John Edwards's Book Excerpt
Home. The place that helps to define how we see ourselves and how we choose to make our way in the world -- the blueprint of our lives.
Where we learn to dream. Where we become who we are. And where we can always return. The A-frames and split-levels and mansions and ranches and apartments in this book are as different as the people who have lived in them. But this isn't a book about houses; it's a book about homes. About the values they rest on, the dreams they are filled with, and the people they have shaped.
The houses and circumstances are different, but much of what you find inside will be familiar. Much of what you find will be what you already know -- that America at its best is a place of amazing opportunity, deep values, and unlimited optimism. That, given half a chance, we are a people who can accomplish anything. And that no matter where we come from or what we have done, our values are common and our dreams are shared.
These are our homes. This is America. Please come in.
-- John Edwards
I grew up in the house of my grandparents in Santiago, Chile, with my mother, two brothers, two bachelor uncles, and my grandfather. My grandmother died when I was very young but I remember her clearly -- she was clairvoyant, funny, and loving. The house was built in the 1930s by my grandfather and was demolished in the '80s. It was two stories with balconies, solid and stately. It must have been nice when my grandmother was alive, but after her death it felt large, ugly, and cold.
Santiago in the '40s was a rather provincial town. Our neighborhood was upper-middle class, with large houses, big dogs, and children playing in the street. Every morning the maids would buy fresh bread; I can still remember the smell of that bread! At midmorning a mule-driven cart came selling milk and the maids would line up with their pots. There were street vendors selling all kinds of goods: from berries and goat cheese to vegetables, even brooms. A man who sharpened knives came by and an organ grinder with a tamed monkey dressed like a medieval page.
The family only gathered around the dining table on Sundays; otherwise we ate in the kitchen with the maids. My two brothers and I slept with my mother in a large bedroom, and at night she used to tell us stories. My favorite room in the house was the spooky basement, a forbidden place where I played imaginary games. There were rats and spiders in that basement, but I loved to hide there among discarded furniture and old books.
I was too lonely, sensitive, and imaginative to have a very happy childhood. I think that most of my writing is nurtured by the memories of my early childhood, especially my grandparents. My family was weird, so life in that house seemed interesting and a little crazy. My most striking memory of the house was of something that never existed: spirits. I could see them everywhere, and they made their way into my first novel, "The House of the Spirits." One of my uncles collected books and I imagined that at night the characters escaped from the pages and roamed the house. I also thought the spirits summoned by my psychic grandmother still lived there. My nanny told me that the Devil was hiding in the armoires and that dead people were buried in the basement.
The house of my childhood does not exist anymore and it doesn't really matter how it looked in reality. What matters is the house that I invented. My granddaughter says that I remember what never happened. Maybe the house I remember never existed. I am sure it was not as large or as somber as I see it. I suppose that I created a place to fit my dreams and later recreated it as the setting for the stories in my books. I tend to enhance and change everything. I'm a fiction writer, after all.
-- Isabel Allende, author
Hometown: Santiago, Chile
I grew up in a public housing project in Cleveland in the late 1940s and '50s. It was the Lee-Seville housing projects in the southeast part of town. They were built after World War II and torn down in the '60s, but they were the first and most important home I knew. I lived there from 1946, the year I was born, until 1957. There were four of us: my father, mother, brother, and me, in a one-level, two-bedroom home.
The house had one very small bathroom with a shower and no tub, a small kitchen with a utility room to the side, and a small living room with a coal-burning stove. In front of the house was a very small yard that had a coal bin off to the side. The back of the house bordered on a vast field. The floors were all linoleum and smelled damp all the time. The linoleum was ugly, old, and dingy. The smell of coal from the bin permeated the house, but in the spring and summer, the wildflowers growing in the field filled the air with prettier fragrances, so sweet smells competed with dank ones for our attention.
Cleveland in the '40s and '50s was a factory town with an industry-driven economy. Steel companies like Republic Steel and Jones & Laughlin were the big employers. Most of the city's residents were blue-collar and came from every corner of the world. We had the largest Hungarian population outside of Hungary, and neighborhoods included Little Italy and Chinatown.
The Lee-Seville neighborhood was entirely African-American except for my family and two other families. It was a time of great racial prejudice in America, but I did not know this. I was too young to know about Emmett Till or Rosa Parks. The only friends I had were African-Americans.
The truth is, the other two white families hated me and my family because we were Jewish. I will never forget the day that the father of one of the white families passed peaches out to all the kids standing in front of his yard except me. The father looked at me and said, "Why don't you go home, you Jew?"
Or the day that the oldest daughter of the other white family bought ice cream for all the kids who were playing baseball in front of her yard. I stood last in line behind the Good Humor ice cream truck, waiting for my treat, only to be told that the oldest daughter of one family wouldn't buy ice cream for me because I was Jewish.
I was 7 years old. I didn't understand.
Living in that house off Telfair Avenue in the Lee-Seville projects was the single most influential life experience I have had, even though 47 years have passed since I have left. I worked my way through college; I worked my way through law school. I've been a practicing lawyer for 32 years. But nothing could have prepared me better for the realities of life than experiencing life as a minority in a minority.
I learned that prejudice can only be learned. When white and black children grow up together, play together, go to school together, and share their lives together, hatred and fear of each other is alien to them. They accept each other because of what they have in common and haven't been taught to fear what is different.
Most of my childhood unfolded in the company of acceptance and understanding, punctuated rarely by the sharp touch of prejudice. In the projects, so long ago, I learned what I want in my life and what I don't. The only thing that really deserves intolerance is intolerance itself.
Five years ago, I was appointed by the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to represent a young African-American accused of drug trafficking. I knew that my client's father disliked me from the moment he met me. Finally, the father said to me, "How can a rich Jewish lawyer like you ever know what it's like to grow up and live on Tarkington Avenue?"
I just smiled and said, "Because I grew up one street over on Telfair Avenue in the Lee-Seville projects."
-- Gary Eisner, lawyer
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
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