I had a uniquely Omaha experience this week. I visited the Mormon Trail Center in the Florence neighborhood. I wound up there when my sister’s flight from Chicago was delayed, and I didn’t find out until I was in North Omaha. Hoping the delay would be brief, I followed the signs to the MTC. I was hoping for a little history on my hometown, since I know little to nothing about Omaha’s past.
After a year in Omaha, I have been racking my brain for an anniversary topic. It finally occurred to me to talk about the old vs. new things I can recall. For example, this morning I was driving to drop off a bunch of unsold garage sale items at the Assistance League Thrift Shop. On the way, I caught a glimpse of the Woodmen of the World tower. I remembered having a pre-prom dinner at the tower’s renowned restaurant on 17th and Farnam. The Top of the World restaurant is no longer open, but I remember how much I liked my prom dress. I wish I had kept it. The tower is no longer the tallest building in Omaha, but certainly visible from Interstate 80 headed downtown.
Yesterday, I visited my sister at the Clarkson Tower. Clarkson Hospital is where my mom gave birth to me – not to mention where she received her nursing degree. The Tower is set amidst several medical buildings, and the traffic and parking are a nightmare. Fortunately, I don’t remember any traffic from my birth, but a couple years after my birth I was in the hospital for a kidney problem, and I remember the antiseptic smells, and nurses taking blood. I didn’t like hospitals much back then, and I can’t say I’ve grown any fonder of them. After all the time spent with Mom after her car accident, I fret about the shortage of caregivers. I worry about the state of health care and how we can fix it. Mostly, I worry about being on the receiving end of care.
Whenever I go to my mom’s house – which is the house in which I lived from age 3 months to 18 years old – I see one huge change. As a child, I rode to the store on my bike. We would take a left out of the driveway, then take a quick right. At the end of the street was a gravel/dirt road that became so narrow that we could only pass one at a time to the other side, where pavement picked up again. Off to the left (east) was a huge field that led to an apple orchard, where we played softball. I have scars on my knees from wiping out on the gravel more than once. I’ll never forget those bike rides to Hinky Dinky and Beaton Drugs. Now, it’s all filled in with houses and the dirt road has been replaced by pavement. It feels a lot more urban, although it’s a nice shortcut.
I drove by my grade school the other day – St. Pius the X. It looks the same, but I noticed the girls’ uniforms are no longer black, brown, gold and white plaid. The kids playing on the parking lot were in blue and red jumpers. It was a huge right of passage to remove the top part of the girl’s jumper when you finished 5th grade. Many girls would be tearing out stitches on the school bus home, getting ready to wear just a white blouse and skirt in 6th grade. Even then, your attire revealed a lot about your status in life. I wondered if the cafeteria is in the same place, and if they still serve peanut butter on apple slices.
I have performed many times at the Holland Center since arriving in Omaha. It is a great facility, and I’m often reminded of my youth orchestra concerts at the Orpheum. I’m glad the Orpheum is still around, and still presenting concerts. I’m also glad the city has a progressive view of the arts. This weekend, I’ll be performing at Riverside Park, and being close to Carter Lake will no doubt remind me of the one time I tried to find a picnic there (and failed).
I wish I had a pithy ending, but observing how things change isn’t anything new for anyone. But acknowledging change, learning from it, and moving forward are important to me. My mom taught me an abject lesson in that after her car accident. I would have been crying every day, but Mom dug in to her inner-Iowa reserve of stoicism and just moved forward. Sometimes what comes after isn’t better or good. But usually what comes after THAT is ok. Memories are great, but getting stuck isn’t.
The other day I picked up my mom from having lunch with her friends. At first I went to the wrong restaurant, which meant, coincidentally, that I drove by many places where my mom used to pick me up.
The first major location was the Westroads. I grew up about a mile north of the Omaha institution, and Mom had to pick me up from the movies, shopping, and eventually, work. The Westroads movie theater was the first place I ever saw a movie BY MYSELF. My sister wanted to see Billy Jack, and I didn’t, so I went to American Graffiti instead (for the second time). The theater had a walk-up ticket booth, and a food bar that served six small theaters which wrapped around in a semi-circle. While I was living elsewhere, the movie theaters were torn down. It was sans-movies for a long time, until the mall was revamped or rejuvenated, and a mega-plex was installed. I haven’t been there yet.
