Friday, January 11, 2008

1/11/08 Chicago Fun in Zero Degree Weather

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Now that I was officially a resident, we left South Dakota, drove through Minnesota and spent the night in La Crosse, Wisconsin on our way to meet up with Mel and his cousins in Illinois. The weather continued to hold and we finished our Audio Book “Ordinary Heroes” by Scott Turow. Oops, we returned the audio-book to Cracker Barrel, but realized 100 miles later that we forgot to put the last CD back in the book, so we mailed it back to them.

From the freeway, blanketed in snow, southern Minnesota is mostly farm land with beautiful barns and houses every few miles. Driving through Wisconsin was very difficult because it was so beautiful. We almost pulled off at numerous exits to go exploring. The signs for the Dells especially called to me. We were scheduled to arrive in Chicago a day early, so it took a fair amount of self control to keep driving and many promises to ourselves that we’d come back in the spring or summer seasons. Sarah kept us on the road because we were headed to a favorite relative’s house – Mel’s cousin Gale.

When we arrived in Wheeling, Gale and Steve were out at a large bar mitzvah, but had left us the code to get in the house. We did a grocery run, moved our luggage in, set up the bedrooms, got the laundry going and luxuriated in being in a “real house” with all of us having our own space.

Being at the beautiful Cook home was made all the more special because Gale decorates for the seasons – and the entire house was decked out with adorable snowmen. We were thrilled by the concept of a basement – where Dave was bunked – and laundry chutes from the second story right to the basement laundry room. Sarah’s room housed a collection of Beanie Babies and I enjoyed a lovely queen-sized bed that I’d soon get to share with Mel. The sun room with an indoor Jacuzzi had heated floors and all of Steve’s beautiful orchids and plants gave the room a wonderful atmosphere. There were books everywhere and a zillion types of tea. It was going to be a wonderful eight days!

The next day I got Mel from the airport and the party began. Gale and Steve went out of their way to make us feel at home. They hosted two big family get-togethers celebrating Aunt Ethel's birthday with all of Mel’s Levy cousins and Gale’s children and grandchildren. They insisted that Mel and I take a night of to go stay in downtown Chicago and took Sarah to see a play “Little Women.” Gale had a gingerbread house kit that Mel and Sarah built together. Gale pointed out that it might be easier if they read the directions but only structural disaster of the roof caving in convinced them. Each day was filled with fun, long talks and a wonderful feeling of family.

Levy Family Slide Show

Steve was concerned when Dave became ill from his ulcerative colitis and recommended that we go to a local doctor who specialized in allergy testing who had helped Steve immensely. What an amazing experience! I hadn’t had Dave tested since he was four and I had read many articles about diet regarding Aspergers’ and Ulcerative Colitis/Crohn’s Disease where they recommend eliminating gluten (wheat) and casein (milk proteins). (Dave’s Orange County doctors had always dismissed my questions about a special diet – they hadn’t seen any definite results, so I hadn’t made any changes.)

We were stunned with the results – Dave was extremely allergic to milk, yeast, corn syrup and grain products, except rice. Dave was worried at first; he loves milk products, breads, and soft drinks, until he realized that he could still eat his favorite foods, sushi and steak. He can eat virtually all of the fruits and vegetables, so there are still plenty of food choices.

The doctor’s office knew that Sarah was with us in the waiting room. Since Dave had tested so strongly for many different allergens, they recommended we test Sarah also. Just as they suspected, Sarah was allergic to dairy products and a number of grasses and tree pollens. (None of this should be too surprising – Mel is very allergic to pollens and Mary Ann had severe allergies as a child to milk, wheat, eggs and chocolate.) Changing our food choices has been extremely complicated, but we are gradually getting used to our new food palette – it’s like eating for Passover all year round except we don’t get dairy products.

Mel and I spent the night at the Chicago Wyndham downtown. We had great fun taking long very cold (14 degrees) walks in this scenic city. We met a young man with a “Free Hugs” sign (you need to see the YouTube video by “Sick Puppies” and enjoyed the Art Institute with their unique and marvelous collections. Across the street was the fantastic Russian Tea House. We had such a memorable lunch (with plenty of vodka to warm us up!) that we decided to bring the kids back for dinner later in the week to explore the foods of their Ukrainian heritage. Eddie Bauer was having such a fantastic sale on winter clothes that we bought bags full of snuggly shirts, jackets and mufflers. All-in-all, it was a fantastic trip into the Windy City.

Downtown Chicago Slide Show

While we were visiting, cousin Barbara made an emergency trip to Florida to be with her husband Bernie while he had heart surgery. As the family collectively held their breath and said lots of prayers, Bernie pulled through successfully.

Throughout the Chicago trip, we had plenty of opportunities to be Mel’s Aunt Ethel. It was reassuring to see how well she has settled into her new home and touching to know that each one of her three daughters plays a special role in her life. Her charm and personality makes it easy to see why Mel wanted to schedule a visit to the Chicago area.

Cousin Roberta, husband Larry and daughter Sara, and boyfriend Jason, invited us for a lovely meal in Gurnee – it was lovely to be inside and cozy – it was -3 degrees outside. We enjoyed good company, chocolate martinis, a wonderful dinner, homemade bread and brownies and a zillion family photos. It was so fun to watch the family “grow up” in the pictures and see the recent motorcycle trips including the “Paper Clip” ride to Whitwell, Tennessee. It was hard to leave their dog Cinnamon behind; we almost smuggled her out, and it was cute to see her in the window as we drove away.

Alexander Family Slideshow

The next day, it seemed to have warmed up so Dave decided to walk to a sushi restaurant --four miles away. He called when he got to the restaurant saying that he had arrived safely, but that he was very cold and feeling shaky. After he ate, he called for a ride home. When Mel went to go get him, the car thermometer registered 4 degrees. No wonder Dave was cold; he was shaking from hypothermia. Even though Dave was wearing his new Eddie Bauer gear and gloves, he had refused a hat. The poor dear got frostbite on his ears. His ears were burned from the cold and we put special lotion on help heal them for the next week. All winter long Dave and I have fought about whether he needs a coat, hat and gloves – now he willingly wears them – it was a hard lesson to learn.

We took the kids into Chicago one night to eat at Russian Tea Time. They were great sports and tried some of everything. It was a magical evening and we all laughed and laughed (and the kids weren’t drinking vodka)! Sarah refused to let me take a picture of it, but we were dazzled by the self-covering plastic seat covers in the bathroom. Later we went for a walk to watch the ice-skating in the Millennium Park while enjoying the recognizable Chicago skyline. The cold drove us back to the car; we could have walked for miles and had that night last forever.

Sadly, our week of fun and family drew to a close. It was time to pack up and put Mel back on airplane. No tears this time, but it is always sad to say goodbye. We stayed one more night with Gale and Steve and left for Sandusky, Ohio.

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