The castle in Chicago.

Today I landed in Chicago for the first time. My grandma Lillian (née Lea) moved here in 1928 when she was 11 years old. It’s the city that shaped her: its glittering winters, its stone columns, its bridges and buildings with a thousand eyes. I grew up with the fairy tale of a kingdom called Chicago that intensified in her later years, became an urgency, a retelling of her story like she was trying to etch it into my limestone mind, pour her favorite moments into me so I could hold them even when I could no longer hold her.

I’ve felt like bursting into tears all day, walking downtown past buildings a century old, knowing she saw them, feeling her high heels clack beside me like we were just two friends on a shopping excursion to Marshall Field’s. My grandma’s first job was as a bookkeeper for the Easy Washing Machine Company. It was in the Merchandise Mart, which she spoke of as the palace at the heart of her urban queendom. A building as big as a town. A lobby paved with gold and stone. A radio station broadcasting from the top of the tower, beaming its voice over Chicago.

The revolving doors pushed me into the lobby, shiny with marble and layered with murals. There were people everywhere with badges hung around their necks attending a conference, and I felt like a spy among them, walking past the sign that said “Badges Only” onto a freight elevator from 1930 operated by hand. On the 19th floor, I stood behind as a rush of people went towards a private theatre, and turned to the elevator man to ask if there was somewhere I could find the view.

Then I told him the story my grandma had told me, about her first job in the building, how they flew her to Syracuse, and he smiled and said he’d worked in the building for 21 years, that he remembered the radio station, and that he’d found cigarettes and a Butterfinger wrapper from the 1940s jammed in the freight elevator.

My grandma Lillian on the far right with an Easy Washing Machine, Chicago, c. 1940

I showed him my grandma’s picture and he gasped, told me about another photo from the 40s of a small scale model of the Merchandise Mart with a group of women in hats perched atop it. Office 470, he told me, and another elevator operator graciously dropped me on the fifth floor so I could sidestep lobby reception and get untethered access to the Offices Only elevator bank.

The receptionist at 470 raised an eyebrow when I asked about the photograph, only to reveal that she had taken it home because she too, with 25 years of working at the Merchandise Mart, was a customer service girl, just like the ladies in the photo. We laughed, and she said there might be another copy of it in the offices, and a woman overhearing us confirmed this, so she took me into an empty office and there was that photograph, taking up a third of the wall.

A miniature Merchandise Mart, 1940s

I left the palace smiling, tears punctuating my eyes as I crossed over the river on the Wells bridge, unable to comprehend the blueness of the water below. I felt my grandma with me in a way that hurts behind the eyes. I heard how she’d exclaim with excitement to know I’d landed in Chicago, walked in her footsteps, squinted a little to see the world through her eyes, felt her story unwind in the muscles of my legs and echo in my bones.

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Busloads to the border.

Tonight I listened to this recording of children crying helplessly for their parents at a detention center on the southern border of the United States and remembered the feeling in my gut the very first time I heard the sound of an animal being slaughtered. I was nine or ten and sitting in my mom’s minivan as we rolled slowly over the speed bumps on our way into the mall parking lot. A crowd of anti-fur activists was blocking the entrance to the department store — Bullock’s, maybe — playing a tape on loop of a living animal being destroyed.

Involuntarily, my eyes salted with hot tears, which I attempted to wipe away with the backs of my hands so my mom wouldn’t notice I was crying. My face was hot and red, and a crank deep in my belly was prying open a fissure I’d never felt before: a nausea like a gush of lava was rising up in me as my eyes continued to fill mutinously with tears. The shame of being human. The horror of what we do.

I wanted no part of it.

I’m familiar with that reaction now: the revulsion that geysers through me, the vision that blurs with nervous tears when I face down that anxiety. But I don’t think I’ve felt that way from an audio recording since the very first time — until tonight. The aural blitz of another living thing’s suffering, disconnected from the present moment — from the speed bumps at the mall, from the New York Times tabs open on the desktop. The wail of an invisible child, disembodied and held in no one’s arms, of a little voice gasping for her father over and over.

The child became every child I taught in a classroom or a sandbox, became my goddaughter and my cousins, became the child I was and the child I hope someday to have. The child was no outlaw. The child was in exile. She was a refugee from her country and we forced her into exile from her mother’s body.

Were you a child?

