Mary Schmich

Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich talks about her new book, a collection of columns called Even The Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now. Read some of Schmich's favorite columns from her book below.

Mom dies, and troubled daughter grows up
August 07, 2011 | Mary Schmich

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My sister Gina received her first cellphone as a birthday gift a few days ago.

Until recently, Gina had insisted that a cellphone was too complicated for her, a plausible statement given how many things she finds hard.

For years, she found bathing complicated, so she rarely stepped into a tub or shower. Brushing her teeth felt complicated, so her teeth went bad. Cleaning her room felt like climbing a mountain, so her room devolved into a jungle of junk with a skinny path to the unmade bed. In the final weeks of her old cat's life, she found it too complicated to pick up the cat feces on the carpet, so she neatly laid a paper towel over each set of droppings.

When Gina was little, doctors said she had an IQ of 34, and though they were far wrong, the right diagnosis has never been clear. Mild autism. Borderline personality disorder. The verdict seems to have changed almost as often as her medications.

What is clear is that Gina is different, so she always lived with our mother and our mother lived with the question: What will happen to Gina when I die?

Gina worried too. As Mama grew frail, Gina often climbed in her bed in the middle of the night to weep.

"Honey," my mother would soothe her, "you'll be OK," and my siblings and I, unconvinced, told our mother we'd make sure she was.

In the months leading up to my mother's death, Gina began to change. She calmed down, some. She took pride in making Mother's morning coffee. When one of my brothers or I bathed our mother, Gina held the towels. When we'd lift Mother off the portable commode next to the sofa where she slept, Gina was quick to say, "I'll empty it."

But after Mama died, we braced for Gina's familiar rages. We talked about how to handle her when she burst into shrieks at the memorial.

On the morning of the service, she found me while I washed my face.

"Do you think," she began. "Do you think it would be OK if I don't go? I just. I just think the best way for me to honor Mom today is to take a shower and brush my teeth and go out on the bus."

And that's what she did.

With clean hair, in new brown capris and shin-high socks from Target, she rode the bus from store to store that day, along a route she rides for hours almost every day just for fun. She visited with clerks and pharmacists she considers her best friends, telling them her mom was gone.

"Mom would be proud of me for being independent," she said when she got back.

In the year since, Gina has lived alone, next to one of our brothers. She has given up soft drinks, after years of a dozen a day. She has gone to the dentist, and her teeth, minus several that had to be pulled, are white again.

A Google of Mothers
Little questions pile up after mom is gone
May 14, 2006 | Mary Schmich

If only there were a computer search engine, a Google, that let you access your mother's mind after she was gone.

That's what a friend of mine keeps thinking since her mother died.

If there were a Google of lost mothers, she would type "chicken" and with the click of a mouse discover what it was that her mother put in her signature chicken dish, a unique concoction now forever removed from the world's menu.

Using the lost-mothers Google, she could type "toothpaste" and discover why her family brushed only with Crest. Or type "typewriter" and rediscover which model it was that her parents had given her for her high school graduation.

And what about that shoe salesman, the guy at the store where they always bought her saddle shoes when she was little? With the Google of lost mothers, she could retrieve his name.

These are minor questions, she knows, but they seem oddly important now that they're impossible to answer, now that her mother, and the information she contained, are permanently unavailable.

"It's the minutiae I wonder about," she says, "the minutiae of life itself."

It's the minutiae only a mother would remember.

She could ask her father. He's still alive. But, she says, with a sigh, "fathers are useless for this kind of stuff."

Why didn't she ask her mother while she had the chance? Her mother was around for 73 years, receptive to interrogation, not particularly secretive, unless you count the fact that she never told her children her real maiden name, which her safe-deposit box revealed postmortem.

But the questions that nag at this friend now are things she didn't ask because she didn't know what she wanted to know until it was too late to find out.

She could have anticipated the big questions her mother's death would leave, the kind that articles in women's magazines encourage us to ask while there's still time:

Whom did you love? When were you happiest? What broke your heart? What were your parents like? When did you go through menopause?

