My idiot ex husband leaves a voice mail that says my old friend Renae died.  He thought I’d like to know.  It has been over 20 years since I’d last seen her.

I desperately call him back while scouring obituaries online and digging the last months-worth of newspapers out of the recycling bin.  I call a dozen times.  He doesn’t answer.  I remember that she was the one who brought me and my new born second son home from the hospital.  I was alone and afraid in the middle of a divorce.

Renae and I met because our husbands were friends.  We both married when we were 18 years old and pregnant.  Our babies were due on the same day.  We were in touch every day.  Counseling each other through our pregnancies—“I can’t believe what’s happening to my boobs!”—and motherhood—“How long do they have to wear diapers anyway?”—and coping with husbands who were more interested in hanging out in bars than being fathers—“Want to have a sleep over and play Scrabble?” It was like walking a tightrope but finding comfort in the fact that you could look out and see someone else out there along with you, far from the edge.

I take a chance and call the last phone number I had for her.  A number that I kept even when I updated my address book and discarded others.  Disconnected.  I search for her on FaceBook and LinkedIn.  I remember the time that we  took our little boys to State Fair.  She bent over to feed the baby animals and a little goat chewed the buttons off of her blouse.

Finally, the idiot calls back and says that he was mistaken.  She isn’t dead yet but has cancer and will be dead any day now.  “Do you have a phone number?  Does she still live in the same house?”  He doesn’t know.  I remember the night Renae and I called the police because we couldn’t find her son anywhere.  He’d been hiding in the clothes hamper the whole time.

I do the only thing I can do.  I write a letter to the old address.  I tell her that I miss sitting at her kitchen table with a blue mug of black coffee, with her two-year-old daughter perched on top of the table like a little eaves dropper.  I send it out into the universe and hope that it will find her before it’s too late.  I think about Renae’s potato salad recipe, the one with the chicken bouillon cube.  I’m sure I still have it crammed in that dusty old yellow recipe card box.

A week later I get a text.  “It’s good to hear from you.  I have stage four lung cancer.  Probably have less than a year to live.  I would love a visit.”  I remember how proud she was that I went to college after my divorce and that she insisted on giving me a manicure on graduation day.

I don’t know what I expected.  Maybe her lying in bed, gasping for air, weeping in anticipation of our grand reunion.  But the scene I arrive at teleports me back over two decades.  It’s exactly the same.  Her husband and her son pacing around the yard engaged in some vague chore.  Renae meets me at the back door with a cup of coffee.  Everything is the same except now she’s bald.  I remember that when Sam was a toddler with a penchant for wadding up paper and jamming it up his nose, she advised me to shake pepper into my hand and give him a whiff so that he’d sneeze it out.

We fall right back into step.  She shows me pictures of her seven grandchildren and complains about her husband.  We have several more visits.  I take her to lunch at a restaurant on her bucket list.  At a beer garden with our handsome sons who are both now fathers themselves, I have an IPA and she has a coffee.  She never liked beer.  I volunteer for a few trips to the hospital for chemo pushing her wheel chair through the vast hallways, always making a stop at the gift shop.

On the surface, I aim to be helpful but clearly being with her is feeding my own soul in a way that feels selfish.  She doesn’t really need me.  She has plenty of support from legions of friends and family members.  Yet, I get to be the long lost friend that resurfaces just in time to provide comfort.  And I’m paying my penance, assuaging my guilt for leaving her behind, for not taking her with me on the journey of life.

We talk about death.  She tells me that she believes in an after life.  She says that she has to.  She would like me to help her write letters to her children.  But she’s not ready.  I promise to do my best to stay in touch with them.

I wonder why we ever lost touch in the first place.  Would we ever have reconnected if she wasn’t dying?  Will I be able to stay in touch with her daughter Katie any better?  I decide that it doesn’t matter.  What counts for both of us is being together in this moment.  I guess my ex isn’t such an idiot after all.  He called because he knew Renae was important to me and I’m grateful.