When home was the body of someone you loved: the crescent of your mother’s chin, the down of her breasts, the lap bar of her arm. When your universe was your father’s singing voice, his hand taking your smaller one in his.

The uniformed agents said they were going to take the children for a bath and then they took them from their parents and didn’t bring them back.

Once, a group of uniformed agents told hundreds of filthy, half-dead travelers they were to be given nice, hot showers after days inside a windowless cattle car. Maybe they felt hope for the first time in days when they were locked inside a communal shower and gassed to death with hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

How far are we from this?

Today, Masha Gessen published an essay about the new task force formed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to find naturalized citizens who ‘should not have been naturalized in the first place.’ Gessen points to the troubling assumption implicit in the creation of this force: “that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.”

Are these children — whose only home is the warmth of their parents’ bodies, who have faced god-knows what odysseys to reach this country — the face of depraved fugitives?

Are their parents?

We are imprisoning newcomers seeking nothing but a better life. We are kidnapping their children.

We are deporting people who have built those better lives here. We are sending them back to nowhere.

We are erasing the stories of people who have documents allowing them to be here. The new USCIS task force of attorneys is seeking out citizenship applications with falsehoods on them. Gessen calls the distinction between a lie and an innocent mistake “fuzzier than one might assume.”

Here is my great-grandmother Clara’s Petition for Naturalization:

Clara Naturalization

Here are things that are untrue:

  • Clara lived on Crest Lake Drive. (It was Crestlake Drive.)
  • Clara was born in 1892. (Clara was born in 1894.)
  • Clara was born in Elisagrade, Russia. (Clara was born in Elizavetgrad which, at the time of her naturalization, was actually called Kirovohrad.)
  • Clara’s daughter was Lillian. (She was born Lea.)
  • Annie’s birth date was February 28, 1919. (It was February 2, 1919.)

Was Clara a liar? How could there be so many innocent mistakes? Shouldn’t her naturalization be revoked?

Should we dig her up and send her back to Russia? To the place where she watched neighbors murdered in front of her during a pogrom? To the countryside that was decimated during the second world war, where her relatives disappeared into the ether of history?

Here is the Manifest of Alien Passengers Applying for Admission on June 5, 1920 in Detroit, Michigan:

Canada Border

Lines 1-6 are my little family: Clara, age 28; her children George, Sam, Joe, Lea, Annie, from 1 to 7 years old. There is no nearest friend or relative. My great-grandfather is somewhere between Hamilton, Ontario and Dayton, Ohio. Clara is alone with five children, unable to speak English fluently. On that day, she kept each of her children firmly beside her.

When I think of what they would have said if they had been separated.

If my grandmother had been taken from her mother at three years old. If Annie, who was breast-feeding, had been taken from her mother. If the children had been divided from one another in addition to being taken from their mother.

My grandmother was an immigrant. She came here at three and was naturalized at 24. I never heard her call herself anything but an American.

She devoted her life to helping refugees come to this country — because of the life she was able to have here. Away from the pogroms in the shtetls faced by her parents and grandparents, with two feet planted firmly in American soil, she looked right out to the horizon line and wrote her story.

We are not giving these children a chance. We aren’t giving them a reason to love this country. We are instilling them with fear and terrorizing them by ripping them away from their parents — the parents who courageously brought them here to start a new life. To dare to dream a better future for their children, the way all of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents did.

I cannot abide the anguish in the children’s voices on that recording. I cannot bear the things we humans do to one another. Can we stop it? Can we get busloads to the border? What do we do to feel proud to be Americans once again?

 

Here is a living document from Slate on how you can help fight family separation at the border. 

 

Lillian.

Today, you’d be 101 years old.

watercolor by Jennifer Maurice

Last year I drove to your gravesite for the first time since the day we buried you five years earlier and taped a silly silver HERE’S TO 100 YEARS birthday card to the marble bearing your name. I didn’t know what it would feel like to sit there face to face with your name and Grandpa’s, how it would all come tumbling up. In my day to day, you are with me everywhere — from my scarves to my rings to the black and white photos on my wall, and I think there’s safety in remembering you young, in greyscale, looking like me, because it obscures who you were to me when I knew you, when you were the greatest love in my life. Your red hair, your soft skin, the blue veins on your hands, the way you smelled of kasha and soap, your Tallulah Bankhead voice and the way you said my name.

