A Life of Caring

From “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs” An Aunt’s Day Story
Sometimes in the comforting grey late summer light that holds the Chicago Loop in a subdued humid hum of pure power; I can feel the presence of my grandfather, Frank J. Dowd. Gone since I was just a kid. A red faced, weary knowing smile, wisps of white hair, round and good to his grandson, suspender-popping Irishman.

Strolling down Randolph or LaSalle Street; his spirit sings in the summer grey shadows cast by the criss crossing of the massive steel and concrete pillars that hold firm and strong the el trains rumbling above as they endlessly circle downtown Chicago.

Feeling his presence; I wonder if heaven is anything like Chicago. And I imagine him leading quite the large and motley crew of a welcoming party for his youngest Mavis —who died several seasons ago, in the absolute frigid, bitter and barren cold of a January day—but before that: helped raise me and very much make me who I am.

My Grandfather steps back, with a wink and a smile, to let Mavis on through. She has just a few questions for both Jesus and The Buddha. She’d like to get this afterlife thing settled once and for all. That, and then get on to the next set of questions. She will have many. And she will include everyone in the conversation.

While she asks questions and keeps the party going; I look back. Searching for the scattered drops of water that splash from the river her life always full and flowing forward.

I’m seventeen again. On the coffee table in the living room of Mavis’s rented townhouse at north of Chicago, where I lived in the basement for awhile, there is a paperback she’d been reading laying open. Lurid, splashy dime novel colors on the front. Titled: “The Last Picture Show.” An author named Larry McMurtry. “Hmm,” I remember thinking. Larry McMurtry. I wonder who he is? I wonder if I’d like him?

A lifetime later I do. And what he wrote—opened up reading for me as an adult.

If my Mom taught me to play the “A, E, C, D, and F” chords on the guitar to get me started. Mavis would have taught me the seventh chords. The chords that sounded cool. Mavis taught me a song by Phil Ochs called “Changes”—
“Green leaves of summer, turn red in the fall, to brown and to yellow they fade. But then they have to die. They’re trapped between the circle time parade of Changes”

First cool folk song that I could ever play myself. More would come.

Thinking of how Mavis cared, the giant smiling voice of the great Chicago folk singer Bob Gibson and his big 12-string guitar rings out, I can hear him singing right now:

“Well, well, well, who’s that a coming?
Well, well, well, hold my hand!”

Steve Goodman listened to Bob Gibson and became Steve Goodman. Roger McGuinn listened and became The Byrds. Jeff Tweedy listened and is still listening today . . .so the music is alive right now. I started listening because Mavis did.

Stories heard in bits and pieces from other rooms, filtered through the lens of a kid who didn’t know that much yet: sure Mavis met Tommy Makem, she knew the Clancy Brothers, she loved to ride horses, there was some connection to actually riding in the Olympics.

Mavis lived first in Libertyville, which was then a distant outpost in the wilderness. With Uncle John—who was a real live Indian! And a great big and bounding German Sheppard named Little Bear.

Then there was a small house somewhere off the an expressway. Then Mavis—now with Cousin John and Mike—divorced from Uncle John—moved into a small apartment in a not so nice part of town. But in that apartment—which was up a long flight of stairs: there were hand painted designs on the bright and cheery kitchen walls and an honest to God very cool Mexican guy named Hector who always seemed to be there. Mavis had a blue Chevy Impala—a car much cooler than our practical and reliable VW bus. And when Mavis took care of us: she always went nuts cooking us all the bacon we could ever want for breakfast in the morning. Imagine endless strips of bacon!

Apartments in blue Mexican glass; guitars and bright Mexican throw rugs and wall coverings; Mavis worked in politics. For the Democratic Party. And Mavis was and always would be a teacher. She started a conversation is Spanish that never stopped —and I could always see the amazement at her pitch perfect accent and fluency on peoples faces.

I never understood the language—but what I always did understand was that whatever mistake I made in my life: chances are that Mavis had already made it.

And what that did for me was beyond any kind of measure, and sat squarely in the realm of poems, stories and song.

Marriage came to an end for me and Mavis understood. She had been there before.

I can remember standing in the street outside the red brick stately house with my dad and Uncle John as we came to help Mavis move out of the house where she spent the brief months of her second marriage. I can remember my Dad and Uncle John smiling the knowing smiles of men who knew things. Things of life, and marriage and men and women. And though I didn’t know way back then what all that meant—I knew that standing in that circle of men outside Mavis’s house—I would be following the meanings of my Dad and my Uncle’s smiles till the day when their meanings would come clear. And I did.

Then another red brick, just west of the big Northwestern Football Stadium where Mavis lived with her third husband Dick—who gave me, as a very young guy stepping from teaching into business the single best piece of advice for getting along in business that I have ever heard. Frustrated by circles of power that I didn’t understand in a big corporation; Dick said to me, “Roger, it’s not that you’re wrong. It’s that you aren’t the Vice President in charge!”

I can remember a winter night in the big house Mavis shared with Dick. John and Mike were gone somewhere and I was spending the night in the very warm and comfortable basement. A soft show blanketed the streets and a local park where there was a slight bump of a hill. So we went skiing. Remember: this is the suburbs of Chicago. Not a lot of hills.

My first time on skis. Mavis and Dick laughingly on either side of me, pulling me up Mount Evanston—a gradual bump maybe six to ten feet high, and then me whooping down the 3 second slope doing commentary on the danger of it all.