Right before Christmas, when Renae can no longer get out of bed, I’m summoned.  She wants to see me.  It will be our last visit.  She has a gift for me.  It’s a bracelet with a “friends forever” charm.  I rub her legs to help ease her pain.  My last gift to her.



The big bay window of the kitchen gave my grandparents the perfect perch from which to spy on the neighborhood.  As the sun went down and they finished the last of their pork shanks and sauerkraut, they would sit with the lights out and watch.  “Mr. Durr’s home from work late again.”  “Those Gitter kids don’t do a very good job at mowing the lawn.”  “The Westphal’s need new shingles on their garage roof.”

Grandma and Grandpa’s house was on the corner at the top of a hill.  We lived next door.  There were always eyes on us.  One Sunday morning, grandma invited us over for breakfast.  My sister shrieked with joy when she spotted her missing doll sitting in a blue and green flowered vinyl kitchen chair.  Mary Jo made a bee line for the doll but Grandma stopped her in her tracks.  “Oh no.  That’s my doll.  Some irresponsible little girl left her out in the cold and rain and now she’s my doll.”  And Grandma meant it.

My brother Joe, who always played that he was working, would move piles of bricks in a wagon from a spot in our back yard to a spot in my grandparents front yard and back again.  Grandpa supervised from the kitchen window.

As a hormone fueled teenager, I snuck my boyfriend into the garage for a french kissing lesson.  We’d just settled into a cozy spot in the corner on top of a paint tarp when the door flew open and the light clicked on.  “Boy you better go home now,” was all she said.  She was also clearly the “anonymous source” who reported me for rolling my skirt up way above my knees on my way to school and for smoking cigarets in the alley.

Eventually, I learned to watch for signs.  The glow of the ash from Grandpa’s cigar.  The rhythmic thumping of finger nails on the formica kitchen table.  The squeak of the swivel chairs.  I learned to be a spy too.

And when my own grandsons walked home from school by themselves for the very first time, my husband and I were there.  With our car camouflaged by a thicket of bushes a half block away, our eyes were on them.

This Started Out as a Love Story

Hard nutty cheese.  Musky red wine.  Candles drip on the lapis blue cloth on a table by the sea.  A black cat sits on my lap and I let it.

It is just you and me and the cat.  It’s dark.  The candles flicker in the warm breeze.  Our music is the roar of the waves as they wall-by-the-seacrash against the wall by the sea.  I am perhaps most in love with you in this moment.  Our hearts suspended together.  Breathing in peace, an ocean away from home.

Home.  Where bills need to be paid and alarms are set.  Where the light over the kitchen table dims our dreams.  Where expectations and household maintenance avert our gaze away from each other and the content of our hearts.

What I didn’t know then was how hard it would be to be with you again like that—with hard cheese and a bottle of wine.  We tried.  Romantic restaurants in other towns.  But a black cat never sat on my lap again.  And you never want any wine.  And the cheese just stinks.

Another Racist Day at the Soccer Field or Two Bad Uncles

My son, Ben, played soccer for a racially diverse club team more than 20 years ago.  The Croation Eagles had Latino kids, African American kids, and kids of just about every white European heritage possible.  Ben was one of the few members of the team who was actually of at least partial Croation heritage.  The BS the kids of color had to put up with was deplorable.  On numerous occasions I heard parents from opposing teams drop the N bomb and call the Latino kids spics.

The Croation Eagles team parents did our best to shield our kids but the slurs from the opposing teams continued.  And our parents weren’t always well behaved either.  One of the moms on our team actually screamed “You must be on the rag,” to a female ref at one game.

