Benson & Hedges and Beauty Salons

My mom’s cancer continued to spread. Early on in her diagnosis, I felt that nothing was shared with me. There was no explanation of what was happening other than cancer, chemo, radiation, with snippets of information that I would pick up randomly through my own observations.

As a self-professed student of Charlie’s Angels, Nancy Drew, and Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, I felt like I did okay with my sleuthing. However, it was hard for me to not understand what was happening. It made me feel juvenile and untrusted.

As we neared the summer of ’88, her illness and its side effects were obvious. She did wear a special cooling chemo cap that helped her keep her hair for a longer period of time. Oh, she loved her hair and having it done on a regular basis.

My mom, always well-coiffed.

As a young girl in the ‘70s, I would often accompany my mom to her beauty salon. It was a short walk from our house on Lenox St. and I loved everything about the place.

Her stylist looked like icon Tony Orlando to me and the atmosphere was epic. Thick rugs, velvety couches in bright, warm colors, all enveloped in the haze of cigarette smoke. My mom would give me some change for the vending machines and I would sit on a couch, in a cloud of smoke, sipping on a bottle of orange pop absolutely mesmerized by it all.

I cherished those trips with my mom. This was the era of women going to salons for a wash, set, and all of the gossip. I’ll bet she went weekly. I remember the warmth of the place with lots of laughter. There were all kinds of smells, muted of course, by the Benson & Hedges my mom smoked combined with all of the other brands swirling and condensing into certainly toxic clouds. I loved it.

My mom and I posing in our driveway.

As time passed, my mom switched salons and in the early ‘80s found herself with a stylist in downtown Oak Park. My mom had beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair. Like many women of a certain age, that blonde was enhanced. I’ll never forget coming home one day to a very distraught mom sitting at our kitchen table. Her hair was jet black.

Her fancy new stylist had made an error and it couldn’t be rectified for a few days. After a short period of mourning, she did call our backyard neighbor over for a laugh. They laughed and cried and smoked and likely had a drink or two as my mom lamented her situation.

In just a few days, she was back to her signature blonde look. In just a few months, that stylist was found dead of a drug overdose on the sidewalk in front of his salon. It seemed clear to me why he made such an error on her color.

Flash forward to the summer of 1988. I remember my mom being in the hospital beginning the week of my graduation. I don’t think she ever came home again. The hospital was a large teaching hospital in Chicago. It was about a thirty-minute drive from our house and I would go to visit her almost daily.

She was often asleep. Watching her deteriorate physically was painful to witness. As the days went on, the cancer had spread to her eyes and to her bones. She was losing her hair at this point. That was really hard for her.

Going to visit her was painful because it was now fully evident that she was incredibly ill. Her sense of humor was waning and her spirit was fading. I both treasured and dreaded these almost daily visits.

 

Graduations

Just a few weeks later, our family had two graduations to celebrate. My brother was graduating from college with plans to head to veterinary school. His graduation was first. My brother worked with the local branch of The American Cancer Society to secure a wheelchair so our mom could more easily attend the commencement.

My brother’s college graduation.

After we arrived, I vividly saw how fragile she had become and for the first time, I was fearful that she might die from this cancer that had interfered so savagely with our lives. For me, the day was tense and fraught with worry. I watched as my mom struggled to be comfortable, to breathe, to have the energy to be present and enjoy the occasion. She wore a favorite dress of hers—navy, past the knee, flared at the bottom, with white trim, almost a nautical theme. It was a special dress for a special day.

The graduation weekend took a toll on her physically. Later that week, she was admitted to the hospital with my high school graduation just days away. All I wanted at that moment was for her to be able to attend my graduation.

A long-standing tradition at my public high school was for the girls to wear long white dresses while carrying red roses. The boys wore dark suits with red ties. Finding a long white dress, that no one else found, was the goal.

With my dear friend since junior high.

My friends and their moms shopped together and I was devastated to be accomplishing this important task on my own. I waited too long and remember buying literally whatever was left. My graduation day came, and my mom was still in the hospital, unable to attend. I know she was sad to miss it.

