Several times over the past 18 hours or so a very inaccurate thought has wandered into my mind.
“I guess the point of destroying buildings in a riot is so that the rest of us will feel the pain that they feel. Now I feel it.”
It’s inaccurate, of course, because the deep heartache I feel over the loss of Danish Brotherhood Lodge No. 14. could never be compared to the loss of a human life, much less to watching people of your ethnicity continually get murdered with no consequences day after day, year after year. Much less knowing that you’re not safe in your own country and that the police are always a danger to you, no matter what you do.
Watching the press conference held by Jacob Blake’s family today drove that silly thought out of my head for good. Watching Julia Jackson’s face, I glimpsed the agony that Black people endure in this country, and I understood that I have never felt that and never will.
I might be hurting, but I am not hurting like Jacob’s mother. Listen hard to her words.
That said, there are griefs that blot out the sun and stars, and there are smaller griefs. My family is grieving a place today that was central to all of our lives, and I want to take some time to record my memories of this place. Being in that building always made me feel I belonged to something. I knew the members owned that big old place, and my family were members, so that meant we were among the owners.
I am 5 years old and I am knawing a popcorn ball wrapped in green cellophane, sitting cross legged on the floor with all the other kids, watching a film of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, because what is more festive than watching a little girl freeze to death? But suddenly I hear jingling bells, and my heart is electrified. I jump up and down below the one of huge windows, wishing I could get a view of the roof where one of the adults is sure they just heard reindeer landing. I sit on Santa’s lap, and I know he is the real Santa becaus he knows my name and tells me he will see me at my Great Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. And he he does see me there.
I am 6. I ride on the armrest in the middle of the front seat of my grandfather’s Impala, excited to accompany him to “the Lodge,” where he will be setting up for a wedding, if it’s Saturday morning, or cleaning up from one, if it’s Sunday. If it’s Sunday, there may be vomit. I love to accompany Grandpa Bobby to the Lodge, because there I can kneel on a barstool and reach over the bar to spear a marachino cherry with a plastic sword. I can sit in one of the high backed chairs they use for Lodge meetings and pretend I am a queen. I can go into the sitting area of the men’s bathroom, because no one else is there. I may even get to drink warm 7Up out of a thin, ribbed plastic cup. I will not be allowed to play with the dumb waiter, which sends food up to the hall from the first floor kitchen, but I will want to. I will stare at the large photo of The Little Mermaid statue, sitting blankly on her rock. Because this photo is so large, decades later, when I finally make it to Copenhagen, I will be one of millions of tourists who are surprised at how petite the real statue is.
I am 7, and wearing a crown of flowers at my Uncle Randy’s wedding reception. He is marrying a beautiful lady from Australia, and I amuse her and her family by singing the kukaburra song I learned in school. “Laugh, kukaburra, laugh!” And they do.
I am 8, eating aebliskiver with both jelly and powdered sugar, rushing to finish so I can run down the stairs and sit in the pink ladies lounge and rock in the rocking chair and talk with other kids, kids whose parents also belong to the Brotherhood and who I only see at these events.
I am 9, in the kitchen with my Grandma Elaine. It’s the only commercial kitchen I’ve ever been in, and I marvel at the cooler, the signs and labels on everything, the giant mixing bowls, the egg slicers that remind me of my Great Grandma Myrtle Ibsen, who died that year. Grandma and my mom know the way around the place like their own kitchens, having worked for Grandma Ibsen many times when she was the cateress. I must have been at the Brotherhood many times with Grandma Ibsen as well, but my memories of her are mostly at her apartment. Grandma Elaine has been in charge of making the aebliskiver for years now.
I am 12, and my mom, cousin Hollie and I are collapsed in front of the TV after shopping all day in Milwaukee. The phone rings. There is a party at the DB, and they need help washing dishes. They will pay by the hour. I don’t remember how much they were paying, but it was enough that we jumped off the couch and into the car. Hours later, hanging up the tea towels in the kitchen across from the women’s bathroom, we are so tired we are slap happy, but glad we went.
