Parked on the grass on a Sunday are lots of families, lots of women, many in headscarves or babushkas, many in dimije. (Dimije are similar to those balloon pants we associate with belly dancers, but not sexy – the crotch is positioned down by the knees, leaving room, as my honey says, for you to crap in them for a week).
I was quite the sight to some of those ladies, jumping into the deep in my tie-dye bikini, my breasts swollen with blue veins, my full pregnant belly exposed, somersaulting and twirling in the middle of the lake.
Swimming in Bosnia: it’s a feminist thang. And that’s not just because it shows your body – Bosnia is extremely lax in its dress code compared to the Middle East. On a Saturday night promenade, there are far more Muslim hoochie mamas in silver mini-skirts than Muslim ladies wrapped in scarves. No, swimming is a feminist thang because in some areas of rural Bosnia, people just don’t teach their girls how to swim. So it feels kind of dangerous, kind of sensual, kind of wild.
I attended Mommy ‘n Me swim class at the Y with my mother before I had a full head of hair and I’ve been swimming ever since, but suddenly, in this cultural climate, this skill I’ve taken for granted makes me a badass.
The real badass, though, was the one mother who refused to be left out of the fun had by her husband and her son. She was cloaked head to toe in somber charcoal gray, but she waded in, wet to her knees, tossing the ball with them. Allah bless her.
"Cowboy" is Dad's legendary father, who partied twice as hard and lived 20 years longer than his son, and died senile in a stinky nursing home. (Grandpa Cowboy, of course, had mild brain damage since his 30s- ever since he won a midget car race upside down.....)
My father ordered seven gray sweatshirts silkscreened with the word "COWBOY" so that the "bruthas and sistahs" who cared for him in the nursing home would remember his nickname every day of the week.
The night after the funeral we went to Betsy’s house. Her suburban neighbors had cooked for us: pork and chives, scalloped potatoes, spinach salad with raspberries. The rain raged, and tornado sirens went off for the first time in a generation. It sounded like war.
“Dad’s angry up there,” someone said.
We piled into the basement, which was nothing but beige carpet and possibility. Someone brought down the baby. He popped right into the swing of things, crawling and blabbing, and the girls did yoga-nastics in princess and monkey pajamas. My father’s best friend picked up Ribby the sexy white cat by her armpits and made her dance around, doo-doo-doo, and lifted her up so her legs swung in circles and her hips swirled, ooh la la!
Rain stopped. Distant wails of emergency vehicles. We drove home through the dripping city around fallen trees. My sisters had been sleeping in the bedroom next to my stepmother every night, and tonight was going to be my night – I even had my toothbrush – but it looked too lonely. I wanted to sleep with my man.
At home only Dad’s blue electric globe glowed, and I sat at my desk and looked at his small and spongy bone, and I kissed it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but when you cremate, there are pieces left. I got in the shower with the father of my baby. We knelt and did each other’s legs top to bottom with pink pomegranate shampoo. Rain and thunder raged again, then it stopped, and lightning popped and popped across the silence.
He was a man of many voices. I’m sure a lot of us have some kind of regrets tonight, and one of my regrets was that I didn’t document the hundreds of voicemails he left me over the years. One of my favorites went something like this: “Yo, Reggie. This is Jojo. Listen, I’m in the slammer. Hey – tell Vito – all the cash is in my washing machine.”
You know, Maggie – Tom’s godmother, who was best friends with Edie, his mother – told me that when Tom was a little boy, his mother would put his dinner in those aluminum pie tins. She wouldn’t give him his dinner on a plate because he’d broken so many plates throwing tantrums and throwing ‘em on the floor. So Tommy ate out of a pie tin for the first years of his life.
And then there was one night I’ll never forget – does that sound familiar? I’ll never forget – well – to make a long story short – Dad had a real nice set a pots, cast iron, he said they cost a thousand dollars, and one night when Haley and I didn’t feel like washing our dinner dishes, he put ‘em in the garbage. We had to go out in the alley and look for the pots.
He could piss me off so bad – he could be such a quitter – and he could be sad, too. Now and then I’d come over and this house you all know so well for its parties would be dead silent – you could hear the clocks ticking out of sync with each other, and he’d just be standing there at the bar doing nothing, paralyzed by some feeling he couldn’t name. He had a heart of gold, but it was a closeable heart – it was a collapsible heart – and one thing I always wondered was whether I should try to pry it open. I didn’t challenge him or kick him in the butt, I watched him keep it inside. Maybe there was nothing I could do. But hey, we all thought we had so much more time.
I’m sure you all have thoughts about the next thing you were gonna invite him to, the thing you never got to do together. For me, it was karaoke. I took him once and I always wanted to take him again. We got him to stay up past his bedtime – I think he was out til nine thirty – and the song he chose, and he got up there and sang was – “Everybody loves somebody sometimes….” And then he finished, and then another song kicked up, and a young, overweight man got up to sing next and Tommy clapped his hands and said, “Alright! Big boy!”
I got the call that he was gone in the middle of the night, and about 3:30 in the morning I got in my car – Lincoln Avenue was so still and quiet it looked frozen – and I remembered the giddiness I would feel when my dad woke me up early to set off on some trip. In the summer he’d wake me up at dawn to take our puppy Princess to the beach. Somehow I remember it as a holy thing to do with a man who never really considered himself religious, to wake up when the sky was purple – that raw time of morning when only one little bird is chirping all by itself – and the puppy would be wiggling with excitement, and we’d drive through the silence to North Avenue beach. The beach would look so blank – and then the sun would burst up over the horizon, and tiny waves would ripple at the shore, and night would be over. There’d be traffic on the streets, and we’d get a box of donuts, and and we’d go home.
One Easter he surprised me with this card, a real sappy card with our Lord Jesus on it, the kind of clean blue-eyed Jesus that looks like he brushes his hair a hundred strokes a night – and Jesus is kneeling in a green field surrounded by baby animals. And inside he writes, Katie – someone had to have made all the birds and all the bunnies. Love, Dad. He gave me a ten-dollar bill too! I probably dumped the card. Kept the money.
And we may have our sadnesses and our regrets tonight, but I like to think that he doesn’t have any anymore. I like to remind myself that Tommy O’Rourke now knows something that none of us mortals in here know tonight. He’s out there – in the Mystery. And we can be comforted by the fact that he’s on one wild ride.
Now, in one of my previous incarnations I was a nursery schoolmarm. I relied on the enormous power of rhyme to entertain, hypnotize, and manipulate my tots, but I always wondered what these quaint songs passed to us from ye olde
Now I know that “Ring Around the Rosy” is about the Bubonic Plague (“ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”). “Jack and Jill” refers to the decapitation of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. (“Jack broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after…”) Even “Rain, Rain, Go Away” is, in essence, a war song.
So while adults still rely on nursery rhymes today to lull their babes, historically they’ve served another purpose: to satisfy the human preoccupation with scandal and gore.
HEAR MORE stories on Saturday, March 8 (3-8-08!)
The Book Cellar
(Merchants of fine literature, beer and wines!)
4736 N. Lincoln, Chicago at 7 pm
A fiction fest with Elizabeth Crane (author of three books including "When the Messenger is Hot") and Spencer Dew (author of "Songs of Insurgency," new from Vagabond Books).