I was angry that my brother’s graduation took so much of her energy that she couldn’t come to mine. I was angry that my friends all had stunning gowns that their moms helped them find. I was angry that when I walked into the football stadium, where I had performed on the sidelines and mid-field for years, my mom wasn’t there to help me get ready, to see me, to think I looked beautiful in a dress we shopped for together.

I scanned the handicapped section of seating, where I had to get special tickets for her to be in a wheelchair, just in case my family was able to surprise me and get her there. That is my strongest memory of the day I graduated from high school—looking to the roped-off section on the track for wheelchairs and scanning desperately for her.

Not spotting her, the rest of the day was a tearful fog. My family tried. When my name was called, and I walked across the stage to get my diploma, in my slightly wrinkled gown, they cheered maybe louder than any other group in the stadium and that made me smile. They saw me.

Yukking it up for my friend who was a yearbook photographer. Glad I got to walk with my friend Murph who always made me laugh.
All smiles with a broken heart. So thankful for friends like these who always supported me.

Post-Prom

Riding down the escalator, leaning into The Dude, to cheers of ‘Mod!’ explains that big smile on my face.

Senior Prom was everything I dreamed a high school dance could be, and more. We arrived at the venue and I remember riding an escalator down to the action. I stood in front of my handsome date and leaned into him. He kissed me again on the way down. Near the bottom, we were greeted by a bunch of my friends shouting, “Mod!” It was a wonderful feeling of belonging.

The Dude actually appeared to be glad to be my date and spent the entire night dancing and talking to me. While I thoroughly enjoyed planning prom the previous year, this was a whole new level of fun.

The next day, our small group of six followed tradition and headed to the family lake house of one of the guys in our group. Four of us drove in someone’s convertible, and that felt fancy! It was much better than The Jackass’s Jaguar. The Dude and I were comfortably snuggled in the back seat and I remember hours of laughter.

Was this really my weekend? I was in stunned disbelief.

Once we arrived at the cabin, it wasn’t quite warm enough to swim, but definitely warm enough to don

This is the suit I wore the day after prom. Yes, I’m drinking an Orange Hi-C juice box.

our swimsuits and hang out in the sun for a while. I was prepared for this. All of my time spent doing high kicks and dancing prepped my bod for my epic one-piece, strapless, cut over the hip, suit.

Did I mention the entire center was cut out, baring my well-toned abs? How I loved that suit. The Dude seemed to like it as well. We spent every moment together. We played games, we ate food, we talked, we laughed. At one point, we were even making out on the floor underneath a ping pong table. It was amazing!

The best part of that post-prom day trip to the lake was the sheer joy I felt, escaping from ‘real life’ and literally laughing all day.

What? My date is leaning into me, with an arm around me? I couldn’t stop smiling.
Sigh.
At our high school, it was a tradition in my friend group to leave dances in a limo.

Senior Prom

My mom was very happy that I had a date. Her health was not improving. As I understood it, at this point her cancer had spread to her bones and maybe her eyes. The details were vague and I was expected to contribute at home, lay low, and I felt like people wanted me to stay out of the way.

The Dude and I continued regular phone calls. On the day of the dance, I got beautified at my friend Tammy’s house. We did our own hair and makeup and we both borrowed dresses from her glamorous mom.

Mine was stunning peach silk, strapless, tea length, drop waist number with a bow of the same fabric prominent on the waistline, large rhinestones adding extra flair on the knot of the bow. I went back to Bakers for the ever-important matching shoe and purse dye combination.

I felt beautiful and headed home where The Dude would be picking me up. My mom was in the hospital for what I only knew were cancer complications. I would finally meet The Dude in person and see if he was as cute as he sounded.

My older sister secured the boutonniere to match my peach dress. My dad had the camera ready and there would be extra pictures taken for my mom to see.

The doorbell rang. I held my breath and opened the door. The Dude was as cute as he sounded. Breathless, I invited him in and walked through the house to get his boutonniere from the refrigerator. I was so excited for the promise of this night. I opened the fridge, grabbed the flower box, and peered inside.