My first job was at the Westroads. I worked at King’s Food Host, just down the Mall hallway from the theaters, making cheese Frenchees and fries. I was not-quite 16, and while I liked earning money, it was tough being around all that grease. (That grease was not changed nearly enough, IMHO. Maybe it added to the flavor). Eventually, I switched jobs, to Dippy Donuts, but by then I was driving myself.
I also drove by the library at Dodge and 90th. I spent many hours there as a girl, including one summer when I was in the book club. I remember reading a book with a character named Chloe. I loved that book, and wish now I could recall its title. Assuming the library is laid out in a similar fashion to when I was a child (ha ha), I could show you where that book was (and maybe is??) on the shelves. The last time I went there, I tried to check out books, but had a fine I couldn’t pay. One of my classmates worked there, and had to tell me about the fine, and I was so embarrassed I never went back. I wonder if that fine is still on file. Imagine the interest.
Another fav movie destination was the Indian Hills Theater. It’s now gone, but as I drove by, I could see its circular form almost as clearly now as in my childhood. I’m pretty sure I saw Star Wars there. I didn’t see Star Wars at first, because I thought it was a boys’ movie. My friend, Lynn, convinced me to go, and I loved it.
I arrived to pick up Mom, and had to go inside to fetch her. Back in the day, I was expected to be waiting outside for Mom, but since Mom’s car accident, she sometimes likes an arm to lean on when she’s walking. Her friends had kindly waited with her, after I texted that I had gone to the wrong restaurant. In my youth, if something held Mom up, I couldn’t really do anything but continue to wait. In extreme cases, I would use a pay phone to call again. I used to count cars, and say, “She’ll be here within the next 10 cars.” Usually, she was, but sometimes I had to count from ten more than once. Now I realize that sometimes you can’t get away at the precise moment you’re called. Or you go to the wrong restaurant.
A destination not on my path, but nearby (it’s Omaha, remember?), was my flute lessons. My teacher lived a bit east of the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). For nearly two years, Mom drove me to my weekly lessons. She sat outside in the car for 30 minutes, because it was not long enough to really get anything done. Mom knew a back way to my teacher’s house, and the first time I drove by myself – newly minted driver’s license in hand – I got lost trying to follow her labyrinthian route. Ugly crying, looking for a landmark, watching the…..watch (no car clocks back then). Suddenly, the correct block was in front of me, and my teacher’s house beckoning. I was five minutes early. This experience no doubt added to my already OCD-like need to be early.
Mom and I arrived at her house, and I walked her in, said hi to my sister and Mom’s cat, Max, and left. That’s another thing – Mom and I always had the same destination, and it strikes me that I live in Omaha, but not with my parents and sisters. Just because a few years went by….
I don’t know why I didn’t walk or ride my bike more back then. The distances seem so short now, after living in a big metropolis. I even remember Mom arranging a carpool for kindergarten, and I lived four blocks away from Edison Grade School. It may have been because I was ill as a child, or because I was lazy. Or both.
Funny how one errand can turn into an full-length movie of a memory, with reflections on modern habits to boot.
I just returned from a month-long stay in Minneapolis. While I would have loved to sleep for a couple days, instead I was committed to co-hosting a book club party with my sister, Mary. The book we read was my suggestion, after all.
I have never been in a book club. That may be surprising to many of you who know I love reading. But it’s probably not surprising to those who know I’m not crazy about parties (which is what book club meetings are). I managed to survive two+ decades in Minnesota without being in a book club. In Omaha, since my sister founded the book club, I was inducted within two months.
Sadly (she said sarcastically), I couldn’t make any of the meetings until November, when I, the newest member, boldly suggested we read Vanity Insanity by Mary Kay Leatherman. The book is set in Omaha, more specifically at St. Pius the X grade school, where Mary Kay (née Mangus) Leatherman and I were classmates. Once I suggested we invite Mary Kay to the book club soirée, the book’s fate was sealed as next on the list.
