Family portrait

Jennifer Schaefer with her father, poet Ted Schaefer, with their family in 2012. (Shin Lim, Shin Lim)

Forever cursed, that shabby little Lincolnwood Mall on Touhy. The day before Halloween, 2012: Planted ankle-deep in a heap of scattered shoes while my daughters ransacked Payless for potential costume footwear. "Hurry up and pick, girls. No one's going to see your feet anyway." Then the robotic chirp of my cell. Fishing it abstractly from my pocket — more concerned with my kids' antics — a text from Mom: "Call me. It's bad."


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


My Daddy, at 73, was in wonderful health, and yet he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Later that day, unable to face the kids, I paced my bedroom in a wired, shivery daze, surging with futile adrenaline. Halting at the bookshelf, I crouched down to run my hands along the spines of the novels, all of which he had passed on to me. For, in addition to being an English and creative writing professor, my dad, Ted Schaefer, was an award-winning writer himself. His 39-year teaching career encompassed Barat College, College of Lake County, Lake Forest College and, in the 1960s and '70s, University of Missouri in Columbia.

He'd had two books of poetry, "After Drought" and "The Summer People," published by independent presses and had several short stories and countless poems appear in a vast range of publications — Another Chicago Magazine, Saturday Review, New Letters and the Village Voice, to name a few. He'd also worked as an editor for, among other magazines, Other Voices and Story Quarterly.

Looking back, I don't know how my prolific and artistic parents managed to juggle parental duties with their individual creative endeavors — Dad's poetry readings, Mom's singing and acting gigs. Permanently etched into my psyche were Dad's bizarre bedtime stories involving enchanted ice cream mountains and white-eyed aliens.

But what really blows my mind now is how, despite being so active in the Chicago literary scene, how totally present Dad was in our childhood, how laid-back and fun-loving — the sweet-mannered, playful soul to whom pets and children flocked.

The kind of guy who once bolted outside to stare down a pack of coyotes that had encircled a hapless dog. The kind of guy who sat on his front steps at 4 a.m., poised with hose in hand to blast the stray cat stalking the ready-to-hatch eggs in the front bushes. The kind of guy who let himself be led by children to their rooms to play Barbies or through sopping lawn sprinklers, fully clothed.

An unintentional Pied Piper: He'd take his grandkids to the park only to be adopted by other children, who'd shadow him up and down the play equipment.

Indeed, after hearing of his diagnosis, a flurry of emails poured into his inbox from my old childhood friends — a galvanized response to his illness that deeply moved him. "Your presence in my early childhood is imprinted on me like a baby bird," states one. "You were the orchestrator of fun and adventures for all of us."

For, though my sister and I grew up in the small, rather drab towns of Antioch and Grayslake, Dad always kept us — and however many friends could cram in the van — tied to the city: zooming via roller skates through Lincoln Park Zoo, swimming at Oak Street Beach, checking out some new band at the short-lived ChicagoFest at Navy Pier. My high school and college boyfriends in particular were always blown away by his hip music collection. I mean, how many dads had Jane's Addiction, Nirvana and Sonic Youth albums?

The kind of dad who took everything in stride. The dad who never got sick, never complained. Invincible. The dad I'd watched leap, open-armed and beatific, from the roof of our Antioch ranch house into a mountainous snow drift in the Blizzard of 1979.

Now, all of a sudden, he wasn't invincible. Maybe not, but he was still here.

He instantly accepted my proposal of an interview, disappearing into the attic to dig out the multitude of literary magazines featuring his work. Over the next few days, I pored through his nearly 200 published poems. Being an aspiring fiction writer myself, what most knocked me out were his two short stories "The Center" and "Donkey on a Bicycle."

"The Center" is a quirky, darkly surreal story as told by 14-year-old Peter, who lives in a shopping center — sleeping in the Sears furniture department and working for a seedy former celebrity who now operates an exotic pet store — that is suddenly besieged by savage barbarians. Vastly different in tone and theme is "Donkey on a Bicycle," a heady, realistic story set on a Greek island in the 1960s related by an unnamed American man in a slouch of "post-military euphoria and slovenliness," against the lush backdrop of "hillside homes, scattered like sugar cubes between puffs of green," olive trees and the sun-glazed Aegean. And then I discovered a poem that slammed me with a visceral punch: "The Mad Animal of Happiness" — dedicated to me. Its last line is:

My love will cut you deeper when I'm dirt.

So last year, on Thursday, Dec. 6, I traveled up to my parents' lovely old home in Lake Geneva, armed with a tape recorder. He met me at the door looking reassuringly well. I hugged him, drinking in all his comfortingly familiar physical aspects: his gentle brown eyes, satiny silver hair, spruce beard, fresh zesty scent. Then Mom left us to it, so we settled beside one another on the living room sofa to chat. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: So when did you start writing poetry?

A: Poetry came after journalism and fiction, actually. I wrote short stories in college and majored in journalism. But then I was finding myself writing short stories as poems — compressing what could have been a 10-page story down into a few lines. So most of my poems do have plots — kind of surreal plots — but actual stories with characters.

Q: Did you actually study poetry writing? Take classes in it?