Kay Fesenmeyer, 1918-2019

My grandmother passed last week, my mom’s mom and the last of my grandparents. It’s been an intense week and I have a lot of things that I’m not quite sure how to say, but I wrote and read the following at her service yesterday, so it will have to suffice


When I was about 10, I came down the stairs at the Bon Ton in tears. I had been reading Bridge to Terabithia and, having gotten to a particularly upsetting part, had sought out comfort. Gram asked me why I was crying, and I explained that one of the main characters had fallen in a river and drowned. Gram replied “Well, that’s what happens when you play by the water.”

That was Gram for you. Unsentimental. Matter-of-fact. Not a fan of the water.

She wasn’t a Hallmark grandmother. Delicious treats, yes, but warm hugs and fun adventures? Not really.

Gram was competent and resourceful, storing up that drawer full of odds and ends for the rainy day when we really would need all of those twist ties from bunches of greens. She had a method and a place for everything and god help us if we didn’t follow it, whether it was hospital corners on the bed, moving one of her piles, or recycling even one of her enormous mayonnaise jars.

She was the consummate hostess – or so it seemed to me as a little girl, fingering well-worn decks of cards and tiny tubes of lipstick in the buffet drawers, hints of what seemed like a wildly glamorous social life. Dishes and glassware and recipes for every occasion. Meals with friends at the Outing Club. Records on the kitchen stereo from way back when. Strawberry sodas for the grandkids. The elegance of shrimp cocktail and a relish tray frequently refilled.

She cared about her friends and family, even though she didn’t always show it. When you called the Bon Ton, both Gram and Gramp would be on the line, even if you just needed to talk to one of them, and even if it made it hard to have a conversation. I can’t remember a single meal with them that didn’t involve a litany of news and gossip about this patient, that neighbor, the other acquaintance.

She was a proud woman. Proud of her accomplishments, like being head nurse on the fancy ward at Harper Hospital, where she out-ranked her doctor husband. Proud of her children’s achievements, like Nanc touring with the Highlanders, Mom doing synchronized swimming, Tom performing with the University Marching Band. She may not have said so at the time, but she paused to tell these stories to me again and again when we looked at photos during my visits. She was proud of her in laws and her grandchildren, too – Mark’s musical abilities, Jenn going to school to become a nurse, Victor off to college. But also the sort of proud that holds on to hurt like armor, reminding us of times when we – or life – let her down. She never finished her degree. She left behind her career to raise a family. Her husband was always busy. Her children grew up to be teenagers and then adults with lives and choices she didn’t always agree with. Her grandchildren got tattoos and divorces. Her body failed her.

As people have expressed their condolences this week, I have said: it’s complicated. She was complicated. And I’ve spent a lot of this last week thinking about that, and how I want to remember her, the wonderful and the complicated.

I don’t remember, for example, the time she spanked me with a pie scooper. I don’t believe it happened, but Mark does: perhaps we have chosen to remember differently. I remember lying across the custom cutting board over the kitchen sink while Gram washed my hair, the cold acidity of the apple cider vinegar she used as a rinse, my legs dangling off the end of the counter.

I remember crackers from the bowl on the kitchen table, and games of cribbage after dinner. Playing dress-up and grocery store with things she’d set aside. The beauty shop on Fridays, and her nails carefully shaped with a file from her red zippered pouch. Sending me out into the backyard to pick raspberries for breakfast, the grass still wet with dew. Signing into AOL to check her stocks, tracking them carefully in her notebook. Taking her rings off to make pie dough, her wedding band paper thin from decades of wear.

I remember her hands resting on Gramp’s shoulder the summer he had his bypass surgery. She opened his collar to show me the top of his scar, and then lingered there behind him, one of the few shared moments of genuine tenderness I can recall. She was from a family and an era that didn’t show affection easily; her love language, like mine, was acts of service. Her love for him – and for her family – was expressed in hundreds of thousands of shirts ironed and eggs poached and pies served. At his services, she patted his bow tie in an approving way, later telling us that she would miss him, but not the way he was at the end.

I don’t think I understood that, not really, until last week, when I saw how frail she was, her body ready to be done. That’s not the Gram I’ll remember.

I’ll remember her in her house slippers and slacks, attending to her piles, the queen of her castle. Or turning on the radio in the kitchen when it was time to go.

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July Around Here

Work unexpectedly extends the gift of a long holiday weekend. In Belgium, this is called “making the bridge”.

