It was a very warm, summerlike afternoon in Hyde Park, though only the beginning of May. Recently, I had begun to leave my office in the History Department at the University earlier in the afternoon to work out my tension and frustrations, before my children would see me after school and well before my husband got home from his job in Chicago’s Loop.
I would get home before 2 o’clock to exercise, and then I’d be back by 3 P.M., so that the housekeeper wouldn’t be the only one there when the kids arrived home. Carrie, my 8-year-old, and Jonathan, 2 years younger, couldn’t make sense of the politics and trials of academia, but I could see they had begun to notice that their mother was tight and short-fused. It’s a different sort of intuition they have. Perhaps they haven’t lived long enough to comprehend everything, to absorb and appreciate all the nuances of an event or situation. But they possess a special perception of the world that adults like me have lost.
This afternoon I was running late. I barely made it out the door before three. At any moment, two tiny dynamos would charge into the house, wound up by the preview of summer, a pair of whirling dervishes.
I love them, but I need the peace. Sometimes I simply have to get away from them and escape life’s pressures. These runs had become more than mere exercise, increasingly important to me as the judgment day neared when the department would bring their decision down – whether to send my name to the University tenure committee for a final verdict in December, or pass over my name and send me soon into limbo. How I wished then my manner with my colleagues were more cordial, less competitive, less aggressive like a hungry dog.
My only chance to stop thinking for an hour or two. To lose for a brief time the pressure of being a 36-year-old Assistant Professor striving for a tenured seat at the University of Chicago and the prestige that would go with it. Anything less would disappoint my mentors, my colleagues, my students, my husband and me.
As I bade my housekeeper goodbye for an hour and stepped outside into the hot afternoon, I looked down the street. South, at the far end of the block, my children were getting off the schoolbus. I waved to them both, then turned north, away from them, and began the first of two or three laps around my regular 2-mile circuit along Lake Michigan.
Out through the gate of our insular circle of condos called East View Park, past the huge synagogue doors, toward Cornell Park and that strange, foreign flock of a dozen green parakeets.
Parakeets. A small clan of monk parakeets, big and bright green, incongruously flourishing in the park, in the tree near the end of 53rd Street, surviving not only the mild winter just gone by but the dreadful, frigid one preceding it in ’82, possessing an eternal air of the unexpected. It was these amiable emissaries of absurdity as much as the soothing presence of the water and the lakefront that kept me running this identical course daily for years. But who would understand how much a flock of displaced birds can mean to me?
And, as expected, the unexpected – at least a half a dozen of the big bright-green birds on display, sunning in the branches as I crossed the street into the park.
I passed many people in Cornell Park – playing ball, flying kites, in the playground, and by the boating pond. And as I ran up the footbridge over Lake Shore Drive at the north end of the park, I could see how many joggers, bikers, roller skaters, fishermen, people with their dogs, and even swimmers that the May sunshine had brought out.
As I did almost every day, I searched half-consciously for something, anything, to distract me from my problems and set me into a daydream. Coming over the bridge, I looked out over the calm lake water; the air was clear and bright, not a trace of haze, giving everything a heightened reality. The skyline of the Loop, even 7 miles to my north, had an inviting picture-postcard clarity, every edge of every building sharply defined. The horizon was equally crisp. The huge tankers and freighters, usually indistinct, were easily visible coasting along several miles out on the lake. And the water pumping station more than a half mile off the Promontory Point peninsula was unnaturally magnified, seemingly just a few hundred yards away, just a 10-minute swim to reach.
That’s what first caught my thoughts, taking me on a brief travel to that platform, working the drains and machinery, isolated from the world as I enjoyed the sun and the nearby ships and the steady rumble of engines as the city’s water supply filtered through my workplace. Until a storm took hold, a passing ship began to founder, and its dripping crew came crawling onshore to the rig that was now an island . . . staring from the island into the lake’s clear waters: full fathom five, my father lies.