I am 13, and I am scheduled to babysit the next night. My parents call me from the phone behind the bar at the Rathskeller, downstairs at the Lodge. They just found out that they need a replacement coat check girl for a party the next night, and I would get paid $2 an hour — the same as I charged for babysitting — but I would make a lot of tips. I argue that I can’t cancel babysitting, but my parents are insistent that I must take the opportunity. I grudgingly call the parents to cancel babysitting, and spend Saturday night behind the half-door of the coat room, doing my homework and shivering every time someone goes in or out the front door. There are two highlights of the evening: Being relieved by one of the bartenders so I can go upstairs and help myself to a plate from the buffet, and counting all the one dollar bills at the end of the night. I earn $100 and my mom takes me to the Outlet Mall where I spend it on clothes. I’m hooked, and end up spending winter Saturday nights in that long, chilly room throughout junior high school and high school. After the cooks leave, I am all alone on the first floor. I have a “panic” button that I could push to alert the bartenders if I need help, but I never need it. I am between the party and the bathrooms, so I see a lot of drunk people about to throw up. I swear I will never drink. Sometimes, men stop and flirt with me on their way back to the party. I usually find this flattering rather than creepy, and I find it hilarious when they see my homework and ask if I am in college. I am in eighth grade.
I am 14, and my grandfather is being knighted by representatives from the Queen of Denmark for his service to the Danish Brotherhood of America. People make toasts with akvavit. Afterwards my Uncle, back from Australia, wants to go to The Spot drivein, so we do, and he orders perch.
I am 15, and I have worked out a deal with my 12-year-old brother where he works the beginning of the coat room shift, I take over after going out with my friends, and we split the tips. My boyfriend visits me at work and this helps the long, chilly hours pass. But when she picks me up that night my mom tells me that people at the party complained that they felt embarrassed when they needed to interrupt us kissing to get their coats.
I am 16, still working the coat room. The coats are jammed in tightly, almost every hanger full, and on the top rack, old men’s hats sit side by side. A lady asks me if I want the prize she pulled out of the “fishing game” upstairs. It’s a bottle of peach schnapps. I slip it into my book bag and later my friends and I mix it with 7Up, sipping the sweet concoction out of the soda bottle while we wander around the lakefront or sit on the swings in dark playgrounds. Another night at the coat room, an old lady wearing high heels falls down the last quarter of the steep staircase and ends up lying on her back. I look down at her and yell, “Holy shit!” before running for the bartenders. They take her away in an ambulance and I feel guilty, remembering how her eyes stared up helplessly at the teenager shouting a curse word at her.
I am 17 and my cousin Hollie and I get a joint graduation party at the Hall. We giggle that the napkins say, “Congratulations, you made it!” So far I have never made it, with anyone.
I am 18 and I am being inducted into the Danish Sisterhood of America. I joined because it will make me eligible to apply for a scholarship they offer, but I am pleased once I’m there to meet ladies who knew my Great Grandma Ibsen when she was alive. I am the youngest person in the room. My mother is the second youngest.
I am 19, back from college, and my dad offers to buy me a drink at the bar. He knows Wisconsin law: Parents can buy drinks for their kids no matter the age. My cousins are visiting from Australia so my dad orders them virgin drinks. One of the little boys asks what “virgin” means. My dad says, “Well, a virgin forest is a forest that has never been cut.”
I am 20. My grandfather pays my brother and I to wash all the windows in the upstairs hall. Despite having been in this place so many times over the years, this may be the first time we were there alone. We have a boom box, and from our ladders we sing along to the entire soundtrack of Evita. He is Che.
I am 24, and I will get married tomorrow, but the hall is nowhere near finished being decorated. After the rehearsal dinner, my family and our friends Mike Lusignan and Kori Andreoli stay up late putting up miles of twinkling lights, bought half price the day after Christmas. The next day, when I enter the hall, there is something there I hadn’t authorized: a large screen. “What the hell is that?” I ask, and my family promises I don’t need to be mad. At the time I’d never been to a wedding with a slide presentation, and this one was a surprise. It’s accompanied by audio recordings of each of us when we were little. I cry. There is so much dancing. I remember my great Aunt Helen pushing my Grandma Nancy in her wheelchair around the dance floor, dancing and spinning. In the coat room, there is a young teenage boy wearing a South Park Tshirt. As I pass on the way to the bathroom, I ask if anyone has told him that this used to be my job. The way he says “yes,” it’s clear that everyone has told him this.
