Within Close Range: Ms. O’Hara

She strides down the halls of Lake Bluff Junior High, with her shoulder length, ginger hair parting seventh and eight graders like the Red Sea. Always looking as if she’s ready to mount a spirited steed, wearing brown and beige tweed, and a steely, determined expression.

She tries to fill young minds with old tales of the rise and fall of nations and heroes, cultures and convictions; and her classroom walls, laden with maps and relics, attest to all she has invested in the cause.

Rarely standing still, the fiery, young teacher has a fiery will to make her students listen; marching up and down the crowded aisles, often wielding a rather persuasive attention-getting device, which comes down with a “CRACK!” on desktops of students attempting to nap.

NOT in Ms. O’Hara’s Social Studies class.

As she canters through the halls with her tousled, red hair, Ms. O’Hara seems fearless and confident and cool, loath to play any part the fool. No one dares question how tough she can be. But I can see.

I can see in those eyes often wild with frustration, an impish will and inclination, lurking in the quiet shadows of a stern reputation. And once in a while, a small, smirking smile, which she’s been hiding all the while, will arise; first in those eyes, then form upon her lips – hands on hips – and eventually she’ll soften, dissolving my inhibition to hang nearby and feed on her powerful presence.

Made even more formidable in her red, Camero convertible.

She likes to rev its engine and make the boys grin, revealing the mischievous side within. Then hitting the gas when all signs of the school are past, she vanishes amid the village trees, in her brown and beige tweeds.

Into the reds and yellows and browns of autumn, and into my earliest images of a strong, modern woman.

Within Close Range: Mr. Hastings

I don’t like science.

But I like Mr. Hastings, my 8th grade science teacher.

A tall, unlikely comrade with his horn-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and barely there, gray hair; with his starched, white, short-sleeved shirt – which never varies – but for the cardigan he wears when a chill is in the air.

Schooling restless, new teens hovering absent-mindedly over Bunsen burners and long braids, sharp scalpels, squeamish lab partners, and former frogs, must have its days.

Especially with the likes of me, barely squeaking out an apathetic C.

Yet Mr. Hastings rarely raises his voice. Rocking the cinder block walls with his frustration only once. Maybe twice.

Still I keep myself invisible behind students and books and beakers. Slipping in and out of class. Answering questions only when asked. Until I see some things on the science teacher’s desk.

Sitting on an old newspaper, near little, brown bottles, some brushes, and neatly folded rags, sit several pieces of small-scale dollhouse furniture, which somehow this giant-of-a-man created with his two giant hands, and a crippled right arm due to Polio.

Even though my female peers are now more interested in boys than theirs, there is little else that I adore more than my dollhouse.

Earned, gifted, and more than occasionally lifted from my Dad’s loose change I amass what cash I can to fill my two bedroom, one bath, pale yellow Colonial, with its newly shingled roof of hand-cut, balsa wood. (Jim’s community service for repeated dollhouse abuses.)

I inch my way closer to the old newspaper, longing to get a closer look at the tiny treasures which I normally have to view behind a locked, glass, display cabinet, guarded by a grumpy, old man, mistrustful of all youth.

Mr. Hastings notices. And there we begin – girl to man – sharing a common devotion.

Lifting a teeny-tiny chessboard into the palm of his illogically enormous hand, this towering 8th grade science-teacher-of-a-man describes with great care how he cut and varnished each itsy-bitsy square.

And I listen.

Ignited by his dedication.

Astonished by each delicate piece of miniature perfection.

I still don’t like science.

But I’ll always like Mr. Hastings, with his perfect bow tie, his pressed short-sleeved shirt and barely there, gray hair, and his remarkably gifted hands.

Within Close Range: Mr. Dieden

I hate P.E. and the sight of green once again spreading across the corner of Artesian Park across from school each spring.

The southeast corner, to be exact, where I suffer through the tortures of Physical Education with activities such as catching a first softball… with my nose… and the annually humiliating 400 yard dash, a quarter mile of side cramps and red-faced misery.

Nauseous and breathless.

Always one of the last to stumble over the finish line.