The swimmers who I saw across the Point, on the southern side as I rounded it a few minutes later fit the fantasy well — Miranda and Ferdinand from Shakespeare’s Tempest perhaps. . . .
But as I descended into the underpass below Lake Shore Drive after circling the Point for the first time, my mind’s associations played one of those unfair, uncontrollable tricks. Shakespeare’s uninhabited isle remote in the sea transformed into St. Helena, far in the South Atlantic, with Napoleon roaming the roads of his island exile, speaking, echoing Voltaire’s words . . . “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”
I came past home, completing the first lap of my run, and soon passed my familiar parakeets, who would have fit well on the enchanted Shakespearean island. But the island was gone. And as I approached the footbridge, seeing the modern skyline ahead, all hope of retrieving the dream vanished. Turning, however, I scanned the shore south, and the stone building with its tower standing near the tip of the Point brought to mind a pointer dog, growing into sight running across a sweep of sand and the Martello towers along Dublin’s coast. Not that I had ever been there, but I’d read of it so thoroughly, wrapped in the poetry of James Joyce’s Ulysses, that I was strolling next to Stephen Dedalus, his father’s son, walking distractedly the Sandymount Strand. Gurgling sand. Clams in the mud. Cocklepickers. Sand and stones. Heavy of the past. . . . The past? I was interrupted by Stephen saying, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
My thoughts had played against me for a second time – lulling me unwittingly into a daydream of Stephen the history teacher – and I found myself thinking again of history books, classrooms, and the tenure committee sitting down to discuss and seal my fate in just a few weeks.
On the second time around, along the Point, there was no sign of Miranda and Ferdinand, the swimmers out in the Lake. But there was a commotion down on the rocks and concrete by the water’s edge where they had been. Maybe it was a disagreement or even a fight, I thought, as I continued. As I reached the underpass, sirens approached and the commotion seemed to grow.
One more long 2-mile circuit before I returned to the Point on my final lap 15 minutes later. And by then everything was changed.
I was now enveloped in an unshirkable blanket of wet heat; the comfortable breezy warmth of my first lap was a distant memory. I had the powerful urge to end the day’s exercise right here and cool off with a quick swim in Lake Michigan’s cold water. Leaving the hum of the cars and the constant flow of runners, cyclists and roller skaters as I left the path parallelling Lake Shore Drive for the detour of the path around the Point, the peninsula itself was eerily quiet and uninhabited. Soon, however, I saw that no one had left. Everyone was now tightly packed in one area near where the swimmers had been swimming.
The police cars and ambulances, whose sirens had been screaming, sat nearby, silent with their warning lights turning slowly, glinting rhythmically in the sunlight.
I ran along the edge overlooking the stone shoreline until I approached the spot. A young man – the one I’d seen swimming playfully – lay on a blanket. A paramedic kneeling over him was trying to revive him with one last breath and one last press on his chest. Then he stood up and stepped aside to let his partner try to restore life to the drowning victim.
The young woman, Miranda, sat on the rocks by the body, crying and repeating endlessly, “Please don’t die.”
A limp body where there had been a carefree college student moments earlier. Perhaps he had been a student in one of my history classes – but spread on the rock as he now was, it was impossible for me to know. All that I could see was a corpse and the absurd loss of a human life.
As I ran away, however, I heard cheering behind me and knew the swimmer wasn’t going to die. But I couldn’t stay any longer. That body and that grieving girl had filled me with a nausea and dizziness, a hint that I might soon faint. Any desire to swim in the lake had vanished, replaced by the urge to escape from the Point, finish my run, and find the comfort of home again.
* * *
It must have been five minutes later, although those minutes are lost. But there I was . . .
I was, unexpectedly, standing in front of the house where I had lived until soon after my father’s death – a beautiful turn-of-the-century home on a mesmerizingly beautiful street between 57th and 59th Streets, a haunting anachronism I had long ago come to call “The Street That Time Forgot.” Indeed, one could entirely steep in years long gone while walking this quiet stretch of trees and homes, only reminded of the real year by the cars lining both curbs of the narrow street. I had, purely by a subconscious guide, come down here, a half mile south of my current home and almost that far from the southernmost point of my daily running course.
