"Bring Back Tomorrow's Yesterdays" A Memoir of a Blind Child’s Struggles to Overcome Extraordinary Life Challenges By Dana L. Avant About the Author Dana Avant lives in New York City with his two guide dogs, Alf and Aiden. He is a retired social worker who worked for many years in Child Protective Services. His hobbies are reading non-fiction, performing as a vocalist in jazz venues, alpine skiing and travelling. PROLOGUE I was walking out of the apartment building door, and as I emerged from the shadows into the sunlight, I heard the sounds of children’s laughter; children at play.“One, two, pickup sticks. Three, four, shut the door. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty. Catch it over here…Fly ball.” “One, two, pickup sticks. Three, four, shut the door. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty. Catch it over here…Fly ball.” I said to myself, “They’re playing hopscotch. They’re playing hide and seek.” I blurted out, “Can I play, too?” In unison they all answered, “No!” Then one-by-one they each said, “that blind Dana”, “that cross-eyed Dana”, “that cockeyed Dana”, and then they all laughed. I turned away from the group, walked back to the stoop, tears running down my face and dejectedly sat down. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that a heavy-set, black woman, a neighbor, had been witnessing these events unfold. She came over to me, sat down beside me, put her arms around me, took out her handkerchief and mopped up my tears. Then she said, “Don’t cry, baby. Hold on to Jesus. Jesus loves you.” CHAPTER 1 SUGAR HILL – WHERE THE SUN OVERLOOKS THE VALLEY It was a cool spring Thursday evening on May 5, 1948 and I was about to enter the world. I was in such a hurry to arrive that I showed up three months ahead of schedule weighing in at three pounds two ounces. I was a tiny weight, but in actuality I was a heavyweight because I survived the odds that were stacked against me. As I was born prematurely, I began life in an unconventional way. I was placed in an incubator at Sloans Hospital for Women, an annex of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I don’t know what all the hurrying was about; however, I suppose I was anxious to begin life’s jour
There were a lot of things happening in the world in 1948. We were slowly recovering from the ravages of World War II. GIs were returning home and seeking employment, going back to school, and getting married. The Marshall Plan began as the economic and social recovery program designed to rebuild Europe after World War II. The State of Israel was proclaimed, President Truman was in the White House, and a loaf of bread cost fourteen cents. Unfortunately that year we lost Babe Ruth, who was one of America’s greatest ball players. In horse racing, Citation was the Triple Crown winner and Columbia Records introduced the long-playing 33 RPM record. Americans were singing “Manana” by Peggy Lee, “The Hucklebuck” by Frank Sinatra, and humming the theme from “Woody Woodpecker.” Also very popular was the unusual melody of “Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole, and of course “Mr. B” – Billy Eckstine’s “I apologize from the bottom of my heart..."
The dance craze at this time was the Jitterbug. As the big band era came to a close, combos became popular. Latin music and Latin dancing were on the rise. The Mambo and the ChaCha took the country by storm. There were a lot of big box office draws that year such as: “The Babe Ruth Story”, starring William Bendix; “Foreign Affair” with Marlene Dietrich; and “Johnny Belinda” featuring Jane Wyman and Lew Ayers.
Radio was still popular as everyone did not possess or could not afford a TV. The family would gather around the radio in the evenings after dinner to listen to shows such as “The Lux Radio Theater”, “Walter Winchell” and “The Arthur Godfrey Show.” For those who weren’t inclined to listen to the radio, there was always reading. Truman Capote’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms” was popular as was “The Ides of March” by Thornton Wilder. I came into a world that was bustling with activity. In 1948, the world of fashion changed. Paris was then put on the map as the fashion capital of the world. This was the beginning of haute couture and the smart set wore Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and other up and coming famous European designers. This was also the beginning of the love affair that American women still have with the essence of French perfumes.
This was also the beginning of what Jack Kerouac referred to as “the beat generation.” Later on in the 1950’s the song “Like Young” by Andre Previn was the “anthem” that epitomized the lifestyle of that generation. “He drinks coffee at Café Espresso. He reads Kerouac, like young…I keep getting’ the kookiest notion, I think maybe it’s like love. I’ve been feelin’ a crazy emotion. I think baby, it’s like love.
Vacations and leisure time were limited by the means of transportation available during this time. Only the very wealthy were able to afford to travel on cruise ships or airplanes. In addition, air transportation was relatively new and not as easily available to the masses as it is today. People usually spent their leisure time going to nearby resorts like the Catskills of New York, local beaches like Coney Island, Rockaway Beach and if you were lucky enough to have a car, Jones Beach. Churches and social clubs sponsored bus outings to Bear Mountain upstate New York and other state parks that provided barbeque pits for cooking, lake shore property for swimming and boating, and baseball fields among other recreational amenities. On hot summer evenings neighbors brought their folding chairs downstairs and sat on the stoops or in front of their apartment buildings chatting, playing cards or dominoes to escape the apartment heat since this was before air conditioning became commonplace. The children were playing on the block and running to ask their parents for a dime to get an ice cream when they heard the Good Humor truck come around. The teens could usually be found hanging out at the local corner candy store, listening to the latest tunes on the juke box. The adults would frequently have to chastise the teens to “keep that noise down” when the teens became too loud and raucous. Central Park, Riverside Park, and the East River Park were also popular locations to go to escape the heat. A special treat that provided a lovely summer breeze and escape from the heat was a ride on the top level of one of the double decker buses used for public transportation. Sometimes you got an extra bump or two during your ride because the old trolley tracks and cobble stones still lined many of the streets. You could take a ride from Washington Heights down to Battery Park and back and feel as though you had been on vacation.
At the time of my birth, my parents were not aware that I was legally blind. That was discovered when I was around six months old. My mother shared with me an incident when I was a baby being fed in my high chair. My Uncle Lawrence purchased a balloon that was supposed to visually stimulate me. He fastened the balloon to my high chair while he and my mother attempted to get my attention to the balloon.
“Look, Dana. Look at the red balloon…over here. Wow! Look at it go."
My uncle soon realized that there was something wrong with my eyes, as I could not focus on the balloon at all. My mother told me that she began to cry.
