Each November or December, since this blog was created in 2012, I have waxed nostalgic about fond holiday season travel memories from years past. Some entries were about end-of-year trips to places far (Singapore and Malaysia, 2006), others about places not so far (Puebla, Mexico, 2003). Some entries were about time spent in cold places (Québec City and Montréal, 2008), others about places more tropical in nature (León, Nicaragua, 2016-17).
This year’s entry finds me thinking back to six years ago, during what would turn out to be my final trip back to the states for the holidays while a resident of Mexico City. While en route to Knoxville for a Smoky Mountain Christmas, I found myself “in transit” for four great days in Chicago, the city of my childhood. I grew up outside the Windy City, and have fond memories of school field trips and family car rides to the city’s museums, lakefront, ball parks, and shopping districts. Although I don’t regret my decision, circa 2000, to leave Chicago and move to Los Angeles (pre-Mexico and pre-pre-Tennessee), I find myself missing Chicago at times, and with fewer friends and relatives living in the city now than in 2000, I simply don’t get to return as often as I’d like.
Time passes and people move in and out of an individual’s life. It happens – and often without fanfare. I haven’t been to Chicago in what seems like ages, so this post is, in some ways, just the nostalgia trip that I need. In other ways, however, it is an exercise in catharsis. While the trip itself was great, one of the players who had a bit part in the story is no longer with us, and a second is in failing health. I hope you enjoy the tale…but as you read through to the end, know that it was written with a heavy heart.
The windchill hovered just above or just below zero as I rode the “L” from O’Hare International Airport (ORD) into the city, alighting downtown where I would meet my longtime friend Miles and stay with him and his family in their lovely Old Town townhome. I planned my layover with the idea of attending my cousin Jess’s wedding, four nights later, and also planned on meeting another friend living in the west ‘burbs before making an appearance at Miles’s annual holiday party.
Oreo, Miles’s friendly pit bull, gave me a tour of their home, and after pizza and conversation, I turned in early. The next day, one of those impossibly-bright and bitterly-cold days that anyone who has wintered in the Midwest can recall, found my walking through Old Town, past a former ad agency (now out of business) at which I worked a brief stint, through frozen Lincoln Park, to Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the country’s oldest zoos. To be sure, I ducked inside every building at the zoo to get warm, but I also walked around outside, camera in tow, photographing animals and holiday decorations. I commiserated with a long-haired camel whose beard had grown icicles; he sure was a handsome brute.
I must have risen late that day, for I don’t remember getting up to much of anything else until Miles and his wife, one of the youngest high school principals in the city, returned home from work, at which point we headed out for barbecue and live music somewhere in Wicker Park.
The second day found me spending my time closer to downtown. I walked along the “Magnificent Mile” stretch of Michigan Avenue, busy with commuters and shoppers scurrying to and fro. I walked along the lake shore towards the striking John Hancock Building – you probably recognize the image below, taken by me, from one of any dozen different movies – and eventually grabbed lunch at Jaffa Bagels, a take-out counter in the concourse level of the Illinois Center complex that, as of 2013 at least, still serves the city’s best turkey sandwiches. Strolling around the concourse, which connects five separate office buildings, one luxury apartment tower, and two hotels, also warmed me up, and of course gave me a chance to see what had changed in the 13 years since I had last worked there. Gone: California Salads. New: McDonald’s #9,997.
Two of Chicago’s most iconic sights are less than 20 years ago. The first, Cloud Gate, is a mirrored, arch-like, Anish Kapoor sculpture that is affectionately known as “The Bean.” People regularly gather in front of, and below, the sculpture for reflective selfies. The top half of Cloud Gate also reflects the skyscrapers across the road, and a dusting of snow capped off the works that afternoon. The other iconic sight, just below Cloud Gate and fronting Michigan Avenue, is a large ice-skating rink; the rink, Cloud Gate, an open-air theater, and a few other attractions comprise Millennium Park, which connects Michigan Avenue to Lake Shore Drive. Further south, Millennium Park becomes much-older Grant Park, home of a third iconic site, Buckingham Fountain, perhaps best known as the gusher in the opening credits of TV’s “Married…with Children.”
