Mementos 7: The Joy of Family, Stories of David
[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]
JoAnn held an annual Thanksgiving dinner for all of us expatriates (many from Los Angeles) without a Chicago family, where her legendary brownies were nearly matched by stacks of home baked pies and, of course, a huge turkey. It was a family get-together for many engaged in political work, an opportunity to share conversation, watch a movie or a football game, and chat with Nelson and Sue. In the summer of 1991 Sue had finally broken through my anxiety and persuaded me to take Diana out to coffee, then to dinner. In the early fall I went first to Ann Arbor for the Great Lakes Booksellers Association meeting, and from there to Waterloo, Ontario to visit Greta. There I confided in her what a wonderful person Diana was, and how I hoped she would get to think I was too. By November I was ready to ask her to join my Chicago revolutionary family (many of whom she already knew). Courtney came with us, and this is the first photo I have of us together.
Taking Diana home one night, late, we stopped at her apartment and noticed a homeless woman in front of the building across the street. We talked with her for a while and then I walked Diana to her front door. On the way home she had warned me that we should go slowly, be careful. I agreed, and then I kissed her good night. Later that December, close to Christmas, Diana got a call from her first husband, Matt, who was in crisis with their son David, and wanted to send him to Chicago immediately. The fact that I didn’t run the other way as soon as I found out convinced Diana that we should plunge ahead and we were living together in our own apartment in South Evanston in March of 1992.
At one stroke I had two teen children, without ever having to go through diapers.
David, younger than Courtney, came to us from his dad as an unaccompanied child from Washington, D.C. Diana was working three part-time jobs at the time, jobs that were inflexible in her hours, while I could get away from the bookstore. So when we found out David was coming, I drove out to O’Hare to pick David up. Airplane staff were making him as comfortable as possible for a child who must have felt as unwanted as anyone could. And then there I was, someone he did not know, had never seen and would quickly resent for taking his father’s place. On my part I could not figure out what I would say when I met David.
I’ve told Diana that one thing I am grateful for is that without the experience with David and Courtney, I would never have experienced family, all that it means, its joys and its pains, and of course grandchildren with those joys and pains. I will not hide the fact that there have been a lot of pains, but those pains are life, and these pictures, while recording the pleasure, still bring to my mind the dark side of pleasure as well.
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In June of 1992 Diana and I woke up one morning and decided it would be a good day to visit the marriage court. For our honeymoon we took David camping, the first of many, to Door County, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Traverse City Michigan in search of the perfect cherry pie during Cherry Festival, into Wisconsin across the Mississippi to Minnesota and Iowa, across Michigan to Waterloo, Ontario to visit Greta.
In September Diana and I celebrated our marriage with friends and family at Margate Park. Then, in winter after the Xmas rush of the bookstore, we had our usual post holiday party, this time at Nancy Singham’s apartment, where Joyce and Nancy presented us with a special map to find our way back from cloud nine. We have never needed the map.
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This Story Begins . . . [I wrote this after meeting David for the first time]
The little brown-skinned boy standing in front of me is David. I’m in the children-who-came-alone section of the American Airlines terminal at O’Hare. It’s June of 1992. David is 11. David came 12 hours earlier than expected. The airport, unable to reach Diana, finally three hours later found me, sitting at my desk. Perhaps I was laughing with Nancy Singham about some funny newspaper article. Perhaps I was having a late lunch. Maybe I was doing something important that bookstore owners are supposed to do: worrying about making payroll this week; buying new books to restock shelves; planning author readings to bring more people into the store; telephoning a local homeless organization planning a major event to publicize their new poetry chapbook. Perhaps I was taking a nap.
The telephone call woke me, whatever I was doing. In minutes I had left a message for Diana and was out the door, to the last minute borrowed car, to the airport. Diana came shortly thereafter. But the first face he saw, that knew who he was, was mine. So I introduced myself: My name is Lew. And that’s when this story begins.
David is Diana’s and Matt’s son. The story began then. Twelve years earlier, or maybe more, maybe genetically more, or maybe the homunculus paradox defies a beginning. Perhaps, where the story “begins” is a semantic blind alley. And now I begin to question why I’m searching for the beginning in the first place. It’s convenient to draw a line and say: “My story begins here.”
But even my story with David doesn’t really begin here, at the airport. Maybe it began with my first real consciousness that Diana had children. Maybe the first night, in my apartment, when Diana spoke to Matt under his threat to send David to her on the next plane the very next day.
But, I ask myself, if I begin this story here, at one of the various stages of getting to know David that I experienced, am i cutting out a whole wedge of David’s existence?I think it might be fairer to tell the story beginning with David in second grade; with David starting fires; with David breaking his arm riding a bicycle and not telling anyone. I never met those Davids.
But the small, brown-skinned boy staring at me, into me, silently reading me at the airport is a David who developed out of the Davids to whom I’ve alluded. And now begins our story.
I didn’t exactly appear at the airport a tabella rasa, a blank slate. I came a 50 year old, recently-married-for-the-second-time-man. I came a man who despaired of having a “family” — children to raise for example. I came a recently divorced man, yearning to complete his life. I stumbled to the airport, awkward, realizing that I was about to meet a young man who knew nothing about me, except that I had (at least) intercepted his mother in her already estranged relationship with her former husband. I reasoned that he must feel that it was my fault that Diana and Matt could not reconcile. I stepped into that holding area acutely aware of the concern and anguish that must be coursing through David’s mind about how we abandoned him. I stepped into the holding area filled with hope, with optimism, with fear and uncertainty. Worrying: do I shake hands as in a formal introduction? do I hug this frightened stranger? Should my first words be: “Don’t worry, Diana is on her way”?