When I was born, the hospital didn’t diagnose me as legally blind. It turned out that I had a condition known as retrolental fibroplasia, commonly known as RLF. This condition is a result of being exposed to too much oxygen while in the incubator. RLF is a thickening of tissue behind the lens of the eye, thus preventing light from reaching the optic nerve. Thousands of infants born prematurely from 1945 to 1955 were afflicted with RLF because of the exposure to pure oxygen. Oxygen was administered to premature infants in an effort to help them breath better as their lungs were not sufficiently developed. At that time, physicians were unaware of the potentially devastating effects of the oxygen on the eye and the brain. I believe Stevie Wonder, the talented musician, was also born prematurely and with the same eye condition. Although I am legally blind, I was left with some residual vision, but not enough to function without a variety of support mechanisms designed for the visually impaired. As I got older, my limited vision deteriorated even further. I suppose my mother should have joined a support group, but most likely, there weren’t any around at that time. Knowing my mother and her denial of my blindness, I don’t believe she would have been motivated to join anyway. She should at least have sought some professional help because that was the start of the craziness of treating me as if I were a sighted child. As I grew older, I constantly heard my mother say to me, “use your eyes, you’re not trying.” The nightmare only intensified as I grew older. This made me feel hurt, confused and eventually angry. I did not know as a child who to go to and voice my concerns so I kept this bottled up inside. When I was about 20, I told my stepmother about my mother’s remarks and she said “Puddin’ there’s nothing wrong with you not being able to see, nothing to be ashamed of sweetie. I think you should get a cane because that way people would know that you need help.” The blindness created all kinds of problems for me because I was embarrassed and ashamed to ask for help.
I was the second of two sons born to Myron and Jacqueline Avant. Myron Jr., my brother was ten months older than I was. He also was born prematurely. Interestingly, his care must have been handled differently. Myron was born in Columbia, South Carolina while my mother was on a visit to my father’s Aunt Esther. He was born toward the end of the seventh month and retained his normal eyesight.
My family was living in uptown Manhattan in an area known as Sugar Hill, which is today part of Harlem. A little known fact about Sugar Hill is that James P. Johnson, the stride pianist, had written a score entitled “Sugar Hill”. This play appeared in New York circa 1949 and there is, possibly, a cast album that is most likely out of print today. Sugar Hill is now a landmark status community. I heard that Sugar Hill got its name because of the sugar daddies that lived up on the hill or maybe the quality of life up there was better. Either way it was associated with the sweet and expensive life. The area slopes north from 145th Street to 155th Street and lies between Amsterdam Avenue to the west and Edgecombe Avenue to the east. Sugar Hill was originally a part of Washington Heights. From the top of the hill, on Edgecombe and 155th Street, one could look down – in every way – on the rest of Harlem and its residents. Most of the poor Harlemites lived in the “valley” where there was crime, overcrowding and a host of other social problems. The lower classes would get off the A train at 125th Street, while the middle class would stay on until 145th or 155th. The social differences were obvious in the commuting patterns.
My family resided at 36 Saint Nicholas Place, which is a large two-way street that encompasses several blocks. In fact, the street runs five blocks from 150th to 155th Street. St. Nicholas Place is a major thoroughfare. As a child, I loved roller skating, and the side of the street that I lived on had no crossings, so I could skate from 150th to 155th Street without having to cross the street. This was good for me as I could not have seen well enough to cross the street and avoid the oncoming traffic. If I wanted to go to the store on the other side of the street, I would holler up to Miss Jones, “I want to go to the candy store!” If Miss Jones was in earshot of the window, she would look up and down the block at the traffic and then would yell to me, “Dana, it’s clear; hurry up and run across fast!” She would do the same thing when I was coming back from my candy store excursion.
At the beginning of the street, there was a mansion with a large spiral tower, built around 1888. I learned that the mansion was the home of James Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame. The house is known today as the James Bailey House. It was rumored that the mansion had been used by Germans to spy on Americans during World War II. At the time I didn’t know if this was true or just hearsay. However, these allegations have become a part of the folklore that has been shared from generation to generation. At the northern end of St. Nicholas Place, known as Coogan’s Bluff, were the Polo Grounds where Willie Mays hit manyfamous home runs. In fact, Willie Mays lived at 80 St. Nicholas Place, just across the street from the Polo Grounds in a first floor apartment. I wonder if the apartment was in the front or the rear of the building. It would have been a nice gesture to wave at him if he were at the window.
On one hot summer evening, when a game was in progress, the score was three to nothing with the Giants behind; I could hear the roar of the crowd…“Let’s go, Willie. Let’s go Willie!”
By the 1930’s the smart set lived on Sugar Hill. As Ebony magazine noted in 1946, “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business and literature lived on Sugar Hill.” The list of celebrities goes on and on. It included Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Teddy Wilson, Raul Robeson, Canada Lee, W. C. Handy – (the father of the blues. His most celebrated composition is St. Louis Blues,) Kenneth Clark, and Billy Strayhorn. Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington composed the world famous jazz standard, “Take the A Train.” The black bourgeoisie had their own exclusive tennis club, the Metropolitan, on Convent Avenue. As a youngster, Althea Gibson was coached there. Of course, she later became a future Wimbledon winner and tennis great.
The number 409 Edgecombe was the tallest building in Sugar Hill and considered by many the choicest address. It has been the home of, among many others, WEB Dubois, Roy Wilkins, and Walter White. White’s apartment became known as Harlem’s White House because of the many famous people who called on him. The people who attended the parties thrown there included luminaries such as George Gershwin, Clarence Darrow, Sergei Eisenstein, and James Weldon Johnson. I wonder if George Gershwin introduced some of his famous pieces there such as “’S wonderful, ‘S marvelous” or if he also played “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” or concertized by playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” I bet everyone would have been awestruck and mesmerized. I surely would have liked to have been at that party with good food and stimulating talk. Even Thurgood Marshall, reknown lawyer and Supreme Court Justice of the United States lived in this elegant high rise apartment building. Later he moved to Morningside Gardens, an apartment complex in Harlem in which many of my family members lived at the time. They continue to live there today. There is even a plaque in the community room in the building in which he lived, honoring his many accomplishments achievements. Many of the resplendent apartment houses were adorned with canopies and these buildings, of course, had doormen who were attired in colorful uniforms.