The house had been repainted numerous times, exterior renovations had been made, and through the window I could, if I wished, see that the interior was entirely altered from when last I stood inside the house early in 1955.
None of that mattered. It was mid-July of 1954. I just turned 8 years old and was playing on the sidewalk with two neighborhood cats.
It was 6:30. Evening was slipping into place in that pleasant, soothing fashion only known to a cool summer day. My mother was standing at the door briefly enjoying her only child rolling about with two kittens, giving herself a welcome pause and me a few more moments before the call for dinner. When she did call, I ran up to the porch, with the kittens scampering after me. So instead of going inside, I settled onto the porch with the cats, under the open diningroom window.
Inside the house, my father – minutes after returning from his job at the Board of Trade – was already settled into his chair at the diningroom table, impatient for dinner and cutting his way through the Daily Tribune. First, he inspected the business section, especially the pages packed with column after column of abbreviations and numbers, thoroughly but with disturbing dispatch, muttering as he went that wheat dropped 2 1/2 cents a bushel and that International Business Machines had lost 1.6 points. Then he moved to the obituaries. And finally he picked up the news section, which he read more slowly and, invariably, out loud and with frequent commentary.
“My God in heaven! What’s with this world?” I heard him blurt, just as my mother entered the diningroom carrying a precarious pile of dishes. “Listen to this! Right here on page 22.
“‘Austrians Say Russ Soldiers Kill Workman. . . . Austrian police reported today two Russian soldiers attacked and killed an Austrian worker and wounded a second. They said a girl, 16, also may have been slain by another Russian soldier. The workers were attacked with knives as they left a wine garden . . .’ Visigoths! That’s what the world is filled with.” Then he returned to the news item. “‘The blonde Austrian farmer’s daughter was knocked from her bicycle, raped, and stabbed several times in the chest in a country road in mid-afternoon. Police immediately suspected a Russian soldier had committed the crime.’
“The world’s breeding a horde of Attilas, especially those Reds. It’s all these wars we’ve been fighting. Turned our world into a den of thieves and murderers. The world’s going to crumble. Just watch.” He snapped the paper, like a whip cracking, turning to the next page.
“‘Burlington Train Kills Woman in Sandwich,’” he exclaimed as my mother returned with another platter. “‘Mrs. Myrtle Bernard, 70, of Sandwich, DeKalb County, was killed by a Burlington train yesterday in Sandwich. Witnesses said she parked her car near the tracks and then walked over the crossing where she was struck. Her husband, Charles, almost blind, was found in the car, unaware that his wife had been killed.’”
I walked in, as I did most days, just in time, as my mother was setting the serving spoons down next to the steaming casseroles and as my father tossed the news section of the paper over to the wall on top of the other sections. My mother, as always, would pick up the papers after dinner, fold them and put them in a stack to use for wrapping garbage.
I sat down at the table, one leg folded under me so that I sat high enough to eat comfortably. My father sighed deeply, as if catching up with his breathing, and looked at his wife as she removed her apron and sat down. He looked at his young daughter, and I heard him say, as I heard almost every night I can remember . . . “It’s a doggie-dog world out there. A real doggie-dog world.” Then, as if grace had been spoken, we ate.
After dinner I sat on the porch as the evening took hold and played a bit more with another of the neighborhood cats. As I often did, I thought about what I heard my father say as we began dinner. And I continued to think about his words when I retreated to the basement to play with my building blocks, creating a great city of wooden skyscrapers, then causing a huge earthquake that brought the entire city down. What did he mean by his “doggie-dog world”?
