Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Books for which I am thankful...

Blogging and personal writing have been nearly non-existent since the school year began. This month, however, will have an ongoing post. Throughout November, I will be posting a quote from books for which I am thankful. I encourage you to add your own quotes/books in the comment section, and please let me know if you've read any of these great works!
23.  "To lose love is a terrible thing... But to turn away from it is unbearable.  Will you spend the rest of your life replaying it in your head?  Wondering if you walked away too soon or too easily?  Or if you'll ever love anyone that deeply again?"

Kristin Hannah, Winter Garden

22.   “The most dangerous thing we can believe is that we are not the authors of our fate.  God gave us reason, conscience.  We must use it.  To say that our life, our world, just is the way that it is, that we do not play a part - I think it is the worst kind of cowardice.”

Kelly O’Connor McNees, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

21.    “Any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

Wilkie Collins, A Woman in White

20.   "The incompetent always present themselves as experts, the cruel as pious, sinners as devout, usurers as benefactors, the small-minded as patriots, the arrogant as humble, the vulgar as elegant, and the feeble-minded as intellectual."

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game

19.  “A birth is not really a beginning. Our lives at the start are not really our own but only the continuation of someone else's story.”

Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

18.  “You’re so good at pretending, you’re even tricking yourself.”

Emma Donoghue, Room

17.   “How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.”

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

16.  “It'll be a change," says Marcus. "Something different."
         "Not a mystery."
         Marcus laughs. "No. Not a mystery. Just a nice safe history."
         “Ah, my darling. But there is no such thing.”

Kate Morton, The House at Riverton

15.  “Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.”

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

14.  "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions... but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

13.  "Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves."

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

12.   “Why did you do all this for me?" he asked. "I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,' replied Charlotte. 'That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

11.  “But the rest are even scared to open up and laugh. You know, that's the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn't anybody laughing. I haven't heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.”

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

10.   “He was BEAT — the root, the soul of Beatific.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

9.  "A man ain't nothing but a man. But a son? Well, now, that's somebody"

Toni Morrison, Beloved

8.  "There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where things are behind bars, and the man is outside."

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

7.  “... there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life... you steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness... there is no act more wretched than stealing.”

- Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner 

6.  “The discomfort of that gaze, its disconcerting combination of impenetrability and knowingness, affected me intensely, producing a kind of paralysis of will.  I felt that she knew me instantly for what I was, and for who I was, in all my disguises.  It appeared to me that those eyes had taken in all the degradations of my life, and recorded all my doings committed beneath the light of heaven, or the cloak of night; that they saw, too, what I was capable of, and what, with time and opportunity, I would do.  I suddenly felt unaccountably afraid of her; for I knew then that I would have no choice but to love her, with nothing given back.”

- Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night 

5.  “She told us that both our grandmothers were angry because neither Lori nor I had been named after them, so she decided to call the baby Lilly Ruth Maureen.  Lilly was Mom’s mother’s name, and Erma Ruth was Dad’s mother’s name.  But we’d call the baby Maureen, a name Mom liked because it was a diminutive of Mary, so she’d also be naming the baby after herself but pretty much no one would know it.  That, Dad told us, would make everyone happy except his mom, who hated the name Ruth and wanted the baby called Erma, and Mom’s mom, who would hate sharing her namesake with Dad’s mom.”

- Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

4.  "When you're five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how hold you are. I'm twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm--you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it."

- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants 

3.  "Bodies may be tortured.  They may even die.  But the spirit goes on.  And if a person is part of family, the spirit is housed anew in another body each time a child builds his home as a branch of his parents'.  In this way, every father and every mother, every grandfather and every grandmother, goes on living in children and grandchildren."

- Naomi Ragen, The Ghost of Hannah Mendes

2.  "Success today would dispel at last the eastern perception that Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater; failure would bring humiliation from which the city would not soon recover, given how heartily its leading men had boasted that Chicago would prevail.  It was this big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago the Windy City."

- Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

1.  “Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen.”

- Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow in the Wind

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th

It was September 11, 2001.  I had a 22-month old and 5-month old.  It was early.  I heard the phone ring, but I was busy with the boys.  I didn't pay attention to the message or wonder who had called.  I assumed it was my mother and would return the call when I had finished changing the infant's diaper and cleaning up the toddler's breakfast mess.  But something told me to check the answering machine right away, not to wait, and so I did.  It was Lorie's voice, the voice of my childhood friend/maid-of-honor/partner and confidante in life's ups and downs.  The voice was uncharacteristically shaken.  "Ger, you have to turn on the news.  A plane flew into the World Trade Center."  I was holding the baby when I pressed the power button on the remote, and just as the screen turned from black to vivid image, I saw the billowing smoke from the tops of the towers and thought, "No way."  Then the replay of the events were shown, the first building already ablaze, a commercial plane careening smack into the second building, the horror on the faces of journalists, and the unstated reality that some kind of evil plan was being carried out in New York.  "Dear God," I started, but the rest of the prayer didn't come.  I was mute and held my baby tightly.  I took both boys into the playroom and turned on a Thomas the Tank Engine movie to occupy them while I called my friend.  Our ears were on the handsets, but our eyes were glued to the televisions, every channel and every citizen mesmerized and stunned, almost in a trance of disbelief.  "What is happening?  HOW is this happening?"  The questions were unstoppable, and then another crash was reported at the Pentagon; we refrained from admission of our country being under attack because that would mean we weren't as powerful or untouchable or... safe.  But the towers fell.  Those mighty steel structures disintegrated into a warzone scene of clouds and dust, engulfing the streets and skies, and even though I had the sound set low, I could hear the screams of those trapped, of those running to escape, of those trying desperately to save others.  I could hear the sirens and the explosions; I could feel the confetti-like debris on my goosebumped arms and wet eyelashes.  Lorie and I hung up before the story started to unfold about the crash in Shanksville, PA, and while my heart continued to pound, and my mind continued to swirl, I stepped outside on the front porch amid the silence that I never noticed before.  Living close to an airport, that deafening silence will forever hold a place in my heart, that sign that life was standing still, and I wouldn't have hope again until I heard another plane fly overhead.  I wanted to be with all the people that meant the most in my life.  I wanted to see my boys smile, but I couldn't keep myself away from the news reports.  I knew our world was now changed, and I finally finished my prayer.  I knelt on the living room floor and bent across the couch with clasped hands, and I asked the Lord for answers, for resolution, for peace, for blessings bestowed on all those who lost their lives and for their loved ones who had to carry on without them, for my children's safety and happiness in a world that was now turned upside-down.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Good News!

Please check out my book review (posted today!) at http://thenewbookreview.blogspot.com/.  AND checkout my writers' tid-bit article (posted today!) at http://penandprosper.blogspot.com/.  What a day!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

In Joy and Mourning

I was going through a box of old writing, reworking some essays and stories and poems for upcoming contest deadlines, and I came across a poem I had written years ago, 1995 actually, and I cried.  The poem brought me back twenty years, when I first started out as a teacher.  I wish every teacher could have started out like I did - a small close-knit school, amazing and diverse students, supportive parents, and incredibly inspiring colleagues.  I was 22 years old, and "my kids" were 11-14 years old.  Yes, they're all in their thirties now, but back then, they were the little siblings I never had.  I adored them all, and I worked overtime every day with student council or the yearbook or the play or tutoring or attending their sporting events.  I have such fond memories of those days.  Sometimes when I pass the school, I see the tree we planted on the corner; we named her "April."  She is no longer the bare twig, but a fully blossomed and beautiful example of God's blessings.  And these students, each and every one of them, blessed me in his/her own unique way; even today I am so very grateful.

As much as I've always enjoyed reading and writing poetry, I've never been the best of poets, but this particular poem is special because it was written after attending the funeral of one of those former students.  She was just 16 or 17; she died with her parents in a car accident when traveling out of state.  It was tragic.  She was/is one of those special blessings I talk about, and all these years later, I still remember her vibrant smile and sweet, big, brown eyes; her laughter and innocence and intelligence; her kind soul.  I'm glad to have found this poem.  Even though it saddens me, those memories of St. B's will forever hold a special place in my heart...

In Mourning

I entered from the
side door -
that same side door
I entered
so many times before
but this time
I walked
alone -
there was no
behind me where
whispers and giggles
were heard
beneath the shushing
of index fingers
placed on lips.

I arrived early
and I felt a presence
lingering in the air -
the air which occupied
much of the space
as it reached
up to the far away
heights of the ceiling
where Latin verses
were carved into the
dark wood
stretching between all
four walls
like extending hands
from the extended arms
that hung up front
for all to
see and reflect upon...

I walked
down that aisle
hearing the click-clicking
of my shoes on
the freshly waxed floor
looking down the path
at the archway and
recalling how that
just three years ago,
stood tall and proud
with tears of joy
and sadness,
and hope,
dressed in their
uniformed robes and caps
and how they
held hands
and walked
down that very same aisle
as friends
fellow graduates
as brothers and sisters...

