Coming back

Clown noses from Dale's birthday
Ruby said the noses were cheaper in bulk.

When we got back from vacation I realized Django is old. I’m afraid to say that because I don’t want to look like I’m projecting. I can’t help it. I’m turning 50 and she’s turning 12. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just what happened. So coming back and hearing that all the warnings and nightmare scenarios I’d given Kelso and Karl, “she goes ballistic at skateboards, she will attack toddlers on scooters, she intensely hates a white dog named Princess,” came to nothing, I had to wonder: Had I prepared them for a younger Django? Had I written up two full pages of instructions on leash-gripping and treat distractions for a dog that no longer exists?

She looked so old on our first walk this morning. It was hot here, full of humidity which I’d forgotten about after our days in northern Michigan. There, the heat was dry and breezy, soft across your skin. Here it pushes heavy and intractable. We walked down Sunnyside. Django did her business and then, when Dave turned into the alley to toss it out, stopped dead in her tracks. Paws pushed against the pavement, head down, eyes staring up under half-closed lids. “She’s not even going to make it around the block,” I said despondently. Kelso and Karl probably wondered why my instructions said “three walks a day, at least”  when clearly all she can manage is a trip around the yard. “She wants her ball,” said Dave.

I looked again. We were standing near the head of the alley, the spot where we usually throw a tennis ball if no one’s around. Granted, she wasn’t actually in the alley, so she wouldn’t be able to see the ball if I threw it. Perhaps she’s too old to remember she needs to be able to see. Anyway, I threw the ball and she tore around the corner. She chased it down, brought it back, and got her treat.

Because of the heat, I only threw it a few times. I worry about her collapsing. In Michigan, Ruby said that after 50 you start second-guessing every ailment, every ache. You think, “Is this it?” she said patting her chest. But a day later, on her husband Roy’s 49th birthday which we celebrated with clown noses and a horrible clown statue and “Send in the Clowns” playing on Tara’s iPad and a clown sundae created by the waitstaff, Roy said age is nothing, not even worth thinking about. To some guy who said he’s not really 49 because he’s now in his 50th year he said, “Whatever.”

We continued walking east, until Django pulled south to go to Hanover Park. That’s what Kelso and Karl called Horner Park accidentally, and I like it. It sounds prettier, more European. No one really cares what a park is called, as long as you know how to get there. It always surprises me, how many small freedoms are ours for the taking.

Birthday party

Grandpa sitting in a chair
The biggest man in the room.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. He would have been a hundred and something. Remember when we’d go over there on this day? Grandma always made ham sandwiches and Grandpa gave the presents. He’d bring out shopping bags full of his bargain basement finds – costume jewelry and ice skates and celebrity-themed knick-knacks.

Grandpa was a retired El train conductor who then took a job at Cannonball Messenger Service. This is back when they used foot messengers in addition to bikers, mostly for Loop runs. His retiree’s CTA pass was a bonus for Cannonball because they didn’t have to reimburse his travel, but he warned them, “My mind is made up. When I turn 80, I’m retiring for good.” His 80th birthday came and he kept his word. He couldn’t believe they didn’t put up a fight. It kind of hurt his feelings.

From 80 on, Grandpa left the house each morning with empty shopping bags, and travelled the city filling them up. He’d ride downtown to the Marshall Field’s basement, to the D’Amatos on Grand and May for his favorite bread, to Woolworths in Oak Park, to Maxwell Street, to some bakery in Belmont-Central for Grandma’s favorite pound cake. He knew all the El and bus routes, and knew people in every neighborhood. Years later, at his wake, the strangest people showed up.

Grandma would wait for him at home. She didn’t like to go out much, and she was nervous about having people over. Her medium was the telephone. She talked to each of her kids every day, transmitting family news through the filter of her particular world view. My brother used to say, “I make so much more money when it goes through Grandma Sue.” She only visited once or twice a year, and on Grandpa’s birthday my mom had to warn her we were coming. “It’s my father’s birthday, Ma. I want to see him.” “You don’t have to come,” Gram would tell her over the phone, “We still look the same.”

But once we got there, Grandma would relax. “How ’bout a sandwich,” she’d say, “I’ve got some nice ham.” I hated ham, so I always got straight to the pound cake. Then Grandpa would open the hall closet and bring out the shopping bags, with multiples of any really good buys. One year it was fake seed pearls and Brook Shields clocks. “You don’t have to keep her face in there,” he advised, “You could put any photo if you cut it right.”

I reached my hands into the bag, pulling out fistfuls of necklaces and bracelets. All mine, as many as I could hold. It was a very, very good birthday.