I have distinct memories of childhood centered around a basketball hoop. We had one in our driveway for nearly 20 years and it was the nucleus of entertainment. It was where I learned to dribble a ball, outshoot my brother in a game of ‘HORSE,’ and it was where I went to de-stress and cure boredom.
Basketball was blissful competition for me and my siblings and we wasted away the summer hours playing the sport. We were sweaty, happy, and giddy. We didn’t want the fun to end, didn’t want to think about dinner, bath time, or anything logical that would take away the fun of the moment.
When I moved to Glencoe, there was a wish list for what features my home would have, but near the top of that list was a driveway that could accommodate a basketball hoop. I bought one a few months ago for my son’s birthday but cold weather and relentless rain did not permit installation until now. The waiting not only enhanced the excitement for this new childhood chapter, but it made the reveal all that more meaningful.
While my son was at school, a team rallied together to plot the correct hoop installation, the proper height, and to pore over every detail with careful attention. Despite rain showers earlier that morning, the weather eased into a very comfortable seventy-five degree day. The sun literally shone on our efforts.
My husband snuck home early from work and the whole family waited eagerly at the bus stop for my son. When he arrived, he didn’t seem too surprised that we were all there, more so just pleased with the very nice day in front of him.
My husband and I exchanged nervous, giddy glances at one another as we walked down the street. Suddenly, I was reliving every moment of the past seven years: our move to this town with a newborn baby, our urban-to-suburban adjustments, our bewilderment at just how quiet everything was. Here we were, on the cusp of what we had hoped for, a dream that was just about to come true.
Our feet reached the end of the driveway. I turned toward my son. “Do you notice anything different about the house?”
Long seconds passed. Then he whooped with joy, tossing his backpack and paper airplane to us as he raced toward the hoop, eager to grab a basketball and get to work.It was a gold medal parenting moment, one that I won’t soon forget.
The late afternoon was spent dribbling, shooting, and chasing basketballs all over the driveway. We were sweaty, happy, and giddy. We didn’t want the fun to end, didn’t want to think about dinner, bath time, or anything logical that would take away the fun of the moment. It was a perfect slice of Americana; a recognition that everything old was new again.
Life zooms by from the window seat of the Metra. It’s a blur of colors, textures, and weather. Time seems to suspend as well. Heading south into Chicago brings me back into my past, back into the roots from which this very column was born.
It’s a pleasant experience, though. Sometimes there are hints of longing or bittersweet memories. I feel it in seeing the way retail has flipped, the way that condo buildings seem to have sprouted from nowhere.
I walked through an old neighborhood haunt and was shocked to see a favorite long-term grocer had closed. I was bummed- they had the best bakery bread there. Down the block there was a fully remodeled grocery chain. It’s enormous panes of glass shimmered like a skyscraper.
And yet…this was not some beautiful, poignant moment. Sheets of a snowy-slushy mess were pouring from the sky. Sidewalks and curbs bore inches of freezing water that sloshed into waves any time a cab zoomed by. The monstrous wind seemed to turn everything horizontal. The sky was an angry gray that muddled the views of Lake Michigan. It was smack in the middle of Spring and a snowstorm was taking over Chicago during my visit. It was not a pleasant experience.
The occasion for the city jaunt: a celebratory dinner for my brother and sister-in-law, who are moving across the country for the summer. Kind of like studying abroad, but for business reasons. We made a fancy dinner reservation at the end of April, believing that to be ‘safe.’ Maybe it would be one of those perfect 70 degree days and we could walk around for a pre-dinner drink in the area. Maybe we could seek out a rooftop deck to stare at the architectural marvels of the city. Maybe we would be laughably wrong in all of these assumptions.
Yet, the dinner went on as planned. The laughter went on. Our lives went on. No matter how frantic things seemed, talking through it made us feel better. I imagine that when my brother and sister-in-law truly leave, and we feel the heaviness of their absence, we will recall this snowy Spring night and grin. We will remember that we somehow made it work.
