Monday, December 30, 2013


My trip to Chicago was wonderful, despite my best attempts to convince myself that the end of the world was nigh.

I went to see Philomena alone on the Thursday I arrived. I enjoyed the experience, walking alone downtown in the snow. I had worried that I would find the viewing difficult. Parts of the film were irritating, such as when Philomena made up her mind to return to England when she thought that her son had never thought of her. Of course he had, but her feelings were so fragile. And oh, those nuns. The lies. The missed connections. But all in all, it was about finding a way home.

Friday I spent meandering around the Art Institute. I hadn't been there in nearly 20 years, so it was a lovely chance to rediscover its rich collection. I particularly loved this photograph of the painter Otto Dix and his wife, taken by the photographer August Sander in the 20's.

The focus, the gaze of Dix's wife, the strange vantage of Dix himself. What is this about, in terms of human relationships? I love German art of the 1920's and its enigmatic surfaces.

Then I found myself in the Greek gallery and drawn to the white-ground lekythoi, of course. I thought of my college friend, Rachel, with whom I memorized thick books filled with vases, and of my graduate-school colleague Richard, now a professor at the University of Chicago, who probably sends his students to look at these. I felt wrapped in the past, joyous, at home. I spent half an hour lost in the fine lines, imagining the painter, the story of the object, the life of the person commemorated. Thinking also about my father, since lekythoi are for the dead.

And it goes without saying that I spent an hour in front of Sargent's portrait of Tilda Swinton's great-grandmother, Mrs. George Swinton. Glorious. Flashy. Elegant.

Friday night I went to see an extremely thoughtful play at Steppenwolf, Tribes, that chronicles a deaf man not being heard by his hearing family. He is an excellent lip reader, and his family refuses to learn to sign. He does miss out on much, however, by their not including him. So much obliqueness, so much talking over. So much strife. The young man meets a young woman from a deaf family who was hearing, but who is going deaf. She introduces him to the deaf community, and of course conflict ensues. I found the description of the community you belong to through no choice of your own to be perfect, as well as the ideas of different tribes, and belonging or not belonging; what makes a tribe, and what is family? It left me with much to mull over as I slept before meeting my father's sisters.

On Saturday I woke up to more snow and a drive north. I made it to the beautiful small town and settled myself. I called my aunts, and they came to pick me up. Before long, we were hugging in the street and all my anxieties were dispelled. I belong. They took me to a bar for lunch where they said my father would have wanted me to go, where he took my great-grandmother every time he came home. A place called The Lantern, where the Bears and Cubs eat. We sat and ate burgers and looked at photographs and cried. I learned that my great-grandmother took my father and his siblings to the Art Institute to see the Thorne Rooms, assemblages of interior design, Gesamtkunstwerk. Sound familiar? Only basically the stuff my dissertation treats. My great-grandmother, the German one, the Baroness, was a character. Powerful and outspoken. She watched movies all night. Like I do. When she moved to the United States and the ship left the dock without some of her furniture, she demanded that it turn around so that the problem be remedied. And she was obeyed. She came from minor Prussian aristocracy and lived in Ehrenbreitstein, the castle at the confluence of the Mosel and the Rhein near Koblenz.

She met my great-grandfather when part of the castle was commandeered by Allied forces during World War I, and my great-grandfather was stationed there. I wish she were still alive so that I could ask her more about it. Apparently she was echt Deutsch and very much like my husband's family (no surprise there). My grandmother (yes, I met her) told me that she was fearsome. My grandmother has the most amazing sense of humor; she's witty and hilarious at 93. I adore her.

After lunch we went to one of my aunt's homes and talked and looked at more photographs. I was given a box that my father brought back from Mexico when he was 18. They had filled it with photographs. I particularly love this one, which he had inscribed to my great-grandmother.

I am guessing that she gave him trouble about his appearance from time to time, and they bantered back and forth.

My aunts also gave me a mug that my grandmother's best friend had given to my father in 1957, and that he had used until his death. I love holding it because he did. Over and over.

I was amazed by the amount of emotion that I stirred in other people. I am used to being verklempt myself, but on Saturday when my cousins walked in the door, they immediately teared up to see me. I am apparently definitely my father's daughter. I brought him back for them. They wanted to know about me--and I am like them. It was so wonderful to spend time with my uncle, too, who spent summers fishing and winters skiing with my father. My uncle has a beautiful photograph of my father in his office upstairs: Rick fishing at Pyramid Lake, silhouetted in the rising sun. To have these stories shared was priceless, and to have a sense of knowing that my aunts, uncles, and cousins see me as belonging.

On Sunday at a Christmas brunch I was also able to meet quite a few of my father's friends from high school. They would walk up to me, take a look, and I would see tears glisten in their eyes. These were men in their late 60's and early 70's. Successful. Powerful. Obviously very kind men, to whom my father had meant a great deal. They felt secure enough to show me how they felt. It was amazing to be around people who were so open and so comfortable in their own skins. I was welcomed, more stories were told, and it was lovely.

All too soon it was time for me to drive back to the airport, but I felt grounded. I had answers and photographs, and I look forward to meeting more people and hearing more stories. I am very, very sad that I missed meeting my father, but I like to think he was there in spirit. What a gorgeous soul.

Now it's nearly the new year, and I still have my work to do: work with Dr. Yalom on myself, facing some locked doors; I go back to work on Friday (I hear it's a fright zone with 10 RNs under baseline, and I am horrified); and work to see that 2014 is the best yet. There are still some journeys I still need to begin, more people to meet at Lake Tahoe. But I am very, very happy.

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