Blurry from the zoom-in, but trust me, it was a boob.

Inside the box was a fresh giant white carnation and tucked into the exact center was a delicate peach rosebud. The boutonniere looked exactly, I mean exactly, like a boob. In a panic, I called my sister into the kitchen and demanded an explanation for this breast I was to pin on my super cute date’s lapel. She was also surprised as she hadn’t examined the flower boob when she picked it up. Through our panic, we were stifling our laughter. I was grateful for her efforts and knew it was really time to test The Dude’s sense of humor.

Just meeting in person for the first time.

As I pinned it on, I quietly apologized and he just laughed and went with it. What a relief. It appeared as though my blind date was indeed nice, funny, and cute. As I floated to his car, I waved at my dad and in a not quiet voice, we both heard my dad say, “Well, they’re off like a prom dress.” The Dude grabbed my hand and laughed some more. We drove to meet up with the rest of our group and were served champagne. What a night this was shaping up to be.

Meeting up with friends before heading to the dance.

The Dude and I continued to hit it off. We piled into taxis to transport us to prom, and in the backseat of that cab, The Dude turned his gorgeous face towards mine and kissed me.

I’m talking about a real, passionate, kiss. An actual unsolicited kiss before we even got to the dance. In my eighteen-year-old mind, every missed dance in high school years, and all the heartache from never being chosen as a date disappeared. It melted away on the lips of The Dude in the back of a taxi on the way to Senior Prom in Chicago.

 

Here We Go Again

My friends and I began hanging around with a group of guys from St. Pat’s, a Catholic high school in Chicago. It was just far enough from home to make it all very exotic and exciting.

With one of my besties, on a night the whole crew somehow landed at my house, in my famous rainbow-themed bedroom which was my haven during my high school years.

A brown-haired, brown-eyed stud whom I will call Mr. Smooth caught my eye, and along with others in the group, we coupled off. I can’t recall exactly how many weekends and phone calls were involved, but I was making out with Mr. Smooth on the regular, and Senior Prom was on the horizon.

Could it actually be that I might be dating a hot guy from Chicago and would have a willing date to my senior prom?

Time passed and our weekends were so much fun, hanging out and making out with the Chicago crowd. As talks of prom drew closer, my hopes were high and I was having fun with my new group of friends.

One day, it all crashed around me. I found out that Mr. Smooth asked another girl to his prom. What on earth? I thought everything was going so well. Apparently not.

Mr. Smooth, on the left.

I finally got hold of Mr. Smooth, via our landline, for an explanation. He and his buddies made a bet for who could get lucky on prom night. He “respected me too much” and thought it better to go with a sure thing so he could have a shot at winning. Yes, he actually told me this.

He went on to say I’m the kind of girl he wanted to marry, not win a bet with. Thank you? Whatever Mr. Smooth, I hope you don’t catch an STD on prom night.

I needed a date and this was getting depressing. My good friend thought she had a contender, a friend of her date. Again, the weird friend of a best friend’s date. Was this to be my legacy? But desperate times, right?

I will call him The Dude. It seemed as if The Dude was willing. He was a year younger than me and went to yet another local high school. I’m sure he thought the idea of another prom would be fun. Phone numbers were exchanged and I began my final campaign as a high school senior to secure a date to a dance.

We started talking on the phone. The Dude was nice and he was funny. We had never physically met, had no idea what the other looked like, and he accepted my invitation to the dance.

I had a date for senior prom.

Yep. I had a date.

Orchesis Goes Downtown

At the time I quit Drill Team, the Orchesis dance company rehearsals were beginning. I didn’t grow up dancing. I grew up playing sports. Once I got to high school and saw how cool the Orchesis and Drill Team girls were, I wanted to be that. I took every dance class my high school offered, did summer camps, and I worked really hard. I auditioned for Orchesis, and failed twice before I made the company my junior year. This was a great group of dancers, led by an even more wonderful director, and I was in actual awe that I got to be among their ranks. Our big dance showcase was in the spring, entitled Orchesis Goes Downtown.

