The following article is being featured on my publisher’s webpage this week:
My name is Jo Ivester. I’m 57 years old and live in downtown Austin. I never thought I’d be a Texan. My early years were spent in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where my father, Leon Kruger, ran his pediatrics practice from an office on the first floor of our home. It was common to do that in the 1950s and 60s. Our whole block was made up of physicians of one sort or another working from their homes; a dentist, an ophthalmologist, a foot doctor. There were almost thirty children in the neighborhood and we all played blissfully together, unaware that our parents had created a highly unusual paradise.
That all changed in 1967 when my father quit his practice to become the medical director of a clinic in a small, all-black town deep in the cotton fields of Mississippi, about a hundred miles south of Memphis. My mother, Aura, was stunned by his decision, although I didn’t know it at the time. As a 10-year-old child, it never occurred to me to question her brave words that this would be a great adventure, that we were lucky to have a father who cared about service to humanity. Bold words and I bought into them, totally and completely.
My mother never felt worthy of my father. He was the doctor, the deep thinker, the smooth, sexy dancer that all the girls wanted to date in high school. She never knew that she was equally exciting and beautiful, instead viewing herself as too short, not smart enough, less attractive than her younger sister, too flat chested to interest the boys. And she was so painfully shy that she never garnered the courage to ask my father what he thought of her. If she had, he would have assured her that he loved her deeply, that he knew exactly what he was doing when he courted her rather than her more buxom girlfriends.
At least he would have done that early on in their marriage. By the time they had been married for twenty-five years, his ardor had cooled. To the outside world, they had the perfect life, a strong marriage, four talented, handsome children, a large house in the suburbs, a partnership in managing both their home and his work. But he was no longer satisfied. He was bored with his pediatric practice, complaining that he did the same thing every day, treated the same minor colds, sewed up the same cuts and scratches. They talked about the fact that he wanted to do something more with his professional life and she supported his desire to return to school for a degree in public health as a stepping-stone to something more demanding and fulfilling. He wanted to serve on the S.S. Hope and sail around the world providing modern medical care where none existed. Or move to Ethiopia where there were fewer doctors per capita than almost anyplace else in the world. Yes, she supported his dreams, but she never really believed they would take her away from her home.
So why am I writing all of this? I’m telling you about my parents so you’ll understand what led to the book I’ve just finished writing, “The Outskirts of Hope.” You may recognize the title. It’s a quote from Lyndon Johnson. He said, “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both.” That’s how he introduced his War on Poverty back in 1964. My father enlisted in that war and my mother followed him to Mississippi, bringing my two older brothers and me along for the ride. Once there, my mother became a high school English teacher at the all-black high school. The most common response when I interviewed her former students regarding what made her special was very simple. “She cared.”
Forty years later, my mother, then in her eighties, started a journal. Every day she wrote for twenty minutes, sometimes writing about our time in Mississippi, but mostly recording all the family anecdotes, going back to the 1800s when her grandparents first emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. After several years, she’d amassed a pile of handwritten notebooks a foot high. My mother felt as if her task was complete at this point; it was just the beginning for me.
I spent over a thousand hours listening while she told and re-told all the family anecdotes. Then I tried to capture what I’d heard by writing in her voice, checking back with her frequently to make sure that what I produced felt authentic to her. The end result was a journal we called, “Forever Autumn.” By the time we were done, neither one of us could be sure who had written what. More than that, however, it pushed our relationship to a new level as I constantly asked her how various incidents had made her feel.
We circulated our journal to several people in the publishing industry. The response was consistent. “You’ve created a wonderful gift for friends and family. But the truly publishable part of the manuscript is the section in the middle about your time in Mississippi. Turn that into a book on it’s own, one that reads more like a novel, and you might have something.”
With my mother’s blessing, I set out to do exactly that, writing a book that bounces back and forth in voice between my mother and me, telling the story of our years in Mississippi from both our perspectives. As I plunged further and further into this undertaking, I grew nervous about writing about race. How does a white person write about her interactions with black people in a way that doesn’t offend anyone? There are so many ways that I can be offensive without meaning to be. In many cases, I wrote about people I know, love, and respect, and I didn’t want to do or say anything that could be hurtful in any way, shape or form.
My mother was a master at this. From her first day of teaching, she was able to challenge her students to think and talk about how being black affected them, and somehow she accomplished this without stepping on toes. I hope that I have done the same. Despite the many challenges I faced as a white tweener in an all-black community, I loved both the town and the friends I made there.