Inspired by European Architects

Look at this roof! I can’t even get bookshelves to stay mounted. My office looked like a tornado had hit when my shelves crashed to the floor. The thought of dealing with wide span concrete structures and cantilevers makes my heart pound. 

Nervi's soccer stadium in Rome

Pier Luigi Nervi’s soccer stadium being built in Rome 1959

Though I’ve been exposed to beautiful architecture all of my life, I have never really been able to appreciate the level of expertise, courage and depth of understanding that goes into it until I looked at this roof and thought of my bookshelves.

Dad’s Reflections—Fellowship Part III, 1959

“One of the highlights of our travels had been a meeting with Pier Luigi Nervi. He was an Italian engineer and architect known internationally for his large-span structures built of reinforced concrete. He didn’t speak English but with the help of one of his men as interpreter we had a very pleasant visit. He showed us around his office and explained some details of his current work. We were pleased to note that he does much of his calculations and drawing himself. The following day, one of his men gave us a guided tour through his partially completed soccer stadium in Rome. The reinforcing steel is preassembled and then lifted by crane into the concrete form.

After all the steel is in place, for any thin section, Nervi used a fine mesh (similar to our chicken wire) over the total reinforcement. Nervi’s man explained that from experience the stresses are distributed better and the actual strength is greatly increased over the calculated strength when the mesh is used. Nervi seemed to be a very forceful yet quiet and humble man—similar to his structures.

Another significant privilege was having a meeting with Italian architect, author and publisher Bruno Zevi.  A recent publication of his, Architecture as Space, guided me a great deal through my time in Europe. He eventually published quite a bit of my work including the thin shell concrete structure churches and school, followed by Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

Eden Seminary

William Wenzler Eden Theological Seminary 1968

Eden Library Interior

When I think about the renown of these two men and their incredible talent and ability in structure and architecture, I‘m overwhelmed that I could walk into their offices unannounced. Each of them gave me a considerable amount of time.

We left Paestum, Italy and traveled to Turin where we saw Nervi’s Exhibition Hall. We were quite prepared for this work form the coverage Time Magazine had given it in 1958, Poetry in Concrete, and from the photos in Nervi’s book, Structures. The interior was all we had hoped it would be, but the exterior (we had never seen a photo of that) was tremendously disappointing. The large rectangular entrance section reflected none of the beauty of the arched hall—it appeared to be an afterthought. The arched portion itself was water-proofed with some black tar or asphalt and lost all feeling of concrete. We do not know the history of this project, but we imagine Nervi did only the engineering and was not the architect. If this is the case, the building is to us a perfect example of the need for a more complete integration of structure and aesthetic design. We believe that during a period of architectural (or cultural) advance, as we are now in, structure and architecture out of necessity become one.

Next we headed south to Nice, France and along the Riviera to Barcelona, Spain. The winter before our trip, the Museum of Modern Art had the exhibit of the work of a Spanish artist named Antoni Gaudi.

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Antoni Gaudi Temple of the Holy Family

We’d never heard his name before and were quite anxious to experience his work. We stood before his “Temple of the Holy Family” which had only its front facade and spires completed but it was enough to convey his thought.

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Gaudi closeup

His work seemed to “drip” with ornament and apparently was based on no systematic module. It was entirely free—unrestricted.

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Gaudi closer up

As we continued to drive around Barcelona, seeing more and more of his work, we began to respond to it in a much deeper way than we had at first. He had shown us the vast possibilities of architecture. He used the basic structural system of the Gothic period. However, he was not limited to the development of that period as we in America were when the Gothic revival swept our country. His columns were not limited to a vertical position, his vaulted bays were not necessarily rectangular or even symmetrical, his walls were seldom plane surfaces, his roofs were not merely a covering but often sculptural shapes covered with bright colored ceramic tile. All of his work showed a plasticity of form and unity of structure and ornament that we had not seen before. When we experienced the space of his work, we realized far better the full potential of architecture and its effect on the emotions and feelings of man.

Campsite in Barcelona

Our campsite in Barcelona

Barcelona

Camping in Barcelona

We went north and west through France. Along the way, we experienced the work of Le Corbusier. The first work of his we came across was Unite’ d’habitation at Marseille. That impressed me and later impacted my work. I was greatly surprised at the honesty, almost crudeness of his use of concrete.

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Le Corbusier Unite d’habitation

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Rooftop which had a pool and workout area

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More cool rooftop

We were disturbed yet pleased by the natural, almost unkempt appearance of the surrounding grounds—no mowed grass or flowerbeds, only natural shrubs and trees. We also saw his houses at Pessac and the Villa Savoie at Passay—one of his most famous.

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Corbusier’s Villa Savoie

We had recalled seeing pictures of it but were not prepared for what we found. It had been in a state of abandonment for many years. Draperies were rotting on their rods, dishes and silverware lay on the shelves, furniture and cushions were scattered everywhere, glass broken, flower beds covered with weeds. Our French wasn’t good enough to find out why it was deserted. When we asked a policeman, he merely shrugged his shoulders. Nevertheless, the house in its present condition gave us the opportunity to scrutinize everything and see it all far better than had it still been in use. We couldn’t help ponder the question—what good is architecture if this can happen to such an outstanding example?

