In dreams

John always maintained that, in some respects, he had control over his dreams. It seemed a stretch – it certainly would have been for me – but I didn’t doubt him. In fact, I envied him. He said he could redirect a dream that was heading in an unpleasant direction. In extreme cases, he claimed he could will himself to awaken from a nightmare.

Perhaps best of all, he never had the classic teacher dream where you can’t find the classroom,and when you do, pandemonium has broken out. You can’t quiet the enormous class because there’s no roster and your record book is gone. Even if you could impose some order, the subject is something quite out of your field, like astrophysics. The clock won’t move, and the period stretches on forever. It’s as though you are drugged and underwater, while everyone else is manically alive and alert. Twenty-three years into retirement, I still have this dream, as does every other teacher I know. But John? Never.

Perhaps he didn’t drift as deeply into his dreams as most people. He seldom remembered them, though he’d fall asleep instantly, within seconds of the last words we’d exchange after getting into bed.

In our household, nightmares were my domain. I had them frequently and, unlike John, was powerless to dispel them. But he was always there to wake and reassure me. Even now, I can hear him saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” In self defense, since he’s gone, I’ve pretty much stopped having them. Perhaps I do have a bit of control after all.

One thing I’ve not been able to do is have a decent dream about him. By that I mean a dream where he’s really himself, not some silent, minor bit player. Sometimes, he’s a character in the dream but absent, out on an errand, waited for, but like Godot, never arriving.

Unlike John, I’m at the mercy of my dreams. They come at me higgledy-piggledy and quite beyond my influence. I remember them, however, in copious detail the next morning. Recently, I dreamt of a friend who died many years ago, a roommate – no, considerably more than that. Yes, I had a life before John, though a pale, watercolor life compared to the rich, deeply saturated hues of my years with him.

At any rate, in this dream, my friend was fully present, with every trait and mannerism that drew me to him in the first place. The next day, I stood in front of John’s picture and said,”That’s the kind of dream I long to have about you.”

It must have seemed a challenge, for within a few nights, that’s just what I did have. For the first time in the three years he’s been gone, the John in my dream was fully realized, an almost physical presence. He talked as he used to and smiled in the broad, warm way he saved for when he was really happy. I was so close to him I was able to trace his slender, delicate nose with my finger. I’ve always envied him that nose.

I envied his head, too, especially after he lost his hair. It was perfectly shaped. It’s just as well I’ve kept my hair, for beneath it lurks, I suspect, a lumpy potato head.

In the dream, as I’d done so many times in life, I held him and kissed his head, telling him how beautiful I found it. This always bewildered him and he’d blush. The dream went on for a while as I continued to hold him, the two of us deep in a comfortable silence.

I awoke with a smile. The cosmos – or John – had sent me something precious. He and I had been together again, the only way we still can – in dreams.

Yikes!

Yikes! – an involuntary exclamation denoting the exclaimer is at once startled, taken aback, frightened, and confronted with danger. It is slang, to be sure, but eloquent in its streamlined simplicity. Two comic masters have used it to good effect on occasion, Jack Benny and Donald Duck. My subject is no laughing matter, but nothing else in our language captures what I’m feeling today as well as “Yikes!”

I feel frightened, threatened, and powerless to protect myself from what has reared up in front of us all. The plot to kidnap and harm Michigan’s governor is unnerving in its methodical planning and detail. That the coup was thwarted gives me scant consolation, for it forces me to realize that much more of the same awaits us in other parts of the country.

Nor do I take consolation in the prospect of defeat for the man whose words and actions disgust and alarm me to the point where I choose not to utter his name. In fact, I’ve come to think that there is no margin of electoral defeat large enough to silence the fringe his rants have inflamed.

November will come and go, but their misplaced rage and entitlement will live on. Innocents, young and old, now alive and thriving, totally unconnected with government, will be struck down for the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what, under him, our country has become – the wrong place at the wrong time.

The damage this man has done to us all – even to those who now, or in the future, rise up in his name, can be mended, but not in the short span of an election cycle. He did not invent racism, vigilante-ism, or xenophobia. Such evils simmered long before he bumbled to prominence. But he has summoned them out of the shadows, orchestrated them, legitimized them, and brought them to a boil.

They will not disappear when he does. Perhaps my pandemically shrunken sphere of activity affords some insurance. But everyone I care about, everyone who deserves to be cared about, in short, everyone, does not shelter in my little cocoon of Munster. And what is to say that I myself will not become collateral damage from the righteously wrathful spree of a paranoid “patriot”?

So yes, though I’ve tended to be a glass is more than half full type in this space, the glass has shattered. In the words of my favorite duck, “Yikes!”

Children of the silver screen

Danny Callahan and I are of different generations. Had we not been, what a superb playmate he’d have made. In connection with his Hitchcock book, The Camera Lies, he has posted three childhood snapshots which I find irresistible. They are from his tenth birthday party, and each of them makes me long to have known him then.