Several parks and historical and cultural institutions, such as the American Indian Museum, Trinity Church and burial grounds, and the Masonic Temple surround the Sugar Hill area. Our illustrious former mayor, Edward I. Koch, is interred in the TrinityCemetery. Koch’s legacy to New York is that he brought the city back from a serious economic downfall during his tenure as mayor. He was well known for his never ending question to every New Yorker, “How am I doin’?” There were many brownstones, bars and restaurants, some of which were famous in their day. The most famous of the restaurants were “Fat Man’s Bar and Grill,” “Sherman’s Barbecue,” and Weekes’ Luncheonette” (of which my step-grandfather was the proprietor). “Fat Man’s Bar and Grill” attracted many celebrities, both black and white where the rich, white, adventuresome sometimes came slumming. Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey and Tallulah Bankhead were among thedistinguished visitors. I learned later that Sugar Hill was the home of many famous musicians and actors. Among them were Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Carmen McCrae (who at one time lived down the block from us at 18-20 St. Nicholas Place.) My stepmother told me that Duke Ellington used to order from the family restaurant and I asked her what kind of food he liked. She told me that he would order fried chicken, hominy grits and scrambled eggs. She told me that many times her job would be to deliver his order.
Bill “Count” Basie said, “Hey Jackie, next time you come, bring Beulah with you.” My mother and Count Basie had a mutual friend, Beulah, in common. I asked my cousin John who lived in Fairhaven, New Jersey who was Beulah. Cousin John said that Beulah was Count Basie’s contemporary and also a friend of your mother’s mother, Una. My mother had gone down south to visit my grand aunt Esther during her pregnancy with Myron. She told me that she ran into some of the guys from the Count Basie band in the street. She was familiar and friendly with some of the band members. I’m not sure whether it was Freddie Green, the guitarist, or another band member who said, “We’re having a dance tonight and we want you to come.” Upon arriving at the dance, the guys were so taken with my mother’s beauty that they were fighting about where she should sit on the stage with them. My mother told me that they sat her in the middle so that everyone could share in her company.
By the time I was born, all the splendor and magnificence had faded and Sugar Hill had become a working class black and Hispanic enclave of professional and semi-professional people. Many of the residents had their origins in the South and in the Caribbean. On Broadway, to the west of us, there was a neighborhood of Puerto Ricans and Cubans. I felt that they lived in the better-maintained buildings. Those buildings had elevators and seemed to have larger rooms. I wonder if there was color discrimination or whether it was a question of economics, since few blacks lived on Broadway or Riverside Drive. Instead they seemed to be confined to the shabbier buildings on the side streets. In general, the apartment houses were walkups, with the fancier ones having elevators.
As I was growing up, the neighborhood continued to decline. The alleys and some of the streets became strewn with litter. The luster and the beauty of the neighborhood began to tarnish like a piece of silver that had lost its glitter.
Weekes Luncheonette, the family store, was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it was a popular meeting place in the community. Uncle Robbie said that the Weekes’ girls – Aunt Winnie, Aunt Delores, Cousin Blossom and my stepmother, Muriel were so pretty that the fellows used to call it “Glamour Manor”. The fellows would vie for a date with the girls. Competition was fierce!!
Some of the Inkspots – famous recording artists – also resided on the block, and a few doors down Jack Washington, alto sax player from Count Basie’s band, lived. Bubbles, half of the vaudeville comedy duo Buck and Bubbles, who were popular through the 1940’s, used to babysit for me while my mother would run errands. John Bubbles was one of the original cast members in Gershwin’s 1935 production of “Porgy and Bess” and he played Sportin’ Life. Wow, just think, I had a celebrity babysitter. My mother told me that on one chance encounter at John Bubbles’ house she met the wife of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. According to my mother’s recollection, “Bojangles” wife asserted that he was often physically abusive to her and she sought refuge at John’s apartment. Buck Washington was an accomplished piano player and he played on some of the final recordings of well known blues singer, Bessie Smith. My mother seemed to know many of the prominent people of Harlem and at one time dated the famous radio personality, Hal Jackson, a popular and prominent disk jockey in the black community. I asked my mother, “Did he live in Harlem?” She replied, “He lived right in the neighborhood on Convent Avenue.”
My father played football with the father of tap dancers Gregory and Maurice Hines, and his nickname was “Country.” I recently learned from my father’s childhood friend, “Top” that “Country” was the coach. I often wondered what position “Country” played on the team. As “Top” was escorting me to a restaurant, we continued to chat and I asked if he also played with the football team and he said yes. I said, “Were they called ‘The Ribbits’?” I shared with him that my Uncle Bobby told me that he and my father on one occasion snuck out of church early and went to Van Cortlandt Park to play football. I chuckled. I said to Uncle Bobby, “DidGrandmother Olida find out?” He replied, “No, she didn’t, thank goodness.” “Top” laughed upon hearing this little anecdote.
At one time the actress Louise Beavers lived two doors away from our Sugar Hill apartment. She used to play the role of “the mammy” in the Hollywood classic films along with Hattie McDaniel, her contemporary. “Top” told me that back in the day there were many famous actors, actresses, musicians and entertainers who lived in the Sugar Hill community.
As previously mentioned, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day. Day or night, passersby would peep into the restaurant to see what “damsel” was working. You might hear Sidney saying to himself, “I’m going to ask Winnie if she wants to go to a movie. Hopefully I can get her to introduce me to her sister, Delores, the one with the freckles.” This guy, Sidney, who I am mentioning is none other than the Oscar award winning Sidney Poitier who was a frequent visitor at the store.
At Aunt Dee’s memorial service in 2010 Uncle Martin was reminiscing about working the red eye shift. He said, “I was 20 years old, barely out of my teens and the guys popped in from none other than Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s band and started an impromptu jam session. I guess a neighbor who was sleeping who wasn’t particularly fond of jazz at 3 a.m. called the police. The police showed up and told the band members “You have an hour to stop this noise!!” I said, “Wow!” Being five years old at the time I had no idea this had ever occurred.
Many musicians would stop by and get a quick bite or a cup of coffee after returning from an all night gig from the jazz clubs downtown. Clark Terry, the jazz trumpeter, frequented the restaurant among other famous musicians. Can’t you just see him with his horn in hand, playing a run as he enters? One of the regulars at the store said to Aunt Joy “Your father tells me you’re studying the piano. If you need any help, just give me a call. You have the number.” This was Edward Ellington, none other than the “Duke” himself, Mr. Duke Ellington who had said this to Aunt Joy.