Along the way through France, we camped at a site right at Corbusier’s Chapel Ronchamp. The Chapel had been covered by many magazines and I could only say it was deeply inspiring—its curving roof, unique use of glass, flowing walls and brackets—all mindful of Gaudi.

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Chapel at Ronchamp

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We had at this point completed our travels in southern Europe including Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain and France. We had spent some time in Munich, Germany and were preparing to head north to Cologne, then on to Brussels and the World’s Fair, then to England and finally to Scandinavia.

Camping proved to be interesting—especially with the children—and campsites were available everywhere. The cost was usually 25 to 50 cents per night. Toilets (in one form or another) were always provided along with drinking water, sinks, showers (cold water), gas stoves (we had our own), etc. and had proven to be as economical as we had hoped.

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Mom with French bread and wine. The only way to camp.

Since Rome, we lived in the outdoors, rain or shine, including our cooking on a two burner Kerosene stove.

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Mom knew how to wash diapers. While sipping champagne of course!

We washed clothes by hand, bathed in water heated on the stove, slept on air mattresses and blankets—we missed our sleeping bags which were back home. Our camping life was a full story in itself. It wasn’t exactly restful but it was certainly healthy.

We returned to Spaichingen to the Alte Poste Hotel and repacked all our things. We left behind our trunk and two large suitcases to be shipped directly to the ship for our return voyage. We also paid a visit to the sisters in Bremerhaven.

A second visit to the sisters in Spaichingen

A second visit to Dad’s relatives in Shpaichingen

We wore blue jeans or shorts and each of us had only one good outfit for “town”. It took us two hours from the time we got up to the time we were ready to travel in the morning and about three hours to set up, cook, eat and get to bed at night.The weather was excellent for camping in Italy and Spain, fair in France and lousy in Germany—cold and rainy. We hoped for improvement as we traveled north.

In regard to food, we had had no great difficulty up to this point. We’d been drinking any water designated as drinking water and Dolores had been buying fresh fruits and vegetables with no ill effects. With the exception of a few American supermarkets in Italy, it was always necessary to shop at four or five stores—one for bread, one for pastries, one for meat, one for milk and one for general groceries. Many stores were open to the street, especially butcher shops where the half steer or lamb would hang unrefrigerated in the open. When we went out to eat, we would normally order three dinners—the kids would share one meal. “Drei mahl mit fünf tellern” (three orders with five plates.) This led to extra charges for the extra dishes used and there was always a charge for the bread, use of the table cloth, etc. Then it was always topped by a service charge of 10-20 percent.

There were many little characteristics that differed from America of course and some amused us. For instance, in one restaurant a standard meal we had ordered included a bottle of wine or mineral water. We told the waiter, who spoke a little English, that we didn’t want mineral water, we wanted orange soda. He said that would be extra. We asked him what the cost of orange soda was and he said 150 lira. We asked how much it would cost for mineral water and he said 150 lira. We asked him to substitute one for the other but he didn’t see it that way. Orange soda was extra and that was that. We had similar experiences with vegetables. A dinner in France was 500 francs with peas for the vegetable. If we wanted beans it cost more—beans were more expensive than peas, I guess.

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Losing Mom

“It’s like a resort! They even have a coffee shop where you can go and sit in the afternoon and have a latte. They’ll make your meals and your dad will love that!” Mom was elated as she shared the day’s events with me that evening. “You wouldn’t believe it, Debs, we spent the entire day looking at assisted living facilities. I think this is the way for us to go. And you just wouldn’t believe how much I walked today!”

“That’s great Mom—you’ll be so close! You guys can walk over to the house and take Sam and Rose for walks, shop at Sendik’s, get your prescriptions at CVS. We can meet on Downer for dinner after work!” This sounded great to me. How does she do it I wondered. Every day brings the possibility of renewed hope for her. That’s what her mother taught her. That’s what her faith gives her. I reassured myself that everything was going to be alright as I walked down the Boulevard, crunching through the leaves, listening to Mom’s voice with Sam and Rose following after me. Cars were stopping to ask if it was my cat that was walking along with me and my dog. “Yes,” I’d whisper and nod. I listened to Mom describe Bradford Terrace, the assisted living facility Dad had designed over 40 years earlier. It had won an award for being the first elderly housing in the state with balconies in each unit. It’s funny how life circles back around—now they were considering moving into it.

It was a part of my daily ritual to convince myself that everybody and everything were all fine. How many times had I left Mom over the past several months and years in tears certain it was goodbye, only to hear her voice the next day full of new energy and inspiration? Just several days previously I had stopped by the condo expecting to find Mom in bed. Instead, she and Dad were pulling out of the driveway, top down in their little convertible with big smiles on their faces, Mom holding a bottle of wine, on their way to dinner with friends. Astonishing, was all I could think. Nothing made my heart leap more than these moments of unexpected normal. When life delivers a plan in place of the one you had hoped for—when you lose the people who mean everything to you—you can either lose yourself as well or look for a new way of living life—a new way of living within yourself. I was trying to find a new normal.

