May: (Part One) Wherein the caretakers contend with strikes, a riot, and their life at Tannenbaum Arms coming to an end. With more changes happening by June.
The doorbell jarred everyone awake at 7:00 AM on Friday, May 1. Lily, always a quick riser, responded abruptly to its harsh, persistent ring. “Well, I don’t think it’s anybody bringing me a May basket,” she grumbled. Throwing on her robe, she ran to the door. “Yes?” A burly man wearing a paint-spattered outfit of coveralls and denim shirt stood at the door. “Paint contractor,” he annou “Oh? Sure,” Lily replied, heading for the keyboard. “Nice of Mr. Dreschler to let us know. What’s going on?” A tambourine jangled from Little Jay’s small room off the kitchen. “We have orders to paint the kitchen, living room, and dining room, stem to stern,” he replied. “Have you got it cleared out yet?” “Sure. It’s all yours. I’ll be up in a few minutes.” “No need. I’ve got my crew and my ladders waiting in front.” Lily returned to the bedroom. “What’s going on, Blue Jay? He just gave us that paint and had us paint the front bathroom. Why didn’t Mr. Dreschler inform us?” Still half asleep, he muttered, “He knew we didn’t have time to paint the whole place, I guess. And we would need more time. He probably wants to get it rented this month yet, the old Scrooge. Give him a call later,” he yawned. The tambourine jangled more persistently. Chicka-chicka-chicka, bling, bling, blang! “That dude’s got rhythm!” Blue Jay noted as he stretched. “Yeah, so you go change his diapers,” Lily snapped. The day had begun. On campus that Friday at the beginning of May there was a sense of despair. President Richard Nixon announced the expansion of the war into Cambodia, claiming the Viet Cong was using these jungles as a supply route. This declaration seemed especially harsh since the President had been hinting about a reduction of forces. Frustration and desolation hung heavily like the lake fog that enveloped the city. Students, including vets who had served in Vietnam and had now enrolled at the university for want of a better plan, now began to assemble around campus in small, urgent knots. Students who ordinarily walked a straight course from class to class to library and home again now were filled with frustration and disbelief. Everyone had cousins or friends from high school who had been killed or wounded everyone had cousins or friends in the military in parts unknown.
Some students knew that their student draft deferments were nearing an end and dreaded the thought that they might be next in line to receive those loathsome, official-looking draft notices in their mailboxes; others took it stoically and were ready to face whatever demands their country required, although they objected to US involvement.
Everyone had seen the war on television, gazed helplessly at videos of My Lai, of villagers running through napalm. The Vietnam Vets Against the War group was holding informational meetings in the Union. There were always small groups of picketers in front of the ROTC office on the third floor of Mitchell Hall, occasionally erupting into shouting matches.
There was talk of shutting the campus down. Stink bombs and fire alarms jarred the school day. Picket lines formed and vitriol spat from all sides. When Blue Jay made his way approaching the English building, he noticed a line of angry protesters blocking the door. A feeling of urgency rose in his throat. He gulped air. He had to be in attendance since word was out that some professors were failing students who didn’t show up. It wasn’t simply the course grade that propelled him onward; it was having enough credits to graduate. Wanting to avoid a confrontation, he decided to go around to the utility entrance. “Undergrad experience as a work study janitorial assistant has paid off,” he thought, forcing a tight little grin to console himself. Slipping inside, he made his way to the second floor. When he reached the classroom, he found a note taped to the door:
Fellow Practitioners of the Fine Art of English Prose and Poetry:
I wish to inform you that class is cancelled today, due to circumstances beyond my control. However, in support of academic zeal, literary bliss and imminent grades, I will be holding an informal literary discussion at the nearby Linnwood Inn this afternoon at three. I apologize for any inconvenience.
Blue Jay shrugged. Was it a sign of respect for the good professor or just the fact that the notice had been overlooked that it was still posted there? He slowly slogged home.
Back at Tannenbaum Arms, Lily was worried because the building seemed to be filled with unease. She took Little Jay in the familiar potato-sack carry, under her arm and balanced on her hip, and ascended the stairs. The Sixers regularly had a steady stream of people traipsing up and down the stairs, but today there was nobody in the hall. She could hear the mimeograph machine running non-stop with strains of Dylan whining in the background. Lily stopped in to remind them that the scent of weed in the hall could lead to trouble. “The boss man is around a lot lately, supervising work on Mrs. Grant’s apartment. Just be a little careful, okay?”
“Sure, Lily,” Craig grinned. “We have fresh brownies. Odor-proof. Would you like one?”
“Not now. I’ve got too much ahead of me today.”
In Apartment 5, Moisette was diligently undertaking her scream therapy, this time apparently working out the necessity of being forced to wear shoes, while Linda and Sarah were trying to study at home because there were protesters blocking the library entrance. In response to her light knock, both Linda and Sarah came to the door.
‘Would you like me to talk with Moisette for you? We can order her to go down to the boiler room to scream.”
“No, it’s all okay, Sarah responded.
“Why do you put up with this?” Lily asked.
The two roommates just looked at each other and smiled. “Because…she’s Moisette,” Linda quietly said.
Lily made her way down to Apartment 2 with Little Jay still in tow, trying to appease Mr. Dreschler, who had arrived at this inopportune time to meet with the contractors about the painting job.
