Monday, October 31, 2011

Nancy's Last Boy Friend

About the time John and I married, Nancy met Tom. They came to dinner as John was disposing of things in his condo in anticipation of moving with me to New Mexico. Nancy’s new boy friend was a tall, dignified man, wearing a dark gray suit matching his hair. He seemed rather quiet, but when he did speak, his manner was brisk, decisive, and intelligent.

On the wall behind the dining table was a large picture, a print of a painting by Pizzaro. Tom admired the Paris street scene, and John sold him the picture for $10. I thought it was too much to pay for such a cheap piece of junk art with a damaged frame, but John and Tom seemed happy with the deal, so I said nothing.

John’s apartment was an exact duplicate of Nancy’s, where I spent so many nights wishing I had one like it. The week after we married, John went out one day and came back with the deed to the apartment. As a wedding present, he put my name on the property as joint owner. We rented the apartment to someone else and moved to New Mexico.

Nancy and I remained friends. Each time John and I returned to the Chicago area to visit our grandchildren, we took Nancy to lunch. She came to visit us in New Mexico.

John and I were happy in the little house in Albuquerque. After John died, I sold the condo in Illinois and used the money to pay off the mortgage on the house in New Mexico. I had wasted a lot of time envying Nancy her condo. .

Each time I returned to Illinois to visit my daughter’s family, Nancy drove 30 miles from Darien to Naperville to have lunch with me. She took an antihistamine before she came, as she was highly allergic to Martha’s cats. The pills upset her stomach, but Nancy said, “I had to see you.”

Sitting across from me at a local restaurant, she talked about Tom. A physicist at Argonne Labs, he had money to take her to dinner at expensive restaurants and to the Lyric Theater and Chicago Symphony. She told me, “I arranged his calendar and introduced him to cultural things.”

Tom and Nancy had a close relationship for 20 years. He developed cancer; she took care of him, just as she took care of me in when I was homeless and crazy. She was hurt when his family would not permit her to see him when he was dying. I could see Nancy in hysterics at his bedside, and the family deciding to keep her away and let him go in peace.

Being Nancy, no one ever grieved as excessively as she did. Nancy’s life also seemed to collapse. Now in her mid-80's, her health deteriorated. For hours she hovered over her inhaler trying to breathe. She spent the last two years in a nursing home. Even in that dismal situation, she looked for ways to enjoy life. She told me it brightened her day when her daughter Sandy brought printouts of my blogs.

Sandy took the brunt of the ordeal as Nancy lapsed into dementia and paranoia. I can’t remember her that way. Nancy was a loyal and generous friend. She also was a woman who greeted all the changes in her life with enthusiastic optimism. From her I learned that no matter what happens, life will be fun.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Beauty and the Batty Babe

Why did John prefer me to Nancy? John stopped dating Nancy before he met me. Why?

Certainly my appeal had nothing to do with personal appearance. Nancy was always perfectly groomed, with perfect makeup, pretty scarves at the neck of perfect dresses worn over a slim, perfect figure.

I was overweight and ugly. From the time I was a teenager, my brother Lyle convinced me that I was the ugliest girl in Texas. I gave up trying to improve my ugly face with makeup. I never had money for clothes, and by the time I knew Nancy, my basic wardrobe was five and ten years old. Even my shoes were worn and shabby.

While I was often depressed, Nancy had an upbeat, enthusiastic approach to life. Maybe too enthusiastic. She also had a naive conviction that hers was the only way to look at things.

She never understood why I didn’t want to sing with her in the barbershop chorus. I told her, “I’m glad you enjoy singing with that group.” I never said, “I will come to your concerts and listen politely, but I don’t really like barbershop music.” She would not believe that.

Nancy bombarded me – and everyone else – with questions. “Why did you do that?” “Why don’t you do this?” She told me, “You should have waited to divorce Wally until he was at the top of his profession. I waited to divorce Otto until he was at the top, and I got a good settlement.” (Yes, and a beautiful two-bedroom condo, while I was homeless.)