Our ride home was an Uber. ‘Train in, Uber out’ seems to be a method that works well for our urban visits. As we cruised along the highway, I stared out the window, watching life zoom by. It was a blur of colors, textures, and weather too wild to be believed. Time seemed to suspend as well. I thought about the changes that lay ahead. I thought about the way things used to be. Outside, the snow accumulated, blanketing the green grass in endless white.
We slowly pulled into Glencoe, back into familiarity, back into the present. The snow had finally ceased. The sky was now clear. We were home.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m sharing a favorite column of mine written in 2016 for The Glencoe Anchor. Its words are some of my favorite as it pertains to this holiday and the mothers and mother-like figures we celebrate.
I feel as though I’m drowning in gift guides. Each day brings about an email, a tweet, or a conversation that starts with something like, “What are you getting your mom for Mother’s Day?” and ends with “Hmm…well, at least I have some time.” I’ve seen lists, flash sales, quizzes, and even a heart shaped pizza touted as the ideal Mother’s Day commemoration.
This is a tricky holiday and a very good one. Fortunately we have an occasion in which we can recognize incredible women in our lives that have mothered and mentored us in a capacity that has had profound influence. But let me be candid: we are all conflicted about our mothers in the best possible way. You see, those little personality traits that they have that drive us a bit nuts? Let the world come full circle when you find yourself yelling at gridlock traffic, folding socks a peculiar way, or preparing a recipe in the same dedicated fashion. We ARE our mothers sometimes and that can be a wild roller coaster reality to accept.
It’s okay to idolize your mom, too. No matter your age, acknowledging the deft multi-tasker, expert advice giver, master chef, gentle soul, and kind disposition of this person resonates deep in the heart. I still get a little emotional when my mom bakes me a banana bread or presents me with that perfect, most thoughtful gift. Mothers just have that way of getting to us like no one else can.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on something delicate: we aren’t all lucky enough to have a mother. Maybe she doesn’t live nearby or perhaps she is simply not here. For this extra special group, I implore you to exercise gentle consideration. No matter what happens in life, a mother is a constant. She is a wave in the ocean or the rising of the sun. To be without a mother on Mother’s Day can feel like you’ve lost your own hands. It’s a good time to check-in with these friends and be the constant for someone who needs it. At the very least, it’s an excuse to gather together and share one of those heart-shaped pizzas.
Back to those endless gift guides. Society might have you considering spa appointments or sparkling jewelry, but I’m here to share a secret that will change your gift-giving forever. It is meaningful, exquisite, and you won’t find it on any ‘must have’ gift guide: This Mother’s Day, share with your mother a time or memory when you were proud of her. Pick up the phone and tell her about it. Don’t text or clog her cell phone with emojis. Don’t pen a longwinded email. Let her hear your voice when you speak. Let her recognize your connection to that memory. Let the moment be authentic even if it feels weird or emotional.
As for me, I will share this: Mom, I remember seeing your smiling face in the audience at every dance performance of my life…every recital, half-time show, competition, and awards ceremony. I was so proud of your unwavering support. I was proud of all the times you enjoyed my performance and the times when you were candid about me doing better. Now that I’m a mother myself I deeply appreciate how you constantly carved out time in your life to cheer me on. I know that it wasn’t easy but you sure made it look effortless.
There’s something really disheartening about checking the weather forecast and seeing single digits…again. I get that we live in the Midwest, but c’mon! The first day of Spring is slated for March 20th. How may I rejoice in the switching off of seasons if I’m still shoveling snow and wearing the same oversized sweater for the 176th time?
I’m bitter (and bitterly cold). March really seemed like the finish line. If we could just soldier through the snow days, the blizzards, the Polar Vortex, the sleet storms, the ‘thundersnow,’ then surely we would come out the other side a bit dazed but ultimately grateful to see a patch of grass here or there.
In this winter haze, I’ve found myself craving odd things. In walking through a Target, I stare longingly at little seedling packets and ceramic flower pots. While it’s true that I loathe gardening, I find myself desperate to do anything involving sunshine, warmth, and quality time outdoors (sans parka). I’ve even taken on extensive decluttering and reorganizing, despite the fact that the Village of Glencoe’s Spring Clean Up event is not until early May.