I contacted Mary Kay through Facebook – the same way I found her after three decades – and she agreed to come to our discussion. It was scheduled for February 16, two days after my return from Minnesota. I had to unpack immediately, help clean house and prepare food, and encourage my sister to finish the book.
Honestly, I was excited as heck to see my grade school friend again, especially after reading her book. The first part of Vanity Insanity covers a couple years of grade school, and Mary Kay’s memory for some of the details was amazing. Songs, games, toys, people, the ritual of our Catholic upbringing, and the ‘feel’ of growing up in Omaha at that time came back in waves as I turned the pages. I kept guessing who her fictional characters were in real life, from the priests and nuns to the boys and girls at St. Pius.
Mary Kay came to the meeting with her sister, Robin, and we had a wonderful discussion about the book, as well as sharing memories of some of the book’s events. Mary Kay and I recalled being together, at a 4-H meeting, during the Tornado of ‘75. We talked about the ice storm of ‘97, and why it was such a poignant time in her life. We asked her if Character Z was really Joe Smith from St. Pius, and if she, Mary Kay, was in the book. Omaha – and its current and lost landmarks – was covered extensively. Even those who weren’t Catholic or didn’t grow up in Omaha enthusiastically participated in the discussion.
We potlucked food reminiscent of the St. Pius the X school lunches, including Sloppy Joes, fish sticks (it was a Lenten Friday, after all), tater tots, fruit cocktail, peanut butter on apples, and sugar cookies. Mary Kay brought push pops and ice cream sandwiches, and Robin brought frozen Snickers bars – but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.
At the end of night, Robin asked for the name of the club since she wanted to post a photo on Mary Kay’s website (marykayleatherman.com). It didn’t have an official name, but after much discussion, it was named after my sister, Mary, using her nickname of Scary: The Scary Book League.
It was a definite highlight of my time in Omaha. Not only did I get to be sentimental about my childhood, I also re-met a person who was a big part of that childhood. I’m not sure that would have happened in the days before social networking, but I certainly am glad Omaha brought together a great group of women to share a meal and their memories. Maybe book clubs aren’t so bad after all.
I really meant to write a blog six months into my move. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was too late. November 23 was the correct anniversary of my move. It also happened to be the three month anniversary of my mom’s big car accident. And Thanksgiving.
But November 23 was kind of a wash. My first Omaha Thanksgiving as a second-time-around Omahan had its trials and tribulations, and the following days were filled with the busy-ness of life.
Overall, I’d have to give Omaha a passing grade so far. Here are the major categories I’ve evaluated:
HUMAN MEDICAL CARE: I have been treated, second-hand, to the services of many care-giving institutions. Since my mom’s accident, I have spent untold hours in the hospital, at acute rehab centers, and in doctors’ offices. I’m not going to go into detail (although I may devote an entire blog to it later), because as you might expect, there are some really outstanding people, and some real duds.
No matter the reputation of an institution, it can still hire someone who simply doesn’t care. No matter the pay of an institution, it can wind up employing one of the most generous and competent persons ever to walk the floor. The food is bad and the staff is overworked, but the pellet ice is the greatest on the planet!
ANIMAL MEDICAL CARE: In the last two months, my family lost three pets, including my own kitty, Oliver. Before Oliver ‘left,’ he and I experienced many medical adventures, and I have to acknowledge the smarts and the compassion of the folks at Midwest Veterinary Referral and Gentle Doctor. I am still in shock that my energetic, playful and funny cat is gone, but these vets, and his vet in Minneapolis, Caravan Vet, helped me have many more moments with him than I might have otherwise.
CULTURE: I have to guiltily admit I have not taken in much culture, unless I am part of creating it. I have subbed with the Omaha Symphony several times, and have enjoyed every minute. After so many years playing mostly opera, it’s really fun to play with a full orchestra in some of the “other repertoire.”
I have been teaching middle school kids once a week. I know, I know – don’t let your jaw fall off when you drop it. Thanks to a collaboration with the Omaha Conservatory of Music, I get to spend time with some young band students. It is as much fun as it is challenging!
