Remembering a childhood kitchen should make a person think of food. But last night, during a writing workshop at the Brookline Booksmith, thinking of my family’s kitchen took me back to the first week of school in a new town. I was back in 1974; I was 9 years old, and my two brothers and I were the only Jews in school.
The writing instructor asked us to write down details of our childhood kitchen, then write about an event there. Yellow vinyl bar stools. My mind fixated on that image, then put myself and my brother Kevin there. One day, Kevin and I dashed off the school bus, ran into the kitchen, and perched on those stools. We told our mother how we had to sit through a Christian Bible studies class in our new school.
Prompted by the writing instructor, I thought of the look and the smells of that 1970s kitchen in Findlay, Ohio. There was the lemony scent of dish soap and pungent burnt odors. The stove overcooked everything, my mother would say.
The writing coach, Sherry Ellis, who edited Now Write! Nonfiction, gave us five minutes to write the exercise, then asked for volunteers to read. No one initially volunteered. Compelled to fill the silence, I offered to read my attempt at the exercise. My audience included perhaps a dozen other aspiring authors as well as Boston-area authors Marcie Hershman, and Leah Hager Cohen, who helped lead writing exercises.
Below is an edited version of the item I wrote during the workshop. The quotations are a rough recollection of a conversation from three decades ago.
My brother Kevin and I sat at the yellow vinyl stools. My face was flushed red from exertion, from anger. We had just come home from one of our first days at a new school in a new town. I was in fourth grade, and Kevin in sixth.
Mom stood there, holding a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies. Glasses of milk were already poured.
“So,” Mom said, “how was school?”
This time, I could not eat the cookies. The burnt odor permeating the kitchen lessened my appetite. So did my anxiety about what had happened at school.
“There was this lady at school, Mom. She talked about Jesus,” I said.
“She said the Jews killed Jesus,” Kevin said.
“She made us sing Christian songs,” I added.
The lady was a church volunteer who taught Christian Bible study every week at our school, Van Buren Elementary, in northwest Ohio. She was, I later learned, one of many volunteers teaching Christianity at schools around the county during the 1970s.
We had moved to small town Ohio from Horseheads, NY. In our new school, my two brothers and I were the only Jews. In our new town, our family was among only three Jewish families, and the closest temple was 50 miles away. The area in New York State was home to two Jewish temples and a Jewish community center.
I doubt that anyone in my family ate Mom’s cookies that day. I can still see that lady in my elementary classroom sticking figures of Jesus and his disciples on a felt board. I can still feel that heat that rushed to my face, a flush of confusion, discomfort, and anger. And I can see the same heat on my mother’s face as she stood there at our kitchen counter, listening to her two youngest children talk about a school day they wished had never happened.
I write about my time in Van Buren, Ohio, schools in my yet-to-be published memoir. The experiences there, which included classmates questioning me about what a Jew believed, shaped a huge chunk of my childhood, and contribute to my becoming more interested in my faith as I aged. I returned to Van Buren in 2008 and toured the school with my former track coach and science teacher.
Here is a small excerpt from a chapter in my memoir about those years in the Van Buren schools:
Looking back, it is odd to think that some of my classmates nicknamed me Smiley. Beneath my smile was a sheaf of pain. I would set foot in my high school only a few times after graduation day. The pain of feeling different was forever raw. And yet I owed something to that school set on a tiny hill. The experiences there planted the seed: Some day, I would learn more about my faith and know how to respond to interrogators. The nine years in Van Buren schools also gave me treasured memories of my brother Kevin. He was like the flashing beacon on a lighthouse, always guiding me back to a safe place.