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.

Karen Cares

I wanted my mom to be proud of the leader I was. It was time to focus my planning on my ultimate prize in leadership—Senior Class President. I put together an amazing slate of good friends who showed leadership across sports and clubs. My slogan was Karen Cares, because let me tell you, in my mind, no one cared more than I did. My reason for running was to plan our ten-year class reunion in 1998. I knew I was the woman for the job and last year’s prom had been a slam dunk. I was excited but also nervous.

To hone my leadership skills, and have a fun high school trip, I attended an intense governmental study program in Washington D.C. with some of my great friends.

I had two opponents. Good Guy was a star athlete and well liked and well known in our very large senior class. The Goof was a bit of a class clown and chose to run as a joke. He even bragged about how he was running as a spoiler and didn’t care. The Goof and I had the same larger friend group and I tried to convince him to withdraw his nomination so we wouldn’t split the vote. He laughed and said he didn’t care. But I cared. Karen Cares was my slogan after all.

My campaign team made countless posters, and cut out Karen Cares buttons to be worn on the chests of as many classmates as possible. I was told by a guy friend that Good Guy decided to spread some ugly rumors about me in the gym locker room. Any guy who knew me knew that they couldn’t possibly be true because I couldn’t even get a willing date to a dance for goodness sake. But, I felt the alleged rumors did some damage. The election came and went and Good Guy won, along with the rest of my slate. I was crushed in so many ways. Good Guy allegedly lied about me and still won. I was so disappointed. In my mind, if he wouldn’t have said those things, I would have clearly won the election. I really wanted that win to show my parents that I could be a top leader. Because my mom’s cancer was now spreading to other parts of her body, I’m not even sure they realized I ran, and lost, a big election.

 

Summer of 1987

The summer before senior year was full of shenanigans and making memories with my friends. I was thrilled to escape to the Cayman Islands for two weeks with my bestie and her family. I discovered peace and serenity snorkeling off of the gorgeous Seven Mile Beach. Her family became a true place of solitude for me with their open door and listening hearts. My mom’s health continued to remain a mystery to me. My grandparents still didn’t know. We never once sat down as a family and talked about what was happening or treatment plans. I stopped asking questions that weren’t given answers and I continued to live my life and keep myself very busy.

Where I spent a magical two weeks in the Cayman Islands.

Living just outside of Chicago, my friends and I would often pile into someone’s parent’s minivan and drive into the city just to drive around. If someone had money, we’d head to the iconic 1950’s themed McDonald’s. A few of us spent more and more time together and one night we all ended up at Blondie’s house. His parents were out of town and the night got later and later, dwindling down to my few friends and an equal number of guys. Did I mention Blondie and his friends had just graduated from high school? We were indeed in the big leagues here. As we loaded the VCR with Friday the 13th I found myself next to who I will call The Stud on the couch. There is nothing better than watching a scary movie shoulder to shoulder with a handsome, older guy. Suddenly The Stud’s arm was around me, pulling me close—just in case I was scared. It was electric and I was thrilled. After night one, the girls slept at my house. With the full focus on my mom’s illness, I didn’t have a curfew, and no one seemed to notice my comings and goings.

We decided to take this run for as long as we could and made a pact to return to Blondie’s house the next night with the sole purpose of having fun. We literally called it The Pact. My friends and I coupled off with this crew every night that week. We’d show up late, when the college bound crew was heading home. I remember horror movies, making out with The Stud, and a sense of camaraderie with these friends of mine. My small crew of friends, along with The Stud and his friends, provided a short time of distraction, fun, and time to perfect my now active kiss.

The guys from The Pact went off to college and it was time for senior year of high school to begin. I had come a long way since freshman year. I prided myself on being friends with kids in practically every group. I secured my spots on the Varsity Drill Team, Student Council, Orchesis Dance Team, and A Capella Choir. I never got an actual acting part, but I was now part of the dance crew in our school musicals. I happily chatted with the burnouts who spent their lunch period smoking on the mall of our school campus. I was still active in Luther League, my church youth group, and renewed friendships that had faded. We took incredible trips and retreats, growing in faith and friendship.

I had an incredible job at a local video rental store, one of the coolest spots to work because it closed at 9:00pm, and that meant I could still go out with friends before the night ended. My best friend and I were planning college visits together and the girls from The Pact were a lifeline to me for sure. Senior year… I was ready for it all.

Our Luther League group spent incredible times at this special retreat on a private island in Canada, Ernie’s Island. It was a blessing and a respite I never knew I needed.
Senior Varsity Drill Team pic, taken the summer of 1987. I remember being thrilled to have such a great tan from my time in Cayman. This pic and The Pact all happened soon after we returned from our trip.
One of my besties and due to her connections, we were invited to the house where The Pact was formed.
Not sure what group we were searching for, but glad we had each other, and still do!
By my side for most of my high school adventures. Her family welcomed me in such wonderful ways. Another member of The Pact and friend with more shared memories than I could ever write.
I am pretty sure you-know-who was the ‘older guy’ connected to The Pact. Pretty sure I thought he’d come back from college to go with me to Homecoming. Did it happen? Future posts will let you know!