She ignored the fact that I filed for divorce after Wally put his big hands around my neck and chocked me. I was miserable because I still loved Wally but could not live with him because in his angry outbursts he might kill me.

I also suffered the extreme highs and lows of manic-depression. Even after my mental illness was diagnosed, I was not properly medicated. As I traveled back and forth between New Mexico and Illinois with no settled location, the doctors could not keep track of the effects of medication. So I had episodes of wild activity (driving 75 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone) or extreme lethergy (couldn’t get out of bed until noon).

In spite of my condition, Nancy took me in. She was a true friend. Still, she could be overwhelming. After I knew John, I understood why she annoyed him. But why did he choose me?

I used to say, “John was a care-giver, and when he met me, I was the woman who most needed taking care of.”

John had a wonderful, calming effect on me. He had a great wit and could see the ridiculous side of any situation. We had such good times together. After we married, we immediately went to New Mexico, where the doctor put me on lithium. My mental condition has been stabilized ever since.

After John died, one of his sons said, “You are so much like our Mom.”

Jack said, “I couldn’t see it at first, but, yes, you are like our mother.”

“I don’t look at thing like her,” I said. Vera was a tiny (size 1) brunette, much prettier than me.

“You have her personality,” my stepson said. “When you and Dad were in the next room talking, it was just like Mom and Dad.”

It did not matter that I was overweight or how I fixed my hair. It was my personality, something over which I had no control. And which fit perfectly with that wonderful man, John Durkalski. How did I meet him? That was just dumb luck!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nancy Meets John

Nancy and I huddled to talk while waiting for the others to assemble for our divorce support group. As usual, she was excited. telling about what she had done the previous week. Nancy was always excited about her life, but this time she had real news.

“I’ve met a man who lives in Lake-of-the-Woods, the same condo complex where I live,” she said. “We have so much in common. He plays golf, and he likes to take bike rides. Isn’t it wonderful! We can do so many things together, and he lives just five minutes from me in the next building.”

Yes, it sounded perfect. For a few weeks I spent my days and evenings huddled watching television in my bedroom at my son-in-law’s house, as Nancy had no time to meet me for Saturday movies or to go to Cantigny.

Then she called and asked me to meet her for lunch on Sunday after church. As we waited for the waitress to bring our apple pancakes, Nancy confided, “Wednesday night after choir practice I stopped at John’s condo. He gave me a little glass of wine, as he always does, and said, ‘Nancy, I have something to tell you. I’ve met a school teacher in Chicago. I won’t be dating you any more. This lady and I are going steady.’”

Nancy was amused that this 68-year-old man used the phrase, “going steady”. That’s what we said when we were in high school 50 years ago.

“Nancy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “I was getting tired of him any way.”

A couple of months passed. Nancy and I did all the usual activities. She met a new man. I went to a writers’ group at the Downers Grove Library. Then one Wednesday, Nancy called me at my son-in-law’s house. “Parents Without Partners is having a mid-week break at the Plantation tonight. Would you meet me there after choir practice?”

I looked in my purse. I had $1.50 to last until the end of the month. I went to the local bar, the Plantation, and put down my $1.50 for a coke. Nancy did not show up. A little man asked me to dance. The band was playing disco. I never danced disco in my life, but I got up and moved it around.

We kept dancing the rest of the evening. He asked me to go across the street to Denny’s for “breakfast.” I had tea and cinnamon toast. I asked him where he lived. He said, “Lake-in-the-Woods.”

I said, “I have a friend who lives there. Do you know Nancy Vosahlik?”

He gave me a serious look and said, “Yes, I know Nancy.”

That’s when I realized this was the man who had dated Nancy. The one with whom she had such much in common. The next day I called Nancy and told her I met John. She said, “I wonder what happened to the school teacher from Chicago.”

A few days later John called me. He said, “I know you are a friend of Nancy’s. If you and I were to go out, would it cause any problems? I don’t want to make any trouble between friends.”