SHOPPING: How does someone with limited income and a shopping addiction survive? Thrift shops, of course. At the moment, there is a map of Omaha on my wall, with all the thrift shops marked. I can’t believe there are so many Goodwill shops! But my favorite is Thrift World, with its 50% off sales and its ‘mystery bags.’ Thrift America also has good sales, and the Surprise Thrift Shop has the cheapest wine glasses.
ARTISTIC PURSUITS: I haven’t stopped making mosaics, but I have started a new venture. I’m calling it “cats under glass.” It uses nearly 100% recycled or repurposed
items, mostly from the thrift shops I frequent frequently. My latest opus, shown here, combines mosaic making with this new hobby, and is called, The Cat’s Museum. As you can see, Omaha is taking my right brain to some unique places.
That is the six month wrap up of my Omaha life. Now that Mom is nearly recovered, I hope to get a little more prolific in my writing, and really reflect on the old and new aspects of Omaha from my older and wiser perspective.
Growing up, our neighborhood’s inhabitants frequented the businesses near 90th and Maple Street – Hinky Dinky, CheapSkate, Beaton Drugs. Around the corner, fronting Maple Street on the south, were a couple businesses and a parking lot. We went through the parking lot to get around a no-left-turn exit.
That parking lot had two speed bumps. Both were fairly effective in that if you didn’t go slowly, you’d get quite a jostling. But the second one always had a divot. If you guided your car just right, you could have your driver’s side tires miss the bump, and reduce the jostling considerably.
Upon return to Omaha, I visited the current businesses on this corner, and headed home through the same parking lot to discover the speed bump, divot still in tact. I don’t know if the divot had been moved or replaced over the years, or if it remained untouched from decades ago, but it made me laugh and feel a rush of nostalgia. Herewith I give you, an ode to this humble speed bump, or rather, to its divot. Since I’ve never written an ode, I simply borrowed heavily from other ode writers.
Ode to a Speed Bump
Ah, happy divots, ah, pleasing shade, Ah, detours belov’d in rain Where once my careless childhood stray’d A stranger yet to pain. (1) Stoop, angels, hither from the sky! There is no holier cavity of pitch. (2)
Then glut thy sorrow on a morningrose, Or on the interstice of the asphalt speed bump. (3) Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy parking lot? (4) From hence, ye drivers, undeceived, Know, one false wheel is ne-er retrieved. (5)
Thou wast not born for death, immortal aperture! (6) And O, may Heav’n for many years to come, Preserve the lacuna from Nature’s final doom. (7) For this divot, and for all these things: praise. (8)
- Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Thomas Gray
- Ode, Henry Timrod
- Ode on a Melancholy, John Keats
- Ode to Autumn, John Keats
- Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfish, Thomas Gray
- Ode to a Nightengale, John Keats
- Ode to his Wife, Warren Hastings
- Ode, Paisley Rekdal
If you thought this blog would be completely pro-Omaha, I’m going to disabuse you of those notions right away. Although my last blog was truthful in its hopefulness and happiness about my life here, sometimes cities disappoint you.
It could be the gun toys I see for sale in grocery stores, the one-page websites, or simply the commitment to using fax machines. (Is there a fax machine-making company here?) Or it could be the day something bad happened in Omaha.
Last week my mom was in a car crash. The person for whom I moved here was smashed up badly. Three surgeries, nine days in ICU and a few more in the ‘general population.’ Next up – acute rehabilitation, before she can go home. She can’t bear weight on her left leg for six weeks, and her right arm is broken, so she’s learning to pivot on one leg. The doctors, nurses and PT/OT staff are telling her every hour to use the spirometer every hour to avoid pneumonia (WE GET IT!). Yes, I wrote every hour twice.
My sisters and I have been rotating nights at the hospital where we get very little sleep, so I’m a bit punchy about the whole thing.
Mom is 85 years old.
So I’m super mad. At Mulhall’s for having an entry so close to where traffic backs up and for selling corn on the cob. At people who wave other people through without checking the traffic first. At the guy who called and said Mom wasn’t seriously hurt, and who also hit her with his BIG truck. At the city streets for being so ridiculously bumpy as my mom was riding (in pain) in the ambulance to the hospital. At beeping oxygen monitors, bad cafeteria food, and having to wait to be rung in to see my mom. At doctors who don’t seem sincere when they ask how you are, and nurse aids who don’t show up.
