My mom’s friend Bonnie died several years ago. She was only 59, considerably older than my mom when she died, but still too young. I accidentally discovered that she had died when I posted about Glen Campbell‘s performance at the St. Ignatius Benefit — Bonnie’s brother was the genius behind the revitalization of St. Ignatius. When my sister suggested that I send my post to Bonnie, we both discovered that she had died, only a year after our dad.
Bonnie was a Chicago Public School English teacher, and even though I don’t consciously think that my own life choices have been influenced by her, in many ways, she was a role model. I don’t think I ever thought of her as anything more, or less, than Bonnie — my mom’s cool, quirky, smart, and independently minded friend. Bonnie was the first feminist that I knew.
When I was in middle school, I remember that Bonnie took me, along with some of her current students at Benito Juarez High School, to a play called A Thurber Carnival — I had never heard of James Thurber –and this was my introduction. We sat in old church pews in a dank basement theater, but I remember laughing, and when Bonnie drove me home in the coolest car ever — her 1970s yellow Volkswagen Beetle — we talked about the play. We laughed and discussed the details, all of which I have now forgotten. The idea that talking about plays was important remained with me. She introduced me to the world of plays, reading, and teaching. She paid me to grade her students’ papers, and we talked about what they were reading and writing.
I remember Bonnie as a runner — when I knew no one who ran for fun. She would come for a visit with my mom, plop on her running shoes, and drag me along (and sometimes I’d ride my bike). Before everyone I knew became a runner, Bonnie was a runner. I think of her when I see that scene in Forrest Gump — she was my messiah when it came to running. My mom would shake her head, and wonder about my conviction when I was in high school. What the heck was I doing out there, running around Midway Airport, anyway? Since when was that fun? It started to be fun when I ran alongside Bonnie.
Bonnie’s influence followed me to college. I ended up with her jumky three speed bike, and somehow, one day, on my way to work, I went head first over the handlebars. I survived, obviously, with just a few bruises. In many ways, Bonnie was always looking over my shoulder. The bike survived, to my relief, since it was my transportation to and from my job.
Bonnie was my mom’s friend who, when she visited, talked about her boyfriend stuck in Iran during the Revolution, (with letters and postcards from him to tell the story), her time in a commune after college, her trek across the country in her aforementioned yellow VW Beetle, her apartment in Old Town (yeah — Old Town, thirty years ago, when I visited her apartment, was NOT the Old Town of today — it was full of hippies, school teachers, the working poor, and those resisting the dominant culture — it was not the land of the wealthy urban elite). She was a woman with a job that didn’t include waiting tables or crossing kids on their way to school (my mom’s jobs, and nothing to be ashamed of, just different). She was a woman who spoke her mind. She was a woman who, when John Lennon died in 1980, spent a day talking with me about that tragedy. I went to the memorial in Grant Park mostly because of her.
Bonnie also helped me when I started on my own path to teaching. She was working full-time then at Bogan High School, a tough south side school, and somehow, she got me a full-time sub job. I showed up, day after day, and filled in for anyone who was absent. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I was totally unprepared. I was only a few years older than the kids in my classes, and yet they saw me as being miles from them. Except for a group of young girls in Bonnie’s journalism class — they lived in Pilsen, commuted to Bogan, and were dedicated students. We struck up a friendship, and they shared with me their hopes and dreams. We met often outside of school for food and chatter. It was that connection that made me decided I should pursue my career — before that, I thought teaching perhaps was not quite what I had hoped.
I ran into Bonnie, one of the last times I saw her, at the Cook County Courthouse on 26th and California. I had the only jury duty summons of my life, and Bonnie, too, had been called. We were both excused from service that day, and went to lunch at one of the Italian places on Oakley, near Western and Blue Island. We talked about relationships, the old days, teaching, and how much we missed my mom. It was good to connect with her. Funny, though, I don’t think I ever told her how much her friendship had meant to me over all of those years.
I often wondered if she was happy. I remember my mom saying to me, during one of my particularly rebellious stages, that I might wind up like Bonnie, with a career, but no husband, as if that was a fate worse than death. Looking back on it now, it sure seemed that Bonnie carved her own space, called the shots for herself, decided upon her relationships, determined her life without apology. She certainly showed me a path that otherwise might not have existed for me, and for that, I am grateful.
I am sorry that I am only now, 11 years after her death discovering it. The last time I saw her was at my father’s wake and funeral. She looked good, great even, and we promised to stay in touch. A year later, she was dead, but I didn’t know.
Bonnie was a compassionate, wise woman, full of the exuberance of life, despite its challenges and setbacks. I miss her.