I’ve just returned from a long weekend in beautiful Chicago and while I recover, I’d like to share something I wrote over four years ago, on a day much like to today – sunny, clear and heartbreakingly nostalgic. To understand where this comes from, it may help to know that I’ve been reading various blogs since 2000, I’ve kept journals my entire life and am slightly obsessed with family history. I’m a classic introvert – analytical, creative, pragmatic, but sensitive to rejection. I’ve wanted my own blog for the longest time, but never felt comfortable enough to actually pull the trigger. Social situations simultaneously thrill, terrify and exhaust me. This is what I wrote, but never actually posted … until today.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Okay, so I’ve decided to start a blog – eight years too late, but what the hell, right?
You could say that I’ve been planning this move for a long time. Nevertheless, you’ll have to forgive me if this thing appears poorly designed and full of marginally coherent content, which I’m sure will reflect really well on the five long years that I’ve spent planning this debut. Because, you know, I wanted to make sure I got it just right.
So now that I’ve created the most insignificant of hiccups with my grand entrance upon the scene (does anyone even read blogs anymore?), I think I’ll just go on doing what I’ve always done. That is, I’ll just keep writing and making photographs – except now my work will be out there, for the whole world to see. As frightening as that concept is, I’m taking the plunge in an effort to improve my skills and be more productive. This won’t be easy; I put my “good” camera down over a year ago (for reasons that I’m sure will make a fine post in the future) and haven’t picked it up since. As for my writing, at times it is a painfully difficult process – ideas and words flowing in drips and spurts. And then there are days when the sentences come together effortlessly, the words pouring out of me like a faucet turned on full blast. I’d like to have more days like that. For inspiring me in this endeavor, I’d like to thank one of my favorite writers, Alice Bradley. This post, along with this Ira Glass piece, has had a profound affect on me (thank you both). And should this turn out to be, in the words of another inspiration, Graham Norton, complete shit, you can all blame Ms. Bradley and Mr. Glass for leading me down this path. Here’s to hoping I don’t make a complete fool of myself in front of the handful of readers who happen to stumble upon this potential little disaster-in-the-making.
So this thing will pretty much be me, writing about and photographing the things that inspire me on any particular day. Things like architecture, design, travel, food, nature, gardening, family and nostalgia. In short, I’ll be writing about the people, places and events that surround and define me.
I’m old enough to have celebrated the bicentennial, but too young to remember the moon landing. I was born in Detroit and grew up in the suburbs. I’m one of those really fortunate types, I married my best friend. From Ann Arbor, we moved to Evanston, and lived there for eight of the happiest years of my life. We recently moved to Northern California and are trying to adjust to life on the west coast. When I’m not tearing down walls, sketching kitchen plans, picking out tile and working in the garden, I love to read, cook, hike, watch birds, travel and spend time with family and friends. I’ve had a passport since 1999. I write about my life. These are my adventures.
First Post – The Long Road Home
On my most recent trip back to Michigan, I was finally able to convince my parents to visit my mother’s old neighborhood in Detroit. I’ve always known that as a child, my mom lived somewhere near Tiger Stadium, in historic Corktown, but I had never actually visited the area with her. I knew my mom’s family was forced from their home; the state condemned it using the power of eminent domain, to build the Lodge Freeway. The house they moved to, my grandparent’s house on Rademacher Street, is the house that I visited as a child. It is firmly cemented in my memory. I can easily picture the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, the long narrow backyard (with Grandma’s roses, peonies & hollyhocks and Grandpa’s vegetable garden) and the tiny garage facing the alley – with my Grandpa’s equally tiny Rambler parked inside. And should my memories begin to fade, I have photographs to help with the details. But the house on Cherry Street, near Tiger Stadium, has always been a mystery. We don’t have any photographs. It was torn down long before I was born.
Throughout my youth, my mother and I had a tenuous relationship. Like many teenagers, I wanted very little to do with my mom. My parents had me, the youngest of six, in their early forties. When I was in high school, it wasn’t easy having parents who were practically the same age as my classmate’s grandparents; but unlike my mom, my dad never seemed old. He took me on my first roller coaster and went swimming with my sister and me. My mom on the other hand, hated getting her hair wet. She’d wear a ridiculous looking babushka on rainy days and when she paddled near us in the pool, straining her neck to keep her head completely out of the water, there was no splashing allowed.