And irrational as it is, I hold this against Omaha. This crash is imbedded in my system of weights and balances, and as of today, Omaha has some catching up to do.**
* When I was in high school, my mom banned the word ‘suck’ from the house. I could not use it in her presence. Even though it was an ‘it’ word at the time, I never acquired a habit of using it because I couldn’t use it at home. That’s why it is the perfect word for this post.
** I read this post to my mom. She is a private person, and I wanted her permission to post it. After I finished reading it to her, she said, “It could have happened anywhere.”
For some, the idea of moving back “home” is unthinkable. Home may be a tiny, ramshackle town in some backwater part of a backward state. Home may be gone, with family moving on to other places or dying, and properties moving into strangers’ hands.
It may just be inconvenient to go home. If someone has a decent job in a decent place, why upset that apple cart without good cause?
I can’t pinpoint when the idea of moving back to Omaha came upon me. I know it was before Oliver (my cat) became really sick, and long before Isabelle (my other cat) passed. In my mind, when I first considered it, they would both be relocating. At least four years went by, and then I lost my Isabelle – the love of my life – and my house in Minnesota was no longer home.
I also can’t pinpoint all my reasons for moving, but primary was the realization that the people who know me best were quite a few miles away. I mean no disrespect to my friends in Minnesota, who are my family because we chose each other, as opposed to being foisted into each others’ lives.
Being home is more than the physical location or the people. I felt completely at home in Scotland, and I was traveling alone. I felt at home in Minnesota when Isabelle was alive. It’s free breath, a peaceful mind, the enjoyment of now, and effortless communication. It is feeling as though I sprung up from this place, and have infinite belonging to it.
Maybe I’m trying to make a bigger deal of it than it is. Omaha is my hometown. My mom and four sisters live here (and a niece, nephew, and niece-in-law). By selling my Minnesota home, I am completely debt free. By living with my sister, my expenses are more than reasonable. I never liked Minnesota all that much, and I’ve never been about places, but rather about what I’m doing, and with whom I’m doing it. The timing was finally right, so here I am.
I may be responding to those who never thought they’d see me here again. There was a point in my youth where I didn’t expect to return to Omaha because of my career. The politics of Nebraska drive me crazy, and I have probably surprised some by moving to a conservative state.
Whatever my path, I’m just approaching the three month corner on being here. I have unpacked (mostly), transferred my health insurance, car insurance, car title and registration, and driver’s license to Nebraska. Oliver seems well settled, although integration with my sister’s cats has not happened yet. I have a new veterinarian for Oliver, a new doctor for me, and I will, eventually, reach out for new friends here. I have kept a low profile this summer, but I will be getting my introvert arse out there.
Mostly, I have spent the summer reacquainting myself with home. I’ve spent loads of time with family and visiting thrift shops. I found an ice cream maker at a thrift shop, and have perfected the art of ice cream, which is my contribution to most family gatherings. My specialty is chocolate malt ice cream, although you can’t go wrong with vanilla.
My new house is backed up to a golf course, and whenever someone hooks (or slices, if she is left-handed), she has a good chance of gifting my sister and me a golf ball. The golfers are not allowed to breach the yard, so I go out every few days and gather the lost souls peppering the grass. Some of them are personalized, and I feel sorry that the person using the ball had to lose it. My all-time high is five balls in one day, so I have a respectable collection after three months. I’m thinking about how to incorporate my treasures into an art installation.
My sister and I started an animal collection at the front of the house. From thrift shops, we have happened upon some pretty awesome dog, cat, bunny and bird statues, and they are singing and playing right outside my window.
It has been a simple, but new, summer. It isn’t rocket science to make ice cream, and collecting golf balls and animal statues won’t earn me any money. But these lovely, small additions to my life have affirmed my decision to come home, and that I have a place here. My brain is brimming with ideas and hopes, and my sister and I laugh all the time. I am home.