The fountain itself was turned off for the season, and looked lost in an icy wasteland of sorts, as the park was otherwise deserted on such a cold day. From Buckingham Fountain, I strolled towards my favorite Chicago museum, the stunning Art Institute, which accomplishes the tough job of making art – classical and contemporary – fun. I didn’t tour the museum on this visit – and at the time of writing I have yet to check out its Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, which opened in 2009 – but I did step inside to warm up, then spent perhaps 20 bone-chilling minutes photographing the lions outside the museum’s main entrance. My favorite lion picture is featured below, as is a remarkable capture, completely unexpected, of a nearby grove of trees still holding onto their fall colors despite the bitter cold and snow on the ground beneath. Really, the picture is something of a miracle…nothing special technically, but one of my favorite examples of the photographic serendipity that I often have on my travels by simply being in the right place at the right time. What do you think?
It was dark by the time I finished taking pictures outside the Art Institute, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I stopped off on the Columbus Drive Bridge to take pictures of the frozen Chicago River and skyline beyond (see below). Likewise, I’m sure I was nuts – if not pre-hypothermic – for snapping several pictures of Chicago’s famous Water Tower, the best of which (below) is a bit overexposed and out of focus. Dinner was back at Miles’s place, with Oreo claiming first dibs on any food that fell on the floor. I think I once again made it an early night, as I had walked what seemed like a dozen miles though was probably only four or five. (Today, I take a lap around my building at work during my lunch hour and call it a “workout.” My, how the mighty have fallen.) 😉
I slept in the following morning, and headed to the western suburb of Bensenville to meet my friend Steve, aka “El Hombre” (not his real screen name), of now-defunct Eurotrek.net-fame, for the first time. Steve, who was something of a legend on the old Eurotrek boards, developed an online persona of a horndog and a goofball, but is actually a pretty decent human being in real life. His 40-pound cat, Rusty, bonded with me immediately, and seemed quite displeased when we parted ways after a few beers and travel stories for my return trip to the city.
The night was young, and Miles and his wife Erin were hosting a party at their home which I am told is an annual event. I had wanted to say “hi” to Miles’s mom, who I hadn’t seen since Miles’s wedding two years earlier, but she had left seemingly moments before I arrived. Still, the conversation flowed, eased on my part by the fact that I was at least two out of the proverbial three sheets to the wind. While I maintain to this day that Erin doesn’t like me, she was a gracious host that evening, and I am very happy for her career success, and thankful to her and Miles for having housed me.
The house finally emptied of guests, save myself, and I asked Miles before he went to bed if I could borrow his tripod to set up my camera and take a selfie of myself in front of his lovely Christmas tree. He said “yes”…and in hindsight, probably wishes he would have said “no.”
Feeling inspired (and probably still drunk), I set my camera on the tripod as I said I would, then stripped down to my long johns, socks, and winter hat, and set the camera’s ten-second timer for a shot that would make social media history…but not before stuffing a tube sock or two into the crotch of my long underwear for comedic effect. I won’t post the picture here, as I have (mostly) evolved from that sort of stunt work, but it did become a trend for a few years, through 2018 if I remember correctly. Those of you who are Facebook friends of mine in real life know the picture of which I speak, and I apologize for any scarring done to your corneas; it was all done in the spirit of comedy.
I finally went to bed around 4 a.m. and must’ve slept until noon. My day-by-day travel memory rarely fails me but I remember almost nothing of the next day until the wedding, held at a popular chapel for such events on the northwest side of Chicago.