And then the main doors opened
and my memories were
whisked away.
There they were -
together again
and they were crying again, too -
with the girls
now so grown up
huddling outside
but there were no giggles,
and the boys
now looking like young men
but they no longer
needed to be shushed - 
they still stood tall
but this time
they did not walk
in that single file line -
they        processed
in            two
lines        with
their        clammate's
eternal     bed
between   them
and their hands were placed
upon the blessed blanket
covering her coffin
and that vision will not
my mind -
that vision
that thought
is so powerful
so sorrowful

And when they came forth
to offer roses as their
final farewell
I wondered if they remembered
one lesson...
my children
my friends
my loved ones who touched my
more than you'll ever know...

Rest in peace
my sweet angel -
I know you are one
who understood my words.

(Still thinking of you, Dorothy.  With love from Miss Hesslau.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

60707 ("My Kind of Town" contest)

Several friends have requested the posting of my third-place CWA contest essay.  The theme was "My Kind of Town."  Here it is...

“Are you from Elmwood Park?”
“No.  I’m from Chicago.”

    This was my youthful response to many years of the same residential question.  Growing up on the last O blocks on the city limits, I never swayed from my obstinate declaration that I was, and always had been, a city girl.  In all practical terms, those words were technically accurate, but there were many winters when I wondered if my city, too, had thought I was from Elmwood Park, having never seen a plow and witnessing my four brothers and father breaking backs and spirits on the mounds of powder and slush and frozen patches that paralyzed my neighbors during vicious months of blistering temperatures, dangerous ice, howling winds, and that never-ending drifting snow.  The cars would spin and bounce down our street; near miss collisions and fender bender parking were a daily occurrence.  But we participated in the infamous city-living spectacle, which put the rubber stamp on our true address... we placed lawn chairs on the street, marking Dad’s spot for the family station wagon when he went to work.
    The residential question paused briefly when the area codes changed.  Elmwood Park became the 708 area, while we city folk maintained our 312 status.  There was no denying where I was from.  The line in the sand had been drawn.  If I had a 312 phone number, well then, I was definitely from Chicago, and I took pride in that fact.  I didn’t want to be a suburbanite.  I didn’t want to be perceived as anything but a working class girl.  That’s what I thought Chicago was because my parents grew up in the city with their working-class families.  I heard glorious stories about “the old neighborhood” (not understanding, of course, that all the “old” places - homes, schools, hangouts, etc.- had been long gone, torn down or fully dilapidated beyond recognition of their memories).  I wanted to live in their city forever.  After all, Chicago was a nostalgic place and an exciting place, too.  Sure I went to school in a suburb each day, and I went to church in a suburb each Sunday, but didn’t the real fun happen in the city?  Field trips to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium... they were in Chicago.  MY Chicago.  Even when I attended college in a suburb, we always looked forward to Schubas or the Green Mill, the Wild Hare or the Empty Bottle (depending on our musical whims.)  The city was alive all the time... it never slept; it kept rolling on and on without stops.  I admired that energy, and every time I picked up the phone to dial a 708 friend, I was reminded of where I lived, in a city unlike their town or village.  So when the area codes changed a second time, when the 312s got split, and we became a 773, we were still Chicago... maybe not the historic city, not the downtown city or lakefront city or ethnic city or inner-city, but still “city.” 
    Then the big blow came.  The dreaded zip code frenzy. 
    Our phone number started with 773, not 708.  Our address was listed on an “O” street, not a numbered one.  Our city was listed as “Chicago."  We were NOT listed in the meager suburban directory, but in the mega book of the city directory.  So why, why, did my fine Chicago abandon us?  “Big Tony” was our alderman; we had massive block parties that sometimes got a bit out of hand; we walked to our local dollhouse-sized branch of the Chicago Public Library system; we biked to Hiawatha and Shabbona parks; we took the bus to Cubs games.  Heck, Mom took the bus to her job as a deli worker every day, too.  We were Chicagoans!  Why did we get pushed on to the Elmwood Park zip code?  Couldn’t they handle just a few more blocks of 606s?  All of my city friends had a 606 beginning... 60634 or 60635.  But I was being forced to concede to the dreaded suburban 60707.  The boundaries were announced, and our little square of 16 blocks (eight streets with two blocks each), would have to take a big gulp, swallow our pride, give in to the woeful zip.  That dreaded suburban zip.
    My parents are still there, in our humble home of city living.  Mom still takes the bus when she needs to, and Dad still shovels out the street, but his car is parked there most of the time now, so no need for lawn chairs.  During the warmer months, those chairs are on the front porch where they sit and look out at the new neighbors and new generation of children who head west toward our old suburban Catholic school.  They’re still Chicagoans with a 773 area code, living on an “O” block, with a city address and an Elmwood Park zip.
    And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that zip code confusion, it’s this:  no matter where I place my head at night; no matter where I travel or work or raise my kids; no matter my phone number or full address... whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I still say I’m from Chicago.  I guess it’s just my kind of town.