But it never crossed her mind to wonder, as she did while sorting through her mother's belongings, what exactly did her family take out of their burning house when they fled the fire when she was 6?

She admits that many of the questions pressing on her now have more to do with her than with her mother. No need to apologize for that. That's one service most mothers offer--they notice you and remember you in a way no one else ever will.

A mother knows you first and often longest, sometimes best. A mother holds her children's lives from start to finish in her head. She's a living scrapbook. She remembers parts of your life better than you do. When she goes, so do pieces of your identity that existed only in her mind.

How much of you dies when her memory of you dies?

The images of you that lived in your mother's memory more vividly than in any photo--you as a baby, happy and sad as a child--those would also be available in the Google of lost mothers.

Listening to my friend talk about the questions she'll never get to ask her mother, I made one of those intermittent Mother's Day resolves that often dissolves a few days later: I would ask my mother more questions while she's still around.

But then I realized that's not the point. You can ask and ask your mother, talk and talk, and still not know which questions about her life, your life, her death will trigger.

I'm lucky enough to still have my mother, but I know that for many people whose mothers are gone, Mother's Day--like other days--comes with the frustration of these memories that can never be salvaged and mysteries that can never be solved.

If there were a Google of lost mothers, though, it would probably be like the real thing--you'd never learn all that there was to know.

The facts would be endless and they still wouldn't fill the hole.

Show your Neck
Brooks Gave Strength To Others Through Her Voice
December 06, 2000 | Mary Schmich

When I heard that Gwendolyn Brooks had died Sunday at age 83, I reflexively touched my throat. For a long time, Gwendolyn Brooks has made me think about my throat.

Fifteen years ago, I went to interview Brooks, a product of Chicago's South Side, about her role as the nation's first female African-American poetry consultant. On a sunny winter's day in Washington, D.C., I found her in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, an Italian Renaissance extravaganza of marble columns and sculpted angels, very, very far from the poor, rambunctious Chicago she praised and mourned and re-created in her poems.

She sat with her back straight, ankles crossed, in a plaid pinafore and flat black patent leather shoes, looking, deceptively, as proper as a schoolmarm. For a while, she talked about the practicalities and philosophies of poetry. "Poetry," she said, "is life distilled."

And yet her remarks kept looping back to age. To how it felt to be a woman growing old. To things she wished young women understood about being young.

"My face is beginning to fall," she said wistfully, wryly. "What you do when you get to be my age is you just don't look in the mirror except for natural hygienic reasons. But you don't look in the mirror and love what you see the way you used to. Because, you know, I'm not the most beautiful girl that was ever born." She laughed and slapped the couch. "But I used to like what I saw in the mirror. I would look and primp. So you just quit doing that."

I put that remark in the story I wrote. But there were two related remarks I didn't include, two baubles of wisdom I've repeated often to my friends.

She had been talking about poetry when, out of the blue, she said, "Good for you for showing your neck." Confused, I reached toward my throat, not particularly aware until then that I was wearing a V-neck shirt.

She fingered the scarf around her throat. "I'm sorry I didn't expose mine more when I could." Women, she said, should show their necks while they're young enough to have attractive necks to show.

Then she began to talk about how young women not only didn't show their necks enough, they didn't show their voices. Had I noticed, she asked, how many young women spoke as if they were being strangled? How they spoke not from the gut and the heart but from some traffic jam in their throats? They needed to reach down through that constriction, she said, and pull their voice up from somewhere deep and true.

Until that moment, I'd never thought about it. For the 15 years since, I've noticed it almost every day, particularly in women in their 20s and 30s, sometimes in older women, sometimes in myself. And every time I hear a tiny, tinny voice coming from a woman clearly capable of more, I want to grab the strangled speaker on Gwendolyn Brooks' behalf and bellow: Speak up, girl! Speak out! Speak true! You can!