For the first time in a long time, my mom was planning to come and see me perform. I bought tickets for my parents and knew this was a difficult outing for her to navigate. Her weakness and the extent of her illness was way more evident when she was out of the house. I was in the opening number of the show. The night they were to attend, I stood in the wings, with my eyes fixed on their empty seats. Suddenly, I saw another couple come in and sit in my parent’s seats. I started to panic as I watched my parents enter the darkened theater. My dad started helping my mom navigate the steep stairs as they descended to their row, right in the center of the theater, best seats in the actual house.

When they got to the row, my mom was obviously winded and leaning into my dad. Someone else was in their seats. I started to leave the wings and my friends held me back and pointed out that our director was heading to the situation and would smooth things over. The house lights came on. I held my breath. It was a good thing my director sorted it out and got my parents into their seats because our first number was a street scene in the city and I was dressed as a prostitute. I can only imagine the actual shock to the entire audience if I popped out of the wings in my leopard and spandex ensemble! The house lights went down and the music started. I patted my swelling tears back and took the stage. I danced for my mom and it felt incredible to know she was there. I wanted her to see me and to be proud.

Friendships and Celebrations

My senior year was enhanced by the friendships that I chose to surround myself with. When things at home were a struggle, I was welcomed into the homes of my friends and their families. I would spend hours and hours on the phone, with that cord stretched taut from the hallway to my bedroom. Throughout high school in the ’80s, another primary source of communication was note writing and passing. If I couldn’t use the phone, I’d pour out my heart on a piece of notebook paper and fold it up to be hand-delivered to a friend at school the next morning. We would stuff notes through locker vents and even pass them discreetly, or not so discreetly, during our classes. Bottom line—communication with my friends was a lifeline.

My mom, me, my sister, and Aunt Carole.

I learned the importance of friendship from my mom. She sought out and cultivated some incredible friendships. Growing up, I would love to ride with her to visit various friends, or walk to any number of her friends’ homes in our tight-knit neighborhood. I would often sit nearby and listen in on the gossip and laughter with a giant smile plastered on my face. There was always so much laughter. My mom brought the fun. Her oldest and dearest friend is my godmother and they grew up in Chicago like sisters and remained close throughout my mom’s entire life. My Aunt Carole spoiled me rotten and I loved every second of every minute in her presence. I still do. What I learned from my mom and her friends is that there is great value in sharing your life.

Another incredible skill my mom taught me was how to host a wonderful party. I could write a book on all of the parties she threw, and the time she spent teaching me how to arrange a tray of crackers, fun napkin displays, how to properly clean an ashtray, and so much more. She was the absolute queen of dinner parties.

Friends, and my cousin, at one of my birthday parties. The sloppy joe’s and Jell-o were present, along with some truly great friends.

For my birthday, I would always have a friend party and a family party with menus of my choosing. My standard fare for friend parties was sloppy joes, orange Jell-o with mandarin slices, potato chips, and chocolate eclair dessert. It was customary in elementary school to invite all of the girls in your class to your birthday party on the day of your birthday. At the end of the school day, with extreme anticipation, all of the girls would walk together to my house for the party. I loved those birthday parties! Junior high parties became slumber parties, and my mom actually threw me lovely dinner parties in high school.

My senior year was no exception, and it is a time I will always cherish. The celebrations began when my sweet friend Michelle hosted a giant surprise birthday party for me at her house. They lived in a gorgeous home with a big wrap-around porch. The night of the party, my friends grabbed me from home and blindfolded me. I was excited and nervous, joyful and terrified. What were these friends up to? We drove for a while and got out of the car. Someone held my hand as I was led up a sidewalk. I could hear hushed voices as I held my breath, wondering what on earth was happening. The memory still takes my breath away. The blindfold was ripped away and a collective, “Surprise!” rang out. Michelle’s porch was full of a huge variety of friends and they were gathered together to celebrate me. I felt the love and support of friends who knew a strong dose of cheer would lift my spirits. (Plus, I’m sure there were several there for a good party and had no idea it was my birthday!)

