliford picked up a price sheet at one of my earliest shows during the first traumatic months after I got fired from my corporate job.  For more than a year, she saved the price sheet and saved her pennies. She wanted to give her mother a special portrait of her brothers and sisters… all seven of them.

I kept my base prices the same, but after the first year, I doubled my fee for each additional subject from $25 to $50.  By the time Rome called me over a year later, the price for a seven subject portrait had increased by $175.  It was a Mother’s Day order and I was swamped.  A good business person knows when to make an exception, and when to stand firm.  If it’s pouring rain, nobody’s putting umbrellas in the clearance bin. 

Rome was crushed that she had saved so long and needed to wait until Christmas if she was going to get this portrait for her mother.  I’m not always the shrewdest business person or any other kind of person.  To her relief, I told her I would draw her portrait for the old price. 

When the portrait was complete and I heard her story, I was glad that I did.

Rome was the first person I asked to interview for my book, rather than telling the stories from memory.  She sat on the floor with me at my coffee table and we talked like old friends.  Hers was the story I meant to tell when I wrote about my mom last post, but once we ladies get started on our mothers, it's hard to stop.  Rome knows what I mean.

Rome’s mother brought her six little children to the United States from Mexico in 1975.  They had nothing but the clothes on their backs – no possessions and not a single photograph.  During the thirty plus years they’ve lived in Chicago, Rome’s mom treasured this snapshot that was taken for their visa and the six tiny photographs used for their applications for citizenship.  Times were tough and a camera was an impossible luxury.

“We came to America when I was six years old,” Rome told me.  “My mother was 27 and she already had six children, each born within a year and a half of the next.  She was technically a single parent because my father had been working in the United States as a welder for years.  When my grandmother became sick and died, my mother couldn’t bear to stay in Mexico without her.  My grandmother was only 44 years old."

Wow.  Um, I'm 45.  Just saying.  Also, what if Joey had six kids already?

“Life was so hard there," Rome went on.  "My mom had almost no education.  She was cooking for her family when she was only 7 years old.  She married my father at 18, had her first baby at 21 and also cared for her younger siblings when my grandmother got sick.  There were no washing machines, no running water.  The water for all of that laundry had to be hauled by hand from a well.  My mother had to wash clothes, dirty bedding and soiled cloth diapers on a washboard every single day, rubbing her hands raw.  She works nonstop to this day. I don’t know where she finds her energy.”

Oh Lord, no.  It still stinks.
I shivered at the thought.  I don't have the slightest idea what real labor is like.  Imagining Rome’s mother slaving away made me feel embarrassed for throwing a snit fit at the dryer stink that keeps happening.  When my friend Lauri had her kitchen redone, I thought of her as a desperate frontier woman for several months, especially since she has four kids, which is far too many for me to imagine, let alone six. 

In order to leave Mexico, Rome’s mother dreamed and saved and scrimped.  She scraped up enough from the meager money sent home from her husband to bring her six young children to America.  She joined her husband in Chicago where she knew nobody and didn’t speak a word of English. 

“My mother’s life has always been all about our family.  She never sits still - cooking, cleaning, worrying about everyone.  She was strict and protective; we were never allowed to sleep over anywhere else.  If we asked to stay at a friend’s, my mother would scold us, ‘You have your own bed, this is where you stay.  Why do you need to sleep somewhere else?'"

About eight years before I met her, Rome had returned to Mexico with her mother for the first time since they'd left.  It had been more than fifteen years. 

“Her brother was very ill,” Rome explained.  “My mom had no intention of ever going back there; she had such painful memories.  She wanted to block that part of her life.” 

Rome’s eyes glistened and she swallowed, pausing to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand.  “I don’t like to think about how my mom suffered,” she said quietly.  “I didn’t blame her for not wanting to go back.  But I told her that she might never get to see her brother again.  I told her I’d go with her, although I was nervous about how she would react to facing everything she’d gone through.

“It hurt her deeply to see that life is still so bad there.  The poverty is terrible.  There are kids running around with no shoes on gravel roads, kicking a can because they don’t have a ball.  It’s depressing.  The houses look like they are ready to be bulldozed over."

Rome looked out my window in thought.  I realized the window was pretty dirty and I felt lazy on a whole new level.

