On Mugs, Cancer and Transforming Our Bruises

Marla Rose
7 min readOct 24, 2019

My husband and I used to have a housemate named Vanessa in a big, stately old brownstone in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. This was in the 1990s, when the neighborhood was kind of like the O.K. Corral and every day, there were fresh bizarre car accidents to puzzle over. (“But how did the car end up upside-down without anyone in it???”) We lived on the top floor, our landlord lived on the main floor and Vanessa and her occasional boyfriend, a tall, glowering guy who was as grumpy as she was buoyant, lived in the basement.

Vanessa was a true ray of sunshine. In retrospect, I think her secret was she was usually just a little high, but she was also just naturally bubbly. I would see her sometimes coming home from work and she’d truly be skipping down the street, chatting with the birds, smiling at strangers. She was just a lovely person, kind of a hippie but more than anything, an artist. She loved the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt and would paint lavish, lush works inspired by him with the curvy lines and bright colors of the psychedelic ’60s. Like any good Deadhead, Vanessa had an old Volkswagen van, but hers was covered with dreamy visions she painted on by hand. One warm day, I was outside while she was painting on her car. “Every time I get a new dent or scratch,” she said, “I paint a flower on it.” It’s true, her van was covered with flowers. “Like a kiss on a booboo,” I said. “Yep,” she said, smiling that big, bright smile of hers, filling in a petal.

We lived in that beautiful house together for a couple of years, until Vanessa broke up with her boyfriend and hit the road, eventually touring with the Allman Band. John and I ran into Vanessa some years ago at a Whole Foods in Chicago. Our son was five or six, and we recognized each other right away. She had a toddler with her. Vanessa was a single mom, still bright and cheerful, but a little stressed, as we all get when we have children and our carefree 20s are behind us. She had an edge to her now, whereas before, she was all happily smudged. Things didn’t work out with her son’s father but she was keeping on. We exchanged emails and got caught up in one another’s lives a bit but we haven’t talked in a while. I hope she sees this and gets in touch because I don’t think I remembered to tell her about my mug and how central it is to her.