Gag gifts were the best part of the night with one friend giving me an inflatable Gumby, another ‘borrowing’ a school-issued swimsuit, and the famous Delta Fun guys chipped in their hard-earned resources to buy me a hideous 70’s inspired, polyester, flowered dress from Goodwill. If the purpose of that party was to make me laugh and feel cherished by my friends, the goal was met many times over.

A great group of friends gathered at my house for the 18th birthday dinner party my mom hosted.

Soon after the surprise party, my mom threw my birthday dinner party. The friends I invited were all thoughtful, caring, and so much fun. They weren’t all necessarily close friends with each other, but they each meant something to me and I am forever grateful to each of them.

Turning 18 was momentous.

The List

My mom and dad had a great love story and he always gave her fantastic gifts, including some beautiful jewelry.

At some point during my senior year, my mom created a list. She told my sister, brother, and me that we needed to look at the list and let her know that we were okay with its contents.

I was not okay with it.

The list was all my mom’s jewelry, divided up between us siblings. She wanted us to look at the list, on our own, and let her know we were good with her choices. I remember it being left on her little desk area in our kitchen.

I was not going to look at that list.

To my teen self, looking at the list admitted that my mom was going to die. My sister looked and she was fine with it. My brother looked—no issues.

I refused to look at the list. I dug in my heels and absolutely refused. Which, sadly, made everyone angry. No one figured out that maybe, just maybe, a teenager wasn’t prepared to agree to the list because then it just might give her mom permission to die.

I was not going to look at that list.

My sister approached me with anger. My brother was frustrated because I wasn’t being cooperative. Our mom wasn’t asking for much, why couldn’t I look and give my agreement?

Why couldn’t anyone understand why I didn’t want to look?

I said I was sure everything was fine, there was no need for us to even look. Whatever she decided would be fine. Fine, just fine.

I am quite certain everyone thought I was being a difficult teenager. I guess I was. I’m also quite certain that no one thought it was a big deal. I still don’t understand how no one seemed to see my perspective. I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to read the list. I didn’t want to agree to inherit jewelry. I didn’t want my mom to die.

I didn’t say that out loud. No one asked. I felt like there was just anger and so, I read the list.

I remember my eyes blurring from tears as I unfolded the list and scanned it. I didn’t want to read it, I wouldn’t actually ‘read’ it. But, I read it. Then my mom asked if I was good with it. No! I wasn’t good with any of it. She explained that my sister would get her diamonds because she was the oldest. My brother would get her engagement ring and wedding band because he could give them to his future bride. He got all of her gold jewelry. I would get her birthstone jewelry, a garnet earring/necklace/ring set, and another ring that my dad gave to her when they were dating. I would also get her pearl necklace because my sister got one as a wedding gift from her husband. She would get the pearl bracelet, and I would get the earrings.

Fine. I looked, I nodded, I cried by myself. At the time, the feeling was that I couldn’t share my sadness or feelings anywhere at home because I would make my mom feel worse when she was already so sick.

That day, I remember realizing that even though no details were really shared about the extent of her illness, it must be pretty bad if she’s making lists. I was crushed, I felt a piece of my spirit breaking.

Something’s Going to Break

With college plans secured, I spent my time at Drill Team practice, Orchesis rehearsals, work, or my friends’ houses.

At a summer performance with an Orchesis legend, rocking our amazing unitards. Oh yes, I loved my unitards!

Life at home was heavy. My mom seemed to always be in bed or upset. No one really asked about what I was doing. I was trusted to be making wise decisions. Honestly, I was doing a good job. I wasn’t a big drinker, instead choosing to drive a lot so my friends could drink whatever they secured from their parent’s collections or local liquor stores that easily sold to minors. I also noticed that when I drank, I tended to get sad and cry. That didn’t feel good and I wanted to avoid that feeling as much as possible.

