Like petals in a basket, I carry so many shades of life from my mother’s gallant journey. One of the most emotional snapshots of Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra came on April 9, the day after my father died. Although my mother battled dementia she managed to find her gold wedding ring. She slipped it on her finger without any of us knowing about it.
And the gold ring remained on my mother’s finger until the moment she passed over from heart failure Friday night in her Naperville home.
Mom was 93 years old.
All moms are amazing and so was ours. She was placed into home hospice twice and discharged once. Last August the hospitalists at Edward Hospital in Naperville told me she had “two to three weeks” to live because of her congestive heart failure.
Later, a hospice nurse told me she would never walk again. Up until a few days ago her head was down with determination as she walked slowly on her walker with the assistance of our caregiver.
Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra was was tough that way, a plainspoken coal miner’s daughter from Carlinvllle, Ill.
Only six weeks separated the deaths of our parents.
They stayed strong for each other.
In recent years as the sun set, my dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin. She would look ahead, blinking her eyes into the approaching darkness. And he would kiss her good night. Every night.
They lived a deep love I may never know.
Mom and dad got hitched late in life, at least for their generation.
They were married 65 years. Their wedding dinner and honeymoon night was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the far north side of Chicago. The sunset pink colored hotel was pegged as the “Site of America’s Most Successful Meetings.” When my mom opened the door to her hotel room she found a surprise from my father–a bouquet of a dozen roses.
Our mom loved flowers and over the past six weeks we were bringing flowers to my dad’s gravesite. She sat in her wheelchair, gently twirled the ring around her finger and looked at the family plot. She always asked me when the headstone would be ready. It is not up yet, but it will be identified by a gold ring linking their names. Mom battled macular degeneration but that did not stop her from having me park the car in the driveway after our trip to the cemetery. She would blink repeatedly at the white magnolia in our front yard. It is an early and fast bloomer and you have to pay attention.
Mom often got a charge out of the short Zumba dancing sessions I’d throw down with our Ghanian caregiver. (I’d say we had about 30 caregivers over the past eight years.) Mom was lost in mid-stage dementia but when we started shaking our stuff she would smile, clap her hands and say, “Do it again. Do it again.” Who doesn’t want another dance? The power of music can cut through dementia.
Our mom secretly typed out her 26 page autobiography in 1989. I found it in the bedroom safe of their Naperville home.
Of her wedding day she wrote in part, “The bride wore a rose-pink satin tea length gown and carried a dainty bouquet of white roses. The groom wore a brown suit and a rose and brown striped tie with a white carnation boutonniere….The bride commented it was the happiest day of her life. The day was perfect–sunny, bright and happy.” The way my mom wrote in third person narrative illustrated her humility.
I also discovered a sidebar essay she wrote in 2000 after we celebrated our parents 50th wedding anniversary at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mom began, “Once upon a time there were these two introverts who met, fell in love and got married…Well these two are still around today and you guessed, it, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Feb. 11, 2000….After considerable time packing, as old folks are apt to do, they were off to the Drake Hotel. It was there that they planned to meet their two boys, one boy’s (my brother Doug) wife and the other’s (me) friend. You see, their sons had planned the celebration, and it was with their compliments. And of course, the parents were looking forward to “living it up” for the weekend.”
The weekend was full of surprises, including dinner at the old Jilly’s on Rush Street. “This is a well known night spot where Frank Sinatra and people of his ilk made famous,” my mom wrote. “It was fun to be in a place where the clientele was somewhat out of the ordinary.”
My mom was of very ordinary means.
Her Lithuanian parents came to America to work in the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and the Peabody Coal Mines in downstate Illinois. Mom was born on Dec. 10, 1921 in Carlinville, Ill. When the mines around Carlinville closed in 1925 the family moved 45 miles north to Taylorville, where my mom grew up.
She was a first chair clarinet player in the Taylorville High School Band and in her senior year was awarded first prize for an essay she wrote about her high school. This led to her interest in journalism, which she later studied in night school at Northwestern University in Chicago. During the day she worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos and as secretary at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which produced magazines like “Popular Photography” and “Modern Bride.”
In 1946 my mom met my dad at a dance at Northwestern. He was also attending night school at Northwestern. She wrote, “After all these years I can still recall that he was wearing a navy blue suit and that he made an impression on me because he was so witty and personable.”