It is so hard to sit here at 33 and wish you could know me now, a little less scared of everything than I was at 27, that I could share my grown-up life with you, my work, my travel, my heartaches and poems.

Every day I am grateful that I came from you. Today I sink into the celebration and grief of you.

Mothers’ day.

I remember the hundreds of mornings my own mother brushed the tangles out of my hair as I look at this photo of my grandmother patiently plaiting my mom’s curls. I think of the mothers before her and the ritual of taming girls’ hair and of those moments together in the morning, of watching my mother’s face behind me in the mirror — the patience or exasperation or concentration knitted across her brow — and of all these quiet, quotidian practices we take for granted as the duties of mothers.

Today on Mother’s Day I am filled with gratitude for my own mother, and for my beloved Grandma Lillian who I miss every day, and for my Grandma California June who I never met, and for all the mothers who suffered and loved and brushed their children’s hair on countless mornings because that is what mothers do.

And justice for all.

Independence Day 1941, Chicago:
Celebrating a felt freedom, before their lives were forever changed by the war.

july 4 41
Seated: Grandpa Hy Foreman, 26 and Grandma Lillian Brodsky Foreman, 24; Standing: Great-Aunt Annie Brodsky Levine, 22

My Russian-Jewish immigrant family came to this country to escape persecution in their homeland where they were routinely massacred by Cossacks for being Jews. They came to bear and raise children in a safe harbor so their lives could bloom beyond their wildest dreams. They took jobs in factories that killed them. They left behind their parents, friends, landscapes — their entire worlds. They were so much braver than I have ever been.

This country is built on the backs of immigrants, by the forced hands of slaves, on the deaths of native people. If we forget that we do not have a RIGHT to land, if we raise country above one another’s humanity, if we privilege the health and security of one group over others, we tarnish the struggle, the suffering, the joy, the lives of all who were here on this land before us. Do not be a complacent American. Do not forget from whence you came. Do not forget what was here before you.

Schandel Finkle.

This is my maternal great-great grandma in Russia around the turn of the last century. She carries her history in the lines of her mouth. I’ve seen my own mother make this exact face.

If you look closely, you can tell her pupil has been inked over; in the one other photograph I have of her, it looks like she may have lost an eye completely.

Ida Schoendel Brodsky

Her son Abraham Lazar Brodsky was the father of grandma Lillian. We are not absolutely certain of her name, but the death certificate for her daughter, who died in Chicago in 1981, lists her mother as “Schandel Finkle.” My grandma Lillian once said she thought her name was Ida Schoendel. We believe she lived in Kirovohrad (Elizavetgrad) which is whence my great-grandparents came when they left for Canada around 1911. Her husband was Lazar Brodsky and they had at least three children — Abraham Brodsky, Miriam (Mary) Brodsky (Lord) and Lillian Brodsky (Rubin). I imagine she was born some time between the late 1850s and early 1870s, as my great-grandfather was born in 1887. 

Abe traveled first to Canada where Clara joined him. After their children were born, they moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his sister Lillian had married a Rubin man. Both families eventually moved to Chicago, along with sister Mary who — legend has it — divorced her Russian-Jewish husband and married an Italian gangster, last name Lord.

I do not know if they wrote to their mother, or if their mother would have been able to read their letters. I do not know when she was born or when or how she died. I do not know if she survived the pogroms or if she lost an eye in an attack by the cossacks. I can only think how incredulous she would be to see her descendants alive and lucky, a century after this photo was taken.

Monday, Monday

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Mondays! Grandma Lillian worked as a bookkeeper at the Easy Washing Machine Company at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. She changed her name from Brodsky to Brodsly on her resume to get the job, saying she was a Christian Scientist instead of a Jew.

When it was built in 1930, the Merchandise Mart was the largest building in the world. In her nineties, Lillian would talk with such excitement about her time working there, taking the train to work, walking through the snow in her silk stockings, finding out that her boss was having an affair with a secretary — and she took her first-ever plane ride on a business trip to upstate New York.

This was her only time as an independent professional woman. Later, after her children were born, she did bookkeeping for my grandfather’s business, and made a name for herself as a volunteer and activist in San Francisco. But I could always tell this moment in her life was precious to her as a young woman supporting herself and her family by the way she talked about it.