Christmas Mitzvah

I’m a professional fundraiser but there wasn’t a charitable bone in my body when I offered to work on Christmas day.  My motivation was to save paid time off for a vacation to California in January.   I didn’t have any other plans anyway.  My grandkids spend Christmas day with their other grandparents.  for Mitzvah story

The job was to host a group of Jewish volunteers who were coming to deliver poinsettias and visit with patients; they call it their Mitzvah Day, a day to serve their Christian neighbors.  I figured most of the patients would be asleep or in a coma anyway.

I arrived at the hospital and took the stairs to my second floor office where I encountered a couple, a tall white-haired man pushing a woman in a wheel chair. I asked if I could help them find something and they told me they were looking for the Breast Health Clinic.  I explained that it was right down the hall but that it was closed today.  “Oh, we know,” said the man.  “Dr. Joan said she would meet us here.”  Dr. Joan is a world renowned breast cancer specialist.  She could surely find someone else to cover for her.  But she was coming in. I was impressed.    I found a comfortable place for the couple to wait for her to arrive.

After reviewing the instructions the volunteer coordinator provided an getting my carts together, I headed to the lobby to wait for my guests from the synagogue.  There, I found a middle-aged woman was crying in the outer lobby.  She kept saying that she was waiting for the number 18 bus.  The security guard said that she was drunk.  My guess was that there were some mental health issues at play too. At first I looked away, embarrassed for her.  But then I observed a security guard treat her with complete compassion—inviting her to rest in the warm inner lobby while they made some calls. I couldn’t imagine being so alone in this world that I would be standing drunk and crying on 12th and Kilbourn in the freezing cold on Christmas day.

Five volunteers arrived and we gathered for an orientation.  Sylvia had organized similar outings for the synagogue for years and knew just what to do.  She explained that our objective was to share who we were, visit with each patient capable of a visit for a while, and leave behind our gift of a poinsettia and a decoratively wrapped tube of scentless hand lotion.

One of the volunteers was a class “A” jerk.  Randy.  He just wanted to plow through it. Kept complaining that we were wasting too much time getting instructions before we started.  And then when we hit the floors he’d abruptly blurt:   “Hi, we’re from here to bring you good cheer and leave you a present.  Goodby.”

“Oy,” said Gladys, a tiny woman who was clearly the most senior member of the group.  “That Randy is somtin’ else.”  He was the first to leave.

There was a middle aged couple who volunteered, Bob and Lois.   I noticed that Bob had to help Lois complete the volunteer form.  I noticed that she smiled sweetly but didn’t talk or ask any questions during our orientation.  And it occurred to me that maybe for Bob and Lois, this special act of charity on Christmas day was about helping Lois.

We split into two teams, each with a cart full of gifts, and headed off in separate directions to deliver our good cheer.  The first person, I encountered was Annie, an old woman standing outside her room holding her gown shut with one hand and waving her TV remote around in the air with the other.

“There’s something wrong with my TV,” Annie said. The lack of teeth in her mouth made it hard for me to understand her.  Her coarse, thin, grey hair was pulled back into a pony tail that stood up off of the top of the back of her head like a stiff paint brush   I offered to help.  I took the remote from her and cleared a patient survey question on the screen and scrolled through the menu until I found a nice Christmas concert for her to watch.

I asked if she would like to visit for a while.

“Who?” she asked.

“With me?”

“Where?”

“Here?”

“Yes, why not.”

I helped Annie get back into bed and fixed her tangled covers.  “God bless you,” she said.

She showed me her swollen arm.   It was as big as the top of my thigh and she was not a large woman.  And I’m not thin.  She told me that she had asthma and diabetes.   She said she told her family that they had to “go on and do what they had to do,”  but that she had to go to the hospital.  Annie told me that she had five children–four girls and one boy.   She got to seven and lost track of how many grandchildren.  I asked how old she was and she said 75.  It was kind of a shock to think about the comparatively youthful glow of my late-70s parents.  This woman looked decades older than even my 90 year old mother-in-law.  But she is just a reflection of what we know.  Being poor kills you…sooner.

My next visit was with a couple with an Eastern European accent.  The cheerfully smiling wife with blond haired pulled back into a pony tail looked to be about my age.   She spooned  thin oat meal into her handsome silent husband’s mouth.   I explained what I was doing with the group of volunteers and the wife, Mary, had questions about the temple the volunteers were from.   I called the nearest volunteer I could find, Gladys, the older woman who was part of my team.

Gladys answered all of Mary’s questions and then inquired about her Eastern European accent.  “My husband and I are originally from Croatia,” she said, “but I lived all over Europe as a foster child.”    She told us the story about how her father had died and her mother was a refugee from Yugoslavia who just didn’t have the resources to care for her.  She said a few words in Croatian.  Gladys told me that Mary was thanking me for visiting.  I wondered if I would be as kind and cheerful as this pretty blond Croatian woman if my husband became incapacitated.