Mom and Dad didn’t travel much when we were growing up. Dad was a purchasing agent for Swift & Company in Chicago and mom stayed at home. I’ve been listening to the oral history CDs Doug made in 1993, spending several hours interviewing my parents. I am forever grateful to him for doing that. My folks said they didn’t travel because they were saving money for a house. The first house they owned was a small ranch house which they purchased in 1952 in Westchester, Ill., just outside of Chicago.
In the early 1960s Swift transferred dad to Columbus, Ohio. I used to ponder the “Leave it to Beaver” dynamic of our household. We had two boys, no pets, a nattily dressed father heading off to work and a stay at home mother –who owned pearls but rarely wore them. Several years ago I talked to the creators of “Leave it to Beaver” and they said the show was indeed based on their experiences in “Central Ohio.” After my brother and I finished high school my mom found secretarial work at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and it was a job she loved.
This modest pedigree leads me to one of my favorite stories about mom. In 1993 the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me to shadow Frank Sinatra during his appearance at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill. I asked my mom to be my date. She was 72 years old. Frank was 77. We went to the concert where Frank told his fans he would do “nothing new because no one writes anything anymore.”
We followed Frank to a post-concert dinner across the street to the Cafe Harlow restaurant in the Hollywood Casino. Frank enjoyed sliced veal, onion rings and French Fries. He washed it down with Jack (Daniel’s) and ice water on the side. As he left the dinner table around midnight the casino security staff cleared a path by our table.
Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me.
Then he smiled and winked at my mom.
Now he did it.
Mom was not ready to go home. We all went to the casino’s Directors Lounge to hear the late great singer Frank D’Rone. The other Frank had another Jack. My mom was having a blast and my dad was getting worried.
I finally dropped mom off in her Naperville home in the wee, wee hours of 2 a.m. Every time I repeated this story over the years my mom scolded me for “not letting me talk to Frank.” My mom radiated measured class and even Frank Sinatra saw that. We played Frank Sinatra CD’s by her hospice bed.
The best way to conclude this essay is to use the end of my mom’s autobiography: “My parents came to the United States for better opportunities and a better way of life. They strived and worked hard for everything. I, too, have worked hard and tried my best to do things right and to make a good life for my family. “Perhaps one might call these memoirs ordinary and not too exciting–but just think. If these two people had not come the many miles from Europe, if their paths had not crossed, then I would not have the privilege to be here and write the tale of my life for you to read.” Her privilege will continue.
My brother and I have spent our lives making a living with words and now my mother’s nurturing spirit will inform all the words that follow. She is here.
She is the gold ring around my heart.
Deep thanks to all of you who have visited this website over recent years to help me navigate my parents journey. For more on music and dementia, listen to my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show on the subject. Share it with someone who is traveling a similar path.
Services for Irene Hoekstra are at 10 a.m. May 27 at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Rd. in Naperville. Visitation is 9 a.m. at the church, services are followed by a luncheon at the church. Burial immediately after the luncheon at Naperville Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
It should not come as a surprise that Bob Dylan loved Calvert De Forest, a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman.
Melman was an everyman David Letterman character with jiggly jowls and huge Harry Caray glasses that blurred boundaries between image and reality, just as Dylan does.
Melman was often placed within an incongruous setting–always a key to a fun time. Something like Dylan doing an album of obscure Frank Sinatra songs.
In his 2009 memoir “We’ll Be Here For the Rest Of Our Lives–A Swingin ‘ Show-Biz Saga” “Late Show” bandleader Paul Shaffer wrote that Dylan was fascinated with Melman.
“He mentioned he always saw Larry Bud [walk on] with those gorgeous models,” Shaffer told me in 2009. “Dylan said, ‘Why is he with those chicks?’ It is as simple as that.”
Melman made his name during the 1980s “Late Night With David Letterman” run on NBC. Back then Dave had a bigger budget, sending Melman off to South America in a Winnebago to harvest his unfiltered observations on culture and food. Back on his home turf Melman once distributed hot towels to grimy travelers at the New York Port Authority bus terminal.
When Dave moved to CBS from NBC in 1993, NBC said “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman’ remained as their intellectual property. Dave simply continued to bring De Forest on stage at the same wide-eyed character, except he was “Calvert De Forest.”
