Ode to Jimmy, My Mentor and Friend and Such a GD Mensch

The news is out at ChicagoNow, my blogging platform since the spring of 2011, that our beloved community manager, one Jimmy Greenfield (and honestly, what better name is there for a media guy?), is leaving after nine years.  For most of you, this means nothing.  For me and many other bloggers who call ChicagoNow home, it means a lot.  A whole damn lot.

I had just started a stand alone blog and returned to gainful employment as a social worker when a friend who worked at the Chicago Tribune suggested I move Mary Tyler Mom over to ChicagoNow.  I was flattered and excited and scared and timid.  In the end I pitched Jimmy and he responded quickly.  He loved my pitch and my writing samples and my blog name.  Jimmy invited me to join the community.

Jimmy, with his best scary mug.
Jimmy, with his best scary mug.

I hemmed.  Then I hawed.  Then I hemmed and hawed in quick succession.  Looking back, it was silly, as joining the writing community at ChicagoNow was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  Jimmy is a very large part of why that is.

Later that same year I pitched the idea of a series of blog posts that would recount the 31 months of my daughter’s cancer treatment.  Prior to that, I pretty much stayed in the grief closet on my blog.  Again, within moments, Jimmy responded with encouragement and enthusiasm.  ChicagoNow had never run a serial format before, but he thought it showed great promise and he would help me promote it the best he could.  That idea turned out to be Donna’s Cancer Story, which, like the decision to join ChicagoNow, changed my life.

Before my girl was diagnosed with cancer, I had never written much.  A few professional/clinical articles about social work, but that was it.  Writing, it turned out, was a saving grace for me as my husband and I guided our girl through her treatments and then in my grief.  It’s not hyperbole to say that the words helped anchor me.  They were another connection to my girl and the community and readers that openly embraced that girl, my dear Donna, were a salve for my aching heart and soul.

I will never be able to thank Jimmy enough for what he has done for me, as a writer and a human, in my grief and in my joy.  He sloughs off compliments like a loofah with dead skin in January, and I can imagine him reading this and becoming very, very uncomfortable, but no one more than Jimmy would encourage me to write it out.  Sorry, my dear friend, you taught me too well.

Another thing Jimmy does well is facilitate community.  Chicago is a diverse place, but notoriously segregated.  White folks and black folks and Latinos and Asians and Middle Easterners too often stay in their own lane.  Chicago’s long history of segregation is one of the great flaws of my hometown.  The times that I have felt truly connected to the breadth of diversity within my city are rare enough that I value each and every one.

Jimmy, somehow, has created a writer’s community at ChicagoNow that transcends those differences, instead focusing on what brings us together as Chicagoans.  Bloggers at ChicagoNow are young, old, black, white, wealthy, homeless, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Christian, liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, single, married, gay, straight, urban, suburban, an honest to goodness rainbow of different points of view and sensibilities.  And it works.  It freaking works and it is glorious. 

I love you, Jimmy.  I love your bald head and your scruff and even your penchant for dad jeans.  I love that your Dad looks like Roger Ebert and that your brother walks through snow to make super cool designs on his backyard ice rink to raise money for charity.  I love that you are an amazing father and husband and that you show that love so generously.  I love your politics and your capacity to debate and welcome and hold opposing POVs.  I love your endless patience with me and others who are, um, well, less tech savvy than we should be in 2017.  I love your compassion and humanity.  I love your writing.  I love that you thought I was capable of learning to use Twitter way back in 2012.  I love your humor.  I don’t really get your affinity for Heather Graham, but, pffft, to each their own.

Thank you, my dear friend.  You saw something in me that I did not see in myself for a long while.  You were the first person to call me a writer and hearing that word from your mouth about me has brought enormous blessings to my life.  You have changed me in profound ways that I am still trying to unpack and capitalize on.  Why?  Because I want to be worthy of your respect.  I want to make you proud.  I want to be the person and writer you see in me.

BAH.  I could go on, but here come the tears again and that ain’t good for my keyboard.  Long story short, thank you, Jimmy, from the bottom of my broken heart.  I wish you nothing but happiness and success and health and joy.  You deserve everything, all of it.

_________________________

You can buy Jimmy’s book about the Chicago Cubs here.  Did I mention he was kind of into sports?  

A High School Teacher Remembers, Former Student Blushes

Today’s blog is a guest post from a favorite English teacher I had as a freshman in high school in the fall of 1983.  And, as a disclaimer, I had NO IDEA what she was going to write about. Sheesh!  Blushing over here.

By Saralyn Richard

One of the most gratifying rewards of being an English teacher is living to see one’s students apply the concepts taught in their own lives, reading, writing and thinking independently, and sharing those skills with others.  I am fortunate to have several former students who have chosen “the writing life,” and it is a thrill to follow their careers, remembering the seeds of talent noted in their compositions long ago.

You’ve probably guessed by now that Sheila Quirke, aka Mary Tyler Mom, is one of those promising students.  I remember Sheila’s handwriting, her curious nature, the way she developed her essays to make them stand out.  I remember her ebullient spirit and her friendly nature.  People were drawn to her bright smile and quick wit, even in high school.