“No, Mrs. Davis doesn’t mind the music at all. She has never once complained,” she told Mr. Dreschler. “She’s quite deaf, you know. And Mrs. Hopkinson works all day. And we always make sure everyone quiets down in the evening.” Lily was rushing through her sentences with a higher-than-usual pitch in her voice.
“And that’s a good thing. We’ve got to hold on to our stable tenants, Lily,” Mr. Dreschler admonished. “You know, every time an apartment is vacant, it’s a financial setback for the management firm. That’s the bottom line here.”
Although the weather was growing warmer as the sun rose higher, Mr. Dreschler stood at attention in full business regalia, perfection broken only by the beads of sweat forming on his brow and neck. He gestured around the tarp-draped living room of Apartment 2. “This is a big financial setback, you know.”
Lily shook her head wordlessly. She wanted to snap at him, “You’re the one who rented it to the Grimeses, not us,” but she held her tongue.
She was relieved when Blue Jay appeared, back from campus much earlier than usual. Mr. Dreschler informed them that he would be running an ad in the paper on Sunday, even if the painting wouldn’t be all done. “Be sure to discourage anyone who doesn’t seem to be financially secure, Jay. No more people like the Grimeses, please.”
Jay nodded. “I agree. But all I did was show it and take the deposit upon your request.”
“You could have discouraged them more.” He frowned. “Make a judgment call. Try to do a little better for the management, okay?”
Jay saw that Mr. Dreschler would not quit until he had the last word, so he bit his tongue and nodded vehemently.”
After the affairs of the morning, Lily did not attempt to go to her afternoon classes; but Blue Jay met his professor and several other students over at the Linnwood Inn that afternoon. It seemed that several teachers were holding classes at alternate sites. The professor, a reasonable sort, realized that many students needed their credits for pending graduation requirements and military deferments. He said that they could leave any work with him in stamped envelopes with their return addresses and if classes were cancelled and the campus remained troubled, he could send the work back. In the meantime, they would meet informally at the Linnwood Inn on Friday afternoons for the remaining three weeks of the semester.
The weekend passed with building chores and studies. With only four more weeks left in the school year before exams, and deadlines approaching, the only break in the monotony was a Saturday outing to Lake Park with Little Jay and Lenore. On this bluff overlooking the lake, Little Jay giggled and kicked his legs as they took turns pushing him in the baby swings. Although dogs weren’t allowed to run freely in the park, they had brought an extra-long rope and let Lenore romp in wide circles by the baseball diamond. For a little while they forgot about building maintenance, research paper deadlines, campus strife, and distant wars as they immersed themselves in all things blue and green and growing.
On their walk home, Blue Jay stopped abruptly in front of the kiosk by the Ben Franklin. “Look, Lily! It’s Orville!”
The bold eyes of Orville Grimes, a lopsided Elvis-sneer on his lips, a strand of hair dropping down his forehead, stared out from a large poster. “LOVE ME TENDER!” Bold letters proclaimed. “Hear the songs of the great Elvis Presley emerge through the skillful renditions of his Nashville cohort, Orville Grimes.” Friday, May 8, at Pinkie’s Tap on Burleigh.
“I’m all shook up. Wanna go, Lily?”
“No, thanks,” she grinned. “And let’s not tell Mr. Dreschler, either. He Ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog.”
“So, now you’re stealing Lost Lenore’s lines.”
They returned home in time for a supper of chicken chili and biscuits and then more studies. Blue Jay and Lily knew that they needed to complete this chapter of their academic lives, even if classes were disrupted, so they worked diligently in spite of the grim campus atmosphere.
On Sunday, the doorbell began ringing around nine. This time, Lily and Jay were expecting the interruptions, since Mr. Dreschler had notified them. The front hall sparkled with cleanliness and smelled faintly of disinfectant, making the perfect impression for prospective tenants. By noon, a couple from West Allis had given a security deposit, pending approval from Mr. Dreschler. The husband, Rob, had rented a store on Farwell and planned to open a head shop specializing in clothes and jewelry from India. The wife, Theresa, was a high school math teacher at nearby Riverside High School, so she would be able to walk to work.
Theresa looked stately, as if from another planet, in her gossamer green gown and three strands of translucent love beads. She virtually floated from room to room, occasionally tossing her long hair over one shoulder; then another.
When they reached the small bedroom off the kitchen, Theresa declared, “This is the perfect meditation chamber! Are we allowed to paint?”
“I don’t see why not,” Jay answered. “You’ll have to run that past Mr. Dreschler. We just keep order and tend to the building.”
“I want this room saffron yellow, with a sky-blue ceiling,” Theresa announced.
Rob quickly added, “Of course, I could do the painting if that’s too much to ask of the landlord.”
They admired the freshly shampooed carpeting and the painting in progress in other parts of the apartment. If approved, they planned to move in at the end of the month.
“Well, they’re going to work out just fine, I think,” Jay mused after they had gone. “I can’t help worrying about the Grimeses, though. I wonder how that little kid is doing.”
“Let’s hang out a note saying the apartment is rented so we don’t get any more interruptions,” Lily said. “Time for a little peace and quiet.”
“Well, at least quiet, Lily, if you take the broader view.”