I am 27, and my best friend is having a baby. We hold her shower in the bar room, and I bring a music player so I can blast my playlist of every song in the world with the word “baby” in it.
I am 30, and pregnant for the first time, at my father’s retirement party. I take the microphone and claim that growing up in a union family, I had never tasted grapes until I went to college. It gets a big laugh from his union brothers and sisters. I toast him with orange juice.
I am 35, and my two little girls are running around among the aebliskiver tables. My parents are beaming, pointing out their granddaughters to all their friends. I try to stick to one cup of coffee because I’m pregnant, and am sad to skip the excellent bloody marys they mix up there. I steer my kids along the line of gas burners, watching the club members expertly turn the pancake balls. I worry what would happen if this place went up in flames, with all these people inside.
I am 36 and bring my three kids to the Christmas party. I notice a young woman standing off by herself, holding a child in footie pajamas. She is Black and looks uncomfortable. Someone tells me that they decided to start inviting some families from the neighborhood to the Christmas party. I wonder if she realized when she accepted that she’d be the only Black person here. I give her an awkward smile. As soon as the kids get to sit on Santa’s lap and recieve their gifts, they leave.
I am 40, back in town for the Fourth of July parade, and my friends Kori and Mike and their daughter Ellerie are there. We have already saved seats alongside the building, so we pop inside for bloody marys at the members-only bar. My grandfather is selling hot dogs from a tent in the tiny parking lot. I feel so privileged and belonging, able to step inside for a cold drink while the masses mill outside. I see the photos and plaques on the wall and catch up with the bartender who used to sometimes give me a ride home after I’d worked the coat room. Everything in life has changed time and again; I’ve moved a dozen times, I’ve changed jobs, I’ve become middle aged. This place is the constant in our lives.
I am 42, and my dad has organized a “Medicare birthday” party for my mom. She gets a lot of gag medical gifts. I realize at the last minute that everyone is making speeches and I have not prepared one. My brother gives a beautiful speech, and I stand at the microphone and stammer and tell mom I love her. When I take my place at the table, cheeks hot, my best friend whispers to me that it was so nice of me to let my brother make a better speech than me for once. After the party, we sit at the bar a long time, and I meet one of the newer member/bartenders, who would have been a little kid back when I was working the coat room. He loves the Oakland Raiders, so we talk about where he could stay if he comes out to the Bay Area to see them.
I am 45, and my mom and I are throwing my Grandma Elaine a 90th birthday luncheon. We dart around the main hall, setting out succulents at the places and arguing with the caterer about how to place the silverware. “Does this bring back memories of working for Grandma Ibsen?” I ask my mom. She says it does.
I am 46, and I see on Facebook that someone has set fire to the mattress store that occupies the storefront around the corner from the DB. I think of the doorway behind the bar at the Rat that goes directly into this tenant’s back room. If that store burns, I say, so will the DB. Soon after, my mom texts me that the Brotherhood has burned down, but until I see the photos, I don’t really believe it. Then I watch a video of a member, one of the players in my dad’s weekly Rathskeller poker game, tries to defend the building and is beaten with his own fire extinguisher. But I also watch bystanders give him first aid and carry him away from the burning building. Because of their kindness, he ends up getting to the emergency room and is doing fine.
I sit up late and my mom sits up even later in her time zone, and we text about our memories of the place. I imagine her memories stretching back farther than mine, like the time when she was a kid and she worked with her grandma to cater a wedding, which turned out to be the wedding of my dad’s older sister Carole. She wouldn’t start dating my dad until years later. I lie awake, worrying about my grandfather, in his 90s, who wouldn’t find out about this disaster until he got out of bed at the crack of dawn. Which would actually be pretty soon.
My grandfather is doing well today. They have insurance. They can keep moving toward the future. And that’s the difference between losing property and losing life, isn’t it? We can keep moving toward the future.