Celebrating Susan’s Seventieth Birthday
at Chicago’s Palmer House
December 8 – 11, 2016
“Reaching seventy is an accomplishment, something to celebrate,” Susan stated, much to my surprise. She scoffed at doing anything special at sixty or sixty-five. But I heard her. Seventy was different.
Vibrant cities are Susan’s cup of tea. Art, music, culture, and urban vitality in places like New York, Paris, and London. Why not Chicago as a destination?
Chicago’s a great city, cold in December, but offering outstanding museums and excellent restaurants. The historic grand hotel, the Palmer House is a short walk to these great indoor venues.
A birthday celebration would not be complete without family. Jake, Michelle, Tracy, and Scott were available for the second weekend in December. Our old friends, Cathy and Ted Swigon, were eager to join a celebration in their hometown.
I fashioned an invitation to a birthday dinner party, rolled it into a scroll, put a bow on it, and presented it to Susan.
She was thrilled!
Thursday, December 8th
An arctic wind rushed in our faces when we pushed open the airport door pulling our roller bags onto the sidewalk. When the trunk lid of a yellow cab popped open, I tossed the bags in and joined Susan in the back seat. Chicago looked like a silent movie as we rode downtown under a pearl gray sky.
The sidewalk under the marquee of the Palmer House was an island of bright light. Inside, we climbed a few marble steps, passed gilded statues in a niche, and emerged into a palatial lobby, ablaze with lights and alive with bright colors.
We stopped walking, arched our necks, and gasped at the florid arches bordering a brightly painted ceiling high above us. Murals graced the design reminiscent of the palazzos visited in our 2016 Grandkids Week in Italy.
Candelabra sconces softly illuminated clumps of people at the semicircular bar and high tables. A Christmas tree worthy of the White House added holiday spirit. The clock flanked by nymphs beneath a pointed arch formed the centerpiece above the entry to the famous Empire Room night club.
As we smoothed the wrinkles from our clothes and hung them in the closet, the phone startled us. A porter asked if he could bring a package. He entered holding a woven basket in front of him with both hands. Heavy cellophane held a tower of goodies. An orchid in a vase was atop oranges and bananas, bottles of red and white wine, two varieties of crackers and cheese, a box of chocolates, and a gift box with birthday greetings from Cathy and Ted. Inside Susan found a necklace and matching ear rings by Patricia Locke, a well-known artist. This welcome almost overwhelmed us. What great friends!
At lunch in the hotel dining room, Susan gave herself a birthday dispensation to order fried cheese curds. We fortified ourselves for a walk on Chicago’s cold streets with a hearty meal while we speculated whether a nearby couple in business attire were merely colleagues or having an affair. When the woman reached across the table with her fork and stabbed a shrimp, Susan said they were undoubtedly lovers. We were pleased to know that romance survives on the shores of freezing Lake Michigan!
Hats over our ears, scarfs around our necks, gloves on our hands, we stepped into a brisk wind and headed north on Michigan Avenue. Susan had taken her fur out of storage and packed it, but she wore her quilted coat that day. I had found my topcoat in the back of my closet. Soon my face was freezing; I thought my cheeks might be as brittle as china. The sun broke through the clouds, but provided no discernible warmth.
We hurried over the bridge above the Chicago River, once the route of French explorers traveling from the St. Lawrence to New Orleans by canoe, now lined with the modern architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Marina Towers. The wind on the bridge, unobstructed by buildings, whipped our faces fiercely.
In another twenty minutes, we entered the historic water tower pumping house and appreciated the warmth more than the fashion exhibit. Our map showed the Museum of Contemporary Art was nearby so we braved the frigid streets again. We entered through the gift shop rather than ascend the monumental staircase to the museum’s grand entrance. Susan selected a contemporary necklace and ‘glow buttons” from all the cute and clever stuff.
We climbed a curving staircase to the museum which was grand, but lacked warmth and intimacy. Several exhibits featured moving images projected on the walls, one of bees buzzing in their hexagonal hive. Not sure what the point was. Some Alexander Calder mobiles and Andy Warhol silkscreens captured our attention. The staircase designed by a sculptor was memorable. We emerged into Chicago’s rush hour traffic, Cabs were all occupied, but a hotel doorman snagged us one to return is to the hotel.
As we crept along, I saw a kinetic sculpture that appears to change as one moves past it. I’m sure it was done by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. He recently refurbished a similar sculpture in Birmingham.
As we stood inside at the side entrance of the hotel, Cathy’s black Lincoln pulled to the curb on Wabash Avenue. Ted jumped out, bowed, made a sweeping gesture toward the car, and announced, “Your car!” Our dinner was at the Boarding House, a place Cathy’s boss had recommended.
It was great fun to catch up on family, friends, and people Cathy remembered from her time in Birmingham 35 years before. A delightful evening!