In grade school, I was a tomboy. I loved to ride my bicycle, climb trees, play soccer and kickball, and although I did own a barbie doll, I was far more interested in her cool accessories than I ever was with her. I loved my Barbie dune buggy with its companion pop-up camper, the miniature bicycle, the incredibly detailed airplane with its mini-galley-kitchen and the inflatable Barbie swimming pool. In fact, the day I found a G.I. Joe doll at a neighborhood garage sale – complete with black rubber scuba fins, face mask, two-tank backpack and a teeny-tiny rolled-up treasure map – was quite possibly, one of the happiest days of my young life. Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.
At the start of fifth grade, we moved to the suburbs, and my life was ruined. I had been one of the most popular kids in my class and it was due, for the most part, to my athleticism and fearlessness. I didn’t just earn the Presidential Physical Fitness Award every year, I broke several school records in the process. My standing long jump and speed were unsurpassed. By the fourth grade, I was a legend. I was part monkey on the traveling rings in gym class and wrote a column for the school newspaper. Don’t let my modesty fool you, I was a superstar. But then we moved and I was lost.
I went from being fearless and confident, to terrified and insecure. The suburban girls were “girly” and I just didn’t fit in. The boys didn’t know what to make of me; I probably intimidated them with my fifty yard dash. I was bored in my classes and had a hard time making friends. Midway through fifth grade, my mom transferred me from the local public school to a nearby Catholic school. Things got a little bit better; the uniforms helped. I worked hard and was well behaved. The teachers liked me (I was quiet and loved diagramming sentences) and by the eighth grade, I had made some good friends. But the thing that would have helped me adjust, the thing that could have made such a difference in my life, my mom just didn’t get. I wanted to play soccer, but for some unknown, god-awful reason, she signed me up for Polish dancing lessons instead. I was miserable. That event alone pretty much ruined my relationship with my mother for a good many years. That and the unfortunate perm my mom took me to get, against my will, on the eve of picture day. You could say there were times I just wanted to scream.
Growing up in southeast Michigan in the 1970’s and 80’s as a tomboy and baseball fan, it was an exciting time to see the Tigers play ball. My dad and older brother took me to see my first game at The Corner when I was just a kid; I’ll never forget seeing Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pitch. Later, in high school and college, I continued going to games with my friends. Alan Trammel, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson and Lou Whittaker – these were the players I cheered for; Sparky was the manger we all loved. Whether with friends or with family, I wasn’t the one driving, the one calling the shots. And even if I had been in charge, I didn’t care that we were tantalizingly close to where my mother had grown up. I had little to no idea, and in truth, I didn’t care. Looking back, I now wince at how close I had been to certain places, yet so far away.
Being closer to my dad, I wanted to know his stories first. The German farming community he grew up in, the farmhouse where he was born, the crick he swam in as a boy, the small bridge that he and his friends used as a diving platform – these are all places I’ve visited many times throughout my life. His journey through Italy in World War II is something I’ve studied with intensity. Trained as a medic and having landed at Anzio, my dad must have seen some awful things; getting him to tell his story hasn’t been easy. He’s reluctant to talk about the war. I’ve teased out bits and pieces over the years and have read numerous books on the subject in an effort to fill in the blanks. One story he does tell is of the night he and some buddies borrowed a boat for a little joy ride on Lake Garda. Somewhere out towards the middle of the lake, they ran out of gas and began to drift. Lacking oars, they ripped out the wooden seats so they could paddle back to shore – praying all the while that a German patrol didn’t intercept them along the way. And although my dad laughs when telling this story now, it was clearly a long and frightening night at the time.