The next person I visited was Jean, who seemed fine except for the obvious tremors in her legs.  She talked about the dullness of her life in an assisted living facility.

“Get up, have something to eat, watch TV; eat lunch, watch TV; eat dinner, watch TV; go to bed.  Repeat.”

Jean said that as soon as she gets a few new cribbage partners, they “leave” and she has to start all over again.  She has a great grandson named Marco.

She said that she wanted to die.  I was afraid to ask what brought her to the hospital.

It was time to bring our visits to a close and reconnect with the other volunteer team, so I went to find Gladys, who was a few rooms down the corridor.

“Come in,” said Gladys when I motioned to her from the door.   “You’ll never believe it,” she said, gesturing to the man lying in bed attached to an oxygen tank.  A woman wearing a multi colored  hijab stood by his side.  They were from Palestine.  Gladys explained that she asked them if they could speak Arabic and they could.  “The same dialect I speak!” exclaimed Gladys.

“You can speak Croatian and Arabic?” I said maybe too incredulously.  “Oh,”  I can speak French  too,” Gladys told me.

In the meantime, the couple beamed with joy at having someone to speak with during this health crisis.  “Salem, Salem, (God is great!)” they repeated over and over.  They offered me chocolate.

As Gladys and I walked back to my office with our now empty cart, we shared our patient visiting experiences.   I told her about Jean, who said she wanted to die.

“Oh my ‘got’!” said Gladys.  “If you are alive in this world, it is to do good.”  She explained that even when people are ill or incapacitated they play an important role.  They give others the opportunity to learn kindness and patience, and that is “doing good.”   My face filled with the warmth of embarrassment.  People like me I thought.

On my way out that day, I physically bumped into Sally, an administrative coworker, who was there with her two adult children to bring fruit baskets and cookies to the staff.  We were both so surprised and delighted to see each other that our eyes welled up with tears knowing that we had both experienced something very special this Christmas day.  My heart felt large and my spirit felt light.  I felt peace and happiness.

On Monday, I wrote thank you notes to all of the volunteers.  Except Gladys.  She didn’t include her last name, address or phone number on the volunteer form.  Only “Gladys.”

Indeed, no one was served more from this Mitzvah than me.

Tampons

When I was a kid, at a time when the bodies of women were a curious mystery to me, my best friend’s brother told me that tampons were ladies cigars and they smoked them in the bathroom.

As a young single mom, I was forced on occasion to send my sons to the nearby grocery store to get them.  I’d give Sam and Benny a coupon and tell them to get exactly what was on the picture.  They took this job very seriously and were proud that they could do something important for me.

One time I caught Sam and Benny playing with discarded tampon cardboards outside in the dirt next to the house.  They were using them for GI Joe missiles.

While we were cleaning up the house preparing for his First Communion party, Benny came out of the bathroom clutching a fistful of tampons and declared, “There’s going to be a lot of women here and we’re going to need more of these.”

Another time, I was busy volunteering for the church festival staffing a betting game, when I knew by the way I was feeling that the dreadful event was about to surprise me.  I sent Benny home to get me a tampon.  He came back with two.  “I know how you women get,” he said.

I know it’s unusual but my boys were very comfortable with tampons although I don’t think they knew exactly what they were for.  Maybe they thought I smoked them in the bathroom.

No Comprende

This little old Latino guy is standing on the corner with a folded piece of yellow tablet paper in his hands.  He is looking around at the street signs.  Even though I am sure stopping will make me late for my meeting at the neighborhood coffee shop, I ask if I can help.

In English of course.  I don’t speak Spanish other than a few niceties like “gracias,” and I can ask where the bathroom is by saying “el baño?” with an urgent look on my face.

He responded in Spanish of course.  And from his gestures and inflections, I gather that he is very disappointed that I don’t speak Spanish.  It’s happened before.  People mistake my olive skin and dark hair for something else.

He chatters on and I figure out a little of what he was trying to tell me.  He is from Peru.  His family lives in Michigan.  He showed me the piece of paper he was holding.  It had some phone numbers on it but I couldn’t understand anything else.  I take my phone from my purse and offered it to him so that he could call one of the numbers.  He shakes his head no.

So we walk together in the direction of the coffee shop.  All the while I’m hoping that we run across a Spanish speaker.  That doesn’t happen so as we pass by my friend Jill’s house, I ring the bell.  Her husband speaks Spanish.  The dog barks his head off but no one answers.

Then I get the brilliant idea that I could call one of my Spanish speaking friends and ask her to translate for me.  On the third try, I connect with my friend Maria who lives in California.

I explain the situation to her and hand my friend from Peru the phone.  I am really hoping that the assistance he requires won’t take too much longer.  They exchange a few brief words and he gives the phone back to me.

Maria says, “Elaine, he’s been trying to tell you that he doesn’t need any help.”

