In Living Commentary

Robin Graham has lived in Milwaukee for 18 years now, and her time here has changed her life.

A love letter to Milwaukee

I've been living in Milwaukee going on 18 years now, and every time I say it – or write it – I can hardly believe it's been that long.

It was March 1997, and I was chasing "a relationship that is no longer," as I tell people today. The only two folks I knew when I arrived in Milwaukee were the guy and a transcriptionist I worked with. I'd arrived in a one-way rental car stuffed with my laptop, a sleeping bag, French press and my pet parakeet, along with everything I needed for the week it would take for the moving van to get there with the rest of my belongings.

Last week, I watched the 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV with John, one of his favorites at this time of year. The first time I saw the movie I thought it sappy, but this year it spoke to me on a number of levels and not just because Wisconsin was a blue state when I moved here and now we have a Republican governor and it's purple. In one scene in his bank office, when Violet arrives to close her savings account and hightail it out of Bedford Falls, George Bailey tells her, "It takes a lot of character to leave your home town and start all over again."

Character was far from what I had when I decided to leave Cleveland. My first marriage had fallen apart, and for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I could live anywhere I wanted.

A college roommate living in Atlanta said, "You'd like it here."

I thought Chicago would be a good place to start over too. In terms of the relationship, it was a lot closer to Milwaukee than Cleveland but still far enough away for me to be my own person.

"I don't have anything keeping me here anymore," I remember telling my mother on the back porch of my parents' house, and that's where the lack of character comes in. She blinked hard when I said it, and of course I knew right away that I had cut to the bone. I didn't catch myself, and I didn't apologize – a part of me wanted to get her back for all the mean things she'd said to me over the years – but it was one of the least sensitive things I've ever said to another person, and I wish I hadn't done it.

Here's where else the lack of character comes in: I wasn't brave enough to go to Atlanta or Chicago. I moved straight to Milwaukee, to the exact suburb where the new guy lived.

Five years later, after a cursed and torrid relationship that provided enough material for three and a half books, we split up, and I was alone.

Which was where I should have been in the first place.

I moved into a brand-new apartment the next town over and spent the first six months of my newfound independence sputtering out of control, dating several guys in a row and at one point two at once, thinking I might need to start a new career to get away from the old guy, who was also a freelance writer.

I landed a good job in a dysfunctional office at a large university, paid off debt, got a master's degree and met a man who didn't want me to drop everything for him and become resentful five years later. I learned to rock climb. Took voice lessons. Learned to ride a motorcycle. Traveled to Europe, Puerto Rico, Canada and almost all 50 states.

I learned to grieve the deaths of people I loved. Married a really good guy. Finally became a cat owner. Apologized to my ex-husband. Lived in the wealthiest county in Wisconsin; in a top-floor apartment with a view of Lake Michigan; in a Polish flat on the South Side. Became a better friend. Became a working musician. Got a really nice camera. Reminisced about my childhood. Discovered my life's work. Finally accepted myself.

And I realized: I thought I'd moved to Milwaukee to pursue the relationship with the guy. What I was really pursuing was a relationship with myself.

For that reason, I will always be grateful to the city where I've lived for the past 18 years. Even though I'm not from Milwaukee originally, no matter where I might go next, I will always consider it the place where I finally grew up and found my true self.

I realize that these things could've happened in Atlanta or Chicago or someplace else that I couldn't have even conceived of 18 years ago. Could they have happened in Cleveland? Maybe, but I tend to think not. You know how it is when you fall back into old patterns with the same places and the same people. Sometimes, as Sheryl Crow says, "a change [will] do you good."

So thank you, Milwaukee.

You took me in at a time in my life when I didn't know who I was and what I liked and what I wanted to do. You gave me the time and space to find my way in a strange new place. You gave me the courage to make mistakes and learn new things and become who I was meant to be all along.

You gave me your arts scene, your music scene, your skyline, your neighborhoods, your culture, your people. I find you just as exciting today as I did 18 years ago.

I love you, Milwaukee. I always will.

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