A 79-year-old writer learned a lot about his fears when I gave “What are you afraid of?” as a writing prompt over Halloween.
Loyal blog readers might remember a post I published here last year featuring excerpts from an essay Bob Eisenberg wrote then about his best job ever, when he was 11 years old, he helped a neighbor peddle fruit and junk items from a horse and wagon:
Mr. Dunn drove the horse and wagon through the alleys while I stood up in the back of the wagon, cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “WATAMEELO!” People ran down stairs from their back porches to buy our watermelons. We talked and laughed with everybody and shared news of the day as we heard it from people along the way.
Many writers in my classes email essays my way ahead of time for edits and suggestions, and Bob always sends me his. Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading stories about childhood escapades with his neighborhood buddies — Squeaky LaPort, Da Da Hernandez, and Mario DeSandro, a.k.a. “The Pranksters” – but this week’s essay was a little different.
“My mother died right after I was born,” Bob wrote this week. “I moved in with my mother’s mother until I was six. THEN she died, too.” Bob was sent off for a year at military school, and it went on from there.
“As I look back into my past I count six different grammar schools I attended and seven different families I lived with,” he wrote. “My experiences during my childhood and adolescence created hidden fears that I didn’t realize until this writing assignment.”
In his “What Are You Afraid Of?” essay, Bob acknowledges romanticizing his past. “After I got out of military school, I lived with many different relatives who were kind and caring. Cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and my father in many neighborhoods all over Chicago, relatives I describe as fun loving characters interested in my well-being,” he wrote. “There was a dark side behind these fun-loving stories, though — hidden fears that I didn’t want to look at.”
When I heard my talking computer read that last line out loud I pounced on the stop button. I’ve come to know Bob and his lovely wife Linda on rides home from our Monday Lincoln Park Village memoir class, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to learn what terrible things had happened to my friend as he was moved from house to house, school to school, family to family. When I finally mustered up the courage to continue reading, I was relieved to hear what my computer’s robotic voice came out with.
I mean, I still ache for Bob and this fear he’s had since childhood, but his fear is so rational — and obvious — I’m relieved it isn’t worse. “I realized now that the fears I had back in my childhood still affect me,” he wrote. “I don’t like traveling.”
It’s not the long lines at the airport. It’s not packing and carrying suitcases, either. That doesn’t bother Bob at all. “What really affects me and brings out my fear is leaving home. I recall the same feeling of anxiety I felt every time I moved from one family to another.”
Bob and Linda now own a summer home about 90 miles away in Michigan City, Indiana, and that’s just about the farthest Bob feels comfortable away from their condo in Chicago. He says, “Going there is like going home.”
Last week a radio station called Harbor Radio Country recorded Bob reading essays about his job on the horse and cart and his antics with the Pranksters. The recorded essays are set to air before the end of the year, and I’m hoping once WRHC-FM gets wind of Bob’s “What Am I Afraid Of?” essay they might want him to record it as well.