Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mothering Dangerously

Photos: Lake Shore Drive in Chicago; my daughter, Lorena; Chicago skyline

by Zinta Aistars

Unlike my last visit in winter dark, this time when I round the bottom of Lake Michigan on a late Friday evening to enter Chicago, the sky is a turquoise blue. Lake Shore Drive must surely unfold on one of the most breathtaking cityscapes in the country. I have visited most major cities in the United States—New York City is a place unique unto itself; San Francisco is beautiful in its vibrant colors and rollercoaster streets; Seattle dazzles when its not under downpour; Denver snuggles the Rocky Mountains; Washington D.C. emanates elegance and power—but Chicago has one of the most dramatic skylines anywhere. It is the city where all the architects are show-offs, and they have earned that right. Curved along Lake Michigan as it is, the Chicago River once pouring into the Lake (Chicagoans actually figured out a way to make the river change direction, now flowing downstream toward St. Louis), sailboats billow white sails on the water and flowering trees line the Lake Shore Trail nearly its entire length. It is perfection. As always, I rubber neck (a dangerous habit when driving in city traffic, admittedly). Millennium Park to my left, then the scrapers, waves crashing to my right, I hum with pleasure at the sights.

Then there is Belmont Avenue, a quick and easy exit, another quick turn, and I am purring down the tree-lined street where my daughter lives. Lucky girl. As much as I love and crave the green of wilderness, I am fully capable of loving this lifestyle, too. Surely for a visit, and this one promises to be particularly delightful. It is Mother’s Day weekend, and a few days prior, Blondie sent me an “evite,” an electronic invitation to the weekend: a bustling itinerary of pleasures.

Mother’s Day has not historically been a good day for me. Call it holiday gremlins, or call it the Mother of Murphy’s Law, but I could cite some of the worst such occasions in my parenting lifetime. The day seems to have invited tragedy, and if not quite some disaster, then at very least, I have found myself without son or daughter near, marking the day alone and lonely for my brood. My daughter has so long been a world traveler, either overseas or hundreds if not thousands of miles away in this same country. My son has followed some rattle-brained drummer of his own for too many years. This time, grown and wiser, he sent me off with a hug, promising to watch the house and keep up with my diabetic cat’s insulin shots, twice daily. I am hopeful for a different kind of Mother’s Day.

So it begins, this weekend to make it all right. My two grandcats, Jack and José, nearly trip me up with greeting when I enter Blondie’s sweet little studio space on the third floor. I wonder, do they remember me from Valentine’s Day? It was then that Blondie and I went searching for hearty dates that would not disappoint, and came home with these two toms—a tiger-striped and a velvety gray. Who knows what a cat’s memory holds, but they seem to know me, not hesitating at all.

We don’t visit long. Blondie has me steered back outdoors, and we stroll along Broadway, sniffing out dinner. The evening is warm and breezy. Tantalizing food smells waft from open doors and windows; tables and chairs are out on the sidewalk. Lights are by now up and sparkling along the side streets, and Broadway is on show with its many cafés and bookshops and antique nooks. We decide on PingPong, a spare little Japanese place with the most Spartan décor, that is, none. Bare white walls, oak-slat chairs and benches, little wooden tables. Yet every table is full, and we must wait. They stay full the entire time we are there, eating our soft shell crab and scallops with chopsticks, and the line is long by the time we leave. Our pretty boy waiter—an Asian boy that could very nearly be a girl, he’s that pretty—waves and smiles as we go.

The evening slips into night as Blondie and I walk, and walk, and walk, talking softly and laughing, not wanting to disturb the magic of such a silky night. Every street we turn onto seems more beautiful than the one before. Each house has its own character: stone buttresses, wrought iron gates, neat little courtyards, beveled windows revealing glimmering chandeliers inside, and outside the first budding green leaves, and endless flowerbeds of tulips line the streets. Boats bob in the waves whenever our route takes us alongside the lake again.

Saturday we bustle. I have the coffee made while Blondie groans out of bed, but I can barely keep up with her when we walk in the bright of morning. I used to be the fast walker. But this girl can move. Now and then, I have to plead for mercy and ask her to slow down for her old mama. We catch a bus, are in the center of the city in no more than five minutes, cross a street and enter the lobby of the elegant Four Seasons hotel. All is gleaming marble and glimmering crystal. On the eighth floor, we find the spa, and here Blondie delivers me to the care of Lisette, a petite young woman in a spotless white coat, long black hair pinned back and very soft hands. She takes mine in hers and examines my nails. This is her mission in life. We discuss them with great seriousness, and I smile over her shoulder at Blondie, who is lying back on the shiny golden fabric of a couch in a dim room with soft music piped in. She will wait in this room, with pitchers of chilled water filled with orange slices, and another of chamomile tea, and glass plates of dried fruit—cherries, apricots, tiny green chips of kiwi.