We spend the 4th at my parents’, in part to get out of the city, and in part to celebrate my dad’s retirement. We bring a spumoni cake – not the brilliant ice cream thing making the rounds in the NYTimes, unfortunately, though this is equally spectacular – and veggie kabobs and our swimsuits. The baby loves the pool as much as anticipated, though he gets overwhelmed quickly, retreating to the safety of a snuggly towel on Papa’s lap. The big kid can finally touch the bottom of the shallow end with his tippy-toes, which is exciting for all involved.

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More early morning walks with the kids, sometimes with coffee, often with foraged fruit. One morning we hear chirping and look over to spot two juvenile raccoons snuggled up together on a porch rail, calling for their mama. The big kid and I imagine what they might be saying, or what he and his brother would say if they couldn’t find me.

The baby masters hands-and-knees crawling over the July 4th weekend. He’s been scooting along on his belly for what feels like months, and all of a sudden, he’s off! It’s so fun to see him exploring, though it feels like we’re constantly pulling things out of his mouth. I suppose that’s all part of being a tiny scientist.

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These curls! I’m dead.

I pass a blissful morning in personal and professional conversation on the patio at Spoke and Bird. We used to go here all the time when we lived in Pilsen and it was around the corner from the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens and on the way to the Lakefront Path. I grumble about work, but I’m deeply grateful for the many opportunities for professional connection it affords me, and particularly for the flexibility to have mornings like this.

We find a little push-cart for the baby on the neighborhood Buy Nothing group. He discovers it with glee the next morning, crawling over in his sleep sack to start playing. In what feels like no time, he’s doing laps in the kitchen, pausing to inspect the washing machine with every pass.

I spend what feels like weeks agonizing about how we’re going to make a second work trip to Champaign work for our family. All of us in a hotel room for 2.5 days sounds miserable. The baby moves around too much at night to safely sleep in a hotel bed BUT ALSO nurses too much at night to expect that nights away will be anything but difficult for everyone. The big kid would love a night or two with his grandparents, but that means extra time in the car, which is the thing the baby hates more than anything in the world. Ultimately, we decide that the best way to make it work without messing with nursing is for me to miss the first evening of activities. I feel terribly guilty asking for this, even though I know that it’s the best possible compromise for my family.

Once I’m there, I feel like it’s important to make it clear the sacrifices involved, and to make visible the struggle of balancing the personal and the professional. In the parking lot after the last session, another participant approaches me to thank me for saying what I did. These sessions were her first time away from her kids as well, though hers are quite a bit older than mine. I feel deep gratitude that she shared her experience with me.

And being away isn’t as difficult as any of anticipated – as always, the anticipation is worse than the actuality. I soak up the solo time – back to back runs in dear and familiar places, meals and drinks with good good friends, painting my nails, loads of coffee – but after one night am ready to be home.

The big kid asks for a bow and arrows for his birthday. Their birthdays are coming up soon, one in August, the other in September. How quickly the time is passing. The big kid looks so small in photos from last year. It hurts my heart sometimes to think how abruptly his world changed, and I’m grateful for the extent to which he’s been able to take it in stride.

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We weather a dangerously hot weekend, deeply grateful for central air conditioning, particularly after the misery of last summer’s heat. Our experience of the heat wave pales in comparison to that of our family in decidedly un-air conditioned Belgium. And then it’s over nearly as quickly as it started, the temperatures dropping by 30 degrees overnight. We go out for a walk and are unexpectedly caught in a severe thunderstorm, hiding out with lunch and then cupcakes rather than getting soaked to the bone.

I finally get the bike trailer hooked up – only to blow the rim off of one of the wheels the first time we tried to take it out. I’m grateful that we weren’t actually on the road and that we were more scared than hurt. Another week of waiting before we’re able to ride, but then we make it happen, the big kid endlessly chattering as we run errands. His big idea for a summer outing involves a family bike ride to the “dinosaur museum”. He offered to pack a picnic since we will be hungry. Smart guy.

Long runs happen again, finally. I miss this part of marathon training – the hours of podcasts and meditative steps by the lake, the early mornings and the clothes drenched in sweat. Maybe next year. For now, I’m deeply grateful for any miles I can sneak in.

I spend an afternoon playing tourist with friends from grade school. Our conversations are wide ranging, hilarious, and restorative as we wander around downtown, taking in hot dogs and cocktails and architecture and broken shoes. It is a good, good thing to connect with people who understand where you’re from, even if the intermediate steps in your lives haven’t been the same.

We go to member night at the science museum. It’s too hot for outdoor activities, so we enjoy our scoops of ice cream and as many exhibits as we can manage before the kids melt into tired puddles. We decide to do just one more thing, and then happen into a whole hallway full of magnetic shapes which keep both kids enthralled. These sorts of things always risk throwing the entire evening off – we are an early bedtime household – but they’re almost always worth it.

