Uphill Climb: Seven Stories on Seven Hills

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My dad had dementia. As a result, during the last few years of his life, he talked incessantly about “the hill”—every story he told began with some version of, “We went up the hill.” From there, it was a jumble of moments spanning 70 years: when he lost his father at age 11, his time in the Army in the early 1950s, various bosses he had, the night he met my mom. Having lived in Cincinnati his entire life, the hills were his landmarks. It got me thinking about how they’ve been mine, too—how often the stories of my own life have been defined by a hill.

Fittingly, there are seven I can’t forget.

Birchwood Drive, Ft. Wright
My parents built a house atop Birchwood Drive in 1958. I was the seventh and last baby they carried across its threshold in 1974. I owe my existence to the utter failure of the rhythm method.

Nine bodies in a small ranch house was a bit cramped, though my parents at least had the foresight to buy a round kitchen table. My dad was a scientist—perhaps he intuitively knew that right angles would never work. Certain things were unchanging: my dad got served first, we passed to the left, and no one got up. The structure was rigid, but conversation was loose. My three sisters would tell the funniest stories about the semi-scandalous characters at the Wade YMCA in Covington where they did gymnastics. My parents used the dinner table to discuss World War II (referred to simply as “The War”) and whatever political biography they were each reading at the time. I lapped it all up, laughing when everyone else laughed and waiting to hear what might be next.

I learned thousands of lessons on the original hill (including the importance of keeping your elbows to yourself at the table!), but for the purposes of this piece, there is only one of note: When you listen with curiosity, you hear a lot. And that is how you become a storyteller.

Pedretti Avenue, Delhi
There’s a cemetery at the corner of Pedretti Avenue and Foley Road. As we’d pass by on the way to my cousins’ house, my dad would often quip, “People are dying to get in there.” Dad was funny, but my cousins were rich. They had a big, beautiful house on Foley Road, and I looked forward to every visit. My cousin Molly was the same age as me, and we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. But sometime around age 11 or 12, I started to get jealous, which manifested as lies about things my mom had bought for me. Molly was far from spoiled, but she had more than I did, including a sweater that looked just like the one Samantha wore on Who’s the Boss? With every lie I told, I knew the trip back down Pedretti would be just a little more shame-filled. Even at age 12, I knew this wasn’t a way to exist. Eventually, I realized there was an easy fix: stop lying.

I still dream about that house on Foley Road. My cousins no longer live there, but Molly remains one of my good friends. I’m not sure what happened to the sweater.

Hilton Drive, Park Hills
Hilton Drive is the short, windy pass up to Notre Dame Academy, my all-girls Catholic high school. By all accounts, I was a good girl and completely unmemorable: I didn’t break the rules, I didn’t have sex, I rarely drank, and I was neither popular nor unpopular. Most days, I felt like a nonperson, swimming in a sea of hypocrisy and hair spray. The Catholic Church and I were ultimately destined to part ways, but I didn’t know that as a young teenager. What I did know was that my true identity was yet to come. One day in Sr. Francine’s sophomore Spanish Class, I started drawing circles in my notebook, pressing the pen harder and harder into the paper as I contemplated my adolescent angst. So much of high school is now a blur, but my thoughts that day remain clear: These people don’t know anything about who you are. You are a good and interesting person. Get through this charade, graduate, start fresh, and never look back.

Which is exactly what I did.

For a long time, I’d flip Hilton Drive the bird when I drove by. Now I just say thanks.

Gilbert Avenue, near Eden Park
I’ve always loved literature. As an English major at NKU, I pictured myself going on to get a Ph.D.—until I got a master’s at Miami University and realized I didn’t like teaching. I opted for the business world instead, and found a job as a proofreader and copywriter at RGI Design on Gilbert Avenue, in the Cable House. I was finally a professional! In the real world! I bought a car, lived in an apartment in Oakley, and had a great group of friends.

Life seemed to be going well until one day when a partner at RGI called me into her office. I had made a mistake on a project. She was mad, and told me that she was beginning to doubt my commitment to the company. It suddenly hit me all at once that she was right—I had no such commitment, and in fact would never be able to give myself to any company. I was young and kind of dumb, so I cried when she yelled at me. But internally, I was resolute, and with a clear intention. It took two more years and two layoffs, but I finally became a full-time freelance writer in 2002. For 15 years, I’ve had the freedom to tell stories—supporting first myself, then my family. Sometimes it pays to have a short-sighted boss.

Kenwood Cut in the Hill
We threw a surprise birthday for my dad when he turned 70. My brother Paul wouldn’t help plan it or even commit to coming, but the minute my dad walked through the door, Paul was the first one to walk up to him, pat him on the back, and hand him a beer. He made it look as if the whole thing was his idea all along while the rest of us scowled at him. Typical Paul. He was the proverbial black sheep, after all.

