A Fighter at Four Foot Eleven

Janie ChodoshJanie Chodosh is a writer, a scientist wannabe and a naturalist. Janie has spent the last decade teaching high school English and middle school science. When not writing or obsessing about writing, she can be found with her family in various outdoor pursuits including bird watching, rock climbing, or trying to grow a garden in the arid southwest. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her daughter, stepson, and husband. Death Spiral is her first novel and is book one in a three part series.

www.janiechodosh.com

Philadelphia is a great city. It’s the home of the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Independence Hall, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. Many books have been set there, as have many movies. Philadelphia is home to Rocky, and the movie, named after the city, made famous by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. My mother’s side of the family is from Philadelphia. My mother, father, sister, and myriad aunts, uncles, and cousins attended the University of Pennsylvania. And my debut, young-adult novel, Death Spiral, is set in the City of Brotherly Love.

I set Death Spiral in Philadelphia for various reasons. Firstly, I wanted a big, east coast city with all the trappings of urban life, from the impoverished ghettoes and drug houses to the upscale shopping centers and academic institutions. I wanted suburban proximity, so a teen who couldn’t yet drive could easily access the city via public transportation. I wanted a city with a thriving scientific, and more specifically, a thriving biopharmaceutical presence. Philadelphia had it all, not to mention the fact I’d spent a good deal of time there, albeit twenty years ago, but memories of the city were imprinted on my brain like many things from childhood, which leave a lasting impression.

But there is another part of Philadelphia that Death Spiral represents, a more personal Philly that doesn’t show up in the book, but shows up in the dedication; Philadelphia was the home of my grandmother, Dorothy Kirschner, who died in November at the age of 95.

My grandmother spent her whole life in Philadelphia, much of it in Center City on the 19th floor of the stylish Warwick apartments on 17th and Locust, after her husband, my Grandpa Ben, died when she was just 50. She was a chic grannie. Walking everywhere, decorating her apartment with big, modernistic bouquets of flowers, adorning herself in extravagant, dangling clip-on earrings and fancy high heel shoes.

Although she spent the second half of her life living on her own, Grandma Dot, as many called her, was far from alone. In the 1980s and 1990s my grandma was a heroine to gay men, especially those diagnosed with AIDS. In the 1980s AIDS was an uncontrolled epidemic. People were afraid of AIDS and afraid of gay men. Gay men with the disease were stigmatized and considered shameful and dirty. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in the movie “Philadelphia” offer a moving portrayal of just these prejudices.

My grandmother was different. She made friends with gay men throughout the city, and she did not shy away from those with AIDS. Grandma Dot came to their side when they were dying and family had abandoned them. She showed up in the hospitals to sit with them, at their homes to buy them food. She held their hands, talked to them, and most of all, treated them with the dignity and respect that they deserved.

Let me draw you a picture of my grandma. Not quite five feet, barely weighing in at ninety pounds, she tended to say what was on her mind. She was active in the gay-friendly synagogue and also concerned about the city’s homeless, yep, Grandma Dot took care of them, too. She always had red licorice in her purse. She always wore at least half a dozen decorative pins on her clothes, at least one with the red flag, the emblem of the fight against AIDS.

When I was seventeen, my family and I were invited to Philadelphia for a surprise party for my grandma’s seventieth birthday. The party was at Susanna Foo’s, a hip downtown restaurant. I remember walking through the front door with my mom and sister and being greeted by a friendly man in black leather who had organized the event. Actually most of the people were wearing leather. Actually, most of the people were men. Gay men. My immediate family and I, it appeared, were among the few non-gay members of the party.

Throughout the evening, hordes of friendly and loving men greeted me with tales of how much my grandmother meant to them. Tales of her shopping for food and bringing it to them or their loved ones in the hospital. Tales of my grandmother helping turn a six-foot man in his hospital bed, so the nurse could clean him. Tales of her being there, of her caring, of her showing up when everybody else was too afraid.

