Living the Dream: The Shannon Court story

This last week has been a struggle. So many exciting things have happened… and yet one sudden and tragic event has overshone them all. It’s been tough, trying to figure out how to process it all and trying to figure out how to talk about it. The words haven’t come easy. But there’s a small, dim, flickering light at the end of this unspeakably long and dark tunnel, and it’s from there that I feel the need to tell the Shannon Court story. Hold on to your seats – though well worth it, this will be a long one.

I grew up in the house my parents built just after they got married, in a nice neighborhood in a nice town. We’ve always had neighbors that were close, but not necessarily neighbors we were close to. Late in elementary school was the last time I remember being somewhat close to my neighbors: one of my best friends lived two houses down, some of the moms had a book club and got together on a regular basis, and we all danced the night away at a wedding in which I was a “junior bridesmaid”. As I am in my family, I was one of only a handful of younger children in the group, only older than my best friend. It was fun, until her and her family moved away, and slowly but surely all the families I knew had long left.

We had a number of questionable characters wander in and out of nearby houses throughout the next few years, but above all, they were families that kept to themselves, mostly due to a lack of younger children. But then, one fateful day nearly 10 years ago, a family moved in with 4 kids younger than me. Then, another family with 4 kids younger than me moved in next to them. Soon, more families, all with at least one or two younger children, moved into our court and the surrounding area. Kids started to play with each other. Parents got to know each other. We started to get together one day a week, which soon turned into two, which soon turned into gathering for holidays and birthdays as well. Traditions were born, and invariably, come rain or shine, weekend evenings extending early spring through well into fall were spent at one house or another, each family bringing a dish, a drink, at least one kid, perhaps some friends, but always a smile and joy to share. Before we knew it, 16 parents and 18 kids (and 5 dogs and 2 cats!) became like family.

For the first time in my life I found myself the oldest, and I was thrust into a “big sister” role for so many kids who looked up to me; slowly but surely, I started to find my place between playing with them and sitting back and talking with the adults. And my mom and dad? They’d all but forgotten the days when their house was new and their only child was young. Suddenly the ‘matron’ parents of the court, Dr. Luke attended to cuts and bruises and flus while my mom lived vicariously through parents confounded by growing and aging and changing children.

Still, inseparable and incomparable bonds formed between children and parents alike. Lot lines faded as we moved seamlessly from house to house each night, treating each other’s homes as if they were our own. While the kids were off playing night games, pretending to be in the army, or amusing themselves with other shenanigans, the dads found common interests in all things manly: “lumberjacking,” planting the biggest communal garden our neighborhood had ever seen, and grilling (and competing for best backyard bbq pit), all while imbibing the finest lagers and brandy. Meanwhile, the Ladies of the Court bonded over wine, fondue, pottery painting, and simply enjoying watching our families become so close. Each family came from a different walk of life with a different story to tell; each was unique in its own way and varying in size, yet made up equal parts of our newfound Neighbor Family. Though no blood lines connected us, the support system we’d built was unbreakable, and the deep connections between us were undeniable. We all knew we had something special; our Family of 34 was as real as any other, and nothing could break us.

Emotions were tried as two families with the youngest kids moved away last summer. A mild winter somehow felt colder than it should, and gatherings became a little smaller. Our once rowdy bunch had begun to dwindle and the kids found themselves a bit calmer as they aged ever so slightly. Things seemed to be settling down as the newness of it all faded away, though we never lost touch.

As fate would have it, soon after one family visited this summer, we found out they’d be moving back within the month – and that the other family was soon to follow! We couldn’t believe our luck. We were all so ecstatic to have the old gang back together.

Just as the families had started getting situated back home – in different houses, but home nonetheless – our world came to a screeching halt on Monday, September 3. The husband of one of the first two families to move in, Vladimir Novak, passed away after being stung by a bee and suffering anaphylaxis, even though he’d been stung several times before with no reaction. To say it was unexpected is potentially the grossest understatement there ever was. To say he will be missed is an even greater one.

Let me tell you something about Vladimir Novak. He was a big Russian man, not even 50, and he smoked. If you had asked any of us last month what we thought he’d someday die of, I guarantee you a bee sting is the absolute last thing any of us would have said. He would listen to us nag about his chain smoking, then sweetly smile and light another. He had a zest for life that was unmatchable, and his smoking was the least of his concerns. His pride and joy were first and foremost his wife and children, followed by the rest of his family and friends. Currently ranging from the ages of 14 to 22, his children were lucky they had a chance to truly know and remember him – but never well enough.

No matter the circumstances, weather, or latest drama to be circulating amongst us, the one man you could count on to have a smile on his face and a bear hug waiting for you when you arrived was Vlad. He had an answer to everything that made the world seem more peaceful, more palatable. He traveled a lot, and it was bittersweet because it was clear he’d rather be at home with his family. But inevitably, he chose to see life in the best light possible, and if you’d ask him how things were going, nine times out of ten you’d get the same honest answer with the most genuine cheery smile: “I’m just living the dream.”

