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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Back to the City: Navigation – or the Lack Thereof

Sixteen months ago, my husband, Mike, and I moved to the City of Milwaukee, away from our ten acres in Menomonee Falls, where we had raised children, crops, and chickens for nearly 34 years.

We were products of the Sixties and had ingested the Back to the Land philosophy: the Whole Earth Catalog, the Mother Earth News, the solar home, the cloth diapers, the home canning, the yogurt maker, all of it.

Our old barn and land at twilight

Our crops came from three massive gardens that Mike planted in spring and saluted with a “See ya later,” only to return at harvest time. Our chickens were such a motley crew that our son’s hens were thrown out of 4-H judging at Waukesha County Fair. Our three kids suffered a stay-home mother who finally banned TV entirely after finding that her hour-a-day viewing rule was impossible to enforce with three different requests.

The kids left the nest, Mike quit gardening, I quit canning, and poultry-raising was forsaken when I lost heart after yet another massacre by varmints (everything likes to eat chicken).

When Mike had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1996, I thought it might be wise to simplify our lives with a smaller house. It took me 18 years to convince him of the wisdom of this idea. The secret to digging Mike’s feet out of the Menomonee Falls soil was finding a home for sale located in the neighborhood of his childhood.

So now we live a mile from where Mike grew up, in the Jackson Park neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee. I am treated to a never-ending litany of stories about kids who used to live in this or that house and about Mike’s adventures biking through our neighborhood when he was a boy.

Surprisingly, neither one of us misses our little farm. When I think about that big house, all I can think of is work. And woodpeckers. Those loud-knocking, head-jangling pests loved our cedar siding. I had waged a never-ending battle with them for years, always trying new deterrents, never winning.

I do miss Grandfather Oak, a gnarly giant who lived halfway back on the quarter-mile expanse to the rear of our land. Grandfather is about 240 years old, and Mike and I had developed a ritual of saluting him with open arms every time we meandered by in tennis shoes or snowshoes. Amazingly, just down the road from our new home, on Jackson Parkway, we found another magnificent oak, who I named Grandmother. Like with Grandfather, it takes three people to encircle Grandmother’s trunk. But unlike Grandfather, Grandmother’s canopy is stunted. It looks like she took a hit from lightning some years ago. Yet she has survived and apparently thrives. What a creature.

My greatest difficulty adjusting to city living is that I am a lifelong north-sider now dwelling in foreign territory. I spent my childhood in a little house on the corner of Beckett and Glendale Avenues, where streets with names like “Marion,” “Ruby,” Congress,” and “Appleton Avenue” were common currency. My biggest memory of the south side of Milwaukee was when I was 14 and had to go to the airport to take a plane to my grandfather’s funeral. I did have second cousins who lived in West Allis, and we visited them from time to time, but I never noticed the streets since my nose was always buried in a book.

I met Mike at Marquette University, which is located on Wisconsin Avenue, sort of a DMZ between the north and south sides of Milwaukee. Just as I had never traveled the south side, Mike had never traveled the north side. We were like people from two different cultures. Mike told me that everyone on the south side was Polish by osmosis. My north side was very German, with synagogues here and there.

Mike and I married right out of college. We moved to Norfolk, Virginia (in search of a warmer climate), where we were both complete foreigners. Mike did better than I did because he can see the world as if from the top, having a feeling for north, south, east and west. I was lost for the entire three years we lived there, driving around in a great befuddlement most of the time, but enjoying the fact that everywhere was water. (And I liked the big Navy ships that I’d suddenly come upon, seeming to be parked at the ends of city streets.)

Eventually, missing our families, we returned to Wisconsin, where we lived in Wauwatosa, then Sussex, finally Menomonee Falls. Poor Mike was forced to adapt. One night in Wauwatosa, I found him sitting at the kitchen table with a hand-drawn map and streets whose order he was trying to memorize – “North,” “Center,” “Burleigh,” “Capitol….”

Now the map is on the other foot, and every day is a challenge. I console myself with the assurance that getting lost and found again is good mental exercise and I may be staving off dementia by forcing new paths to be forged in my brain. For the first three months living in Milwaukee, I needed the GPS to get to the grocery store. I’m a little better now. I no longer use the GPS, and some well-traveled streets are becoming my best friends: Highway 100 and Oklahoma Avenue are two favorites, and I like 27th Street. I allow myself to get lost because I figure I’ll always learn something that way. My biggest confusion is that the same chain stores fill the streets everywhere. I seek out the few mom and pop establishments that make some areas stand out from the rest.

I will know when I have arrived when I can master the slant streets. When I lived on the north side, Appleton Avenue was my shortcut everywhere. I loved its diagonal-ness. Now I want to master Beloit, National, Layton, and Forest Home, but I am still afraid of them. It was a revelation one evening when Mike informed me that they all slant the same way, starting from the southwest and slanting northeast into downtown Milwaukee.

I plan to post a big map of Greater Milwaukee on a wall in my new house. I long for the day I can see the city as if from above.
Mike "raking leaves" on our new, smaller, lawn. Note stone house: no woodpeckers!!


  1. Love this, Gail. When Karl moved in with me in Waukesha the only way he could get anywhere was to start at Carroll University. One day he was supposed to meet me in Pewaukee for a meeting. He was late and when I called and asked him where he was he said Carroll. He had been on the road for half an hour and was within 6 blocks of where he started!

  2. Haha. I can relate completely. Maybe Karl is like me and has little "spacial" sense. Or maybe I'm just a spacehead! Thanks for commenting, Pat.

  3. You may fine this strange but I have a map in my bathroom across from the toilet. Something for me to look at and study every time I'm in there. You'll be amazed at how quickly you will master your surroundings. Give a try.

  4. Thank you Code Man Code, oh wise one!