The next week I dropped Mom off at the hospital entrance in the parking structure marked with the crickets—the chirps and pictures were there to calm you and help you know your bearings. I told Mom I’d be right there and parked the car. By the time I got back to the elevator entrance she was gone. I had her purse with her phone in it and no idea which appointment she was going to or where she might be headed. I got on the elevator, pushed the 1st floor button and expected to get off at the lobby with the nice lady and the hand sanitizer. I couldn’t find her though—the lobby had disappeared. I went up and down in two different elevators, checking all seven floors but no lobby—only long halls. I started to panic and someone asked if they could help me. I must have been talking to myself as I pounded the elevator buttons and waited for the doors to open and close as people got on and off. “My Mom—I can’t find her! I dropped her off when I parked and I have her purse and phone. She needs her purse! I don’t know where she is!”

“I’ll help you,” the kind, calm, irritating woman replied. “Tell me where you came in.”

“Right here—where the lobby is supposed to be. They took away the lobby! I’m sure that’s where my mom is!”

“Follow me,” she said and started leading me down a long maze of halls which I knew couldn’t be right. By now people were stopping and staring. My voice got louder and louder, “This isn’t right—where are you taking me?!”

When we reached the window—which for the moment meant I was still in the world I knew—she pointed and said, “There’s the entrance. Is that where you came in?”

“Yes!! That’s where we came in and then parked the car on the other side, back over there by the crickets! That’s where my Mom is! Why did you bring me here? I’ve got to get back! I have to find her!” I started to run down the hall, retracing our steps. I heard her say, “Slow down, I have a bad hip,” as others were joining in to see what was wrong. I got to the elevator and held the door open for her, trying to stay calm as I waited. We returned to our search and by now I was close to hyperventilating. Down we went 7, 6, 5, Stop. Ding. Three people got on with a stretcher.

“Someone close the door for crying out loud! Heavens these doors are slow!” (I can’t breathe. Mom where are you?) The doors slammed shut and down we went. Ding. 2. The doors banged opened and would you believe it, there was my mom walking down the hall.

“Mom!” I yelled and squeezed my way passed the people and the stretcher to get out the door. She turned and smiled.

“I couldn’t find you—where did you go,” she asked. (Where did I go?!)

“I thought you knew I was coming up to meet with my dietitian,” she continued calmly. “I thought you were going to meet me in the lobby.” (What lobby?!)

“I lost you Mom. I couldn’t find you. I’ve been all over this hospital. I was so afraid I lost you.” Then the dam broke. I had been struggling to stay strong for months, doing whatever I could to help keep life normal for my parents; whatever I could to make them laugh and feel good but now I wept. “I’m scared Mom—I’m so scared of losing you.” We walked over to some chairs and I didn’t let her go. We sat down.

“I’m scared too Debbie.”

We sat there for a while as my pulse returned to normal.

Samsung 102713 084Then out of the blue Mom said, “I haven’t done anything important with my life.” A wave of emotion poured over me so strongly that I couldn’t speak. I sat stunned by Mom’s words, by the sound of her voice. The voice that read our favorite stories to us, soothed us, sang to us. Was there a better sound in the world? Mom the adventurer, always thinking ahead, leading the way to the next step in life—for our family and for so many others. I couldn’t imagine what would make her say such a thing except I knew this disease was cruelly chipping away at her sense of worth. I couldn’t think of anyone who knew Mom and wasn’t impacted by her. She had a special way of showing each person she met how incredibly valuable they were. She always asked how they were doing and listened carefully to whatever they had to say. People remember that. They remember her beautiful smile. It came from her heart. She met with so many one on one–supporting, guiding. Mom led the way for me.

Mom modeled and I then modeled. Though neither of us liked it much it gave me the opportunity to learn how to do the books for Rosemary Bischoff Agency which always provided me with a job throughout my life.

On the Skylight Rooftop

Mom and Dad on the Skylight garden rooftop

She took ballet then I took ballet which eventually led me to my job today. She performed at the Skylight Theatre and then I performed there and went on to years of travel and adventures. She confided in me and I confided in her, we talked and drank wine together, laughed, shopped together, cried and drank tea, yelled sometimes, drank more wine and went out to lunch. She loved so deeply. How much she loved her family, her church is beyond words. She showed us all how to love. How could she sit here now and question her value?

 La Traviata

Mom playing Annina in La Traviata

“How can you say that Mom after all you’ve done? You supported Dad through his career and then you made one for yourself, returning to school, earning three degrees, went into music therapy so you could help people, then chose church ministries because that’s what you felt called to do though you had many other choices. You helped build a church and used all of your gifts to support others. You bore and raised four children. You have seven grandchildren—the perfect number—and one great grandchild. Ask anyone who knows you, ask your doctors and the nurses here, ask anyone their opinion. They’ll say you light up a room when you walk into it. You have the most beautiful heart and smile.” (How could she be feeling this way?)

“…I’m afraid of dying Debbie….”

…I knew it wasn’t that she was doubting her faith…

“…I’m afraid of losing you Mom….”