Junior Prom

Striking a pose on the piano bench in our living room.

As Junior Class Vice President, I was in charge of planning the 1987 Junior/Senior Prom. At least I should get a date to the junior prom that I was planning for 800+ of my closest friends. Right? I secured a fancy hotel in the heart of downtown Chicago. I personally chose the menu and supervised the decorations. I had a date, he was my best friend’s date’s weird best friend, but it didn’t matter—I had a date! My dress was everything a prom dress in 1987 should be. It had a pink satin strapless bodice with a larger than life sequin bow sewn right across my less than ample chest. The bottom half was tea length with layers of lace upon even more layers of tulle. I got not only my shoes, but my purse dyed to match at Baker’s. Contacts in, hair the appropriate volume for the times—I was a vision in my own eyes. My mom was home and able to see me off and be part of the pictures with my date and some friends. She watched with a big grin and I knew she was happy I had a date. I think she was proud of all of the planning that I had done to make it an incredible night for my classmates. We didn’t communicate much at this point. Everyone in my family was just moving forward each day, doing their own thing. I left for that dance full of hope for memories to be made.

Pictures before the dance on my driveway.

One major problem for the night that I perfectly planned and properly primped for: our 1987-Billy-Idol-dance-jumping-fist-pumping-prom was placed in a ballroom directly above a convention of blind bowlers. These bowlers didn’t know what to do as they experienced over a thousand prom-goers above their heads. The hotel management came to me and put me on the stage after unplugging our band to quell the revelers and implore them to stop jumping as they danced. Mind you, the only dance move suburban Chicago teens had back then was jumping up and down. My classmates responded. More jumping, loud screaming. I can only imagine the state of the bowlers below.

The Senior Class President came to the rescue, calmed the crowd, and the evening commenced with me hiding under a table from my now extremely intoxicated date who was walking around the ballroom, smoking a cigar, and yelling my name. The one bright spot of the night was when a brown-haired cutie named John Hughes (yes, for that love of all things 80’s his actual name was John Hughes) asked me to slow dance with him to Lady in Red. It was a magical moment and then I dove back under a table to avoid my date.

Memories were indeed made. The fun I had at my junior prom sustained me for a short time as my mom’s health continued to decline. Senior year was ahead and I was ready for it.

Always good to get a hug from a friend.

 

First Kiss, Second Kiss… What a Weekend!

As junior year progressed, the braces came off and my fashion sense improved. I was adorned with shoulder pads on top of shoulder pads, my short hair was growing out, and my pearly whites were dazzling. I was fitted for contact lenses and surely this would be the deciding factor in reaching my new goal to actually and finally have a real, first kiss. I was now seventeen years old and un-kissed. This had to change. It became a mission of sorts for my group of friends. I was both thankful and mortified. One Friday night, at a random house party, a guy I’m going to call Spits was recruited for the job. He secured the keys to a friend’s dad’s Cadillac, walked up to me, and told me we were going for a ride to his favorite place in town. It was time.

He was a nice enough guy. Off we drove to our final destination—the rooftop of the centrally located parking garage in town. Romantic! Within seconds of parking, he hit the power seat button and I was horizontal when he flipped right on top of me. Time for my magical first kiss! It ended up being a survival session in how not to drown. It happened so fast. His open mouth slammed down onto mine and it was like a waterfall of saliva came crashing down on my face. Not what I expected, but, I was being kissed so I went with it. I don’t know if seconds, or minutes, passed, but I dared to open my eyes as we took a break and Spits hovered a good eight inches above my face. However, we were still connected by thick strands of spit pouring from all around his mouth to mine. Thankfully, we broke soon and I toweled off. (Not really, but wow, a towel would have been helpful.) He flopped back to his seat and raised mine. What a fancy car! We drove back to the party and I was so happy. I had been kissed! I wasn’t sure how much I liked it, but it was done. Spits was a good guy who rose to the challenge and provided me with a splashy experience.

The very next night, I went to a small party at a friend’s house. I was delighted to see a cutie who had just moved to our town from Iowa. I will call him Corn. Every girl I knew was interested in him. I was feeling rather confident in myself because I had now been kissed. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Corn and I were suddenly on a couch, under a blanket, in the middle of the party. I had now kissed my second boy. Imagine my surprise when I wasn’t slathered in saliva. Corn knew what he was doing. Sorry Spits. My friends were thrilled for me and I was welcomed to the cafeteria table the following Monday to applause and cheers.

At home, I tried to connect with my mom but she was shut down. It seemed my parents were in their own lane of illness, hospital stays, and secrecy. I chose to carve my own path and pour myself into activities, friends, and keeping busy.

Orchesis dance-o-gram with my friend Leigh. Classmates could buy these and we would run around during A-period (homeroom) and deliver as many as we could using a trusted cassette playing boom box to provide the tunes.
One of many photos with my sweet friend Allison. Note my Esprit shirt and Swatch pants.
Silly times with my friend Jill at Taylor Park pretending we knew how to play tennis. By the looks of this photo, we didn’t even pretend, we just laughed!