The nation erupted the following Monday, May 4, during the noon hour. With National Public Radio playing in the background, Lily was making toasted cheese sandwiches; Blue Jay was chewing on a pencil in the midst of an important commentary; Lost Lenore was chewing on some Cheerios thrown off the high chair tray for her by Little Jay. The customary call-in show about healthy eating was interrupted with a special broadcast. The Ohio National Guard clashed with 2,000 Kent State students protesting the expansion of the war into Cambodia. The protesters were ordered to disperse; most refused. The Guard threw tear-gas canisters, but the crowd threw rocks at the Guard and stood their ground. “Pigs off campus!” they shouted. “We have the right to protest!” Taunts continued, and more rocks. Many other students made their way across campus, intent upon ignoring both sides, simply conducting school business as usual.
Jay and Lily exchanged glances. Jay immediately switched to a radio station playing classical music, worried that Little Jay would pick up on the trouble. He adjourned to the living room to switch on the television.
Mid-day soap operas were interrupted. At 12:22 PM, several guardsmen fired their M1 Garand rifles into an area near a parking lot. Four students were killed, nine wounded. Some of the victims were not even involved in the protest but were just trying to get to classes.
Television images of the carnage flashed and looped repeatedly. Students around the country who had grown up with a belief that America was the “land of the free and home of the brave” were horrified that this situation was playing out around them.
As the day progressed, Blue Jay and Lily moved their small television set into the dining room and watched in disbelief, while taking turns distracting Little Jay in the kitchen in an attempt to shield him from the horror. The nightmarish national crisis intensified as two black anti-war protesters were slain at Jackson State in Mississippi on the same day.
Peter and Frnk stopped by with a couple of other friends. “Don’t even bother to try to go to classes this week,” they warned. “It’s chaos up there. And what’s making it even worse is so many non-students we don’t even recognize are on campus adding to the turmoil.”
Along with campuses across the nation, UWM antiwar groups called for a strike on May 6. A plan was in place to picket early in the morning at the main entrance of Mitchell Hall near the corner of Downer Avenue and Kenwood Boulevard. This would be followed by a march around the circumference of the campus, eventually taking over the student union as strike headquarters. From there, they would branch out into the other buildings to disrupt classes and encourage dialogue about the war.
Chancellor Martin Klotsche decreed that classes should proceed, that the campus should be a forum for open, peaceful discussion. As the crowds grew and the march proceeded, over one hundred armored police officers appeared on the scene, ready to wield their riot sticks. Ugly, sometimes violent confrontations ensued instead of the stately forum for the interchange of ideas that the chancellor had naively envisioned. In a moment of comic outrage, a young man dropped his jeans and showed his backside to the officers, while other students oinked. As the march continued and vandalism spread throughout the buildings, fire alarms were pulled and bomb threats were called in. The whole campus smelled like one big stink bomb. Demonstrators followed through with the plan that had been outlined to them earlier. With little resistance, they took over the student union.
Jay and Lily made several forays to campus for updates, although they did not hang around for long. Jay had made a practice of collecting all kinds of announcement flyers, street sheets, and other publications. He came home waving his latest acquisitions, proclaiming, “History in the making!” Finally, on May 7, the dean declared a state of emergency, purportedly so the campus officials could eject “outside agitators.”
As the strike continued, most professors made arrangements to meet privately or to give grades based on midterms. Jay knew that his advanced English classes would present no problem but decided he should try to get to the German class, just in case.
When he arrived in Bolton Hall, he felt he was in a battle zone out of a science fiction book.
A few students Jay recognized from his German class were standing outside. “Are you going into class? The chancellor was on TV and cancelled classes.”
Jay looked about. “They managed to bring it home,” he thought, noting the smashed windows, garbage containers and desks overturned in the halls, and nonfunctioning elevators. The strikers had disrupted the central power station of the campus, so there was neither air nor light. Jay’s German class met in a basement classroom, and without electricity there was only the dim light of lower-level windows filtering in.
“I think I can second guess this prof. I need my grade. I need to get through.”
“Scab!” someone taunted as Jay entered the building.
True to his word, Professor Tillmanns sat at his desk like a steadfast tin soldier. Two other students, neither of whom Jay knew, were also in the room, resolutely uprighting desks and attempting to make a little island of order amid the chaos.
“Guten Tag, Herr Haakens,” Professor Tillmanns said in his customary fashion, as if it were just another day. He made a check in his attendance book. “We are meeting only briefly today. I appreciate the effort you three students made to be here. I have made a note of that.” He sighed. “As for assignments, please continue with the Thomas Mann translation. It will be due next Thursday. If classes do not proceed—and I have heard a strong rumor as such—you can drop the translations off at my office, along with any other back assignments.” He paused. “I understand the value of peaceful protest, even though it has come down to this.” He looked around at the mess and shook his head. “There is a thin line one can walk between protest and vandalism. This has gone too far. People in my homeland should have protested sooner when they saw what Hitler’s henchmen were doing on Kristallnacht.” He paused. “Of course, hindsight is always easier to come by than foresight. Use any extra time to search your souls.” He picked up his heavy brief case and shoved back his chair. “Class dismissed. Auf Wiedersehen.”
Jay thought about checking in at strike headquarters in the Union, thinking it would be crowded with strikers and that he could help out in some small way. He ran into Sharkey handing out Street Sheets with updates on the situation and advice for confronting pigs and narcs, as well as what to do if arrested. Although there were some broken windows and a vandalized soda machine, things seemed calm. A few students were lounging about as if they were vacationing at a fancy hotel. Other groups were huddled in intense conversation. Someone had written “STRIKE” and drawn a clenched fist in red paint across the ballroom windows facing onto Kenwood Boulevard.
