One of the many many things I love about people of a certain age? They answer their phones when you call.
After my new book Writing Out Loud came out last month, I dug up a computer file from a dozen years ago and started tracking down the seniors who’d been in the first memoir-writing class I led in Chicago. A few have moved away since then (some to the Great Beyond) but here’s another bonus to working with seniors: many never change their phone number. And so it was that I could pick up the phone, dial Gwen’s number from 2004 and, abracadabra! A familiar (and amazingly recognizable) voice answered.
A very moving and poignant essay Gwen wrote when I assigned “1968” as a writing prompt is featured in Chapter 8 of my new book. The subtitle to Writing Out Loud is “What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors,” and boy, oh boy, did I learn a lot from Gwen.
I figured the 1968 prompt would lead to a lot of essays about the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year, but I was wrong. The writers had jobs in 1968. “We couldn’t take off work to go downtown and bother with that mess,” one of them told me.
Their essays definitely spoke of the times, though. Gwen read right after Tom that day in class. Tom grew up on Chicago’s South Side and wrote that he and his wife had decided to move their family to the suburbs that year. As Tom delicately put it, the neighborhood was “changing.”
Gwen and her husband had also decided to move their family to a new house in 1968. Over the phone last month Gwen and I had a spirited conversation about the essay she’d written about that move, and I invited her to come to a party celebrating Writing Out Loudwith writers from my Grace Place class here in Printers Row and the “Me, Myself and I” class that meets at the Chicago Cultural Center.
That party was last Friday afternoon, and Gwen and two friends drove 30 miles from the far south suburbs to be here with us. Attendees seemed tickled to meet Gwen and the writers from other classes. One party-goer told me, “It’s so great to put faces to the people in your book!” and I overheard someone else asking Gwen for an autograph.
I’ll leave you here with a promise to share more about other characters who’ve been with me at book launch parties and book signings the past few weeks. For now, here’s an excerpt from Gwen’s chapter, Chapter 8: “1968.”
“On the day of the closing we took our sons out to see their new home,” she reads, explaining it was located in the Rosemoor neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side. “Our boys were excited to have a larger home, although they didn’t want to leave their friends. My husband and I were happy that the house had been vacated by the former owners and we had immediate possession.”
But Gwen’s husband called her at work the next day with disturbing news. Someone had tossed a chemical into their house – the chemical simmered throughout the night, eventually burning through the floor. A worker from People’s Gas Company who had been sent out to take a final meter reading the next morning noticed the windows were all black from the smoke. He called the fire department.
“The fireman, who knew how to enter a burning house, told us that if we had opened a door, the house would have exploded and been completely destroyed,” Gwen writes. “We were completely unaware that we were the first Black family to move into that block. Had we known, we would have skipped that area. I did not want to put my children in danger.”
Their three-year-old was afraid to enter the house, so the family moved into Gwen’s brother’s attic for a few weeks until her husband decided it was time to clean up the house and move in. He checked on it every evening during the process, hoping the culprits would return.
“But of course they didn’t,” Gwen reads. “And I was glad. I didn’t want a confrontation.”
After about a year, the family finally moved in. But Gwen tells us it took a long, long time before they could relax in the house. “It seemed that every time we started feeling comfortable there, the weather would turn humid and the smoke smell would seep down from the attic.” They lived there for 20 years, and after the kids were grown they moved to the south suburbs.
Gwen can barely speak for sobbing, but as she nears the end of her essay, she straightens herself, catches her breath, and finishes without a hint of anger or bitterness: “We cannot allow the actions of a few to poison our minds and cause us to react in a manner that would be completely contradictory to what Martin Luther King and other Black leaders have preached and marched against.”
When Gwen is finished reading, Tom says he thought that kind of thing had ended long before then. He had no idea people were still burning houses down like that in 1968. A quiet chorus of “uh huhs” rises from the other South-Siders in class. Gwen says she’d buried this whole ordeal deep inside until I gave the assignment to write about 1968. “It all came back to me then,” she says.