Our Drill Team was a well-known, award-winning team. Our coach was definitely intense. We practiced daily and part of our warm-up was to be in our kick line and do 500 straight kicks in a row and if anyone, I mean anyone, stopped smiling, she would stop us and we would have to start again. Some girls would put Vaseline on their teeth to keep the smile cemented. I loved to kick, and actually enjoyed this part of practice. But I noticed that some girls (our team was quite large) would break and run to vomit in the nearby bathroom. Some of the girls wouldn’t make it to the bathroom. There was no mercy from our coach and it felt like a lot of pressure for a State title. I found my days drifting through classes at school, going straight to practice (which was now becoming far from fun), going straight to work at the video store, and then home to a depressing house. It started to wear on me.

In this routine, I was running up to do a toe-touch jump at this point. I did really love performing.

One day, I had enough. I decided to quit the Drill Team. At my high school, in 1988, this was unheard of. Being on Varsity Drill Team was a major accomplishment, a coveted position. Girls on the Freshman and JV teams worked hard with the hopes of making Varsity as a junior. I walked off and it felt like a great relief. Within the week, several more girls left the team. I became a bit of a hero and the other girls who quit thanked me for paving the way. I did feel bad for letting down my friends in leadership on the team. I also knew that if I didn’t quit something, I would soon break from the pressure building in my life.

 

 

Senior Homecoming

As the school year progressed, my dad took my bestie and I on two college trips and her parents took us on one. We both unknowingly chose to attend the same university the following fall. We were so excited and agreed we wouldn’t be roommates because we wanted to expand our friends and meet more people. I spent most of my waking hours at her house. Her parents were so kind and they had a warm and inviting home. It seemed she always had a boyfriend and we would hang out with their friends on the weekends. I still hoped for a boyfriend of my own and would have high hopes for a love connection each and every time I got ready to go out. I was set up with a guy from another school for Homecoming and we chatted on the phone a lot before the dance. He was a year younger so that made me feel like I definitely had a chance with the allure of being an older woman.

I had a blast in the dunk tank during Homecoming festivities. (photo credit: Tabula yearbook)

Homecoming week, as an involved senior, was an absolute blast. So many activities including a newly added carnival where I spent a turn in the dunk tank. I loved being busy and laughing as much as I could. Our high school had football games on Saturday afternoons. The day of the dance, I performed the school fight song and a show stopping kick routine for half-time.

Getting ready, I put my hair into the fanciest style I could—a headband French braid, with the end tucked behind my ear and then I used the smallest wand curling iron in existence to curl the ends of the rest of my hair. Oh, and my bangs, well, they were a masterpiece. Tightly curled, then teased to perfection, and sprayed to a state of complete immobilization. I bought my dress from the Jessica McClintock store in Water Tower Place, downtown Chicago. It was long sleeved, black velvet on top, with a hot pink, drop waist taffeta, tea length skirt. On my hip was a gorgeous pink bow, as stiff as my perfect bangs. Sheer black hose and black, patent leather, pointed toe flats topped with hot pink bows that CLIPPED ON to my shoes. Absolute perfection.

I can literally feel my energy from that night with this whole ensemble.
Me and Jackass.           

My mom was so happy that I had a date and my whole family watched as my date, whom I will call Jackass, pulled up in his dad’s Jaguar. My parents were absolutely impressed. As was customary for my high school, kids gathered for pictures and then a limousine would arrive to take them out for dinner and then to the dance. When Jackass and I left for the dance, he left his car keys with my dad. My dad thought that was a good idea, just in case he needed to move the car for any reason. I found out later that my dad and sister took the car for a joy ride once we were safely out of range.

I had high hopes for a possible boyfriend in the Jackass. Unfortunately, even though he was from another school, several towns away, he knew a lot of kids from my school. Once we walked in the doors to the high school, he bolted, and I only saw him again at the end of the night when my dad picked us up and brought us back to our house so he could drive himself home. I never talked to him again which was actually just fine. He was cute, but well, he was a jackass.

When all was said and done, no love connection with Jackass but I had a great night with my friends.