I thought long and hard about my father reading the newspaper every night, reading sterile columns of figures, reading about all the world’s catastrophes and inhumanities. He was always a stern, scary figure, a distant mountain of authority and little more. Finally, after thinking about the warm, playful kittens and our pleasant house and street, I believed I understood what he was telling my mother and me each night: The world is a harsh, tough place, a horrible struggle at times with many unfortunate, undeserved calamities occurring, but in the long run it’s like a tiny, adorable animal needing love, aid and understanding, like a soft, cuddly puppy mostly helpless and at the whim of his surroundings but in return filling the world with warmth and smiles.
I was proud of myself for thinking of this, or at least of an 8-year-old equivalent — a little kid who not only could stage a great earthquake with her blocks but could divine the meaning of her father’s words.
It was then a few weeks later, at about 4:30. I was playing hopscotch outside with friends.
The telephone rang inside, and a few minutes later my mother came to the door and called me in.
“I have to go out for a few minutes,” she told me. She had been crying, and I could see she was forcing back the tears as she talked to me. “Go to the Ballards until I get back.”
“But what’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Go down to the Ballards. They’re expecting you.” She was beginning to cry again. “No arguing with me, young lady.” I went.
An hour later my mother appeared at the Ballards’ front door, paler and weaker than when she left home. She took my hand and grasped it tightly.
“Your father’s had an accident,” she told me as we walked home.
“Will he be okay?” I asked her.
“I’m afraid not, pumpkin.”
Even as an 8-year-old, I instantly knew something was wrong – more than that something awful had happened to my father, but that I wasn’t receiving the whole story.
The funeral was swiftly arranged. Only a few people attended. Most of the rest of those memories are long gone, except a brief incident a couple of days after he died.
I was searching the newspaper for the comic strips and came upon a picture of my father. It was next to his obituary. But before I could even try to read any of the long column of print, my mother saw me and pulled the paper from my hands.
“I wanted to read the comics,” I whined.
She tore through the Tribune, found the comics page, ripped it out, and gave it to me. Then she left the room with the rest of the paper.
It was a dreary summer. My mother kept careful watch over me, keeping me near the house. In particular, I wasn’t allowed near the Point that summer, as I had been in seasons past. Finally, just as school was to start, my mother and I moved away to an apartment in the northern suburbs.
It wasn’t until 1961, long after we abandoned Hyde Park, that my natural curiosity got the better of me. At the local public library, I looked up that obituary again and discovered the one word in the story that had caused my mother to snatch the newspaper from me.
I read about the 36-year-old broker in 1954 in the corporate jungle of the Chicago Board of Trade, the single-minded corporate wunderkind who had fought through the crowds of colleagues and rivals to gain a prominent position, only to be crushed by the pressures of his power and by a sudden tide of mergers, bankruptcies and scandal, finally taking his own life. I learned more about my father in that newspaper 7 years after his death than I had in 8 years of living with him. I was relieved, upset, angry, drained, filled with a love that could never be conveyed.
And I resolved then to find a life as far as possible from the awful business world.
I stood in front of a home on a street that time forgot, a 36-year-old history professor,
an 8-year-old child; and half a mile away on the rocks of Promontory Point lay a water-logged, frightened college student who had skirted death, the lifeless body of my father who the burdens of the world had engulfed.
I walked for a few minutes toward the Lake, then broke into a run. But I wouldn’t approach the Point again today. Instead, I ran a couple of miles more, several times around the Museum of Science & Industry. Then I ran toward home, but passed our door, and on to Burnham Park and the tree with its parakeet clan. I sat down on a bench near the tree, as I often do after the day’s run. But unlike most days, the parakeets weren’t a comfort and amusement. They were outcasts from comfort, maybe thriving but more likely merely trying to strengthen their ranks in an alien realm – absurd interlopers into an absurd world. Why the hell were they up in that damned tree, anyway?