My friend from Peru and I shake hands and go our separate ways on this fine sunny day.

Shoot the First One

DADD“DADD.  Dads Against Daughters Dating.  Shoot the First One and the Word Will Spread.” I saw these words on a t shirt at a gift shop in the Wisconsin Dells and nearly choked on my walnut fudge.  It made me think of my own Dad.  He had rules about dating when I was a teen.  I had to be home no later than 10 pm.  He had to know exactly where we would be going.  No dashing out at the sound of a car honk.  My dates were required to ring the bell, come into the house and be properly introduced.  And every time, Mom would be harmlessly puttering in the  kitchen but Dad would be in his basement workshop loading shot gun shells.

It didn’t occur to me that there was anything devious about this at the time.  After all, he is a hunter and loading shot gun shells is something he did.  But many years later, when I ran into an old boyfriend at a club, he mentioned it.  “Your dad was really scary,” he said.  “Not only was he always working on ammunition, he made sure I saw his arsenal of rifles.  There had to be 6 or 7 of them standing in that glass case! ”

Most of the time, all of dad’s protectiveness annoyed me as it would any teen girl.  But I  remember a night I was glad to have that kind of dad.  I’d had a date with a guy I wasn’t that into.  When he brought me home, he walked me to my back door and made what I will politely call “a pass” at me.  I had the perfect way out.  I just leaned back on the door bell and Dad was there in a flash.  Having been introduced to Dad in his workshop earlier, “Romeo” skedaddled without even a parting glance.  Romance over.

When my first marriage ended, I was concerned that Dad might seek some sort of revenge.  But he was just glad for me to be done with him and kept his feelings in check.

Then there was the time I brought my future second husband over to meet my parents for the first time.  Tom was trying really hard to win my two boys over and wanted to show my parents that he was a good prospect for me.  He bought the boys two of those small balsa wood airplanes.  The second we arrived, Sam and Ben launched their planes into a quick high arc landing them both high up in a birch tree.

Dad, standing shirtless in the driveway, said, “I’ll take care of that,” went in the house, came out with a shot gun and blasted them both out of the tree with two rapid shots destroying the planes in the process.  No “Hello, glad to meet you.”  Nothing.  Tom, a guy who would never even consider owning a gun, froze with his mouth agape and mumbled, “What kind of hillbilly family am I getting mixed up with?”  Being used to their grandfather and the stuff he does, the kids merely shrugged at the loss of the planes and the evening went on as if nothing happened.

Dad still hunts some and loads shot gun shells in the basement although that’s long faded as a threatening activity to anyone including deer.  Yet, I still think of him as my protector.  The guy who will do anything he can to prevent me from harm, especially in the form of a male human.

Disney World

I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 31 years old.  I flew to Atlanta for a work conference.  I felt so awkward and stupid—asking flight attendants if I was on the right plane a million times, wandering around the airport looking for the baggage claim.  It was a humiliating experience and  I wasn’t going to let this happen to my kids.  I wanted them to be savvy travelers and see the world.

I came home from work on Tuesday and announced, “We’re going to Disney World!  We leave on Thursday.”  I found the deal of a life time, $150 for me and both my kids.  A last minute charter deal.  Off site motel and rental car included.  We were all set!

The boys jumped up and down and shout, “We’re going to Disney World!”  But after a few minutes of revelry, Sam stops cold.  “Wait, how are we going to get there?”

“We’re flying,” I say.

“What airline are we taking?”

“Funjet.”

His face disintegrates and he wails, “Those pilots take drugs!  Can’t we take a train or drive?”

At 13, Sam watches way too much news.  Flash floods, starving children in Ethiopia, and drug testing for pilots are of great concern to him.

Ben, who is 9, is mostly worried about what we’ll eat.  I explain that they will serve food on the plane and that their will be plenty of McDonald’s in Florida.

Tuesday arrives.  As we board the plane, Sam takes a long pause to look into the cabin at the pilot.  After we’re served lunch, Ben stuffs our uneaten saltine crackers and packets of jelly into his pockets so that we’ll have something to eat later.

The pilot lands the plane safely.  We follow our fellow passengers to the baggage claim.  But then, I have no clue where we’re supposed to go to get the rental car.  I had no idea there were so many choices.  So, again, I follow my fellow passengers.   We board a van which takes us to Enterprise.

I leave the boys in line and head to the bathroom because I have that feeling.  That crampy “oh crap, I have my period feeling.”  I have a stain on my khaki shorts which I try to hide by holding my purse in front of my crotch.

It’s finally our turn.  The clerk asks me for the voucher.  “What voucher?” I ask.  He tells me that I can’t get a car without a voucher from the charter group and turns me away.

Sam, Ben, and I sit on our two suitcases in the now almost empty parking lot in front of Enterprise, and I cry.  I don’t have any idea what we’re supposed to do now.  Sam squeezes onto the suitcase with me and puts his hand on mine.  Ben stands with his arm around my shoulder.