“We won this round! We’re holding the union! Klotsche just closed down the campus. But now we have to plan the next step,” a young man wearing a Communist star on his jacket remarked in response to Jay’s puzzled expression. “This is just the beginning of the Revolution!” Jay did not recognize him but was thankful for the update.
The “Not-so-Merry-Month-of-May” limped grimly along like a war-weary soldier slumped beneath a sack of broken dreams and body parts. Lily and Jay knew that the semester was played out, even though the last official day was May 18.
“Not with a bang, but a whimper,” Jay pronounced in a fake English accent, his imitation of T.S.Eliot. He duly turned in his semester German assignments, knowing that he had jumped through all the hoops required for his graduation. His advanced writing seminar had one last meeting. Professor Wiegner invited everyone to her home on Downer Avenue for an informal reading and potluck. Although no one was actually required to attend, the entire group showed up, showering their professor with spring flowers and bringing all sorts of dishes to share. Jay, knowing that Lily was occupied with the interview process for her seminar, decided to make his fabulous shrimp dip, a delicacy from his bachelorhood days consisting of chopped onions, sour cream, condensed onion soup, and a can of cocktail shrimp. Along with a large bag of potato chips, this was a consummate treat.
This offering joined a table filled with a delicious array of everything from organic pizza with a thick whole-wheat crust, to cheese triangles, to pickled beets. Champagne was uncorked and everyone toasted the graduates among them.
For his final presentation, Jay had submitted a series of autobiographical poems based on the progression of the war, including the peace poem he had read for Earth Day. His final poem was a requiem in honor of the Kent State martyrs.
The penitent generals walking on tin cans
March down Wisconsin Avenue at break of day
Rhythmic footfalls sounding through the morning.
What have we done
Where have we gone
Who lurks now, mourning
In the shadows between the buildings?
Screams and wails from
Rice paddies and jungles
Explode in our ears.
Across the town,
The unrepentant marchers
Tromping through the campus
Make a rumpus
What have we done
Where must we go
The pigs have overtaken us
And we fall down.
Curse this war.
No one carrying protest signs
Or book bags full of promises,
Carrying unborn children and unfinished assignments;
or in blood-soaked jungles far away,
Or in fear-filled, steaming swamps,
To find an Early Armageddon
On their doorstep.
It is our duty, and our need,
To remember the brave, the quiet, the confrontational,
Those who shouted
Those who quietly faced their fears,
Those who marched, who carried signs, who spat out “Pig!”
Who prayed “End the War”
Who vowed “Hell, no!”
Who simply tried to go to class on a sunny day,
Who bled on the pavement by a fountain,
Who saved a candy bar to share with a friend after lunch,
Who planned on going for a basketball pick-up game in the gym,
Who needed to memorize the future tense of “to be” in French,
Who was feeling the kick, kick of baby feet in the womb,
Whose shoes pinched with a blister at the heel,
Whose girlfriend was waiting in the union,
Whose mother was waiting in her beat-up Ford to give a ride
To a part-time job at the Stop ‘n’ Shop….
May all rest in peace.
The cruel severance
The unfair price
The unjust deaths
May we carry on with kindness to the poor souls
Who cry out names in their sleep
Who put on their sweaters and pick up the signs
And sigh and cry and call out
End the war!
We are all children
Borne of war
This is our age
As we rage
As we engage without surcease
There was a moment of silence when he finished, followed by spontaneous applause. Jay looked around at the familiar faces of the group—many who had begun as strangers, but had become friends over the course of the year. “It’s over,” he thought. “It’s the end. I did it. No, we did it.”
He smiled. “Thank you.”
At that point, a large, black-and-white spotted rabbit hopped into the room and everyone burst out laughing.
“Never mind. That’s my mentor, Virginia, named after Virginia Woolf. You know. A wolf in rabbit’s clothing,” Professor Wiegner said. “She’s tame. She lives here, too. Has a room of her own.”
Several other students read excerpts from longer prose works, as well as poems. Frank read a long excerpt from his novel, still not finished but already over 75,000 words, he proudly announced. Although Rosie had not taken the class, she came along as a guest of Frank. Someone had brought the new Paul McCartney album, and it provided background to conversation. Jay secretly had little use for The Beatles, even though Paul apparently had little use for them, either, having announced the dissolution of the group in April; but Jay kept his opinion to himself. Wine and conversation flowed, covering topics from Nixon to nihilism to the bathroom habits of rabbits and everything in between. The evening ended with hugs all around and promises to stay in touch.
Lily had given much effort to her final collaborative project for her sociology seminar and was feeling short-changed that she and Pam would not be able to share their results with the group. The teacher had no heart for continuing past the officially decreed end of the semester and told her students to submit written summaries of their research. “What about learning for learning’s sake? It really isn’t all about the grade, is it?”
Pam shrugged. “Maybe it’s all about being done with this place.” She looked around at the boarded-up windows in the Union and shrugged. “I can’t say that I blame her.”
For her part, Lily had interviewed Klara Werner and Mrs. Davis about their formative experiences. Lily wondered why she hadn’t asked these questions in the general course of relationships and was fascinated by their stories.