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At the end of the month, the baby stands up on his own for the first time. Steps can’t be far behind.

July Reads

 

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July Eats

June Around Here

We moved.

We moved, and it was awful.

We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did.

We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did, but in the middle of it, I took a break to take the big kid to a bubble run, $5 each to run a mile around the track in perfect weather with bystanders blowing bubbles, plus our own bubble wands, snacks, and small cups of boba, a first for him. He tired quickly, but found extra steam when we were done running and all he had to do was joyfully chase the bubbles.

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We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did, and every part of my body was bruised for weeks, which is about how long it took to sort out all of the money and repairs and losses.

We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did, but at some point, it was finally over and we went on with our lives.

The big kid moved into his own room. We thought this would be harder than it turned out to be. He shared our bed until a week before the baby was born, and then shared our room after that. Now he is on his own in the room he will eventually share with his brother, and we have returned to the enormous floor bed that we referred to as our nest. It’s not the best for our backs, but it is the best for the baby, and so we make it work, much as we made the previous arrangements work.

We gave up our couch in the move – sold, along with many other things, to our remarkably accommodating subletter when it became apparent that the couch was not coming out of the apartment. This would have been a much more painful decision had the whole situation not been so absurdly stressful. Instead, we gave it a moment, and then let it go.

In the new place, we have appliances. It’s a mid-century housewife’s dream: a dishwasher AND a washer/dryer. Months ago, I told my therapist that if there was a single thing that could improve my day-to-day happiness, it would be a dishwasher. I wasn’t wrong.

But we also have repairs: windows that don’t close, water damage from previous roof leaks, a closet door that won’t stay on its track. If there is one thing we appreciated about our previous place, it was the responsive maintenance folks. We miss them already.

With the new place, new routines, some intended to save money, like eliminating the Saturday morning grocery store breakfast, and others to capitalize on the disruptive nature of moving, like establishing new cleaning routines, and still others to address the incursion of a horde of milipedes, like mopping the floors with essential oils and hoping for the best.

For Father’s Day, a trip to the north side for lunch, pie, and a walk. We stop at the fancy olive oil store and pick up a bottle. The baby naps in the car. Salmon and potatoes for dinner, just what was requested. We are deeply grateful for our calm and consistent Papa.

The baby’s sleep is broken, temporarily, and I spend a week or more up at 5, walking to Starbucks in order to keep the house quiet and myself going. I choose to focus on the spectacular morning night and the delicious baby snuggles and not the fact that I’m hanging on by a thread.

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A colleague organizes a team for the city’s bike to work challenge, and that’s all the nudge that I need to fall back in love with my bike after a few years away. Now I’m frustrated when the weather or other circumstances prevent me from riding, especially since my commute is a total of 5 minutes door-to-door. (I don’t contribute much to my team’s mileage, but I do my best.)

Standing! The baby is standing! And playing with balls! Every ball he can find! At the same time!

I use my last morsel of vacation to take the kids to the beach (we intended to go to the pool, but couldn’t). The last time I was at the beach was my due date, big as a house and so uncomfortable, unbelievably still pregnant after weeks of false alarms. The baby, now on the outside, kicks his feet happily at the edge of the water while big brother runs around. We return home tired and coated in sand.

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And then, at the end of the month, my dad retires. It’s the end of an era, and I look forward to whatever comes next for my parents.

June Reading

June Eating

 

 

May Around Here

Where did May go? Lost in the flurry of moving preparations, and then blacked out by the incredibly challenging move itself.

On the first day of the month, I chop my hair off, all of it, as short as it’s ever been. Of course on haircut day, my hair looks as good as it ever has.

Two trips to Rockford, both celebratory, though the baby cries most of the drive. A Frozen birthday party for a five year old. So many little girls in princess dresses. Bubbles and sidewalk chalk and the baby rolling around. And then my sister’s graduation from nursing school at the university – then a college – where I graduated 18 years ago. I just about burst with pride for her, colored with a shade of nostalgia for my own college experience. The arts center where the ceremony is held smells familiar, even after all of these years.

In the same week, the baby sits up on his own, pulls up to standing, and figures out crawling. All of a sudden, he’s into everything, making our small space feel even smaller, especially as the boxes pile up.

I am working on learning Dutch, albeit slowly. I do a few modules every day, often while pumping, and send Nicolas screenshots of the silly phrases Duolingo has me say. For example: “Pardon, ik ben een appel.”

We spend an evening at the Field Museum at their member night, well worth the ruined bedtime. The big kid gets a coooooooooool airbrushed seahorse tattoo that we’re sure will end in heartbreak with swimming lessons a few days later, but it hangs on much longer than we expect.