I didn’t understand that day but I came to realize, Mom’s life was running through her mind like a film playing—hurts, misunderstandings, unresolved situations were the loudest scenes. She wanted to live long enough to be free of all of them. She didn’t want to take any of them along with her to heaven. Mom didn’t want to let Jesus, who had done so much for her, down…

“Evening and morning and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud, and He shall hear my voice. He has redeemed my soul in peace from the battle that was against me…”Psalm 55:17-18

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A Fellowship and a Family Adventure

I have never tired of seeing Dad’s slides of Europe. The smells and sounds of the projector fan whirling and the popcorn popping created our own version of “movie night”.

Each slide is a story in itself.

My pictures of his slides don’t do them justice. I figured out I can hold my camera up to a 4″x4″ slide viewer screen, enlarge the picture on my camera, exhale and shoot. The lighting, clarity and dimensions are all off. It’s the best I can do right now as we work our way through upwards of 5000 slides.

I found a set of Dad’s fellowship reports. He glanced through them and read, “Government….State of Affairs…well…..thank goodness, there it is. Architecture!”

If you know my dad then you know that he doesn’t separate the concept of architecture from the cultural and historical context from which it emerged—just as early Renaissance church architecture was so fundamentally connected to the Reformation.

Dad sets down the reports—he knows it all from memory—and he starts in where we left off. Saying goodbye to his relatives in Germany. https://sundayswithdad.com/2013/09/01/one-china-cup-of-love/

“After removing the backseat out of the Volkswagen in Spaichingen, Dolores and I loaded the suitcases in with the kids on top of them and off we went. I had planned my itinerary starting as far south as I could and then we worked our way north so we would be in the warm weather. We headed down to Paestum, Italy, to see original Greek temples.

We first arrived in Bern Switzerland because I knew they had an original Gothic Cathedral there.

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Wait Dad., can we play in the snow…?

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Ed was always quick to make friends.

It was quite amazing to actually see one—all the structural forms within it. I still remember standing there looking up and walking around the outside of it. It was an amazing structural solution. Of course, they added sculpture but it was always subservient to the structure.

Gothic Church Amiens, Italy

Gothic Church Amiens, Italy

Gothic Interior

Gothic Interior

I needed a little history lesson in Gothic. A page from Dad's college history of architecture book.

Page from Dad’s college book on history of architecture–I needed a lesson on Gothic.

Then we continued through Switzerland into Austria. It was in Innsburg, Austria that I had a real surprise. I saw my first authentic Renaissance church.

Rennaisance Church in Innsburg, Austria

Renaissance Church in Innsburg, Austria

The Gothic, as beautiful as it was—posts and beams, pointed arches—was overwhelming in its scale. To see my first Renaissance church really challenged my thinking. It was very much to human scale and and they did away with structure. They made it decorative and it was just loaded with light, beautiful adornment, paintings, etc.

Interior

Interior

Close-up ornamentation

Close-up ornamentation

The fact that the scale was so different made me think about what was going on historically. This was the “Awakening”—the time of the Reformation when the printing press came to be and all the other amazing things that took place during this period. It’s historical significance became evident to me when I saw this example of architecture in person. So here I am, this architect sold on Gothic with my breath taken away in a Renaissance, nonstructural solution.

Then we continued to work our way south to Milan and into Verona,

Juliet's balcony

Mom beneath Juliet’s balcony, Verona

We spent our days experiencing all  the beauty—both natural and man made—and of course, photographing architecture.

Boat from Parking area to St. Marks Square, Venice

Boat to Venice

We reached Venice and as we were standing in St. Marks Square taking it all in, John started running into the flocks of pigeons. They’d take off and he’d yell, “Gagas! Gagas!”

Gagas' in St. Marks Square

Gagas in St. Marks Square

It’s hard to imagine him six months younger than my great grandson Eddie who just turned two.

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A moody St. Mark’s Square

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We reached Florence and spent the night in a penzione which is similar to our bed and breakfasts. Again, we were put in a garret on the top floor—I guess the price was right. At this period in my life I was subject to claustrophobia—I’d wake up at night thinking I was suffocating, not sure where I was and would try to get out. I’d wake Dolores and she’d calm me down. That’s how our night went. I remember Easter morning very well because Dolores had dressed the kids up for church.

Easter

Easter in Florence

I don’t recall actually going to church, we may have. I do remember being in this park with these precious kids all dressed up when a bee stung Ed. Dolores and I were trying to figure out what to do when an Italian woman came with mud in her hand and put it on his bite. The pain went away, the swelling went down and we piled back in the car and continued on south through the beautiful Alps.

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I loved this sweater I’m wearing. It had two zippers at the neckline and a gray pleated skirt to match. Mom would have known where we bought it. Still have it. Still love zippers.

When we arrived in Rome, we found another little Penzione but couldn’t find anywhere to eat except at a white tablecloth place. I got the bill when we were through eating and there was a large item on it I didn’t recognize.  I talked to the waiter and he kept saying, “Servitzio!” (Service charge). The kids had made a mess of the white table cloth. By now we had begun to notice that there really weren’t children in the places we were having to go to eat. That bothered us. We pondered it. Not only did we feel out of place with the children on many occasions but we were also exceeding our budget even though we would stay in the cheapest hotels we could find.