Mostly, I find myself longing. I glance at the barren trees in my backyard and wonder what the branches will look like when the green leaves fill in. I wince when our garage door opens and my kids spot their bicycles, begging to take a ride down the street. I miss regular neighborhood walks with my dog (the ice-melting salt wreaks havoc on his paws).
I’m daydreaming of that one perfect Spring morning: the kind where we are inexplicably running early and have time to burn before the school bell rings. So we hop in the car and head east on Park Avenue so that we may sit on hard stone benches that overlook Lake Michigan. We don’t bring coats because the weather doesn’t warrant it. Maybe I sip coffee and prop up my feet. Maybe my kids point out a galloping dog or a tiny wildflower peeking through the dirt. The sun is up and out, the breeze softly whispers. It’s perfection even if it hasn’t happened just yet.
Confession time: we all have our moments of frustration. Sometimes we just need to yell into the void and move on, owning our deepest feelings of seasonal stress. Once we have that release, it’s almost like the world finally bends in our favor, recognizing that we are open to the newness around the corner.
So what’s getting me through this freezing cold week? An intricate risotto recipe. Scrabble Junior with my children. Concentrated belly breathing in yoga class. Ongoing commitment to my down coat and pom-pom hat. Documentaries on Netflix. A sense of humor.
That one perfect Spring morning is on its way and when it actually gets here, I’ll be ready. The bicycles will be set up, the dog leash will be in my hand, the coats will be stashed in the closet, and the Lake will beckon. It will be warm, perfect, and brand new.
It’s challenging to shop local. There, I said it. We live in an era of quick convenience. We can order things straight from an App or smartphone. With just a few quick taps, I can track a pizza delivery, queue up a latte order, tour local real estate, read reviews for a wool sweater, and place a library book on hold.
Would you believe that two-day shipping is now considered slow? There are literal options for same-day delivery, often meaning that what one wants right now can be delivered to almost instantly.
For obvious reasons, the era of quick convenience is very enjoyable. But there is one teeny part of this that is irksome- the effect that this has on small, local businesses.
I’m haunted by a story of a legendary Glencoe book store that closed its doors in 2016. It was a glorious shop that not only offered books but it had a secret theater in the back. I was lucky enough to see a few shows there and I’ll never forget how wondrous the concept was or how intimate the performances felt.
When the store closed, one of the reasons cited was competition from online book retailers- that patrons would walk in, compare online pricing, and grow frustrated when the vendor couldn’t match the price of a book.
Here’s what I know for sure: local businesses are pillars of the community. They give us picturesque storefronts to frame our streets. They painstakingly gift-wrap our purchases. They go out of their way to order what is needed and deliver it to you in a satisfactory manner. They ask to know our names and chat with us about our children, families, or pets. Most of all, they want to see Glencoe prosper.
During that recent holiday that celebrates all things love, I took a unique approach. I grabbed a flower vase from my cabinet and asked my husband to specifically visit The Flower Shop on Vernon Avenue. I figured if he was going to give me flowers for the holiday, it would mean much more to me if the item had ties to the community. So that’s just what he did.
For days, I stared at the masterpiece of florals that were assembled by The Flower Shop: roses, hydrangeas, tulips in soft shades of creamy pink and lavender. I thought about how easy it would have been for my husband to go a different direction: tap his phone and place an order. I thought about the extra effort involved- the suggestion made, the vase grabbed, the act of walking into the store, etc..
I’ll confess: the extra effort is worth it. Supporting local businesses sometimes means paying a little bit more, showing up in person, or getting off of our Apps and smartphones. But that effort is always, always appreciated. Storeowners see it, residents see it, and our community reflects it. Quick convenience is pretty great, but shopping small allows everyone local to bloom.
I still haven’t fully defrosted from the Polar Vortex. Perhaps I won’t until the first flower of Spring blooms. That would be fine because the way I see it, if we are stuck in the thick of winter, we simply must adapt. We must identify warmth and cling to it. It’s not an impossible feat. I’ve narrowed down some great spots in town that are perfect for raising your temp and soothing your chill.
Firstly, let it be known that I can find any excuse to get myself to the Glencoe Public Library, but in winter months, I covet this space because of the Johnson room and it’s wondrous fireplace. This, combined with scenic views of the downtown spread, make it one of the ideal places to curl up with a book and settle in for a long stretch of warmth.
