Last month, I took Aden and Eli on a pilgrimage home to Chicago for a few days. I grew up in an apartment downtown, overlooking Lake Michigan before leaving for New York a few years after college in 1994.
I loved Chi-town but my dream was to be a TV news producer and although I was working as an associate producer at ABC back then, there was little hope for advancement unless I moved to New York. My father had died of cancer the year before, I was hanging out with my tight high school crowd and not meeting any interesting men, so I needed to get outta Dodge for a while.
My plan was to work in New York for a few years and return to Chicago to start a family and send my kids to Parker, the small private school I attended from 7th-12th grade. My friends would do the same and we’d raise our kids together.
My mother sobbed as I got on the plane headed East, telling me she feared I would meet my husband and never come back. “That’s crazy,” I said. I wanted to make a life in Chicago, but I would just be away for a bit, and get some work experience under my belt.
Of course, my mother was right.
I moved to New York, eventually got a job at ABC and met Wilson within two years. (For more on that romantic tale click here.) And here we are 17 years later, living in the Garden State.
I’ve made a big effort to get back to Chicago at least once a year to preserve my roots, and introduce my kids to my hometown. My immediate family has left, but my aunt and cousins are there and I still have close friends who graciously welcome me into their homes and lives on each journey.
We’ve hit most of the tourist spots over the years but I try to pick a few special outings each visit.
This year, we went to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field…
…. and saw the amazing animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
I enjoyed the cultural detour more than the boys, who much preferred to go back to my friend’s house to play Wii.
We ate deep dish pizza and Vienna hot dogs.
They took a dip in Lake Michigan.
I ran on the gorgeous lakefront and couldn’t help but stop when I got to the building where I grew up.
I counted up to the 12th floor balcony to our old apartment and was elated to see a barbecue grill and plenty of planted flowers, just like we had when we lived there. My dad would have loved that.
My boys got along well with my friends’ kids, despite differing ages and genders and the fact that they only see each other once a year. It’s like they know we’re family.
We had a pretty tight group at Parker– with only 65 kids per grade in middle school and 90 in our graduating high school class. We developed an intimacy that has endured over the years, despite geographical separation.
I only talk to a few of these girlfriends regularly, but my memories and affection for them are strong, as is our bond. They’re the few people left in my life who knew my father and what he meant to me. Most people I’m close with now– including Wilson– never had the chance to meet him.
I got together with six of these girls for dinner one night and it was one of the highlights of my summer. It took us at least 30 minutes to order because we couldn’t stop talking long enough to decide what to eat.
We’re all in different stages of life–our kids range in age from 3 to 17– and some are dealing with sick parents, career changes, and divorce. Although we’re not in each other’s day-to-day lives, there was an immediate comfort level. No topic was too personal, no question too nosy, no emotion too deep to express.
We reminisced, reminded each other of our own experiences forgotten or misremembered over so many years, and laughed til our bellies hurt. We lingered at the table after the meal, then walked to get ice cream and sat outside yapping for another hour.
I didn’t want the night to end.
I’m a much more independent, confident person than I was when I knew these ladies way back when. Yet being with them touched a part of myself I don’t feel very often because I don’t live where I grew up. They know where I came from and they get me.
They are my safe place.
All through the visit, I tried to point out childhood landmarks to my kids as we drove by (That was my first school! Look at the mall where I shopped! I spent half my teen life in that friend’s basement!) but it mostly fell on deaf ears. Every time I passed these places that were all so familiar to me I was overcome with nostalgia and a yearning for the past.
My boys are too young to appreciate my past. They are creatures of the now.
It was good to see the relics of my childhood through their eyes: as just buildings or parks with no emotional attachments. It helped me to stay in the present, a place I don’t dwell or appreciate enough.
My new dream is that one of my kids will go to college in Chicago. Northwestern would be nice. I’d have a reason to visit regularly, my son would have friends and family nearby, and the city would hold a place in his heart as much as it’s embedded in mine.