Mrs. Davis spoke about her upbringing at the turn of the century. The results were surprising, not the least that Mrs. Davis was willing to talk so freely. She was an only child, as she put it, “the apple of her father’s eye;” born in Wyoming in 1890, the year Wyoming joined the United States. Her father ran a general store, but her mother was from a nearby farm family.
“We girls were expected to be pious and submissive. Girls were generally given just a basic education up to third grade, because our lot in life was to someday be a good wife and mother. I took to schooling real well, so I stayed at it through the eighth grade. There were only three girls in my eighth grade graduation class of twenty-two.”
Lily was an avid listener, and once Mrs. Davis started talking, she continued without any more encouragement than a nod. Lily and Pam had prepared their list of questions, but Lily intuitively put it aside; Mrs. Davis was covering the topic better than Lily could have planned.
“I married my childhood sweetheart in 1913. I was already getting up in years, twenty-three, for a marriageable Wyoming lady. I took to the land. I knew how to plow a straight furrow and milk a cow, and we were planning to take over my grandparents’ farmstead one day. Sometimes I miss that place.” Her voice trailed off.
“Louie and I had a grand church wedding; I was fitted with an ivory silken gown and my hair was marcelled and worn high in a pompadour. I could show you our wedding picture sometime.”
Lily was curious about Mrs. Davis’s first voting experience. “Did you first vote in 1920 when women got the vote?”
“Lord, no! In Wyoming women already had the vote! We kept it when we joined the union. I guess the founders recognized that homestead women shared the work fifty-fifty, and it was never a question for us to vote or not to vote.”
All this information was new, and Lily scribbled notes on her yellow legal pad. With the outbreak of WWI, Mrs. Davis’s husband felt it was his obligation to enlist, to make the world safe for democracy. She said goodbye to him at the train station in Cheyenne, and never saw him alive again. His body came home in a wooden box and he was buried in a flag-draped coffin in St. Mark’s cemetery, next to the church where they had been married. “That was the saddest day of my life.”
After a decent period of grieving, she decided that she wanted to start her life over in a new place. The farmstead was no longer an option, and the thought of spending the rest of her life helping out in the family’s general store did not appeal. Her mother’s older sister’s daughter lived in Milwaukee and wrote to her about a secretarial position at an insurance company. She invited her cousin to stay with her until she could get up on her feet; so one day in Spring of 1919, she boarded the Cheyenne train for Chicago, then took the streetcar to Milwaukee.
Here she joined her cousin’s Christian Science Church and found a community of supportive friends. “Role of women? Just be strong and eat healthy foods and live by your conscience and follow your instincts. Oh, say your prayers and never give up on your walking. Look at me. Eighty-some years old and still going strong. God helps those who help themselves.” She nodded, pleased at her own wise comments.
“Look at you, in your t-shirt and blue jeans. Women today have it easier, a more relaxed life style. At your age, I had to have help in the morning getting into a boned corset. We’d pull them tight, and our bosoms would rise and our behinders would stick out. We were like caged pigeons.”
Lily immediately thought of the connections between women’s fashion and the degrees of freedom one’s clothing afforded—all tied up with societal views of womanhood. This was her kind of sociology, not the charts and statistics. She planned to do more research about this.
“I wish my father’s camera had arrived. I could have taken a good picture of Mrs. Davis to supplement the interview.” The thought stirred excitement as Lily envisioned an entire book of interviews of a diversity of women, illustrated by close-range, black-and-white photographs.
She smiled at Mrs. Davis, who looked to Lily like a timeless noblewoman, sitting with erect posture in her worn gray sweater and gathered skirt. She thought to herself, “This woman is in her own way perfect.”
Mrs. Davis picked up her cane, signaling the end of the meeting. “I need to get over to the grocery store before they close. You come back any time, Lily. Any time.”
“I’m getting a camera that was my dad’s,” Lily spoke her thoughts. “Could I take your picture sometime?”
“Because I’m so gorgeous? I guess I would let you if you don’t think I’ll break the camera.”
They proceeded down the stairs together, Mrs. Davis with her cane in one hand and a wicker shopping basket in the other.
Two days later the interview with Klara started slowly. Her English was good, but she retained a heavy accent. “Too bad Jay didn’t know you spoke German when he took a German class this semester. He really struggled,” Lily remarked.
At first Klara was reluctant to speak of her past, but as Lily gently persisted, she began to speak of her early life. Born in 1910, Klara had lived through the First World War, as well as the dreadful days of near starvation and inflation under the Weimar Republic. “Did you know we had to pay a million marks for a loaf of bread?” During the Depression, things got even worse. When she was 23, she had an offer to come to the United States as a translator of legal documents. Over her family’s objections, she was only too glad to leave the Homeland behind. On the morning of her train departure to get to the harbor at Bremerhaven, her mother gave her a gold ring with a garnet stone that had been her grandmother’s. Klara held out her right hand and showed Lily the ring. “As you can see, I have taken good care of it.”
Lily asked her about child rearing. “All children learned manners and to respect elders. Children were to be seen and not heard. Girls were told that they should be concerned about three things: ‘Kinder, Küche, und Kirche.’ That’s kids, cooking, and church. I was lucky that my parents appreciated a good education, and I went to the gymnasium—which is what we call high school—rather than put out to learn a trade. That was a modern view, but we still wore long skirts and never showed our knees. That would have been for the wild girls in Berlin. Movie stars and prostitutes.”
