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.  http://wuwm.com/post/essay-memorable-birthday


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.