My name is Irene Zabytko and I always loved to read and write—even as a kid growing up in the inner city of Chicago.
Reading books was far more important to me than playing with dolls or sports or riding bikes—although I enjoyed those things too, but not as much as visiting my local library, a haven I visited at great risk since it was situated in a violent part of my neighborhood.
When I was able to figure out the bus system, I hopped on one to whisk me farther away from my dilapidated neighborhood to the downtown part of Chicago and inside the radiantly beautiful building of the old Chicago Public Library. There I was allowed to read, wander and dream among the many books for hours without fear and harassment. I pretended that it was my home and the books were all mine and the people there were all my guests.
EPIPHANY AT TWELVE
A pivotal epiphany happened when I was twelve. I took the bus as usual and hurried to the C.P.L. for their annual book sale. Even in the pre-digital era, libraries still discarded many old, unread and perhaps unloved books. I tripped over one. It must have fallen off an overloaded table and scarified itself beneath my scruffy sneaker. I picked it up and was immediately attracted to its robin blue cover made of fine linen.
Curlicue golden script on the spine revealed the title and author: A PECULIAR TREASURE by Edna Ferber written in 1938. I had no idea who Edna Ferber was but was so taken by the book’s beauty that I spent my dollar and brought it home.
I learned from her memoir that she was quite a famous writer. A Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the novels GIANT, and SHOW BOAT, and SO BIG and other books and plays. She was also one of the famous Algonquin Round Table members—those clever artists and writers who inhabited a particular table at a New York hotel restaurant , exchanged catty witticisms, and drank their way to punditry fame.
The truly personal discovery Edna revealed for me was that a woman could be a writer—and make a living out of it! And be as successful as a man! Growing up, I was not aware of writers at all—they were not visible in my neighborhood. And certainly the women I grew up amongst were primarily focused on being wives and mothers—which was hard enough for many of them. But her book instilled in me a germinating possibility of seeking another way of being in the world.
DETOURS LEADING TO FAILURE
It was a soul call that I pursued. But I had many, many detours because I didn’t listen to my inner voice. Instead, I went to college as a pre-med student. A miserble choice! I dropped out, tried again, failed again. Then I embarked on a series of dead end jobs, that led to poverty, and missed opportunities followed by depression, confusion, and bitterness.
But no matter how badly my life was going at the time, I always wrote. It became my anchor and passion and solace.
And then like a sliver of sunlight forcing itself into a dark, chaotic room, I remembered Edna. I thought, why not try to be a serious writer? A real writer? Not a dabbler, or a hack, but someone who wrote meaningful, maybe great things? (Cont.)
The old Chicago Public Library, now The Chicago Cultural Center.
Edna Ferber around the time she published
A PECULIAR TREASURE (1938)
A battered copy of A PECULIAR TREASURE
Copyright 2019 by Irene Zabytko.
All rights reserved.