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A Lake as Big as an Ocean

A Lake as Big as an Ocean

  • An essay about leaving Chicago by Marcia Bradley, author of "The Home for Wayward Girls."

About ten years ago, I decided to leave Chicago yet again. Raised on the South Side, I’d moved back and forth over the years never willing to give up my roots, yet prone to finding adventures that drew me elsewhere.

“But what will you do instead of painting?” my friend Anita asked me the day we trundled my easels down the elevator to her SUV. They would go to a teen art center.

“I think I’ll write,” I told her. “I used to want to be a writer. It takes up less space.”

I’d forgotten about that conversation. Although I shouldn’t have. Anita had also been with me at each of our high school reunions, including one decades earlier where I’d told a classmate I was writing a book. The words bounced out of my mouth, even though it was only an idea then, a seed that had begun meandering around my brain. Seeds can stay dormant, they can also grow.


I loved painting possibly more than anything I’ve ever done. My parents instilled this in my brothers and sisters and me. I think that when they took us from our small brick house on Fairfield Avenue to Chicago’s Art Institute downtown, they felt rich. Over the years they bought a few prints from the art museum’s store and my father made wood frames for them. The pictures were hung on our living room wall above my mother’s upright piano. These were their treasures. As close to original artwork as one could get. Once given a place in our home, they were no longer prints. They were paintings on our walls. They were art. 

I doubt these prints cost more than ten dollars apiece. Yet for our dad and mom, they were investments. For us. Their hope, I think, was that their five children would through osmosis come to value what they believed mattered. One being that we would learn to think (please children, think), another was to read (please use the library), that we’d revere Lake Michigan (it’s free and it’s ours), and that we’d love art. Picasso’s old guitarist, the blue man, hung on our wall. Nearby were two Renoirs, Child in White, and On the Terrace, a painting of a woman and a young girl in a garden full of flowers. I suspect these choices were meant to teach us that although ours wasn’t a life of ease, we had food on our table and as much a right to framed paintings on our walls as anyone did. So there. 


Before giving away those easels, I had been living in downtown Chicago. I worked with great people, my father was elderly, I was recovering from a few years of breast cancer treatments, and I was sure my mom was orchestrating everything from her spot at a bridge table in heaven. My apartment was blocks from the Art Institute and it wasn’t much further to the Harold Washington Library. That’s a good life.

When I’d moved into the Streeterville apartment, I set my easel near a big window that would catch the city’s close to 200 days a year of sunlight. My oncologist had started me on a regimen of arm lifts which we agreed were helped by painting—I kept at that. And although it gets cold in the windy city, and the weather causes havoc, the skies of Chicago are the lightest most beautiful blue I know. Even with awful wind chills, I’d bundle up and walk the few blocks to Lake Michigan which I’ve always believed is as big as an ocean. After all, you can’t see the other side. 

I took the water taxi to my job most days. When I wasn’t working, I wandered the city, bought art supplies at Blick on Randolph, ate well, made good friends, and I painted. Imagine me—this lone woman with very short hair (it was coming back in tight curls which I’d never had before), me carrying wood frames, rolls of canvas, a bag filled with tubes of paint. It’s not possible for someone who paints to enter an art store and leave empty-handed.

But here’s the thing.

Years before my paintings had been tiny, twelve inches square was large. But canvases! Oh my God, the freedom. Soon three feet by two felt small. I moved to four by six. Then larger.

“What are you going to do with these?” my friend Anita asked. She and I had history, she knew my parents’ living room. There’s an unbreakable bond between women who have been in each other’s childhood bedrooms and kitchens and basements. And for me, she is a friend who knew the Picasso and the Renoir treasures on my parents’ wall.

“I’m not sure,” I told her. The canvasses stacked around my living room were taking over.

“They’re getting kind of large,” she added, her voice not droll but definitely questioning me while trying to be supportive.

“Yep,” I agreed. “They are.”


Everyone in my family visited me when I lived downtown. There is never a dull moment in Chicago and people always have reasons to come. Conventions and music festivals abound. My brother’s family in the suburbs happily reacquainted themselves with Michigan Avenue. And the restaurants! My father began riding the Rock Island again, it had been years since he had, and we’d meet at The Art Institute for lunch. Or on Sundays at Bandera’s, a favorite, which I’m sorry has closed.

