A box arrives from my mother, shipped overnight. Inside is fresh biscotti, sinful chocolate chip cookies, mint-flavored coffee, and recent sports sections from various Chicago-area newspapers. All this I was expecting. What surprised me was a small bundle of items to remind me of my home so long ago, a place I ran from when I graduated from high school twenty-five years ago to head West, with the goal of growing into my own life.
How did my mother decide upon these memories?
A report card from seventh grade: "Report of Pupil Progress," from Chicago's DeWitt Clinton Grade School, wherein I’m reminded that I missed six and half days of school (incredibly no tardies), acquired twenty crimson check marks that indicated "a need for improvement," and somehow managed to flunk music. Under the category, "character traits that contribute to success," I was flagged for the inability to perform the following: "observes school rules and regulations, exercises self control, does homework assignments, works independently, and is not easily distracted." The sum total of this report card was that in 1968, in the opinion of the Chicago Public School District, I was not going to amount to much. But at the bottom of the report card is another check mark, the one that shows that despite flawed character traits and below average penmanship I was nonetheless promoted to eighth grade. In Chicago you had to commit homicide to actually be held back a grade, which makes me wonder about all those twenty-year-olds at my high school.
I am a product of twelve years of public education conducted in hot, stuffy warrens, where chalk boards lifted up to double as cloak rooms and where, to at least one fourth-grade teacher, were employed as sensory-deprivation detention centers where I was once placed with the chalk board rolled down for twenty horrifying minutes. Creaky varnished floors and pock-marked oak desks opened from the top with room for books, pencils, rulers, gum erasers and, for this daydreamer and poet-in-training, a transistor radio with an earphone from which a not-too-obvious wire snaked up under my sleeve to my ear. As early as March I would tune out the teacher and plug in to the White Sox spring training games from Sarasota, Florida. Important historical dates, diagramming sentences, and memorizing key signatures all competed for my attention, but the truth was I didn’t want to miss one pitch.
The smartest kids sat regally in the front rows. I nearly always sat toward the back where I would gaze out the tall windows at the Illinois Central trains that clattered by every ten minutes. At the end of those long days I would run home as fast as I could, not to plunge into homework, but to get together with my friends in the alleys for hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, and the ever popular Vietnam-era war games we played using sawed off hockey sticks.
My mother was a single parent, a role I would inherit years later, and my brother and I had large amounts of time without adult supervision. So the wooden back porches and passageways between apartment buildings of Chicago’s South Side were as much my territory as were the many cramped and humid upper level apartments we called home. Basements and rooftops were my parks and beaches. Lessons came fast and sometimes violently. There was the older boy who urged me to yell, "you dirty Jew," words that I didn’t understand. So I shouted that phrase up and down the alley until a tearful woman came running down three flights of stairs to slap my face hard. Then I understood what those words meant. My cheek can still recall the sting of that woman's slap so long ago. She did me the ultimate favor.
Years later, my father and mother would both choose to remarry Jews, my mother converting from Catholicism to Judaism. I would attend high school in a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors and all my best friends would turn out to be Jewish.
Maybe those red marks on that report card were correct. After all, writers don’t amount to much unless they write Hollywood scripts. I am still easily distracted, but I am an above average guitar player with a decent singing voice, and I have learned, through a few on-the-job firings to exercise self-control.
A report card might not be such an uncommon memento. But what about a yellowed Chicago Sun-Times clipping from Thursday, October 16, 1958? Thirty years ago the newspaper cost seven cents for the final horse racing edition. In the upper right hand corner the paper lists an average paid circulation of 539,090. I was just two months shy of three years old when this newspaper hit the newsstands. On the front page are two headlines: "Fire Destroys Palmer House Dining Room," and "1st Spaceship Unveiled; Nixon Hails Lead of U.S."
The first spaceship, unveiled by then Vice President Nixon, was the X-15, designed to reach altitudes of 100 to 150 miles and speeds of up to 4,500 mph. "At the vice president’s push of a button, hangar doors parted...where the...slim, pencil-like craft was rolled out." The newspaper called the X-15 "this nation’s gleaming hope for putting a man into space ahead of Russia." One friend in my southside neighborhood had rockets, too, from which he would launch cockroaches and one distressed hamster from a vacant lot by Tanenbaum's Drugstore. We dreamed of landing the first insect on the moon or Mars, but our rockets never cleared the third-story rooftops on our block.
Of course as a kid I never read the front pages of the Sun-Times. Like most sports-crazed city kids I started my day at the back of the newspaper where the sports news began. On that same day in 1958, Casey Stengal had just signed a two-year deal as manager of the New York Yankees for an estimated $80,000 a year, roughly the cost of most present-day players’ gold necklaces. Also the Cubs’ Ernie Banks was declared the National League’s slugging percentage champion with a winning percentage of .616. Banks, with twenty-four doubles, eleven triples, and forty-seven home runs, beat out Mays, Aaron, and Musial.