In 2009, Paul died. A cocktail of alcohol, pain pills, and general abuse of his body claimed his life at 49 years old. I followed the textbook stages of grief, coming to terms with Paul’s death just as I sensed my dad, in hospice care, was probably near his own. An undiagnosed infection was the blessing that came for him in August 2013.

The last week of my dad’s life, we all gathered around his bed in the nursing home. For four days straight we laughed, cried, ate pizza, and drank beer. We said all the stuff you’re supposed to say to a dying person—that it was OK to die, that we would take care of mom. When I woke up that Saturday morning, I wasn’t sure I could handle a fifth day. As I merged onto I-71 south from the Kenwood Road entrance, I began crying hysterically; the only thing I could think to do was to ask Paul for help. I had been talking to him on my runs since he died, so this wasn’t totally out of the blue. Please, I begged Paul. If you want to be involved, this is your moment. Help him.

By the time I got to my father’s room, he had passed. Standing around his bed that final time, I told my siblings about my conversation with Paul. “It’s exactly like the 70th birthday party,” my brother Herb said. “We do all the work, and he takes the credit!” We all started laughing.

Indian Hill Road, Indian Hill
Anyone who knows my husband and me knows we’re not exactly…normal. We do things differently—not just in the way he stays home with the kids while I work, but also how we’ve bantered through our relationship, two antagonists careful not to involve emotions too deeply. It was charming to me, until at some point—around the time I was simultaneously having babies and losing relatives—it felt sparse, hurtful, and limiting. I wanted to change our dynamic; my husband insisted he wasn’t capable.

That’s when I met someone else. We had been innocent friends for a few years, but one spring, it shifted into something deeper. The more I let the shift happen (and I did willingly let it happen), the more I wanted to be with him. It was wonderful to feel like someone got me, and yet simultaneously totally, utterly horrible. An affair was a terrible answer. A divorce was a terrible answer. Cutting off contact was a terrible answer. Terrible in all directions. It’s not an experience I recommend.

The entire summer this transpired, I would leave the house to go running, hoping I’d find a solution along the way. One day, as usual, I ran my two-and-a-half miles up Miami Avenue toward Indian Hill Road, though on this run I was especially distraught. Every strike of the asphalt came with a question: Who are you? At first, it seemed the steep uphill climb was tormenting me. Then I heard a response in my head: You are Bert and Mary Ketteler’s daughter. You didn’t sit in Sr. Francine’s class scribbling fucking holes into your fucking notebook to be someone you’re not. Whatever happens, it has to start with the truth. You cannot live any other way.

I told my husband about the emotional affair that night.

That was nearly four years ago. A lot of heartache and hard work followed. My husband and I are doing better now, but it’s still tough. I find marriage inherently messy and difficult—so much more difficult than my parents made it look. And I was watching closely, too, from my tiny place at the big round table. It’s humbling to be good at many things I deem important—staying fit, having a meaningful career, being a devoted mom, daughter, and sister—and yet realize I may not be good at everything, no matter how hard I try.

Hosbrook Road, Kenwood area
“You have to stop hyperextending your knees,” said Joe, a tatted-up yoga teacher relentlessly correcting my locked-out knees during a class at Body Alive, the yoga studio in the Kenwood Galleria. I inherited my hyper-flexible joints from my dad.

As a gymnast in my youth, those locked-out legs were everything. As a 40-year-old woman, they were a liability, and I knew it. I didn’t want to wind up hobbling around in 20 years because my knees had eroded. I asked Joe how I could change this habit. “You can’t just focus on it during yoga,” he said. “You have to think about all the time.”

Thus began the process of noticing how I was standing every second of the day—while brushing my teeth, making my bed, or eating olives from the jar at the kitchen counter. A few weeks into this noticing practice, I decided it was an awful lot of trouble for knees, and perhaps I should add a spiritual element to balance mind and body. I contemplated what habit of my inner life I wanted to tweak. That’s when I started asking: Are my knees locked out, and am I being judgmental?

I have to say, I learned to live on bent knees long before I gained proficiency at releasing judgment, harbored against anyone and everyone. My brother Paul, for being an addict. My once free-thinking-and-liberal sister, Claire, for suddenly becoming an Evangelical Christian. My 62,984,825 fellow citizens who thought a man who bragged about grabbing pussy was the best choice to lead our country. The woman in the drive-thru who was rude. The haters who gave my book a bad review on Amazon. And most of all, myself, for everything else.

Changing one’s mind-set is stupid hard and requires vigilance. But the less judgmental side of the hill is where I want to be, even if it’s a really uncomfortable climb.

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