One shows him clutching a favorite present, Hitchcock/Truffault. His eyes are wide with pleasure, and it’s clear that by nightfall they’ll be busily devouring the book. A second photo shows him gleefully holding up a one sheet from Spellbound. In the late 60’s, I had begun to collect movie posters, (I still do), and I bought that same Spellbound for $10. I hope Danny held onto his. Today, it fetches 100 times that amount. In the picture, he is barefoot, and strewn about are unopened presents. Off to the side is another one sheet, another Hitchcock, Rear Window.

The final shot is of the birthday cake. Lucky Dan is blessed with indulgent, creative parents who have procured a cake topped with Hitchcock’s famous caricature of himself. Clearly, this child is no run-of-the-mill fan boy but a born cineaste already immersing himself in the lore of the subject which will become his life’s work. As I said, the ideal playmate for me at that age.

I’ve written elsewhere, in my book, Safe Inside, of the profound effect movies had on me at an early age, and the importance of movie theaters as temples of sanctuary from a scary world into which I was scrambling unsuccessfully to fit. Movie palaces (and their humbler cousins) provided the comforting darkness in which I was no longer the oddball but could be at one with the crowd of normal humans around me. We laughed and gasped and teared up together. Once inside, it was always wrenching to leave, for I found more mercy to be had in these exotic emporiums than any church could offer.

Like Danny, my childhood fascination with movies soon burrowed beyond the glamorous, larger than life images of the stars, potent though they were in a pre-television era. I loved the credits, preceded by those hypnotic studio logos. I devised one for my own imaginary studio. At seven, I could hum the logo music of 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal. I could beep like the RKO tower and roar like Leo, the MGM lion. To my chagrin, Paramount, Columbia, and United Artists brought on their logos in silence.

I paid attention to recurring names of those behind the scenes. I learned pretty fast, for example, that Max Steiner meant lush melodies and different music for each character, and that Van Nest Polglase meant enticing Art Deco bedrooms.

My earliest memory of this sort of thing is of 1942, when I was five. A year earlier, my parents risked taking me along, and I passed the “Will he be quiet?” test in spades. At any rate, 1942, the Shore theater, The Black Swan, a terrific pirate picture. In those days, you just showed up and plugged yourself into whatever part of the movie was unspooling. Later on, you’d see the beginning and catch up on what you’d missed. When Mom and Dad and I settled into our seats, (you’d stumble about a bit in the dark, even with the assistance of a spiffilly uniformed usher brandishing a flashlight), Tyrone Power had already captured Maureen O’Hara and they were inside his ship. The sunlight through the cabin windows danced around in a way that made you feel the bounce of the ocean waves. It was magic, and it made me wonder who could do such a thing. I later learned it was Leon Shamroy.

It wasn’t for another three years that I encountered Shamroy’s work again, this time in Leave Her to Heaven. Once again, Technicolor magic (in those days, nobody’s Technicolor was as juicy as 20th Century Fox’s). Once again, people and objects lit from below with an almost unearthly sunlight.

Much as I loved them, and happy as they made me, I didn’t get to a lot of movies back then. Times were tight, but I pored over the movie ads in the papers. Fridays and Sundays were best because the ads were enormous. I remember a full page just for Meet Me in St. Louis. Finally though, in 1945, the floodgates opened, and I was seeing movies almost every week. I didn’t get it at first, but the reason was my parents’ divorce. They were spending time separately with me now, and each of them knew that movies were a foolproof way to end my mopes for a while. What wonderful conversations we’d have afterward when I wanted to deconstruct everything we’d just seen.

It was a painful time, changing homes, changing schools, and wondering, as kids will, what had I done to mess things up for Mom and Dad. Yet distractions were suddenly showered upon me, happily with little regard for their possible effect on my pre-pubescent psyche. Sure, there were wholesome romps like Anchors Aweigh, but there were also steamy noirs like To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce, Scarlet Street, Three Strangers, and Confidential Agent. Zowie! as it were.

The apogee of this windfall was the day my father took a day off from the steel mill just to take me downtown to the movies. We went first to the mill where he introduced me to his co-workers. They picked me up and put me on the giant truck scale to weigh me. Hearty laughter all around. I was painfully shy and a little scared, but the laughter seemed friendly, and I was pleased by how much the men liked Dad. They seemed to like me, but I feared that wouldn’t last if they got to know me.

Next we had breakfast at a cafe near the mill. The waitress spread out a newspaper so I could see what was playing. She cajoled Dad into taking me not to just one movie but two! I was in heaven. I wanted to see State Fair, (I’d already memorized the words to “It Might as Well Be Spring”). Blood on the Sun sounded good, but the adults urged me toward Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, and I wanted to please them. Still, swapping Sylvia Sidney for Margaret O’Brien was not my idea of a neat trade. But two first run movies downtown on a single day! I could barely contain my excitement.

