A Swell Party

“So, what are your planning for your 75th?” a friend asked.

“I don’t think I want a party,” I said. “I’ll declare the entire month of August my birthday and I’ll let friends take me out to dinner.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” she said. We were on the phone, so I couldn’t see her expression. But, her tone was skeptical.

 “I’ll save money and avoid bruising those I don’t include in a big bash,” I said, trying to convince her, and myself.

But, was it really a good plan? What if the once-in-a-lifetime occasion drifted away and I came to regret the absence of a party? And despite the several friends who volunteered to host individual birthday meals, my idea was beginning to feel tepid. Even depressing.

As I continued to muse about my approaching big day, I decided to pitch the question to Tommy. Although gone from this earth, he and I frequently engaged in conversations that I found enlightening, and more important, uplifting.

“What do you think, Honey,” I said aloud. No one else was in my apartment when I launched our dialogue, so I didn’t have to fear skepticism or derision. “Expensive party, or a series of dinners?”

I waited a few beats to conjure my deceased husband, but soon enough, I could feel his presence. “This bed is too small,” were his first imagined words. I was propped upright on two pillows in the new full-size bed I had purchased for my small apartment. Tommy’s assessment was coming from the empty side of the bed.

“It fits my life here,” I said. “But, let’s get to the question at hand. Do you agree it’s better to ditch a party and save money and bruised feelings?”

I expected a significant “yes” because for his 75th, we went to a restaurant with two other couples. I had offered a party, but my husband, who shunned the spotlight and frivolous expenditures, declined.

“You should have a party,” I was certain I heard him saying. “And, I’ll throw it for you.”

I placed my hand on the bare linen, then on the pillow I hugged each night pretending it was Tommy. He continued, “ask Barry if he’ll open our favorite restaurant for you on a Monday when he’s usually closed.”

“Smoque, the barbecue place in our old neighborhood?” I said.

Because I was directing this movie in my head, I could pause it at any point and insert flashbacks. I saw Tommy and me entering the restaurant, just days after it opened. Barbecue, a few blocks from our house! I was in heaven.

Although my husband was a vegetarian, he was satisfied with salad, mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, french fries, and peach cobbler while his wife alternated between ribs, brisket, and chicken. He knew my addiction to this menu and, in his love for me, put Smoque at the top of the list when I asked him for a lunch choice.

In my film, I saw calendar pages flip quickly as Tommy and I remained patrons of our neighborhood joint. As his brain degeneration progressed, we developed a ritual. As soon as we entered, he’d head for the cooler, pluck a cola, then proceed to our regular table. I’d go to the counter, order his veggie sides, then add my meat choice of the day.

Tommy was in charge of salt and pepper packets and plastic silverware, which he’d pickup on his route back to our seats. Within 30 minutes, without my husband having to struggle to find words or conversation, we’d be on our way home.

“What about the money?” I posed to my apparition. “It’s really not in my budget.”

“Life’s short,” I heard him saying. Perhaps his experience -- dying at the age of 77 -- was now altering his views of frivolity and finance.

In an email I wrote to Barry, I said: “You may be wondering why I haven’t been in lately. Tommy died November 2, and it’s been too painful to return. But, my 75th birthday is coming up, and in honor of that occasion, and in memory of Tommy, would you consider opening on a Monday night for a private party?”

Five days before my actual birthday, on a Monday when the restaurant doors bore taped signs that read, “Private Party,” I stood with a friend who had clasped me in a hug. “It’s a shame Tommy couldn’t be here,” she said.

I smiled, stepped back and surveyed the happy crowd. Above the cheery noise of 40 friends and relatives, and with Barry on hand to supervise the celebration, I shouted to be heard, “Oh, he’s here. He’s definitely here. In fact, he threw it for me.”  

Head Trip

"Just put it on my credit card," I say to the American Airlines agent at the gate.

I'm pleased with myself. I have gotten to LaGuardia early enough to get a flight that will get me home several hours sooner than my original ticket.

As I move to the back of the line of passengers on the jetway, I look at my ticket and again pat myself on the back. "Aisle seat, row 11, extra legroom!" I say aloud. I’m not worried my fellow flyers will question my glee because they'd certainly empathize with this great spot.

But my outspoken declaration must've roused my husband who, since his own flight departure, has been residing in my head and engaging me in frequent conversations.

"I don't know why you're feeling so proud of yourself," I imagine him saying. "You just spent $75 to get this earlier flight, and that's on top of the $75 you spent to change airports."