The woman who owned the Penzione we were staying at was very friendly and helpful. We found out the Bolshoi Ballet was performing that night and we asked her if she would watch the kids. She agreed and we had a wonderful time at the Ballet. We couldn’t get over the tremendous response of the audience to the dancing—they would burst out in applause with shouts and make lots of noise showing their approval of a scene. I had never experienced anything like it. In my experience at home, everyone is hushed until it’s over.”

“Okay Dad, I just have to interrupt here. I am so happy to hear that because you and Todd get hushed more than anyone I known. At the Ballet I remember you whispered, ‘Beeeautiful!’ and the person in front of us turned around and snapped, “SHHH!!”.  I remember what I wanted to snap back but I didn’t. At the Symphony Todd whispered and got a trio of shushers.”

“Hmm…you kids apparently made as much noise and ruckus as the audience that night and the woman at the hotel was not so pleased. She didn’t say much when we got back. But when we got alone with you kids you told us all she said to you was, “Naughty children!” I suspect you were just being yourselves but it was more than the proprietor was prepared to deal with.

Rome

Ed posing in front of the Colosseum in Rome

Anyway, as we continued on we discussed our situation. We had seen a presentation by a couple who had camped throughout Europe. After talking it over, we decided to camp—it would be cheaper and the kids could make all the noise they wanted. We had seen a beautiful campsite in Florence. It was absolutely gorgeous—it was high on a hill, overlooking the city. There were toilet facilities, there was a covered area to eat under in case of rain—it was just beautiful. It was also much cheaper than the penziones were costing us. So we decided we would buy camping gear and get a rooftop carrier for the car to handle all the extra stuff we were beginning to accumulate along the way.

We found a store that sold the equipment. All the tents had fly sheets over them, creating a double tent—unlike what we had at home. They were very lightweight—made out of nylon which was also unlike the canvas we were familiar with in those days. We bought an alcohol burning stove, two large green tubs to do our laundry in and give the kids baths, and a small folding table with six chairs that folded up inside. Everything fit very well on the rooftop carrier.

Home away from home

Home away from home

All the campsites in Europe were nice but none of them were as beautiful as what we had seen in Florence. I remember one site was little more than an abandoned lot but we worked our way down to Paestum, Italy on a better budget.”

Paestum, Italy

Greek temple in Paestum, Italy

When I stop and think about having these three little kids, plus my wife and myself, I just don’t know how it was possible. I guess the answer is, in our own strength it is not.

John in foreground, Mom's head peaking out on the right

Playing Hide and Seek in the Greek columns Mom’s head peaking out on the right.

And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

Serendipity

They met in high school. She was the new girl. They passed each other in the hall one day and he was immediately smitten….

It’s true,Todd and I met at Riverside High School when we were 15. It was the year we moved back to Milwaukee. He became best friends with my brother Ed, hung out at our house and went on family ski trips with us. Todd was shy, funny and athletic. I was introspective and liked music better than sports. Ed teased me, “Spence (as he called him) really has a thing for you.” We graduated in 1973. That fall I went to UW, Todd went to UWM and we lost touch.

Then 20 years and a marriage later, I came home for Christmas divorced, broke and depressed. After spending the day baking cookies with Mom, I went out in a snowstorm for a walk. With my head down against the wind and snow, wearing a baseball cap under a tied hood, I hear my name, “Deborah!” Imagining God, I stop and look up.

The halo of the streetlight casts a glow over a tall man in a long black coat. His collar is up, hands in pockets. He is squinting against the icy air but he looks directly into my eyes. I say his name. We exchange a few words, I kick myself for having ignored him after high school and continue on.

The next morning Dad wakes me to come down for coffee. “Get up,” I put the pillow over my head. “Todd has stopped by. He heard about Mom’s cancer and wanted to pay her a visit. Said he ran into you yesterday and you didn’t have a proper hello. We’re having coffee and a good talk, come down and join us!”

With my dancer’s one-inch hair sticking up in all directions, wearing a large flannel shirt and sweat pants, I shuffle into the kitchen. His black coat is flung over the chair and he is smiling at me. We all talk. I fly back to North Carolina the next day.

One year later, my parents pick me up in Chicago. On the drive to Milwaukee somebody asks me, “Guess who got a divorce…?”

After several days home, Mom says, “Well, guess who’s coming to Christmas dinner.”

But when we all sit down to eat, he’s not there. I look at Ed and as nonchalantly as I can ask, “Where is he?”

“I don’t know. He’s a shy guy. Give him a call,” Ed shrugs.

I do. He arrives. We top dinner off with a drink together at Harry’s on Downer. He gives me a kiss goodnight and we clunk teeth. We fall in love, telecommute for a year, get married. I move with my son back to Milwaukee and we eventually end up in a duplex on the same block I lived when we were in high school. When my parent’s move to a condo downtown, we buy their house on Shepard Ave.

Eloping in South Carolina

Todd and I eloped in South Carolina

Gotta love a second chance.

There Really is a Popeye

Strong to the finish

Strong to the finish

It was one of those incredible fall days that stays with you long after all the colors are gone. The crunch of the leaves, a craving for apples and Carmex lip balm are my cues that a change of seasons has arrived. The trees reflected the color of the sun and everything seemed to have a golden hue cast over it. It was Indian Summer.