This was a time when there was a sense of community. People knew their neighbors. Neighbors shared food and helped each other. In fact, our next door neighbor, Ollie Jones, who was from Nassau in the Bahamas, used to make the most delicious black bean soup, which I loved. She always included a portion for me when she cooked it. Joe who owned the grocery store across the street would often give families in the neighborhood “credit” if they didn’t have enough money to pay for the groceries. If it was one item or something inexpensive, he would sometimes let it go. The landlord, if he knew you had a good track record in paying your rent, if you came up short on occasion – five or ten dollars – he would let you make up the difference the following month. This added to the sense of being a tight knit community. At that time people left their doors open and you only locked your doors at night when you went to bed. On hot summer nights, people often slept on the rooftops. During that time, people could travel the New York City subways late at night feeling relatively safe. Women could go out unchaperoned and not have to worry about being mugged or raped.
Stickball was a popular game that kids played. At any moment a game could start up. All you had to do was find a stick and a ball. Most families were struggling to make ends meet and maybe only a few kids in the neighborhood would have a bat and a mitt.
Another thing kids used to do was to build go-carts fashioned from milk crates. The wheels were made from roller skates, and the kids on the blocks would have races. I always longed to have a go-cart, and be in the race and be part of the action, but all I could do was stand sadly on the sidelines and watch with my limited vision, at 8 years old. First of all, since I was visually impaired, I didn’t know where to get a milk crate and I had no one to assist me to build this innovative toy. The adults were too busy, preoccupied with more serious matters. “Dana, go out and play. We’re too busy now.” My paternal grandfather, Papa, whom I lived with, habitually sat in the corner of the dining room doing crossword puzzles. I certainly do not remember Papa ever making the time to come outside to play with me. He probably was too old and didn’t have the energy to keep up with such an active youngster as myself. I believe my grandfather had some mental health issues because at one point he was in a psychiatric hospital most likely due because of my grandmother. I would hear him say, “Woman, shut up!” My grandmother was always talking about “the other woman, the other woman”. She was so domineering and controlling. She wore the pants in the family. She tried to emasculate him with her constant taunts. I thought he was a wimp, but he proved me wrong when he tried to kill her. How could he stay with this woman who berated him on a daily basis?
When my grandmother wasn’t railing about the other woman, she was berating my maternal grandmother. “She put you out at six months and put your crib in the hall.” That was only part of the story. I learned years later that my father was working and refused to contribute to the household. My maternal grandmother was correct in what she did.
The adults, I remember were reading their newspapers, watching “Art Linkletter’s House Party” or “As the World Turns,” America’s longest running soap opera, or cooking dinner, frying fish or baking chicken. Television was a new industry, quickly establishing itself as part of the American fabric. If you could afford a TV, you most likely had a small black and white set in the living room where the family and neighbors sat around watching the popular shows of the day: “I Love Lucy,” “Ozzie and Harriet” (America’s most loved TV family), “Our Miss Brooks,” “Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town,” and of course, “Amos and Andy.” With my limited vision, I could see the images on the screen only by sitting directly in front of the television. However, this would block everyone else’s view. Everybody would become annoyed with me, not taking my special needs into account. I’d often hear them say “Dana, move your big head out of the way.” I didn’t care because the same scenario repeated itself all the time. When the adults weren’t watching TV, they were reading newspapers and magazines such as “Look,” “Life,” “Time,” and “Jet.” I remember “Look” and “Life” had a lot of pictures that I loved to look at. I also enjoyed thumbing my way through my father’s “Jet” even more when I discovered the centerfold, always a scantily clad, voluptuous woman. I was a voyeur at ten years old.
As most children do, when my brother and I weren’t watching TV or playing, we got into some mischief. Sometimes we would use newspapers to make spit balls to throw out the window! One time, I hit our neighbor, Ollie Jones. I suddenly heard Ollie Jones say “Hey! Who did that?” Can you imagine a wet soggy clump hitting you from the fourth floor? I knew I was in for it! Ollie Jones must have seen me but I couldn’t see her. She was furious and ready to do battle. She came upstairs looking for me. I tried to hide in a corner of the kitchen, next to the refrigerator, hoping she would not find me. However, Miss Jones was tenacious in her pursuit, and she looked all through the apartment until she found her assailant. My grandfather, Papa, wouldn’t save me. Ollie gave me a good spanking. It was the custom at the time for neighbors to reprimand neighborhood children. I remember crying, and I guess I deserved that punishment.
Doo-wop, an early form of rock and roll, was popular at that time, and often teenagers would go into the halls to sing it, as the halls would provide an instant echo chamber. You might hear “Ooo baby, baby, doo-wop doo-wop…” echoing down the hallway. After tolerating the off-key singing long enough, indubitably a grumpy older adult would open an apartment door and yell “Stop all that noise!! I’m trying to rest!”
I enjoyed playing a game called “ring-a-run”. That is, I would ring a bell and run away, much to the annoyance of adults. Once in a while I got caught and got a good tongue lashing: “Don’t ring my bell again or else I will tell your grandmother.” I would secretly laugh and walk away smirking. I loved a harmless prank. Sometimes kids in the neighborhood would take the plastic occupant labels out of the lobby directory and switch them leading to mass confusion for visitors. So when you rang a door bell it wouldn’t be the person you were looking for but someone else instead.
Every building had its sentinel, a nosey neighbor. Miss Weaver was ours. She was in her 80’s I believe, and would bring her folding chair down and sit on the stoop. It seemed she did this from morning till night, as she was always there. She would stop the neighborhood adults passing by and gather news. On one occasion, I was making a lot of racket, probably shouting, disturbing her while she was trying to talk. She told me to pipe down. I ignored her and continued with my bellowing. She then said, “Boy do you hear me?” “No, I don’t hear you.” As she picked up her cane to strike me with it, she said, “Boy don’t you sass me!” I was a typical child who liked hamburgers, French fries, and ice cream sodas and occasionally misbehaving. I loved when Halloween came around. It was fun to go with my grandmother or my stepmother to the store to purchase a costume. At one time I was a pirate; another time I was a skeleton. I would be so eager to go out to trick or treat, but before going, my grandmother made sure that Myron and I ate our dinner before indulging in all the candy. “Eat your dinner or you don’t go out trick or treating!!” We got such things as Tootsie Rolls, Mary Janes, Squirrel Nuts, and a variety of hard candies and apples and pennies. It wasn’t like today when wicked people are the real “witches and demons” giving children apples with razor blades inside or tainted candy. Halloween was a real fun kid’s day and parents did not have to worry about what treats their children consumed. The worst thing the children did at that time was mark up your door with chalk if you didn’t give them candy. On occasion, you would encounter a real “goblin” who would answer crossly, saying, “Get away from my door!” and frighten you away. Sometimes the older children would hit the younger children with socks filled with chalk and steal their bags of candy. Fortunately, I was lucky, this didn’t happen to my brother or me.