Gwendolyn Brooks had a voice. When she was young, if recordings are a fair accounting, her voice could sound eerily like the feathery, genteel voice of Jackie O. And yet in later years, though she could still speak shyly and primly, her voice was clear and commanding.

Maybe that physical strength of voice correlated to her transformation in the late 1960s, when she rejected mainstream publishing houses in favor of small black presses, stopped straightening her hair and began writing specifically to her fellow African-Americans, believing her mission was to help them define themselves.

When she read her poetry aloud, as she often did to packed audiences of varied skin shades, her voice rumbled through a room like a freight train. When she laughed, the furniture seemed to shake. Her voice spanned at least an octave, from wind chime to diesel engine.

Brooks used her voice as a ticket to freedom and meaning. That voice, on paper and in person, carried her and her message all over the world. She'll be remembered for her voice, and for the lessons it brought to the thousands of young people whose educations she took as personally as a mother might.

And so on the occasion of the passing of one of Chicago's great poets and teachers, I share these two lessons that otherwise might go overlooked: Show your neck. Free your voice.

Save a Little Outrage
Mob attacks not the only outrages
June 12, 2011 | Mary Schmich

The woman answered my knock by opening the door a crack. She was neatly dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt.

Was this Dvonte Sykes' home? Was there someone I could talk to about what happened Saturday night?

"I'm his mother," she said, warily.

It was Friday, midday, not quite a week since Tonia Rush's son was arrested. He and four other teenage boys were charged with mugging five people in an affluent, touristed part of downtown Chicago. She didn't want to talk, but said she would, outside, on the stoop of her two-story graystone duplex.

Had Dvonte been in trouble before?

"No. Never. He's a pretty good kid."

She reached absent-mindedly into her mailbox, pulled out several envelopes.

She said Dvonte had planned on going to summer school to earn credits to complete his junior year of high school.

Instead, at 17, he has been charged as an adult with robbing a Thai tourist and participating in a "mob action" in which a group of teenagers tried to steal another man's scooter.

"Now we're going to throw the book at him," she said, "going to use him as an example."

What he's accused of doing is really bad, right? When I asked, she didn't hesitate.

"Yes. It is. Absolutely. If he did it, he needs to be punished. But how it's blown up is not making it any better."

Nearby, the Englewood neighborhood was humming with young men. They clustered at the bus stop, next to cars, outside Stewart's Cut Rate Liquors. A couple of guys played a game of quarters, tossing coins on the sidewalk, aiming at the cracks.

But Rush's block, which has houses on only one side, facing elevated Metra tracks, was quiet except when a train roared by.

She said that since she moved here from Hyde Park because it was all she could afford, the neighborhood has gotten worse.

"I can walk to the bus stop and hear gunshots. People getting murdered, drive-bys every day."

After her son's bond hearing, she told a reporter that his $250,000 bail wouldn't have been so high if he'd committed crimes on the South or West sides. Her remark ignited outrage. She holds to her opinion.

"Politics, money, race," she said when I asked why she thought this case was so big. "Pick any one of them. New police chief. New mayor. They're going to make sure they're setting an example for everybody."

Rush was polite, but short on details. She said she works part time. She said she'd never heard of the two other teenagers charged as adults with her son. She said his father had seen him since the arrest.

What would she like to say to Dvonte in jail?

"That I got his back 100 percent. I'm here for my son. I'm not here for the media, nor anybody else."

Then from her handful of mail, she picked up a postcard. She flipped it over, flipped it back.

"How did they get this address?" she said.

She passed it to me. The card, handwritten to her son, used a racial slur: "You and the other (expletive) don't seem to be able to quit acting like (expletive). Hopefully, they will now put all you (expletive) away."

"I have no comment on this," she said.

Her voice stayed level. She walked back inside and closed the door.

The marauders who beat five people in downtown Chicago last Saturday did something very bad. They hurt those individuals, and they hurt the city. But let's save some righteous anger for the unseen assaults that happen in Chicago every day.

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