Apparently it’s bad for business to have a sobbing woman with blood stained shorts and two waifs in front of your building.  The rental car guy comes out and tells me there’s a car left that I can have and we’ll straighten everything out later with the travel agent.  He gives me a map and detailed instructions for how to get to our motel.

Our motel as it turns out, is right next to a pawn shop and a Quick Mart.  The kids are excited because it has a pool but the empty beer cans strewn around it make me nervous.  The motel clerk asks for my voucher, which of course I don’t have again.  I promise to straighten it out with the travel agent and we’re given a room.  It’s pleasant enough.  Air conditioned with two double beds.

Stressed out Sam heads straight to the bathroom.   When he eventually comes out, the toilet is running and water is pouring on the floor.  I call the motel office and someone comes to fix it.  But now I’m crying again.  I call my boyfriend of just a few weeks.  He’s sympathetic and offers to call the travel agent on my behalf.

Ben’s eating the crackers and jelly he squirreled away from the flight.  But we’re all hungry so we go to the 7/11 for foot-long hot dogs and antacids for Sam.  We finish the night with a swim in the pool until a gang of creepy teenagers show up.

The next day, with a death grip on the steering wheel, we make it to Disney and buy three day passes.  We head for the big roller coaster first but Sam’s not feeling well.  I leave him on a bench with his Tums.

Disney 1987Day 2 at Disney: We lose Ben for almost an hour.

Day 3 at Disney: I’m so lonely for adult company that I chat up the waitress for an awkwardly long time.

Day 4:  We take a break and head to the NASA Space Museum and Cocoa Beach, at least I think it’s Cocoa Beach.

Day 5: Epcot Center

Day 6:  Cypress gardens where my cousin is on the water ski team.

Day 7:  Head home.  I cry when the plane lands.

What do my adult children remember about this trip?  Chasing seagulls at Cocoa Beach.   Cocoa Beach 1987

But here’s what I know more than 25 years after this trip.  Sam never balked at flying again and has traveled all over the world.  He makes friends everywhere he goes.   Ben has done his share of traveling too but never without a snack for the road and a meal plan.  We all take a vacation together every year.

Me and that hero boyfriend of mine who is now my husband, took the grandkids to Legoland this summer!  I can’t wait to hear what they remember about it in 15 or so years.

Ezie Vader

My grandson Ezie is very serious about being Darth Vader, the latest in a string of evil personas he’s adopted.  He brought two red light “savers” and his “Dark” Vader mask/helmet with him on our annual New Years vacation to San Diego.  Character assignments were made.  I was Queen Amidala.  His Dad was Han Solo.  His brother was Luke.  Grandpa was Jabba the Hut.  Battle after battle was staged.  When I tried to tear him away from the Star Wars marathon on Spike TV to go out and enjoy the sunshine, he crossed his light “savers” across my neck to behead me.

Ezie Vader (age 6)
Ezie Vader (age 6)

He might think of himself as Dark Vader but he looks more like pig pen.  I swear small tornadoes of dust follow him.  He insists on wearing his blond hair past his shoulders and it’s always in his eyes and snarled in spots with cyclones of something sticky.  He usually has snot streaked across his face.  He won’t wear anything but sweat pants that are too big so that the bottoms are always filthy and frayed.  Paired with his favorite grey on grey striped sweat shirt he looks like a small prison inmate.

Pig pen and I were going through security together on our way home.  “I’ll have to check this young person,” the agent said.  “Is this a boy or a girl?”  Seriously, I thought.  Who would make this slob out for a girl?  Ezie rolled his eyes.  He hates being mistaken for a girl.

“I guess he’s going to have to check you,” I said.  “To make sure you’re not bringing any weapons on the plane.”

“Why?” Ez wanted to know.  “I packed the light savers in the suitcase.”

I looked around to make sure no one heard him say this.  You’re not supposed to joke about these things.

“I guess they know you’re on the dark side,” I replied.

That made perfect sense to him.  His dad went with him over to a designated area where the TSA agent swiped his hands with something.

By the time we all reassembled and recombobulated, it was time to board the plane.  Ezie sat next to Jabba the Hut and said with genuine sincerity, “They had to check me because they know I’m on the dark side, right Grandpa?”

“Yes, I’m sure that they know,” he said.

“How come they didn’t check you, Grandpa?” Ez wanted to know.  “You’re on the dark side too.”

“Well, I just joined recently,” said Grandpa.

“Oh,” said Ez and he settled down with his Star Wars phonics book for the long flight.

We weren’t home for more than 24 hours when Ezie and Noah’s mother, Angela, called to let us know that Ez has already informed her about his Christmas list for 2014, just shy of 12 months away.  “He wants two robot legs and a robot arm like Darth Vader,” she said.

“That’s interesting,” I thought. “I wonder if he is willing to have his real legs and an arm burnt off by hot lava like Anakin Skywalker to get them.”