At Christmas time, everyone would thoroughly clean their houses. I remember my grandmother washing and starching and ironing curtains, and then hanging them on the old-fashioned curtain racks to get the remaining wrinkles out before hanging them at the window. The house was all a bustle with cleaning and cooking. Aunt Esther would come from down south and she would prepare fruitcakes and mincemeat pies, which I didn’t like, but I love them today. But my favorite was the turkey and the apple cider and egg nog that we would drink on Christmas Day. I remember I would wake up Christmas morning and we had a live Christmas tree. I loved that evergreen smell. The tree would be festooned with garlands and ornaments of every shape and size – blues and greens, and of course, the magnificent array of colored lights, and a star at the top with an angel. Before I could open my presents, I would have to eat my breakfast. I would gobble my breakfast down and couldn’t wait to get to the Christmas tree. There’d be so many present for me and my cousins and when my stepmother and father came I got more from them, and when I would visit my mother and her family there would be even more presents. I got such things as a new coat and pants and ice skates and stockings filled with candy and toys, and a record player with records. The neighbors would come over and watch us children play with our new toys. They would be drinking egg nog or something stronger. I would hear my Uncle Bobby say “Lilly, would you like a taste?” and of course, Lilly would say yes. I found it strange for adults to be drinking booze on Christmas morning right after breakfast or maybe that WAS their breakfast lit up like the Christmas trees in the Christmas Blues Song.
In the summertime when it was hot, people used to sleep in the park or on the roofs of their buildings to cool off. In that era, the block was your parent. If you did something wrong, your parents would surely learn about it, and you would get a second scolding, because the neighbor had already admonished you.
Of course, how could I forget the “numbers man” who was an essential part of the neighborhood? People placed bets with him every day. He was as regular as the daily paper. You could always count on him. To some, he was a savior. To others, he was the devil. My grandmother always sought him out. Sometimes she would go next door to Ollie Jones, asking her, “Have you seen the number man? What’s the latest number? Last night I dreamt of the dead, so I’m going to play…” Then Ollie would say, “Play 769; that’s the number of the dead.”
My grandmother was slick and shrewd. She never wanted the “number man” to come into our house, so she always went next door to Ollie’s, because if there was a bust, and the police came, it would be in Ollie’s apartment. Ollie eventually caught on to this and put a stop to it. “Avant, I’m on to you; when you want to play your number, you keep him over there.” My family resided in a fourth floor walk-up, a building without an elevator, in apartment 11. The number eleven would later be significant since there were eleven people living in the apartment, most of whom were children. All I could think of was “The old lady in the shoe”. The apartment consisted of six rooms: a living room, dining room, kitchen, and three bedrooms. Two bedrooms were off the living and dining rooms. The back bedroom and kitchen were off the corridor. Since there was only one bathroom, sometimes we had to use the next door neighbor’s. We would go over to Miss Ollie because Miss Edith Jones in the back was so peculiar we knew she wouldn’t let us use her bathroom.
In the beginning of my life, I lived here in my paternal grandmother’s apartment with my grandmother and grandfather, my mother and father, my brother, and one of my uncles. When I was around two, my mother left us as my parents were not getting along. I learned later that my father was seeing my stepmother who was 17 and didn’t know her beau was a married man. Wesley, my father’s friend, was the person who introduced my father to my mother. My mother Jackie and her friend, Jenny, who was Wesley’s wife met around seven years old when their mothers took them to the park. Una, my grandmother, and Lillian, Jenny’s mother became lifetime friends as their two daughters did. Later on, Wesley’s cousin, Rodman, married Aunt Ruby’s daughter, Una. (We called Rodman and Una “uncle” and “aunt” because the adults did not want children to address adults by their first names. It was a sign of respect.) Wesley couldn’t take the deceit of my father as he knew both my stepmother’s family and my mother. He told my stepmother what Myron was pulling. I don’t know what my stepmother, Muriel’s reaction was; but apparently, she stayed in the relationship. As an adult, I realized that there was something wrong with her behavior because I questioned “Why would you want to stay with a man who was married and lied to you.” I can only assume that she had a poor self-image and low self-esteem. But in the end, it proved not to be a happy marriage. My aunt, Dolores, told me that Muriel could not leave my father because he would have killed her especially with him being a narcotics agent and affiliated with the FBI, Dolores said that Muriel told her that he would “track me down”. This was the time before there were safe houses and shelters for women to go to. Those things weren’t around until 20 or 30 years later.
I was left with my paternal grandmother who raised me. I resented her because of her abusive behavior. As a social worker, however, I have come to understand that sometimes victims of abuse often become abusers themselves. As I grew older, my mother’s absence was never explained to me. One day she was there and the next day she wasn’t. I felt that this disruption in my life was traumatic. As I grew up, I had difficulty trusting people. I was afraid that people would go away, disappear, and not return. There was always a fear of being abandoned. One moment my mother was there and “poof” the next moment she wasn’t.
My grandmother treated the incident as if it never happened, as if it were a normal occurrence. I guess it is safe to say that this was some type of delusional thinking on her part, which defied reality. In essence, my mother was still a part of my life. She did not vanish; she only vanished in her role as primary caregiver. She continued to have contact with my brother and me through weekly visits. She would come to take us out to the circus, the ice skating rink in Central Park or to visit her godmother. If my father was there, he would attack her and start to punch her. I was very frightened by this display of brutality since it happened on numerous occasions. No one ever thought to comfort me or Myron. My grandmother would pretend to be busy at the kitchen stove, seeming to enjoy her son’s assault on my mother while Papa sat in the corner, doing his crossword puzzle, oblivious to everything. What a crazy household for a child to grow up in! Once when my mother, father, brother and I were in the car, my father asked my mother for a cigarette, and she replied, “I don’t have any.” He said, “You’re lying!” The next thing I knew, he was twisting her arm, and she began to cry and we had to change seats so that she was laying across the back seat and my brother and I were sitting in the front with my father. He took her to the hospital, and I imagine it must have been to the emergency room. I wonder what lie he told the nurse and doctor on duty. Again, I was traumatized by the violent assault and did not receive any adult support. I certainly wouldn’t do that to my children if I had any. But it shows that my father didn’t care about how he treated people or whether anyone suffered at the hands of his cruelty.