Friday, December 9th
Susan and I had coffee with a young colleague of Cathy’s about Birmingham as a place for their non-profit to assist with workforce development. A pleasant conversation.
Coincidentally Tanveer Patel, a Birmingham entrepreneur who considers Susan her “American mother,” was traveling in Chicago with Maureen Williams, her “English mother.” They both helped Tanveer launch technology businesses in the U.S. and England.
We walked to their hotel on Wacker Drive facing the river. Tanveer had a meeting with prospective investors, and we went to the Art Institute with Maureen. Tanveer arrived soon and worked in the lobby while we toured the Impressionist galleries.
After lunch in the museum dining room we briefly stepped out on a terrace for an overview of Millenium Park. Maureen compared architect Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa to his bandstand in the park. Finally Susan and Maureen viewed Marc Chagall’s windows.
Tracy and Scott meet us in the Palmer House lobby. Scott had gone by the Wall Street Journal office to meet colleagues he often worked with, but had not met in person. Of course, we had a drink and luxuriated in the splendid lobby bar.
We selected a large banquette for dinner in the hotel so Jake and Michelle could join us for desert after they arrived from the airport. When everyone was present, we posed for a picture in front of the lobby Christmas tree.
Hallway carpets reflected the peacock motif gates in the Monroe St. entry. Elevator lobbies were grand with a dozen elevators, but often arrived full. We learned to go up to go down. Counterintuitive.
Tracy and Scott came by our room to partake in the bounty from Cathy and Ted’s basket. Jake and Michelle did the same later that evening. Yet much remained for us.
Saturday, December 10th
Michelle identified the nearby Peach and Green restaurant as a place for breakfast. At the last minute, I had thought of paying homage to one of Susan’s superb desserts, carrot cake. Jake and I went to a couple of bakeries in search of a cake, but settled for carrot cupcakes.
We all hiked to the Art Institute. Susan and I were happy to return to see another small part of the huge museum on the lakefront.
Michelle and Jake continued to tour the galleries while Tracy, Scott, Susan, and I retired to the Russian Tea Time restaurant for lunch.
The old world atmosphere was sedate, and the Russian specialties—piroski, borscht, and latkes were all on the menu. A special culinary experience.
A week before our trip, Susan decided that Jake, Michelle, Tracy and Scott should not miss an opportunity to see “Hamilton,” the biggest hit of our young century. Susan succeeded in wrangling tickets for Saturday afternoon, and we placed a rush order. Everyone enjoyed it immensely.
Snowflakes were swirling and the sidewalks were slightly slushy as we set off from the Palmer House for our birthday dinner at the Steadfast.
Steadfast was superb! Tracy was obviously pleased with her burger. The piece‘d resistance, however, was an appetizer: foie gras dipped in dark chocolate. The deconstructed creme brûlée was also a hit. Although we missed Tricia and Mohamad, our dinner celebrating Susan’s big birthday with family, Ted, and Cathy was great fun.
Cathy clinked a glass and all eyes turned toward me. I thanked them for joining in these festivities. Paraphrasing scenes from Hamilton, I congratulated Susan, and said she “had never thrown away her shot”, was always in “the room where it happened” whether that was our dining room at Thanksgiving, the board room of a corporation, or a hotel room in Paris.
I told Jake dueling was no longer “legal in New Jersey,” so no dueling.
I said that I withdrew from my duel with Trump so Susan won’t be a widow like Liza.
Afterwards at the hotel, Cathy, Ted, Susan and I sat on the balcony, overlooked the lobby, and talked into the evening. They got a room since more snow was in the forecast. A delightful conclusion to a wonderful evening.
Sunday, December 11th
Brunch was at Cindy’s on the top floor of the Chicago Athletic Club Hotel, a recommendation from our friend Kay Kornmeier. The views of Millenium Park and the towers beyond drew us to the terrace despite the cold.
Brunch was as good as the view. Chicago’s winter weather gave us hearty appetites. We recapped our time in Chicago and everyone wished Susan a happy birthday once again.
Tracy caught a taxi to O’Hare. Jake and Michelle left from the hotel. Scott’s flight was delayed until 10:30 that evening.
Susan and I walked up State Street to the Gap to complete Christmas shopping for the grandkids. The snow falling, sidewalks crowded with shoppers, and Macy’s Christmas decorations created a picture of a long ago Christmas.
Then we relaxed in the Palmer House lobby with Scott for the rest of the afternoon and had dinner at Miller’s, a family restaurant with paintings covering the walls. Mercifully it was next door to the hotel.
Our taxi crunched over frozen snow on the expressway to the airport. We were home before midnight, but Scott did not get to Baltimore until 4 am on Monday morning.
“Memories are made of this,” is the refrain of an old song. We left the cold winds of Chicago with warm memories of Susan’s seventh birthday celebration. A great time together!