I had gone to church alone that Sunday because Dad was still under the weather. I stopped to get his favorite salad after church and took it to him. I made him a tray and we talked for a bit but he needed rest. I gave him a kiss on his warm forehead and said I would check back later that day. I don’t deal with my concern very well—it’s aggravating to the one I’m concerned about. I often leave my dad’s feeling like I’ve said too much, fussed about things I didn’t need to and have worn him out instead of cheered him up.

I made a third stop that Sunday at one of my favorite stores—Beans and Barley. I was parking the car just as a beautiful choir started to sing on the radio. The sun was hovering over my sunroof, looking majestic against the blue background of the sky. Then all of a sudden I thought I heard Mom’s voice above the singers. I didn’t move. There it was—a single high voice that carried over and above the others. I couldn’t believe my ears—she was singing as clear as a bell— it sounded just like her. I shook my head not understanding why in this particular choral arrangement there would be one voice standing out above the others. Everyone knows that it’s a choir member’s job to blend in. How many times had that been Mom’s instruction to the choirs she conducted over the years? I sat mesmerized and then before I knew it, began to cry. How Mom had struggled with her voice in the later years of her life. Joanie had told her in her final days. “Just think Mom, how you’ll be able to sing in Heaven. No more clearing your throat!”

As oddly as this may sound, I sat there listening to what sounded like my mom singing to me and suddenly felt no separation between earth and heaven. It was like Heaven’s door had opened. I looked up into the sun’s brilliance and smiled my thanks. The song ended with the voice high and strong above the others. “Mom…” I said and smiled. Is she with me as I care for Dad, I wondered as I walked into the store.

I picked out my purchases for lunch and was standing in the checkout line. There was a conversation going on in front of me.

“No, he’s not here. I can’t take you home. There’s no one here who can give you a ride right now.”

There was more chatter as the customer in front of me named off more employees’ names.

“No, they aren’t here today either.”

“I’m dying!” These are pretty dramatic words to ignore and I snapped to attention. “I’ve been to the hospital eight times in the last month.” The man had a distinct voice. “They say they’re worried I’m going to commit suicide! Why would I commit suicide when I’m 90 years old, for crying out loud?!”

I knew the voice. I recognized the man—it  was Popeye. He sounds just like the cartoon character with the big biceps some of us grew up with. When my son worked at CVS on Downer Avenue, Popeye was often there talking to all the cashiers. He would tell them that young people today have gone to pot.

“I’ll take him home,” I spoke up. I wasn’t certain if the CVS guys called him Popeye behind his back and I didn’t want to offend him, so I was glad for an introduction. The cashier looked at me and smiled, “This is Warren.”

Anybody that has been up and down Downer Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side knows Warren. He’s a fixture who wears a tweed jacket with a tan sweater underneath. He’s always dressed up. You’ll never see him in blue jeans. He’s usually carrying a bag or two, looking like he’s been shopping. He’ll start talking to you before you realize it and you’ll soon be drawn into conversation—mostly his—whether you like it or not.

“Hi, Warren—I’m Debbie. I’d be happy to give you a ride.”

“Call me Popeye!” he announced as if to an audience then started to sway backwards like he was going down. I grabbed his arm and the thought crossed my mind that Popeye really could die.

“Is he okay?” I mouthed to the cashier, remembering the CVS guys saying Popeye was prone to exaggerations.

“He’s fine,” she mouthed back, only slightly reassuring me.

I paid for my groceries while Popeye continued on with his story.

“I was in WWII. I watched all my men die. I can’t eat anymore—I have to drink my food,” he was holding a can of Spirulina—his single purchase. “I have pain in my stomach. It’s a mess.”

I listened and believed everything he said as I gathered up my bag in one arm and took his arm in the other. We walked together to the parking lot east of the store but not before he took one more big sway backwards, almost pulling me down on top of him. We caught our balance just in time and continued to the car. “Lord help me,” I prayed to myself, and then pointed out my car to him.

“That’s a Mini Cooper!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, do you like it?”

“Why, that’s a beautiful car!  Who makes it?”

“”BMW owns the company.” I answered.

“”Germans! Those Germans know how to make a car!”

“I’m German,” I said with pride.

“I’m German too!” Popeye piped back.

I helped him into the seat and was a little leery. It was only a week ago my dad’s fever had done him in on our way home from the doctor’s office. He couldn’t gather the strength to get out of my car. I tried to lift him but he hit his back on the top of the doorframe and he let me know it. I thought he was buckling over, fainting, “It’s my back,” he said then. “I hit my back.” We were soon in a bit of a gridlock.

“Stay right here, Dad.” What a stupid thing to say—where was he going to go? It was an attempt at normalcy in the state of panic. “I’m moving the car over to the shade. I’ll call Todd and we’ll get your desk chair and wheel you inside.” We knew the drill—we had done this before when he got Pneumonia on the Island. Todd drove up within minutes and I tore into the condo to get the chair and wheeled it out to the car.

“Why did you bring it here?” he asked. “Drive me into the garage and I can get out by the elevator.

