Copyright © 2000 J. Stanley ShawAll rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Chapter 1: The Author as Orphan or How I Came to Write my Memoirs
The building was known as the Castle on the Hill, and I saw it from the backseat of my Aunt Shirley’s sleek brown convertible on the first day I can remember, a cold, gray winter morning in 1933. I wasn’t quite four years old, and the building, surrounded by a low wall of thick, neatly clipped hedges, seemed to rise up on Ralph Avenue like a medieval stone fortress with great towers and a high entranceway from which you half expected to see a drawbridge being lowered.
As my aunt drove around the red brick building, with my mother, Ida, seated beside her in the front seat, and my older brother Sol sitting next to me in back, I could see that it covered an entire city block, stretching back to Howard Avenue and bordered on either side by Pacific and Dean Streets.
Aunt Shirley was my mother’s sister, her rich sister. She was married to Harry Miller, and they lived in a beautiful house with their son and daughter on Long Island, first in the town of Hewlett and then later, after three more sons were born, in Lawrence. I had a sense of the Millers’ wealth as a child because every morning Uncle Harry was chauffeured to the Garment District in a black limousine. In the 1950s, when I became close to my uncle, I learned about his textile business, Miller Fabrics, which operated out of its own sixteen-story building on West Thirty-sixth Street in Manhattan. The company purchased material from the mills down south and then resold it to coat and suit manufacturers in the city, a profitable venture in the days when a good deal of clothing was still being manufactured in the Garment District.
Although I had no memories of living with my parents, I just knew it would be wonderful to grow up with my aunt and uncle. For some reason that nobody bothered explaining to me, my oldest brother, Eli, who was born in 1920, had been lucky enough to move out to Long Island to live with the Millers. Years later I understood that Aunt Shirley and Uncle Harry had taken in Eli to help ease my parents’ financial and emotional burdens, and I wish they had taken me as well, but I guess with Eli living with them, and their own young son and a daughter who was severely learning disabled and required close supervision, my aunt and uncle had neither the room nor the energy to take in more children.
And so on that winter morning in 1933, I found myself wondering where I was going and why I was heading there. My destination continued to be unclear even after Aunt Shirley parked the car, and all of us walked into the enormous brick building. Sol was four and a half years my senior, but he was a quiet, frightened child, and he always stayed close to my side, as though I were the elder sibling.
Inside, we must have been met by someone, and there must have been other people around, talking, saying hello, going about their business, but I haven’t been able to recall any of those details or even conjure up an accurate scene in my imagination. What I do remember is that it didn’t seem like a very long time had passed before my mother and Aunt Shirley put on their coats to leave.
Mother was a short woman with dark, brown hair, merry brown eyes, and a smooth dark complexion. She did have a wonderful smile, but I doubt she was smiling that day, although I have no memory of her crying. I remember that after Sol hugged her, it was my turn. The instant she gathered me in her arms I began to cry and hugged her as if it had to last me forever. She kissed me and held me, and after a while, she tried to let me go. I clung to her and cried and begged her not to leave. Suddenly there were other arms around me, presumably belonging to my aunt and a social worker, and they were trying to separate me from my mother, and I was screaming and crying; my ears were filled with my own noise; and then I wasn’t holding on to my mother anymore. I was standing there and watching her walk away with Aunt Shirley, the two women growing smaller as they moved down a hallway, and then a door closing behind them with what to a three-and-a-half-year-old boy must have been an incomprehensible finality.
Today, sixty-five years after the fact, imagining Mother walking out that heavy wooden door while I stood there with Sol standing silently beside me fills me with such helplessness and loss that I find it difficult to breathe, which leads me to conclude that the age-old assurance that time heals all wounds is not always true.
The name of that Castle on the Hill was the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and I would be under the supervision of the BHOA from the winter of 1933 until the summer of 1939. I have spent tremendous energy during much of my life both embracing and fleeing from those six and a half years, simultaneously trying to remember and forget them, but invariably trying to solve the mystery of what brought me there.
I do not want to make more of this than it is. I suppose everyone’s life, especially one’s childhood, remains in some way hidden from view, lurking behind the overheated feelings and fantasies of children. And for all of us, childhood itself is a mystery that you solve as you become an adult, or rather, a mystery that you must solve in order to enter that psychological realm we refer to as adulthood.
At best, solving this mystery has been a bumpy journey for me, since I suspect that my early years were more mysterious than most. Not only were my circumstances unusual—and in that era, shameful—but as I grew up I was given no ordered narrative to carry into the future by my parents or foster parents or any of the counselors or social workers at the orphanage. No one wanted to discuss it, and taking my cue from the adults around me, I never bothered asking, at least not until the spring of 1996, as I approached my sixty-seventh birthday, and by then many of the significant players in my drama were gone.
Also by that year, I’d had a serious heart attack and a heart bypass operation, and I was the somewhat wary owner of a pacemaker. My experience has been that confronting your own mortality makes you want to remember things—in my case, nearly everything—as though by recalling your life you can convince yourself that you will be able to keep it.
I can’t claim any particular dissatisfaction with my current situation; I consider myself lucky. The late journalist Walter Lippmann defined success as having someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to, and I have all of these things in abundance.
Yet on more than a few occasions—some of them joyous, some of them not—it has struck me that the individuals most responsible for my happiness, for my overcoming the confusion and sadness of my beginnings, know hardly anything about my past, and I am guilty of keeping it from them.
I kept most of it from my wife, Doris. She is an astonishingly practical, loving, and capable person who does not believe in looking backward. For Doris, looking over your shoulder is worse than a waste of time; it is a sin against the promise of the future. But then, Doris’s childhood was far different from mine. At any moment she chooses, Doris can reflect on her generous, close-knit family, and a girlhood full of laughter and safety. Our son, Jeffrey, and our daughter, Lisa, know even less of my life than Doris, and, perhaps sensing that I didn’t care to discuss it, never peppered me with questions about my boyhood.
Part of the reason for this memoir is that I have decided it is incumbent on me to provide a story for my wife and son and daughter, and for my grandchildren, and for the children who follow them. For years now I have carried a typed paragraph with me sealed in plastic, and it reads, "Each of us has roots and the ability to trace those roots. The highest and most powerful motivation in doing that is not for ourselves only, but for our posterity. . . . As someone once observed, ‘There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children—one is roots, the other wings.’ "
I don’t mean to suggest that I am an altruist. This memoir is a gift that I am also giving to myself, so I can look back without fear or too much regret.
I have struggled to piece the facts together, match them with half-remembered images and emotions, and discover whether I am truly remembering or being assaulted by feelings I’d stored in the nether world where we assign our unpleasant memories.
What you have here is the written record, not all of it grim, of that struggle, my efforts to meld the past with the present, to organize my life into chapters and finally to have what millions of people grow up with and thus take for granted—
A whole story I can tell.