Nursing a broken heart this morning.
Sometime back my grandmother sent me a letter. It was stamped with an Audrey Hepburn stamp -- which made me smile because folks used to compare my grandmother to Audrey (when they weren't comparing her to Jackie Kennedy), and I’m sure she smiled as she licked it and affixed it to the envelope.
The letter contained another envelope -- one that her mother, my great grandmother, had given her many years ago when she visited Chicago for a Shriner’s convention in the 1960s (my Bompa was Grand Potentate of the Nile Temple in Seattle for a while -- and yes, my grandmother still has the rhinestone encrusted fez).
The envelope was scribbled with names and addresses: The home where my grandmother lived until she was three. The church where she was baptized. Notes on the neighborhood. Her old neighborhood: Humboldt Park in Chicago where her family settled after moving here from Norway. Where she lived until the family moved to Seattle, shattered by divorce, her mother a single mother now, with three children and her mother (my great-great-grandmother Ingeborg) in tow. My grandmother was the middle child who would soon become the oldest when her sister Corinne, who played violin and was thought to be a prodigy, contracted meningitis and died when she was eight.
I kept that letter in a basket for what seems like -- probably is -- years now. It was my intention to route out the addresses with my camera, visit them all and shoot them, bind them together in an album for my grandmother.
And for me, of course. Because I’m a transplant here, and feel a bit unmoored without family histories to stumble upon in the street, the way I do easily in Seattle. In Sonoma. That letter made me feel a little bit like I belong here in Chicagoland. Just a little bit.
Then I got busy with all kinds of things, and I put off shooting for another time.
Until yesterday. This being summer finally at last, the season of architecture, we headed out for an CAF architecture tour of the boulevard that runs through Logan Park in Chicago. It’s one of the last longest stretches of the boulevard system that once limned the city. Logan Square is right next door to Humboldt Park -- they’re basically the same neighborhood. It was bursting with Scandinavian immigrants the turn of the century before last.
One family of which was my family.
I went to where I stored the letter: and it was gone. Moved, I’m sure, well intentioned, to a safe place where I wouldn’t lose it.
And of course I can’t remember where that place is.
In my worst nightmare I tossed it out when I cleaned that basket last, thinking maybe it got mixed in the pile with the old receipts and expired boarding passes.
No. Please. No.
So I soaked up Logan Square without it, eyed the lavish greystones along the boulevard, enjoyed the Minnekirken -- the last remaining Norwegian language church in Chicago where the services are still conducted in the mother tongue even though all the kids have to wear earpieces to pipe in the English translation, and where the Pastor (an import himself from Norway) said, without a hint of irony in his voice: “Coffee hour is a very important part of what it means to be a member of this church."
(Was this her church? I don't know. I lost the envelope.)
Then had lunch at an amazing taqueria and loaded up at the panaderia across the street. All of this with the wondering lonesome grateful feeling that comes of knowing: They were here. Once.
Knowing that because they were -- my family, my ancestors -- because they managed to work it all out and live a good life and love some and give a little, knowing that because of all that: I am here now too.
A note on the map: It’s a fold-out map from the late 1800s delineating the entire boulevard system of Chicago. It shows Chicago before the L. Scored it last year at the Printers’ Row Book Fair for an unbelievably cheap $25. Now framed and hanging on my wall, like the treasure it is.