I really did think it was going to be better by the time my two grandkids played soccer. Last winter, Ben was coaching his boys Noah and Ezra’s 10 and 8 year old teams in indoor soccer through the local rec department.  During Noah’s game, one of the Latinas on Ben’s team, Breeza, accidentally collided with Vickie, a white girl from the other team, accidentally knocking off her glasses.  Vickie picked them up.  Breeza asked her if she was okay.  Vickie nodded yes and the game continued.  No big deal.  Noah’s team won.  The onlookers and players started heading for the door

Vickie’s uncle, a young guy of about 20 wearing a neck brace that we later learned was because of a drunk driving accident, started talking smack to Ben.  “So I guess it’s easy to win when you teach your team to play dirty,” with lots of cussing for emphasis.  It became clear that it was the “aggressive” Latinas like Breeza that he had a problem with.  Ben told him to watch his language in front of the kids and suggested they go outside the school to talk.  They did.

Vickie’s uncle immediately throws off his neck brace and pulls out a switch blade posturing for battle.  Shocked, Ben said that if he wanted to fight him he needed to lose the knife.  A crowd gathers around.  Vickie cries.  Her mother yells to the uncle, her brother, to quit and come home with them.  There’s lots of commotion but finally, the uncle stalks off.

Everyone was upset.  But if there was anything good about the situation, it was that I got to watch my son in action.  He stayed calm and coached Ezra’s soccer game immediately after the incident.  He talked to his sons about how men behave.  “Tough guys don’t use weapons and don’t start fights.”

He said really thoughtful stuff about how they should be kind to Vickie because none of this was her fault and not to let anyone else be mean to her either.  That Monday at school, Vickie told Noah that she was really sorry for what happened, that she didn’t want anything bad to happen to his Dad.  Noah hugged Vickie and told her that she didn’t do anything wrong, just like his dad told him to.

This spring, Noah and Ezra, now 11 and 9, left rec soccer behind and joined the fabulously diverse teams of the Club Deportivo Aztecas (Aztec Sports Club) along with Breeza and her friend Nonny.  These girls are a force to be reckoned with.  All last year during community rec soccer, all the boys whined that no one could get past Nonny.  And Breeza, I saw her take a ball in the face and just keep moving.

The families are friendly, sharing food and carpooling.  There’s lots of Spanish and English flying around and we’re all learning from each other.  The kids are respectful and the coaches are smart and caring.  It’s a poor team compared to some of the big clubs.  We have one field at local elementary school compared to clubs that have more than a dozen fields, a concession stands and bathrooms.  We don’t go to a lot of tournaments.  But the Aztecas are affordable and inclusive and we like that.  I thought everything was pretty hunky dory.

But then this happened at the Aztecas versus a big club game last weekend.

Nonny’s uncle lit up a cigarette.  Within seconds, a tall man I assumed was a parent from the opposing team demanded that he put it out.

“This is a kids soccer field.  There’s no smoking.”

Nonny’s uncle, a slight man with a long scraggly brown ponytail, said something like, “I don’t see any signs,” and suggested that he mind his own business.  And he put out his cigarette.

The tall guy, the kind of good looking well dressed and groomed guy that has the arrogant glow of privilege, wasn’t satisfied.

“When you’re a guest in our house you follow our rules.”

That comment sparked a conversation between Nonny’s uncle and Nonny’s mother in Spanish.  And then the shit hit the fan.

“Speak American.  You’re in our country, at our soccer field,” said Mr. Privilege.

“Hey this is my America too,” said Nonny’s uncle.

Mr Privilege said something like “you don’t act like it.”

It was like he lit a match.  Nonny’s mother unleashed a firestorm of cuss words.  This is what happens, I thought, when weeks and months and years of the constant drip, drip, drip of racial insults and stereotyping finally ignite.

And there was plenty of fuel flowing from Mr. Privlege…”You people this and you people that…”

One woman came over to take video of Nonny’s cussing mother on her cell phone.  Another woman gently walked up to her and asked if she was drunk or high.

There were so many people standing around gawking that it was hard to tell who was there to support Nonny’s family and who was there to watch the side show of a Latino family melt down.  Mr. Privilege stormed off somewhere to “file a formal complaint.”  It was whispered in the crowd that he was on the board of the soccer club.