My second cousin Jess is several years younger than me. While she currently works (I think) as a makeup consultant, she is also a talented singer and actress. I don’t know much about her husband, John, and I only met him once, but I know they had an usually long courtship and that he makes her very happy. This, coupled with the fact that attending her wedding would be a sort of extended family reunion for me – the first since attending my sister’s wedding 11 years prior – had me looking forward to the evening. (Normally, I’m not much of a “wedding” guy, as I can never seem to find a date.)
The wedding was fun, the food delicious, and the bride was blushing. It was nice to see people like my Uncle Jim, down 150 pounds and nearly unrecognizable, and my cousin Gene, who came decked out as Mr. Peanut, complete with top hat, tails, and monocle. The bride’s mother, my cousin Debbie, with locks as white as her daughter’s dress, was on her best behavior, trying not to cry tears of joy. I sat out the requisite garter toss and mostly enjoyed conversation with my table-mates, who included Gene and his family and another cousin, Tim, and his family.
Tim and Gene could surely compete for the title of smartest person on the extended Gringo family tree. Gene, I think, used to student teach at Harvard University, and earned his Master’s Degree there, too. Tim, meanwhile, has made a nice living working in the I.T. field, and can also claim a love of travel, of Memphis barbecue, of rock music, and of the Chicago Cubs. I don’t recall how Gene met his wife, Mary, but I know that Tim met his wife, Renee, in university, and that they had that rare, fabled “opposites attract” chemistry that we all hear about but seldom encounter in person. Where Tim was quiet, Renee was boisterous. Where he would cringe at my aforementioned Christmas pictures, Renee would burst out laughing. Together, they were much more than just the sum of their parts, and sitting at their table was a highlight of an altogether fun evening.
Renee passed away unexpectedly three nights ago.
I don’t have all the details, but am told that no one else was home when she passed, and that the cause is believed to have been a blood clot that formed after knee surgery several weeks earlier. In addition to her widower, Tim, Renee leaves behind a college-aged daughter and son. I hardly know Tim and Renee’s kids; prior to Jess’s wedding, the last time I had seen them they were little more than toddlers. That being said, if their parents are any indication, they will rebound, and even thrive. But it is Tim that I worry about. “He will have a hole in his heart that may never be filled,” my dad said after I told him the news. Tim has a good head on his shoulders, but I fear that my dad may be right.
It gets worse. I had heard rumors that Jess’s own mom, Debbie, wasn’t in the best of health, so I reached out. Turns out that “not in the best of health” is an understatement. Over the past eight months, Debbie suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery, only to be diagnosed with chronic leukemia. It is the last affliction that took my own mom’s life just over three years ago. My heart sank when I learned the news.
Debbie, who championed organic eating and alternative medicine before such concepts were trendy, has a giant heart. Though she, her second husband Doug, her daughter Jess, and her son Kevin never had much in the way of material things, she has always been generous – to a fault, some would say – with life and career advice, and as a one-time newspaperwoman, she took an interest in my own passion for writing while I took Journalism in high school and studied Communication and Writing in college. It would seem that her heart was so big that, in fact, it literally broke.
Of course, Debbie is still with us. I hope that her will power and commitment to holistic healing gets her through. It didn’t feel right of me to ask Jess about her mom’s prognosis, but considering all that Debbie has been through this past calendar year, I don’t know how much more her body can take. Hopefully, her fighting spirit remains strong. Jess has a birthday later this month, and her charity of choice for donations via FB is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a non-profit volunteer organization whose researchers work tirelessly on advancing treatment of the many blood cancers that are out there. The link above is to LLS’s donation portal; please give if you can.
Although I concluded this year’s Holiday Travel Memories post on an uncharacteristically somber note, it seemed like the right thing to do. Life is fleeting. As a friend of mine said two days ago when I told her of my cousin’s passing, you never really know when it’s your turn to go. Truer words have seldom been spoken. Hug your loved ones close. Chase your dreams. Stop and smell the flowers. Travel.
Above all else, cherish every good moment. Because they’ll never come again.