I realized here was a thoughtful, caring man. I said, “I told Nancy I met you. She says it would be all right.”

John and I were married for two years before John told me, “There never was a school teacher in Chicago. I just didn’t know how to tell Nancy I didn’t want to date her.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nancy's Boy Friends

After the divorce, Nancy said, “I couldn’t wait to start dating again.”

She remembered the fun she had as a young college girl during World War II, dancing with officers from a nearby U.S. Air Force base. To her the forty years since were a mere interlude. After all, she was still slim and attractive.

Nancy paid over $2,000 to join a dating service that sent her lists of ten or twelve eligible men each month. She told me about the interesting men she met for coffee. She was charmed by a tall, dark Spaniard. One night as we entered a restaurant, she spotted him sitting at the bar. She ran up to say “Hello.” The man looked over his shoulder, said, “Hi”, and turned back to sip his drink.

Nancy and I went to our table. As we picked up our menus, I asked, “What age men did you ask to meet, Nancy?”

She said, “Why. . ?” She fumbled with her fork before saying, “In their fifties. Older men don’t do anything but watch television. I’m still active. I want to go places and do things.”

None of the men she met through the dating service asked her for a second date. Finally she confessed, “I was getting lists of men’s names, and the men were all getting lists naming other women.” She canceled the dating service and joined “Parents Without Partners”.

Through “Parents Without Partners” Nancy met a series of boy friends. One lasted over a year. He was good-looking, slim, and young enough to be her son. He brought her flowers and sent her love poems and cards with tender sentiments. She bought theater tickets and took him to tea at the Ritz-Carlton. She also paid for repairs on his car and even helped him pay child support.

When this man went to Springfield to see his children, she invited me to spend the weekend with her. All night she sat up in bed complaining. She did not understand why he wanted to see his children when he could have spent the weekend doing fun things with her. “Why does he want to spend so much time with little kiddies?”

He said he wanted to buy her a ring. They went to a jewelry store, and Nancy picked out a pretty opal set with small diamonds. He forgot his credit card. Nancy paid for her own ring.

Shortly after that, they broke up.

Nancy was never daunted. Soon she was again dancing at Parents Without Partners, always confident she would soon meet “Mr. Right”.

Monday, October 24, 2011

With Nancy at Cantigny

Nancy defined perpetual motion. She taught in a nursery school, sang in a church choir and in a women’s barbershop chorus. She looked for more things to do. She joined Parents Without Partners. She yearned for a man to date, but when she could not find one, she sought female companionship.

After my divorce, I also wanted to go out to dinner and to plays and concerts. Our friendship started with the two of us getting together on weekends.

We went out to dinner, to movies, and to plays. I tend to be critical, saying, “I enjoyed it, but . . . ." For Nancy every performance was wonderful. She was a fun companion who always lifted my spirits.

I always paid for my own tickets. My income came from selling real estate. It never occurred to Nancy that the market crashed and I had little money to spend on anything. Lucky for me, Nancy also was eager to go to any event listed as “free” in the local newspaper.

Both of us enjoyed Sundays at Cantigny. Col. McCormick, the famous publisher of the Chicago Tribune, named his mansion and the surrounding grounds in Wheaton after a French village, site of a World War I battle. When he died, he left his estate to be open free to the public.

The park-like grounds looked like a staging area for battle with tanks and artillery on the lawn. (My boys loved to go there to play soldier.) A white marble building housed a museum dedicated to the Army’s First Division, where the colonel served in World War I.

Nancy and I preferred walking the gravel paths in flower gardens and going into the mansion for Sunday afternoon concerts. We listened to string quartets and Russian choruses in the elegant library with its concealed bar where Winston Churchill once got trapped behind the secret doors when he went searching for whiskey in the middle of the night.

One weekend Nancy said, “The roses in the Cantigny gardens are so beautiful. Let’s go early and stroll in the rose garden before the concert.” I tried to tell her we had done that several months ago. She insisted. So we went early. It was November. Nancy was surprised and disappointed to find not a bloom on dry, brown, leafless stalks on all the rose bushes. Her reaction: “I wonder what happened to the roses.”

