A lot of the conversation during The Q&A after my talk with Skokie Public Library’s Talking Books Book Club last week centered around independence.
Jim and Kathy Zartman.
After we shared tips for keeping track of our prescriptions, identifying colors of clothing, using talking computers to read and write, one senior citizen with macular degeneration piped up and said she loves to cook, but when her daughter offered to buy her a bag of frozen, chopped onions at the grocery store, she agreed to finally quit insisting on dicing them herself. “I’m learning to stop being so goddamned independent and accept help,” she said. “But it hasn’t been easy.” Her words were refreshing, and she didn’t have to be able to see to know we were all nodding in support.
Our hour at the library went by quickly, and once I’d thanked the Talking Books Book Club for having us, the dapper Jim Zartman guided Whitney and me to his car to take us home. I’ve known Jim for nearly a year now – his wife Kathy is in the memoir-writing class I teach at Lincoln Park Village. He drives Whitney and me to that class every Thursday, and when he found out I’d be speaking at Skokie Public Library last Wednesday, he volunteered to take me there, too.
Jim has the wisdom of age and the spirit of youth. During our rides the past year I’ve had the privilege of hearing his stories about growing up in a small town in Illinois, the mother who gave him his first violin, and getting free room and board in exchange for working as a houseboy for John Kenneth Galbraith’s family at Harvard. “They said they named their son Jamie after me,” he blushes. “But I’m not sure that’s true.”
Jim is not exactly forthcoming, but when I ask questions, he answers. In our 20-minute rides to class he’s shared the agony and ecstasy of raising children with Katherine, his appreciation for his talented grandchildren, his work writing the Illinois Power of Attorney Act and then getting it through the state legislature during his career as partner in the Chicago firm of Chapman and Cutler, and his current role as president of the board of the Chicago School of Violin Making.
The Chicago School of Violin making is one of only a handful of such schools in the world, and it happens to be located very close to the Skokie Public Library. “Would you like to stop at the school along the way for a tour? I would. We did. It was amazing.
Jessie Gilbert, a graduate of the school who specializes in bow-making now, led my one-on-one tour. Her sweet, strong hands guided me along blocks of maple and spruce that were to become instruments, and I met teachers and students who had come from all over the world to participate in the schools three-year program. Students aspire to the quality craftsmanship of the 17th and 18th century classical masters and are ready to enter the violin making and repair field as professionals once they graduate.
We couldn’t stay long — it wasn’t fair to distract the students from their work. While we were there, though, I was taken by how quiet the workspace was –no music to work by, just the intense sound of careful carving and fine sanding.
And so, after my rides and field trips with Jim, and hearing Kathy read her memoirs in class, I’m getting to know the Zartmans. Time to meet the grandchildren, now too! Skyler, Sonia and Aaron had all read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound so they were eager to follow Whitney as she led me around their grandparent’s block. “You’re like the pied piper!” one of them exclaimed.
We sat in Zartman’s lovely back yard after our walk. I showed the kids how Braille works, then took Whitney’s harness off so she could play fetch with them. We all sat down together for a supper of Kathy’s home-cooked beef brisket afterwards. It was sublime.
On my Thursday rides to memoir-writing class with Jim, I often remind him that he doesn’t have to come each and every week. Whitney and I are capable of taking a bus to Lincoln park. He pretends he doesn’t hear, and you know what? That’s okay with me. Just like my new friend in the Talking Books Book Club, I’m learning to stop being so goddamned independent.