Tuesday, November 02, 2010


This afternoon, I join Janie Isackson's Ethnic Chicago class to answer questions the DePaul University students have after reading my memoir, "The Division Street Princess." Thirty-four questions await. The first sent me thinking. It read, "If you could go back in time, what is the one thing that you would change about your childhood?"

That's easy. I'd toss my timidity. This excerpted selection from Chapter 3, Safe on our Shores, explains:

In July of 1944, my sidewalk play was simple and cautious because I was small for my age and a poor athlete. I snapped a rubber ball down and up, lifting my right knee as I recited: A, My Name Is Alice. My right hand palmed the ball, my left pressed my light-weight cotton skirt flat against my thigh so my underpants wouldn’t show. Because of my timidity, I admired girls who were tougher and braver, like Franny Jacobs—or F.J. as she preferred to be called.

“A tomboy, shmutzik and wild,” my mother had said when I first revealed my reverence for this older girl. I had just come in from playing outside, and Mother was combing my hair with her fingers when she unleashed her criticism, using Yiddish from the old country for emphasis.

“What kind of girl is that? A mieskeit. Makes up a name for herself. Does whatever she wants. Oye veh, her poor parents.” As my 31-year-old mother used a Kleenex moistened with her saliva to wipe dirt off my face,” she went on, “little girls should act like little girls, not wild Indians.”

I hated it when my mother tidied me up like that, trapping me in her firm hands like a feline pawing her kitten. I suppose I should have been used to it, for that was my mother’s reaction whenever she caught me coming in from play. Whether she was downstairs behind the cash register of our grocery store, or upstairs in our flat fixing supper, she’d interrupt her chore to attack my unruly hair and food-spotted mouth. Then, she’d seal my cleansing with, “Stand up straight.” What was she grooming me for? I often wondered. If it was to be a glamour girl like her, it was a lost cause.

Just once, I would have loved to have her welcome me with open arms—like the statue in Humboldt Park—instead of with nail-polished fingers poised to rearrange me.

When my mother harped on Frannie Jacobs, I didn’t defend or argue, because I was a good little girl who never talked back. Mostly I kept my hero worship to myself. I envied everything about F.J. She was skinny and tall, and nimble like Jane in the “Tarzan” movies. She could outrun any boy on the block, or push back if one were to lay a hand on her. Her wardrobe—untucked shirts and boy’s pants—must have been her choosing, unlike the dull matching outfits Mother laid out for me each morning.

And F.J.’s sandy-colored hair stood where the wind had styled it. She could hop off her brother’s bike without skinning a knee, and if she did scar, she’d display the mark proudly, as if she were a sailor with shore-leave tattoos. And I never saw her cry, not once.

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