I never lost my fascination with the artistry of those behind the scenes. In time, I found a partner equally keen on such rarefied matters. Sometimes, the only reason John and I would keep watching an obscure old film was that Richard Day or Hans Dreier had designed the sets. The plot might be flimsy, but the doors and staircases and bookshelves and clocks would be sturdy, intricate and beautiful (or aptly ugly).

Decades and decades have passed, but I’m still that child of the silver screen. I no longer enter a movie house seeking refuge. As a confident adult, I enter seeking joy, and the pleasure of witnessing the creative imagination at work. Or I used to, before the pandemic. When will it happen again? It must.

Forgive me for rambling this time. I know that I have. It’s just that with a present as unpalatable as we currently face, I’d like to take a long term lease on the past.

The Virgin strikes back

Lesson learned. Never tell tales on a nun.

As a child, my most pleasant religious images were those of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Jesus. Even for an elderly lapsed Catholic, those images have not changed. Why would they? The icons I was urged to admire and emulate were mostly stern and scary, but Mary was always warm, kindly, empathetic, and forgiving. You could mess up and Mary would still take your part. I found that comforting amid the otherwise hair-raising cautionary tales.

My very favorite prayer was to Mary, though not the one of which you may be thinking, not the Hail Mary. No, it was the Memorarae, a hopeful prayer so artfully constructed that it flows with the rhythm and grace of a poem. I’d love to know who wrote it, but such things are not always knowable.

At school, May crownings were my favorite ritual. We’d practice dignified marching and sing the most beautiful songs. Then, on the day, we’d enter the church singing and solemnly parade up to a statue of Mary. The may king (I almost made it one year, but that’s another story. I had to settle for prince) bore a garland of flowers on a satin pillow. The garland was placed on Mary’s head to more singing and a stately exodus. What gay little boy wouldn’t be into such pomp and incensed circumstances?

At the moment, however, I seem to have managed to get on Mary’s bad side. Who knew there was one? Here’s why I think so. Getting from point A to point B has never been my strong suit – not even my weak suit. It’s just not in my wardrobe. One of the few places I can get to without the help of a navigator is my doctor’s office in St. John. It’s a snap. Just get myself onto Indianapolis Boulevard, head south, and keep an eye out for an enormous statue of the Virgin. You can’t miss it. You can’t get lost. But yesterday, I did.

I didn’t have the address to put into the GPS, but this is one destination where I’ve never needed to. The huge visual clue suffices. So, off I set, secure in the knowledge that Mary would tell me where I should turn. There are no street signs at that juncture, and some new buildings had been slapped up since my last visit, but what of it?

Plenty. I’m driving and driving and looking and looking but no Mary. Like the crowds at Fatima, I yearn for her appearance. I know it’s a long way but I’m patient. Just keep driving and she’ll show up like always to guide me. More driving, lots more, and a curve in the highway I don’t recall. Have I passed it? Impossible. I’ll drive on.

Forty seven miles later, I’ve abandoned all hope and am madly seeking a place to turn off that will be marked so I can call and explain where I am. Forty seven miles! I call the doctor’s office and tell them I’m in Kentland. “Kentland? I don’t know where that is.” Why should she? Nobody does.

I turn around, head north, and barrel down the highway. I was so late that, had this been a regular appointment, I’d have wasted my time and need to reschedule. Luckily, I was only coming in to get a flu shot and pick up a script.

To Dimitrios, this wasn’t wasted time at all. He was enjoying more speed and mileage than he’d seen since the pandemic began. Once again, I overshot the unmarked turn-off, but this time I knew it. Because there, much bigger than life, painted in silver, glinting blindingly in the sun, was Mary. I’d almost hoped she wouldn’t be. If they’d removed her, then I wasn’t losing my mind.

But no. She was back, reappearing once more, as if to say, “Think twice before you tell nasty tales about my nuns.” As I said, lesson learned.

Thus endeth my religious trilogy.

A postscript – the bright side of the halo

Was there one? Yes, but you had to look for it. My brother and I remember a couple of women in that convent with a natural calling that put them right where they were supposed to be to do the most good. I’ll get to them in a moment.

I was a teacher too, as was John. We showed up and did what we did, never knowing how, or even if, we’d be remembered. A few of my students have found me and reached out to say, at least, that I didn’t give them nightmares. But John was a special case. Hundreds remember him fondly and specifically, and they let him know it. In his last weeks, droves of them trooped in and out of this house to thank him and say goodbye. For years before that, many would bandy memories with him on face book.

I haven’t taken his face book or his website down. I’m not sure I’d know how and I don’t really want to, though a few times this has led to confusion. Most of his charges knew he’d passed on. Quite a lot of them still in the area came to his memorial. But not everyone knew. That was three years ago, but this week a long, touching e-mail appeared, sent by a gentleman who thought he was still here. I answered it and assured him his words were not wasted, that I treasured them. I knew John would have remembered him and I told him so.

