How the Swingin’ Door Exchange Helped Me Understand My Mom

The changes and choices in the lives of a mother and daughter are revealed against the backdrop of a Downtown bar.

It’s 5:30 on a Wednesday night at Swingin’ Door Exchange. I’m watching the bartender make an Old Fashioned, and I know, at some point, my mom had this same view. She sat here, with her long hair and short skirt, her fake eyelashes and desire to please, learning to drink, working her way from brandy-and-sweet to martinis. Forty years ago, she worked as a secretary at a brokerage firm next door in the stately Mitchell Building in Downtown Milwaukee. The brokers would send her over for coffee or sandwiches. The ladies in the kitchen would let her sit with them while waiting for her order. They would talk. They would share recipes, including one for the rhubarb pie I devour every summer. The place would be full of businessmen in suits and hats. They would have eyed her long legs. She would have pretended not to notice.

Tonight, in jeans and sneakers, 20 years older than she was then, I go unnoticed. That’s one of the reasons I like it here. The staff is attentive; the patrons let me work. As a freelance writer, I’ll finish up a story, send it off and then have a meeting, all at this two-top. The place is full of middle-aged men in baseball hats and one who walks around the place in a T-shirt and a monogrammed double-breasted suit coat that he brags he got for $3. He says he should wear it with French cuffs to class up the place. One waitress has a tattoo on her breastbone and cherry lollipop hair. The other is older, more conventional. She places a coaster on the table for my beer like she’s putting a Band-Aid on a scrape. I wonder if either has made rhubarb pie.

My mom knew she’d make her life in Milwaukee, that it’d be filled with rhubarb pies. After high school, she planned to work a few years while my dad finished his service in Vietnam. Then they’d get married, and she would stay home to raise a family. And that’s pretty much what happened, though I was the only child, and finances and boredom eventually sent her back to work.

By the time I was wrapping up high school, I was sure I’d make a very different life – in another town, if not another country. Fiercely independent and a little unconventional, I could not understand why she’d stayed. She couldn’t understand why I’d want to leave.

Twenty years later, I’m still here. Although my nature hasn’t changed much, the city has, and so have my feelings about it.

My first adult job was as a Girl Friday at a design firm in the Third Ward in the mid-’90s. Whereas my mom typed up daily newsletters, made copies on the mimeograph and passed them out from desk to desk, I laid out newsletters in Quark on my Mac and hit “Send.” At the time, Milwaukee seemed like a great place to drink Miller while listening to a cover band, watch sports on Sunday and have a cookout. It was a comfort zone. But I wanted a challenge, something more dynamic.

I wasn’t the only one. Plenty of people decided against searching elsewhere for what was missing, instead creating it here. And little by little, all I imagined I could only find somewhere else became the fabric of Milwaukee, a city vibrant and engaging. Turns out I can have the life I wanted here just as easily, if not more so, as in any other major city. I chose a different path than my mom, but a path in the same town.

So, it’s no surprise that I’m here frequenting the same bar my mom once did. It’s no longer lawyers and brokers who gather here, but bike messengers and web designers. Pabst has replaced Manhattans. But aren’t we still here for the same reason? Blowing off steam before heading home. Making the transition from work demands to domestic demands, pausing to pretend we have neither. “The more things change…,” I can hear my mother start, knowing she doesn’t have to finish.

Milwaukee tends to embrace its natives and traditions and hold them tight. I’m happy she’s released her arms enough to let me find my own way.

Like any daughter, I often feel my mom and I are such different people – such different lives and such different things we want from them. But in the swirl of the after-work crowd at the Swingin’ Door Exchange – her eyes fatigued from false eyelashes, mine from the computer screen – I can’t imagine I feel much different than she did – carefree, for the moment, and filled with hope.

‘The Door Swings Both Ways’ appears in the March, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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