Sunday, January 18, 2009

Chicago Sundays

Sundays in Chicago, when I was young: elementary school age, Sunday school age. The mornings belonged to me and my father. Often in those years, he traveled for business during the week, and this made "seventh day" mornings all the more precious. On Sundays, we'd leave our family's Lincoln Park apartment early, dressed in church clothes, and head downtown. Occasionally we'd stop at my father's office in the old Playboy (Palmolive) building, which was the art deco, stair-step style skyscraper at the top of Michigan Avenue—the one with the beacon on top, sometimes called the Lindbergh beacon, that is now extinguished but that would, throughout my childhood years in the Windy City, shine like a lighthouse guiding nighttime traffic down Lake Shore Drive. I used to watch the spinning, searching light in the dark and know that this was where my father was; those evenings he worked late, I imagined that beacon of light still connected us and that this was what would pull him home. The beacon was stilled in the morning, of course. Sunday mornings: a stop by the office perhaps (where I could play with the magnetized paper clip dispenser that so fascinated me); we'd have breakfast across East Walton Street sometimes, at the Drake Hotel. An old hotel of esteemed history, I don't have many memories of it from a child's eye (I could describe it from my later, adult visits), but I seem to recall indulging in raspberries, thinking it was the best thing in the world to be there with a dish of jeweled fruit, having my father to myself; he was all ears to a week's worth of childish prattle, saved up just for him, and he made me think that to him it was all important. After breakfast, we would walk south down Michigan Avenue, to Fourth Presbyterian Church, another grand structure (the link includes sections on the church's history and architecture). The feature I remember most about the church is its courtyard, set back from the Avenue and separated from it by an arcade of arches. In winter this space was snow-covered and serene; in summer, the sound of water in a carved fountain echoed off the surrounding stone walls of the church buildings. I would go to Sunday School, and my mom would join my dad in the "big service." We would learn about Moses (a central figure, of course, but the lessons seemed to be about him disproportionately); I wasn't sure what the adults were learning. Sometimes I sat with my parents in the nave of the sanctuary, looked up at the high, carved wooden ceiling, at the elaborate stained glass panels that colored the light on all sides. I thought that the stone pulpit, jutting up and out in its octagonal form to the right of the chancel, made the minister look like he was floating above us, but I also know from later conversations with my parents that he was a gifted preacher, and that his words erased any sense of distance that might have come between him and his congregation. After church, juice and cookies. It was a lovely Sunday tradition, punctuating time; a pause before the routines of work and school took us in our separate directions for another week. When I think now about my childhood—if it was happy, what it meant, whether it provided a sense of closeness, safety, and comfort—I often think about Sundays in Chicago, and how my father found a way to make sure he was there, fully present, even when the weeks belonged mostly to Mom. This time together was ours; I looked forward to it always, and I look back on it now with gratitude.

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