My mother shared with me that my father took her to a hotel and paid for her room for two weeks. At that time, she had no money or food. The people at the hotel felt sorry for her and fed her. Subsequently, she had to return home to live with her mother. What a low-down, rotten thing for my father to do. But this gives you some insight into how despicable my father was. He even told her “We’re going to get back together soon.” He just played her and strung her along. Either my paternal grandmother did not know how to handle separation and loss, or she had some unresolved internal conflicts herself. Whichever the case, my mother’s departure was never communicated to Myron and me.
Since I was only two years old when my mother left, I do not recall my feelings about her leaving. However, I was confused as I got older, because no one ever explained to me when she left or why. My mother told me when I was an adult that she would catch my father getting up at night around midnight, getting dressed, and going out to see Muriel. That was sneaky. My mother told me that the reason she left was because my father wanted her to polish his shoes, and she said “I’m not going to polish your shoes for you to go and see Muriel.” He said, “When I come back, those shoes had better be polished or you’re going to get a beating.” My mother left and went to Aunt Ruby’s in New Jersey, but her mistake was not taking her children with her. My father cleverly used this excuse to claim abandonment of the children. When I was around seven years old, my father took us to the country house in Amityville with a strange woman and a child who I assume was her daughter. After we got there, my father suggested, “Dana, why don’t you go outsideand play.” Later I came back in and caught my father and this strange woman kissing. Music was playing on the hi-fi and they were having cocktails. What I witnessed was another example of my father’s betrayal of my stepmother since he was married to her at that time. My mother confided in me that Edith Jones, the neighbor who lived in the back apartment said, “Jackie, how did you get mixed up with this family? You do not belong in this family!” I guess Miss Jones saw a lot of the family dysfunction since she lived on the same floor and was frequently in our apartment. I learned the first rules of this dysfunctional household: one, feelings were not shared; two, family members did not communicate; and three, my family did not allow me to admit that I was blind. I had to pretend that I wasn’t blind. In fact, I had to pretend that I could see and that everything was OK in order to function in this family.
I don’t know much about my paternal grandmother’s early life. I know some family members raised her in South Carolina, and later she was brought up by her paternal grandmother in Columbia, South Carolina. At some point during this period, the family moved from Georgetown to Columbia. My grandmother was the firstborn of three siblings: Olida, Earthlene, and Esther. I learned later that Esther was adopted from another member of the family. I was told that my grandmother’s mother had died when my grandmother was around ten years old. I learned through family talk that she was from Oklahoma and there were rumors about oil being discovered on the land. Her father, who was called J.B. (John Benjamin), later married Kate, who was my grandmother’s stepmother. J.B., my uncle told me, was a prosperous barber working in a white barber shop in Columbia when all businesses were segregated. I know that my grandmother and her sister, grandaunt Esther did not get along with their stepmother, Kate. It appeared to me that they did not get long with her or with each other. I always remember my grandmother and Aunt Esther arguing about something. My grandmother would ring a bell and demand “Esther, fix me something to eat and fix my bed.” Esther would reply, “Just who do you think you’re talking to? You have no maids here!” Sometimes it was petty. They would argue about who lived where down South and how many children they had. However, I know they were two sisters who were very much devoted to each other. As evidence of this, Aunt Esther would always drop whatever she was doing to come and take care of my grandmother when she was ill. Once when my grandmother fell down the stairs and broke her leg, Aunt Esther said “I’ll be on the next train.” Kate, J.B., my grandmother (before she got married for a second time) and my grand aunt resided in the family house in Columbia. J.B. died a few years before I was born.
The relationship between my grandaunt Esther and my grandmother gave me an indirect sense of family. At least there was a sense of some commitment between them. However, I never felt this sense of family and closeness actually included me. No one had ever come to take care of me when I was sick. My father didn’t come, my stepmother didn’t come, and my mother was not allowed to come. So as a child, I had no sense of family commitment or belonging in my own family. This left me feeling insecure. I knew there was something lacking with my own parents because they were not there taking care of me. As a child, I did spend some time with Kate. My grandmother, brother, and I would visit her and great aunt Esther during the summer months.
Later on, my grandmother married Robert, also from Georgetown, South Carolina and they had three children: Lawrence, Myron (my father), and Bobby. When my grandparents first got married, they lived with Papa’s mother in Brooklyn, New York, and later got their own apartment in Harlem. I don’t know why Papa’s mother didn’t raise him or why he was raised by his uncle, Reverend Becote. I wonder if his parents were actually married.
My grandmother felt Harlem was not a suitable location to raise her budding family because of the violence and fast life of the roaring twenties. So they purchased a house in South Jamaica, Queens, where they thought they would be able to live comfortably and raise their family. That never happened. Shortly after my grandparents moved in, the Klu Klux Klan burned a cross on their lawn in the wee hours of the morning. Suddenly my grandmother and grandfather awoke from their sleep because they thought they heard some commotion outside. ‘GET OUT NIGGERS, GET OUT!!” As their bedroom was on the second floor in the front of the house, they peered through the shades and were dumbfounded by what they saw. They were horrified and frightened to death by witnessing four figures wearing white sheets. The leaders of the Klan shouted “WE ARE GOING TO GET THESE NIGGERS!” Then they lit a torch and set the cross ablaze. Just as they came out of nowhere, they mysteriously vanished into the silent darkness. My grandparents, who were terrified by the ordeal, rounded up the children and abruptly moved back to Harlem,where they lived for a number of years before moving to the apartment on St. Nicholas avenue in Sugar Hill. They thought they had left the racism behind in the South, but why did Harlem seem more desirable to them? Perhaps because they had no other options.
My grandaunt Esther was a social studies teacher and was on vacation for the summer. When school ended we would join her and Kate with my grandmother at the family house in Columbia. Aunt Esther had obtained a Masters’ Degree in Education from Columbia University in New York, which was extremely rare for a black woman in the 1930’s. She was one of the highest paid teachers in her field. At that time, the schools in Columbia, South Carolina were segregated and it was difficult for a black woman to succeed. I can only surmise that the educators saw her talent and commitment to teaching and wanted the best for their black school system. Grandaunt Esther firmly believed in education, and she instilled this in me. “Stay in school, Dana; study hard and get your education.”