Klara met Ernie at a friend’s birthday party when she was 26. She and Ernie had one son. “We raised him to be a good man. But we had a sharp division of the jobs. Ernie never changed a diaper and I never pounded a nail in the wall to hang a picture. He never washed a dish or a stick of clothing in his life. I learned how to tend the boiler, because what would we do if we needed a back-up? But I never shoveled a single flake of snow, all these years. Peter helped his father with chores when he was older. If Peter needed a reprimand, it was Ernie’s job, too. Sometimes he’d take a paddle to Peter, but only lightly on his backside to teach a lesson. Peter was really a good boy, and now he is an attorney with a Milwaukee law firm working with the son of one of the lawyers I worked for. They were in law school together at Marquette.”
Although she was fond of Klara, Lily found much to disagree with in Klara’s approach to child rearing, personally being an advocate of time-outs and gentle redirection rather than corporal punishment of any sort. She had to remind herself that she was conducting an interview and her role was to gather information, not to engage in conversation. Realizing that Mrs. Davis and Klara had been born half a world apart, twenty years apart, and raised in two markedly separate cultures, she was fascinated with the differing views they represented.
Although it was not planned, Pam’s and Lily’s interviews were perfect complements. Pam had interviewed her mother, Alice, now in her early fifties, about growing up during the Depression. Alice was frugal, not afraid to speak her mind on any subject, and very independent-minded. Her family had never taken welfare, no matter how hard up they were. Pam’s grandmother had opened a little shop in their living room since they were located on a busy street in West Allis. Alice and her brother had helped in any way they could, even standing outside the storefront selling a newspaper called The Grit for five cents apiece. Alice enjoyed that, especially sneaking off to read the serialized adventure stories that were on the back page.
Through it all, Alice vowed that she would never be poor again. She worked her way from salesclerk in the bargain basement of Sears Roebuck to an assistant managerial position in women’s wear. “I had to work twice as hard as a man to be promoted to management, and I never took a day off no matter how sick I felt.”
One day a tall, somber man came in and asked for help selecting a dress for his mother. Alice recalled, “I helped him pick out a paisley print dress, cotton, with a delicate lace collar. I remember that dress in every detail. Turns out, his mother loved that dress. And I fell hard for Jude, and I guess it was mutual.” It was the beginning of a great relationship that produced four children, Pam being the youngest.
Three years ago, just when the children were all out of the nest, Alice and Jude were planning a trip to New York City. One Thursday night he did not come home from work as expected. Alice received a phone call. Her husband was in critical condition in the hospital, having had a heart attack on the job. The next day he passed.
The children rallied around their mother, but the situation called for all her inner strength to face life alone without him. “Morning after morning after morning,” she said. “I miss him every day, Pam.”
She paused. “In spite of my complaining about our childcare arrangement, I think of my little grandchild Maggie as a blessing in my life. She has her grandpa’s big, silly grin, and I am making sure she will always know about him. I’ve read about feminism nowadays. I am not a feminist; Imagine me without a bra! I’m independent of any movement. I’m a womanist who loves her own and her home.”
Pam laughed. “Maybe you’re both, Mom, bra or no bra.” She resisted an impulse to lecture her mother about holding an over-simplified outlook on feminism.
Pam smiled, recounting this rare confession to Lily. “Now I look at my mother with new appreciation. Especially that Depression part. I even understand better why she keeps a pantry full of canned soup and saves balls of string and old clothes that ‘might come in handy someday.’”
Pam also had a friend, Jo, active in SHREW, and interviewed her for the research project.
Lily looked puzzled, so Pam explained. “I know, it’s hard to keep up on all the groups popping up. You gotta read your Kaleidoscope a little closer, Lily That’s an acronym for Students Hellbent on Relevant Education Reform, or something like that. The group was meeting with the Dean of the School of Education to propose a daycare facility on campus for fall. My friend Jo said she viewed childcare as both a personal and political issue, since women bore most of the responsibility for childcare, and this would help equalize the situation for students with children. Also, the daycare center would feature something she considered of utmost importance: women communicating and bonding with other women for everyone’s good.
“Too often women have been pitted against each other, trying to look the prettiest or snag the handsomest dude. Even academically, some people don’t consider it cool for a woman to appear too smart. And then there is the way some professors treat women,”
Pam questioned Jo at length about the formation of her views. Jo had grown up in a wealthy suburban family, but when she became pregnant at sixteen, her parents wanted to send her away to live with an aunt in California and give up the baby and return like nothing had happened except enjoying an ‘exchange student semester.’ She had run away and lived on the streets for a couple weeks until she couldn’t take it any longer. Fortunately, there was another aunt, this one on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side, who took her in. Now she and her son were living with this sympathetic aunt who said she and her son could live there with free room and board, as long as she was stayed in school and didn’t use drugs.
As Lily read over Pam’s work, she remarked, “This is too much to just bury away. I think we need to get the class together anyway and have a long discussion. It’s all out here. Great, ground-breaking work. Far out. Very far out.”
“Do you think we should try to convene the class, anyway?” Pam asked.
“No one else is doing anything like this. Maybe we should co-teach a class through the Free University. We could call it “Modalities of Mothering.”
Pam wryly answered, “Or “The Perseverance of Women in the Twentieth Century.”
“I would be happy to be part of that. Maybe we could encourage everybody to bring their children along. It might be a little crazy, but we could all see mothering in action.”
“Does Dr. Spock Rock?”