Ben was the only person who came up with a way to end the stalemate.  He simply invited Nonny’s family to join ours.  To the gawkers, Nonny’s mom said, “We’re going to go sit with the cool people.”

Noah and Ezra’s other grandmother, Char, welcomed Nonny’s mother to our group by saying, “Nonny is so tall.  Where does she get her height?”  I intervened with “So now we’re going to call her (Nonny’s mother) short!”  People chuckled and a tenuous calm was restored through the rest of the game.

Up until then, the families of both teams had been interspersed along the spectators sideline of the field.  Slowly lawn chairs continued to be rearranged until all of the Aztecas families were on one side and the big club on another.

After a hard fought battle on the field, the Aztecas won!  6 to 5.  Of course, Nonny’s uncle couldn’t resist giving the finger to Mr. Privilege who shook his head and looked away in disgust.

When the teams came around for the ceremonial round of high fives, both sets of parents congratulated both teams although Nonny’s uncle needed a little encouragement.  I was grateful that the kids had been too busy playing a competitive game to pay any attention to what their idiot families were doing.

I’m sure that not every adult associated with this big club was in agreement.  And it’s true that Nonny’s uncle shouldn’t have been smoking and her mother should have tried harder to contain her rage.  But as Ben says, “tough guys don’t use weapons,” and I can think of no sharper weapon than the racism Mr. Privilege and the smug group of parents wielded on this fine sunny afternoon.

Me and Bill

In the summer of 2002 I was “between jobs,” which means that brief, liberating yet nerve wracking time when I stupidly, I mean boldly, quit a job without having another.  I was thrilled at the freedom to explore opportunities and do freelance work at home in my pajamas but terrified by the idea of running out of money before I had built up enough work or secured another “real” job.

So when my friend Kate called and asked if I wanted to participate in a Milwaukee area Democratic fundraiser for Tammy Baldwin featuring none other than the former President Bill Clinton, I quickly declined.  The $250 minimum price tag was just too much even though I really liked Tammy and wanted to see her reelected.  Besides, Bill pissed me off.  I was still really mad about how he cheated on Hillary with that dumb Monica Lewinsky and tried to deny it.  What a chump!  How could a whole country trust a man whose own wife couldn’t?

But Kate called back whining about how much she really needed my help and offered to comp my ticket in exchange for volunteer time.  I was still reluctant.  Then she reminded me how many “important” people would be there and how it would be good for my career to be networking.  And my husband butted into the conversation with a snide comment about it not being “healthy” to hang around the house in my pajamas every day.   “Okay, fine.  I’ll do it,” I finally said.

The Performing Arts Center where the midday event was to take place was abuzz with activity when I arrived.  I was helping to organize name tags while scary looking federal security personnel lurked around with their curled chords plugged into their ears.   They looked like “Men in Black” and it gave the ambiance a kind of surreal feel to it.  And Clinton’s so called advance team was intimidating in their efficiency.  A terse young woman in very high heels and a prim suit answered her cell phone with a piercing verbal jab.  “Go!” was all she said.  Kate and the rest of us volunteers scurried around like peptic crazy people to a constant barrage of announcements—“He’s 30 minutes out; He’s 25 minutes out; He’s 22 minutes out.”

Frenzied guests began to arrive and move through the security check.  It felt like the Easter Parade with everyone in their best business formal ware, men in dark suits with their best silk ties in spite of the heat; women gussied up with colorful summer suits, sheer hose and light colored pumps.

“He’s 19 minutes out.”

The guests were a bunch of nervous nellies.  “Where’s my name tag?”    “I know I made a reservation.”  “When will President Clinton arrive?”

“He’s 14.2 minutes out.”

The Men in Black paced faster.

“9 minutes out.”

The air felt electric.   I could hear the distant sound of sirens, the police escort.  The guests were literally tittering.

“5 minutes out.”

The Men in Black and the sharp young woman and other campaign workers stood outside the entrance at straight-back attention, hands crossed behind their backs while we volunteers rolled our eyes.”