His message meant a lot and it made me wish, once again, that I had thanked those teachers who made a difference to me while they were still around to hear it. Certainly I owed that to Dr. Margaret Annan at South Shore High School. She was the reason I became a teacher. I wanted a rapt audience like hers. But even at Our Lady of Peace there were nuns born to be in front of children and bring out the best in them. Not a lot, mind you, but they were there.

I’ll mention two. Classes at O.L.P. (I wonder if they knew we called it the old ladies’ penitentiary?) were divided into the Jeffery side and the Chapel side. My brother, six years younger than I, lucked into Jeffery. I say lucked because then you got Sister Miriam Joseph for first grade. She constantly broke the rule about no smiling (there must have been one). She was so kindly and so much fun that some kids would have been happy to be held back just to remain with her.

I was on the Chapel side, but each afternoon I went to Steve’s classroom to bring him home. On good days, if I hadn’t spent our carfare on candy or comic books, we’d board the 79th Street trolley. On bad days, the poor kid had a long walk. His classroom invariably rang with a sound never heard on Chapel: laughter. I envied him that.

At the end of the term, in June of 1949, Sister Miriam Joseph asked if the Kingsmill brothers could do her a favor. We were thrilled and honored. She kept goldfish in the room but would be away for the summer. Could we possibly take care of them until she returned? Could we? You betcha! Those fish took their first trolley ride that day and we worried they’d get sick from the jostling. That, they took in stride. What did them in was our over-zealous feeding. We didn’t want the little guys to starve, and wouldn’t Sister be pleased if they put on weight while she was gone? One by one they went belly up.

Come September, with tears of shame in our eyes, we had to break the news that her pets had not survived our care. She trusted us, and we had let her down. It was horrible. But she couldn’t let it be horrible. She smiled and told us not to worry, they were just fish and so easy to overfeed. Just fish? If there is a heaven, that woman skipped Purgatory and went there straightaway.

I too had an exemplary nun, but not until seventh grade. I can’t swear to it (though I ought to be able to) but I believe her name was Sister Virginia Marie. She was the first teacher to tell me what I had always known in my heart, that I was a good writer. She enjoyed my compositions and wrote as much on them. She was no-nonsense, strict, and not a smiler, but we respected rather than feared her.

In subtle ways, it slowly dawned on me that I was now the last thing I ever thought I’d be – teacher’s pet. Not in an obvious way that would have set the bullies loose on me, but in ways that lit me up inside. She didn’t read my papers aloud, not too often anyway, but she wrote encouragements all over them. And at Easter, she let me get away with absolute murder.

Next to English, my favorite subject was art. We had a lay teacher, Miss Foster, who was after me to take private art lessons with her. I didn’t because Dad was working two jobs and I was pretty sure we couldn’t afford it. He’d have popped for it if I told him about it, so I never did. Sister Virginia Marie knew of this however, and had seen enough of my sketches and water colors to trust me with decorating the big board in the back of the room for Easter. Well, you can’t overfeed a bulletin board.

She gave me a scissors, some paste and pins, one of those packs of colored sheets of construction paper (I loved them!) and turned me loose. While the rest of the class labored over my two least favorite books, arithmetic and geography, (my heart never beat faster to learn whether a country imported coal or exported it), I hummed to myself and designed the board – for a solid week! Meticulously (and slowly), I cut out hundreds of perfectly oval shaped eggs. Pink ones, pale blue and green ones, yellow ones, violet ones – it went on forever. She knew what I was up to, of course, and she didn’t mind. It seemed to amuse her. I seemed to amuse her. How I hoped to get her for a second year – but no. Fortunately, eighth graders are virtually indestructible.

So thank you ladies. Most belatedly, but most sincerely, my brother and I give you many thanks indeed.

The dark side of the halo

Since I’m about to recount some personal experiences that depict Catholic school in a less than flattering light, it seems only fair that I begin by speaking what good I can of that institution. First – I was well taught. No complaints on that score. Thanks to the Dominican sisters, I was admirably prepared to enter high school. On the whole, they were better versed and more rigorous than many of the public school teachers under whom I studied or later worked beside.

Second, I was never sexually abused nor was I aware of any classmate who was. Not once. Not ever. Our priests seemed a decent enough lot who were more than happy to leave us alone. When summoned by one of the nuns to lecture us on morality, they seemed, if anything, squirmy and embarrassed, relieved when their ordeal was over.

That’s about it. If there’s a thirdly, it’s not coming to me at the moment. And, truth be told, there are other forms of abuse. Those I witnessed and experienced on a regular basis.

What brings this to mind now is a group of photographs of Our Lady of Peace church, whose final mass was celebrated last week. They were shared with me by my friend, Katy, who attended grammar school there, as did I. Her memories of the place are somewhat more pleasant than mine.