The baby starts playing peekaboo at the dinner table. It is excessively cute.

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Mother’s Day is delightful, despite a very early morning with the kids. I’m gifted solo time – a run, coffee and letters, solo grocery shopping – beautiful tulips, and a funny plant picked out by the big kid. We go to the zoo and have an early dinner and ice cream after the kids are in bed.

The baby is sick for a week, rashy and sleeping poorly. I alternate between trying not to worry and obsessively reading about measles.

The guys finally make it to chess club at the library. The big kid wins several of his games against kids twice his age. He’s gotten SO GOOD so quickly, handily defeating me and occasionally defeating his papa.

The baby is finally old enough – nine months, I can’t believe it – and the weather finally OK enough to go for a stroller run or two. He generally isn’t inclined to fall asleep, but he falls asleep at the point when I turn around to head home. This gives me hope for summer weekend runs – if summer ever arrives. I take both kids out one morning, and a tiny baby squirrel takes refuge under the stroller!

For yet another year, we do not do Bike the Drive, despite it being on my 40×40 list. (Perhaps I’ll give myself through my 40th year to finish?)

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But mostly, mostly, mostly we spend the month packing, trying to strike a balance between getting ready and staying sane in our small space. The move itself is challenging and awful and takes about four times as long as it should, but the kids hold up tremendously well under pressure, dramatically better than I do, and it does (or it will) eventually end.

May Reading

May Eating

  • Two impromptu meals at Le Pain Quotidien using the gift card we were given after our disastrous anniversary lunch:
    • A Mother’s Day late lunch/early dinner with wiggly kids and lots of bread
    • A lovely sidewalk patio dinner on a rare date night out without kids
  • Dinner with dear, dear friends at Habana Libre on the eve of our move

One of many reasons why abortion matters

My baby is 9 months old today, and today I donated to the Yellowhammer Fund. These things are related, even if they seem like they shouldn’t be.

I’m extremely fortunate to have had two relatively easy pregnancies, despite other unexpected health concerns. My older son’s birth via c-section was expected because he was breech. The baby’s birth via c-section was not expected – I got all the way to pushing before he got stuck, and it was down hill from there.

The details don’t matter right now, but suffice to say that his birth was difficult and messy enough that my wonderful high risk OB all but told me that it wouldn’t be safe for me to have another baby – specifically, if I got pregnant, I would need to find a really good surgeon.

I don’t intend to get pregnant again. I have an IUD that should carry me through to menopause. Regardless of safety, our family is complete.

But the recent legislative actions in Georgia and elsewhere mean that a woman in circumstances like mine could be forced to go through with a possibly life-threatening pregnancy. They mean that she might have to put her life on hold and come up with considerable resources to travel out of state to terminate that pregnancy. They mean that she might face legal consequences for making a decision to prioritize her life over the prospect of another.

There are a million other reasons why this legislation is horrific and discriminatory and infringes on women’s autonomy and personhood. If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.

But today, 9 months after the difficult and dangerous delivery of my precious, wonderful, and irreplaceable baby, the need to protect abortion rights feels keenly present.

Here are some things you can do.

April Around Here

We book a babysitter and finally go out for that milestone birthday – fish and chips and a cocktail at a spot in our old neighborhood that, it turns out, is full of young families on a Friday night. We (I) ogle other people’s babies while missing ours, then take a walk past our old garden plot and our old apartment. I miss the life that we had there, and the golden light of early evening. We don’t often see that light these days.

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The big kid takes swimming lessons at the University pool. It’s well organized chaos, and I’m grateful that he’s hanging on someone else for a change.

I mark seven years on the job with a coconut donut. This is the longest I have worked anywhere.

We plan to visit my ancient grandmother for Easter, then change those plans at the last minute. Instead, we stay home, dye Easter eggs, and make a disastrous batch of matzo ball soup on a rainy weekend.

We find outrageously cheap flights to Belgium, a trip we were certain we couldn’t afford this year. Instead, we will spend 3 weeks there in the late fall, our flights entirely covered by travel points, with our housing nearly free as well. It’s all happening!

The baby still hasn’t figured out crawling; instead, he hops on his butt like a frog. It’s surprisingly effective.

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A bike trailer shows up on a neighborhood listserv for cheap, so at the end of my intentional spending Lent, I make an impulse buy. The same day, a strap on my bike helmet breaks. This is how it goes – one spontaneous purchase results in others, necessary or no. That was weeks ago, but weekend weather and plans have yet to allow us to go for a ride.