I remember imagining a future for her, filled with achievements and successes.  Perhaps she would become a lawyer, advocating for her clients; perhaps the CEO of a company, making important decisions that would affect many.  Perhaps she would be a government official, the kind who makes a difference in the lives of her constituents; or maybe an artist or literary figure, the kind who leaves an indelible imprint on society.

Saralyn Richard, high school English teacher extraordinaire
Saralyn Richard, high school English teacher extraordinaire

I lost track of Sheila for a couple of decades, and when I found her again, it was through the miracle of computers and social media and blogs.  When I read about Sheila’s life, the experiences she has had, the things she stands up for, it made me realize that she has become all of those things.  Sheila has used her many gifts to communicate.  Her writing has touched thousands of hearts and minds and souls.  She has the capacity to express the most abstract thoughts and feelings in such a uniquely human way.  She is the wisdom of Athena crossed with the girl next door.

I would never have wished on Sheila the heartache that she has endured, but, oh, how she has embraced both heartaches and joys with introspection, grace, and a sense of purpose—it is something exquisite to behold.  Thank you, Sheila, for sharing so much of yourself with all of us.  The world is a better place because you are in it.

**********

As my Da always said, “No good deed goes unpunished.”  In that spirit, I thought it might be nice to return the favor of some kind words to Ms. Richard (and, yes, I still have a hard time calling my teachers by anything other than their proper name — even when we are Facebook friends.)

I solicited just a couple, few memories of some of my classmates about Ms. Richard and, as previously mentioned, no good deed goes unpunished, so also included a high school year book photo of them, too! HA HA HA!

Aaahhhhh, the 80s.  Grateful thanks to all these fine folks from TR who shared memories with me to make this happen for Ms. Richard.
Aaahhhhh, the 80s. Grateful thanks to all these fine folks from TR who shared their memories with me.

Mr. Konkol:  “Personally, I’m still miffed at Ms. Richard. She was a good teacher and a great colleague and then she left us! Blast and damn! We missed her then and will never know how TR would have benefitted had she stayed with us. Not that I hold a grudge, for decades.”

Laura:  “Ms. Richard was a wonderful teacher — caring and kind. I remember reading the Odyssey in her class and loving it. But, the most memorable moment was when she brought in Bill Zehme as a guest speaker. He had written an article about David Letterman that she had us read before he spoke to our class. He was her former student and she wanted him to tell us about what it was like to be a professional writer and hopefully inspire us to see the opportunities that were available to those of us who loved English. I look back on that experience now and am so impressed that she thought so much of us, a bunch of 9th graders!

Kris:  “I never had Mrs. Richard as a teacher, but often saw her in passing in high school. 27 years later a friend posts about a book called Naughty Nana and as a big fan of books for children, I immediately purchased it for my newborn great niece. About a year later Mrs. Richards reached out to me to see if I attended Thornridge because she had seen that we had mutual FB friends. I told her that I did and promptly broke out my TR yearbook. So funny how Facebook brings people together in the strangest ways. By the way Naughty Nana is one of our favorite books and I feel so proud of Mrs. Richards success!”

Sheila:  “I grew up feeling like I never really fit in with the other kids.  Ms. Richard saw something in me at a young age and a vulnerable time in my life — I had just transitioned from a small Catholic school to what seemed like a HUGE high school and felt utterly lost.  My grades were suffering for the first time, but not in English. Ms. Richard tapped in me the idea of possibility and opportunity and a whole wide world being open to me through words.  I remain grateful to her for that.”

Eleanor:  “Mrs. Richard was top on things in her class. You had to be prepared or else she would call you out on it! But she had a love of reading and of words and she translated her passion for that into something that was digestible for teens.”

Vennie:  “I don’t recall all the details of the assignment, but it involved writing a piece related to the short story “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry and presenting it in front of the class. I decided to compose a humorous poem. The student who presented before me did an excellent job, so when I stood up and came forward, I made an offhand comment about how my presentation wouldn’t be as good as the last. I then read my poem, which was received with lots of genuine laughter and a rousing round of applause at the end. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good about myself as I sat down.

When Ms. Richard returned my graded poem to me a few days later, I was more than a little disappointed to find that she had docked five points from an otherwise perfect score solely because of my self-deprecating opening remark! It took a while, but I eventually came to realize and appreciate the important life lessons she had taught me:

1. Have faith in your abilities, and don’t sell yourself short.
2. Project confidence even if you don’t feel it.
3. Nobody likes a whiner.

The fact that this remains one of the few truly vivid memories I have of my high school years speaks volumes about the impact it had on me, and I can tell you those lessons have served me well over the years. Thank you, Ms. Richard!”

**********

Saralyn Richard is an author and still happily inspiring her students.

Rose Goes Home

People die and that sucks, especially when those people are ones in your orbit that you loved, or liked, or cherished, or relied upon.