On the May 13, 1994 “Late Show” Dave promised that Johnny Carson would deliver the Top 10 list. De Forest appeared as “Johnny Carson.” Just after De Forest waddled off the stage, the real Johnny Carson appeared. It would be Carson’s final television appearance.
De Forest died in 2007 at the age of 85.
I’m gonna miss you Dave. I’m pulling for “Like a Rolling Stone” tonight.
Or “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
BOWLING GREEN, Ky.–The early spring afternoon in downtown Bowling Green dictates a stroll through Fountain Square Park. Daffodils and tulips are blooming between the Dogwood trees. Workmen are sprucing up the old fountain. Children are smiling at the glimpse of summer.
A new beginning is the air.
Greg and Theresa Shea know all about fresh starts.
In May, 2011 they left New Orleans, La. to open Tea Bayou, a New Orleans cafe and tea bar at 906 State in Bowling Green. Tea Bayou is on the ground floor of the historic brick Settle Building, constructed in 1890. Greg is a chef who was born and raised in New Orleans. Theresa is a native of Ottumwa, Ia. who had lived in New Orleans most of her life.
Tea Bayou serves more than 50 teas and organic teas along with beignets, bourbon bread pudding, shrimp and grits, catfish marigny (on jambalya, topped with crawfish etoufee and eight different po’ boys including the cochon (pulled pork, ham, bacon and provo cheese). Their timing is fit to a t.
The Tea Association of the USA has reported that retail sales of tea have jumped from just under $2 billion in 1990 to nearly $11 billion in 2014, according to a May 6, 2015 New York Times story on tea culture.
Welcome to the percolating North Coast of New Orleans.
“We stayed after Katrina, went through that mess and I ended up developing very bad allergies,” Theresa Shea says id after lunch hour rush. “It became bad for me to stay. Your lungs itch you can’t get away from it. Then after the BP Oil Spill (April, 2010), we could smell that in New Orleans. Things got worse. We looked around and planned retirement.”
Shea has a sister who lives in Bowling Green.
They visited the third most populous city in Kentucky (61,000 after Louisville and Lexington) on Thanksgiving, 2010. The Sheas liked Bowling Green so much they considered buying retirement property in the city about an hour north of Nashville. Tn. Shea, 54, checks out the cafe, smiles and says, “By the way, this is what retirement property looks like.”
The Sheas found downtown real estate so affordable they bought the building before having a business plan. “This was the only one on the square that was for sale at the time,” Shea explains. “There were a lot of lawyer’s offices. There were no eateries or fine shopping on this side (of the square.) Downstairs had to be completely gutted. It laid vacant for a while.”
Tea Bayou had never been a restaurant. The ground floor had been a jewelry store for most of the 20th Century. The upstairs once was a luxury hotel. Shea reflects, “We feel grateful to find a building that was in such good repair. Bowling Green allowed us to finance this building with both of us moving here with no real jobs. It only cost us $30,000 and we did a lot of work ourselves.”
Shea reclaimed more than a dozen mid-century school chairs and repainted them in bright spring colors. “I got them from the basement of a consignment shop right around the corner,” she says. “Bowling Green is the consignment capital of Kentucky. There are more consignment shops up and down Broadway. They specialize. Some are fine furniture, some are just clothing. We outfitted the entire shop from things we bought from old barns or consignment shops. We put it together in a look that we like. The chandelier is the only thing we purchased from a catalog.”
A cafe bench came out of a Kentucky barn. The beautiful new Amish pine floor was imported from nearby Caneyville, Ky. “Greg drove to pick up the wood and the owner’s wife came out with a cup of hot coffee and a homemade cinnamon roll,” she says. “We kept the costs down. Most of the furniture was made by a furniture maker in Scottsville, Ky., which is 30 minutes south of here.”
A gold Sputnik-era clock on the wall was salvaged from a nearby VSA (state organization on arts and disability) that closed due to lack of funding. Tea Bayou sells VSA artwork on walls and 100 per cent of proceeds go back to VSA. Tea Bayou shows more than 10 artists at a time in the store and more than 50 pieces adorn the walls.
Shea studied art at the University of Iowa and obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a minor in business a the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse.) She moved to New Orleans right out of college and found a job at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).
Shea is still a graphic designer and the New Orelans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of her clients. She designs the festival’s annual posters and souvenir shirts. The Sheas occasionally return to New Orleans to visit family.