At times I wondered if I was simply a person Nancy chose to see when she did not have a boy friend to take her out. I moved to Albuquerque. Then I returned to Downers Grove to sue Wally for support. I had no money to rent an apartment. Martha and Don did not want me and told me so. That’s when I learned Nancy was my best and truest friend in Downers Grove. For the next three years, whenever I needed her, Nancy invited me to stay with her on weekends.

She had a beautiful, two-bedroom condo. The little bedroom was full of costumes Nancy wore in the chorus’s performances. In the big bedroom I lay in the twin bed wishing I had a place like hers, while in the other bed Nancy, her face creamed and her hair wrapped in netting over big rollers, talked until 4 a.m.

I was penniless, crazy, and depressed. Nancy did not notice. I was a friend who needed help, and she took me in.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Meeting Nancy

What can I say about Nancy? Quite a lot. For two weeks, since her daughter wrote to tell me she died, I tried to sort out my feelings about this long-time friend.

I met Nancy soon after I was divorced. She sat across the table at the support group which met in an upstairs room at the First Congregational Church in Downers Grove, Illinois. A slim, neatly dressed woman, with dyed red bangs above a skillfully made-up, heart-shaped face, she joined enthusiastically in all the discussions.

Nancy was a 60-year-old woman who thought she looked 45 and acted like a wide-eyed teenager. Through the years I was alternately annoyed and then admired the way she faced situations. Divorced, she believed by making herself physically attractive she would find love.

She was always immaculately dressed with a scarf or a bow at the throat to hide the wrinkles in her neck. Her makeup was perfect, and she slept with huge rollers on her head to maintain a flattering coiffeur, with little bangs to conceal any lines in her forehead.

Nancy still wore the same size l0 as when she was a college girl during World War II, dancing with young officers from the nearby air base. That was before the Army Air Corps separated to become the Air Force; in Nancy’s mind she was still that young, vibrant 20-year-old.

She loved good food but ate sparingly. After I’d spent the night with her, she would greet me with a smiling face. (Just what I needed first thing in the morning!) She would say, “Look what I have for us!” and show me a little carton of fresh strawberries or raspberries. Then she would carefully spoon out three strawberries or four raspberries to top my corn flakes.

Was she deluded in thinking she could stave off old age by all this effort trying to look young? For her it was the right thing to do. She enjoyed every aspect of life until she reached her 85th birthday. She taught me that I didn’t need a whole bowl of strawberries, to simply enjoy each, single little bite.

We were friends for 30 years. I need several blogs to tell more about my friend Nancy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Did you miss me? I have not written a blog in two weeks. I’m okay. A bit depressed over the death in Illinois of Nancy, my friend for 30 years. Even more upset by a change in routine.

One Saturday during dialysis I was sitting in my recliner when the nurse interrupted my reading the article on Rick Perry in "Newsweek". (Honestly! How could anyone take seriously that cowboy’s candidacy for President?) The nurse handed me a slip of paper and said, “You wanted to come to dialysis on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, instead of Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You will start on Monday.”

“I can’t start on Monday. That afternoon I’m giving a program at my retirement home.”

I requested the change many months ago. I was told three people were ahead of me on the waiting list. I had to wait for people to die before I could make the change. I put it out of my mind and filled up my calendar with events for Mondays and Wednesdays.

The change was postponed for a week. On Monday I talked to a half dozen old ladies about Van Gogh and Romans in Provence, how I ate ice cream at the café painted by Van Gogh and drove my BMW across the Roman arches of the Pont de Garde, the often-photographed 2,000-year-old aqueduct in the South of France.

I also changed my appointment with my dermatologist. In August I postponed my annual visit with Dr. Smith because my car was in the shop getting a new engine. (Did I write about that?) Now I had to put it off again. I will see the doctor in November.

I was surprised how upset I became over shuffling my schedule. I’ve had so many changes in my life, I should take changes in – well, I don’t stride any more -- but without stumbling.