Years later when I was in college, and working during the day, I would voice to Aunt Esther how tired I was of working and going to school simultaneously. Aunt Esther would encourage me by saying “Old Top, stay in school. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. You won’t regret it.” She would comfort me by helping calculate how many credits I had already completed and point out that I was in the home stretch and didn’t need that many more. Aunt Esther had a heart of gold and never had a cross word to say about anyone. She would always look for the positive.
The trips down South to Aunt Esther’s house were uneventful. I do recall that the trips on the train, the Silver Meteor, were quite long. We started early in the morning and arrived late at night. I was a young child and very tired of the train, the travel, the many stops along the route and everything associated with the ordeal. I grew tired of hearing the conductor say “All aboard, Raleigh North Carolina” and hearing my grandmother tell me “Stop all that moving around. Sit still in your seat.” It was quite hot in Columbia during the summer. I remember experiencing the fright of my life in an electrical storm. Although we were inside, in Aunt Esther’s home, the thunder and intensity of the storm were furious. The thunderclaps and bolts of lightning were like a raging battle between two powerful forces. As a young child I was terrified and wanted to escape the fury of the storm and sought comfort on my grandmother’s lap. I was glad when it was over.
Aunt Esther had a big house. In fact, it was two stories high. There were screened porches both upstairs and downstairs and the downstairs porch had a swing that I loved to rock in. Sometimes I even stood up in the swing. But I had to be careful that Aunt Esther did not catch me. For if she did, I would surely get a scolding because I couldn’t see well enough and I could have gotten hurt.
The house was on a main thoroughfare that was called Barnwell Street. The house was large. Upstairs there were three bedrooms and a big bathroom. Downstairs there was a formal living room that was used for company with an upright piano that I loved to bang on. There was a second living room that the family used. There was a spacious dining room with a walnut table and matching sideboards. The kitchen was adjacent to the dining room and it had two stoves, one wood burning and the other was a gas stove. Aunt Esther cooked on both stoves simultaneously, perhaps standing between them and cooking on both at once. I would often ask Aunt Esther, “What are you cooking?” She would reply, “You’ll find out later, run along Old Top” (That’s the pet name she would use for me.) I don’t remember everything that she cooked or what we always ate. However, she was always in the kitchen and quite busy. I do remember I especially loved to eat her okra, corn and tomatoes, a Southern staple. I also lived the muffins with walnuts and raisins that she baked and also her canned peach preserves. While Aunt Esther was cooking, Myron and I played on the porch and outdoors with the neighborhood children.
I don’t remember eating her fruitcakes at that time, but as an adult, I really enjoyed them. In fact, she taught me how to make them. I followed her recipe to the letter, and I believe mine were as delicious as Aunt Esther’s were, and maybe even a little bit better – I spiked mine with brandy and rum!
As far back as I could remember, my brother and I were driven down South by my Uncle Lawrence in his car or traveled on the railroad with my grandmother. Uncle Lawrence, who was not yet married, used to babysit for my brother and me. I have vivid memories from when I was three of Uncle Lawrence carrying me on his shoulders to the nearby subway station at 155th Street to visit his friend, a token clerk. After reaching the subway station, my uncle and I would descend the steps into the dimly lit station where my uncle would greet his friend. They talked of adult things and I became restless. The token clerk, magically it seemed, produced tons of packages of penny gum out of nowhere, which I eagerly devoured. After a short interlude, my uncle would take leave of his friend. I would hear him say, “OK Scribbin, I’ll see you later.” and we would return to the apartment. In the mornings, before Uncle Lawrence went off to work, I remember he would often warm up my bottle. I was four years old and still drinking from a bottle.
One day, my father dropped in, as he was no longer living with us, and noticed that my brother and I were still drinking out of our bottles. After he noticed this, he asked my grandmother in an angry tone, “Why are these children still drinking out of these bottles?” He took the bottles from us and broke them. He smashed them in the sink so that my grandmother would not be able to retrieve them for once he had left the house. He knew his mother. I cried. I thought this act was very cruel. I felt he had no understanding of children and their development. He had an impulsive personality and acted immediately without thought for others. Now I feel that my brother and I should have been weaned off the bottle gradually.
In addition to my mother, I have a stepmother and lots of relatives on her side. My stepmother’s family was from Jamaica, West Indies. The immediate family consisted of my grandmother Nettie from Jamaica, grandfather Wilfred who was from Barbados, and their six children: Aunt Dolores, Uncle Robbie, Aunt Winnie, Uncle Martin, Aunt Joy, and my stepmother, Muriel. There were a host of other relatives: Aunt Carrie, Uncle Syvan, and their daughters Pattie and Barbara (who resided in New Rochelle, New York) and Aunt Georgie, Uncle James and their children – Myron, Henry and Blossom. Aunt Carrie always had family reunions with lots of food and drink, where everyone seemed to have a grand time.
My stepmother’s family resided at 517 West 159th Street in Washington Heights in Manhattan. The apartment building they lived in was a tenement building. It was a five-story walk-up. At one time there were two apartments to a floor, but later the apartments were divided into four apartments to a floor. I guess the landlord realized that he could make more money by subdividing. I can imagine that the building, in its heyday, was splendid. That would have been when Washington Heights was inhabited by wealthy German Jews. In front of the building, I think there were a canopy and two tall posts with lights on either side of the entryway. What a grand entrance it made! Our apartment was once a ten-room apartment with a grand salon and each side of the salon was flanked with French doors. To the right was the dining room and to the left was the library. The bathroom was a former pantry. I always thought it was strange to have a bathtub against a circular wall so that you could only get into the bathtub from the front and not on the sides. There was a hollow window over the kitchen sink that was boarded up. I think that window must have opened up onto the pantry. My stepmother told me that when they got the apartment the neighborhood was mostly white with only a smattering of blacks. She told me that when my grandfather went to rent the apartment, the landlord assumed that he was white because he was of fair skin with straight hair. Little did the real estate agent know that he was actually black, from Barbados, and of mixed parentage. He certainly fooled them! This is what black people call “passing”. Shortly after my stepmother moved in, she had an encounter with a white resident who verbally assaulted her by asking, “Nigger, what are you doing over here?” Needless to say, in 1942, not too many black families lived west of Amsterdam Avenue.