“I don’t even know how she got us all out of Mexico.  We were so little and there were so many of us.  Everyone had to walk long distances to get anywhere.  I remember my brother was sick for awhile and my mother had to take us on a long walk to the bus depot and then endure a 2 ½ hour, steamy bus ride to get to a doctor in the nearest city, all while toting two toddlers, a baby in diapers and one on the way.  And then do it all over again to get home.

“It makes me feel so lucky to have this life and so foolish for complaining about the small stuff.  I’m grateful we got out of Mexico.  And yet, at the same time, I feel bad that there are so many people who can’t get out.  They’re stuck with nothing; no resources, and no education.  They are vulnerable and na├»ve, they believe whatever they are told.  If they were better educated, maybe they could lift themselves up.”

Thoughts swirled in my head, listening to Rome, of the angry disdain some people have about immigrants in our country, despite the fact that every one of us is here because of dreams for a better life like Rome’s mother’s.  I’d heard similar stories about Mexico from our beloved Raquel, who cared for my boys back in my corporate life.  How hard she worked, how shockingly little she charged us, how absolutely devoted she was. 

 “My father goes back to Mexico at least three times a year,” Rome continued.  He brings all the donations he can cram into his van.  He is like Santa Claus.  He drives all the way there from Chicago.”

Since Rome’s story had been mostly about her mother, I wondered about her dad.  Was he still around?  I was getting the picture that perhaps they had divorced.

“No, my father was always around,” Rome said.  “But my mom was both our mother and our father.  She handled the house, our needs, our discipline, caring for us, everything.   After my father put in his 40 hours of work, he figured he was done - he’d put in his time and now he could relax.  But my mom was working just as hard and her job never ended, she never rested.  She was there for everything, attending every parent/teacher conference by herself.  My dad sat back at home, waiting for my mother’s report on what was going on.  It’s part of their culture and their generation.” 

Rome’s mother never attended school in America, there wasn’t any time or money.  But she did put herself through driving school on the sly, without her husband’s consent. 

“When we were growing up in Chicago, we dragged huge army duffle bags full of laundry up three flights of stairs, up and down with the dirty and clean clothes, to a Laundromat three blocks away.  Hispanic men like my father were too macho to drive laundry around.  My mother was tired of waiting for him to drive her, so she learned to drive without him knowing.  He probably was nervous that she’d gained that little bit of power.  She was proud to be able to go where she wanted to go.

“There was always a distance between my parents.  Between all of us, really.  From what I’ve experienced and seen in my parents’ generation, they are not very affectionate.  My mother was all business.  She held the little ones, but once we were old enough to help, we were expected to do our part, to get to work.

“In fact," Rome said, leaning forward, "I remember the first time I gave my mom a hug.  It wasn’t until I was in my twenties.  I don’t remember what prompted me to do it, but I remember making the decision and surprising myself that I was going to try.  I was so nervous getting that close to her, breaking the barrier of her busy, personal space, wondering how she would react.  She was surprised too, but she hugged me back.  While we were growing up, she showed us in many ways how she felt about us, but she never told us.  She never told us, ‘I love you,’ out loud until we were adults.  She didn’t know how; her upbringing was just so serious and hard. 

“Today, my mother is very loving with her grandchildren.  I think that the grandkids have helped her develop the ability to express her love to her own kids.  If I’m mad at my kids and my father hears me, he tells me not to yell at them.  But he always yelled at us!” 

When Rome picked up her finished portrait she was thrilled to see that the six tiny photographs her mother had lovingly saved, attached to an old piece of paper with yellowing tape, were transformed into a portrait that included their baby brother who had been born in America.  Rome’s children played with mine while she and her husband chatted with me. 

“I can’t believe Rome actually spent money on this portrait,” her husband teased.  “She’s so frugal.  I can’t ever get her to spend any money on something she wants.” 

Rome laughed.  “My mom never wants us to spend any money on her, either.  I guess I’m the same way.  She never accepts a gift without complaining about it.  She’ll want to know how much we spent on this portrait and she’ll be angry we spent it on her.  She doesn‘t like to be the center of attention and would rather focus her attention on someone else.  She’s a private person.”

Rome looked out my dirty window again and her eyes welled up.  “She was really very alone, all her life.  She never had a best friend to talk to.  She’s kept everything inside.  It wasn’t until I became an adult and I went through a divorce that I fully realized how she’s always been there for me.  I’ve gotten really close to her and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t call to see how she is doing.  I can always tell if she is bothered by something, but I have to drag it out of her before she’ll tell me.  She doesn’t know how to ask for help.

