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Jill Orr: Where Are You from?

Jill Orr: Where Are You from?

So much of how we parent comes from looking backward.

Our minds continually flash back to the way things were when we were kids. We mine our childhoods for what worked, what didn’t, and what we vow never to repeat.

For instance, I will never make my kids eat everything on their plate — because my father used to save the leftover cereal (in milk) that I didn’t finish at breakfast for me to eat after school. He thought this would teach me not to pour such a big bowl. As it turned out, it only taught me not to do this to my own children.

When my son was in sixth grade, he was given a poetry assignment based on the famous poem “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyons. This poem is used as a teaching tool in schools and writing workshops all the time because it has a very definite structure: a collection of details from the memories that make up the writer’s identity. The framework of the poem is always the same, but each poem written within that framework is vastly different. My son struggled with it. Still, when I saw him working, I wanted to give it a try. I’m weird that way.

Plus, I thought, if past is prologue, then where we come from will certainly influence the direction our children go. Surely that’s something worth examining . . . even if it means writing a poem.

I Am From

by Jill Orr

I am from orange shag carpeting and dark wood floors, neon sculptures, stained-glass windows, and harvest gold refrigerators. From wide suburban streets, lined with tall old trees and faded chalk four-square courts. I am from radiators and asbestos in the basement, from the first house on the block to get a microwave.

I am from watery eyes and serial sneezes, from bug-bites and itchy grass. From grape Benadryl and asthma attacks and freckles and sunburns. I am from staying inside whenever possible. I am from air conditioning.

I am from family vacations in wood-paneled station wagons and silent laughter in the way-back. From my Mom, who always knew the latest, best thing, and my father, who told me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not. I am from my sister, who understands this all without me having to explain. I am from one family split slowly, painfully, into two.

I am from spending every other weekend in the city, playing long games of gin rummy with my dad. From watching my mother rebuild her career, from vicious fights with my sister, from seeking refuge in my friends. I am from closing my door and writing it all down.

I am from “You can do anything you set your mind to” and “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” From I love yous unspoken, but never doubted. From the security of “I’ll always be here if you need me.”

I am from those Jewish enough not to eat ham on white bread, but not enough to stay away from bacon or attend synagogue; from Darwinism and the Golden Rule and Karma and Always Try Your Best. I am from pop culture, song lyrics, and fortune cookie wisdom. I am from the glass half full.

I am from hot dogs with pickles but never ketchup and deep-dish pizza. From cheese tacos and peanut butter and jelly in a bowl, from buttered noodles, fried matzo, and the Joy of Cooking. I am from one tragic fat-free Thanksgiving where my mom made us go around the table and introduce ourselves to each other.

I am from the time my parents told me I had chicken pox by bock-bock-bocking at me through my bedroom wall, and from the way it still makes them laugh. From needlepointed baby books, PTA presidents, homemade Halloween costumes, Kodak slide shows, and learning to drive a stick shift in the East Bank Club parking lot. I am from carnival birthday parties on the front lawn and trick-or-treating after dark. I am from knowing there would always be someone there when I got home.

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