Five photographs spill out of the bundle. The first is a color photograph of my brother David and me watching television. We are lying on our stomachs in a third-floor apartment, holding our heads up with our palms. We have the same short haircuts and I am already wearing thick glasses. It must be before puberty because my skin is not a moonscape yet, but what is more telling is the expression on my face. I am totally engrossed in an episode of "Combat," "Petticoat Junction," or "Rowan and Martin." This could not be seen as a good sign, or perhaps a foreshadowing of many hours of television to come.
The remaining photos are in brilliant black and white and show me mostly between the ages of two and ten. There I am driving a toy tractor at the age of three, opening Christmas presents in 1959, the same year standing next to a giant snowman outside our Hyde Park apartment, and, in another, sitting on a bed with David and two Asian girls. In 1965 I am tinkering with a guitar, trying to finger a D chord, and then dressed like Daniel Boone with a coonskin hat, a gun jammed into my jeans, and broomstick for a rifle. I cannot tell you what I was thinking in any of the photos.
At the bottom of my mother's box are some notes stapled together. "Dear Stephen, still sorting, tossing, and saving papers. Found copies of some excerpts from the High Holiday Prayer Book. Thought you might enjoy the beautiful, poetic flow of the remorse and emotion interwoven into the prayers. These excerpts are for the Yom Kippur services (day of atonement). I highlighted some of my favorites."
And I will praise You with my life:
for You have been my help,
and in the shadow of Your wings
I sing for joy.
Every Friday Mom and my stepfather, Seymour, would stand in the corner of the dining room near a small menorah and recite their prayers. Sometimes they would light the seven candles. Sometimes they would sing softly in Yiddish. By then I was a jaded adolescent with no regard for the sacred but I knew enough to keep my selfishness on hold and allow them a brief moment of weekly contemplation.
Our days are few and full of trouble.
I left home for the West at seventeen never to return for more than a week at a time. David was the son who stayed close to home in Illinois. I haven't been to a Thanksgiving in twenty years. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries: I've missed them all in person and even in simple postcard acknowledgments. Months have gone by between calls home. My debts are huge.
The eye is never satisfied with seeing; endless are the desires of the heart. We devise new schemes on the graves of a thousand disappointed hopes....Our life, at its best, is an endless effort for a goal we never attain.
What was it I went looking for in the small, white towns of Colorado and Idaho? Mountains, I tell myself. Rivers. The space to think. Shining, golden sunsets. Trails that led into wilderness. The strength that comes from spending time alone. That young boy who stared out the window in grade school also found divorce, poverty, fatherhood, remarriage, and maturity. Twenty-five years passed not just for me, but for the family I left behind.
We are feeble; we live always on the brink of death. Scarcely ushered into life, we begin our journey to the grave. Our best laid plans are ever at risk; our fondest hopes are buried with us.
Several years ago: Three in the morning. I am asleep on an old couch in a run-down apartment. I am on my back holding my stomach where just two days before a surgeon pushed back my hernia and sewed in a fiberglass mesh screen to hold my intestines in place. Pain, extreme pain, is all I know. The phone rings. My mother screams, "Seymour is dead!" I scream back, "No!" He lies in their bed, dead of a heart attack. She had been sleeping next to him all night never knowing until the morning when she felt his cold skin. I didn't attend the funeral. This time I had a good excuse—the stitches and a doctor's order not to carry luggage across three time zones and the concourses of two airports—but by then no one expected I'd show. Still, it was my phone number my mother dialed first that morning, even before she called the EMT's.
Ambition drives us on to higher exertion; indulgence makes us waste the powers we have; and evil seduces us to heap misery upon others. Success and failure, love and hatred, pleasure and pain mark our days from birth to death. We prevail, only to succumb; we fail, only to renew the struggle.
The mountains are still here. The rivers, the ones that aren't dammed at least, still run full of power and inspiration. There is more designated wilderness than when I arrived. So many undiscovered trails still call to me, but my ambitions have narrowed to walks around the block.
My mother will be seventy soon. My daughter left home last summer to begin her life's journey. My brother's daughter leaves for college next year. My nephew just became an Eagle Scout and will leave for college in two years. I hardly know them. How do you account for absence? How do you find a path home when your whole life you've been moving in the opposite direction?
Here is the last passage my mother has marked:
Let us treasure the time we have, and resolve to
use it well, counting each moment precious—a chance to apprehend some truth,
to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil, to relieve some suffering, to
love and be loved, to achieve something of lasting worth.
Read more of Lyons's work here