“A martini with an olive and a twist,” he’d order.

“How is it?” I’d ask, his eyes narrowed, him weighing that first sip.

“It’s very good,” he said more often than not. I remember his old man fingers curled around the glass, he had age spots and scars from years of working outside, but his grip on the drink was tight, my dad holding onto a life of memories within a gin martini. 

He was crochety. But there were good moments. When he leaned forward to tell me a story—something I’d been told many time but who cares. Or he, the unofficial Jeopardy police, who would phone to report an incorrect answer. I’d laugh. But it wasn’t funny when he called to inform me he was having surgery the next day at Little Company Hospital, the same hospital my mother had gone to, the hospital where most of us were born.

“Don’t worry. I don’t need a ride. Taking myself,” he said.

“But Dad—”

“Your brother will come.”

I did worry. All of us did. He was old and he smoked and for sure we knew that the day was near. That wasn’t what scared me. I think what I was most afraid of was that neither my mom or dad would be in our family’s home on the South Side of Chicago. That we wouldn’t visit and watch the Bears or the White Sox or the Bulls with Dad while eating Janson’s or Fox’s pizza. Most importantly, it was the house where my mother had lived. Where she used to call me long distance wherever I was residing. From the only phone, the one in the kitchen with an extra-long cord.

See Also

“Have you got it?” my mom asked in the fall of 1996.

“Yes, but don’t tell me anything. I haven’t started yet,” I said.

“Me neither. I got a postcard. It’s at Mt. Greenwood. I have to go pick it up.” 

The excitement that a simple postcard could deliver! A book we were desperate to read had just been published. My mom’s copy was on hold at the library near their house. We reconvened many times about that Joyce Carol Oates book, how we loved it. My mom loved books. She gave that to me. From our house on Fairfield Avenue. 


My parents’ treasures, the prints they purchased at the store in the Art Institute of Chicago, are now scattered between us. Some in my sister’s house, my brother has the piano, my eldest the Picasso, my youngest has a box of her grandfather’s mementos valuable only to her. I have my mother’s depression era hammered silver—a cream and sugar set—and what remains of her flowered Blue Ridge dishes from Tennessee. My sister and I share Mom’s few pieces of jewelry. None of which we wear, unlikely we will, but how could we ever let them go? They were our mother’s.

What I miss, what I think we all miss as adults, is how at some point whenever any of us were at the house, we’d stop in the living room and stare at the Picasso and the Renoirs. The art that was our family’s. In wood frames that our dad had measured and cut and pieced together with his own hands. Frames that he stained brown or painted blue and used his carpenter’s level to mark the exact spot on the wall where each would hang. In the living room where before dinner our mother and father sat at five-thirty every evening and drank Old Fashioned cocktails with a cherry and a slice of orange in each. In the same living room where after a meal and maybe a little television, my parents returned to read library books until ten o’clock. In the room with their art.


With my parents gone, the time came for me to again leave Chicago. I gave my paintings away. Some went to Little Company Hospital because before my mother died, she complained there was nothing on the walls in radiology and as she said, “people need something to look at, to take their minds off the waiting.” Anita delivered those easels and my supplies to the teen center. My brother and sister took some paintings off my hands. I find myself pleasantly startled in their homes when I come upon a canvas that was once mine. It seems so long ago.


When I moved away, it didn’t turn out to be for a new job. Instead, I decided it was time to return to college. I finished my unfinished BA and then found myself in grad school. Such a circuitous path. I’m asked if I wished I’d started earlier, and I can’t say that I do. Maybe it takes years to figure out the stories one wants to write. Maybe it takes time to let art lead you where you were meant to be. 

At this moment, I can see my parents in the living room reading near the paintings on their wall. I’ve written a book and I wish I could show it to them. I wish I could tell them I had to think a lot before I wrote it. That they were right about libraries and Lake Michigan and art. That the things they valued mattered. Same as they now matter to me.

The Home for Wayward Girls
By Marcia Bradley
Harper Paperbacks
Published April 4, 2023

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