What are you afraid of?

November 4, 2015 • Posted in Blogroll, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, radio, technology for people who are blind, travel, Uncategorized by

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.

Bob Eisenberg is not only a good writer, he's a great artist, too.

Bob Eisenberg is not only a good writer, he’s a great artist, too.

“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.

Sheila A. Donovan On November 4, 2015 at 10:34 am

Bob’s story sounds like my dad’s. His mother died from birthing him. His father was a fireman who had to live several days a week at the fire station, so he was sent to live with an aunt in Joliet. Then he was sent to military boarding school.

Also, I remember a horse drawn wagon going through the alley between Lawrence & Giddings. The guy would shout “Rags, old iron!” He’d pass through on a regular basis.

I’m wondering what military school Bob went to. Was it Bishop Quarters? That’s the one my dad attended.

bethfinke On November 5, 2015 at 8:46 am

I contacted Bob, and he says the Military school he went to was called Junior Military Academy. It was on 51st and Greenwood on the south side of Chicago.

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Sheila A. Donovan On November 5, 2015 at 11:21 am

Oh, so there was more than one Military school in Chicago. Thanks for the information, Beth.

Mel Theobald On November 4, 2015 at 2:10 pm

I’ve been doing genealogy research with a cousin lately and have been surprised at how common it was to lose a mother at birth in those days. It is deeply touching to read Bob’s words and feel what he experienced. So glad his stories will be aired on the radio. They are invaluable.

bethfinke On November 5, 2015 at 8:49 am

Oh, Mel, I agree. Bob’s stories *are* precious, and it is especially poignant to hear him reading them out loud. Perfect for radio.

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CShriver1 On November 4, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Hi Beth… I loved this blog about Bob. I too have learned about so many weird things I now remember about my childhood. ( I turned 65 in September and realize why I do some of the things I do or feel. It’s from my childhood. Thank you for posting this. Your number one fan in Florida. Charlene Shriver

Sent from my iPhone

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Joan Miller On November 4, 2015 at 9:05 pm

Poignant story about moving so often. Home is very important.

bethfinke On November 5, 2015 at 8:55 am

It sure is, and it’s amazing how centered Bob is now, after so much change in his early life. He credits finding a job where he could use his artistic talent (he is a sought-after hair stylist), Transcendental meditation, and his marriage to a woman he loves.

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bethfinke On November 5, 2015 at 8:50 am

And thank *you*, my #1 fan in Florida, for leaving this sweet comment.

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Benita Black On November 5, 2015 at 10:59 am

You “pounced on the stop button” and then felt relieved when you pressed PLAY and read on. Did you figure out what *you* were afraid of?

bethfinke On November 5, 2015 at 12:34 pm

To be perfectly honest, I was afraid he might have suffered some sort of horrific abuse from the people in one of the many, many homes he’d stayed in, and that he was about to come out with that memory in this essay.

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Benita Black On November 6, 2015 at 11:43 am

Yes, of course. It makes me wonder if anyone has revealed something in a class assignment that you did not feel comfortable with or unprepared to help.

bethfinke On November 6, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Oh, yes. Definitely. That has happened to me many, many times. Usually when something important like that is revealed in an essay, I allow a moment of silence after the piece is ready, and then ask the reader how it felt to get that out in writing. Writing my own memoir “Long Time, No See” was *tremendously* therapeutic for me, and I hope the same goes for writers in my classes when they work to express a difficult or confusing part of their lives in words. It isn’t always the case, though — writing about these things isn’t *always* therapeutic, and I want my writers to feel comfortable telling me that, too. My question about what it felt like to write about a time in life one might rather just forget about often leads to discussion of why we write memoir, who our audience is, and that sort of thing. Good to talk about now and then in a memoir-writing class. _____

Linda Miller On November 5, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Inspiring post – both Bob’s story and his opportunity to be heard on the radio, and your feelings of empathy and connection. I knew exactly what you were thinking with that “stop” impulse!

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