Toe Nails

Ezie's footI hold my grandson Ezie’s foot in my hand and pull away his sweaty sock while he watches The Amazing World of Gumball, his favorite cartoon.  When he was a toddler, he would dangle his foot in front of my face so that I would hold it to my nose, breathe deeply and toss it away in mock horror at the atrocious odor.  His feet smelled like sweet baby powder then and he’d giggle uncontrollably at this game.  “Do again,” he’d squeal.

Now his eight-year-old feet really do stink like boy dirt and he merely tolerates my need to play with them.  I examine his toe nails.  So like his father’s, my son Ben.  The rounded big toe’s nail is wider than it is long.  All the others are completely uniform.

I remember holding Ben’s foot while he watched Pee Wee Herman, peeling away his sock and being horrified that his toe nails had grown so long that they were curving over the ends of his toes.  So, I clipped them and this became a ritual.  Holding his feet and clipping his toe nails while he watched TV.

What I didn’t know then was how much I would miss it.  How much I’d long for those sweaty socks and toe nail clippings, that sticky face and matted hair, lethal farts and urine dribbles.

You don’t tickle even good friends or hold their feet, examine for excess ear wax or head lice.   These things are a sign of family intimacy.  The bond between children and parents, grandchildren and grandparents.  It’s about trust and innocence.  It’s easy and messy and stinky and good.

And very one-way.  Kids grow up and don’t want to be touched and groomed.  They clip their own toe nails.  But grandparents and parents get old and can’t clip their own toe nails any more.  My friend Jill makes a weekly stop at her parents’ home to clip their nails.  She’s the only person I know who takes on such a saintly responsibility.

When my grandmother was alive, I witnessed one of my cousin’s kids spend a whole hour gently playing with the loose skin on grandma’s upper arm as they sat together in the back seat on a long car ride.   She looked so relaxed.  The only time I’d touched her in years was to slap a mosquito on her forehead.

Touch.  It’s such a basic human need.  A family intimacy that cannot be replaced by the clinical touch of professional caregivers.  I’m going to start touching my parents more.  I’m going to linger in my mother’s parting embrace instead of fleeing for the door.  I’m going to sit on the couch very close to my dad with my hand on his knee and whisper into his ear.  But I think I’ll still leave their toe nail clipping to a pro.

Grocery Shopping

As a single mom, I hated one chore above all others.  Grocery shopping.

Juggling a baby and a rambunctious four year old while trying to navigate the aisles with a grocery cart was a nightmare.  Benny, the baby, would gnaw right through plastic packages to try to get at the apples, the hot dogs, the bread.   At eight months, he only had a handful of teeth but made good use of them on anything he could get his hands on.  By the time I got to the check out counter, a good portion of my groceries were open or mangled and wet with baby slobber.  Once, in an attempt to distract him, I gave him a bar of Dove to hold.  Little Sharky quickly chewed through to the soap, made a gagging sound, and flung the bar into the Pepsi display.

Sam, the four year old could, not be contained.  He was Mr. Curious—touching and smelling everything.  Rearranging canned goods.  Adding random items to the cart—Count Chocula cereal, shaving cream, dog biscuits for his imaginary dog.   I tried putting him in the cart with Benny but then I didn’t have any room for groceries.  I tried putting him in a second cart but he hated it and effectively pulling one and pushing another was impossible.

My only option was to lessen the pain and agony by power shopping just once a month at one of the new gigantic warehouse stores.  And it was on one of these trips that the unthinkable happened.

Stressed out and distracted, I had reluctantly let Sam stay in the paper goods aisle to look at  the Star Wars Kleenex boxes while I made a quick loop around the next aisle with the cart, Little Sharky happily trying to eat grapes through the bag.

I returned quickly but he was gone.  I tried not to panic.  This had happened before at Target.  That time, I didn’t even know he was gone when an announcement was made—“We have a four year old boy named Sam who has lost his mother”—because I was standing just two feet away from him.

So, I figured he’d show up.  I continued to do my shopping, keeping an eye out for him, and returning to the Kleenex section every few minutes.  But when I’d finished my shopping and scanned every aisle one more time, and there was still no sign of him.

I proceeded to the check out counter to unload my months worth of mauled groceries, and explained to the cashier in what I hoped was a light-hearted way that I had looked everywhere but couldn’t find my four year old.  She shrugged.

“Could you have someone look for him?” I asked.  She paged a stock boy and explained that a kid was missing.

I chewed my nails and waited with my bagged groceries and Benny for what seemed like an unbearably long time when the stock boy returned with a child who was struggling to get away from him.  He was about the right size, but this kid wasn’t my son and I wasn’t willing to settle for a replacement.

“Maybe you should call the police,” the cashier said and gestured toward the pay phone near the door.

Near hysteria, imagining all of the horrible things that could have happened to him, I pushed my cart full of groceries and my baby toward the door to call the police.