Right. This is an example of our relationship these days. One minute I feel like a mother, the next like a 12 year old.

As I turned the car around inside the garage, I noticed a wheel chair. We decided to use it, replacing it with the desk chair so the owner would know we were only borrowing it.Todd got him safely into it and we made our way into the condo and got him onto his bed.

“Dehydrated!” He said. “I just need to rehydrate.” He convinced us not to go to the hospital and after several glasses of water with electrolytes he was able to get up and walk. “Wow, that came on fast,” he said. “I’m doing much better now. See?” He sort of strutted back and forth in front of his bed. I drove home, packed a bag and stayed with him for several days.

Now back to Sunday with Popeye. He got into my car pretty well and pointed me in the direction of his home. He repeated the words, “I’m dying,” several more times, so I asked him if he believed in Heaven.

“Why, you have to have faith to believe that.”

“You don’t have faith?” I asked.

“I have a rational mind.”

“You sound like my husband.”

I told him I believed in Heaven, that it seems so close to me sometimes I can almost touch it. I told him I thought the best was yet to come, as I pulled up in front of his house and parked. There was a big red chair sitting on his porch. He got out just fine and we walked up the steps slowly together and he told me to knock loudly on the window of the door. “If no one comes, I have to walk around to the back.” I knocked.

“That’s not loud enough,” he snarled.

I pounded, hoping the glass wouldn’t break. No one came. We made our way back down the porch steps and as I prepared myself to say goodbye I asked if I could give him a kiss on his cheek. He nodded and smiled—the first I’d seen from him. As I told him goodbye I said, “I love you Popeye.” Really, I don’t know where that comes from sometimes—the words just fly out of my mouth. But I mean them when I say them.

I watched him walk down the sidewalk to the backdoor, cane in hand, feet turned out slightly, taking his carefully, calculated steps—his bald head gleaming in the sun.

So, this is Warren, who I came to find out just two weeks later had been sleeping somewhere by the bike trail until it got too cold outside. Last Sunday’s paper had a story about it. There was a picture of the house he lives in—I recognized the red chair. The woman who rents it has been known to take people in—“everyone deserves to have a roof over their head,” she said in the article and she provides a roof for Popeye.

I haven’t seen Popeye these last weeks and asked around about him, but no word.

I dropped off some groceries and a canister of protein powder at the back door of the house with the red chair. I thought how Heaven’s door really had opened up to me that day. I had practically stepped right inside it. You see, Popeye’s house is called the Blessing House.

Who would have thought it would be a cranky, old man without faith that would walk me right up to the front door of Heaven…

God Bless you Popeye.

Oh no, it’s a Lump

Many of us have been touched by cancer. Each of our stories is unique. My mom was a beautiful woman. A good woman with strong faith. She lived a healthy life but for some reason she got cancer. Not once but three times.The first two times, we all believed in our hearts it would be cured. I can’t speak for others but I never stopped believing she would overcome it and Dad never stopped praying, “Lord if it be your will, please heal Dolores.”

I remember the first time. It was October, 1996. I was in Chapel Hill, NC—a single Mom, living in a little house on Glendale Drive with Charlie….

Mom discovered the breast lump on a Saturday evening after spending the evening with Dad, getting the sailboat tucked away for the winter. A day later, she called her doctor and went in for an appointment the next morning. The doctor tried three times to aspirate the tumor then sent her to a surgeon who said he wanted to do a biopsy at the end of the week. He did a needle biopsy on the 3.5 cm tumor and she and Dad went to get the lab results together several days later. It was cancer. After listening to the advise of mastectomy vs. lumpectomy and hearing that the latter was done the majority of the time with the same results as mastectomy, they decided to go with a lumpectomy. Her surgery was two days after that on October 25, at Columbia Hospital. Her oncologist visited her beforehand and recommended chemo and radiation. That was new information because her doctor had said only radiation. There were a few tears but she trusted the oncologist’s decision.

She and Dad had a beautiful time together before surgery. She told him in case she was full of cancer, she wanted him to get on with a joyful life. She told him how deeply she loved him–also their children and grandchildren. Thankfully, the surgery went well and she was sent home.

Joanie and I both arrived and stayed for the week, cooking, going to doctor’s appointments and doing what we could to help. She got a good report–the tissue around the tumor was clear as were 17 lymph nodes. “Hallelujah! The answer to the prayers of many,” was Mom’s response. Not long after, she noticed redness and heat in her left breast. They put her on Augmentin and started her on arm exercises. Her good neighbor and dear friend Joyce Gudeman, who had a daughter dealing with breast cancer as well, took her to her chemo sessions. On November 21, her white count was going down but she was told it was okay.

Then the day before Thanksgiving I got an unexpected call. Dad told me they had given her an overdose and she was back at Columbia Hospital. I listened to the update then asked if he could put Mom on the phone. “Oh Debs.” her voice was weak. “John brought me some peanut M & Ms. I thought I ate too many because I got terrible pains in my stomach. But I found out the pains were because they had given me too much chemo.They killed too many of my white blood cells…..and my hair is falling out, Debbie.”