Death was a part of my grandmother’s life in a way it isn’t for most people. Her friends were dying. People she had gotten to know and care for were dropping right and left, and it seemed nothing was being done to stop it. Yet she persevered. She showed up and fought on, helping, holding hands, and saying goodbye.

Death Spiral“It doesn’t matter what a person looks like or if they’re gay or straight, honey,” she’d tell me. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts. I don’t judge people. Nobody should. It’s just wrong.”

I missed seeing my grandma before she died. When she was 90 and living on her own became too hard she had been moved to Florida to be near my aunt and uncle and cousins. For the last year of her life, I kept making plans to see her and kept breaking those plans. Life kept getting in the way. Or rather, I kept allowing life to get in the way. Yes, she had dementia. She could not remember anything for more than ten seconds, but it mattered to me to see her. I finally booked the trip for Thanksgiving of 2013.

She died one week before my arrival.

I helped my aunt sort through my grandmother’s belongings and clean out her apartment in the week I was supposed to be visiting her. I sorted through pictures, through jewelry, and through piles of pins with the red ribbons.

I kept a few of those pins for myself.

A fighter at four foot eleven, Dorothy Kirschner, my grandma, stood up for what she believed. It is not just the great city of Philadelphia that echoes my grandmother in Death Spiral, it’s the protagonist of the book, Faith Flores, who like my grandma, fights for what’s right and doesn’t give up, no matter what.

 

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12 thoughts on “A Fighter at Four Foot Eleven

  1. Janie, the story of your grandmother is inspiring. I’m sorry you missed seeing her one last time, but she did know you were coming. I look forward to reading your book.

    • Thank you. I appreciate your thoughts. She was a wonderful woman. She comes up in my mind all the time. I can hear her voice so clearly. I hope you enjoy my book! Thank you. Janie

  2. That was a powerful story. I live an hour from Philadelphia and wish I knew the city better. Congratulations and best wishes on Death Spiral and your future writing.

    • Thank you, Amy. I am going to visit Philly this summer for the first time in like 20 years! I am going with my mom and my nine year old daughter. I look forward to revisiting this special place.

  3. Thank you, Janie, for sharing this story–and this woman–with us. I think her spirit lives on through your words. If your protagonist is a champion for others as your grandmother was, you have a winner!

    • Thank you, Susan for saying that. When I wrote the book I did not have my grandma specifically on my mind and then one day I realized, okay. Grandma is in this young girl and it made me love the book even more.

  4. That’s a wonderful story, Janie. I lived in Philadelphia for many years, and also went to Penn. I still miss the city, but I went on to work in the world of HIV/AIDS in the Boston area. I am still flabbergasted at the reactions people had to those who were dying of this disease. The gay community was fortunate to have your grandmother. Thank you for sharing her with us.

    • What do you do with HIV/AIDS? I was a teenager in the eighties and now when I really understand what happened I really just can’t believe it either. Thank you for what you said about my grandma.

      • I started volunteering in the early 1990s with a small social service agency for those living with HIV/AIDS, and ended up as the director for 12 years. I recently retired, but I love the clients and run into them occasionally. In the 1980s I watched some of my writing colleagues die of the disease, and my husband’s business partner from the 1970s and early 1980s also died. It was a terrible time. And now we have all those meds. It’s amazing. But people like your grandmother are the true heroes. That word is overused, but it fits your grandmother.

  5. What a loving tribute. I had a close friend who died of AIDS in the 1990s and wish there had been more like your grandmother to take care of his friends. I’m sure she translates well into fiction.

    • Thank you. I am sorry about your friend. When I taught fifth grade I was part of a project that brought people with AIDS/HIV into the classroom so the students could learn, interact, and not be afraid. One man I worked with died at the end of the year and I still think about him and his bravery.

      • You’re so right. There was either bravery or resignation among some of those men. I knew several who died, but was really close to only one. And he was in denial for a long time–I think because of my kids who were he said the only kids he’d ever had. Now I’m glad we brightened his life.

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