The pictures brought it all rushing back. Here was the altar where I knelt to be confirmed (by the archbishop no less). The interior of the church is quite opulent and imposing. Sumptuous would not be putting it too strongly. As a youngster, coming from two years at a far humbler chapel, St. Felicitas, I thought of Our Lady of Peace more as a palatial religious museum to be dazzled by than a site of spiritual contemplation. St. Felicitas had been a place of comfort and consolation. Our Lady of Peace was a temple of judgment, and judged we were by the good sisters.

You’d think they’d have taken to me, what with the respectful attitude I brought to class, attentive and unquestioningly obedient. Well, maybe nobody takes to all that, not even a nun. One of the girls called me a goody two shoes just before she poked fingers in both my eyes. I guess I was. At any rate, I took it all verrry seriously. You can imagine my terror for months after Sister Vallina told us that anything we did wrong, even the most venial of sins, would add retroactively to Jesus’ pain on the cross. Yikes! Swell news for a boy on the cusp of puberty.

One of the pictures Katy sent shows a statue I remember well, a spot of hope in that grand guilt factory. It’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help, her right foot subduing a serpent. Perpetual help was just what we needed on those premises.

Which brings me to the inaptly named Sister Innocent, whom it was my dire misfortune to have two years running. During those two years, I cannot remember a single day on which no one was slapped in the face (or, if the lesson were Palmer Method penmanship, rapped on the knuckles with a ruler). The slapping reached its awesome crescendo one afternoon when Sister Innocent chose to send a message to the girls – not just to one offender, but to everyone in a skirt. She had them line up against the wall (she staged more line-ups than Law and Order). Then, she raised her hand and, as though they were a picket fence, smacked it across all of their faces. This took some dexterity since the young ladies were of varying heights.

In those days, of course, education and corporal punishment were no strangers, so a slap was not remarkable, though their volume and regularity might have raised an eyebrow. Slaps sting for only a moment, but Sister I. delivered other stings that lingered.

Not a day went by without her reducing one of us to tears with things she’d say or situations she’d contrive. And she didn’t play favorites – no one was immune. One day it was the turn of the prettiest and most poised girl in class. Every classroom had a piano. Some of the nuns played, but in our case, those chores were usually left to this confident girl who could read music and played reasonably well when she’d had time at home to rehearse. This time, however, Sister surprised her with a complicated piece she’d never seen before. The girl tried to decline, but Sister insisted, unctuously, “You’ve always done sooo well, my dear, you won’t let us down now, will you?”

The girl began, but Sister interrupted, “It’s meant to go much faster.” Faster it went, but with fumbling and wrong notes. Several times, the girl stopped in frustration and begged to be excused. We’d all seen this kind of stuff with other kids, so we knew what was coming. She wouldn’t be allowed to stop until she started to cry, which presently, she did. On such occasions, Sister I. would permit herself the merest hint of a smile.

My turn came thanks to my grandmother’s dislike of her daughter-in-law. I was no one’s candidate for the All American Boy, least of all, my grandmother’s. She felt I was singularly lacking in manly demeanor, for which she blamed Mom. She was determined to rectify the situation by discussing my shortcomings in detail with Sister Innocent – in front of the class. Sister was thrilled at this turn of events and sent me to the cloakroom so my delicate sensibilities would be spared. There in the dark, I was spared nothing. I could hear everything, as my mother and I were raked over the coals.

The upshot of this humiliating conference was Sister’s interesting decision to make a real boy of me by staging a boxing match, as if my classmates needed any further entertainment at my expense. To my relief, no one ever teased me about any of this or even mentioned it – but then you didn’t dare; you knew your turn was coming.

For my opponent, Sister chose the smallest, thinnest child in class, convinced no doubt, that even he could knock me out in the first round. Previously, this boy had taken his turn in the barrel when, tiring of his fidgets,Sister brought rope and tied him to his desk. She trussed him up in similar fashion each day for a week.

Both of us dreaded the upcoming bout. I never wanted to hit anyone. I was never that angry at anybody. I don’t know where she got the boxing gloves, (Did she fancy herself as Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s?). They seemed so big, like Mickey Mouse shoes but on our hands. She had us take off our shirts and clanged a bell to get us going at each other. We did, sort of, but it was more like bad ballet than fisticuffs. We kept it up because we had to, but mercifully, she grew bored and ended it early.

So, will I return to 79th and Jeffery to the scene of those halcyon days of yore? I think I’ll pass.

Labors of love

I was not looking forward to Labor Day this year. I knew I’d be spending it completely alone for the first time – maybe ever. Even after John was gone, I’d been able to cadge a bit of company for the occasion. This time around, thanks largely to the almighty pandemic, I’d be on my own. What of that? Well, if you’re in any of the circles or subsets of my acquaintance, you know what.

