This Was During The Depression

DSCN6945

DSCN6948Eleanore ate salad at the Mason Street Grill last Friday,

in honor of her mother,

a woman named Blanche,

“she was a honey”

born around 1892.

When honey Blanche grew up

she worked for a time making

the most popular salads at the Pfister

so great were her salads

that President Teddy Roosevelt

asked to meet his salad maker

so he could kiss her hand

and from that

Blanche learned how approachable lawmakers are.

Eleanore has frequently called them up too

to advocate on behalf of the poor.

Somewhere in the attic

Eleanore has the phone number

of former Senator Kohl

who by the way, I saw again

just the other day

in the lounge

so the next time I see him

I’m to tell him

Eleanore says “Hello,”

another word her father had to learn

after arriving from Poland.

“My mother was born on the boat,”

says Eleanore but soon changes her mind,

“No! She was born and then rode the boat.

She was sick all the way,

vomiting over the side,

I certainly give these immigrants a lot of credit

they were all getting sick not just her.”

Blanche’s first job was caring for a doctor’s child

she took the streetcar to work.

There were three children:

Eleanore’s older sister, herself and then Florence.

There was also her brother, Norman

who died at age three from infantile paralysis.

Eleanore was in kindergarten at the time

but had to drop out.

Even Buster could tell Norman was sick,

that dog would pick Eleanore up from school

and they would run down the alleys together

until they arrived at her house on Archer Avenue.

Across the street

was the butcher shop

the boy whose family owned the shop

was Eleanore’s playmate and eventual husband.

On the corner of Archer and Kinnickinnic was a big lot

owned by the plumbing store guy

who told the kids that they could play football

or baseball there

any time they wanted

and so they did.

Eleanore wore jeans,

played sports with boys,

a tomboy

unlike her sister, Florence

who would stand in front of the mirror,

primp her red-brown hair and announce,

“I am going to Hollywood.”

Anytime Eleanore had a date

she’d introduce the fellow to her family.

So many boyfriends dumped Eleanore!

Once they saw Florence

they started dating her instead.

“She was strictly a Hollywood type of person.”

This was during the depression

people ate horse meat,

everyone knew when Al Capone was coming to town,

they went to the streets to watch.

In 1931 there was an older lady with a hat

who owned “a big hunk of luxury,”

an electric car!

The kids used to line up and watch with mouths wide open

as she clambered the high step to get in.

Eleanore’s father planted a Victory garden for his family

where Cudahy High now sits

it was like a cemetery with different plots

for families growing tomatoes.

To this day Eleanore still gardens

at her nursing home in Oak Creek.

“I’ve had a beautiful life,

and these are all of my friends,”

Eleanore gestures at all five of her friends

also gardeners

who joined her to celebrate her life.

It’s not her birthday

she turned 96 last January

but on this August day she’s presented a birthday cake.

Someone pulls away her salad,

Eleanore protests, “I’m not done with that!”

but covers her mouth in shock and delight

when she sees a cake and one burning candle set before her

instead of singing we watch Eleanor eat her dessert

with the fire still going till the last bite.

The Society

There are rules, and there are rules. The first kind, we largely agree to be hard fast: stealing is wrong, kindness is good, unhealthy eating creates an unhealthy body, and cutting off someone in traffic fills your rear view mirror with crude hand gestures.

The second kind of rules, even italicized in our minds, are the ones we might conveniently recast as “guidelines:” wearing a helmet, copying your supervisor on every email, visiting the dentist twice a year and waiting until Happy Hour for an afternoon cocktail.

I brush away these mental italics and sip my whiskey.  It’s almost 2 pm here in Milwaukee, which means it’s almost 5pm in Portland. Or Reno. Or San Luis Obispo.  I sip, then, in solidarity.

Looking around the lobby lounge, I count two cups of coffee, one tea, one juice, two cokes and five bottles of water.  To my delight, however, a handful have also dismissed the italics to enjoy a midday toast:

Margarita

Mary is waiting for her airport shuttle.  She’s traveling back to Tucson where she works in TV advertising. “It’s the only thing I know how to do and, thank God, I do it really well.”

