By Abbe Willner
Copyright 2001 Abbe Willner
If there is a wrong turn, one that leads to the very hardest, longest route, I always, eventually, take it.
Mine is a story of a girl, who is 46, single, living on her own, trying to earn a living. And, wondering if there really is a God.
My story began years ago, in Highland Park, Illinois. I had an enchanting childhood. And, loved every minute of it. Always the loner, I would, even as a small child, ride my bike to explore areas beyond.
I loved to investigate my area and did so in ways not unlike any other kid. I would tromp through ravines, play in vacant lots, and ride the train anywhere I wanted to go. I remember once, lying on my back in the cool, dark green - grass, actually thinking, "There must be someone I should thank for this".
2 atheists raised me, and there was never any mention of "God". ---Christmas was a time to exchange gifts. Easter, a time you received attention and candy, simply for existing. Who could ask for more?!
My best friend and mentor was Blanca, a snow white, german-shepard, who, it could be said, was overly protective. She taught me how to walk. I brushed her teeth, and even blew her nose….although, until I put the cotton up to her nose, she didn't really need it.
Highland Park is an incredibly beautiful place. We lived in a house overlooking Lake Michigan. The weather was cool, but exactly to my liking. I have an older sister who is known as Sarah Bernheart because she is extremely dramatic. Our whole family, in one way or another, was and still is, controlled by her.
Dinners were always unsettling because this was the stage where her performances for control were held; always vying for, and taking control… Present were my father, mother, Sarah and me.
My father, Jack, was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He was an investigative reporter covering the Mafia. Actually, the term investigative reporter wasn't in existence then, but that is what he did.
My mother was a housewife. And, although there were 2 of us children, and my mother didn't work outside the home, we had a nanny named Josie. How I loved her. What a gentle and loving soul.
Josie was "black". Again, I didn't know anything about this really. She wore a locket of "Asfisity" around her neck, and her room reeked of it. She said it was to keep evil spirits away. Didn't know what that meant, but I loved being around her. I would sit with her in her room as she sewed, or read. What an idyllic time….
Sometimes, as is the norm for Chicago, we would have a blizzard. I can remember there being 3 feet of snow on the ground. All of the power was out. We would play poker by candlelight and sleep by the fireplace. Of course, school was still open and, getting there, meant walking to Indian Trails, for me.
I was then a very optimistic child. And, I didn't know a stranger. I would talk to any and everyone. My father has a sister, Anne. She has 3 children, my cousins. Barbara, the oldest, was about my age. She was my partner in crime whenever we were together.
My father's mother died when he was 13. My Grandfather, Papa BJ didn't remarry until he was in his 70's. He always married well, and had an apartment on East Lake Shore Drive. He had a cook named Merle who would bake the best brownies that Papa BJ would bring weekly before taking us to "Fun Fair". And, always he would say, just as we left the driveway, "Off we go with Phoebe Snow."
Lake Shore Drive…go north, until you hit Ft. Sheridan…this is where I lived…
Who could ask for more?…
Everything was perfect….
Except,… that dinner thing. My sister hated me. But, really, she appeared to hate everyone. I loved her. And, always forgot all the mean things she did to me. We rode horses at Onwescia in Lake Forest, went to concerts in Ravina Park, and since dad was a reporter, got to go to the circus. We even got to go back stage and pet the elephants. At Thanksgiving, the entire Chicago family would rent a floor at the Drake and all of us kids would put on a performance.
My sister was always trying to irritate me. She would tell me at night that she could talk to the Martians. I couldn't do this because I wasn't important enough. And, if there was any opportunity for her to point this out, she took it. Once, she told me that I couldn't operate the mangle. (a thing that ironed sheets) which we had in the basement.
That was all the goading I needed, and one afternoon, when just Joise and I were home, I tried to operate the machine. I was originally left -handed. I put a handkerchief in the top, and, it fell. I thought I had enough time to pick it up. I didn't. Wrong again. My left hand was burned to the bone.
My parents were on a trip sponsored by The Chicago Press Club. They seemed to do this a lot. They would go to far away places, and bring us back gifts.
Josie didn't drive, so, going to the hospital didn't happen. And knowing that I was not supposed to play with the mangle, I told her that I had put my hand under hot water. She wrapped my hand. Still, too afraid I would get in trouble, I didn't say a word. I went to my Aunts for dinner and she asked what had happened. Immediately I was at the Doctors and they were contemplating what to do. I had extremely bad burns, and on my middle finger, there wasn't any skin.
They contemplated amputating my hand. Papa BJ said no. And, so, for the next two years, my mother would take me to Passion Hospital daily; the 2 hour train etc. ride, to change the bandages and figure out what to do next. My Dr.'s name was Dr. Bell.
Although I could, and would, talk to anyone, anyone that I especially liked, I couldn't say a word to. This happened to be the case with my uncle Lambie ( Papa BJ's Brother). I would run up to him, get face to face, turn red, and not be able to say a word… Dr. Bell was in this category too.
For hours, I would sit, with my hand in exactly just the position he needed, gazing at him. After 2 yrs and several skin grafts later, my hand was operable.
My Mother's family was from St. Louis. And, a couple times a year, her father would come visit us. It was always memorable, because he used to drink a raw egg for breakfast.
When we were old enough, my sister & I would visit her parents in St. Louis. I remember it being so hot you felt you would melt. I never looked forward to this, but figured it was only once a year… Every day of these visits, my grandmother's first words to me each morning were, "Did you have a BM today?". I didn't know what a BM was, so I always replied , "yes". An interesting aside is that she died of a bowel obstruction.
As the tension grew at the dinner table, so did the tension in our family. When I was nine, my parents declared they were getting a divorce.
A divorce…what does that mean?
Soon, I was to find out. My father moved to an apartment downtown, and we saw him on the weekends. My world was affected, but not horribly. I figured that if they didn't get along, it was better for them to separate. Naive but not hopeless.
My Father, at 40, decided to chuck the world and move to Europe. My mother decided to move back to St. Louis. Being that I had, thus far, only experienced happy days, again, I figured it would be an adventure.
It was an adventure, but not the kind I was thinking of. Upon arrival, in the sweltering heat, I inquired where the beach was. "There is no beach." I was informed. We moved in with my mother's brother, Herb. His wife, Evelyn, has a daughter named Susan. So, the three of us, and the 3 of them lived in a 3 -bedroom home in Park West subdivision.
That fall, we moved to an apartment in University City. And I attended Flynn Park. One of the things I remember most about this time, is that we attended a "thing" at my mothers' parents house. It consisted of drinking wine and "indulging" in fish that looked like it was a science experiment, with flat , stale, thin stuff.
My sister and my mother were always yelling at each other. It was horrible. I would go into the bathroom and cry. To try to curtail this screaming, I would do whatever was needed, in the hope that it would stop.
This was the first, major wrong turn. But, ever the optimist, I didn't see it that way….