I had just dialed the first number when I heard something.

“Beep.  Beep.  Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep…….”  It was the sound of a car horn.  Not like a car alarm had gone off.  But like someone was beeping the horn in rapid succession  And it sounded suspiciously like my car.  I dropped the phone and flew out the door with the cart and my baby.

Yep.  There he was.  Sam, the curious one.  In my car.  Laughing his head off and smashing his little fists into the horn. “Where were you?” he said.

Crisis averted.  I dried my tears and started to load the groceries into the car.  But the parking lot had a slight hill.  And while I was lifting the last bag into the trunk, the cart started rolling.  Fast.  By the time I picked my head up, it was out of my reach and I could only watch in horror as it hit a cement parking curb and launched Benny right out of the cart seat and into the bushes.

He survived with just a small scrape on his head.  But I would never recover.  For the next several years, I paid a baby sitter when I had to go to the store.

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The Fest

It’s my favorite day of the year–the annual pilgrimage to Summerfest.  The Fest is a tradition that’s picked up momentum over time and created a focal point for an annual Milwaukee reunion of a bunch of friends that go as far back as Catholic grade school. This was my time to let loose! 

We’ve been going together since the largest music festival in the U.S. wasn’t much more than a muddy field with a raggedy tent, a rickety stage and a beer stand on the shore of breezy Lake Michigan.  We danced our butts off on top of picnic tables to CCR, Tina Turner, Kool and the Gang, Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers, Bonnie Raitt,  The Thunderbirds, Morris Day and the Time, Joan Jett, The Go Go’s, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, BB King and way too many others to recount.

Typically, the event starts with me, Tom my husband, and California Dave heading off to Slim McGinn’s (Now O’Lydia’s)  where a quick vodka and lemonade buys us a trip on the “slimozine” to the front gate of Summerfest where we meet the rest of our posse.

Dave left Milwaukee for warmer weather in 1977.  He vowed never to come back again in the winter.  And he didn’t except for one snowy December 22 years later when a family member died.  He showed up at our door wearing snow pants.  Dave is the party instigator too.  He’s the one all of the old friends gather to see.  The one who says, “Of course we can go to Summerfest five days in a row” not considering that some of us aren’t on vacation.

This year, we parked the car a few blocks away as usual but when we walked around the corner to Slim’s, we were surprised by the presence of a horse and carriage “parked” right in front of the door.

“Why not?” said Dave.

“How much to take us to the Fest?” he asked the top-hatted driver.

“Ten bucks a piece,” she said.

Given that we were now empty nesters with 401k’s and pension plans, $10 for a one mile ride meant nothing and we jumped right in without question.

A big smile spread across my face as we began our journey.  The lowly people who had to walk gazed upon us with envy.  Anxious drivers stalled in the tangle of traffic and gas fumes rolled their eyes as we passed.

“This is the life,” I said and the three of us giggled at the clop, clop, clop sound of the big Clydesdale.

But after a few blocks I started to notice that the walkers were moving faster than we were.  In fact, they were passing us.  The driver was doing her best to be gentle while encouraging the horse to keep moving.  The three of us exchanged wary glances.

“How old is this horse?” I ask.

“This old girl is about 27,” she said.

“Is that pretty old for a horse?”

“It depends,” said the driver.  “If they’re well cared for like old Cindy here, they can live 25 to 30 years.”

We didn’t say another word for the rest of the slow trip which concluded with sighs of relief.

“Well, it’s a good story to tell,” said Dave, as we walked toward the entrance.

Tom legitimately qualifies for the senior citizen discount so we sent him to the ticket booth to make the purchase while Dave and I held a place in line for the gate.  Saving a few bucks on the tickets would make up for the splurge on the horse and buggy ride.   We still like to be frugal 401k and all.

We inched our way forward until it was our turn to submit to the search which is now standard for all big public events.  Back in the day, I just shoved a few bucks and my ID card in my pocket and went.  But now I have to bring a purse, a big cloth hippy bag to carry my wallet, cell phone, lipstick, glasses, allergy pills, some tissue, and a sweater in case I get cold.  I strap it across my chest so I can keep my hands free to hold a beer.  The guards waved a metal detecting wand over my body and took an obligatory peek into my hippy bag and I was able to join Dave and Tom who were already through.

We headed straight for the nearest beer stand.  A Miller Lite in my hand and I was awash with euphoria.  Let’s get this party started.  Dave calls the look I get on my face my “perma grin.”

Now it was time to hook up with the two other Toms, Tom P. and Tom H., and Tom P’s kid, Rudy.  (Tom was a popular name during the Baby Boom.)  We surfed through the streaming crowd like the Summerfest pros we are and found them quickly.

“Heyyyyy,” the guys said and slapped each other high fives.  And right behind us, a group of younger guys snickered and did the same thing.

