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Where I am From.

Over five years, my mother's physical and cognitive health slowly declined until she died in her own home in April 2017 at age 92. By that time, she was so crippled by the arthritis in her left hip she could not take one step unaided, but her mind was clear enough for me to sit with her for many hours reviewing the tales of her large clan and those of my late father's family. Most days, we sat together in the small kitchen of her split-level suburban home with the same Midcentury Modern furnishings standing nearly unchanged since we moved from our third floor walk-up city apartment in 1956.

Both of my parents were children of Russian Jewish immigrants. They grew up not far from each other on Chicago's West Side. Ten years my mother's senior, my late father and his family owned a prominent Maxwell Street tavern and deli. He was the eldest of six and my mother was the sixth of seven children. She was the daughter of an Odessa tailor who participated in Chicago's 1910 Hart Schaffner Marx garment workers' strike. I am named for my mother's mother, Delia, or as I often reminded my mom, I have the name my grandmother was given when she landed at Ellis Island just after the turn of the twentieth century.

After my mom's death, her stories and watchwords continue to reverberate within me. Some date back to her childhood, when my grandmother gave birth to five of her seven children in their home; to Mom's teen years in 1930s Chicago, a decade where she suffered as a proud White Sox fan when the Cubs finished first in their division three times; and to her 1947 storybook marriage to my father whom she met when working as a secretary in my father's uncle's one-girl office, and was invited to my father's homecoming party upon his return from German occupation to complete his overseas World War II Army service. Mom's late-in-life laments were loaded with her own personal meanings such as her poignant, "You can't write the scenario," to express her ongoing grief at my youngest sister's untimely death.

There are so many family stories I chose to pare these into a poem in the spirit of the Young Chicago Authors organization. YCA encourages poetic inquiries. It has touched thousands of students from all neighborhoods of the Chicago Public Schools. At the heart of this group's pedagogy is the idea that "everyone is an expert in their own experience," beginning with the question, "Where are you from?" My poem is my attempt to answer this question through an experiment with poetic forms.

I am currently revising my first novel, The Measure of a Teacher. It interweaves the experiences of a middle-aged white Chicago teacher learning from a younger Black female colleague to protect her vulnerable students from an Old Guard through the added perspective of a Black male student from the projects who is pushed out before graduation.

Afterward, I feel compelled to write family memories. There are an overwhelming number of characters whose indelible experiences offer glimpses into a world that no longer exists. In some ways, I feel a similar ethical conundrum to the one I experienced writing my 2010 dissertation, "Meek, but Not Weak!" A Resilient Black Female Mathematics Teacher Composes a Purposeful Life. Writing from my own interpretation, I ask, "Who am I to tell these stories?" I shake off my resistance by asking, "If I don't preserve these memories, who will?" I won't risk that they will be lost.
Writing the Family Scenario
Two clans converge
With me at the intersection.
Storytellers all.
Tales of desperate voyagers fleeing the Cossacks
Crossing an ocean seeking refuge in a new World
Amid uncertainties of when, where or if they would reach land.
*
Surprised at the port of Baltimore
With no Lady Liberty to greet them
Traveled overland directly into
The cacophony of Chicago's Maxwell Street market
Finding an apartment above a stable.
No miracles here.
*
With new names they pronounced unfamiliar words
Finding hardscrabble ways to earn their bread
Living on potatoes and herring
Working as
    Garment worker wildcat strikers,
    Street corner newsies,
    Pickle-barreled grocers,
    Canadian whiskey bootleggers,
    West Side pool hall hustlers.
*
Bearing children at home
Suffering and dying from abortions when there were too many
to feed,
Prison, suicide, mental illness claiming those when reality clashed
with dreams,
In this new country.
Their new home.
With old homes lost forever.
Holding fast to tradition,
Relaxing rituals when the next generation yearned
To be Americans.
All American.
*
Sons drafted to fight in a worldwide war,
Where brothers who had never left Chicago arrived in Burma,
Walked alongside cows in India's streets,
Marched across Europe to occupy Germany,
While Cousin Robert was shot down over the Pacific,
An ocean away from the one his parents had crossed
Forty years earlier.
*
A post-war world unleashed
Opportunities
To become
    Suburbanites,
    Los Angelinos,
    Factory owners,
    Sculptors and Painters,
    Film makers,
    Teachers,
    Industrialists.
*
And me.
    A writer now
    Who aches to pen my family's lives.
*
As a child, I listened
When they spoke of other times, other people,
Together with my sisters and brothers, we tried to decipher their
purposeful Yiddish debates meant to keep us innocent.
What must stay hidden?
*
My father repeated dinnertime stories to make sense of
    Foxholes in France: "The man who ate his dessert first,"
    Finding our mother: "B'Shert, it was meant to be,"
    The joys of parenting five children,
Plodding through life after the deaths of his three younger
brothers
All too soon.
*
Our 92-year-old mother reminded us
Over and over,
Again and again,
    "You can't write the scenario,"
As she strained to accept life's randomness
Amid her mounting fragilities
Alongside her ever-present grief after our sister Nancy died
Suddenly and unexpectedly
At age 51.
*
What compels me write our families' stories?
Do these storied lives transcend time? Ethnicities?
Reveal the American condition?
The Human condition?
*
How do I write of them?
At what cost?
Through whose eyes?
Through what method?
Whose method?
If not me, who will write our stories?
Who will remember?
Who will write the scenario?
            --Delia Leavitt


Delia R. Leavitt

Dorothy Stang Popular Education Adult High School, Chicago, Illinois
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Author:Leavitt, Delia R.
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2017
Words:1037
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