If fireplaces are your thing, I’ve got another option for you. In departing the library, walk across the street and make your way into Meg’s Cafe. Their fireplace is lovely, their service attentive, and their Soup of the Day is not to be missed.
I often find the the chill of winter hits me hardest first thing in the morning. There is nothing fun about waking in the dark and dragging oneself out of a warm bed. I soothe my chilly bones with a 6am Warm Vinyasa Flow class at Reach Yoga. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the studio is heated to a delightful 80 degrees. Even in the midst of a Polar Vortex, I have found my way to Reach to stretch and move on my mat, all the while imagining that I’m on a tropical vacation. Rest assured that in these colder temps, Reach also cranks the heat for its regular classes to keep yogis comfortable.
In 2019, I learned that I have been dressing for winter all wrong. Apparently, it is most beneficial to dress in three layers rather than one bulky sweater. To get my layer fix, I enjoy pursuing the racks at Three Twelve Tudor, which offers plentiful long t-shirts, super soft sweaters, cozy cardigans, and knit scarves. Owner Amy Bishop is kind, resourceful, and always game to help you find exactly what you’re looking for.
Winter is a great time to really maximize slipper usage. Valentina has offerings for any adult, from a simple pair of thick UGG brand socks to a sherpa-lined moccasin.
Still seeking warmth? Don’t forget about the cozy kid blankets for sale at The Wild Child, ‘The Club’ bagel melt at Hometown Coffee, and the robust candle display at Blacksheep General Store.
I’ll confess, February is a tough month to endure in the Midwest. We must soldier through tougher temps to come out the other side. But the cold is what makes us resilient. To live in the Midwest is know multitudes of weather and savor the emotions that come with it.
As you seek ways to keep warm this season, don’t forget to check on your neighbors and friends, particularly those who live alone. The warmth of friendship is wildly comforting and can sustain us when we need it most.
How kind was life to slide Barbara Mahany into my heart? We met at a book signing for a famed Tribune food columnist years ago. We exchanged email addresses and questions. She was patient and encouraging with me. She taught me to ‘thumb slam’ with my writing (but more on that later). She penned a book (Slowing Time). Then another (Motherprayer). And she continues to weave a beautiful cord of faith and serenity into a world that can often feel wobbly and frightening.
Let’s get to chatting.
1. What do you write and what are you reading?
These days I spend a good chunk of my time writing essays from the heart. Essays from the homefront. Essays in which I slide quiet, barely noticed moments under the magnifying glass, and begin to explore, to plumb their depths, to listen to the questions they beg, and fumble toward moments of epiphany.
2. The cover art for Motherprayer is stunning- a wild wreath encircling two eggs. What can you share about this image?
I knew I wanted a deeply of-the-earth feel. I love old etchings, and botanical drawings. It’s my fascination with biology and nature, first of all, and my leaning into nonfiction – even in art. I’d stumbled into the nesty theme in the organization of the sections of Motherprayer, and a representational drawing of a nest, one that one of the great naturalists might have jotted into field notes, it suggested the realism, the delicacy and strength of composition I was hoping for. The designer popped in the two fine eggs, and the moment I saw them I was charmed. I happen to be the mother of two boys; I’ve wondered if I were the mother of girls, would they have popped two pink eggs in my cover nest?
3. You write candidly about faith from the well of your Jewish-Christian marriage. Presently, our country is wading through turbulent political dialogue in which faith diversity and practice have come under scrutiny. What has this dialogue felt like for you?
The divisiveness in our national dialogue breaks my heart, shatters my heart more accurately. I long ago committed myself to a life of ecumenicism, of open heart, of searching for common threads, recognizing and honoring differences, but weaving, always weaving, toward union. So the dis-union of now sickens me. Because words are my daily bread, I live by a promise to not use words as sharp-edged weapons. I will speak the truth, but I try to make sure to say it in ways that employ tools of opening, not hurting or jabbing, or leaving others wincing. I find illuminating more powerful than eviscerating.
