After we moved from Pasadena to Wheaton, Illinois, in 1994, for many years my wife, Wendy, made regular trips to visit her family in Northern California, usually in the summer. Sometimes I was able to go too, other times not—as in the summer of 2011, when Wendy flew back alone for a visit. On such occasions I often kept scratch-paper handy to jot down odds and ends that I thought she might enjoy when she returned.
The other day, I came across several pages from that summer, almost ten years ago now. Here is the first entry:
Two old men at Starbucks (though probably not much older than we are), one tall and thin, the other mid-sized and stocky with a very red face. The tall one says, “And I TOLD her, ‘just stay in bed,’ but she wouldn’t.” Evidently his wife had been sick, got back up & around too soon. Then he said that when he was a boy, he never understood why his mother worried so much, was always saying to be careful. “Now I understand.” The red-faced man’s contribution was to make a couple of comments suggesting that you can’t expect much sense from WOMEN.
At that time, I was working for Christianity Today (the company whose flagship publication had the same name), editing Books & Culture. Every day, I walked from my office to the Starbucks down the road. Most of the time I got my drink and immediately headed back, but sometimes I sat for a while, in part to listen to conversations going on around me—for instance, between an interesting Russian immigrant couple who sometimes spoke in English and sometimes in their native tongue.
Here’s the next entry:
A convoy of huge low clouds reminds me of the first summer here, during the weeks before you and the kids arrived, and my initial impressions of the Midwest.
The summer of 1994 included a lot of hot weather (the following summer was the one with the deadly heat wave in Chicago), and I was dazzled by the huge, slow-moving cloud formations overhead. My introduction to the Midwest was palpable.
Lunch with _________. Our conversation keeps getting interrupted by phone calls (two of them from ____________). Breaks the thread, but he seems oblivious to this.
Looking back, I think this was one sign of the end of what had once been an extremely close friendship, leaving great sadness and regret.
A song from one of the Éthiopiques collections, with swaying horns, makes me think of dancing with you in an imaginary Ethiopian nightclub. The incongruity between the music . . . and all that happened in the decades since: civil war, a crazed Marxist regime, an Ethiopian diaspora . . .
Ah, Éthiopiques. Many of those CDs are in our family room (we still use that old technology), though not the entire run, redolent of the emergence of “World” music as a category. Wendy and I were fortunate to live near Chicago, where in its heyday the Old Town School of Folk Music offered a seductive variety of concerts featuring artists from around the world. We were there for many of them, often with our friends Gary and Kathy Gnidovic.
It bothers me that in the montage of audio clips from Cubs announcers over the years that is played on the radio before every game, they have edited out the two brief bits of Ron’s voice. They celebrate him, mention him frequently with affection, but someone, for some reason, thought it best to make that change. Who knows why. But I miss those fragments of his voice, which brought him to life.
Ron Santo had died the previous December, and the next summer (when I was writing), the Cubs erected a statue of him outside Wrigley Field. But his voice was gone from that radio intro. From the vantage point of 2021, this memory feels like ancient history.
Several of the woodpeckers which have been at the feeder lately are unusually aggressive. They cock their heads in a way that suggests amazement at the nerve of the other birds. Haven’t they got the message that the feeder belongs to the woodpeckers?
Every day, Wendy and I spend time together watching the birds in our backyard. When she isn’t here, I catch myself starting to call to her (as she does to me) to see this or that going on at the feeder or on the trees or the wires overhead.
When Boom-Boom showed up at the front door after being out all night, his nose was smudged, as if he’d been investigating a place that was very dusty.
These fragments from a decade ago don’t amount to much, and yet they seem (to me) to represent the texture of day-to-day life (not just our particular lives) that’s missing from so many accounts, peripheral to much that passes for commentary on our common lives. Thank God for that.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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