And that’s when I said, “Hello, my name is Lew.”
Since then, since David and I stared at each other and made a halting approach at each other, made a handshake and a welcome, we’ve played a little game together. From my side of the game board, call it “I wonder what he’s thinking.” Sometimes the game expresses genuine curiosity, as in “I’d like to get inside his head and look out. I wonder how I would see the world.” Sometimes the game expresses my anxiety, as in “I hope I haven’t made him hate me.” Sometimes in frustration, “I want to get inside his head because I can’t understand how he could possibly have done what he did.” Sometimes my game bursts beyond the rules, out of bounds of mere thought: red-faced, knit-brow, gnashed teeth anger, my hands tremble with fear of what David might do, what I might do.
This story is a way to approach learning to live with all the complex Davids that confront me. About David’s fears and about my fears. David’s love and mine. David gave me these stories, surely as he gave his life into our hands. In that exchange, the stories became mine to discover, and as I discover them, I give them to you.
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Chopping Vegetables [Written 3 or 4 years later, when David was at Sullivan High School and we lived across the street from the school on North Shore and Greenview. David had been out all night and not returned home.]
In a new book called Blue Jelly, the author writes of her sense of loss and finding solace in the task of canning fruit. I stand at the window chopping vegetables. A catalpa tree now shades my third floor kitchen window. It’s almost a fourth floor apartment, and “now” because a month ago I questioned if the tree still lived. This is our first spring in this apartment. Catalpas sprout leaves later than most trees. And so, when in mid May little green nodes appeared on the bare twigs, we opened a bottle of wine and celebrated. But today David did not return home. This story is about David. Every story is about David.
I stand at the window next to the sink chopping vegetables with a Chinese cleaver. The zen of salad-making soothes the agitated soul. Each vegetable requires a different kind of stroke and preparation.You don’t strip the fibrous strings from a celery stick the same way you strip the strings from a pea pod. Cutting a tomato and a cucumber are sensual, but in different ways. Have you ever, for example, watched the sticky sap from a cut cucumber attempt to bind the wound?
I stand at my third floor kitchen window, chopping vegetables, looking at the green world below and around, listening to the birds singing in the catalpa.Today again the robin carols. Yesterday, perhaps some finches. At another time a cardinal gave its shrill call. The zen of salad making is more than the art of chopping. I lose myself each day in the sounds and visions surrounding this apartment, sometimes dreaming, other times dreading. Today I notice the cottonwoods are shedding delicate bolls to the gentle breeze’s play. Today I notice buds on the catalpa trees. The spring succession of blossoms proceeds, and soon the trees will leaf out to their fullest. Tulip trees have yet to blossom.
My window, that I stand at chopping vegetables, opens into the embrace of catalpa branches. Once a short time ago they were bare. Then the twigs took on a green tinge as tiny buds emerged. They became small, barely noticeable leaves. That they would ever become the kind of leaf you would imagine one could roll cigars in — well, that would be a miracle. Of course one doesn’t roll cigars in catalpa leaves. And in mid June they haven’t reached that size, yet. But it is a miracle.
I stand at my window wondering what is a miracle, really. Another new book The Bible Code claims to analyze the Bible mathematically to come up with predictions. It’s author is an intellectual twin of the modern day mystic who claims to see the Virgin Mary’s image in the light reflected through spilled corn oil on a kitchen window sill not unlike mine.
An old story haunts me.
It’s 1970. I have a real job. I get to take a vacation, for the first time. I drive up to Vancouver from Los Angeles, along the breath-taking coast much of the way. After camping inland on the Russian River one day, I head north around historic Fort Ross and pick up three hitch-hikers: a man and woman in their early twenties and their young child, perhaps three years old. We rode together through redwood country. I had a harmonica with me that I’d hoped to learn something about. With company in the car, I talked instead about the miracle of redwood trees. That they even existed seemed a miracle to me, even with my scientific training. This young man would have nothing to do with miracles. Science, he said, explains everything. This between choruses of a song played frequently on the radio, Neil Young crooning “Down by the river, I shot my baby.”
Perhaps it was a miracle that we survived that moment, camped by the Trinity River, he, his partner, their child, and I. To this day I wonder if he “shot his baby” later. And which was his “baby,” mother or child? That the redwoods survive may also be a miracle. One miracle that did not happen: I did not get to know my harmonica.
I stand at the window chopping vegetables for a salad that I believe will be miraculous. It will be filled with red and green peppers, red and green leaf lettuce, jicama, tomatoes, celery, pea pods, walnuts, cucumber, green onions, cilantro, carrot, for and perhaps mushrooms.
Standing at my window, I assert that I do believe in miracles. They are not the reflections-in-the-corn-oil kind though. That the catalpa leaf grows like it does. That red and green peppers have such different tastes. That bok choy tastes so clean. That David will return home. That things grow and develop, sometimes even in spite of what is done to them. Sometimes in spite of what they do to themselves.
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In 2016, David is no longer the small boy at the airport, and I’m glad to say I feel a certain ease with him that I’ve never felt before. He and his partner Jeni have left Green Bay and moved in with us while they look for an apartment.