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Phoning Home

Postcard from Chicago, Illinois

By Jessica R. Rubin-wills

This was supposed to be the summer of my independence.

After growing up in Cambridge and going to college a five-minute drive from my house, I was ready for an adventure. I accepted an internship in Chicago through the Center for Public Interest Careers, arranged to sublet with University of Chicago students I’d never met, and headed off to spend 10 weeks in a city I’d only seen in the movies and on “E.R.”

As I walked among rows of skyscrapers and navigated the El (it’s like the T), there was virtually no chance I would see any familiar faces. I was truly on my own, free to discover a new city, most likely get lost a few times, and see if I could find my way by myself.

Yet after eight weeks, this intrepid Marco Polo has been on the phone with her parents almost every night.

It wasn’t because of cooking emergencies as I tried to feed myself without the assistance of Harvard University Dining Services, nor did I panic because I didn’t know how to change a fuse. And while it’s true that all of our conversations have at some point turned to the Red Sox, I haven’t been calling my parents simply because I missed that “Dirty Water” and needed a connection to home.

Instead, my reasons for calling have been more serious—providing me with a new perspective on the desire for ind-ependence that originally propelled me on this summer journey.

The first reason to call came in early July, when I found out that my grandmother had broken her pelvis and was in the hospital. It was unclear whether she would be able to walk or regain her strength, and any hospitalization for a 90-year-old woman is a cause for concern.

As my family debated whether to go down to be with her in Florida, and as my mother tried to wrangle information on her condition out of the vast nursing bureaucracy, I stayed in close touch. My grandmother slowly learned to walk again at a rehab facility, exhibiting her indomitable spirit and her own powerful determination to live independently.

Then my father called to tell me that my other grandmother had a stroke and was unlikely to last much longer. Her Alzheimer’s had reached an advanced stage, and she had been steadily deteriorating for years. The woman who had maintained an unflappable sense of calm as she raised six sons in a four-room house no longer recognized her own sons or grandchildren when they sat next to her. The woman who had taught hundreds of elementary school students over a decades-long career was unable to read or form a coherent sentence.

We all knew that at some point her body would fail her as well as her mind. Still, the news of her stroke, coming so soon after my maternal grandmother’s health scare, left me feeling painfully aware of every one of the thousand miles that separated me from my family.

My experiment in living on my own continued. I improvised meals that usually involved pasta, bought a commuter pass for my daily trips on the El, and became immersed in the operations of the social service agency where I worked. I explored Chicago’s neighborhoods on the weekends, and I bonded with my new roommates over ice cream and reality television.

But then many evenings I called home, first to receive updates on my grandmother in Florida, and then to discuss funeral arrangements for my other grandmother.

As a newly-legal adult who, if all goes well, will receive a college degree in a few short months, it’s probably natural that I have a strong desire to prove I can be self-sufficient. This summer I have demonstrated to myself that I can take care of my material needs, and I have found the sense of anonymity in a big city more invigorating than overwhelming.

But as I have learned, when family crises occur, it’s important to know that emotional support, and Red Sox updates, are only a phone call away.

Jessica R. Rubin-Wills ’06, a Crimson executive editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. As she continues her quest for independence, she hopes to follow the example of two strong and independent women: Ethel Rubin and Ilene Wills.

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