Rose was Donna’s very first babysitter.  When baby Donna was thirteen weeks old, I got dressed all business like for the first time since her birth. I loaded her up in her car seat, had a little bag full of breast milk, and my electric pump slung on my shoulders.  Donna was off for an adventure and so was I.  For the first time, she would be in the care of another and for the first time I would walk into the office as a working mother.  I think it was a hard day for both of us, but Rose assured me all would be fine.  And it was.

Three days a week for the next 17 months we had the same routine.  Rose cared for Donna and some other little ones in her home.  She had been doing home child care for much of her life, starting when her own little ones were babies.  When Donna came to her, Rose was in her late sixties.

She ran a tight ship, Rose, and maintained order and structure amidst the chaos a room full of babies and toddlers can create.  Her husband, Poppy, helped out since he was retired.  Where Rose was order and structure, Poppy was a warm lap and loving arms.  Where Rose was feeding and diapering, Poppy was walking to the park down the street. They were such a great team, Rose and Poppy, each one complementing the other so perfectly well.  And, really, children and babies need both a little Rose and Poppy in their lives — a little structure and a little cuddle and warmth, each so important in their own way.

When the message came that Rose had died, I felt terribly.  I felt guilty.  I felt sad.  Did I ever properly express the gratitude I felt to Rose for helping us raise Donna?  Probably not.  Rose was not one to easily get warm and fuzzy with.  Again, she was business.  Kind business, gentle business when gentle was called for, but business still.  And, full disclosure, I to this day feel some responsibility, as Donna’s mother, that she was taken from those who loved her.  Rose loved Donna, I have no doubt of that. Sometimes it can be hard to face the people that most loved Donna, the guilt overwhelms, irrational as it is.

After Donna’s death five years ago, our visits with Rose and Poppy became less and less frequent.  Occasionally, a grandparent might ask after Rose and Poppy.  I would sheepishly admit that I hadn’t kept up with them, that we had fallen out of touch.  I meant to.  I always meant to.

Rose’s service was on a Thursday.  I would go and bring the baby.  People talk about “paying respects,” and Lord, did I wish to pay my respects to Rose, to Poppy, to all who loved her. Rose mattered to me, to my family, to my only and beloved and now deceased daughter.  I would get over my bad self, swallow my guilt, and pay my respects. I am so grateful I did.  I only wish I had done it sooner.

It turns out that the service for Rose was held at a church that I drove past frequently.  Once, I pulled over to photograph the message from the sign near the front door — “RELAX.  GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE.”  That spoke to me despite not being religious or a church goer.  The message of not being the one in control of life is one I fully embrace.  We can cling to the illusion of control, but it is nothing more than an illusion.  As a Cancer Mom, I get that.

I never knew the church was Rose and Poppy’s church, their religious home.  The fact that it was lent a greater sense of significance to being there.  I felt closer to both them and Donna.  The baby and I walked in, me a little timidly, wondering if I truly belonged there.  The church lobby was full and getting crowded.  I made a move with the stroller to enter the church when a woman dressed head to toe in white, including tights and gloves and shoes, like a retro nurse, took my arm and explained this time was private time for family to be with Rose. Oops. “Of course,” I said, grateful for the guidance.

Baby and I slinked back to a corner, waiting our turn.  About twenty minutes later the doors opened wide and all gathered were allowed in.  The church filled.  One by one, people filed past Rose in her coffin.  Family and friends greeted one another.  There was a joy in the air, a sense of reunion, old friends and family seeing one another after too much time had passed.  Funerals bring people together, just as years ago, when we were younger, weddings and babies did.  It is the cycle of life.

The service was rich and wonderful.  Those who memorialized Rose did her justice.  She was honored for her cooking, her child rearing, her hosting, her wry humor, her sharp instincts, her Christian life.  I felt closer to Rose and Poppy than I had in years.  The music soared, the humor and tributes flowed, a life was properly honored.

And as I watched all of this unfold, between wrangling a busy baby and retrieving fallen Cheerios from the red carpet beneath me, I couldn’t help but think of that other aspect of Rose’s life — her work of helping to raise other people’s children.  As I looked out on the crowd, there was only one other family I recognized, a girl who had “graduated” from Rose’s care before Donna was even born, but who, like us, would visit with Rose and Poppy on Halloween during trick-or-treating.  This girl was grown now, a tween already, inches away from being a teen.  She made me think of all the other children that had passed through Rose and Poppy’s home through the years, getting kisses (“sugar” as Rose called them) and hugs (“cush” as Rose called them) and diaper changes and warm milk.

I sat there and imagined an army of forty years of babies now grown, babies that Rose had a hand in caring for while their parents went off to work. Where were they now?  What were they doing?  Rose retired not long after Donna left her care.  Her graduates, though, must range in age from 6 or 7 all the way up to 40 years old. Goodness!  What an amazing legacy to leave, what sacred work Rose did in her life.

I am grateful to have known Rose and Poppy.  I worry about Poppy, now without his Rose.  She took care of him just like she took care of so many others.  When I worked with older adults and going to memorial services was part of my stock in trade, one thing the old Presbyterians always said was, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Well done, Rose.  Thank you for all the love and care you provided Donna and my family.  You will be so very missed by so very many.  

Rose1