Contemplating what exactly life will look like after the passing of a close family member is a bit like staring at one of those thousand piece jigsaw puzzles. You know you’ve got to start somewhere, but all you want to do is close up the box, put it back on the shelf and go do something mindless, like watch bad TV.
But you can’t.
So, after the hugs and the hearty bowls of chicken paprika, my family and I started with just one puzzle piece – my dad’s briefcase.
This wasn’t one of those fancy attache numbers. It was a simple, leather case that had been bought probably around 1971 and contained the precious knick-knacks of a long, complex life. One filled with gold and bronze medals of accomplishment, dozens of pairs of Mad Men-era cuff links – gold initials in wide font, giant topaz ovals, classic onyx rectangles – all left-over from a time when professional men wore French cuffs almost every single day of their lives. And oh, the tie pins: a golf club, an American flag, a jumbo jet from when flying was glamorous. Twenty or so stamps hand-picked for a collection that never quite got off the ground. Certificates of authenticity, letters of thanks, and tiny tokens from a medical practice that spanned more than six decades – a pocket watch, a plaque, a silver pen with an inscription that read simply, “Doc.”
A collection of treasures unmistakably from a certain time, but also from a certain place. In both tone and style, my dad’s personal effects were decidedly Midwestern. In other words, lacking irony, restraint, snobbery and chic. Brimming over with the pride of having made it, and the humility of knowing that it could all be taken away any moment.
My dad came to Chicago from Europe on the heels of the Second World War. Like many immigrants, he came without a penny to his name and actually slept on a park bench and ate at soup kitchens for weeks before he got his first paycheck.
“Can you imagine?” he once told me. “By day I was performing surgeries at a big hospital. People saying ‘yes, doctor, no, doctor,’ and at night, I lived like a bum. But I liked the fresh air and you know, you do what you have to do.”
I really did think I was prepared for my dad’s passing. Not just for the void it would leave in my life, the closing of a chapter, but also the changes his death would visit upon my family. My mom will be moving in with us as soon as she’s able to tie up loose ends. She’ll be leaving the town outside of Chicago where I grew up, where she landed as a Czech immigrant in 1968. And she’ll be making her home in a semi-rural crossroads just outside of a college town in Virginia. That’s quite a change. And I want to help her through it without big-footing her and pushing her to do things she’s not ready for. Like taking a yoga class or making a friend.
I do know something about grief. That we think we’re fine and end up acting out of character – forgetting entire conversations, spacing out people we’ve met a half dozen times, missing appointments. Grief makes you revisit the past and thrusts you into the future all at the same time. It’s discombobulating, scary and oddly exhilarating. Missing pieces of your own puzzle turn up in places you never expected – a song you never particularly liked, a friend you’ve long since let slip away, a picture from a family vacation you can’t even recall.
With the loss of my dad, I have quite suddenly been hit with the fact that I will be losing my strongest tether to the Midwest, a region which I’ve come to realize has shaped me as much as my family culture, my ethnicity, my gender, my friends, and even my spouse and children.
It’s why I’ll talk up anyone in any old grocery line, tell them I like their hair and ask them about what they did over the weekend. Why – no matter how busy I am – I still feel a little weird about having someone else clean my house. Even if they only do it every couple of weeks. Even if I love it. My Midwestern upbringing is why I just can’t bring myself to get all that excited about the Ivy League. I’m not knocking it, I’ve just known too many immigrants, self-starters and non-academic intellectuals to place too much stock in rarefied institutions. And it’s why my European friends have always told me that I don’t seem American. I’ve tried to explain to them that it is less because I’m a European’s kid than I am a heartland girl. Europeans mostly know American media and television shows, and those come from the coasts. People from the heartland are an entirely different animal.
In the scant few days my husband, children and I spent helping my mother make the initial transition from wife to widow, the patently uncool charm of my birthplace felt pure and comforting. It was a warm towel fresh out of the dryer.
I loved being waited on at the Nordstrom cosmetics counter by a young, balding woman with a skin disease, and that it didn’t seem in the least bit odd. And being greeted at the hostess desk at a swanky restaurant by two retired women instead of the usual hip, nubile young things that smile and ask you to follow their shapely derrieres to your table. I loved demonstrating to my baffled children that I know how to bowl. My High School still has a bowling team for Pete’s sake. I loved that guys – young or old – would never miss the opportunity to hold the door open for me, give me their seat.
And I love that my dad was crazy about gangster movies, but when I gave him a boxed set of The Sopranos a few years ago, he threw every one of the DVDs in the trash.
“It’s where they belong,” he said.
My dad was a cultured man who spoke five languages, had an M.D. and a PhD, knew classical literature and classical music and certainly knew good content, but he just couldn’t appreciate what he called “filth masquerading as art.”
That is a solidly Midwestern trait.
But don’t let it fool you.
Heartlanders love dirty jokes and knocking back a few drinks. The Playboy empire was started in Chicago, after all, before migrating to the West Coast. My dad himself married a vivacious woman more than twenty years his junior, even if she did tell his friends that she was a good five years older than she actually was.
And for all of its chivalry and down to earth warmth, many Midwesterners are horrible, aggressive drivers. Especially Chicagoans. They speed, zip in and out of lanes, fly through yellow lights at the last minute, cut you off with a fist in the air and a string of curses they’d rarely employ anywhere but inside their automobiles.
Even after twenty years of living with and loving me, my husband still can’t stand my driving.
And as I drove us away from my mom’s townhouse at the end of the week – merely slowing down at the stop sign at the end of her street, then pulling out right in front of another minivan, forcing that driver to hit his breaks – there was that wistful feeling of satisfaction, a woebegone sense of fulfillment that a portion of that enormous puzzle of grief had been laid. The heartland piece.
Only about eight-hundred and fifty more to go.