“Mom, I’ll catch a flight out as soon as I can. We’ll get you a sassy short haircut. I’m on my way, Mom.” I’ll never find a plane on Thanksgiving weekend, I thought.

But I did, and Mom was back in surgery when I arrived late afternoon the next day. The sun was going down when Dad and I went to the cafeteria to eat Thanksgiving dinner together.They brought Mom back to her room that evening. She looked fragile and pale. When I was a little girl, I used to worry someone would come and take her away. I would make myself cry thinking about it. Now I was faced with the reality of losing my Mom.

As I walked home to Shepard Avenue late that night, it started to snow. I decided to stop at a little café on Downer called Don Quixote. There was a long counter against a floor-length, wall-sized window with candles set across it–flickering light like fireflies against the glass. I sat down in the corner, ordered a glass of red wine and opened my book as the snow swirled around the street lamps outside. It wasn’t long before a group of jolly people entered through the door, ringing the hanging bells and filling up the seats at the counter to my right. They ordered a round of some sort of festive looking drink that was filled with lots of crushed lemons and spritzer. I asked what it was they were drinking and they ordered me one. I don’t have any recollection as to what the interesting concoction actually was but I told them about Mom and before long we were all telling stories and laughing together as the snow grew heavy outside. They warmed my heart and when I fell into bed that night, I slept soundly and peacefully.

The next day, Mom was showing improvement and we were hopeful all would be well once again.

At times of crisis in our family, we have a way of pulling together to make it a special time. We love being together and it seems sometimes that it takes a crisis to make that happen. Mom, Dad and I had a lively conversation in her hospital room the next morning because we were all so relieved she had pulled through the overdose. Then an idea came to me–knowing that Mom had always wanted Dad to design her a cabin on Washington Island, I thought it was the opportune time to ask if he would do it. I remember saying, “If you don’t think you can afford it, we can charge it to your credit card.”

And the plans for the Washington Island cabin were shortly underway.

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Island loveliness–Mom liked this flower which grew and grew. Daniel would always mow around it. I think it was Sam who eventually knocked it down.

Guilty

Guilty

It seemed fitting that my devotion referenced Psalm 139 this morning. It was a special scripture to Mom. She memorized the entire Psalm years ago, along with many other scriptures and could call upon them for comfort and guidance at a moment’s notice in sickness or health, in stress or at peace.

Psalm 139: 7-12

Psalm 139: 7-12

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139: 7-12

Oh, do find the time to read the entire Psalm. It’s beautiful. I promised myself I would memorize it and I can still hear my mom’s voice reciting the words…

How to Eat a Morning Bun

It’s Sunday and we didn’t go to church today. Dad came down with pneumonia but he’s pushing through. He said, “I told the Lord He could take me but I’d really appreciate a little more time because I have more stories to tell!”

I stayed home too and don’t assume it’s because the Packers are playing. I don’t watch games unless there is a party or they make it to the playoffs. I woke up a little under the weather but my husband knows one way to perk me up–Morning Buns!

I still remember the day I had my first Morning Bun. I was working after school at Gimbel’s Department Store downtown. I was always ravenous at the end of the school day and it was there, in the Gimbel’s Bakery, that I met my first Bun.

I had never tasted anything so good. Morning Buns have the most incredible mixture of moist chewiness and crunch. You know how a bakery smells? It can stop me in my tracks. These Buns taste even better than they smell and involve all of your senses as you devour one.

So, after I made my purchase all those years ago, that’s exactly what I did. Devoured it and I still remember the experience. I couldn’t eat it fast enough. Since that time, I’ve learned about self control. I have outgrown the days of eating ice cream directly from the container–excluding the pints. Gone also is spooning Toll House batter into my mouth instead of onto the cookie sheet–a dab will do. I no longer leave an inch of wine at the bottom of the bottle just to say I didn’t drink the entire thing. Self-control. With God’s grace, a little goes a long way.

Morning Buns are to be eaten one layer at a time—like wine, savored one sip at a time—paying attention to the flavors, identifying them, and appreciating what it took to get from the wheat kernel or the grape into your mouth.

Food, like people, should be the real thing. Nothing artificial—and you’ll be satisfied without excess.

These buns are kind of messy—they flake. A lot. You get the sugary cinnamon coating all over your hands so you need a napkin to eat one. Examine the bun carefully to find the best starting point. I’ve never made any myself but they look like they are rolled into shape–I like to find that seam where the roll of dough ends and is nudged securely into place. I start there, pulling it back until it cracks off. This is my first bite. Crunch. From there, the layers are limitless.

Inspection

Inspection

If you can succeed in peeling off a single layer, it will lie on your tongue like a fresh sheet against your skin. It hovers there, melting. I never knew dough could melt until I ate a Morning Bun. The inside is the opposite of the exterior—soft and dewy. It’s like the pearl in an oyster—the prize of the pastry. Take your time getting there.

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Mm Mmmm

Sip your coffee, read the paper. Just be sure to fully enjoy each bite–it’s special, set apart from other pastries and donuts like Sundays are set apart from other days of the week. So enjoy your Bun along with your day of rest and worship!

Honey, can you please get me a napkin?

Red, can you please put down that camera and get me a napkin?