For almost four decades, John and I threw a party on Labor Day for everybody we knew and could stand who wasn’t out of town. Starting small in 1980, with no more friends than a croquet set accommodates, the event grew and swelled until at last we were compelled to rent tents, tables and chairs. The lawns, front, back and side were crammed with guests as were the deck and driveway. The place rang with chatter, laughter, live music, and the explosions of fireworks.

Now, Labor Day comes and goes in silence, and my goal was simply to get to Tuesday. I woke up a little before 8:00 and realized that, in the past, John would already have been up for hours making ready. It was really his show, and how he loved it! I cooked a little and drew the invitations, but John’s energy was the driving force. This was his Christmas, the one day of the year when he was the most John he would ever be. That’s why it’s hard to get through without him.

I wore white pants today (Mr. Blackwell compels me to retire them tomorrow), and put on a tee that says “Life is better on the Kingsmill/Kruzan family farm. I poked my head outside to turn on the sprinkler, but the garden was crowded with ghosts. The happy din of bygone parties assaulted my ears like tinnitus.

For a minute or so, I just stood there, transfixed at the spigot. But life has a way of elbowing you back to reality. I looked down the driveway and saw that it was completely blocked off by a huge fallen branch from Vic’s locust tree. I tried to drag it out of the way, but it was too heavy. Vic was not home, but from his side door, I could see Ken and Susan in their yard. Ken was on a ladder with one of those long sawy clippy things, trimming a tree.

I enlisted their help. Ken is a desert island sort, able and eager to bail you out of scrapes. It took all three of us to get the big limb cut up and out to the curb. We looked up to see where it had broken off and, to my horror, I saw that another, larger branch dangles like a sword of Damocles, too high to be reached, waiting for a stiff wind to dislodge it onto my head or Dimitrios’ roof. Still, it did jolt me out of my Labor Day blues.

It’s always a tonic to be with Ken and Susan. She informed me that the house across the street has been sold to a bachelor said to be serious eye candy. Before they left, I commiserated with her over the prospect of cancelling her annual Christmas party, one of the best reasons to keep living on this block.

Both Tom and Darlene called to make sure I wasn’t deep in a brood, and I wasn’t. Nostalgic, yes, but attentive friends make it hard to be despondent. After watering and pruning everything in sight, I made myself a rainbow cone, packing three scoops all the way to the bottom of a waffle cone and took off for a walk. When I got back, Amazon had delivered Woody Allen’s autobiography. So far it has made me laugh out loud three times.

It’s after 11:00. By this time, our party would be over, much of the clean up done, (the rest would keep). I’d have a back ache from hours of standing, and we’d be waiting on the last lingering guests to notice how tired we were and hit the road. Then we’d go inside, collapse, and tot up the year’s attendees. John would finally eat something (fried chicken if there were any left) and I’d have another helping of potato salad. We’d make a few notes of what to do and not do for next year. We’d talk until our eyes were closing and then lumber up to bed to talk some more.

Goodnight, Baby. Happy Labor Day. I assure you, this kid’s okay.

“These Foolish Things Remind Me of You”

Researching a favorite old song led me to some fascinating tidbits about its lyricist, Eric Maschwitz, with whom I was unfamiliar. Turns out, he wrote under an alias worthy of a superhero: Holt Marvell. He was in British Secret Intelligence, married to Hermione Gingold, and instrumental in the creation of Dr. Who. In my opinion, however, had he done nothing else, the gem like lyrics to “These Foolish Things” would have been enough to justify his existence.

The song, with music by Jack Strachey, first appeared in a 1936 London review called Spread it Abroad, Since then, it has become a jazz standard and been catnip for a gazillion singers who can’t resist it any more than I can. You won’t go wrong with any of them – Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday – but I particularly recommend Ella Fitzgerald because she includes the verse and all three choruses.

This is a “list” song worthy to rank with any of Cole Porter‘s. You’ll find nothing hackneyed here, no rhyming of charms and arms. It is also one of the most deeply romantic lyrics ever penned. I’ve been thinking of it a lot lately as I wander about the house and yard, encountering the souvenirs of a lifetime and the sweet memories they summon of those who supplied them.

When I open my eyes in the morning – or all too often the afternoon – the first things they see are a vaulted ceiling and a tall garden window. These, among so many aspects of this house, are thanks to Mickey Mitidiero who transformed it, not merely with artistry but with downright sorcery, into the magical cocoon which I now call home.

Entering the bath, I open the medicine cabinet and consume a pro-biotic tablet. I never do so without thinking of Joe Lafreniere, a departed friend who urged me to take them. John and I spent countless merry hours in the company of Joe and his wife, Lois.

In the closet, I see a shirt of pale fuchsia which no longer fits me. But if my body has outgrown it, my soul never will. I bought the material and the pearl like buttons when my friend, Ann Kroll, agreed to make me a shirt. That was forty-one years ago. It’s much too tight now, and Ann sewed the buttons on the female side, (a Freudian slip?), but it will hang forever in my closet – my favorite garment of all time – my lucky shirt. I wore it the night I met John.

