“Good Stories” by Esther Cohen
What is the same
what is different?
When I was a child
I had a big bear
a girl bear
not a doll
with yellow hair
I talked to Miss Bear
all day long
I didn’t know
I knew she
was smiling at me.
Many of us listen for what we know, familiar sounds. Maybe this starts with lullabies, with words we hear every night, when we are young.
Not me. I wanted my mother to change up the song. I wanted my family to move around, not to sit in the mama bear papa bear seats every night, facing in the absolutely same direction, looking right at the light green wall, or outside the window next to the table, or watching the clock move around during dinner. I wanted to hear voices I didn’t know,
from people who looked nothing like me.
What’s interesting is how we understand our tribes: who we want to be in the worlds we inhabit, how our circles form. The ghettos we make
My parents were both children of Eastern European immigrants with difficult histories,
living in countries where people were killed for being different, for not having the same religions. They were Jews who lived through World War II, who lost relatives.
This history, what they knew could happen in the world, this first hand knowledge of evil, and it was evil, made them wary, in different ways.
My father was more worried than wary. A considered considerate man, he only wore white shirts and he spoke in a gentle voice. A cautious voice. My mother, although she lived the traditional sixties life, she volunteered, she played cards, still my mother, a good dancer, a woman with orange capris and large earrings in a small town where people liked circle pins, small circle pins even, my mother, had she been alive today, would have been entirely different.
All these years later, I wonder where I came from. How I began.
My parents invited people over who looked and spoke the way they did: Jews who went to college, who worked hard, who talked sometimes about a good life. Kind people, often funny.
I would ask our neighbors to visit. People from Poland, from Ireland. I would ask Mr. Gittings the crazy old man down the street who was sometimes incoherent and sometimes amazing to come and see me on our porch.
I wanted my tribe to be a Big One, to have everyone who wanted to be there just to come over.
And in a way, that’s been my work, my life’s work. Bringing people over to my apartment and hearing their stories, and telling a few of my own.
In the eighties, I heard a story, one of those stories that stays inside you forever. I was in my twenties, working for a book publishing company. The story, told to me by a union leader named Moe Foner, was about women and children in Lawrence, Massachusetts, immigrant women working in a textile mill. The year was 1912. They wanted a better life, a life where work was not all they did. Their slogan, We Want Bread and Roses too stayed with me. Who knows why some words become lodged inside us all. Moe ran a cultural program for working people, a program designed to provide roses, alongside bread. Inspired by the women in Lawrence who went on strike, and won.
Hearing this particular story changed my own trajectory. Just the way good stories can. The way good stories often do. And even though I told Moe the day we met because he was a man who worked every single day of the year who did not stop for anything that I would never work for him, never never never, I found myself in the office next door to his, not only because he was persuasive, insistent, relentless, but because his cause, his mission to make life even a little better for working people, seemed better than anything I could do on my own. So I joined him, listening many times to his explanation of roses, what they were and what they could be and what we could provide if we were resourceful, if we too were persuasive and insistent and relentless, if we understood, the way he did, that no almost never mattered.
I didn’t believe him, not really, when he told me that the work on the walls of big institutions like the Metropolitan Museum had little to do with the lives of low wage workers, especially the women in the union Moe helped build, a union of women of color, African American and Latina, who came from different cultural worlds, worlds Moe wanted to honor and celebrate, worlds he wanted everyone to know and honor.
He, and the work we did for many years changed what I thought about work, and about jobs, and about the stories I knew and wanted to hear. I started teaching writing workshops, called Workers Write, with homecare workers, all in the beginning of life. Women who work hard, are never paid enough, and who are not afraid of life’s beginnings, of the endings either, or of all that happens in between.
He and the work we did changed the stories I was lucky enough to hear, and the stories I tell.
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Esther Cohen Artist Statement:
Esther Cohen is a writer and cultural activist who has worked with hundreds of groups
around the country, from migrant workers to Filippino nannies, helping them tell their