“If she tells me that her faucet is leaking, we drive the 77 miles to her house in Chicago from Wisconsin.  My husband gets frustrated sometimes because I have siblings who live near her.  But I want to be the one who is there for her.  No matter how minor it is, I feel pressure to take responsibility.  I want things my way, just like her."

Rome holds up her portrait, looking at the faces of her siblings.  “This is so beautiful.  I think she’s going to love it.”  She looks at me and gives me a big beautiful smile.  “I love my mom.  She has been through so much on her own.  I know that she’s tough, but I want her to know that she never has to go through anything by herself, ever again.”

Remind me to give my mom an extra big hug the next time she comes over.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bronze Tablets and the Golden Corral

A few years after I got canned and started drawing full time, my mother retired and offered to help me with my business.  Other than one brief nasty, wretched teenage stage, my mom and I have always been very, very close.  Remember, she's the one who told me to sleep with my future husband.

My mother has a killer mind that she can laser focus on learning or analyzing anything.  She majored in Spanish and when I was growing up, she took French and Russian and Japanese classes just for fun.  She graduated in the top 1% of her class and her name is engraved on a Bronze Tablet in the University of Illinois library.  I used to trace my fingers along her name for strength on my way to an algebra torture chamber in the library basement.  And what do you know, she did help.  Because my name ended up on the Bronze Tablet too.

My mommy is smart and I am not that much of a dumb ass.

All my life, my mother has been beyond supportive, enthusiastically appreciating us, always putting us first. My father is a complex, intense person and my mother just might have been the one and only person alive on the planet who was absolutely perfect for him.  She lifted us up when we were down, she laughed her HEAD off at our jokes and stories.  She sits in her chair at the end of her dining room table with a book, her face alight with complete interest at almost everything we have to say.  The rest of us have a scorching case of verbal diarrhea in my family and that poor woman has had A LOT to listen to. 

My mother is half intelligentsia and half Ed McMahon, often content to listen and encourage.  She's my cheerleader, my friend, my careful critic; the one who wraps me in a long hug that makes me feel loved to my very core.  I rest my head on her shoulder and sigh... her hugs drain a bit of my tension.

Families are complicated and I've got a big ole Golden Corral buffet of that going on, much of which begins and ends in my screwed up stew of a head.

Allow me to scoop up some more weird shit and big fat hurt feelings. 
I can't get enough!

No matter how twisted or sad things can occasionally get, my mom is right there to promise that all will be well.  Life just doesn't get under her skin the way it does for me.  I sulk at my half empty glass of wine while my mom happily sips her half full manhattan.  Let's drink to being more like my mom.  If only.

Before my mom retired, I spent every spare stolen moment at my parents' house, which is 2.6 miles from mine.  Once the kids were fed, I couldn't get there fast enough to talk to my mom and tell her every random thing I did or thought or heard or saw.  She'll let me prattle on endlessly.

Once she started coming over to help me with my work, things changed a little.  As much as I find joy in drawing something that is precious to someone, my work can be stressful.  There is so much detail involved in finding the work, preparing the layout (which can combine more elements than you'd think), adjusting the final drawing to the client's satisfaction and managing to get paid for it.  I can pretty much throw a fit and lose my shit at any point during the process.  God freaking forbid something goes wrong with my computer or printer, it's full metal jacket panic spiral time.  I used to have my little mental breakdowns on my own, but once my mommy was here regularly, I had an audience.  On one hand, she can be wonderfully soothing, stroking my shoulder and making sympathetic noises.  On the other hand, she's a mom.  And no matter how glorious your mom is, there are stressful times in your life when the LAST thing you want is your MOM "helping". 

That's okay, really, I've got it, Mom.
Over the last four or five years, I've tried to work through some of my crap, trying to adjust my own stubborn negativity and protectiveness of my nest and routine.  Sometimes I've had to outright ask my mom to give me space, like when she used to chime in when I dealt with a crabby kid's attitude.  She used to keep me company in the morning while I put layouts together, watching over my shoulder and occasionally pointing things out.  This was not my favorite.  But I know she really, really wants to help.  And if she saw something that needed adjustment, was she supposed to just sit there and say nothing?  Unfortunately for her, I had to say yes.  And she really tries.  We've never had to filter ourselves when we are together, but I needed to protect our relationship.  Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, but it can make me testy.  Most, if not all of my mother's suggestions are helpful in theory; they just aren't helpful to my variable mental health.  I have watched just about every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and I know I'm not alone in this.