“2 minutes out”

No one was breathing.

“30 seconds out.”

And with amazing accuracy, Bill’s motorcade pulled up at exactly zero.  He got out of the car like a celebrity surrounded by his fans only in this case it was the Men in Black.  He whispered something to the sharp young woman, who scurried over to Kate to whisper something in her ear.  Kate made a gesture to point down the hall.  Bill had to use the bathroom.  Even former presidents have to go potty.

Just like everything else about this event, the photo taking proceeded with amazing efficiency. In less than 30 minutes more than 75 couples or individuals assembled themselves in poses with Tammy and Bill and shots were taken.  I could feel the righteous smirk still lingering on my face but I had to admit that Bill looked good.  He had lost weight and wore a trim black suit with a pink shirt and a pink and blue striped tie with small flowers in the pink stripes.  His thick white hair was well cut and coifed and the small pompadour poof gave him a 60s rock star swagger. I swear I could smell Aqua Velva.

Kate gave me a nudge and knocked me out of my stupor.   “Your turn.”  What?  Me?  No kidding.  Me and the other women volunteers (there were no male volunteers) got in the end of the line for our turn for a group photo.

“Go” said the terse young woman and five of us stepped into the frame.  I stumbled around like a fool uttering “where should I stand?  where should I stand?”    “Right here,” said Bill and he put his arm around my waste and pulled me in for the shot.  And just as quickly, he  moved his hand to my back and gently shoved me away so that the next group could move in.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” I practically shouted as I  joined everyone else in my group beaming from ear to ear .

Bill Clinton and MeWe transitioned on to our new role of helping to seat people in the theater.  I wound up filling a seat in the front row.  I hardly remember anything anyone said except that Bill talked about forming a more perfect union.   I remember most clearly the look on every single woman’s face in the audience.  Regardless of age, race, or economic status, we looked at Bill with an upward tilted face, adoring glistening eyes and a smiling slightly agape mouth.  He was Elvis.  The King.  We hoped he would look in our direction and give us a personal moment.  Just one.

And just like that it was over.  Elvis had left the building.

Kate grabbed me and said, “It’s ok that we have the ‘wheels up’ party at your house, right?”  Wheels up?  What?  Apparently it is tradition for campaign workers to have a few drinks together after the president’s jet has taken off and I happened to live close to the airport.

But first, we were all to scurry to the private chartered flight part of the airport where I had never been before and help Bill shake hands with a few more donors.   It was my job to stand outside the airport and peer down Layton Avenue to watch for the motorcade.  I got excited when I saw a limo make a u turn into The Nite Owl, a well known custard and burger stand.  Bill was known for his love of fast food, but it wasn’t him.  A decoy, maybe.  But then Bill showed up in the biggest blackest SUV I’ve ever seen.

More hand shaking and photos and then everyone jumped in their cars and headed to my house.  The wheels were up!  Everyone included about 30 members of Clinton’s and Baldwin’s staffs, my friend Kate, and a few of the other volunteers.

The guests emptied the refrigerator of beer and drained every bottle of wine, including the supply Kate brought, into every glass I had in the house.  Ninety percent of the revelers were smoking in the small closed in space that connects the house to the garage when the squeaky automatic garage door announced my husband’s arrival home from work.  I reached the door of the garage just as he opened it.

“Hi,” he said as he quizzically scanned the bar scene from Star Wars going on in our house.  “What did you do today, honey?”

Disco Crash

I check my reflection in the mirror.  Stretch marks and a caesarean scar have put an end to my bikini days but with my sleek new black dress I look like any other slender 22 year old.  I load the boys into my used Chamois Gold 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale, drop them off at my parents house, and head out to the Tropicana Disco to meet my friend, Sandy.

