“Time passes much too quickly, when we’re together laughing…” Chicago, “Beginnings

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When I was a girl, my father would say from time to time: “my life has gone by so quickly.” I would look at him, just little, and wonder what he meant, and how that could be. I could not relate. Some people say that time goes more slowly for the young, when all the years stretch out beyond, when growing up is something to be yearned for and in the yearning, of course, time passes slowly. But my memory is of that question or wondering that was in me when I heard my father reflect. Later, he would quote again and again, this verse: “A thousand years is but a day in the eyes of the Lord.” Apparently, my beloved dad did not stop thinking about the passage of time.

Just last evening, I was telling a new friend about some of the favorite days of my life.  Those days were on my visits to Milwaukee to see my mother, after I had moved to the Bay Area of California.  My mother lived in a small upper floor apartment on a busy street close to the center of Milwaukee, and I would stay in the cramped second bedroom, the noise of the busy thoroughfare keeping me awake nights.

Both mom and I were “Milwaukee girls.”  We had grown up in the flats that line the streets of poor and working class neighborhoods of the North Side.  Those flats are there, still.

We knew the streets, the bus lines, the parks, and we knew the sense of small town-ness that Milwaukee cherished for a long time.  We knew the particular kind of diversity of that place – the streets where Eastern European communities lived, the place where the Italians built their church, now a Cathedral to welcome the Bishop from Rome.  We knew the part of town where people from Mexico came to live among others who spoke their native language.  We knew how to navigate to new places, too, in that city laid out in a grid.  I have never understood how to find new places in new places, new cities.  How can addresses not make sense, like they do in Chicago and Milwaukee, a small Chicago?

On my visits to see Mom, before the dementia took her away from me, we set aside a day to “do Milwaukee.”  After coffee and breakfast, we backed her car out of the garage and onto the busy street.   We had no particular plan, except to explore some new places, to make our way to the Milwaukee Art Center at some point, to have lunch out, and maybe to do a bit of shopping along the way.  I loved those small adventures.  I loved the fun we had together:  “that’s the fun of it!” was one of my mother’s expressions.

On one adventure, we discovered again a small section of town filled with Ukrainian immigrants.  My mother’s first language was Ukrainian, and so we ventured into a small bakery, a store-front, and she stumbled to say a few words to the man behind the counter.  He understood, all right, and soon we found ourselves in another cramped space, the family’s living room, complete with an altar adorning a corner.  They were Ukrainian Catholics, and a candle burned in that corner, lighting up the features of the Virgin Mary, her eyes cast down, her blue gown ending at her bare feet, on a sphere covered with stars.

On another adventure, I gazed at my mother as she gazed at one of her favorite paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Wood Gatherer, by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  Later, Mom told me her wonderings about the scene that painting depicted, her own story fleshing out the art.   I still own a print of that painting.

One day at lunch we found ourselves in an old Italian neighborhood for an Italian lunch, another at a Jewish deli across from a synagogue.

As the years passed, it was harder and harder for mom to enjoy those days, until the last time we set out.  Of course, we did not know it was the last time, but something had changed.  We returned home to her apartment right after lunch.  Soon enough, I’d have to move Mom out of her apartment and into assisted living in the Bay Area, a move which she made bravely and with great trust.

I suppose some part of me thought those adventures would go on forever, that those times when we laughed and remembered and noticed would not end.  But all times end.  Now, those days are distant memories, and I continue to cherish them as some of my favorite times.

Here, I find myself years later, remembering those small adventures, remembering the tilt of Mom’s head as she laughed, remembering the narrow streets we knew so well, remembering driving her blue Tercel all over the city we loved.  I’m in the memory time for so many people I have loved, so many experiences, so many grievances that had filled my life over the years.    All of those beloved people, all of those rich days are a memory, now.

 

 

Who we are is there, all along.

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As I enter the journey to the elder years, I seem to be myself more than ever.
In the shedding of what was not me – what was given to me by others, to shape me into who they would have me be – I become, every day, more myself.  And even though, in the living of life, I wondered if I was being true to myself, I see now that I have only come back – through the shedding of others’ image of me – to me.  To me!  To me!

I have vivid memories of being a young girl – 8 or 9 – playing alone in my first bedroom of my own.  The small bedroom was at the back of the flat, a narrow window overlooking the city backyard and the alley.  To the right of the window, adjacent, was the dark wooden door of the small closet – my own!  The narrow Jenny Lind bed – second-hand, my mother had refinished the wood to a deep cherry – was to the right of the closet, its foot at the door when I entered from the kitchen of that narrow flat.  I had room for a desk – plain wood stained to match the bed, directly ahead of the room’s entry, to the left.

I still like to play alone!  An introvert, I have often had extroverted work in my life, and I’ve had a need to rest – alone.  In my memory, I play at being a teacher, in that small, dark room. .  First of all, I make up files for each of the students in my class.  I use the names of real classmates, to be sure, and I file them in the deep filing drawer of the desk on the left.  I alphabetize the files, too.

I still do that first, in any job, in any endeavor.  I get organized, my pencils in order in the zipper case, books lined up and even.  I like to have my files in order.

Then, I stand to face the class – the full-length mirror – a luxury! – that graces the back of the door.  I teach.

