Remember my post a few weeks ago about heading to Champaign to give a talk to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois? My friend Nancy Beskin generously agreed to come along with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me on the train, and her guest post today describes what our trip was like from her point of, ahem, view.
A living field trip into Beth’s history
by Nancy Beskin
I think Beth was surprised at how quickly I said yes when she asked if I wanted to come with her and Whitney to Champaign, but the trip was compelling to me for all sorts of reasons:
- The train ride would be effortless and give me lots of time to catch up with Beth.
- It was a chance to go back to my Alma Mater.
- We‘d be staying overnight in the Illini Union.
- I would see Beth give a presentation to a different sort of audience: college students.
- It would be a mid-week adventure, and I love little adventures.
Beth and I became friends during our sophomore year at U of I when we lived on the same dorm floor in Scott Hall. We lost touch after graduation when I headed to Berkeley for grad school. During that time, I heard bits and pieces of Beth’s problems with her eyes, and then ultimately that she had lost her sight.
We reconnected in 2003 at a book signing for Beth’s memoir Long Time, No See at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous to see Beth again, feeling a little guilty that I had not contacted her during this difficult time in her life. My fears were unfounded, I’m happy to say. We fell right back into the easy friendship we’d left behind in 1980.
So, yes, the train ride was fun and Beth and I were able to catch up. Being back at U of I was fun, too, but I didn’t feel the nostalgia I thought I might. So many buildings have been torn down and replaced that it was a real comfort to see the quad still looking exactly the way it did back in the 70s.
Beth and I agreed that staying at the Union made us feel grown up, and when I saw that my beloved (and ex-employer) Illini Union Book Center is now a conference room, it really sunk in: It is not MY U of I anymore.
The unexpected surprise of our whirlwind trip was learning so much about Beth’s years in Urbana after college…when I had lost touch with her. It was a living field trip into her history.
I met her other Nancy B. friend — Beth met Nancy Bolero while she was a volunteer at the local hospice. Nancy and her boyfriend Steven are the couple caring for Hanni in her retirement years. I met her friends Judy Ciambotti and Jim Spencer, who live across the street from Beth and Mike’s Urbana home, and who Beth met through some musician friends. I saw Beth and Mike’s Urbana house, easily identifiable by the wooden ramp that was built for Gus and his wheelchair. We walked to downtown Urbana, with Beth knowing each step and every building along the way.
And I met Charlie Sweitzer, a talented woodworker who Beth had met when she attended church after Gus was born – Charlie used to be a preacher there. Charlie gave Beth, Judy and me opportunities to see, feel and smell the woodworking projects he and his son are working on.
Our train back to Chicago was delayed, so we spent the last moments of our trip enjoying a draft beer across the street at the Esquire Lounge. In the course of 30 minutes, numerous old friends came up to say hello to Beth and catch up.
So, did the trip live up to my expectations? Yes, and beyond. It gave me a glimpse into a part of Beth’s world that I was never a part of, and that makes my friendship with her all the more rich. Cheers!