Destined, in Mr. Dieden’s eyes, to be stuck at the bottom of life’s climbing rope forever.

“Walk it off!” he likes to holler unsympathetically to us stragglers, scattered and collapsing at the side of the coned-in track, circling the corner patch of park grass.

Mr. Dieden, with his crisp, white, short-sleeved shirt and shiny, bald head.

Mr. Dieden, with an ever-present whistle around his neck and clipboard in hand.

Who makes me write: “I will never say ‘Shut Up’ in Mr. Dieden’s 6th period gym class again.”

1,973 times. (One sentence for each year.)

Didn’t even get the “up” out before his voice echoes off the old gymnasium walls, “Miss Celano. I’ll see you after class.”

Like he’s been waiting for it. Hoping for it.

Never a word to Jeff, on the other side of the net, about his “gold bricks and rich brats” remark.

Within Close Range – Grand Safaris and Sunday Afternoons

Dad regularly rallies the family into the Pontiac Grand Safari for destinations unknown; the adventure often beginning after all that Sunday genuflecting, and gobbling down stacks of syrupy pancakes from the Golden Bear Pancake House. 

Dispersed from fore to aft, in the enormous, paneled wagon. Mark’s in front with Mom and Dad. Chris and Jim, by birthright, take the center. Leaving the rear-facing, back seat to Mia and me. The perfect spot for making faces at innocent travelers and gesturing to passing truck drivers to sound their horns; and when a trucker pulls the wire and toots his horn, there’s plenty of room to hide down below, where we can squirm and giggle until the semi rumbles past.

Once we catch on that we’re not going home, through a series of lipped words, nods and head tilts, one of us will be chosen to ask Dad where we’re going – all of us knowing full well what his glorious answer will be.

I’LL never tell!” he sings as he smiles and looks to us in the rear view mirror with his dark, playful eyes.

It’s electrifying.

Sure to be somewhere wonderful, we’ll find ourselves in a faded, old amusement park on its very last go-round; an old-fashioned, ice cream parlor, in a long forgotten neighborhood; an apple orchard serving cold, sweet, back-teeth-tingling cider and fresh made cinnamon-sugar donuts, thoroughly warm and wonderful.

Somewhere we can be all together in the moment and in the memory.

Admittedly, the excitement of the adventure sometimes wanes with the miles it takes to get there, and things can get ugly. 

Ugly enough for Dad to pull over on a long, straight, narrow, stretch of road in rural Illinois, near a solitary farmhouse surrounded by a seemingly endless pasture. Here, he makes each of us exit the wagon – even the littlest, Mark, who’s lifted from Mom’s lap and placed unceremoniously into Chris’s surprised arms.

Mom stays quiet and seated for our expulsion, but all eyes are focused on Dad, who’s already back behind the wheel.

Who wouldn’t.

Couldn’t.

Does.

The Grand Safari disappears over a small hill… and then the horizon. 

No one has words for what just happened. We just stand there, stunned and silent. 

Leaning against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the field, looking at the farmhouse in the distance, I wonder what it would be like to live there. 

There’s finger-pointing, but few words spoken because each of us is well aware of our role in this road trip gone wrong.

Mark’s becoming a burden between Chris and Jim’s arms, the blood from a cut on my knee (from leaning against the barbed-wire fence) is beginning to spread across my new, thick, white, knit leotards, now torn; and all promise of a happy outing has been extinguished by the time we see the Grand Safari re-appear in the distance.

Dad steps from the station wagon, as if from a hearse, and lines us up against the fence, steps back, and… smiles – huge, laughing smile, moving each of us to do the same – which is when Dad makes his move, revealing the Polaroid camera hidden behind his back.

“Click!” 

Still grinning with the photo now in his hands developing, he orders us back to the wagon. 

Overjoyed to be back in our rear-facing, upholstered prison, I console myself with a handful of mints swiped from the hostess counter of the pancake house, and in the certainty that the next time Dad turns the Grand Safari toward another Sunday adventure, all thoughts of past car trip hardships will be disappear in a “click” from the moment we hear the words: “I’LL never tell.” 