It wasn’t long after college that I finally began to learn more of my mother’s history. Her story begins with immigrant parents – a father from Malta and a mother from Poland. Their courtship is one of my favorite stories. Neither one spoke English, but my grandfather learned enough Polish from his landlady to ask my grandmother out for an afternoon ice cream cone. They fell in love, married and had three children. The happy stories always come easily, but the difficult ones are buried away and take much longer to learn. My mother told me of how hard it was to be the oldest child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak English, but beyond that she never spoke of anything negative. I loved hearing about the weekly trips my grandfather would make to the Detroit’s Eastern Market, of the snails that escaped from their paper bag in the cellar, scaring my grandmother to tears. My mother described the wine and beer that her father made in the basement, and of the bottle capper that she played with as a little girl. She recalled with much tenderness the tiny kitten she found and convinced her parents to let her keep as a pet, and years later, the bird her father kept and trained to say “pretty boy” each morning while shaving.
The maternal side of my family tree stops abruptly with my grandparents. I have no idea who my great-grandparents are. I think my grandfather came from a large family, but the names of his siblings, as well as the names of his parents, are lost. I only know that my mother’s father came here from Malta as a young man and that my mother’s mother came here from Poland at an equally young age. This has always been difficult for me. Three of my four grandparents had already died before I was born, and although I only knew my mother’s father for a short time (he died when I was eight), he made a huge impression on me. I loved my Maltese grandpa very much and have always admired him. I think about him often. When confronted with difficult decisions, I sometimes subconsciously find myself wondering, “What would grandpa have done?” It’s a strange game I play over and over in my mind, wandering around the farmers market, confronted with the rutabagas of my past. Seeing all of those fruits and vegetables, the produce he used to buy, I feel compelled to recreate his cooking. Artichokes, fava beans, kohlrabi, pomegranates, parsnips, rainbow chard, lots of garlic and olive oil – cooking helps me remember. And sometimes, it helps me forget. The wonderful aromas trigger certain memories, allowing me to appreciate and come to terms with the ghosts of my past.
Every trip home is spent cooking and caring for my parents. At the start of each visit, as I make my shopping list, they try to convince me to put my apron down. They tell me that they don’t want me to work so hard, to spend so much time in the kitchen. And every time, I have to remind them – I love to cook, it helps me relax and I’m happy to do it. Then we resume writing the list and after returning from the market, they help me cook. We make the same dishes every time: vegetable soup with beef round bone, cabbage, tomatoes and lentils, split pea soup with smoked ham bones, Hudson’s meatloaf with spinach, pesto and pine nuts, wonderful chicken soup with homemade stock, cauliflower, carrots, egg noodles and parsley, and finally, fork tender pot roast with mushrooms, carrots and onions, served with fluffy mashed potatoes and a tossed salad. These are a few of their favorite dishes; they’re my favorites too. We make enormous pots of soup, most of which gets put in the freezer from them to enjoy long after I’ve flown home.
I find comfort in the routine of these visits. We make coffee and write up a shopping list over breakfast. My dad and I do the shopping, just as we’ve always done, and when we return home, I clear the counters while my parents put the groceries away. I make lunch for the three of us – usually grilled cheese sandwiches on good crusty bread with Gruyère cheese and thinly sliced Polish ham. We drink another cup of coffee and relax for a bit; shopping tires my father out. And then we begin.
Depending upon what I’m making, more often than not, it starts with what my mother calls “the holy trinity” – the simple combination of chopped onions, carrots and celery known more commonly as a mirepoix. While they help me wash and peel vegetables, we relax and talk. Somehow, conversing over a kitchen sink makes it easier to catch up on each other’s lives. My parents are in their eighties and all this activity wears them out. I finish prepping vegetables and browning meat while my parents retreat to their rooms to rest. Eventually the pots are left to simmer on the stove. I clean the kitchen and then sit down at the table to review their medications. Eventually, my parents wake up from their naps to check on the progress of dinner. It’s a routine that I’ve come to depend on; it get’s me through these visits. Without it, the descent into depression would be a far slipperier slope. Not only is it incredibly difficult to watch my parent’s health deteriorate, it’s also hard for me to be far away from my husband, my best friend. But cooking is my solace, and I know my parents enjoy it too. As the house fills with wonderful aromas, our family bond is restored and strengthened. In our family, food is love.
