April 9, 2020 by Debra Gittler

Sheltered in Place. In Michigan.

I am sheltered in place in the country. Ninety minutes from downtown Chicago, one block from the white sand beaches of Lake Michigan (one of the world’s best kept secrets) and a mile from the local farmers that supply my eggs and beef.

In the 1940s, my family bought a home in the country when a polio pandemic broke out in Chicago. My great grandmother Lena, who immigrated from Russia with her sons, spent the summers out here with the women and kids, the men would come on the weekends.

My grandfather arrived at Ellis Island on July 4. He thought the fireworks were for his arrival. He came immediately to Chicago’s Southside, lived at 55th and Morgan, attended Englewood High School and put himself through college as a newsie, selling papers on the street. He lived a Great American Dream story– a successful businessman who started from nothing and rose to the top.

He brought the newspaper business out here, to the country, in the summers. My mom tells stories of wagons and the Sunday edition. From there he climbed to entrepreneurial and financial heights.

There are so many stories to describe the 80 years and five generations of my family that have shared this space. Some of them are true. Some true-ish. I think the newspaper business part is true. My family, as part of a vibrant seasonal community that was here Memorial Day through Labor Day, then packed up and went back to Chicago. 

This area, where I am, is called Gordon Beach. In the 30s or 40s, Dr. Gordon bought up the swath of land that’s where our home is, bought it to build a Jewish community since Jews weren’t allowed to own property in Lakeside, the Michigan resort town, beach town, summer town a la Cape Cod or the Hamptons of the midwest that’s a few miles away. So Dr. Gordon bought space and the Jews came and there was at one point, people say, a synagogue and a kosher butcher.

So many stories that weave together the history of this place, of my connection to this place. Of our connection to this place. Lena’s other children. Jack, oh so handsome and oozing charisma. Edna, the only daughter, the only born in the USA, the most adored. And Al, whose wisdom and kindness kept him alive as the last in his cohort.

Then there are the stories told in whispers. Between closed lips. As secrets. As weapons. Of philanderers and lies; children born out of wedlock and affairs and other secret betrayals. Rumors of sisters who might, in fact, be aunts. Of a son with a different father.

At the inn down the road, there’s a sign, one of many, that documents the history of this area. Founded by so and so Levine or Shapiro or Goldstein– I’ve read the sign so many times but remember nothing at all. A Jewish name…

And then in the 1970s, this Jewish community was replaced by a Black community. A la Martha’s Vineyard or Sag Harbor.

My great grandmother’s home–Grandma’s house, we call it; the Big House, we also call it– has birthed other houses, homes scattered about bought by a cousin, an aunt, my parents. It’s like a compound, these eight houses that embrace our sprawling family, so much more like the families I know in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America, what I’ve called my other home for 15 years. 

(There’s a joke… a prominent Chicago name has a home just next door to us here in Michigan. He’s had it for years, since “before” he was famous or important. He tells the story of sitting on the porch when he overhears bikers on the street. “Here, is where the Gittler’s live…” my family outshining even fame with the power we wield in numbers and ancestry.)

Down the block is another family with similar Jewish roots here, their descendency with a story like my own. We are distinct families that have known each other for generations. Sometimes when we talk about each other, we say we’re cousins, cause it’s just easier…

Then there are the smatterings of the African American legacy, one generation behind us, but four generations in. Their stories evolve and braid and splay in different rhythms, different historical triggers, than my own.

Yet we share that all of our grandparents, great-grandparents at some point played cards. The grandmas together. Were my grandparents really so avante garde? Interracial card games at the beach?

Hard to know which stories are true, of the so many stories that I stand on. I choose to stand on those that give me strength. I use some others, too, to steady myself. A patchwork of versions, a constant state of revision.

Here, in this brocade of stories and past, I’m so grateful and blessed to be away from the City. I’m steeped in so much privilege (of course, I’ve read those articles about rural resentment of urbaners enjoying country-quarantine). Not only the privilege of security –a home, food, support network– but of history that anchors me here. Of stories that ebb and flow, that are true and true-ish, and inspired by truth and sometimes not true at all, but so funny or outlandish or random that we hold on to them because those false stories anchor understanding as much as the true ones might.

Today, as a Jew in this place that my Jewish family came years ago when Jews weren’t welcomed elsewhere, I will celebrate the Pesach with a passover seder. My first seder ever without my mother and sisters. But still, using the seder plate used by my great-grandmother, my grandmother. We have drawings of the ten plagues made by my nephew Kelema last week, arugula that I planted last fall, which managed to survive the winter, lamb bones roasted by my cousin across the street. 

And afikomen covers made by my daughter and niece, who cut my father’s t-shirts and sewed them into shape with the irregular lines of children learning to stitch–lines that tell the story of someone learning something new. T-shirts that have been laying around for nearly three years since his death, artifacts that are only meaningful because they were his, now repurposed and forever meaningful for new reasons.

In all this time, this will be the first passover ever that my family has celebrated here. In the footprints of my large extended family, we are few, tonight. And so many.

I don’t know, in fact, if the story of the polio pandemic is true. But tonight, and during these weeks, I choose that story to be true. I could ask my mom, who turns 80 this summer, for clarity, but the stories she tells are the stories she needs. Right now, I need the stories I need.

I feel strength in the fabric of family. I recognize the burden, and the potential, of our shared social tissue. I honor the history I carry, and recognize how we can weave story– mine and yours and other; personal and historical and universal; the parts that are true, or true-ish, or maybe not true at all.

And in this weave of story– 

my family today, with my family historically, with the Jews for thousands of years, with humanity of all time…

my experience of this unprecedented time, what I read in the news each day, the connections with those I’m sheltered with, the alignment with those I join with each day via Zoom…

–I’m finding grace, comfort, kindness.

Chag Sameach. Happy Holidays. Next year, may we meet in health and peace.

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