By Stan Persky | August 7, 2002

I was born in Chicago in 1941. A quarter-century later, a group of white Chicago musicians, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, recorded a song, "Born in Chicago," in which that sentence, "I was born in Chicago in 1941," repeated twice, provides the opening lines of their blues anthem.

I was born in Chicago, in 1941, on January 19, a Sunday morning at about 3 a.m., into the hands of the attending physician at Lutheran Deaconess Hospital, Dr. Nathan Kane, my Uncle Docky. Actually, he was my mother Ida’s uncle, and therefore my great-uncle; his wife, Dora, a sister of my mother’s mother, was my great-aunt. Before she became Dora Kane, she and my maternal grandmother had shared the family name of Alpert–I eventually saw photos of the patriarch, Sam Alpert–but my mother’s maiden name, acquired from her mother’s married name, was Malis, itself probably an immigrant’s abbreviation of something like Malinowski. This gradually exfoliating genealogy seemed to me more a tangled vineyard than a family tree.

It was a horrendously long labour for my mother, some forty hours. The story of my prolonged birth, occurring only after my mother had endured three previous miscarriages, and told to me variously by several relatives, is the founding episode of the legend of my life. "You almost killed your mother," they would say, laughing because the story had a happy outcome.

By the year of my birth, France had already fallen to the Nazis in World War II; by the end of the year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. One side-effect of my arrival–again, this is a vaguely recalled family tale–is that it may have exempted my father, Morrie, who was almost forty, from military service in the war, thanks to a regulation by which men of a certain age who were parents couldn’t be drafted. Though I was my father’s son, my birth belonged solely to my mother.

Yet, she was but an affectionate stranger to me through my childhood. She was an utter paragon of the virtues recorded on the gravestones I saw when we made periodic Sunday visits to the cemetery to pay homage to the family dead: dutiful daughter, loving wife, devoted mother. And the next day, during her regular round of telephone calls to her sisters-in-law–Rose, Lily and Pearl, the wives of her three brothers–I’d hear her reporting that "we were at the cemetery yesterday."

I was puzzled by her and by most of her family. Not by Uncle Docky and Aunt Dora, though. He was a lean, severe, ramrod-straight man with silver hair, politically a left-winger. Often, before the Friday (or occasionally Saturday) night dinners at their house, sitting in the living room and listening to the sonorous bass voice of radio newscaster H.V. Kaltenborn, intoning, "There’s goo-ood news tonight," or gravely announcing "bad news tonight," some item in the broadcast would provoke an escalating, angry discussion that centred around my Uncle Docky and ended with someone, his son Herbie or his daughter Marge’s husband, Harry, shouting, "Well, if you think it’s so great there, then go back to Russia!"

On some Saturday afternoons, my mother and I went to Aunt Dora’s to join her and her daughter as they prepared the meal for that evening. The radio brought us music from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and during a lull in the cooking, the women would repair to the dining room table for a few hands of Canasta. Among the treats that Aunt Dora prepared were Gribinets, as they were called in Yiddish, the bits of crusted chicken skin left from rendering the chicken fat to make Schmaltz, and a sweetroll she baked in the oven, Kickels, an airy, crisp, tan-coloured confection covered with speckles of sugar.

Aunt Dora is the one who is clearest in my mind. I see the pouches under her melancholy eyes as she dries her hands on her apron (do people still wear aprons at home when they’re cooking?) while going to answer the doorbell. One night, just before dinner, was it in 1945?, when the bell rang–Marge’s husband Harry or my father were expected, back "from work"–I announced presciently, "It’s Herbie." The genius of four-year-old babes was confirmed when it turned out that Uncle Docky’s and Aunt Dora’s son Herbie had been discharged from the Army a couple of days early, and was now at last home from the War, a big stolid man, still dressed in his military uniform. I glimpsed Aunt Dora, as she rushed from the kitchen toward the apartment foyer, closed off from both the dining room and the living room by doors with small glass panels, drying her hands on her apron, her eyes welling with tears as her medal-decorated son came up the stairs.

After dinner and the clearing away of plates, the family would remain around the table for a friendly but loud game of penny-ante poker. Noticing her reluctance, while they played, to enjoy the pleasure of a cigarette–for obscure reasons of economy, connected to memories of the Depression of the 1930s–Marge or Herbie would press upon Aunt Dora one of their own. And when she reluctantly accepted a long Pall Mall from one of them, she would cut it in half with a scissors, saving one half and announcing, "I’ll smoke it later," pronouncing the word, with a Yiddish accent, as schmoke. While they slapped their cards on the table, and impatiently urged each other to, "Play, play already," I crawled amid the animal-claw legs of the mahogany table, and fell asleep at their feet, only to briefly half-awaken in my father’s arms later as he and my mother walked to the car for the ride home.

But the rest of my mother’s family, her brothers and sisters-in-law and their children, and my mother herself, were a puzzle to me. Her family bored me, and I quickly learned that I didn’t have much capacity for that kind of boredom. I didn’t understand their interests or passions–mostly connected to businesses like currency exchanges, insurance companies, accounting, and grocery stores–and instead identified with the many brothers, sisters, and offspring of my father’s side of the family, who were raucous bohemians, or at least interested in books, conversation, stories, tall-tales. My mother’s stories, on the other hand, came from the radio soap-operas during the day, and the occasional True Romance magazine. Who were these people? I wondered about her and her family. At one point I must have actually voiced that question to my father, who gently explained to me that all of her relatives were part of the package that came with my mother, whom he after all loved, and who loved us. The important thing, he indicated, was to navigate these relations with a sort of social courtesy or, as he put it, "Even if you don’t like them, at least you can be a Mensch, and have a drink with them."

