Monday, June 14, 2010

A Chicago Walk (4.14.08)

Having a baby in the winter is hard. Having a baby in the winter in Chicago is very hard. This long slow spring we're having takes me back to the April when my firstborn was an infant. After six long months inside with Mia, I was desperate to get her some fresh air and get me some exercise. We set out to explore Chicagoland parks and we found some beauties. We worked that sling and later - when my back complained - a stroller, visiting the Wooded Island and Osaka Japanese garden in Jackson Park, and the wide expanses of the waterfront north of Montrose. I nursed Mia in the quiet sanctuary of Alfred Caldwell's Lily Pond and under the humid palms in the Garfield Park Conservatory.

My favorite Chicago walk was only a few blocks from home. We needed no car or bus to get there, just a walk east down Belmont and over the river. As I pushed Mia in the stroller, I would narrate the world to her, like they tell you to, pausing only to say ola or hello or not to the people we passed.

“And now, honey, we’re passing Clara's Best Hash Browns, I don’t know if her hash browns are really the best but the sign says so and sometimes you can see a guy sitting in the back booth peeling a big pot of potatoes. Oh look, sweetheart, across the street is the warehouse where Steve Albini records records. Can you say ‘Al-bi-ni?’ And you see these new townhouses? There used to be a boatyard here when we first moved in.” Mia would look at me or not, squint, babble a little, ignore the little plastic and felt toys I’d attached to the stroller for her amusement.

We’d cross the bridge and turn down the ramp nearly hidden by overgrown tree branches, walk past the loading dock of the dental instrument factory and we were there. The east edge of the north branch of the Chicago River.

This is the north branch, a leg of the same river that flows through the canyon of skyscrapers downtown, the same river that empties into Lake Michigan near the Wilmette beach I will now take my five-year old Mia to swim in the summer.

Both banks were overgrown with young trees and scrub shrubs. The garbage tangled in the undergrowth and the traffic noises receded as we walked away from the Belmont bridge. I don’t even know if you could call it a park - there was no sign to greet us. It's just a bit of wilderness in the city, a strip of sidewalk between the Chicago River and a patch of woods where Lane Tech teenagers launch their dirt bikes over groomed and rutted little hills. The walk is only a few hundred yards long, but you can see wildlife - ducks and the occasional heron. I swear I saw a muskrat swimming once, perhaps a rat rat? The water of the north branch is murky, but it still catches light and reflects the trees.

Mia said her first word here. "Look, Mia! Ducks!" I said, at the crowd of mallards and their mates, like I had many times before. But this time she answered me. "Ducka-ducka," she said and I felt like Annie Sullivan. What a thrill. It's a family story we tell and retell.

Just over the trees is DeVry Institute and the Riverview Shopping Center. It's hard to believe, but that unremarkable strip mall was once the site of a giant amusement park with roller coasters and water rides that rivaled Six Flags.

Riverview Amusement Park thrilled Chicagoans for the first sixty years of the last century. My Aunt Ruth, the aunt that raised me, tells me stories of walking from the 5500 block of south Marshfield to south Western Avenue, then taking the streetcar up to Western and Belmont to ride the rides in the 1930's. Now paradise is paved and cell phone stores and a Toys R Us have replaced the Tilt-a-Whirl.

After a block or two, the woods end at a patch of reclaimed prairie wildflowers and the riverbank slopes to a launching place for kayaks and canoes.

We christened Mia here on an overcast October day when she was four weeks old. In the pictures we took that day, the trees were full and green but I remember the wind was bitter. Randy’s hair was long and curly. I wore my black beret, no makeup and a tolerant smile. Mia was tucked away inside the sling.

Randy’s mother was convinced she would catch the flu from the cold wind. Randy’s dad had a tiny vial of water from the Jordan River, brought back from one of their many trips to the Holy Land. “Or you can also use tap water and just boil the hell out of it,” smiled my mother-in-law and I laughed, eased up a little. Randy's minister father said a few words and we mumbled our replies.

If you continue on the riverside path, you pass the broad soccer fields of Clark Park and reach the lovely renovated Addison bridge. Here one spring day I met two of my old students on a walk with Mia and felt a unfamiliar mix of momma-pride for my cute baby and teacher-pride at the maturing and friendly faces of the young men. I had said goodbye to them only a few months before, but I felt like years had passed since I had stood before these boys in a classroom, giving instructions, acting as an authority, wearing dry-cleaned and pressed wool pants. Now I felt somehow softer, a little vulnerable. "This is Mia," I said, after catching up on their junior year. I was pleased when they ooed and ahed. I gave the boys hugs and turned the stroller toward home.

The old philosopher said you never step in the same river twice. For me, the river is a symbol of constant and inevitable change. The city transforms a little every time I turn around, my children change in the space of a breath and remembering this Chicago walk makes me realize how much I have changed too.

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