Our Neighbor Family, but even more so the Novak family, are still dumbfounded and reeling in shock that he’s just not coming home. It still seems surreal; there’s a part of me that just expects he’s off on business, not gone for good. The outpouring of support for this man and his family is absolutely monumental. And if you ask any of the hundreds of people that paid their respects to him, I’m positive each and every one of them will tell you the same thing about him: that he was one of the best men they’d ever known.

From here, we will try to rebuild and move on, and I know I speak on behalf of my entire Neighbor Family when I say that as it’s always been, so it shall be: the Novaks are part of this Family, and we will do everything in our power to keep them safe and afloat. While no person can ever replace who and what Vlad was to that family – and to this world – we hope to bridge the gap at least a little, to share in the grief, and keep him alive in memory, in stories, in pictures, and at our many inevitable bbqs to come. If anything we’re stronger now, more aware of how much we have to lose, and thankful of each other even more. And I know we’ll continue to reassure each other that even despite this enormous lingering hole in our hearts… we ALL have a dream to be lived.

Photo taken by Doug Kobs. Vlad is in the center.

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Reason #5236 why I will miss Winona

Now that I have officially graduated college, I’ve moved home for the summer to work my part-time job. I’ve started unpacking, and the reality of it all is beginning to set in. Already, my friends who go to school or live around here are anxious to catch up and get together. Of course, I can’t wait to see them either, but lately I’ve been less than excited to actually get up and drive to see them, and the reasons behind my apathy have never made complete sense until today. Let me explain.

I’ve lived in Mequon my entire life. My parents built the house we live in a few years before I was born; it was all I knew before I packed up my life and moved to small-town Minnesota four years ago. My friends that I have here I made in high school; I got used to driving to school, to restaurants, to the mall, to their houses. That’s just the way things were. But studying abroad in Europe where I didn’t have a car and HAD to walk everywhere, combined with living in Winona, has really changed my perspective on that. More

RIP, Bogy T

RIP, Bogart T. April 2, 1998 - January 25, 2010

While he certainly had his grumpy old man moments, he was undoubtedly the sweetest, most kindhearted, most intelligent dog we’ve ever had (except Cashmere maybe, our first dog, but she died when I was in 3rd grade so I don’t remember her as well). Our only boy dog, who we weren’t sure was going to last long when we adopted him. His previous owner decided that a dog food formula containing only blueberries and grains was sufficient nutrition, and that keeping him locked up in a crate 14 hours out of the day while he worked was acceptable. He wasn’t quite a year old and was maybe 30 or 40 pounds when he should have been around 70. Tapeworms, parasites, and BOY was he trouble. He would steal things out of the garbage to get attention… can you say JEALOUS. We even gave him ‘Trouble’ for a middle name- Bogart T. When we adopted him we had Penny, who was around 9 months older than him and the alpha dog for sure. She was the definition of BITCH lol. But they came to be best friends, and you could really tell how much they loved each other.

We had to put Penny down when she was 6 – we found out she had cancer and put her down a week later. I’m not sure Bogart ever fully recovered. At first, he was afraid to go outside alone, just acted funny and skittish a lot of the time. He still stole stuff to get attention but he mellowed out a TON. I really hope he’s running around with her right now.

There were just times where you swore he could understand every single word of what you said to him. You could talk to him like another human and he would sit there, just watching you. If you ever cried, he would come up to you and nudge his nose under your arm or put his paw up by you. He just understood and cared about you so much.

When my dad did housework Bogart was right there with him. Always interested in what we’re doing and if he had thumbs he’d be there helping. Just so responsive and aware of everything.

My favorite mornings were the ones where I would be half awake, just emerging from a dream, before 7am. My dad wakes up at 5am every morning to feed the dogs, so Bogart would eat his breakfast and then I would hear the “click clack” of his long toenails on my bathroom floor. He would nudge the door open with his nose and come in to say good morning to me, maybe lay in my room for a few hours until I woke up. He was always so protective and loving.

He absolutely detested Nikki for the first months we had her. While he grew up with Penny, he had been alone for 4 or 5 years after she died so he had gotten used to the attention, and being the alpha dog. He was never afraid to put her in her place, never afraid to growl or nip at her (even if he got scolded for doing so). But they eventually came to peacefully co-exist, and despite Nikki’s habits of stealing his food or knocking him over… I think they came to really love each other. I’m not sure what Nikki is going to do now, how she’ll be. She’s not even 2 and a half… she’s lived with Bogart her entire life so far.

Anyway, please keep my parents in your thoughts. Bogart is the oldest dog we’ve had, and we all felt closer to him than almost any other dog we’ve had, I think. It’s nothing like having a human die, but it’s close, and I’d argue it’s just as hard. It’s at least easier for me because I’m at school, and I don’t even want to imagine what my parents are like. I know I would be a complete mess.

So here’s to my Bogy love… thanks for all the love and memories, old boy. <3