I’ll soon be settled in my new routine, writing blogs between dialysis days. I will write about my travels. I will continue telling about seeing Europe with David, when he was 13 years old. The ultimate destination was Paris, but so far I’ve only told about our first day in Frankfurt, Germany. On that trip we had no set schedule. I made it up each day as David and I climbed into the rental car. .

That miserable little Opal was a bitch to drive, but that didn’t stop me. So what’s the big deal about changing an appointment with a dermatologist? He is going to tell me, “You’re doing fine. Come back next year.”

Coming soon: More adventures in Germany. But first, a word about Nancy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Roman Sandals

My grandsons can’t imagine living without cell phones, the internet, and colored television. Technology is changing our lives so drastically my poor old brain can’t keep up.

Sixty years ago, as a young newspaper reporter, I typed my reports on an old manual typewriter, reaching up with my right arm to sling back the carriage to begin each new line When my children were in school and I went back to work, it was my skill as a typist that enabled me to make $4.00 an hour during temporary work for all the major corporations headquartered in the Chicago Loop. By then the latest thing was the IBM Selectric, the electric typewriter with a little ball which spun around to print the letters. I gave mine away when I left Albuquerque to move back to Texas.

For the past 35 years I’ve written all my fiction and correspondence on my personal computer.
I forget what it was like using a typewriter.

With difficulty I try to imagine what life was like 2,000 years ago, when Germany was on the frontier, and the Romans built a series of forts to protect the Empire from the Barbarians, much as the U.S. Army built forts (including Fort Worth) across West Texas to protect settlers from the Comanches. The difference was the Indians were no match for the U.S. Cavalry and were vanquished to Oklahoma, while the Barbarians overran and conquered Rome. .

The Romans abandoned the forts along the Rhine. Before they packed up and pulled out of the fort at Bad Homburg, they threw a bunch of stuff down a well. In the ooze at the bottom, enough was preserved to put on display in the small museum inside Kaiser Wilhelm’s “restored” fort.

Looking at the 2,000-year-old objects in glass cases in the museum, the big surprise was not how much had changed but how many things looked the same! A set of carpenter’s tools, hammers and chisels and planes, could have come out of my father-in-law’s tool box. Even more amazing was a glass case with several shelves of shoes. The Roman sandals were identical to styles for sale this summer at the Town East Mall.

Two thousand years ago Romans had indoor plumbing and a “modern” sewer system. In Albuquerque houses had privies in the backyard until after World War II. I knew a man who lived in one of those houses. It was built of adobe and had floors of hard-packed dirt. When Lou and his brother came home from the war, they added a bathroom and put in wooden floors, which lowered all the doorways to less than 6-feet high.

Every day I use technological wonders – computer, television, cell phone – which did not exist when I was a child. At Bad Homburg I was reminded that some basic things, like hammers and chisels and summer shoes – have not changed since Roman times.

Some other things, like honesty, loyalty, and fidelity, were the standard of behavior among all peoples and religions since the Jews were exiles in Babylon. Sadly, the ancients also had liars, cheats, greedy patricians, and power-grabbing politicians -- just like today.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kaiser

The Roman fort at Bad Homburg was “restored” by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century. Does anyone under age 70 remember him?.

The Kaiser fancied himself an archeologist. He supervised digging up the remains of this fort and rebuilt it, complete with high walls and square towers at each corner. Perhaps the Kaiser thought he knew more about Roman military architecture than any historian. He was wrong. Karl took us around the walls of the restoration and explained that the rebuilt fort to looked less like a true Roman outpost from the First Century A.D. and more like an early 20th Century German garrison.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was mistaken about many things. Born with a “withered” right arm, he strutted about in fancy uniforms with lots of medals on his chest. With the title of Emperor, he thought Germany was the greatest military power in the World. In the 1870's hadn’t they .
defeated the French in the Franco-Prussian War? (Maybe he failed to notice that as a result another emperor, Napoleon III, lost his throne, and France became a republic.)