“Hey, Mom, Let Baby Outta the Refrigerator!”
“Hey, Papa, I Ain’t no Fridgerater Mama!”
“Realistically, Pam, I have to wait and see where I am in the fall. Let’s keep it in the realm of possibility.”
Blue Jay’s complimentary three copies of Undercurrents, as well as letters of acceptance from both the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa, arrived on the same day, a bright mid-month Wednesday. While the University of Chicago did not offer any financial assistance, Paul Engel’s Writers’ Workshop in Iowa offered him a teaching assistantship. Because of the clouds around graduation and his general disenchantment with the university scene, Blue Jay was having second thoughts about his academic future. “Maybe I should just take a year off and get a job,” he mused. “Or still try for a teaching assistantship at UWM for fall. I wouldn’t mind working with Dr. Webster. The man’s a classic; predictable and scholarly, and he made the offer. Anyway, how important is it for a writer to have a master’s degree? Maybe we should just stay in Milwaukee and I’ll get a job in a bookstore and bring home a paycheck and never sell blood again and just write and read. Writers write.”
“Maybe stay…” Lily agreed. “Then I could go back to UWM in the fall for one last time and get my teaching certificate in Social Studies. I’d only need one more semester and then student teaching. Let’s think about it.”
The following day, early afternoon as Little Joshua was napping the well-padded package from Lily’s mother arrived. The camera! Lily stared at it, trying to form a memory. Her father’s camera. His hands had touched it. He had used it as a tool to capture images from his world. He was the last person to use it. She closed her eyes, holding it close.
“This is no Brownie Flash Camera,” she thought. “I really don’t know the first thing about real cameras, but I can learn. I will learn. Maybe somebody from the Free University can teach me, or maybe some photographer on the Kaleidoscope staff.”
She spotted the manila envelope of pictures still in the box. One by one, she spread them out on Mrs. Grant’s hand-me-down kitchen table. They were black and white images with a matte finish. Some had crinkled edges. Pictures of her as a baby, as a toddler in a laundry basket with underpants on her head like a bonnet; by a flower bed in a frilly dress holding her mother’s hand; sitting in a wagon with arms outstretched towards the photographer, smiling….
Not all the pictures were of this nature. There were about thirty photos of what looked to be plundered fields and destroyed houses; of helmeted soldiers lounging on a hillside, rifles nearby; of landscaped meadows with grazing pigs; of airplanes and jeeps. She noticed the eyes, always the eyes, trusting, alert, sometimes defiant, but staring right into the lens. Lily noted that her father must have made that kind of deeply personal contact with his subjects before taking the pictures.
Although Lily looked for a photo of her father, there was none. “In actuality, he is there, though, in every picture, on the other side that you can’t see. This is the world through his eyes. And now he is here.”
She sat staring at the pictures, absorbing them, her mind too overflowing with these images to make sense out of them. Somehow at this moment she knew that she would become a sociologist armed with a camera, an interviewer, a cultural observer, documenting the present. Damn Professor Milton and all his ilk. She would pursue her advanced degree in sociology.
When Jay came home, she was still sitting there, holding her camera, rearranging the pictures. “This is a new day for me, Jay,” she said, rushing into his arms. “This was my past and now it will be my future.”
As the month progressed, many professors and students seemed to vanish into Lake Michigan fog with no formal closure. Grades were awarded on the basis of assignments completed as of May 4, or even at midterm. Other staunch traditionalists such as Blue Jay’s German professor insisted upon a final exam in spite of the chancellor’s recommendation. Blue Jay crossed the threshold of Bolton Hall without any smoke bombs being set off and only one brief fire alarm blaring. The examination period was held in a nearly-abandoned classroom, quiet except for the sound of workers outside repairing damaged windows. Many of his fellow students had chosen to take failing grades rather than show up for the exam, but others were there because they knew they could be drafted if their grade point sank too low. Someone had written SCAB on the chalkboard in big letters, and nobody even bothered to erase it. Blue Jay sat hunched over the small desk and wrote in his most legible script, turning in the test as quickly as he could with only a polite nod in the direction of the professor.
Sporadic protests continued, but overall the campus settled back to angry grumbles of frustration, mistrust and recrimination.
Jay ‘s final Contemporary Lit class met at the Linnwood Inn. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” his professor ruefully quoted T.S.Eliot. “You students have put in a lot of work this semester, in spite of all the goings-on here. Let us hope that your insights into present-day authors will deepen your character. Somehow, in all the protests and looking outward, we Americans seem to have forgotten to look inward upon our souls.” He paused. “My hope for each one of you is that you will continue to read critically and think deeply. Now more than ever.”
The rest of the class consisted of sharing final research papers and offering gentle critiques. Jay had crashed his paper at the last minute, staying up all night to finish, and presented a sound analysis of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” No one felt like arguing.
Lily wasted no time figuring out the basics of her camera. Her mother had thoughtfully included three rolls of film, each with a 36-picture capacity. She decided to use the film sparingly, since it was expensive and developing was even worse; but the camera bug had bitten her and she was never without it around her neck.
After another blood-selling excursion to the West Side, Jay stopped in at Renaissance Book Shop on Wisconsin Avenue. The gracious proprietor, George John, held court in a magnificent, high-backed antique chair. Jay inhaled the inky, slightly musty, old-leather book smell, gazed at the narrow rows of shelves stacked high with books of all shapes and sizes; and could have browsed and conversed for hours, but he was a man with a mission: “Do you happen to have any old camera books or manuals?”
