Thursday, February 13, 2014

My Funny Valentine

This is the coldest, snowiest winter we have had on record in Chicago in a long time.  A lot of my friends have been comparing it to the winters of 1967 and 1979. In 1979, I remember just being home from some surgery in the hospital. I was 14 and missed around six weeks of school.  My friends Cheri and Wayne came to our house to visit me on cross-country skis. 1979 was bad but doesn’t compare to what happened in 1967.

In 1967, the storm came so fast and furious that many of our fathers who worked in the city could not get home. My father spent the night playing cards with the doorman at the Palmer House and slept on a bench still wearing his hat and suit.  It was just two months shy of my mother having another baby.  A few of the other mothers on the block took turns coming in to help and check on her, while also sharing the responsibility of their own children.  My older sister, Melissa, was five, but because she was extremely precocious, she decided to take charge.  She made sure Mommy had everything she needed while Daddy was stuck in the city. I was not quite four and just wanted to play with little my plastic cowboys and indians.  She told me that I needed to help.  I didn’t know how I could. She said, “Just make sure the baby doesn’t cry.”

My sister, Stacia, was just turning one that January blizzard. I went up to the room where her crib was and peeked in to see if she was sleeping.  As soon as I cracked the door she opened her eyes, turned over and started whimpering.   Again, I didn’t know what to do.  Her bottle was on the floor.  I had seen my mother feed her before and I knew she liked to cuddle with our dog, Nibby. I picked up the bottle, pulled a chair up against her crib and climbed in. I said, “Here, baby, don’t cry. Mommy is tired.”  I stayed with her until she fell asleep again and until I fell asleep too.  Later that night one of the other Moms from the block came in to change Stacia and she carried me to my bed.

When my dad finally got home he came into my room and said, “I heard you took care of the baby.” I nodded my head.  “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.  You should always take care of your little sister.” I took that as an order from my father and it is still a responsibility, 47 years later, that I carry with me.

This is us in that timeframe. I''m the guy in the bad shoes.

Those of you who regularly read the stuff I write, you will notice Stacia shows up a lot in my stories.  That is because as much as I love all my brothers and sisters, through all the years that followed that blizzard of 1967, I have always had a special spot in my heart for the Valentine’s Day girl I was told to take care of. and I love.  

When Stacia was little she didn’t have a favorite stuffed animal. She had a pillowcase that she carried around with her everywhere.  If she stuck her fingers into something, created an accident with a lamp, or did one of the many things rambunctious young girls do, and she got in trouble with Mom or Dad, she would pull her pillowcase up close to her, throw her arm across her eyes and say, “You can’t see me!” One Valentine’s Day when she couldn’t wait to try the red velvet cake in the shape of a heart that my mother had made for her and went invisible, I took her to her room and I said, “Stacy, just because you can’t see people, doesn’t mean they can’t see you.”  Sometimes it is best to let people have their delusions. She cried and cried in my lap for an hour.  After that whenever Stacia would get angry and say, “You can’t see me!”  I would say, “But you were here just a minute ago. Where did you go?” And she would start laughing. “I’m right here, silly.”

When my family would go on vacation we took our station wagon or van and often camped along the way.   When I wanted to go and explore wherever we were staying be it Virginia, Maine, or Florida, my mom would always say to me, “Take your sister with you.”  Some boy probably would have resented having to always take their little sister along with them. I didn’t mind.  I liked being with her because she made me laugh, she was cute, and I also found her to be a great conduit to meeting girls.  

When I was an older teenager, Stacia was often a part of my dates.  She would go with us, whoever us was, to get ice cream or pie.  Sometimes when I had to babysit her and my brother we would argue heatedly because I stopped being her friend and started acting like a parent. One night I sent her to her room and she accidentally jabbed a pencil right through my hand.  I picked her up, took her to her room and chucked her on to her bed. I tossed a book in with her and said, “You’re not coming out until you read this.”  I can’t remember what book it was.  Probably, Alice in Wonderland.   When my parents got home I had to go to hospital, have the graphite and wood removed, and get stitches.  When I woke up the next morning, Stacia was asleep on the floor next to my bed. There was a note next to my head. It just said, “Sorry.”  I picked her up and carried her back to her bed.  She woke up for a minute and I said, “Forgiven.” She smiled and said, “I love you.”  I patted her back. “I love you too. Go back to sleep.”

When I was getting ready to go to college, she came into my room where I was packing some boxes and said, “You promise me you will come home again, right? You are always going to be with me, right?” I hugged her and said “Of course. I will never leave you for good.”  As it turned out I took the next year off of school to travel and work, and lived at home. One night my friend, Mike, came over because we were going to a party.  I was in the shower when he arrived.  After I dried and dressed I came down into the kitchen to find Stacia and Mike having a beer at the table. I said “What are you doing, feeding my sister beer?”  Mike said, “I’m just being generous to the sister.”  Stacia said, “Relax.”   I paused and looked at them both.  I said, “How old are you, Stacia?” she said, “I’m seventeen.” I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. I said “Well, that’s about how old I was when I first had a beer with Mike.  Carry on.”  I went down to the basement where my room was to get my shoes.  All night long it bothered me that my little Valentine was growing up. It was a turning point. This would be the first of many nights where she was welcomed into my circle of friends and treated like just any one of them.  I was proud that she could always hold her own with that crowd, but I had a hard time grapisng that she was getting older and there would come a time when she would not need me anymore

During my final year at the University of Illinois, Stacia came to visit me for Halloween because she knew I loved the holiday. Halloween at Illinois in those days was always a raucous event where they closed the streets off and people were allowed to walk around with open liquor.   That particular year Southern Illinois University canceled their annual Demon Night and so a lot of kids flooded into our campus.  During the course of it all a riot broke out.  At that time I was working four jobs to stay in school and one of them was to be the superintendant of the apartment /retail building I lived in, so I could keep my rent down. It wasn’t a hard job, just sweeping, light painting and collecting checks.   The night of the riot was different.  After the revelers went through the flower shop window, I spent the rest of the night cleaning glass, boarding up, talking with angry tenants, and the police. When it was over, Stacia and I went up to the roof and looked out over the carnage.  People were still lurching around, couches and trash cans were still on fire, and trash was strewn everywhere like a nuclear storm had hit.  Stacia just said, “Wow.” I turned to her and said, “Well, like a lot of girls your brother has taken you to concerts and movies, but it’s not every girl who can say her brother took her to a riot.”

When I got married Stacia, along with Melissa, were bridesmaids. When my first son, Ben was born, I picked Stacia up at the elevated stop near our house one afternoon when she came into the city.  As we were driving back to our house, I pulled the convertible over to the curb.  She said “What’s up?” I said “I need to talk to you about something serious and important.”  She looked concerned.  She said “O.K., what is it?” I said, “Stacia, more than anything in the world we want you to be our son’s godmother. Will you do it?” She started shaking and crying. She leaned against me and hugged my arm. “Of course I will.”  My son is now 21.  Through the years Stacia has never stopped looking after him.

Stacia met a man, Scott, who I like very much. They wed, and they like many of us are building a life together with two young girls, who I adore like my own children. Stacia and I ended up not living far from each other in the suburbs. We get together occasionally for beer, corn beef roll-ups, and a whole lot of laughs.  She’s a woman, so I don’t take care of her like I used to anymore, but whenever she needs me I am there. What’s really nice is that whenever I need my Valentine, she’s there too to take care of me.

Happy Valentine’s Day birthday, Stacia. I love you, my sister. T.S.