I am taken away. I am seated at a little table, my sleeves pushed back. Lisette places a champagne flute next to me, champagne with fresh-squeezed orange juice for a pulpy mimosa, and a china plate of wafery sugar cookies. We discuss tint of my nail polish. My long-nailed days of blood red are long over, gone with youthful tacky taste and general indiscretions. I choose an iridescent blush of pink. Lisette clips and files my nails into perfect ovals while I sip my mimosa. She massages scented lotions and oils into my hands, and I sigh. She soaks my fingertips in a warm, milky solution, and I play with the glass stones at the bottom of the bowl. She wraps my hands in steaming hot towels, and I ponder the painting of lily pads behind her. Life is easy. How often does that happen?

While my shimmering pink nails dry, Blondie and I sit poolside and eat strawberries dipped in chocolate. I resist asking her how much such pampering has emptied her wallet, because I know it is good to give, and I don’t wish to deprive her that pleasure nor myself of what I have been missing too many years. It’s not easy being a mama … especially a single one. I remind myself to enjoy and, just this once, not worry about my daughter’s budget.

Then we are off again. This time to Navy Pier. How many times have I driven by this immense pier reaching far out into the lake? All along its length, shops, exhibit halls, restaurants, and finally, a ballroom where Blondie tells me Obama and Oprah have partied on occasion. I’ve never yet walked it, and we postpone it still now, boarding instead a river boat on the Chicago River. All around us are the white blossoms of apple trees. The day is chillier than we would like, the sun pulls back into clouds, but I’ve been on this tour once before and know I will enjoy it. That time, it was night, and the skyline was outlined in tiny lights. This time, it is the bright of day, and I snap photos as the boat moves smoothly along the river, under bridges—29 of them, says the tour guide—and we crook our necks this way and that to peer up at the array of skyscrapers. Each one has its own style. There’s art deco, classic, modern, and a long list of other architectural terms—even corncob. Although that is not the official term, the guide explains, but the one everyone knows now, the frilly edges of the building resembling exactly a cob. We see the old Chicago post office, seen in the filming of Batman movies in the supposed Gotham City. We float by opera houses and theatres, office buildings and condos and marketplaces. Walkers lean over bridge railings and wave at us passing below.

By the time we arrive back at Navy Pier, we are near frozen, but our eyes are wide from city wonder. We trot into the buildings on the pier to warm up, enjoy the show of stained glass, then catch a red trolley at the other end to take us back downtown. John Hancock is our next rendezvous, and our ears pop as we zoom at breakneck speed to the 95th floor, where we enjoy the Skyview Lounge with windows in all directions. Even the restroom is breathtaking (for the right reasons), with floor to ceiling windows to the panorama of the city. I sip a martini, snack on baked brie with apple compote on crackers, and we are off again.

Wait, where did I leave my sunglasses? I make a face, the glasses were hardly days old, not expensive, but I hate just leaving something behind. The drugstore where we stopped for film? I try to talk Blondie out of going back, but she’ll have none of it. She leads a frugal life, never passes up a bargain, and has a trust in the goodness of humanity that I seem to have lost years ago.

“You’ll see,” she assures me. “If you left them at the store, they will still be there.”

In this milling and bustling city? This mass of humanity? I follow her, trying to keep up as she moves through the crowds with grace, but I have no such confidence. I already decide to buy a new pair when we get there.

But Blondie asks the man at the cash register, and to my surprise, he smiles, nods, reaches under his desk, and produces my missing sunglasses. No. Really? Blondie is laughing at me, telling me again, you just have to believe … most people are good people. And I have to wonder, sadly, at how she retains this belief while I have lost it. A given over a longer life span? Not necessarily. It was not so long ago that our attitudes matched. I make a silent vow to work on this. In some things to move forward, in others, to move back.


After a long but wonderful day of great meals, wandering walks, exciting explorations, we are finally home again. My feet ache and I kick off my shoes. We change into jammies, pull our hair back into ponytails, eat pistachio ice cream with a swirl of whipped cream, and watch the evening news, then some flaky romantic comedy. Ah yes. I was going to try to believe in the sweet innocence of life again, wasn’t I? I lick whipped cream from a polished fingertip and decide it may not be so hard, not so very, as time goes by. There is not forgetting, but the body returns to what it once knew, and the survival instinct is strong. I count blessings, the day filled to brimming with them, and it isn’t even Mother’s Day yet … but I am deeply grateful for my own, one watching the fort for me so I can play, the other my guide through these days. My treasure. My son and my daughter have taught me patience, resilience, love. They have taught me not to give up when all in me screams to throw in the towel. They teach me still, every day. Trust, and now and then, the world will do me right.

