Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Left: Ralph V. Smith, a.k.a. King Arthur
Every summer our quiet south side parish would be invaded by a caravan of rusty metal trailers plastered in graffiti art, proclaiming the names of such rides as “The Zipper,” “Tilt-A-Whirl,” and “Amour Express.” On the nights leading up to our annual church carnival, my sisters and I would sit and watch doo-ragged men manipulate sharp, pointy rods as they slipped them gracefully into other mangles of metal, until a strange and magical city rose up from an empty parking lot. As the sun would set, a gaudy silhouette emerged, a moveable skyline that would come to symbolize more than five days of childhood fun. For me, it was a time to observe my father in his natural habitat: a place where his imagination turned inside out, allowing us to see his creative genius in an incandescent, cotton candy dream. 
* * *
The last night of the carnival always felt like the end of the world. The stench of stale beer and caramel corn would waft over the late July breeze as feet crunched over plastic cups and torn tickets chucked by ride attendants. The skee ball game adjacent to the church hall doors would blink its lights on and off and then go black as though whispering a final “good night.”

The year of the medieval faire was probably the hardest. It was around midnight, and my friends had
been called home hours before. I, on the other hand, had remained, knowing my father was somewhere nearby. Wandering aimlessly across the blacktop, I stopped to take in the towering skyline, distorted now from already-disassembled chunks. 

“Daddy,” I called out, spotting him engaged in lively conversation with the red-faced ferris wheel operator. “I think you’re my ride.”

My father turned and waved at me with his sly, contagious grin, lifting his white plastic cup to acknowledge me. I studied him in that moment, his blue eyes a dazzling contrast to his tanned face and full white beard. He was still clad in the King Arthur costume he’d donned for the occasion, roaming the faire grounds to perpetuate the illusion. 

He kept talking to the ferris wheel guy, laughing to the point of his characteristic cough. 

“Daddy,” I said again. 
“Yes, my Christina.”
“Are we going home?”

He looked at his watch and mouthed silently, “Five more minutes.”

Knowing that “five more minutes” actually meant something else, I wandered toward the back end of the beer garden that was bordered by a high bamboo fence to keep out the teenagers. I glanced past it, hoping that Jameson Byrne might still be floating around. Earlier that night, he’d walked past me and said, “Hey” as he ran his fingers through his long, dark mop of messy hair. My friend Sandie had nudged my side, and said, “Chrissy, say something!” But I was so stunned all I could manage was a soft gurgling sound akin to a burp. At the ripe old age of twelve, I was convinced that I would marry that mop of hair, that we were somehow destined to be together, our tongues locked in a love affair bound by fate. The fact that Jameson was blissfully unaware of his own destiny made little difference to me; it simply bolstered my determination to bring it to his attention.

No sign of my future husband at the moment, I glanced back at the bamboo fence and smiled. To me, this paltry barrier meant nothing because my dad was Ralph Smith, ruler of all he surveyed. Whenever I wanted, I could tell the policemen demanding IDs at the entrance that I was Ralph Smith’s daughter, and I would be granted admission to the dense crowds stumbling about to the “Beer Barrel Polka.”  At that time, my interest in the beer garden had less to do with beer and more to do with the garden--a stinky swell of colorful characters who towered above me like beautiful, beer-swilling giants. Once the cops had slid us in, my friends and I would scissor our way through bodies to get to the stage where my father was hamming it up, and then we’d sneak into the school, which, during carnival time, morphed into a rip-roaring casino. We’d marvel at the classrooms where we took spelling tests and recited multiplication tables, now filled with poker tables and spinning wheels whose clackety-clack would elicit either groans of displeasure or shrieks of delight. Inside the classrooms, each step swooshed up a flurry of losing pull-tabs, like autumn leaves awaiting the inevitable rake. With each swoosh came the lingering hope that one, just one, might have been mistakenly discarded. Cherry, cherry…oh! 

Self-portrait in the crowd, At the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse Lautrec
As the night went on, the harsh classroom light would cast an eerie glow. I'd stare at the faces of teachers and parishioners who, on a regular day, made us write book reports and pray together in church. In this moment, though, they would suddenly freeze under the lights, a tableau vivant of reality and imagination. A Toulouse-Lautrec rendering of Parisian nightlife filled with shadowy silhouettes. 

This was the secret world where I secretly wished I could live, and that was because of my father. To outsiders, he may have been the guy who painted the signs at a church carnival but to me, my father was a Knight of the Round Table, a gentleman, a warrior. 

A king. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Another Kind of Place

A hazy sun rises slowly above a line of cypress and palm. Sweet, moist air nestles into my nose. A gangly white egret dips its beak into a placid lake while the only sound is the hum of leftover crickets.

This is a typical morning in Naples, Florida, mornings my mother and I have been lucky enough to enjoy together with Cindy. We flew down a week or so ago and have been living a grand adventure in this beautiful place. 

We’ve been beach bums, wading in the Gulf; ladies who lunch at elegant waterside caf├ęs; dinner cruise passengers, “approached” by septuagenarian millionaires (yes, this totally happened!); and best of all, friends who stayed up late chatting like giddy school girls. 

My mother and I needed this.

Since my father passed away in January, life has been different, to say the least. The everyday awareness of his absence affects us all differently--for some it is a dull, vague denial, (simply because that makes it easier); for others, like me, the thought of his sparkling blue eyes and mischievous grin tightens my stomach and stings the back of my eyes until tears inevitably come. 

Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers, lost her husband suddenly. Describing the void left behind, she wrote that “Grief turns out to be a place,” and this is true. Grief becomes the place in which we live. The place where we wake up, brew our coffee, savor its aroma, and sip its warmth. But in the land of grief we do all of this alone, missing the person who once sat next to us during these daily rituals. 

Of course, that is where family and friends become our saviors. We surround ourselves with hubbub, hoping to find a livable oblivion where lunch dates, phone chats, and birthday parties will help us forget. 

Thankfully, they do. Friends like Cindy give us another kind of “place” to escape to for a while, where swaying palm fronds lull us into a comfortable daze. But there is no real escape from grief, for eventually we need to accept the loss and move on. So yes, grief is a place, but hopefully acceptance is, too. 

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 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.