Under the swirling, flashing lights, we do the Hustle, the Bump, the Funky Chicken, and our own brand of free style disco to Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and KC and the Sunshine Band.  But when the DJ plays Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the perfect anthem for a newly-minted divorce`, I own that dance floor.  I belt out “Oh, no, not I” with all the conviction in the world.  But my disco zen is interrupted by a silly gaggle of weird looking guys jerking wildly with flailing elbows, clearly trying to get my attention.  I ignore them.

On my way home, a yellow Ford Pinto appears in my rear view mirror.  The guys from the disco pull up in the left lane along side of my Olds, beeping their horn, whooping and hollering, thrusting an index finger to the sky, mimicking Travolta’s signature dance move.

“What the_______” I think just as my car clips the bumper of a parked car.  The jolt ricochets my Olds into the left lane and as I close in on the car full of guys, their faces change from hilarity to open mouthed alarm.  I hit them full force in the right fender sending both of our cars spinning out of control.

When the Olds finally loses momentum, I guide it to the side of the road as do the four nerds in the Pinto.  They jump out of the car and run to ask if I am okay.  We are all shaky but okay.  I assess the damage.  The Olds took the hit pretty well and doesn’t look too bad except for a flattened fender, but the Pinto isn’t going anywhere.

“You guys were at the Tropicana tonight?” I ask for confirmation.

“Yeah, man.  We saw you,” says the curly haired one. “We were gonna buy you a drink but….” The other three pimply faced guys sort of shrink behind him like a bunch of 12-year-olds.  I yawn with impatience.  “So, how about we don’t sue you if you go out with us?” He asks.

“All four of you?”


Certain they will never call anyway, I give the bold one my phone number.

But they do call.  I get Sandy to agree to go with me but she backs out at the last minute. I go anyway.  To get it over with.  They take turns dancing with me but my effort is flat.  They are all clearly nervous..having trouble with eye contact, fidgeting with their shirt collars, scratching their ears.  We have scant conversation shouting through the blaring music. I learn that they graduated from high school just a few months ago.

I stir the remnants of my screwdriver and mention that I have to get home soon to relieve the babysitter.  “Yes, I have two kids.”  The needle skips on the record, and everybody in the disco turns to stare at me with that look, that disco crash look. The “date” ends abruptly.  I drive myself home, the voice of Gloria Gaynor  and “I will survive” playing in my head with just a little less conviction.

I never hear from them again.  Didn’t expect to.  Even if I had found them charming and attractive, so much more than a few years separate us.  Their lives are college chemistry and spring break and new beginnings.  Mine is diapers and food stamps and a slightly damaged Chamois Gold Oldsmobile.

me and the boys 1978

A Memorable Birthday

My birthday is January 8th.  Two weeks after Christmas and one week after New Years, in the dead of Wisconsin’s winter.  It’s usually not much of a celebration.  I’ve had a birthday gathering that was canceled due to a six foot snowfall.  A birthday when no one, not even my mother, remembered to send a card.  Oh, and then there was the year I turned 40.  I had an emergency tonsillectomy.  Yep, at best, my birthday has been just another day for my entire adulthood.

Except for last year.  I was turning 59, the last year of a big decade, and I had just quit a job that paid well but sucked the joy out of life.  It was time to get out of the god forsaken freezer we live in and let our friends, California Dave and his wife, Misao, show us a good time.

Dave and Misao live in San Jose and are wonderful hosts.  My husband, Tom, and I had visited many times before and they knew exactly what I would like.  The morning of January 8th we set out for a long hike in the red woods of Henry Cowell Park and had a picnic lunch.  Then on to wine tasting at Beauregard Winery.  Late afternoon we headed to Bonny Doon beach to watch what promised to be a glorious sunset.

As we started our slightly tipsy descent down the sand dunes with a blanket to find a comfortable viewing spot, something besides the setting sun caught our attention.  A paunchy middle aged naked guy with shoulder length white hair, who had a remarkable resemblance to my husband from a distance, was running laps between dunes, his junk flip flopping with every step.