Within Close Range: The Checkered Beacon

At the corner of Sheridan Road and Sheridan Place, right across from East Elementary and Lake Bluff Junior High School sits Artesian Park, two blocks of village green where every Fourth of July the grassy field turns to festival and carnival and fun and every winter, the sunken baseball diamond is flooded to make an ice-skating rink.

As soon as the temperature dips and the rink freezes solid, villagers swarm to the park, packing the small patch of ice with skaters of all ages, sizes and skills; with races of speed and games of Crack-the-Whip, hockey sticks slapping and half-hearted “Hamill Camels” spinning.

Huge smiles crowding pink cheeks.

The park’s field house is also opened, where a giant crackling fire in a giant stone hearth, hot drinks, long rubber mats and long, wooden benches, welcome skaters looking for secure footing and a temporary reprieve from the nippy wonders of winter.

Such happiness in hot cocoa and crackling fires.

In being a part of village life, instead of apart from it.

Layered, bundled, skated and packed into the station wagon, anxious to get to the rink and our friends, we watch Dad re-shovel the shoveled path by the garage. When Mom finally steps through the back door, all heads swivel toward the flash of candy apple red which has newly invaded the icy, grey scenery.

There stands Mom in an outfit the likes of which Lake Bluff villagers have never – nor will likely ever see again – a red and white checkered snow suit, with its belted jacket and matching knickers (Yes, that’s right, I said knickers.), red cable knit stockings, white knit gloves, and a matching, white knit, helmet-shaped cap with ear flaps and a large, snowball-sized pom-pom on top.

It’s something to be seen… and near impossible to miss.

She’s something to be seen.

But that’s usually Mom: statuesque, blonde, beautiful, incomparable. Ever the model. Not afraid to be individual, and always, always fashionable – even when that fashion might be questionable.

… at least from the viewpoint of her five, young impressionables.

But Mom is glowing.

Excited for the family outing. Eager to put her weatherproof, yet fashion savvy snow suit to the test.

But Mom is GLOWING.

Like a giant, checkered barber pole.

And everyone from Dad (whose briefly raised eyebrows are a dead giveaway) to Mark (who strains his tiny, bundled body to turn and stare wide-eyed at the walking tablecloth) – are stunned silent by the new outfit that speaks volumes.

As Dad winds the wagon toward town, whispers around the rear seats are exchanged. It’s agreed that the best course of action is evasive. A rapid, rear door exit will surely guarantee reaching the rink quickly and losing ourselves in the nameless, motherless crowd in moments.

As luck would have it, a parking space – one actually big enough to accommodate our Grand Safari station wagon – opens up right in front and above the bustling rink. There’s no more delaying the inevitable fashion statement that’s about to be thrust upon the unsuspecting citizens of Lake Bluff.

As soon as Dad docks the wagon and shifts into park, Jim and Chris leap from the center seat and never look back. In the very rear of the wagon, however,  Mia and I are at the mercy of Dad who needs to open our escape hatch from the outside (a major miscalculation), and who is leisurely lacing his own skates; while Mom struggles to wriggle a wiggly four-year-old into a pair of hand-me-down, oversized skates.

Dad finally releases us, and leaving Mia to fend for herself, I make fast, teetering tracks to the ice, losing myself in a swarm of bladed, unbounded activity.

From the anonymity of the crowd below I watch, – mortified – as Mom’s checkered ensemble appears around the rear of our wagon, moving very, very slowly over ice and snow toward the rink. Giving everyone within a three mile radius ample time to take it all in.

Radiating red against the endless, ashen clouds.

Unembarrassed. Unaffected. Unbelievable.

Forcing me deeper into the throng of villagers, into the sea of somber, Midwestern winter gear. Commonsensical clothes in practical colors blending together like the dark waters of a deep, churning lake.

Unsteadying me.

Disorienting me.

Drowning me in denim and down; in unfamiliar faces and forms, swirling and twirling and lawless.

I feel panic rise and tears swell and wish everyone would just… STOP!

Until a beautiful beacon appears.