The Sheas lived in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, which was hit hard by Katrina, the near suburban Metarie and finally Kenner. Greg was a chef at Tony Angello’s in Lakeview and later with the Loews hotel chain.
“And this year will be 10 years since Katrina,” she says with a lost sigh. “That is so hard to believe.”
Bowling Green is a thriving community known for the National Corvette Museum /GM Corvette Assembly Plant and a Fruit of the Loom plant. Bowling Green is the home of Western Kentucky University, where former Chicago Bull Clem Haskins played in 1972.
Film director John Carpenter is from Bowling Green as was Duncan Hines (1880-1959), the original road foodie. Hines maintained a test kitchen in Bowling Green. The kitchen has been preserved. It is in the Hardy and Sons Funeral Home on Route 31 W., the original Dixie Highway. Hines lived in the ranch house from 1940 until his death in 1959 when the Hardy family purchased the property. They kept the kitchen with original red and yellow checkered wallpaper and it can be seen by appointment only. During a 2007 visit to the kitchen/funeral home we quietly walked through a visitation.
“Duncan Hines’ great grandson lives here and works at the Hilton as sales director,” Shea reports. “Duncan is a good friend of ours and what is even odder is that he was born in Lakeview, New Orleans. We found an ex-pat New Orleans thing going on here and I think it has something to do with riverboats. His father was in riverboats.” The Green River in Bowling Green is a tribiutary of the Ohio River.
The young Duncan Hines was looking for a King Cake during Mardi Gras season. “We were advertising it and he called, thinking, ‘These people probably aren’t even from New Orleans’,” she says. “He ordered it and once he had it he was all over it. He ordered like 200. He’s in here all the time. We even have a pizza named after him.”
Shea glances out the window to Barbara Stewart Interiors on the other side of the square. She whispers, “There’s a lady there in her 90s and she still comes to work. She went to a party where the woman who played Betty Crocker was at a party in town. Betty Crocker got a little loaded and Duncan Hines was also at the party so she has this whole story about Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines in Bowling Green.”
And there’s more.
Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” and “Dating Game” fame lives five blocks from Tea Bayou. Barris, 85, also wrote the pop hit “Palasides Park” “His wife (a Bowling Green native) comes in often,” Shea said. “He’s out of town quite a bit.”
I ask for some high energy tea for the drive back to Chicago.
I get matcha tea, which is high in antioxidants. The leaves are processed as green tea, where they are steamed, dried and ground into a fine green powder. “The Japanese found they could cut high quality green tea with roasted rice to extend the tea,” Shea says. “Kind of like how New Orleanians use chicory to cut coffee. The result in both cases created a unique, regional blend. It’s like getting the benefit of up to 10 times a normally brewed cup of green tea. It provides vitamin A, B1, B2, C, E and minerals.”
Tea Bayou teas are available online at the store’s website.
POSTSCRIPT: In 2008 I got a Christmas card from the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky Museum, who curated a Duncan Hines exhibit. The card contained this toast from Mr. Hines:
“Well, if the oysters had been as cold as the soup, if the soup had been as warm as the wine, if the wine had been as old as the chicken, if the chicken had breasts like the maid, and if the maid had been as willing as the hostess, it would have been a wonderful evening.”
Enjoy every sandwich.
Now, when I see old people together I see my parents with piercing clarity.
Chicago voiceover legend/word jazz poet Ken Nordine and his wife Beryl arrived a half-hour early for Ken’s appearance on my Saturday night radio show on WGN-AM. They drove downtown from their home on the far north side of Chicago. Ken and Beryl will celebrate heir 70th wedding anniversary this year.
Ken walks with a cane so I escorted him and his wife up an elevator to avoid the Michigan Avenue stairway to the Allstate Showcase Studio. They walked together. Moments in time.
We talked about moments in this Ken Nordine segment.
I thought of my Dad, who passed away on April 8. I thought about how old people do everything together and I smiled. My parents were married 65 years.
This is my friend Colleen Bush’s favorite story about my parent’s bond, one that I had forgotten about in the flurry of activity over the past few months. In the final days before my parents could no longer drive a car, my mother had Macular Degeneration. My father had a bum right leg. So on short spins through the neighborhood, my father provided the eyes and my mother took care of the pedal. I doubt this set up lasted very long, but they were a team with a scheme.
Old people always take care of each other. And that is beautiful.
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