“Hey, that guy could be Tom’s stunt double,” said Dave.  A humorous observation.  There were distinct similarities.  But seeing a naked guy wasn’t a big deal.  We’d been to this beach before and been exposed to similar situations.  This is a nude friendly beach but we’re not the type to indulge.

We had just settled down on our blanket to watch the sunset when Misao inexplicably got up and took off after Naked Guy.  Most of the time, Misao is pretty quiet and reserved but every once in a while, she surprises us.  Like the time she yelled “Heat it up, heat it up” at the craps table at Potawatomi.  Or the time she leaned over the balcony to blow kisses to the cast of Jersey Boys.  Or the time she scolded me for being impatient with my husband.  She later apologized for “going all Japanese on me.”

We could see that Misao and Naked Guy were exchanging a few words and then they turned and ran back to the blanket together.

“Oh, no she didn’t,” I said and had serious thoughts about running the other way.

“I hear it’s your birthday,” said Naked Guy whose wing dang doodle was at my eye level.

“Yes it is,” I said trying to avert my gaze.

“Well, happy birthday,” said Naked Guy with a shrug and returned to his jiggly lap running.

“Nope,” said Tom who had the same close up view I did.  “No way that guy could be my stunt double.”

I laughed so hard I snorted merlot out of my nose.  “If I was going to see a naked guy on my birthday, couldn’t it have been Antonio Banderas?”

Note:  A version of this essay with the naughty bits edited out aired on WUWM’s Lake Effect 1/7/16.


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?”



“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.

Circle of Women

Brenda and me at the YWCA's Circle of Women in 2012
Brenda and me at the YWCA’s Circle of Women in 2012

She was crying so hard I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.  But I knew it was Brenda because her name popped up when the phone rang.  “What’s happened, Brenda? Tell me what’s happened,” I pleaded.

“I can’t take it anymore.  Elaine, I just can’t take it any more,” she said through sobs of utter, utter defeat.  “Could you meet me?  Just for a little while.  Please.”

We made arrangements to meet at a coffee shop near where I just finished a yoga class.  The daytime class was a new found luxury for me after leaving my full time job and declaring myself on indefinite sabbatical.

I first met Brenda over twenty years ago. With her young son in tow, she cleaned the offices of the YWCA.   She could have been any other cleaning lady except for the gold star in a front tooth that sparkled when she smiled and hinted at a soul that shone brightly.

The YW was still relatively small back in 1995, but we had big ideas—a job center where women could obtain a GED and get job training in nontraditional fields like the construction trades; affordable housing combined with wrap around family support services; and a women’s business incubator to provide a path to financial security through entrepreneurship.  It was  all part of the vision for the Women’s Enterprise Center we were building on King Drive.

I was in charge of fundraising.  I don’t remember exactly how much we needed but it was more money than me or the YWCA had ever raised before.  The Michigan-based Kresge Foundation offered a challenge grant of $500,000 if we could just raise the rest and demonstrate that we had community support.

How did the YMCA always manage to raise so much more money than us?  Why did the Boy Scouts always raise so much more money than the Girl Scouts?  How did universities like Marquette manage to gather a room full of businessmen, ask them to write checks, and raise gigantic sums.  Couldn’t women do that too?

With the support of a small group of feisty determined volunteers, we launched The Circle of Women event in the spring of 1996.  The strategy was to ask women to bring their friends to a luncheon without a ticket price, and then inspire them to make contributions through the testimonials of women who benefited by the YW’s programs.   No other local women-focused nonprofit had done that before.  More than one of our corporate supporters cautioned that we wouldn’t be successful without the support of male leadership and that women would never write checks for as much as $100 without permission from their husbands.

We did it anyway.

Brenda was one of three courageous women who told their stories to the audience of more than 500 women at the packed Bradley Center that day.  She talked about how her cleaning business was growing through the YW’s support and her pride in being able to provide a living for 20 employees.  She talked about the difference her success was making in her family.  She and her husband, a Milwaukee County bus driver, purchased a home and were saving for their sons’ college education.

