Today we were leaving Chicago and begining the part of this trip I had most been looking forward to. We began by driving north to Wilmette, to the Baha'i House of Worship where my parents were married.
Here you see my father, right, and my mother linking arms with him, as they are married in the gardens. They had met 6 months earlier when my mom brought her Volkswagen bug in for service at the Seattle dealership where my father worked as a salesman. He tried to sell her a new car, and when she declined, he decided to sell himself, instead. They had one date and then her father died suddenly and she went home to Wisconsin to be with her mother and sister. He had no idea where she went or why, but kept calling (these were the days before answering machines). When she returned to Seattle she was still reeling from the shocking loss of her father, and my future dad easily swept her off her feet. She was his 3rd wife.
I was fascinated to learn more about the Baha'i faith. My grandparents had become Baha'is in the 1930's, and my mother and her sister were raised Baha'i. The faith does not have designated places to congregate. Most of the gatherings occur in homes or public community centers. There are no ministers, leaders, or preachers. There are books and study circles, but each person's spiritual path is their own, and their relationship with God deeply personal.
The principles of the faith are really appealing to me, most notibly "fellowship with the followers of all religions." The divisiveness of religions through history has sustained many wars, and I don't believe that God would condone war in His name. I love that the Baha'i faith acknowledges other religions as equally worthy and valid.
There are just 8 "Houses of Worship" in the world, this one in Wilmette, IL being the first one. Construction started in 1912, and it was 40 years until it was completed. My parents were not married in the House of Worship -- no one is. A House of Worship exists only for personal prayer and meditation, and a daily devotional service with recitation of prayers. Ceremonies such as weddings can take place in the gardens, or in a meeting room in the basement.
It was powerful for me to take the photo above of my daughters and mother, on the exact spot where my parents stood on their wedding day nearly 50 years ago (see photo above this one).
Although the marriage ended in heartbreak after 10 difficult years, my mother was still happy to stand in this spot and refect on all the good that has come into her life in the 48 years since she last stood there.
The girls and I wanted to explore the 9 different gardens surrounding the 9 sided structure, but Grammy's legs were hurting so she elected to remain inside. The bottom floor held a welcome center, bookstore, and meeting rooms, and the top floor looked more like a traditional cathedral but was strictly devoted to silent prayer. We left her in a chair upstairs where she found joy in watching people come in to pray. It wasn't long before the volunteer guide who was stationed near the door wanted to take a break and affixed her badge to Grammy, leaving her in charge or maintaining the silence, and directing those with questions downstairs to the visitor center. Grammy was delighted to take on this task.
The ornamentation, architecture, and history of the building is amazing. You can read more about it here.
I hated to leave, but we had a lot of "history ahead of us," and had to get on the road. Just before the Illinois-Wisconsin border the sun came out and I pulled into a park where we had a typical tail-gate picnic. You can see the girls in the background, swining on the swingset.
By the time we reached Milwaukee it was like going back in the mists of time. The fog became so thick we could barely see ahead of us. As we drove along the waterfront at a snail's pace we noticed crowds of people gathering. It was July 3rd, and the public firework display was to be that evening, so folks could sleep in on the actual holiday, July 4th.
We knocked on the door, but no one was home. The entire neighborhood was deserted -- everyone must be down at the waterfront awaiting the fireworks. We walked up the driveway and peered around the back. Most of the side and back had been paved, and a sunroom was added on to the back of the house where there once was a screen porch with a deck overhead.
Next door was the log cabin my grandparents built to have for rental income. It too, was lovingly maintained and nearly the same, except that it had a circular drive paved across the front, and the lawn replaced with a garden bursting with colorful perennials.
A few blocks away we found my mother's high school. We also found the Junior High and elementary, but they'd been remodeled/rebuilt and looked nothing like they once did. from the moment we pulled into the neighborhood my mom was overwhelmed by memories, and stories of her youthful exploits came spilling forth in rapid-fire succession. K and A, at just 11 and 13 years old, struggled to picture their hobbling grandmother as a girl their age, skipping on these sidewalks, attending classes at these schools, sleeping in that dormer bedroom with her sister.
I drove very slowly through the neighborhood. Nearly every house held a memory for my mother, and as we passed she'd exclaim: "That's where I used to babysit... that's where my best friend lived... Oh, I wonder what happened to the boy who used to live there...."
All my life I have heard my mother's tales of her growing-up years in Milwaukee, but I had to imagine the scenery in my head. Her stories mean so much more to me now that I know the layout of the neighborhood, can picture the houses, and can even fill in the appropriate flora and fauna.
It felt good to find the old neighborhood so well tended and the old houses true to the era in which they were built. The same cannot be said for the Seattle neighborhood I grew up in, and I doubt my childhood home will stand very long after my mother leaves it.
We ran out of daylight before our tour of Grammy's past was complete, so the next day we continued on. Driving through the city, and then back out to the suburbs, her hand was pointing here and there, and a constant stream of memories tumbled out. It was impossible for me to photograph everything and drive at the same time. A couple of times I pulled over and recorded my mother describing something, but not as often as I would have liked. We passed the hospital where she was born, the shops she used to frequent as a teen, the swimming pool where she splashed as a child and then sized up the boys when she was older.
She graduated just before the campus was bought by University of Wisconsin. A number of the old buildings remain, but they were under renovation when we stopped by. Again, my mom had numerous tales to tell about her youthful adventures there.
We also found the house my grandparents had built in the late 1950's, a one-level ranch house to grow old in. My mother lived here the last year of high school, and for a time in college when she wasn't in the dorms. It was in the living room of this house that her father suffered a heart attack, calling out to his wife, "Jean...," before falling silent forever.
As we sat in the car looking at this house, with my mom recalling memories and me holding up a photo of what the house looked like as it was under construction, the current owner approached us. We introduced ourselves. She was a young Eastern European mother and she and her husband had just purchased the house a year before. They had begun extensive renovation, removing the wood paneling and wrought iron railings my grandparents had installed half a century before.
We ate a picnic lunch in a nearby riverside park, a place that had been popular for college kids to come on dates, stroll hand in hand, and steal kisses under the trees. I tried to imagine my mother young and in love, walking these pathways in the late 1950's and early 1960's.
On our way to the airport my mom talked excitedly about coming back to Milwaukee again someday, bringing her sister, and spending several days reminiscing and trying to track down people she used to know. I'd love to make that happen, but sadly I doubt it will. My mother's cancer is progressing, her ability to walk is fading, and her sister is not free to travel because she must tend to her ailing husband. We'll see what the future holds, but for now I am deeply grateful for having the opportunity to be with my mother as she revisited her past.