“We’ve been mocked,” Dave said with mock outrage, and we laughed.  We started to head off for the first band together and to meet some more friends– Pat, Carl, Terry, and Gebs but we had to wait for Tom P. to pee first.

There they were, right in the usual location, Miller Stage to the left of the beer stand on the far left.   The conversation was lively.  Catching up on kids and jobs, health and erectile dysfunction.  Dave’s daughter started college.  My grandson started first grade.  Carl got another promotion.  Tom’s brother had prostate cancer.

I went to get another beer and find a nearby picnic bench to sit on.  My bunions were killing me.  I watched my friends from a distance for a few moments and noticed that everyone except for Tom P.’s teenage son was wearing glasses; and that they all had grey hair; and that some of them hardly had hair at all.   And except for Dave who wears a circa 1994 Mexican Fiesta shirt, when did they all start wearing baggy Hawaiian shirts?

I stood up to rejoin them and as I did I felt a quick slap on my ass.  What the hell?  A guy actually smacked my butt.  I was stunned.  It was a young guy who just kept moving through the crowd with his buddy without even a backward glance.  The feminist in me wanted to go after them and give them a stern talking to about respecting women.

Only Dave saw what took place.  He moved to my side quickly.

“Did that guy just do what I think he did?” Dave asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“See, Elaine, you’ve still got it,” said Dave with a laugh.

For a moment I was flattered.  And then my face flushed as the realization overtook me.   “No, Dave.  I think I was mocked,” I said.

After waiting for Tom P to come back from the bathroom again, we reassembled and took a position on the benches for the main reason we were there—George Clinton and Parliament, a funky band that fills me with glee.  The band came out with a blast–Red L:ight/Green Light.  It was their big hit when I saw them the first time in 1978 and it took me right back there.  I was instantly a vibrant, energetic, sexy 22 year old again.

It was a spectacle.  I was disappointed that guy with the big diaper was no longer part of the show but there was a young woman roller skating around the stage in a skimpy outfit, a paper mache monster with a doobie in his mouth, and one of the extraterrestrial brothers looked like he was wearing cellophane pants.  Instead of the multi-colored dreds and bright clothes he used to wear, George wore a pimped out admiral’s uniform.

We all bobbed our heads and swung our hips to the funky beat, and screamed every lyric loud “WE WANT THAT FUNK, GOTTA HAVE THAT FUNK!” enjoying every blessed second of it.  George took a few breaks and let his son and granddaughter do a few numbers.

Midway through the show, we slowed down and had another beer.  Tom P. had to go to the bathroom again.  Tom, my husband, put cotton in his ears because the loud music was getting to him.  He had come prepared.

During the second set, I stopped shout/singing every lyric.  A few of the guys had enough and left.  After all, it was the late show and it wouldn’t be over until 10 p.m.

After the last song, Tom, Dave and I made long trek back to Slim’s on foot like we always do.  “Another great Summerfest memory,” said Dave as we walked.

I tried to ignore the blisters on my feet which I thought I would have avoided given the special orthopedic sandals I was wearing.  Tom and Dave talked about how the line up at Summerfest wasn’t as good as it used to be and that they hadn’t even heard of a lot of the bands that were performing.  We had a drink at Slims and waited for the traffic to die down before heading home.

I was looking forward to a long sleep.  But I was up before 6 with an aching neck and back.  My feet were on fire and my calves felt stiff as a pirate’s peg legs.  Thank god for Aleve.  I feel like such a cliché.  The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.

The Incident

I didn’t want to come back to this story but I knew I would.  How could I not?  How could I leave this one out of the defining moments of my life?  It was 1985.  I had just finished working on a pledge drive at my job at  Milwaukee Public Television at MATC.

I thought he was going to rape me.  I saw him in the shadows, a board clenched in his right hand, but it was too late.  I turned and ran but my heavy winter boots and the sloshy snow slowed me down.  He grabbed me by the back of my coat and dragged me to the ground.  He hit me on the head with a board with one hand and yanked at the strap of my purse with the other.  It felt like everything was moving in slow motion.  He hit me with the board over and over again until my purse finally gave way.  He clutched it to his chest and ran back into the shadows.

I lay there for a few surreal moments in the waning February light.  Stunned and wet from the snow.  No one was around.  No one could see me in the walled parking lot.  My car was the only one.  There was no point in yelling for help.  I was afraid to get up and afraid to stay put.  I still had my car keys in my hand.

I looked around to make sure he was gone and struggled to my feet.  My head and shoulder hurt.  My stockings were shredded and my knees were bloody.   The only lighted building I could see where I knew there would be people, was the Milwaukee Journal station across the street on 6th.  I found two macho looking guys there busy with their work, shifting piles of newspapers around.  I had to move out of the way so a truck could get by.

“Will you please call the police?” I said sheepishly

“What for?” asked the older one, annoyed.

The dam burst opened and I started to bawl.  I could barely speak.  “A man,” was all I could say.