It wasn’t until I began taking my mother to her chemotherapy and IgG treatments back in the mid-90’s that I truly began to appreciate and learn more about her. It was during those long visits to the hospital that she and I would share a picnic lunch and I’d encourage her to tell me about her past. It took a long time to get her to open up, but gradually she began to tell me her stories. I learned of how she grew up in Detroit, near Tiger Stadium, and of her daily walk to Most Holy Trinity grade school. With a hint of mischievousness, she told me of the trip she took to New York with her girlfriends, when she was just eighteen.
She told me how she met my dad when she was just thirteen years old; recalling the trip she took with friends who were going to visit their country cousin, and while there, being both annoyed and charmed by him. According to my mother, my dad played a joke on the visiting girls – he opened their bedroom window, took out the screen and left their light on. When the girls arrived that evening, their room was full of moths and mosquitos. Yet despite his antics, some years later, my mother eventually developed a crush on the redheaded young man from the country, and he was clearly smitten with the raven-haired beauty from the big city.
When the war broke out, my father was sent to Camp Grant, Illinois to train as a medic. He finished his medical training in February 1943 and was sent shortly thereafter to Camp Cooke, California to train for an amphibious beach landing. After returning home to say his goodbyes, he was shipped overseas as part of the 33rd Field Hospital, first to Oran, North Africa, then to Naples, Italy before finally landing at Anzio – Hell’s Half Acre. All the while, my mother prayed for his safe return. She recalled their courtship after the war, how they would “meet under the Kern clock” for dates. She described how my dad would visit her, first walking from his sister’s house in Dearborn to ride the bus, to then catch the Michigan Avenue streetcar at Wyoming. Later, when I asked my dad about this, he laughed and told me that the streetcar fare was seven cents and transfers were just a penny.
And then one day my mom told me that she had an aunt. Her mother had an older sister? I had no idea. I don’t know if the two sisters traveled from Poland together, or if one followed the other. I only know that as a young child, my mother would visit her aunt and uncle’s house. Beyond that, my mother never spoke of them. I don’t even know their names. I often wonder about my mother’s silence on the subject, why she never spoke of them before, but I don’t push. My mother clearly has her reasons and I don’t want to upset her.
My most recent trip back to Michigan came about quickly. My parents had been asking me to visit for quite some time, but work at the house kept stopping me. When a break in my schedule appeared, I booked tickets with less than a weeks notice. When I called my parents with the good news, they were delighted; it had been five months since my last trip back, much longer than usual. This time, I decided to extend my stay. It was a gamble; because I stay at their house, I tend to keep my visits short (my mother always felt that house guests were like fish – both start to smell after three days). Regardless, I hoped for the best. I was on a mission. I wanted to see where my mother grew up and I wanted my parents with me. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was determined to get my way. This wish had evaded me too many times in the past; there had been too many excuses: the neighborhood was too dangerous, the weather too bad, the roads too icy. One, or both, of my parents would be too sick. I became convinced that the local news stations were conspiring against me. I would manage to time my visit such that my mom would be in remission and the weather good, only to have news coverage of some violent murder completely destroy my plans. My parents would refuse to go, even in broad daylight.
Three days before my flight, I called my parents to ask them if they remembered the address of the house on Cherry Street, near Tiger Stadium. They give me an address, as well as one for the house on Rademacher, but there is some confusion. Do they have the two numbers mixed up? Has it been too long? After much passing of the phone back and forth, they decide their first answer was correct. They ask why I want to know, and hesitantly, I tell them.
They seem interested, but only time will tell. We talk a bit longer and my mom tells me something she’s never mentioned before: the house on Cherry Street was near 6th Street, and Cherry Street was one block from Plum. In the past, I’d never been able to find Cherry Street on a map, but know I have a lead. After hanging up the phone, I immediately check my map and finally realize that Cherry Street is Kaline Drive. Unlike many history buffs, I didn’t know that prior to the 1938 construction of the double-decked stands in left and centerfield, Cherry Street was the northern boundary of the ball park. The remaining stretch of Cherry Street, where my mother grew up, was later renamed in honor of Tiger great, Al Kaline. Cherry Street effectively disappeared.
All that time, I never knew. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find it on a map. My determination to visit my mother’s old neighborhood was now greater than ever. I wondered what other treasures I’d uncover. As I planned a route that would take us past the two houses my mother grew up in, and to the cemetary where my grandparents are buried, I told myself that on this trip, I would not be denied.