Instead of seeing the birds in summer warmth, I saw them again huddled away, confused and frightened in the bitter subzero winds of the winter of 1982. And that pulled to mind Zhivago’s endless trek across the bitter snows . . . and lines that echoed from the book – “Now what is history? It is the centuries of systematic explorations of the riddle of death, with a view of overcoming death.” There was no avoiding the tugging of history.
I stared up abstractly, distracted from everything but the birds on the branches, in an endless loop of the same few thoughts interwoven with the image of a limp, dripping man on the rocks.
And in my head a little girl’s voice cried out. . . .
I looked up. It was my daughter, standing on the far side of 53rd Street, looking to each side, then running toward me.
Snapping from my unkind reverie of the parakeets and their nest, I realized the daylight had changed – still bright but now tinged with orange and red. I felt a sudden chill and the sensation of a cold, damp T-shirt limply covering me. I must have been sitting in my thoughts for at least an hour. And it had been 3 hours since I had left home.
“Mommy!” Carrie yelled as she approached. “It’s almost dinnertime.”
“Mrs. Ellis shouldn’t have sent you out alone,” I said.
“She didn’t. I saw she was making dinner, and I decided to run and find you. I knew you’d be sitting here, if I found you.”
“Now, listen to me, Caroline. You really shouldn’t . . .” I stopped and just looked into her bright eyes, at her beautiful well-meaning smile that was washing away. I wasn’t in the mood for lectures or discipline; I wasn’t in the mood for much of anything.
“Sit down with me, pumpkin.”
“But dinner’s almost ready,” Carrie replied.
“Sit down with me. Dinner can wait for a few minutes.”
We sat silently together, though Carrie was looking off in another direction, off to the tennis courts and the game being played there, to Lake Shore Drive just a bit farther away coursing with late rush-hour traffic, and just past that to the path along the lake and its cyclists and runners.
Then she followed my line of sight and looked at what I was watching.
“Why are you looking at those birds, Mommy?”
“They’re parakeets,” I told her.
“Parakeets are jungle birds, sweetie.”
“Then this park’s the jungle,” Carrie said.
“No. Chicago isn’t the jungle.” I continued to stare at those big green birds. “Actually, it is the jungle in a way.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“But then how’d they get there?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’ve often asked myself that. Maybe someone had them as pets, and they got tired of them and threw them out the window.”
“Maybe,” Carrie said, watching the parakeets climb in and out of their huge nest, perching and playing on the high branches. “But maybe they were put in that tree on purpose, Mommy? Maybe it was people from the Brookfield Zoo. They decided we needed a zoo here in Hyde Park. So after leaving work one day, some men from the zoo climbed up into the tree and built the nest, the way they did in the cages we saw last year. Then they pulled the birds out of their pockets, where they were keeping them, and put them in the nest. And soon they’re going to come back and put more parakeets and falcons and eagles in the other trees in the park. And they’re going to put peacocks in the playground, and walruses and seals in the pond. And then maybe they’ll bring elephants and giraffes and lions, but maybe they’ll have to build cages for the lions first. It’ll be a whole big wonderful zoo right in the park a block from home. That’s what I wish for.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right,” she said.
“I don’t think it’ll happen that way, though, Carrie.”
“Why not?” she asked.
How could I expect her to understand all of this?
“Nothing, sweetie. You aren’t old enough to worry about these things yet.”
“What things?” she asked.
“I’ll explain it to you when you’re a bit older.”
She was disappointed.
Then I thought again of my father at the dinner table, sighing deeply, as if catching up with his breathing, looking at my mother as she removed her apron and sat down, and looking at me. And I could hear him say, as I heard almost every night that I knew him . . . “It’s a doggie-dog world out there. A real doggie-dog world.” Silent words spoken only in my mind, but it was as if grace had been spoken. It was time to eat.
I realized, as the memory struck, that it was happening again. . . . Santayana saying, “Those who cannot remember the past. . . .” My father and I had taken different paths on the way to the same destination, and we had met the same child.
Perhaps Carrie couldn’t fathom some of it. But I knew then that she needed to be told.