Saturday, April 5, 2014

Concrete Camelot

I became a teacher because I loved books. Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. These were the titles that lined the white wood bookshelves of my childhood home on the southwest side of Chicago. And not the southwest side featured on the local evening news filled with gunshots, crying children, and gangs.  Though my family would eventually endure our own brand of tragedy, our neighborhood, Archer Heights, was more than a mere distance from the north side; it was its own universe--a mythical kingdom inhabited by artists, Irish Catholics, and old Polish men who took their lawns as seriously as they drank their Tyskie. There was a pride that permeated 4828 South Keating, and the reason I knew that was because my parents embodied it. They instilled in me and my six siblings the idea that an address did not dictate success, but rather that success could happen anywhere. For the first 21 years of my life, that “anywhere” was a tiny red brick bungalow.
In that brick bungalow is where I found my sense of place, specifically on four bunk beds through which I rotated with my four older sisters. We were a party of five in a basement room with only four beds. I remember sharing this childhood detail with a former teacher colleague of mine who replied, “Wow, sounds fantastically Dickens-esque.”  While some might have interpreted this remark as an insult, I never did, simply because it was those nightly rotations that created a sort of internal clock: Prayers with Jennifer on the top bunk, (Now I lay me down to sleep); down below, twin bed turf wars with Susie who needed more room to sprawl out; across the adjoining headboard, games of “bicycle” with Becky during which we’d lie at opposite ends of the bed so that our bare feet touched and rotated as though riding my pink Sweet Thunder; then there was Claudia, my silly big sister who, like Jennifer, the noble one, would say prayers with me. “Now we need to kiss our hands all over,” she’d explain. So we would smooch our hands, clenched in fists, until it was time to reach them palm to palm towards God, letting them fall into a Jesus-like stance, hands upturned in surrender. The only problem was that I always lay on the inside of the bed, so my right hand would stop cold at the wall beside me while Claudia’s left would drift down over the edge like an autumn leaf. 
These nightly rituals became my life’s rhythm. Happy one night, tortured the next. Siblings can do that, I guess. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?

My heart is broken. Literally, it doesn’t work.
At least not until last Thursday when I went into the hospital for a procedure meant to cure the old ticker.
Here’s how it went: I’m lying on the table, cold white stickers all over my body to monitor my heart rate and other things. 
“You’ll be awake during the procedure,” the nurse informs me. “You knew that, right?”
Dr. Marvelous injects the area of entry, numbing the region until it feels like ice. 
“Cold, then a flush of heat,” he says. “Now, the pressure.”
Suddenly, there is a wire in my groin, inching past my intestines on its way up to my broken heart. Above me is a futuristic TV screen the length of a football field, displaying the surreal imagery. I avert my eyes for a second but can’t look away from the long, hot wire bobbing around my insides like a fishing lure atop a sunlit lake.
“Is that my heart?” I ask the nurse. 
“I can feel it,” I tell her. “I can feel the catheter.”
“Just try to relax,” she says.
But I can’t relax. I close my eyes to avoid the image of my beating heart, but I can still feel the wire beneath my skin, poking at my heart like a fork. 
I keep crying to the nurse, telling her that I can’t breathe, but there’s nothing they can do; I have to be awake for the procedure to work. Still, I know they wish that I would shut the hell up. 
At what feels like a distance away, the doctor is directing his wires through my body. Another doctor is in the “control booth,” overseeing each wire’s every move. 
“Is everything okay?” I ask faintly. 
“Yes,” the doctor manages. 
“I still can’t breathe!”
“We’ll give you some more medication,” the nurse whispers.
“Thank God.”
Soon I drift off into happy-frosting-cupcake land, my brain a silky glaze of chocolate ganache. 
“We need to approach the central conduction center,” Dr. Marvelous announces. But I can barely hear him, for my brain is happily busy licking the bowl. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Whole Love

Jeff Tweedy and the boys at The Metro

Adam and I went to see our favorite band Wilco a couple of weeks ago. The name of their new album is The Whole Love, a phrase that resonates with the vulnerable part of my soul, the part that risks pain for the promise of love.
What an idea, huh?  A "whole love"...what does that even mean? I'd like to think it means that we can forgive and be forgiven for our deepest flaws, that we can be loved despite our demons.
I guess that's something to aspire to.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"April is the cruelest month." -T.S. Eliot

Adam and I awoke to a foreign feeling...a feeling so strange that we couldn’t quite place its origin. 
Had we felt it before? Yes, but where? Certainly not in the cheerless gloom that shrouds our beautiful city this time of year. 
And then it came to us: Spring!
Right now it is 75 degrees and sunny--a marvel if one considers that until today, it seemed that spring was a thing of the past. A memory caught in a crumpled photograph of my siblings and me in our Easter attire--holding baskets as big as our bodies, smiling grandly at the prospect of chocolate bunny ears after the obligation of church. My sisters and I are in little spring dresses and shiny patent leather sandals. In the background, daffodils trumpet their yellowy cheer while tulips lean lazily in their beds.
Ah, spring...
Like beauty, like love, it will wane.
“O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!”
                             -William Shakespeare,
                               The Two Gentleman of Verona