The proprietor led Jay to a dusty box containing all types of old manuals for everything from mimeograph machines to Model T repair. “It’s your guess what’s in there.”
Jay hit the jackpot, discovering a manual for the Leica M3, a 35mm rangefinder camera. “This looks like her camera. I think this might be it!” The pamphlet had a diagram naming all the parts in English and German. It explained how to adjust the manual focus and exposure and made suggestions for varying distances. “Lily will love this! How much?”
The proprietor looked up from his poetry book. “That’s one dollar, if you don’t mind. You’ve bought a lot of books from me over the past few years. You deserve a deal. If you find any great old books at a rummage or estate sale, just bring them in and maybe you can trade them for store credit. But no Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, please.”
That evening, Jay presented the manual ceremoniously, and Lily devoured joyfully, page by page. Although the manual was for a somewhat newer model, most of the information was the same. Lily felt empowered.
“Before we go Up North, I will take representative pictures of everything—Lake Michigan, friends, my Big and Little Joshuas, Messy Bessie, and Mitchell Hall. And I need a clear shot of Tannenbaum Arms from across the street to catch all three floors; and even the back fire escape landing going down to our English Basement.”
“And what about the great Kewaunee boiler?” Jay prodded.
“And the boiler. Of course. Right on! I am going to use this Leica to document our lives.”
On the day Blue Jay received his hard-won diploma through the mail, Lily, Little Jay and Blue Jay celebrated with a trip to his favorite restaurant, Ma Fischer’s, for hamburgers and chocolate malted milk shakes.
Jay’s former roommate from back in his Brady Street days turned up with his present girlfriend. Lily and Jay recalled how he always had a series of women involved in intense relationships that never seemed to last more than a month. Astonishingly, Ronald had changed his image completely. His previous hippie attire was gone, replaced by a slickly groomed hairdo. Both he and his girlfriend were wearing twin unisex outfits of black, lace-trimmed bell bottoms and orange shirts hanging open at the neck. When they moved on, promising to get together soon, Lily remarked, “I think this must be the real thing for Ronald. Why else would he go all out with that costume?” Both laughed.
“He used to be the hippest hippie, Lily. Now this.”
“Not to change the subject, Jay, but you must feel great! You never have to speak another word of German again if you don’t want to, and you can decide what you want to do next. Congratulations again!”
“Do you think the campus life will change? Would all the student protest in the world make a difference?” Jay mused. “This has been a rough year all around. But you know, I think we made a dent.”
“We have borne witness in our own fashion,” Lily pontificated. “Not everybody has to carry a protest sign. Someone has to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and mop up. That would be me. Someone has to be a scribe and honor the documents and speak for the era. That would be you. And now I have my camera, better than a hundred protest signs for me.”
“We’ve been underground people in more ways than one, Lily. It’s not over yet. The struggle continues.”
She wiped the grease off her fingers and went for her camera. “Smile, Joshua. This is history.” Almost one year old now, Little Jay was figuring out that when his mother pointed her camera in his direction, he was supposed to smile. He beamed at her and kicked his feet in the booster chair.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing with this camera yet, but now that I have the manual I feel a little more confident,” Lily said. “I hope some of these turn out.”
Jay smiled. “I have never known you to fail at anything you really put your mind to.”
“Finally, I think we’re in for a peaceful weekend, at least at Tannenbaum Arms,” Blue Jay remarked, as they left the restaurant and pushed Little Jay’s stroller through the streets. “I think the UWM protesters are all either played out or getting ready for the next round somewhere. Or off to San Francisco for the summer. Let’s go down to the lake before we go home.”
As they passed Water Tower Park, they paused to sit by the fountain. Only a few other people were there, mostly couples in deep conversation. One man had removed all his clothes, and was basking naked in the fountain, but everyone ignored him like it was the most natural sight in town; and it was. Jay was tempted to snatch the clothes and hide them as a joke but thought better of it.
“Look up, Lily!” Blue Jay announced. “Little Jay, see the wizard up there?” He pointed up towards the top of the tall, whitewashed water tower. “I see his pointy cap with the moon and stars on it, and he has a big pair of binoculars!”
“Sure, Jay. Sure. I see him, too!” Lily played along.
“He’s the Great Wizard of the East Side. He is looking over the whole neighborhood, keeping watch on all of us, to keep us safe!”
“He’s wearing a purple cape with sparkles all over it! He’s leaning out right now! Do you see him, Jay and Jay?”
Little Jay looked up and lifted up his hands; then since they had momentarily set him free from his stroller, he took off for the fountain.
Jay snatched him up and stuck him back in his stroller. “Let’s get moving here so we can watch the moon rise over the lake.”
Infatuation with Lake Michigan ran deep within them, although Jay staunchly held his preference for Lake Superior. Even Lake Michigan was tranquil as the moon rose, creating an intangible silver path from horizon to shore. “Hey, Blue Jay, let’s walk across to Michigan.”
“You bet. Better yet, let’s just wait and next month drive up to the Upper Peninsula.”
“Yeah, I know. Yooper Paradise. Lake Superior. Now, there’s a real lake.”“This is lake enough for me. Right on!”
This comfortable interchange continued as they strolled back to Tannenbaum Arms in the dusk.