I suppose I have always been a teacher.  Always.  I emulated the teachers I knew from school, imagining them, how they dressed, how they walked back and forth, how they projected their voices, to teach.  They were my models to another life, another path, a reality I did not know in that flat, but that beckoned to me, by purpose, by expectation, by education, which I would have to learn how to traverse, step by step.  Sometimes, I had role models – like those teachers in their navy and white polka-dotted dresses – and sometimes, I did not.  Sometimes, I made the path up on my own.

Though shy as a young person, it has never been difficult for me to speak to a group.  I discovered that in high school, when we were privileged to have forensic societies in my large urban school.  For me, those privileges of public education in the 1950’s and 1960’s began to shape my life.  What teacher could have imagined that shy girl, big green eyes taking in every movement, every word, challenged by new ideas, would make her life as a speaker, a preacher, a teacher of the inner life?

What did those teachers see in each one of us, some of us hungry to learn, some of us not able to speak a word out loud in class, some of us abused at home, some of us hungry – for food, and for knowing?  What did they see – and not see?

Now I see that the gifts that are mine have been mine all along.  I only had to discover them, to have the privilege – a privilege, surely – to live the gifts out in my life.  I suppose we all do.

The little girl who dreamed – and didn’t even know she was dreaming – in that little room at the back of a Milwaukee flat – is a teacher, still.  She always was…

 

“Notice,” by Steve Kowit

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This evening, the sturdy Levi’s
I wore every day for over a year
& which seemed to the end
in perfect condition,
suddenly tore.
How or why I don’t know,
but there it was: a big rip at the crotch.
A month ago my friend Nick
walked off a racquetball court,
showered,
got into this street clothes,
& halfway home collapsed & died.
Take heed, you who read this,
& drop to your knees now & again
like the poet Christopher Smart,
& kiss the earth & be joyful,
& make much of your time,
& be kindly to everyone,
even to those who do not deserve it.
For although you may not believe
it will happen,
you too will one day be gone,
I, whose Levi’s ripped at the crotch
for no reason,
assure you that such is the case.
Pass it on.

Steve Kowit (1938-2015), The Dumbbell Nebula

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How Time Passes

 

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“Time passes much too quickly,
when we’re together laughing…” Robert Lamm, “Beginnings,” recorded by Chicago

In December of 2000 my mother was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. Together, she, my husband and I made the decision to place her under hospice care. At the time, I was already tired  from being her caregiver and caring for a parish full-time. I was grateful for the hospice staff and how they worked with the staff at Mom’s assisted living home to make her last days comfortable – for her, and for me. I was grateful that Mom could stay in the home she loved so well, safe in her room, big enough for a single bed, a television set, and a desk in the nook by the window that looked over a parking lot and the school yard of Tech High School.

A few days before she died, Mom sat on the edge of her bed facing the window with its city scene: “I wish it would snow once, just for me,” she said simply, the Milwaukee Girl who had been transplanted just two years before to this strange climate. Had I known that it was snowing in the hills that surround the Bay Area of California for the first time in many years, I’d have packed her into my car and driven to see the snow, only a few miles away.

Instead, I was focused on her, my Mom,  the last precious days and hours and moments that we would be together. Moments flash through my mind, many times since those precious days and now, in these precious days and hours and moments.

In the years since her death the following February, 2001, I have often returned in memory to singular, stark, and lovely exchanges in that little room. I see her growing smaller and smaller, her eyes becoming larger and larger, until I looked deeply into reflections of my own eyes in hers. I rub her back as she talks to me of ordinary things, as if we were in another time in our lives together. On Valentine’s Day, I bring her a large chocolate heart from See’s Candy; chocolate was forbidden her because of type 2 diabetes, but as the days of her life grew shorter, I set those rules aside to bring her what she loved. She didn’t eat the chocolate heart, but I think she understood the gift: “Thank you,” she said, looking into my eyes.

Three days later she would die in that little room, with me as her companion on this side of that journey, whatever it may be.

***
Time stretches out – forever – to the young. That’s how it was for me. For every dream, there was a possibility. For every hope, a stab of feeling that announced it had not yet been fulfilled, but could be fulfilled. For every ambition, there was a way, although not yet discovered.

In my fifties I would sometimes awake early in the morning and see in my inward eye my life floating away behind me, like calendar pages drifting off into the wind. The
feeling: panic. Was there enough time? Enough time, for what?

As I grow older, life becomes more and more a parade of moments. Some of the moments I have captured in memory, like those precious last days with my mother. Some of the moments have been lost, never quite noticed at the time, never quite snapped in the conscious mind’s Polaroid lens.

I understand that the very old retrieve memories they had not known they had, memories that float into awareness as if they’d been behind the curtain on some stage. I’m not in that place. I hope to be, some day.

Now, I am grateful and often saddened by the moments that do come to mind. So many of the characters in memory are no longer here; so many I have loved I will not see again. Some of the places are places to which I will not return. Some moments were painful then, and are painful now,  in the remembering. Some moments are  funny… I laugh again, just as I did the first time.

This moment is already this moment, now. Yesterday’s moment is already past.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

The passage of moments cannot be marked by the ticking of some inner clock. They pass by too quickly to be marked at all.

Happy New Year, dear friends!