It’s Monday, September 29th, 2008 – a bright sunny day and I’ve persuaded my parents to let me drive them around my mother’s old neighborhood. I am intensely aware of how special this day is turning out – sunny days in southeastern Michigan are not the norm (the prevailing wind patterns blow the clouds across Lake Michigan and across the state, creating predominantly overcast skies in the winter) and my parents have agreed to visit Detroit. My father tells me he doesn’t need my map. Nervously, I drive as he navigates. I’m unsure of the route we’re taking and hope my father hasn’t forgotten the way. I see construction and detour signs and silently pray that we don’t get lost. We travel east on Interstate 96 all the way until it merges into I-94, shortly thereafter exiting onto Trumbull Avenue. Then we begin the long, slow drive down Trumbull, light after light, block after block of burnt out, once elegant homes. Red lights make me slightly nervous. We pass several attempts people are making to revitalize the neighborhood, lovely homes that stand witness to the surrounding decay. Slowly, we pass the pathetic entrance to an ugly casino parking garage and then we cross over the Fisher Freeway. Before I realize it, we’re looking at what’s left of Tiger Stadium.
We’re stunned to see backhoes. When we arrive, Tiger Stadium is in the midst of demolition. I can hardly believe my eyes. The centerfield upper and lower deck bleachers and the left and right outfield stands are all gone. The infamous left field upper deck roof, the hardest for hitters to clear (only four ever managed the feat), is no longer there. To quote Joe Rossiter of the Detroit Free Press, there is “only a corner left of the Corner at Tiger Stadium.” Only the area behind home plate, the upper and lower decks from first base to third, are still standing when we arrive. The only thing left standing in the outfield is the 125-foot tall flagpole, looking sad and lonely in deep centerfield, it’s flag waving in the early autumn breeze. We slowly circle the block several times – Trumbull to Michigan Avenue, Michigan to Cochrane, to the Fisher Freeway service drive and then back onto Trumbull – all the while craning our necks to see past the barriers, to see what, if anything, is left of the field and dugouts.
After circling the block in utter disbelief, we turn our attention to finding the location of my mother’s childhood home. As I turn onto Kaline Drive from Trumbull, the memories come rushing back to her. The water tower, now covered in graffiti, once part of the old Banner Laundry, still stands. To our amazement, both the lumberyard and Checker Cab are still in the same place and still in business. Slowly we creep down Kaline Drive, a sad street that looks more like an alley than a famous street named after a hall-of-famer. At the end of the block, we pause before turning right onto Brooklyn. That’s when we all see the sign on the corner; it reads Cherry Street. We all stare in disbelief. My mother’s house is gone but the street sign remains. Our spirits are lifted and smiles appear on each of our faces.
From Brooklyn, I turn right onto Plum and then onto Trumbull once again, circling the block in order to start again, just to be sure. As I drive, my mother begins seeing her old street as it was, rather than as it is. She points to the end of Cherry Street, just beyond Brooklyn, where the Lodge Freeway is, and where 6th Street used to be – that’s where her house stood. She tells me of how she would walk down Brooklyn, past Plum, to Elizabeth Street – where her childhood friend, one of her best friends to this very day, would be waiting for her, and how the two would continue walking down the street, crossing Michigan Avenue, to school.
We circle again and again, marveling at the empty lots that in her memory must look so very different, and yet somehow the neighborhood is still somewhat the same. The thing that stikes me the most is how easy it is to feel as though time has stood still here. Although most of the frame houses are gone, the remaining brick buildings and warehouses are all of my mother’s era. More poignant is the view of Tiger Stadium, or rather, what’s left of it. As we drive down Brooklyn from Cherry street, the same route she walked as a little girl on her way to school, we stop at each intersection. Looking west down Plum Street, and again down Elizabeth, we get a glimpse of the ball park; a view that, according to my mom, hasn’t really changed all that much from when she was a child in the 1930’s. She points here and there to where various friends lived and all the while, I frantically try to drive and take photographs at the same time.
