CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Blowin’ In: The Drummers

One grey winter day, I sat outside on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago drinking coffee. I planned, as I always do when visiting the city, to spend the afternoon viewing art while I waited for my daughter to finish her workday at law school.

Content with the bustle of Michigan Avenue, I listened to a street band pound urban rhythms on plastic buckets and steel paint cans. Passersby danced and tossed money their way. Little children jumped in time to the tribal beats.

A young mother pushed a double baby carriage while two older children held onto her long woolen coat. The woman seemed tired amid the palpable energy.

I smiled remembering my time as a young mother balancing my three stepping-stones, three children in four years, in my arms. As my mother always told me, “The days are long, but the years short.”

I began to think about my mother and both of my grandmothers, and how these women each influenced my life in different, but equally important ways. From my mother, I learned kindness and compassion; from my grandmother Mim, I discovered my deep love of literature; from Rose, my Italian, Chicago grandmother, I learned the value of child-like innocence.

For a few moments, I was transported away from the city sounds of drums and blaring sirens back to my childhood. On any given Saturday, my dad would bundle the family up in the station wagon and we would head away from our close-knit Chicago neighborhood to the cultural sites of the city.

I loved the shark tank at the Shedd Aquarium and the mummies in the Field Museum. We would wander among the lions at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and sometimes climb aboard the paddle boat rides on the lagoon. On rainy Sunday afternoons, we would drive downtown just to watch the Lake Michigan waves loom large and crash mightily against the shores of Belmont Harbor.

The Art Institute
When I reached adolescence, my mother and I visited the Art Institute at Christmastime. We ate lunch at Water Tower Place and made our way to the museum to visit our favorite Impressionist paintings before heading home on the L train.

Since 1894, two lions have guarded the doors to the museum. During the holidays, the lions are wreathed with glorious green garland and red bows. The lions stand as an iconic Chicago symbol and a portal to some of my fondest memories.

And so, on this winter’s day, many years after my mom and I visited the Art Institute for the first time, I sat on the cold steps with my chin resting between the palms of my gloved hands, looking toward State Street, the L tracks, and my history.

With all my might, I tried to peer beyond the crowded city streets; I longed to conjure an image of my mother walking up the stairs toward the lions, or my grandmother Rose holding her own mother’s hand as they walked in beaten leather shoes and ragged clothes toward State Street.

My great-grandmother would make my grandmother stand beneath the Marshall Field’s Clock on State Street for hours while she went to bargain for clothing and food for her many children. My grandmother knew not to move or make herself obvious. The clock stood as her guardian. Grandma would eat hard Italian bread from her pockets and gaze out from under her dark eyelashes at the grandeur and poverty that co-existed on State Street.

My grandmother never came to any harm, and lived to tell me in hushed tones of what her life as a girl growing up in Chicago during the early years of 1900 was like. I suppose my grandmother Rose also gifted me with the art of storytelling.

At times, it is difficult to be a keeper of memories. Within my heart I have stored family joy and pain, hope and sorrow. Like my grandmother, I always try to look for beauty.

In some ways, it is akin to recognizing the magnificence not just of a museum curated masterpiece, but the raw beauty of a painting wrought on the side of an abandoned building.

It is a gift to be able to peel away the layers of reality to uncover the wonder of innocence, and to share that vision with others. Sometimes I wish that I could shout my words of joy and peace from the top of the highest building. I want to enlighten and encourage others to listen to the stories of strangers who may become friends and acquaintances that we have never truly heard.

Recently, I met a young teacher of Irish descent. She traveled back to Achill Island with her mother and her friend who had lost her mother. They brought sea glass from Lake Erie to place at the graves in Slievemore of family members bearing their surnames. The grieving friend found a perfect piece of sea glass that washed upon the shores of Keem Beach: a symbol of hope amid her pain.

Years ago, when my father-in-law first brought me to Keem, I also was gifted with a piece of sea glass. It was a perfect sphere. Looking back, it symbolized the forging of my husband’s past and the part I would play in his future. The sea glass, both the girl’s and mine, is a perfect symbol of beginnings and endings, the connectedness of old acquaintances and new.

As I sat on the steps of the museum, I pondered the amazing oddity of life: how a half-Italian girl from Chicago moved to Cleveland and married into an Irish family. I questioned whether our destinies are determined, held in the ether that binds humanity together, or whether our fate is held in the arms of happenstance.

I finished my last sip of coffee, stood up and looked past the crowds once again toward the vision of my past. The spirits of my past, however, were no more present than those of my future. All I could sense was the collective joy thrumming in the air. All I wished for was to be present in the moment, standing between the wreathed lions, listening to the beating of my heart as it fell in harmonious rhythm with the joyful sounds of the street drummers sharing their art.

Find this column and others from the January 2024 issue here!

Sue Mangan

Sue Mangan

*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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