4. To write is to know rejection well. Tell me about a time when rejection was especially poignant.
Some of my toughest rejections are probably the ones that unfold in my head, as I scare myself out of even trying to play in the big kids’ playground. I’ve been working on what a friend of mine calls “the thumb slam,” that moment of distilled courage in which you hit the send key and dispatch some latest version of an unsolicited essay or article to any one of the publications we all consider Big League. I only had my first byline in The New York Times a few weeks ago. I’d twice sent essays to the motherlode blog, and twice been told, no thanks! The Times felt like a threshold to me that I might never cross. Ever since I left The Chicago Tribune, where I was a writer for almost 30 years, I’ve had to employ degrees of courage that frankly exhaust me. Since much of my writing is from the heart, a rejection of that feels like a double whammy – I always think, “Oh, my writing isn’t good enough.” And follow that with, “Oh, I guess my heart isn’t good enough either.” Ouch.
5. Motherprayer is a stirring meditation on how we love so wholly and deeply. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
I love rather deeply. I love the nooks and crannies of the human heart, in all its limitless iterations. I love plumbing the depths, finding the universal core, the story at the shining heart of whoever it is I’m writing about. When I was at the Tribune I loved the chance to discover the beauties at the heart of whomever I was writing about. It’s my abiding belief that if you listen long enough, and closely enough, you will find the pulsing story that animates each someone.
In writing about my own moments in mothering, I’m exploring and reflecting on the intricacies of my own motherheart, as deepened and expanded by the loves of my life, my two boys. I’ve been a student of the human heart my whole life. Before I was a journalist, I was a pediatric oncology nurse. And now I’m a mother. Each one of those three threads is a call to attend to the heart. Often, the undisclosed heart. The secreted-away heart. In peeling away the layers that occlude the heart from everyday notice, I’m delicately exploring, holding up to the light those shimmering marvels of humankind. Saying, this is beautiful. This hurts. This is courage. This is hopelessness. I use my pen as an instrument of precision and plumbing. Empathy is always my aim. See the beautiful. See the glory. I find it often, in nearly anyone I take the time to write about. And certainly from the front rows of mothering, I am endlessly fascinated by this up-close watch on the human heart and soul unfolding, stumbling, fumbling, getting up again and trying once again to soar…..
6. What does a perfect writing day look like for you?
A perfect writing day begins early, before dawn, when I’m the only one stirring in my old house. I write by lamplight, at the kitchen table, or at my old pine writing desk. I might take a stroll outside, sit for awhile on my garden bench. Breathe deeply. Pay attention. Scribble notes. Then, in a morning fueled by coffee, I’ll sit down with something that feels pregnant with possibility. I’ll not know exactly where I’m going, but one synapse will fire and connect to the next. And suddenly dots are connected, depths are traversed, epiphanies occur. I needn’t write all day. I just need to write well. With birdsong in the background. Or the tick-tock of an old grandfather’s clock.
7. It’s a tradition in this series to talk about sex (more specifically writing about it). What can you share?
I hate to disappoint, but I don’t write about sex, and here’s why: My husband, the Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, is a somewhat public figure who writes deeply seriously about architecture and design. That he happens to be married to me, a journalist who has veered into the realm of first-person essay writing, does not mean he should be subjected to the exposures I’ve made part of my regular writing landscape. So our unspoken agreement is that I don’t write about him or the intimacies of our life together – and by that I mean our conversations, his dreams, our struggles; the whole landscape of anything from his private realm is considered out of bounds. Of course I honor that.
8. Let’s hear some of your goals, the wilder, the better.
More than anything I wanted to become a wise old lady. One whose kitchen table was always open for business – for the business of hearts being shared, stories unfurled, and wisdom swapped back and forth. I would love to write essays that stir upon impact and that linger, leave a mark. New York Times bylines would be lovely. Essays for NPR. More books if I think I have anything worth saying. I’d love to study poetry in a more rigorous setting – a class, a poetry seminar, or years-long tutorial with a mentor/teacher. Teaching writing in small groups, or leading conversations into the depths of the sacred, of the human heart – preferably in a breathtaking, bucolic setting (I’ll soon be teaching in an old farmhouse on a magnificent Midwest farm), with a rooster crowing in the not-so distance.