When my mom arrives at my house each day, it is my cue to quit farting around on the computer.  At first, it was because she would take over and work on a list of stuff I'd compiled.  Later, it was because it was time to go watch a movie together while I draw.  In some ways, it was helpful with my schedule as otherwise, I wouldn't have one.  I am never done with the computer, because I have ADD and I am constantly distracted, which is inconvenient due to the invention of the internet.  I should be doing real work, but instead, I'm probably sniffing around your Facebook vacation photos or writing long emails to my college friends.  When my mom would arrive, I'd get a jolt of work-guilt that I started to associate with her.  Now she calls before she comes and I can tell her to give me a little more time to work, or stalk people or add songs to my ipod shuffle (you know I'm too cheap for a real one.)  My goal is to force myself to stop in time to have lunch with her, at the latest.

I draw my pencil portraits in the corner of my bedroom and my mom has a big comfy chair up there that my dad and my husband Joe bought her for Mother's Day. We have probably watched more movies together in a month than some people see in a year or more.  We love movies and take turns watching our respective Netflix arrivals.  This is the sweet spot of the day with my mom.  We pause the movie to tell each other things we forgot to say or to try and figure out where we've seen an actor or who would have been better for the role.  I almost always remember to put the captions on for her.  I did need to work it out with her that she should leave the room when Joe gets home so he doesn't have to change in the closet.  These things just took awhile to figure out.

In the very beginning, my mom was at my house up to five days a week, from mid morning until dinner time.  My friends would gasp in horror, shaking their heads at the thought.  That's just too much mom for most people.  Now it's more like three days.  I've been really busy with back to back art shows so the last couple weeks were less.

As much as I love having my dear mom's company, I miss the days when I couldn't wait to rush to her house.  I'd get away from the demands of my work and my family and my mom would be waiting there to throw her head back and laugh with me.  We'd talk and talk and drink wine together.  It was a break from the routine for me.  Plus I never felt more special than when I was with with my mom.  She listens with such love and pays me such amazing, personal compliments, I'd feel shy sharing most of them.  She thinks I'm a good mom.  I could never be the rock that she is.  Now I get so much time with her, I don't have much left to say when she's not here.  If I do, I call her and tell her.  Things feel different now since we're always at my house.  It never gets to be about just the two of us anymore, our time is also about running my business and being a mom myself and fighting my losing battle not to be a complete slob.

When we're not together, I feel my mom waiting for me to call her and tell her to come over. I feel like I let her down a little bit when I don't. She's given me her love and support so unconditionally, so wholeheartedly. She just wants to spend time with me. My mom has never been a needy person. She's very introspective and is content with a great book and my father to talk to. My parents keep to themselves and they don't socialize very much. Sometimes I feel a lot of pressure to make sure my mom is getting the attention from me she deserves.  I can't predict my own schedule and we're both at the mercy of my lack of discipline. When I hear the loving hope in her voice over the phone and I've got five hundred things to do, it's hard.

I'm ridiculously lucky to have such a great mom.  Someone commented about her on my last blog entry...

I wish I could get you a mom like mine, Karen Holtkamp.  I am spoiled rotten.  And yet I'm just not as patient with her as I should be.  I snap at her when she crosses one of my changing, shifting boundaries.  I don't want her to talk to me about certain things that most hurt my heart, and yet sometimes I need to talk to her about it.  I don't get the chance to miss my mom and sometimes I miss missing her.  Which is really an awfully greedy thing. 

Mommy, thank you for putting up with my emotional roller coasters and my short fuse.  Thank you for being there for everything and anything.  When you love someone so much, we're responsible for each other.  You handle your responsibilities with such grace, and I handle mine kicking and screaming and muttering and swearing.  I feel like before, when we weren't together so much, you didn't have to see the worst in me.  You just saw the daughter who was always so very eager to be with you.  I hope you can forgive the moments when I take you for granted or when I need some space or when you witness yet another childish panic fit.

I'd be lost without you.