I wasn't surprised to hear Tommy's view because my recent shifts and credit card action were two hotspots in our otherwise mellow marriage. As example of his steadfastness, my husband had lived in the same apartment for several decades. His bride though, counted 13 changes of residences before we met and two more post-Las Vegas nuptials.

In the second area of major spousal differences, Tommy worked at jobs with modest salaries yet managed to enter our marriage with an admirable savings account. Me?  I supplemented my income with a Home Equity Line of Credit, and even when warned by my tax advisor that it was likely I'd outlive my money, I did little to change my practice.

"Is it the extra $150 that's bothering you, Honey?" I ask the curmudgeon accompanying me along the gangplank. "You of all people should understand that life is unpredictable, and hanging at the airport wasting precious time is crazy."

What I didn't point out is this: who could have forcasted that less than a year ago, Tommy was alive, on this earth, not in my head. We should've taken that trip to the Greek Islands we talked about. Or Japan. Oh, there were a number of places that were on our Someday list. And now, he is relegated to being my fanciful traveling partner.

My spouse was quiet as I found my aisle seat, and when I enlisted a sturdy male to hoist my carry-on to the overhead bin. This, of course, was my muscular husband's task on the trips we did take together. In his absence, I pull my little old lady act and stand helpless until someone conjures his granny and comes to my aide.

Once I'm seated, with seatbelt securely fastened, Tommy starts up again. "So why Kennedy instead of LaGuardia?" he asks. "If you would've chosen this airport in the first place, you could've saved $150 in change fees, plus the $20 difference in cab fares."

I was wondering when he was going to get around to that major gaffe. I had my answer at the ready; I'd blame someone else.

"Well, I put the query on my Facebook page and..."

Did I see my spouse shaking his head? I realized I had walked into a third breach in our harmonious life. While I own every Apple device Steve Jobs dreamed up, I couldn't get my husband to desire an email address. His only interest in technology came when he'd  haul a kitchen chair to my home office and glare over my shoulder as I opened website after website trying to find his perfect golf club.

"Okay, Honey," I said. "I know you don't like Facebook or understand my obsession with it, but normally my friends have submitted very good advice to my questions. For example.."

I stopped before I could list the successful recommendations that clearly outnumbered this last erroneous answer of Kennedy over LaGuardia. "Okay, maybe I should've done more research," I said. "It was a learning experience. Next trip in, I'll have the right answer.”

Tommy was silent. Had I wounded him? I shouldn't have mentioned visits to New York. I jumped in before his voice returned to my head. "This trip was great," I said, "but nothing like our jaunt to the Big Apple. I didn't do any of the memorable things we did together. No Central Park, no Ellis Island, no Tenement Museum."

As the airplane lifted from the runway, I closed my eyes to recall that wonderful weekend we shared. Did I slumber? It's possible because Tommy quieted down, too, likely satisfied I hadn't forgotten.

The Men In My Life

I’ve unpacked the tin tubes, plastic posts, and curved tops from the skinny box that has arrived from Walmart. The directions for the shoe rack appear fairly simple: attach this to that, then that to this, and finally, remove scrambled shoes from the floor of my bedroom closet and set them neatly on the gizmo.  Alas, my assembly looked like a wacky Lego, rather than the structure promised on the carton’s front.

Ramir to the rescue. In less than five minutes, he unscrewed and repositioned all of the parts until it was a replica of the image. Ramir, along with George, Greg, José, and Roberto, who are members of the maintenance crew in my apartment building, have smoothly taken over the helpmate role once performed by my husband, and several men who lived on my block on Dakin St.

Back then, when Tommy and I were in our three-bedroom house, John topped the team who cared for us. Even before my spouse became ill, when he was able to still mow the grass or shovel the walk, John would beat him to it.

“Honey,” I’d say. “I hear a snow blower outside. Do you think it’s John?” 

We’d both go to the window, open the drapes, and wave as we saw our neighbor steering through through white mounds on our front walk on his way to our driveway.  While John was the über neighbor,  there were other males who came to our aide. 

“What ever you need, any time of day,” was what Casey said as the ambulance drivers were bringing Tommy up the stairs from our ride from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Then, Casey placed a yellow post-in in my hands with his cell phone number. 

Joél on Dakin St. asked how he could help after I had hip surgery. “My car needs maintenance,” I told him. “Give me the keys,” he said.

During the 12 days my husband was in hospice, upstairs in the bed with railings on both sides, his long-time buddy, Randy, visited several times a week to rake leaves and de-clutter the downspouts. 

After Tommy died and I sold our house and moved to an apartment building, friends who were experienced renters said, “You won’t have to worry about lawns or snow anymore. And if anything needs fixing, you just call maintenance.”