After a while she asks me to continue down Brooklyn so we can cross Michigan Avenue and visit Most Holy Trinity Church. I park the car in front; we get out and walk up to the church doors. They’re locked of course, but it doesn’t matter. We slowly walk back to get a good look of the church and rectory and I quickly take some photographs. I’m relieved to see how vibrant this neighborhood looks. The church appears to be well cared for, flowers are blooming and across the street a freshly painted frame house is now a café.
My mother is very quiet; she’s appears lost in her memories. I stop making photographs and she tells me about Father Kelly – the Irish priest who let his beloved dog follow him through the church, even while saying the rosary and stations of the cross. My mother is smiling. We get back in the car and drive some more, past an empty lot where another classmate lived. When we reach Michigan Avenue, my parents ask to go past Michigan Central, the abandoned train station where my father departed for basic training and eventually, the war.
The train station is easy to see in the distance and as we approach even I am surprised. Every window is broken, the building is covered in graffiti and homeless men have set up tents in the green space facing the famous landmark. The look on my parent’s faces is one of pure sadness. The magic spell has been broken; it’s time to go home. The house on Rademacher and the cemetery will have to wait for another time.
My father asks me to take Michigan Avenue home and so I drove west down a street that, like many streets in Detroit, has seen better times. We’re all quiet. After what seems like an eternity, my mom speaks up from the back seat and asks me to turn right on Wyoming; she want to go by Fordson High School – one of the most beautiful high schools ever built in the United States (and my sister Nancy’s alma mater). I feel a sense of relief wash over me as I realize that perhaps I’m not the only one who gained something from this visit. This trip has allowed me to finally see where my mother grew up, and for my parents, perhaps it allowed them to revisit their youth.
As I turn onto Ford Road, I see the Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theatre and now I’m the one having flashbacks to when I was a little girl. I’m not sure exactly which movie I saw there, but I remember the excitement and a little chill runs down my spine. As we stop at the intersection of Ford Road and Oakman Boulevard, my dad points to an empty corner and tells me that’s where he purchased his very first car, from a used car lot that once stood there a long time ago. My mom asks me if I remember our yearly drives down Oakman Boulevard to see the Christmas lights and again, I am flooded with memories – sleepy and cozy in the backseat with my sister and brother, I’m wearing pajamas under my winter coat as my dad drives slowly past the beautifully decorated houses. All the while, in between oohing and ahhing, we beg our dad to drive down just one more block before returning home to Mead Street.
Throughout this visit I’m stunned at the sharpness of our memories. Perhaps being in these old neighborhoods has helped clear away the cobwebs. Suddenly, people, places and events not completely forgotten, but not always easy to recall, come to mind easily, without any prompting. Name of childhood friends that forever seemed to escape me, come right to my mind. Luigi Bruno, Timmy Allen, Donald Tomcheck – where are you now?
As we pass Fordson High School I make the executive decision to stop for pastizzi. I know exactly where I am; this is where I grew up. After circling the school, I make a right onto Schaefer and park in front of Italia Bakery. Pastizzi are a Maltese specialty, but this Italian bakery is known for making the best in the area. I think they employ several Maltese woman, or at lease I tell myself that they do. The pastizzi are sold by the dozen, frozen and ready to bake. And although they offer a meat variety, my family only ever buys the traditional, ricotta cheese filled version. My mom and I purchase two dozen while my dad waits patiently in the car; we decide to make some for dinner. I can barely contain my excitement; I haven’t had pastizzi since moving to California over a year ago (nor any since this was written). I can hardly wait to get back to my parent’s house so I can eat my fill. Standing in the bakery, I desperately try to figure out a way to take some home on the plane, but it’s just not possible. The flight is too long. Sadly, the bakery doesn’t ship. Regardless, I’m satisfied. I’ll be taking precious memories home instead.
In loving memory of my parents, Robert Schafer (born in Pewamo, Michigan on November 2, 1923) and Wanda Camilleri (born in Detroit, Michigan on June 28, 1926). They were married in Detroit, at Most Holy Redeemer Church on October 4, 1947. My dad was just shy of being 24 years old and my mom was 21.
Detroit Metropolitan Airport, circa 1989. Waiting for their flight to Europe to depart.
My mother past away on February 12, 2009. My father joined her on February 12, 2011. I miss them terribly, especially the sound of their voices.