That scene in the snow flashes to a summer day when Mavis, John Mike and I were at one of the first glass recycling sites where it was actually possible to throw and let shatter against the side of the giant bin any and all glass jars and bottles.

So John, Mike and I started screaming things like: “And THIS is for all you DID to me!” Then whipping the bottle at the wall to watch it burst and shatter. “You even TOOK THE DOG WHEN YOU LEFT!” Lines and taunts and outbursts that would have been great lyrics to a bad country song.” While Mavis just laughed uproariously thinking all three of us to be very, very, funny.

I can remember walking through the old Wieboldts in Evanston, the soft hum of the old department store in sway, and I started improvising a commentary on the clothes that I would pick up and display for my audience of Mavis and Dick who again simply could not stop laughing.

Through Mavis—I learned I could be funny.

Growing up a funny, fashion commentator, throwing glass bottles at a recycling bin skier of tiny bumps in the road.

And then one day when I finally did find the love of my life: I told Mavis.

And she believed me.

I saw Mavis last in December of 2006. Another upstairs apartment. She had assembled those of us who came after her: Michael, Kirsten, Anne Louise, Sean, Nick, Colleen, Maria and I. Somewhere there are pictures. She made sure there
was a camera. The time that night was short—because she didn’t have much time left. Mom had been here to take care of her and had done everything humanely possible. But time was running out.

A few weeks later she called on a cold winter day to say goodbye. She said to me: “It’s been a long road for us, Rog. Over 50 years. A long, long, road.”

She told me about the day she was taking care of my brother and sisters when my parents were at the hospital and I was being operated on in a potentially life ending procedure. She remembered how my parents looked when they walked in the door that night at home. “I had never in my life,” she told me “seen your Mom or Dad look that bad. I thought for sure you were gone. You were the first. You were here before John and Mike were here. You were the first. And if you were gone, I don’t know what I would have done.”
And in her words, in her saying goodbye, in looking back now and I think to myself: how loved I was.

Mavis died on January 12, 2007. A bitter cold, sunshine bright winter day in Chicago. A Friday morning, I had walked up to Lincoln Avenue to get the papers. Coming back and thinking through going to visit her in the hospice.

My wife met me at the door of our house saying, “Michael called.” I said, “She’s gone.” And my wife nodded yes.

The last weeks, Mike told me, were very, very hard. Colleen was there at the end. Receiving the very private knowing of how loved she was by her grandmother.

Mavis was very clear about not wanting a funeral.

Mike, Colleen and Kirsten scatted her ashes up into the Pacific off the coast of San Diego—where they can float on down to Mexico and Costa Rica; soar on off to the far east to lands of Buddhist Temples and maybe even drift back here to Chicago.

A few weeks after she died, the cold still blasting its icy grip on to the city; my wife and I and I ventured out at night to a ballet. The wind was overwhelming. The cold all-encompassing. And I realized, walking down the street, that we were walking past the hospice where Mavis died.

Just then, at that moment, the wind got even colder. Cold beyond belief. And through my teary frozen eyes, I looked to my right and saw we were walking past a place called Newberry Library.

An historical library where they keep lots of old maps.

And with thought of those maps, I could see Mavis’s spirit soar up and out and over that hospice and into the Newberry Library. Just to look at maps. She would love it! Out front of that library a park once known as “Bughouse Square” where socialists once stood to make speeches she would stop for a moment.

Then in the golden, orange autumn leaves of October, the park benches full of people eating lunch and reading the great works of time—feeling the warm breezes of autumn, basking in the shimmering promises of the flowing October light, she’d always come back. Every year in October, she’d come back.

So, it’s in those warm autumn breezes of golden October; that I am expecting Mavis will stop for a moment. Back from a travel. Mavis will come back, sit down next to me on one of those benches. Tell me what she’s learned from talking to both Jesus and the Buddha. And once again in that golden autumn light: I will be loved.

I am bathed in the golden warm glowing light of autumn that shimmers off every inch of that park that sits in front of the Newberry Library. Even now. In the last days of summer.

Mavis is traveling. Off on a trip. But she’ll stop back when I need her.

9 Responses to “A Life of Caring”

  1. Naomi de Plume Says:

    It’s good to know they are still here when we need them. This is beautiful, ChiGuy.

  2. tunedincoaching Says:

    Reblogged this on Jennifer Seaver Stokes @ Tuned In Coaching Helps You Leverage Your Inner Strengths for Outer Success! and commented:
    Wonderful writing from Roger!

  3. chicagoguy12 Says:

    Hi Jennifer! Many thanks for passing this along! Roger

  4. pastorcarol22 Says:

    I only met Mavis a couple of times, but you brought back her vividness and adventuresome spirit…and yes, you ARE funny!!! Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute.

  5. Paulhaider74 Says:

    Roger, this is a beautiful post! I drove home from work today by turning off North Avenue onto Clark Street and saw the Newberry Library to the left side of the street while going to Walgreen’s. This is a wonderful tribute to your aunt.

    • chicagoguy12 Says:

      Paulie–I don’t know if you are on Facebook (and good for you if you are not!) But I wrote an intro to this that also gave a shout out to your Mom.

    • Paulhaider74 Says:

      Roger, my Facebook account was cancelled and deactivated after one month of its usage in March of 2009. However, I have an active Twitter account with the name “Paul Campbell Haider,” and Maria became one of my followers a couple of weeks ago. Your relationship Aunt Jeannie might not be in the same league as your relationship with Aunt Mavis, but these are both amazing women who inspire the words of a great writer (Roger Wright).

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