I thought I left comic books behind in early adolescence, however, Jeff convinced me recently to read Saga, an intriguing, often risqué, beautifully illustrated 7-set graphic novel volume based on the comic. So began my sojourn back into the world I left behind, albeit on a completely different level of existence than the fluffy comic books of my youth. While I enjoyed Saga, after hearing her interview on Fresh Air, I looked forward to reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the first graphic novel by Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris. Her personal story of perseverance is remarkable and tugs at your heartstrings, but even without the back story, this book is so incredibly brilliant, I found myself mesmerized. About 15 years ago, Ferris contracted meningitis and encephalitis from a mosquito infected with West Nile Virus, losing her speech and suffering from partial paralysis which impacted her right hand. As a child, she suffered from severe scoliosis, which was exacerbated by childbirth years later, leaving her spine quite vulnerable to infection. Her then 6-year-old daughter duct-taped a pen to her right hand and she arduously retrained her brain and hand to draw. She developed the fantastic, truly unique dense crosshatching technique employed in Monsters many years prior to that. The book is printed on lined paper with a facsimile spiral spine, resembling a typical composition notebook. Ferris used Bic pens to draw the images and Paper Mate Flair felt tips for the text.
My paternal grandfather Abraham immigrated by himself to America in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother Nettie to fend for herself with their firstborn infant, my Aunt Ella, in a small village called Rutki near Lomza, Poland. Once my grandfather settled in NYC, he worked in the garment industry as an embroiderer – the trade he learned in the old country. He returned to Poland in late 1911, already a U.S. citizen – Jacob (my Uncle Jack) was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, he was unaware that my grandmother was pregnant with Dorothy (my Aunt Dottie), who was born in 1913. When World War I broke out, he was separated once again from his family, this time for even longer. He returned to Poland in 1919, moved the family temporarily to Lomza, and worked towards the goal of immigration for his family. Abraham, Nettie, and the three children stepped foot on Ellis Island on April 9, 1921, after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad Sam was the only member of his immediate family to be born in America, in September 1923.
I have recently become fascinated with my Dad’s family, perhaps because many of them are an enigma. I never met my paternal grandparents – my grandmother Nettie died in 1951 at the age of 67 and my grandfather Abraham died in 1955 at the age of 71. My dad is 90 and has beaten the familial odds by leaps and bounds – a 26-year colon cancer survivor; he has been on medication for hypertension since he was in his 40s. I wrote about my grandfather Abraham in my Triangle Fire article. When I was younger I was not that interested in discovering facts about my mysterious grandparents, but with my dad’s own mortality looming on the near horizon, I feel compelled to fill in the missing pieces. The problem now is that my dad’s memories have faded, although some of the facts were probably unknown even when he was a much younger man. My dad was the youngest child and his eldest sister Ella essentially served as a surrogate mother because my grandmother was in a deep depression after immigrating to America – and for very good reasons. She was separated for years from my grandfather, fending for herself and her children and being forced to board a German soldier in her house during WWI. Most of her family died in Poland, either in pogroms prior to WWII or in the Holocaust.