The big kid wins a prize at an Easter egg hunt – a basket full of candy on top of the candy he collected in the hunt. I hate feeling like the food police, but this candy is just awful, and I’m grateful that we already had a wonderful box of treats at home from the Zurenborg Paashaas, as it means the big kid is absolutely fine with sharing.

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I present at a conference that is pretty far outside my wheelhouse. The opening plenaries are engaging and challenging, and I feel grateful to be there. There will be no conference travel for me this year – or perhaps next – and while that’s fine, it’s also a little sad.

Mom comes in for a quick visit, arriving after work on a beautiful Friday night and leaving in an incoming snowstorm Saturday morning. Will this winter ever end? We just do the normal things – dinner at our favorite Thai place in the neighborhood, breakfast errands at the grocery store – but decide to scramble the routine a bit in order to try to win free pie for a year. The first 50 in line win – we are #53-57 due to folks cutting in line. Ah well, we still had pie.

There’s that saying about not crying over spilled milk – I have the most epic spill of my pumping career, but thankfully, I realllllly needed to pump, so I am more concerned about the carpet underneath the spill than the spill itself.

A few weeks after we made a list of all of the things that we want in a new place – a place pops up on the University marketplace site that checks all the boxes. It is as good in person as it seemed in the ad, so we throw caution to the wind and put in an application despite having 6 months left on our lease.

And so the rest of April is consumed with housing worries – will we get the place? Can we afford the place if we get it? Our application is approved – now, can we find a subletter? Will one of the many people who comes through to see our apartment decide to take it? Again, can we afford it? One thing after another, which will likely continue until we are settled in with a subletter secured.

But! In a month or so, we will move to the northwest corner of our neighborhood into a condo rented from an owner. We will have a dishwasher and laundry in unit. We will have windows that look out into trees. We will have central AC. It will be stressful until we get there, but we will get there.

April Reading

April Eating

March Around Here

A milestone birthday. We celebrate with brunch and pie, and the kids mostly cooperate with an afternoon walkabout in one of our favorite neighborhoods. In an attempt to duplicate a dessert we had at Pleasant House Pub in the fall, I make a vegan trifle. It’s great, but the recipe makes far more than we needed, and as I wasn’t up for converting the recipe twice, we eat trifle for three days. There are worse things that can happen.

Work is hard and dispiriting, and despite making changes that have made me feel better about the work that I’m doing, I come home frustrated and upset more often than not – and still have to do more work after the baby goes to bed in order to make deadlines. This is not sustainable.

The big kid learns to play poker and wins his first game, defeating his papa who used to play poker to pay the bills. That obsession lasts a week, and then he’s on to playing chess. Thankfully his imaginative play has moved on enough that he can play with his stuffed animal “friends” – in addition to many games with Papa, and many chess puzzles on the tablet (which he pronounces “tabbelet”).

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The baby and the cat continue their love affair, with the cat sleeping closer and closer to us every night.

In lieu of Lent, I resolve to focus on mindful spending, dividing up many expenses into YES/NO/MAYBE categories. I’ve been working on a YNAB-esque budget framework for awhile; this is just a bit more rigorous. We hope to move and to travel this year, and these things take money. Despite the resolution, we impulsively buy a lovely padded rug after a playdate; it transforms our living room and makes the floor a space where we want to be.

I don’t know why it took us so long to realize that the baby doesn’t have to be in his carseat in the stroller anymore. He’s so much happier facing forward, kicking his feet and squealing with delight at blowing leaves. Perhaps because it’s so exciting, he’s also reticent to nap in the stroller, something we could rely on with his big brother.

The big kid is exercising his will in new and different ways. Lately he’s been rejecting or complaining about my cooking but also finishing his entire meal and saying that he’s “still hungry!” with a lilt in his voice that makes it clear he knows he’s driving me nuts. We had curbed this habit with the introduction of his snack cup a few months ago; now he’ll ask to save his meal as leftovers in favor of raiding the snack cup. That’s not how it works, buddy.

I spend one day violently sick and sleep for most of the day, a rarity in nearly any circumstances for the parent of a baby. Thankfully, I’m the only one affected, but it takes several days before I have my strength back entirely.

Still no crawling, though the baby has started to figure out that he can roll here and there. We go to a playgroup where he watches the other babies with interest, though he is still stuck in one place.

A dear friend visits for a weekend. The time is restorative – walking and talking, good food, small adventures.

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I take the big kid to a group run by the lakefront. He runs an entire mile, despite needing hugs after a midroute spill. He is so proud to have “won the race”. I think he’ll be up for a 5K by the end of the summer.

Spring arrives, finally, as I mark seven years in Chicago, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else as an adult.

March Eating