Looking across the landing into John’s office, I see a lonesome guitar. It wonders why no one has been out to strum it since last Christmas. My brother planted it here so he wouldn’t have to tote a guitar every time he shows up. I look at it and hear spectral echoes of the last time Steve provided our soundtrack’

Down in the kitchen, I make toast and think of my friend and co-worker, Bob Starr, as I spread it with the Irish butter he introduced me to with some homemade bread he brought to one of our Labor Day parties.

Digging into a drawer for a spoon to dip into a jar of preserves, I find an array of stolen silverware from an Iberostar resort in Mexico. I am not the thief. That dishonor belongs to Pat Leach and Tim Baughman, our companions on several tropical vacations. They would stage midnight raids on the larder for ice cream – and spoons. I’ll never forget the look of befuddlement on John’s face when they switched spoons on him at a restaurant once we’d come home.

Still in the kitchen, every time I make a salad or find other uses for olive oil, I’m reminded of winsome Katy Ahearn who presented me with an Italian ceramic decanter which has survived my dropping and dinging the stopper several times. I plan to use it forever.

Katy Ahearn presented me with this beautiful Italian ceramic decanter

In the hallway hangs a painting by my friend, the artist, Bob Johnson. He did it from a photo I posted of our garden. He brought it to me shortly after John passed (I’ll never say died because that just isn’t true).

Near my chair in the family room rests a candle snuffer, a gracious reminder of my thoughtful, inexhaustibly entertaining friends in Brighton, England, Pat and Lew Shrimpton. When in London, John and I would always hop a train to see this jolly pair.

Tommy Doyle, I needn’t mention what’s here to remind me of you. I think all lives deserve a smidgeon of mystery.

Out in the garden, I’m shaded by an enormous corkscrew willow tree, a gift to us from Jeff and Darlene Williams as a memorial to John’s mother. It’s a touching reminder of all three of them.

Beside the driveway sits an obelisk with suns and moons (and compass directions lest I get lost and can’t find my way back inside). It’s a wedding gift from Nancy Hill, Marlene Hill, and Macel Hilliard. They traveled with us to New York to celebrate our nuptials. These three naughty ladies brightened many overseas trips with their didoes and capers. Renting a villa in France, we dubbed our group the villains. Plus des pois, anyone?

And, above all, inside, outside, upstairs and down, – everywhere – there is John.

“Oh how the ghost of you clings.

These foolish things remind me of you.”

Bedtime Bijou

Early in 1945, Doris Day had one of her biggest hits while a band singer with Les Brown, “My Dreams are Getting Better all the Time.” For three weeks, it topped the charts. At seven, my musical taste buds were still forming, but I remember liking the way she negotiated the dips and swells of the melody. As to the lyrics, I wouldn’t say my dreams are getting better, but they’re definitely being put to better use.

Before the pandemic, my dreams enabled me to do amazing things that waking life didn’t permit, such as soaring through the sky, or dancing well. These days, my dreams allow me to do perfectly normal things which are no longer wise, like gathering with friends, going to restaurants, and giving hugs. I’m about to explore three recent nocturnal excursions, so if recitals of the dreams of others sets your teeth on edge, now is the time to bail.

Dream one: short and simple enough – I’m at the airport to meet my father – or he’s there to meet me. In reality, Dad’s been gone twenty-nine years. We throw our arms around each other and hug a long, tight, satisfying hug. That’s all, but how it lingers to warm me.

Dream two: Lois, for undisclosed reasons, is treating me to dinner. Being Lois, she is careful to wear a mask, as am I, in the back seat. It’s dark, but streetlights ahead are shutting off, one after another. I suggest this means that the posh restaurant we seek will be closed, but Lois is determined to press on. We arrive to find it open. She goes off to the ladies’ room, and I decide to order steak and lima beans. The dream concludes with me holding aloft a tall stemmed glass of ice cold Bombay Sapphire gin with a twist of lemon. I’m trying to find us an outside table even though those inside are socially distanced.

My dreams aren’t usually that cautious and responsible, so I’m sure the spirit of Lois costumed and choreographed this one. I awoke and thought what a tasty repast that would have been. Then it occurred to me that I had all the ingredients to replicate it right here. So I did, with delicious results, after which, I toasted Lois with a long stemmed glass of gin.

A Toast To Lois!

Dream three; Now we come to one of the long, three volume Victorian novel type which John so abhorred. In the dream, my friend George is posting pictures and raving about the meatballs his wife Karen has just made. I decide to drop in and see if I can have some. I enter their house which has somehow been transported to Chicago. George is so engrossed with the meatballs he doesn’t notice me. I grab a fork, break off a morsel and find it heavenly (which is odd because in reality I can take them or leave them).