Saturday, February 5, 2011

From Abstract to Concrete

I called my mother at around 9:30 last night.
“Mom,” I said. “I’d like to write about Daddy.”
We talked for a half hour or so; I mostly listened.
“Do you know what your father said to me on our first date?” she snickers.
“Didn’t he say...”
“He said, ‘What does the mass mean to you?’”
Not knowing my father, you might think he was some sort of Jesus freak or something, but really, my father was a devout Catholic, a late-in-the-game convert who had a genuine faith in God that I still can’t fathom. 
To put it in context, my father grew up poor in an old Chicago neighborhood with his mother, brother, and older sister. For some reason, he was the only one of his siblings not to be baptized. Somehow, though, in the service he befriended a fellow draftee who would introduce him to the faith and become his godfather.
“Gosh, I can’t for the life of me remember his name,” my mother says a half hour into our chat. “He was such a good friend of Daddy’s.”
Though baptized in the service, my dad did not become a practicing catholic until he met a priest at St. Rose of Lima Church where he'd had a job designing bulletin covers that went out to several other Chicago parishes. It was in the kitchen of that church’s rectory that my father would meet Mary Lou Davis, his future wife, who just happened to be both the organist and music teacher at St. Rose. 
“It was because of your father that I became who I was,” my mother says. “His faith kept me involved in the church.”
A few minutes after I hang up the phone, my sister calls me to give me the name my mother couldn’t recall. 
“We knew it started with a G and had a ‘ski’ at the end,” she says all aquiver. “Mom thought you’d want to know.”
I did want to know the name, but here’s what I really want to know: I want to know how people back in the day had a faith like my father’s. I want to understand the kind of faith, or, in the very least, the connection to a church that drove my father’s sister and her husband to go to St. Rose’s when it was being demolished and to take home the concrete slab that bore the name of their church. My mother told me that Aunt Betty still has that concrete slab, and I don’t know why but I was surprised by it--the way a person can be so moved by the demolition of a church as to seek a remembrance of it. 
My father designed the stained glass windows of St. Richard’s Catholic Church, windows that some parishioners disdained for their abstract representations, the windows my evil first-grade teacher disliked so much they made her "look the other way.”
Hmmm. Where’s a concrete slab when you need one?

Photos: Ralph V. Smith stained glass windows at St. Richard's Church, Chicago, Il.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Growing Up Smith

Imagine a childhood so rich it makes your memory feel full. A childhood so full of music, laughter, and art that you wonder if you’ll ever be able to replicate it with your own children some day. 
That was my childhood. And it’s because I was raised by Ralph and Mary Lou. 
My father was an artist. I say “was” because he’s no longer able to create. But when he was still healthy he’d create elaborate signs for every birthday, baptism, and communion party, not just for his seven children but for all of our family and friends, as well. 
Our Christmas cards were Broadway productions. Ralph and Mary Lou would build a set and we kids would be dressed up as sugarplum fairies or, in my case, Rudolph. 
Yeah, we had fun. 
My dad was a genius. He designed the stained glass windows for our church. His faith combined with his genius equalled art like few people in our parish had ever seen. 
That was my dad. 
My mom is a pianist and used to sing in the opera. But she loved show tunes and Frank Sinatra, too. So every Saturday as kids, my siblings and I would find ourselves dusting window ledges or wiping the bathroom toilet while humming Puccini or perhaps something from Camelot. 
It was a great way to grow up. The Smith way.
That’s why it's a strain on my heart to see my father the way he is now: thinner, hunched over, his blue eyes not nearly as bright.  The one thing that gave him his genius has been erased like a wrong answer. 
Alzheimer’s can do that to a person. It’s been eight years now since my father was diagnosed. He still knows my name but always states it as a question, searching my eyes and the contours of my face to make sure he’s got it right:
“Are you...Christina?”
“And your last name is Smith.”
That last line he speaks declaratively, like it's something he knows for sure.
“Yep. My last name is Smith.”
“Your name is Christina Smith,” he repeats.
We say the next part together, every time.
“Christina Smith. That’s it. Fort Pitt!”
And then we laugh hysterically, my Dad’s old laugh, the real one. I have no idea what “Fort Pitt” is, but I don’t care. The rhyming sounds help him remember me. 
Thank God he still remembers me. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Days Part II: A Very Merry Chris Smith!

Adam and I are hosting his family’s Christmas gathering for the first time. The last time most of them were at our apartment we had no furniture and served cheeseburgers and hot dogs on the grill. 
This time it’ll be crown roast, my famous mashed potatoes and my grandmother’s totally-made-from-scratch-stuffing (if I can get it right!). 
When I told my family about our hosting gig, they did what they normally do whenever I say “Adam’s family.”
They started singing, “The Addams Family. Buh-da-da-dum. Snap-snap...” Nothing derogatory, of course. That's just how maniacally silly we are.
But I digress...
Truth be told, I’m sort of a Christmas crazy person, so I really can’t wait. We'll have a fire, maybe sing Christmas carols while Adam and I play guitar. Yeah, the stockings with our initials are beyond cheesy but I still love them more than you’ll ever know.