I couldn't help but be pleased at the reception Jen received from my family when she went down to Chicagoland with me on Saturday the 21st to meet my new niece, Sophia Eileen. This was the first time she met Leslie and Jim as well as my Dad, and they all seemed very approving of her. She also made a particularly strong impression with Haley, who spent a considerable amount of time digging in the dirt of the backyard with Jen in tow. It was striking to see how taken Grace was with her new baby sister, repeatedly leaving the company to go silently watch Sophia while she slept, even. Leslie was amused by the sheer amount of instructions Grace was giving her on making sure to report on Sophia's every move. Haley, who has lost the position of "baby," had been understandably more ambivalent about her new sister, but was warming up by all accounts. So we ate our fine steaks – regrettably charred by a grease fire in the new grill Jim was using, which he had yet to master – and celebrated the safe arrival of the newest member of the family, and of her mother's safe delivery. Lots of pictures were taken, of course, and I was also pleased to see how insistent everyone was that Jen join in in the taking of the portraits.
That next week featured my birthday, which Jen had already asked for me to reserve for her so that she could take me out to my favourite restaurant, the Twisted Fork. That being a fine gift in itself, I was a little surprised that evening when she had a bow-wrapped package sitting in front of her as she lounged on my couch before we left for dinner. Before opening it, I found myself suddenly moved by the brief text she'd written in a card that she offered with the present, as though somehow those few words gave me a reassurance and freedom with her beyond what I had yet experienced. The gift turned out to be an import CD, Julie Delpy, that she had heard me mention in passing that I would like to pick up, but didn't because of the higher import prices, assuming that I could find it someday at a lesser cost. It might seem a simple gift, but what struck me again was how generous she was in her listening to me, and noting even such passing comments. She seemed pleased with how pleased I was, laughing about the "stress" of having to go first in figuring out something for the other's birthday. I could have laughed in response that she had set the bar nice and high for me when her own birthday comes around.
The days go by with us trying to see one another as often as we can fit into our various schedules, particularly with her traveling on many of the weekends of late. This weekend I trailed behind her as we went up to the northern Kettle Moraine State Park area so that she could get in a mountain bike workout, and I went walking along the Ice Age trail, enjoying the hilltop strand of evergreens that sounded like a coast of high surf in the wind, and the almost-musty region of bare white oaks with years of leaves strewn around them, centered on a sudden and deep dell that opened up in front of me as I ambled along. I was carrying my copy of Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War, but never so much as opened a page until I had returned from the walk. I had thought to enjoy some reading while I walked – an art I practiced at Notre Dame, where I did my Master's reading as I walked around the lakes – with an occasional pause to look around at the views, but the trail was a bit too rough for that, and, frankly, I am now so rarely in the woods that I couldn't easily tear my eyes away. (The reading itself is of a horrific kind: the French Revolution in all of its perversity: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Genocide. I really got a much happier, American-democracy-compatible version of it in my high school world history class: I suspect it's remembered more in that way, as part of the foundation of our modern, secular egalitarianism, than the democratic totalitarianism it was.)
The next day found us sitting outside her neighbourhood hamburger joint, with her happily scarfing her cheeseburger, as we just enjoyed the sun. Kids yelling and talking in a large clump after getting out of school led us into conversations about education and social policy, and all the like, which she's quite expert in. She is in the midst of creating her second specialized school for the Milwaukee Public School system, and I find myself amazed – being someone who is pleased to pull together a good lesson – to hear the seeming ease with which she creates institutions that serve some hitherto-neglected segment of the student population of the city. And last night just had us walking after sunset, smelling the blooming trees of Bay View, the occasional lilac bush, and then sipping drinks and talking quietly on the cool comfort of her front porch, sharing old stories and secrets. Quality time.