It was from my father that I tacitly learned a lesson about love, a rather terrible lesson: that for love (to recall the title of Robert Creeley’s book of poems) I might have to become intellectually discreet, that I might love someone with whom I couldn’t fully share my thoughts, with whom I couldn’t talk about certain things because they wouldn’t understand them.

My father was an intellectual. He read books, thought about the cosmos, engaged me in serious conversation. On his rare holidays from work, he would spend his free time reading–with the autodidact’s eccentric sense of selection, anything from Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris to the six-volume official history of the Mormon Church that he’d bought in Salt Lake City during our trip to the West Coast when I was thirteen. In the mornings, as I was getting ready for school, I’d find him at the dining room table, head on his arms, asleep after a night of reading, surrounded by books, an overflowing ashtray, and the little tin coffee percolator with its cut-glass knob that showed you when the coffee had fully perked.

Something traumatic had happened to him before my birth. I only have a sketchy version of the story. It had happened during the Depression, which was the always recurrent, and for me mysterious, reference point upon which was founded all economic warnings of the present. ("Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know," someone would intone, and then launch into a tale of the unimaginable deprivations of the Depression.) The Depression, which was the great issue of my parents’ generation, is now almost completely forgotten–as are issues that were contentious during most of my lifetime–but in my childhood its resonance was immense.

During the Depression of the 1930s, when my father was in his late twenties, he had been on the road, riding the boxcars, living in hobo camps, bumming around. The road had led to youthful trouble, and the trouble–something about safecracking (the story was kept from me until my twenties)–involved a several year stretch in jail. When he returned home, he made a decision, essentially to save his life. The decision was his compromise with society. The package included marriage to the unmarried, late 20-something, niece of Uncle Docky and Aunt Dora, and help into small business from her family, some of whom were the owners of prosperous wartime grocery and meat markets. The prosperity, I recall from family anecdotes to which I inattentively listened, was dependent on access to fresh meat supplies beyond the officially rationed quotas.

That decision provided my father with social stability, however economically shaky, but more importantly, with love, which was a mystery to me. Love, I learned, entailed intellectual sacrifices. My father was interested in the abstract questions and aesthetics I was interested in, but he couldn’t talk about them with my mother, or with her family. His learning, insofar as it involved them, was reserved for something like parlour-trick displays of bits of knowledge. This disjunction between what was on his mind and real life was connected to the need for love. Or at least this is the way I perceived it. Although I wasn’t conscious of how deeply I absorbed this model of affection while an adolescent, as soon as I entered into similar relations of my own, I saw that in some (neo-Freudian) fashion, I tended to reproduce the model of my father’s idea of love. More often than not the beloved other was someone "simpler" than myself, someone whose reciprocal love for me included the loving respect for my intellectual complexity, a prowess they could recognize but not fully participate in.

It is that experience of love, I think, that makes me recognize (and resist) the partial truth in the more contemporary feminist demand for egalitarian love relationships, a demand I’ve always felt a trace of guilt about ever since I first heard it. We should love and be loved only by those who are our social, generational, economic, and intellectual equals, the feminists propose. But that is not the world I was given.

My mother had another, final miscarriage when I was four, after which she was told, by my Uncle Docky, that any further pregnancy would be life-threatening. While she was in the hospital and even after she came home to recuperate, Alice, a black cleaning woman, was hired to come everyday to keep house, cook, and baby-sit with me. After my mother recovered sufficiently to resume her domestic duties, Alice was kept on to help with the housecleaning on a weekly basis.

Her great effect upon my life was based upon an innocent lie she told that instilled in me a perpetual anticipation. One afternoon, after finishing her work, perhaps in response to a desire I’d voiced, Alice told me, "Chil(d)e, next week I’m going to bring you a puppy dog." The next week, I awaited her arrival with unbearable expectation. But there was no puppy dog. The puppy was still in transit, the puppy was getting its shots, the puppy would surely arrive the following week. The amazing thing is that I never figured it out. Every week I waited Alice’s arrival with puppy-like enthusiasm, expecting her to bring the puppy dog.

After her miscarriage, my mother increasingly retreated from my view, a semi-invalid, wracked by severe diabetes, and associated ailments. She died in her mid-fifties, in 1965. I was living in San Francisco and flew home to be with my father for the funeral and the period of several days that followed of the Jewish ceremony of "sitting Shive" for the dead. It was the year that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded "Born in Chicago," but on the airplane to Chicago, a current sentimental ditty that went, "Mrs. Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter" turned in my mind. I thought of my mother, with her enclosed, blameless, physically-painful life now over, as Mrs. Brown’s lovely daughter.

So, I didn’t really know the woman from whose body I was born. But if I didn’t know her, I retained the songs I learned, so to speak, at my mother’s knee. They were mostly tunes by Sophie Tucker, a hefty, nightclub singer then in the waning days of her career, but who was still billed as the "Last of the Red Hot Mamas." My mother also crooned snippets of Yiddish tunes that had filtered into the American culture of middle-class Jews. Among the songs my mother sang were "Bei Mir bist Du Shoen" ("To Me, You’re Beautiful"), Tucker’s version of "St. Louis Woman," and "The Anniversary Waltz" ("Oh, how we danced / On the night / we were wed").

But the one that most often comes to mind–perhaps her muted call for recognition, valorization–was "Some of These Days," which went, "Some of these days / You’re gonna miss me, honey."

That’s the word I was looking for in looking for my mother among my vocabularies: "Honey."

Vancouver, August 7, 2002 2334 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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