And I did. At first, my requests were basic: replace a dead light bulb, unclog the bathroom sink’s drain, coax a stubborn ice maker. But the new men in my life have far surpassed those everyday appeals. With care and precision, members of the staff have hung all of the two dozen paintings on the walls of my convertible studio. 

And it was Ramir who was at the door after this request, “I have a Hoover Upright vacuum cleaner, and I can’t figure out how to put it together.”  As I stood nearby, feeling like a dazzled intern watching a surgeon, Ramir studied the carton’s image, and quickly performed the operation. “Let’s test it first,” he said. He plugged in the cord to the wall socket and after the first loud hum, showed me how to steer it. Then, he stood by to be certain I could manage the hefty machine on my own.

“Can I give you something?” I asked him then, and again at the latest shoe rack assembly, for I knew these tasks didn’t really fall under the category of Maintenance. But, this new man in my life waved away my question and was quickly out the door.

When Tommy was well, which was the majority of our 16 years together, he was our family handyman. In the basement of our house he erected a wooden table where he placed all of the tools he had accumulated in his adult life. He mounted a pegboard on the wall that stored nails, screws, hooks, and other tidbits essential to his odd-jobs and carpentry ambitions.

As his health deteriorated, and this aspirations evaporated, I bequeathed the table, tools, and pegboard to good neighbor John. But, I held onto one hammer, one screw driver, and a pair of pliers, believing I’d need them in a future life.

I’ve used each gadget occasionally: to pound the cover  of a stubborn jar of pickles, to open a key ring and add a store’s loyalty card, and to twist off the top of a bottle of nail polish. But thanks to the new men in my life -- who have accepted all of the responsibilities once handled by the guys on Dakin St., and by my own beloved handyman -- that’s all this trio of tools will likely be asked to do.

Coed Majoring in Phys Ed

I never went away to college. When I graduated from Roosevelt High School, my parents couldn’t afford to send me Downstate to the University of Illinois, or to other places my wealthier classmates chose. So every day, I took the CTA to Roosevelt University where I was granted a partial scholarship. And following classes, I again rode the trains to a part-time job.

As I look back, this was hardly an idyllic undergrad campus experience. But, because my best friend, Ruth, also went to Roosevelt, and because I received a great education, I didn’t feel deprived.

Now, in this new chapter of my rookie widow life, a bit of imaginary campus life seems to be emerging. Often, I feel as if I were a freshman, away from home for the first time, majoring in Physical Education.

I was explaining my theory to Ruth, who is still my best friend after all these years. “You’re right on one count,” she said. “We both went straight from our parents’ homes to our marriages. There was no period of time when we were on our own.”

One of my daughters, who was also given the hypothesis, disagreed: “What about the time you and Dad separated?” she said. “You lived alone then.”

“Somehow, this is different,” I said. “You two girls were still in Chicago and stopped in often enough that I felt as if I were living the same life. Just without him.”

I’ve been musing about this sensation of a freshman year and believe some of it may be related to home furnishings, some to the youthful population in my apartment building, and some to my more active life.

Because my apartment is a convertible studio, with a bedroom behind a sliding door, the queen-sized bed that Tommy and I shared  was deemed too large. So, I dropped down a size to a “full,” better to suit my fictitious dorm room.

Also, I took with only a few pieces from our former three-bedroom home and got them painted in bright colors. This update has made it appear that the kitchen table, coffee table, and hall table are not only brand new, but purchased at kicky Ikea. Surely, that’s where true coeds find their furniture.

I revealed the other half of my conjecture -- my chosen major -- to another daughter. “So, Phys Ed,” she said. There was a pause while she likely recalled her mother’s previous attempts to learn how to swim, my start-and-stop gym memberships, as well as my lack of coordination.

“Should I expect to see you in a league?” she asked. “Uniform with logo on the back?”

I smiled and accepted the skepticism, which I knew was trimmed in pride. Both daughters are my biggest supporters in my recent sad-to-swift journey from married-to-widow, from home owner-to-apartment dweller.

“No leagues,” I said. “But, I work out every day. I take Yoga three days a week, have a personal trainer one day, do the workout on my own two more days, take swim lessons and paddle by myself whenever I can fit it in.”

“Good for you, Momma,” she said. I’d like to think that a vision of an active parent striving to keep fit, who has elected to live in a tower of mostly thirty-somethings rather than with peers in in assisted living, delights my kid. 

In my imaginative college life, I’ve also decided that I live on a campus. You see, the health club where I work out is attached to my apartment building, so I have the sense that I’m trekking the quadrangle. 