The older guy called the police and kept working, collating one section of newspaper into another barely noting my existence.

I stood there shaking, embarrassed by my tears.

Two police officers came and I spat out my story between sobs, wiping my nose on the sleeve of my coat.

“There was a guy,” I said.  “In the parking lot.  He hit me.  He took my purse.”

One cop scribbled a few notes.

“Are you hurt?” they asked.  I felt my head and found a damp gash where the ache was.  I showed them my bloody knees.  I moved my right arm around to make sure everything still operated.

The cops drove me to the hospital in their squad car.

I had to tell the people in the emergency room my story all over.  A doctor gave my body a once over, patched up my knees and stitched up my head.  He suggested I take Tylenol for the pain.  A nurse took me to a place where I could use a phone.  I called my boyfriend.

“Was he black?” were his first words.

“Yes,” I admitted through sobs.

The next day, I had to tell my kids what had happened.  They knew some drama was unfolding and that it wasn’t good.  I explained that I was all right.  That my purse had been stolen and a man had hit me.  Ben (7) stroked my arm and searched my eyes.  Sam (11) smashed the table with his fist and demanded to know, “Was he black?!”

“Yes,” I said, “but that’s not important.”

“I knew it!” he shrieked.

I called my parents.  My mother cried.  She told me to be more careful and stay out of “those” neighborhoods.

I stayed home from work the next day.  The kids were at school.  My boss was concerned and told me to take as much time as I needed.  I cancelled the credit card I had so recently and proudly acquired.  The bank wanted to know how I knew that my credit card had been stolen.

The police called and asked if I thought I could identify my assailant.

“Of course,” I quickly replied.  I wanted the man who did this to me, the man who made me feel a fear so intense that I didn’t want to leave my house, to be punished.

Two police officers showed up in less than a half hour.  They were different than the ones who came to the Milwaukee Journal station the last night but the same typical officers—white with short hair.

They asked me to describe him.  I said that it was dark in the parking lot but that I knew he was African American, not fat but kind of hefty and about as tall as me.  They spread a big black binder of small photos across my lap.  Every photo was a head shot of a young black man.

I chewed my lower lip and studied them closely finally focusing on two.  “It’s either this one or that one,” I told the officers.

“It can only be one,” the friendlier of the two responded.

So I picked one.  The less friendly officer snapped the book shut and said that it wasn’t him.

Confused, I asked “why not?”

They offered no explanation and left abruptly.

Had I picked someone who was dead, in jail, or in another state?  The questions swirled in my mind and shame rose in my throat.  Was I willing to make someone, any black man, pay for what happened to me?  Was I willing to send a man to jail just because he is black?

I did my best to shrug off the terror the next day when I pulled into the MATC parking lot where the incident happened.  I had no other choice.  I couldn’t afford to stay home.  I only had a dollar in my purse along with the uncashed payroll check I’d received that day.

Everyone knew.  My coworkers stared at me with dog eyed concern.  When I called the finance department and explained what happened and that I would need a replacement check, I was told they could not reissue it until there was an attempt at fraud.  I told my boss who called the head of the college.  Within minutes he came to see me personally with a check and to share the school’s immediate plans to implement a security escort service.

Still, hackles rose on the back of my neck every time a young black man passed me in the hall.  I knew the mix of shame and fear I was feeling wasn’t rational but logic did nothing to stop it.

The following weekend, I was visiting my parents with my kids.  The phone rang while Dad was in the garage and Mom was busy with dinner so I answered it.

“May I please speak to Edward Mal-lay?” the unfamiliar voice said.  He pronounced our name wrong so I knew it wasn’t a friend of Dad’s.  A prickly premonition made me aware of every strand of hair on my head.

“He’s busy,” I said.  “Can you tell me what this is about?”

“Yeah, uh, I found a purse in the basement at Hillside (a housing project) and it had a card in it that said to call Mr. Mal-lay at this number in case of emergency.”

“What does the purse look like?” I asked.

Mom stopped what she was doing and stared at me.

He described my favorite faux leather caramel colored purse with a big zipper close.

“That’s my purse,” I said.

“When can you come and get it?” he asked.

“Tomorrow morning,” I offered.  The man gave me his address and we agreed on 10 a.m.

I immediately called the police officer who had given me his card the day they showed me the mug shots and told him about the call.

“Maybe that was him—the guy who did it!”  I asked if he would retrieve my purse for me since there was no way in hell I was going there.

The officer called the next day to tell me that the man who found my purse could not have been the same man who mugged me but he didn’t say why not.  He said that I could come to the police station anytime to pick it up.

I retrieved my caramel colored purse the next day.  At home alone, I solemnly emptied it of the little book of photos of my kids, my hairbrush, my lipstick, and my empty wallet.  I went outside and hacked through the snow with a spade.  I dug a whole where the rhubarb grows and buried it.