She is originally from Milwaukee, but hasn’t stood on the city’s soil since leaving 30 years ago.  A wedding -her favorite niece- lured her back, so she made a point of visiting her old Bay View neighborhood

“It turned out to be a highlight of my weekend,” Mary said.  Her skin was tan, her eyes were piercing and her dark hair was collected into a loose bun. “Milwaukee has turned into a hip, forward-moving city … but I can’t wait to get home to my own bed.”  We made a toast to Our Own Bed.

Pinot Grigio

Two young women, a blonde and a brunette, are curled to face each other on a couch. Both are attractive, both are in their late twenties and both had plenty on their minds. As I approach, their conversation feels dramatic but not intense. Facial expressions and hand gestures suggest the retelling of some unfortunate transgression by some unfortunate third party whose ears should be, unfortunately, burning at the moment.

The potential plot of their discussion exploded in my imagination once I learned they were political organizers. They met early in their careers during a campaign in Memphis. Brittany, the brunette, lives in Milwaukee now but hails from Seattle. Raven, visiting with her friend while in town from Washington DC, is originally from Houston.

“I’m sorry we were so cold at first,” Brittany said, reaching for her wine glass.  Raven only had water. “It must take a lot of guts to approach strangers.  Definitely wouldn’t happen where I’m from.”

“It’s true,” Raven said, mentioning a trip she’d made to Seattle. “They’re polite, but they don’t talk to anyone.  In the south, we talk to everyone.  The mix of those is probably why the Midwest is so confusing.” We laugh and toast Talking to Strangers.

 Beer

The couple chatted easily across their café table.  She had a tea and he had a tall stein of beer.  As I explained the Narrator appointment, Theresa listened enthusiastically. I quickly decided that joy and delight were essential elements of her world. She was effervescent, her eyes sparkling when she thanked the waiter, when her husband, Marty, described how they met, when they spoke of their children and, especially, as she remembered their travels.

“We’ve been to 70 countries,” Teresa said.  They live in northern Idaho out in the “extreme country.” Soft curls of honey wheat have been pulled away from her face.  She is a striking woman.  “Our kids have been to 22 or 26.”

“And 48 of the 50 states,” adds Marty. He is tall and bespectacled, sporting a boyish cut to his silver hair, and brandishing an endearingly mischievous grin. Turns out Marty is “America’s favorite veterinarian,” appearing regularly on Good Morning America and Dr. Oz. They’re visiting Milwaukee as part of a book tour.

Although they travel the world –logging Egypt and Bali as past favorites– they’re most looking forward to an extended family vacation in Oregon.

“We love it there. It’s beautiful and simple,” Teresa says. “Perfect.”  Toast to Simple and Perfect.

Malbec

When I explained my Five O’Clock Somewhere Sip Society to Don, he immediately raised his glass in a toast.

“To five o’clock!”

From Ontario, Don publishes a national magazine called Construction Canada.  He’d been pecking furiously at his keyboard when I started my Sip interviews.  I almost didn’t see his glass positioned behind the laptop.

“If you’re going to be parked somewhere working,” he said, “no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a glass of wine.”

I told him of my nascent knowledge of wine, that I purchase bottles based on clever names or handsome labels. Don’s passion for wine was sparked by his passion for food.  He became interested in pairing wines after his first trip to New Orleans.

“Cajun and Creole foods were every bit as good as I’d heard,” he said, “and the flavors were even more enhanced by the wine.” Don and his wife have been students ever since: traveling to vineyards, attending classes, even making their own batches. They get together with friends often to enjoy one of Don’s gourmet meals and sample a complimentary, new wine.

“Wine is best when shared with people you love and care about,” Don said. He and his wife will be empty nesters soon and have been unwavering about maintaining balance in their lives.

“It’s all about quality of life and enjoying the life you’ve made,” Don says.  “At the end of the day, nothing else matters.”

I’ll gladly drink to that.