There were tears, a standing ovation, and donations that surpassed our wildest dreams.  We raised over $100,000.  The Kresge Foundation awarded us the grant.  The YWCA realized it’s ambition and Circle of Women was established as one of the premiere annual fundraising events in Milwaukee.

A few years after that first event, Brenda was ready to turn the cleaning business over to others and look for a new challenge.  With support from a YWCA board member, she secured a spot in a bank training program and quickly rose through the ranks to become a branch manager recognized for her dedication to customer service.

I  eventually left the YWCA in pursuit of my own next challenge and Brenda and I lost touch for a while.  But in 2003, when my husband and I refinanced our house, she was the closer at the title loan company.  She had advanced her career yet again.

Through no fault of Brenda’s, a scandal embroiled the title mortgage company and it closed.  Brenda let me know when she landed a position with Select Milwaukee, a nonprofit dedicated to helping first time home buyers achieve and maintain home ownership.  When my son was ready to buy his first house in 2005, Brenda helped him work around his nonexistent credit score to secure a loan to re-roof the dilapidated fixer-upper.  The home deal would not have gone through without her.

In 2011, Brenda invited me to lunch at her family’s new home in the Walnut Crossing Development.  She told me that she felt it was her duty to invest—to reclaim what had become a high crime, dangerous place.  She gave me a tour of the beautifully constructed home making sure to point out special features like easy to clean counters and a built in vacuum system, a real point of pride for a former cleaning lady.  Brenda served an elegant chicken salad luncheon on china paired with crystal goblets of sparkling water.  We talked about our next career steps and reminisced about our days at the YWCA.  We agreed that we would be table captains for the upcoming Circle of Women event together.   And we’ve been doing that ever since.

Until this year.

After our conversation in 2011, Brenda had taken another job in banking but banking and the home financing industry had changed drastically in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and Brenda lost her job seven months ago.  Not a comfortable place for this hard working woman who didn’t expect to be in this position in her mid 50s.

At the coffee shop, I hold Brenda’s hand as she tearfully recounted the last several months of crushing disappointment.  Within the last three weeks, she had been offered two consecutive jobs at banks which were both rescinded because of her credit score which apparently is important in the financial industry regardless of the position.  She and her husband were doing their best to keep up, but bills weren’t always getting paid on time.  Recognizing that not having a college degree was catching up with her, she had enrolled at a local university last year but now she wondered if it would be worth it.  Would she ever be able to repay the student loans?  The breaking point, what led her to call me today, was an interview with a local property developer.  The opening looked promising until she learned that it would pay only $10 an hour.   The indignity of it was crushing her spirit.   “I might as well be a felon,” she cried.  I noticed that the gold star on her tooth was gone.  Maybe it had been removed a long time ago.

Feeling powerless, I fumble around giving her ideas of people to call who might be in a position to help her and of companies outside of the banking industry who might be hiring.  Of course I want to help if I can.  But the injustice of it all is setting my hair aflame.  How can this be happening?

I had planned to write a glowing story about the 20th anniversary of the YWCA’s Circle of Women,  about all that women had accomplished by supporting one another and how the gifts we give come back to us.  The friendship between Brenda and me is indeed proof.  But instead, I’m writing about injustice.  Brenda, who has always lived within her means and invested in our city, faces a decline in economic status as she approaches what for most of us are peak earning years contributing to the retirement nest egg.  An honest ethical professional, she is denied a job at a bank because she’s a little behind paying bills while Wall Street pays multi million dollar salaries to people who are responsible for the collapse of the economy.   Brenda’s lack of a college education is restricting her opportunities regardless of decades of experience while the Governor of Wisconsin, who also doesn’t have a college degree, is mounting a run for the presidency.

I realize that the story isn’t finished.  I must believe that Brenda will rise again.  And that somehow, women will circle to work for social change that will make a difference for Brenda, for me, for our collective daughters and sons.  But damn it, we shouldn’t have to.