In 1914, when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated in Serbia, all of Europe went to war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s army invaded France, expecting a quick victory. The result was the bloodbath of World War I, which destroyed a whole generation of Europe’s young men. Every American hated The Kaiser for forcing the us into that war, just as we hated the Emperor of Japan during World War II.

With American help, our allies won that World War I. That was also the end of the German Empire. Deprived of his throne, Wilhelm II retired to live the rest of his long life quietly in a small village in Holland.

In Germany the people still harbored the delusion that they were a great military nation. They smoldered under defeat and eagerly embraced Hitler’s promise to conquer the World. It took World War II and thousands more dead – six million Jews and twenty million Russians, plus our own losses – to convince the Germans that they could win more by trade than by killing people.

People cling to delusions because they accept what they are told as truth. They buy into stupid slogans. “Lower taxes, less government” will bankrupt this big nation if the Tea Party forces its policies through Congress. Cheney blows his trumpet and millions believe that the U.S. should bully other nations with its military might and “bring freedom” to people who wish we would keep our Army out of their homes.

People can be sincere and still be deluded. Listen carefully at what people say. Be skeptical about everything you read on the internet. The Kaiser was wrong in the way he reconstructed the Roman fort at Bad Homburg. That doesn’t matter. But he was also wrong in his belief in the importance of Germany’s military glory. Millions died.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The German Frontier

I had not slept since David and I left Chicago the day before. I drove cautiously through the hills northwest from Frankfurt to the picturesque village of Bad Homburg. It was a beautiful sunny fall afternoon. The bucolic countryside looks so peaceful, I found it hard to invoke Germany’s centuries of turbulent history. We came to see where the army of Ancient Rome built a fort to protect its empire from hordes of Germans.

Roman soldiers in Germany? In the early centuries of our Christian era, England and Germany were on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. When Jesus was born – the Bible tells us Augustus was emperor – Rome controlled all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, in a great circle from Spain across Southern Europe,. aching down through the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Holy Land, and continuing westward across all of North Africa.

When the Romans tried to expand northward into Germany, they were met with fierce resistance from tribes of “barbarians”. Initially the Romans expected to subdue these uncivilized wild people as easily as they had annihilated the tribes in Britain. Rome’s legions were the best trained and most disciplined fighting force the Ancient World had seen, and they were opposed by groups of uncivilized, unorganized tribes. Augustus’s successors sent armies into the woods of Germany only to have their legions be the ones who were wiped out.

The emperor ordered a whole string of forts, not a wall, like Congress prepossess to build along the Rio Grande, but strong fortifications to control the border along the Rhine River. If they could not conquer the Germans, they would keep them outside the empire. It did not work.

Franks swept past the forts and took over France. Saxons moved into England. The “long beards” settled in Northern Italy; in the area now called Lombardy. The legions were recalled to protect the city of Rome.

Roman was betrayed by its own citizens. The enormous Aurelian Walls, which still stand around the old center of Rome today, didn’t keep Goths and Vandals from sacking the city.

Our schools do not teach history. Our Congressmen don’t even know American History, else why would they make ridiculous claims about our Founding Fathers establishing a “Christian nation”? Or act as if we are still living on the frontier with every man needing guns to protect his homestead from murdering Indians? How can we expect them to know anything about the mistakes Roman emperors made trying to control people who refused to be conquered?

The fort at Bad Homburg was my first experience with the remains of Ancient Rome. In later trips to Europe I saw where archeologists dug up a Roman settlements from Portugal to Romania. We bombed Cologne in World War II and uncovered a trove of Roman artifacts, now housed in a museum where I marveled at the collection of Roman glass. In the city of Rome itself, Ancient Rome is buried under the modern city. Men still dig under streets and buildings and make new discoveries. In France I went to St. Remy to see the asylum where Van Gogh was a patient and discovered a triumphal arch the equal of anything I saw in Rome.

The Ancient Romans vanished like the Mohicans. Their ruins remind us to study history.