Friday, June 17, 2011

I Love You, Dad.

Once my siblings and I could walk and talk, he didn't have that paternal instinct of caring embraces and encouraging words.  We had to simply believe that his love existed and that his pride was buried in the silence of his ironically gentle eyes.  We clung to pictures of him holding our baby bodies; we beamed like gold-medal winners when he offered an uncharacteristic comment or pat on the back; we lived for his approval and acknowledgement; we loved him so much, so deeply, still do.

At some point I learned how to relate to my dad.  It was in college when I was living on campus, even though the campus was only a half-hour away.  It was after one of those laundry weekends, when a friend drove me home with my loads of wash, and I visited and did laundry and ate Mom’s pasta.  Dad would drive me back to school the next day... in silence.  I’m not exaggerating.  Those thirty minutes felt like thirty hours.  We seriously did not speak, and it wasn’t because one of us was angry or sad or depressed; we didn’t have anything to say to each other.  I don’t remember what year I was in, but I remember something hitting me.  As usual, I yelled up to a friend’s dorm window and got someone’s attention to come down and help me out as Dad moved the laundry baskets from the trunk to the ground, and I picked them up and brought them to the dorm entrance and Dad was getting back into his car as I called out,”Thanks,” and he waved a hand, never looking back.  He doesn’t know how to do this!  YOU know how to do this, but he does NOT know how.  He can’t, Geralyn, he just can’t!  I rushed to the car before he could get in, I gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, “I love you, Dad.”  His reply was an uncomfortable, “Uh, huh.”  But I saw it.  Good ole Blue-Eyes got teary.  And he never could control those eyes, and that’s where affection was communicated.

When I received a top honor during my senior year awards night, he was at my side, and I saw him wipe his eyes which meant, “I am proud of you.” 

It must have killed him when I went on a retreat, and unbeknownst to my group, loved ones were requested to write letters describing their love for us.  My dad’s letter consisted of three words:  MY (then a photocopied picture) LOVE, DAD.  The photo was of the detergents “Pride” and “Joy.”  Letting my lashes meet, I thought of my father, blurry and watery, sealing up that piece of paper in an envelope and writing my name on it, and I cried, touched. 

When he walked me down the aisle, one arm was linked with mine while biting his lip, holding back, meaning “Congratulations.  I wish you the best.”

Dad and I talk all the time now.  There’s no awkwardness.  I need him for my genealogy projects, and he’s accustomed to the questioning I won’t back down on, so he’s honest and interesting.  I love hearing about the old days, and he’s open to discussing them, most of the time.  I’m a parent, so we talk about the kids, and my sons are athletes, so his favorite topic of sports is no longer lost on me.  He’s been there for me during some rather difficult times, unexpected phone calls offering brief advice or a favor.  I admire his loyalty to his faith and family, and I’ve come to understand that he may not have the words for affection, but he feels it.

I cherish the moments I have with my dad, and I still hear him talking to me through his eyes.  Like the time he “told” me how excited he was to have another generation of athletic games to attend.  It was during my fifth grade son’s first game, and it happened just inside the three-point line, a long shot completely on target and SWOOSH!  The crowd went wild, and I looked over to my son’s papa, finding him with his head in his hands.  Or the time my youngest son took the mound for the first time and struck out a player, his teammate/brother hollering approval from third, and I stole a glance at Papa smiling ear to ear with a hand over his eyebrows blocking the set sun.

Ever since that awakening day in college, when I learned to appreciate my father, not a visit or phone call goes by without my telling him those words, so I'll end this piece with that special phrase...  I love you, Dad.  (Big hug and kiss.)  HAPPY FATHER'S DAY!! 

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If you're interested in reading other "dad-themed" works, check out some blog posts by members of the Chicago Writers Association:

Mary T. Wagner...
Rebecca Kiel...