A sudden flash of something dazzlingly bright shining through the drab-colored chaos.

The most wonderful sight I’ve ever seen. Giving instant comfort. Guiding me home.

To the arms of Mom.

To the warmth of her hug.

Wrapped tight in all her red and white checkered glory.

Within Close Range: Summers on the Edge

There us peace in the familiar sounds of summer at Shoreacres.

The Northwestern train keeping to its schedule.

Bank Swallows calling to their colony as they swoop to and from nests pockmarking the sandy bluff wall.

The harbor’s baritone foghorn warning boats buried in Lake Michigan’s mist.

Even the sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to the north chime in, drilling up and down the parade grounds.

Marching.

Grunting.

Singing and rhyming.

Voices hovering in the air like ancient tribal chants.

Laying on the lawn overlooking the lake, I close my eyes and ease into the familiar sound of the sailors’ strong, low voices.

And the marching band practicing its spirited battle hymns.

Miles away, but strong and clear.

Carried to my ears by the lake winds cutting through the thick, moist air that smells of fresh cut lawn and freshwater fish.

Sun-filled days of climbing up and down the bluff where the path used to be before the lake rose and stole chunks of land, leaving little but swallow holes and sand – and killer cool ledges for daring leaps by reckless kids who take to the skies, then aim for the beach, landing in the soft, thick sand below – hot on the surface, but damp and cool just inches beneath.

Wriggling my toes further into the moist earth, I try to recapture the wind knocked out of me in the landing, until voices from above goad me into action and I’m forced forward again, down the soft, crumbling bluff, to a rugged line of boulders Dad had dropped on the beach in his failed fight against this infamously wicked lake.

Then one by one, into the water and waves we wade, trying to dislodge sand from our swimsuits and butt cracks. Feeling the lake’s strong, cold undertow at our feet and the strong, hot sun on our heads.

Watching our Lab, Heather, joyously and tirelessly swim after a stick bobbing on the waves.

Silly dog.

Then up to the top we head to bound down again.

And again.

And again.

Long summer days invade the nights, inspiring late nights of Ghost in the Graveyard and Sardines and a world of hiding places scattered around our acres and outbuildings, where we squat amid the fireflies’ ambitious flickering and whisper above the crickets and cicadas charging the atmosphere with their measured, mesmerizing songs.

Reminding me that I am never really alone.

Standing at the edge of the bluff on the Fourth of July, with the comforts of home just steps away, we watch the fireworks displays from Chicago to Waukegan, “Ooohing” and “Ahhing”, mimicking the faraway crowds and slapping at mosquitoes determined to disturb our private celebration.

Mom unfreezes boxes of brats and burgers to feed a small army, which eventually arrives with empty stomachs and pockets full of bottle rockets, sparklers and Roman candles ample enough to light the skies and the lake, and disturb our quiet neighbors long after the distant festivities have ended.

But the best displays I witness from the brink are the summer thunderstorms rolling over the Great Lake, and the lightening exploding in sky-wide, silver-white bolts and bursts.

I feel fortunate.

And irrelevant.

On gentler nights when the moon is full and bright and we can see our way down the bluff to the beach, my siblings and I wade into the vast, still water.

First, up to our knees. Then our bellies. Then our chests.

Eventually emboldened by the bright moonlight and calm, glassy water, I swim further from the shore and my companions.

Through strange patches of warm in the perpetually cold, inland water.

Scanning the dark stretch of water in front of me and turning to see the sparsely lit shoreline now well behind me, the calm in my mind begins to churn and I begin to worry about what lurks just below my feet – and in those warm patches – and start paddling madly toward the beach and the nearest sibling.

Not stopping until I’m close enough to feel the sand below my feet, or see a smile in the moonlight.

Finding enormous comfort and calm in the motion of another’s treading water.

In their laughter.

In their teasing.

These are the endless days spent layered in sand and sun tan oil. Brown and blissful.

These are the days of sleeping well into the afternoon, or until the smell of breakfast cooking below wafts into my room…

or my class schedule arrives in the mail all too soon.