9. You were a pediatric oncology nurse, an occupation that must have felt so heavy on the heart. What lessons have you carried from that time?
The truth of my years as a pediatric oncology nurse was that I learned from “the kids, my kids” a true lightness of the heart. Kids with missing limbs, not a hair on their heads, with tubes inserted here and there, those kids laughed and joked and – most days – made you forget they were stricken with cancer. I wasn’t yet a mother when I worked at Children’s, but the devotion of the mothers and fathers took my breath away every time. These were mothers who never left their sick child’s bedside, yet somehow managed to be there for their other kids as well. I marveled at how they awoke at the barest whisper, how they kept vigil through every needle stick and poke and prod. I held mothers as they wept. They taught me, day after day, what love looks like, how it’s lived. I learned of course how precious each and every day is. And I learned that you never ever know when your life is about to be turned on its head. And how you can take on anything, any thing, life throws at you. And you can laugh along the way, and stitch each day with joy and tenderness, and love that will not die.
10. When were you most proud?
In my writing life, the moments that most glimmer in my memory include my first byline in The Chicago Tribune, when I was still in journalism school, (and waiting at midnight at the corner of Fullerton and Lincoln for the Tribune delivery truck to lumber along, and the driver to leap out and load the stack of next-day papers in the news box) and my recent byline in The New York Times Book Review, which I never thought I’d see. I loved most that it was an essay about my firstborn’s boyhood books, and how deeply those books were etched into my heart. It was the perfect first NYT byline. But just as lastingly, it’s the moments when someone will write me, or come up to me, and tell me that they’ve cut one of my stories out of the newspaper, and tucked it in a wallet, or a bedside table, or into a kitchen “stash” drawer, and over the years, they’ve read and re-read it. To know that your words reached so deep into someone’s heart, that’s pure blessing. It’s why I write: to put words to the whispers – the heartaches and anguish and loneliness and, yes, ineffable love – in all our hearts. To say, in words, we’re not alone.
11. Tell me a story about a story.
One night, many summers ago, I was driving down Western Avenue when I glanced toward the side of the road, and saw a bent old man covered in pigeons. Pigeons on his head, his shoulders, his outstretched arms, his lap, his shoes. I wasted no time in pulling a Chicago-U (right turn to right turn up the alley, then two more rights, and back to where I’d just passed) and sure enough there he still was, the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square. A thousand questions tumbled forth: Who was this, why was he there, was he always there? Why weren’t the birds afraid? How open was his heart?
I circled back the next day. Waited near the fire hydrant. Wandered into nearby storefronts, started asking questions. Right away, I heard the stories. Oh, the Pigeon Man, you mean? And then the who-what-where, as well. He was a regular in the streetscape theater. He followed a daily rhythm. He’d be coming soon, sure as the sun would reach high noon. So I wandered to the bus stop, and I waited. Sitting back away from the curb, so as not to pounce. The bus lurched to the stop, off stepped the bent little man, his janitor’s pants a few sizes too big, cinched by a too-long belt, his satchel weighing down his shoulder, giving him a lopsided gait. I absorbed the posture of the pigeons – I held back, kept a respectful distance at first, gained his trust, then inched closer in. I asked questions, he began to answer. The more solemnly I listened, the more he bared. He took me, proudly, to his neat-as-a-pin room, in the attic of a bungalow a few bus stops away. He showed me his meticulous method for feeding the pigeons, the dearest, most loyal companions in his long and rough-hewn life.
I wrote his story for The Chicago Tribune. He laminated half a dozen copies and carried them in his ever-present satchel. Two years later, the day he was struck by a van and died on the sidewalk along the busy city street, he was clutching a laminated copy of that story. And that’s how the Chicago cops came to call me to ask if there was anyone in the world – besides me – who might want to know that Joe Zeman, the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square, had just died.
(Editor’s note: WOW)
What children’s book is forever imprinted on your heart? The Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales, breathtakingly illustrated by one of the 20th-century’s great illustrators. In my mind’s eye I can still see page after page, each one an invitation into the depths of imagination. And, just as breathtakingly, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, also illustrated by Tasha Tudor.