Here’s another aspect of university life that supports my theme: class assignments and homework. In the real world, I’m still operating my public relations business and my sidelines of coaching writing and using Apple mobile devices.

While my Phys. Ed workouts are a priority, there’s a danger of neglecting revenue-producing work, sort of like flunking out. And, this time around, without an empathetic university to grant me funds, hitting the books is essential. But, without frat parties, sorority mixers, or other late night revelries, I should be able to pass my freshman year.

Of course, if I wanted  to bring my make-believe world closer to a true collegiate experience, there should be a roommate sharing my space. While a corporeal buddy would be ideal, this coed will settle for framed photographs of a beloved husband. Like me, my Tommy missed the campus experience. Let’s try this together, sweetheart:

We're loyal to you, Illinois,
We're "Orange and Blue," Illinois,
 We'll back you to stand 'gainst the best in the land,
 For we know you have sand, Illinois,  Rah! Rah!

A Dollhouse, Part 2

After my father died in 1959, my mother Min, his 46-year-old widow, and I, moved into a tiny garden apartment. At least that’s what the real estate listing had called it. Basement was more like it. 

Mom had a knack for decorating and soon transformed the dark and occasionally damp space into what visitors called "a dollhouse." Needlework that she handcrafted hung on walls in the living room and in the one bedroom. 

Despite her beautifying, the apartment was more subterranean than floral. The back door opened into the building's laundry room, and in the living room, when I sat on the plastic-covered couch and looked out the window, I could see the feet of other tenants as they walked past.

I recalled those mother-daughter dollhouse-days after I, a 74-year-old widow, moved into my 613-square-foot apartment April 15 of this year. Although I covered the experience in my roman a clef e-book, “She’s Not The Type,” I thought it worthwhile to to revisit that episode and description.

Here’s how my own downsizing began: Following my husband Tommy’s death in November of 2012, I had at first planned to accede to advice offered the bereaved: Don’t make a major move for at least a year. 

But this obligatory timetable weighed on me. “I’m so discouraged,” I said to my daughter Faith. She was in town for Tommy’s memorial and I was using her as a sympathetic ear.

She put her hand on my shoulder. Her face had a worried look. This was not a typical mood for her mother. Throughout my husband’s illness, hospitalization, hospice, and death, I stayed strong and confident.

“It’s only natural,” Faith said. “Look at all you’ve been through.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s that I see such a dismal future. I’ll have to rent out half the garage and turn our two spare bedrooms into housing for a boarder. That’s the only way I can see handling my bills.”

I went to bed that evening, leaving my daughter uneasy at my dispirited state. But in the middle of the night, I woke with a thought: I don’t have to listen to widow-advice that doesn’t fit me. I don’t have to stay in the house.

In the morning, Faith headed straight to my home office, prepared to console me once again. Instead, she found me searching the web for downtown, luxury high-rise rental apartments.

“Look,” I shouted to her. “Swimming pool, business center, exercise room!” 

At first, my daughter was alarmed at this sudden mood swing. “What happened, Mom?” she said. “Last night, you were...”

“I don’t have to stay,” I said. “I can sell the house and move to a smaller place. One that I can handle. No snow shoveling, lawn mowing, worrying about downspouts, sump pumps, furnaces, water heaters. All the stuff I don’t understand in the first place. And, I won’t have to share the garage or bedrooms.”

And that’s what I did. To both of my daughters’ relief, I put the house on the market and found my version of a dollhouse. But unlike the one I lived in with Mom, I am on the 19th floor, so no feet obstruct my view, which to the north overlooks the river and to the east, downtown.

Although I lack my mother’s craftiness, all of the paintings that I love, now grace the walls of my new home and feel just right. And with the help of a painter friend, I have a petite office for my business that sports a Sapphire Blue desk and bench, both cut down to my size.

Best of all, I can walk through my building’s garage to my exercise club, which for an early-morning person like me, is a special treat. Neither rain, nor snow will prevent workouts.

In daily texts to my daughters, I have written, “Worked out, met my friend for breakfast, had a massage.”

And, “I’m living the life you dreamed of for me.”

Although I can’t see their faces in Boston and Los Angeles, nor hear their voices, I interpret their texted responses of “So happy. You deserve it. Can’t wait to see your new place” to mean they’re as satisfied as I am with my swift choice.

Now I wonder, in their afterlife abodes, how does Mom view my digs? And my dear Tommy, how does he feel about my leaving our house?

“Perfect,” I can hear Mom saying, and I see two thumbs up from Tommy. I believe they are both relieved, and at peace, to find me cocooned in my own dollhouse.