On Mother’s Day morning, we walk to church. Blondie has found a place recently that she likes, and she wants to share her find. This, too, quite recently, I had lost … my belief in that higher power of goodness, that prayers don’t wisp away into nothingness, that God didn’t create woman as an afterthought. This sunny Sunday morning, Blondie leads me into a plain old brick building, and we find all the seats full but for one. A leather armchair way back in the corner. My girl waves me to sit and pulls the ottoman over for herself. I sit. Everyone here, it seems, is in jeans. People coming in off the streets. No pretense, no glamour, no showing off. Even the pastor is in jeans. He begins to talk about a generous spirit.

I can’t help but think of my mother as my eyes wander over the casual congregation as the pastor speaks. She would not approve, I’m sure of it. Church to her is a place of utmost respect, and I cannot argue this. One dresses up to approach the Holy, even as the head is bowed. Yet I also have to think Christ would greet the most poorly attired in his home. The unshowered homeless, the bedraggled junkie, all and anyone would surely be welcome. My own clothing is nice enough this morning, a salmon-colored, embroidered shirt I had recently purchased, silken black trousers and little black slippers … yet my heart feels anything but well-dressed. It’s been homeless for a while. Bedraggled, too. Knocking on doors that never seem to open.

I listen to the pastor speak about trust, the danger of trust, and how we must pray dangerously. I am intrigued, he speaks well, and I am drawn into his story about praying for what he is not so sure he really wants … yet it is what he needs. I twirl a lock of my daughter’s soft blonde hair in my fingers and note the woman sitting to my other side, a newborn child in her arms. The years, oh the years, how many, gone. I once led my children through crowded and bustling places of confusion, maneuvering through the traffic of life, and now I willingly hand myself over to their leading. I have grown to trust them, nearly implicitly, and even when I doubt—as I did the previous day when my daughter was so sure my sunglasses would be honestly returned to me—I continue to follow, happy to be proven wrong. Maybe that’s what I need to do with Him. Continue to follow, even when my faith grows thin.

My daughter glances over at me, my sigh must have been heavy, and I smile at her, although suddenly my eyes are brimming with water. I can resist all I want, but going to church always seems to do this to me. Open up some hidden place, some dark void, some childish howl. It’s all I can do to contain myself. Tears pour down my face, unbidden and unstoppable. I wipe with pink, polished fingertips, hoping no one notices.

What would I pray if I were to pray dangerously? I know. Nothing is more dangerous than to open a heart to love. Mine had slammed closed, too hurt, too broken. Failed miserably at love, trammeled with betrayal, rejection, abandonment, addictions I could not fathom and never will. It wasn’t God that left me. I left Him, tired of trying to do right and rewarded with being devalued.

Pray dangerously. It echoed of words someone recently wrote me in response to an earlier blog: “You touched me, changed me, because you write dangerously.”

Can I pray as I write?

I don’t know. Honestly, I cannot say. But I can try. I wipe my eyes, hide them behind dark glasses when we emerge from the lowly church. We walk a few blocks to a Mother’s Day brunch, where I am served again with a mimosa, and a rose. I don’t like roses anymore. Their thorns hurt. But I finger the delicate petal of this one, draw in its sweet scent, and settle in to enjoy one of the finest breakfasts I’ve ever had, my daughter sitting across from me.

I would not have her in my life had I not risked a dangerous life. I would not have my son. I would not have known a blazing love, even if lost, with a searing and purifying flame. I would not have the ability to write dangerously had I not first lived so. Had I the chance to do it all over again, I would. Every single day of it. Every last night. I have no regrets, even as I have the scars. I am incapable of living a passive life, even if of late I have settled into quieter ways, resting, healing, keeping a low profile. There is only one kind of life I can live honestly, and it is the one I have been living all along.

Over our shared meal, I bow my head and pray: Lord, I ask nothing. You’ve already given it all to me.


Epilogue to the best Mother’s Day I’ve known but the first two, in July 1980 and February 1982—my daughter and I bike along Lake Shore Trail for 11 miles, and at times I trail her, and for the occasional moment, she trails me. Always she looks out for me, as I once looked out for her.

All that I have ever given, none of it has been lost. I return to the counter, and what I thought I had left behind, I need only ask, and there it is again. If I ever withheld, I do not have it now. If I ever gave my heart dangerously, it leads me now, the trail rolling out ahead alongside the cool water, stone scraping sky to my other side.

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