Just then, there is a loud banging at the door. George opens it and finds three young thugs threatening to rob him. I yell out, “Is there a gun in the house?” George yells back, “Yes, in the coffee table drawer.” I find the gun which, instead of grey steel, is an attractive dark blue plastic. I know it’s real though, and loaded. I step to the door and brandish the weapon which completely cows the robbers. If they try to hurt George, I’m prepared to shoot (though I’ll aim at their legs). We call the police, and the larcenous lads call their mother. She gets there first and pleads the case that they’re really sweeties if we knew them. I’m having none of it, so she starts singing “As Time Goes By.” I see through this diversionary tactic, but it’s such a nice song that I sing along with her.

We finish our duet (which I must say was well received) and I demand their names. She tells me hers is Kingsmill!! I’m aghast at the prospect I might be related to these felons. To convince me that I am, they send for a nearly blind woman who, with tears streaming down her face, begs me to remember her. To my utter consternation, I do. She is a long lost, elderly aunt. As the dream ends, I am mortified that relatives of mine have tried to rob Karen and George.

Not exactly quality time, but at least I got to spend it with friends. Maybe tonight I’ll get to dream I’m at the movies.

Asleep at the switch

Old time radio is my sonic comfort food. To a child of the pre-television era, it informs my earliest memories – staring at the cloth grill of a wooden floor model radio, taller than I was, surrounded by my family, all of us using our imagination to picture, in precise detail, what we could only hear.

John never shared my fondness for those broadcasts: in fact, he quite disliked them. In the car, with him at the wheel, it was a bone of contention. On a Saturday afternoon, to tune in Chuck Schaden‘s Those were the Days was to risk his displeasure. So I didn’t. Small price to pay to keep peace in an otherwise deeply harmonious household. Perhaps it was the age gap. I was five years his senior. Whatever the reason, such programs irritated him. To me, however, they were and are like a warm blanket of charm, humor and civility.

The pleasure I take in them is by no means indiscriminate. I have no patience with bad writing such as was foisted on Alan Young, Dennis Day, Harold Perry (after his ego trip desertion of The Great Gildersleeve) and even that genius voicesmith, Mel Blanc. Their eponymous shows suffered from cheap, lazy, broad one liners buffered (or battered) by intrusive laugh tracks. Nor, though I respect William Bendix as an actor, do I find the moronic domestic abuses of The Life of Riley remotely amusing. Riley belonged in a home for the terminally bumbling, perhaps on the same wing with Irma Peterson.

Worlds away, in terms of real humor, was, for example, Paul Rhymer‘s exquisite Vic and Sade, a long running treasure played without studio audience or canned hilarity. It went over my head as a kid, but now, helplessly, I am the laugh track. Clever writers were the backbone of The Jack Benny Program and Our Miss Brooks. I respond as well to the sweetness and gentle pace of The Great Gildersleeve, the cozy wit of Ozzie and Harriet and Phil Harris and Alice Faye‘s killer supporting cast: Elliott Lewis and Walter Tetley invariably steal that show.

Aside from comedy, I bask in the sumptuous ambiance of the Lux Radio Theatre while Cecil B. DeMille was at the helm and I’m gratifyingly chilled by any episode of Chandu the Magician or Scott Bishop’s Dark Fantasy.

Since 1970, I’ve been able to indulge my nostalgic cravings on Saturdays from 1:00 to 5:00 with Those were the Days now on WDCB, primarily a jazz and big band station at 90.9 FM. More recently, there has been a late night program on Saturdays with Carl Amari and Lisa Wolf, first on WGN but now on WIND. I’ve had to stop listening because of WIND’s politically toxic posture that bleeds even into its commercials. Clearly, I and my “ilk” are not welcome there.

A third option is available for an hour every weekday evening at midnight on WBBM, 780 AM. This is what brings me to write, and sadly, what generates this blog’s title. As curated by Greg Bell, When Radio Was is a welcome oasis. Commercials are frequent but bearable (the Penny Mustard brothers are often the funniest performers on the program). In recent months, however, things have changed drastically. Whoever is charged with managing the transcriptions (I’m beginning to think no one) is indeed asleep at the switch.

These nights, the program will suddenly shift back in mid show to what you’ve already heard, or to something completely different – rather trying if you’ve invested time in a mystery. Worse, the programming may be abandoned halfway through, replaced by nothing but commercials or by nothing at all – just dead air. Most exasperating of all, In the past two weeks, they have played the same episodes of Mayor of the Town¬†and Ma Perkins six times. SIX! The Mayor and Ma have outworn their welcome. I tune out each time they arrive once again with their too oft told tale. So must everyone else.

Neither Bell nor the sponsors seem to be aware of this station’s slipshod management. If I knew whom to write about this debacle, I would. In my ignorance, I merely record it here.

Same time, same station, same everything is getting me down.