As I noted earlier, my step-grandfather and grandmother, Muriel’s parents, had their own business, a fast food restaurant called “Weekes’ Luncheonette”, named after the proprietors, Nettie and Wilfred Weekes. The luncheonette was a popular meeting place in the community as it was adjacent to the 155th Street 8th Avenue subway. All my stepmother’s siblings were expected to work in the family business, or do some type of chore in the home, as my grandparents were employed full-time at the store. Occasionally, my stepmother worked in the family store. When I was small, my father would take my brother and me to the store and Muriel would give us candy or gum. I loved that. My stepmother told me that her job growing up was to keep house as she couldn’t cook and would either burn or ruin the food. Later on, out of necessity, as she had to raise Myron, my younger brother Wayne, my sister Myra, and me, she became a good cook. I especially liked her baked chicken and macaroni and cheese.
With all the comings and goings at the store, my Aunt Dolores met Sidney Poitier, who often visited the store and became friendly with the family. I think that he got a date with Aunt Winnie before he was able to get a date with Aunt Dolores. Aunt Dolores and Sidney became friends, and then later engaged. My grandmother Nettie soon put an end to this relationship as she felt Sidney would not be a suitable mate for her daughter with his career as an actor. I wonder what ever happened to the black and white photos of Aunt Winnie flanked on either side by Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. No one in the family seems to know where those pictures are. I remember taking them to school when I was a child and showing them to my teacher. The legendary acting duo, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, also knew the family from the store. At one point when my Aunt Dolores, who was newly married, was having a hard time with expenses, Ruby and Ossie paid her rent.
Education was very much valued in the Weekes’ home. In fact, most of my uncles and aunts were already attending college and seeking professions. Aunt Winnie later earned a doctorate degree in psychology. She also was the recipient of a Fullbright Scholarship. Aunt Winnie was “drop dead” gorgeous, and she had a role in the film, “La Dolce Vita” in which she is playing guitar in a party scene. Aunt Dolores became a clinical social worker. She attended Barnard College, the women’s division of Columbia University on an undergraduate and graduate scholarship. Her achievements were reported in both the New York Daily News and the New York Times. In fact, she was the first African American to be admitted to Columbia University School of Social Work in 1950. As an adult, I followed after her and joined the ranks of Social Work. We had many interesting conversations discussing social work issues and my unhappy childhood. She knew the cast of characters and was empathetic to my situation. My father rarely interacted with me which added to my unhappy childhood, living with an abusive grandmother, a henpecked grandfather, along with my uncle and his four children in a dirty apartment that was seldom cleaned. My blindness coupled with all this dysfunctional pathology added to my misery until age 10 when my stepmother rescued me from my grandmother’s home. Later, I was able to address these issues through therapy. I complained to the therapist, “I’ve been coming for three years. Why is it taking so long?” The therapist’s reply, “You’ve been living with these issues for a lifetime. You can’t expect them to be resolved overnight.” Part of the problem was to develop trust and relate to the therapist and feel comfortable in a therapeutic environment. Trusting people was one of the major issues I dealt with for my entire life. This most likely came from separation and loss. Eventually, I was able to open up to do the necessary work to heal. I went through a lot of pain, a lot of anger, and a lot of tears all of which is natural and to be expected in a therapeutic relationship.
Uncle Martin became a lawyer and later on an Assistant District Attorney. Muriel, my stepmother, became a beautician, as she did not want to go on to college. I learned later that she had dropped out of high school in her senior year because she was cutting classes and running around with my father. In fact, Grandpa Weekes went to school and had her withdrawn because he didn’t want his daughter to be labeled a truant and wind up in Juvenile Hall. Besides, he knew Grandma Weekes wasn’t going to do anything. My stepmother became self-employed and later became a licensed examiner for the state of New York. She administered the examinations for those seeking to enter the beauty profession. Uncle Robbie and Aunt Joy were serious piano students and both attended Music and Art High School. Uncle Robbie continued to play in small groups consisting of bass, piano, and drums. A few times as an adult, I even sang with his trio. In the 1950’s Uncle Robbie won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. He told me that the tune he played and won with was “Begin the Beguine”. I learned that the Beguine was a French dance that was popular in the French Caribbean Islands. That really is tropical splendor and I love that Cole Porter tune. Uncle Robbie also played for the legendary rhythm and blues singer, Ruth Brown.
I remember my father reminiscing about how they used to have Sunday dinner with Sidney Poitier. I remember when I was nine years old stopping by Sidney’s home in Mount Vernon, New York on the way from my cousin Barbara’s wedding. However, I was told he was not home as he was away making a movie. I wonder what movie he was filming.
Harry Belafonte, the famous calypso singer, I learned, was a third cousin on my stepmother’s side of the family. I never met him, but I do know that he once was in love with Cousin Blossom. She was so pretty, fair skinned with long dark hair down her back. What a gem! Aunt Joy told me that Harry wrote across the tenement wall in the hallway “Harry loves Blossom”. I asked Aunt Joy, “When was this?” She said probably around 1950. I do have recollections of his brother, Dennis, who would come to holiday dinner at my grandmother’s house. Uncle Robbie told me that he and Dennis had collaborated on a song, but he said they never finished it.
Muriel, who was working as a beautician, had Sundays and Mondays off. She would come to my grandmother’s house faithfully on Mondays to take Myron and me out. Sometimes we went to the Museum of Natural History or the Hayden Planetarium. Other times during the summer we went to the pool or to visit Aunt Dolores or to the movies.
At one point, Muriel told me, when I was five years old, she had taken Myron and me to the Indian Museum on Broadway at 155th Street. While she was showing Myron something in the museum, I decided to go off on my own. I was climbing a statue, which the security guard did not like. “Little boy get down. You have to control your child better than this.” There was no point in explaining my visual impairment. I later years, Muriel explained that I climbed the statue in order to feel what it looked like, as I could not see it. This was embarrassing for her I’m sure, but not for me. We both laughed about the incident later. Thank goodness, today there are tactile exhibits for blind people, and I have experienced them hands on at several museums. In fact, I am currently a member of the Historical Society of Staten Island, New York where I am sometimes allowed to touch cups and plates and other artifacts on exhibit. Having this tactile experience makes the exhibit real and come alive for me. I feel this is much more powerful than the visual display. Much more needs to be done, however, since so many museums do not offer a tactile experience for the blind.
Muriel soon realized that she would have to tailor her time with us differently so that Myron’s and my needs could be met. She began to take us out separately as my blindness required special consideration. She was wonderful about this. My stepmother was the first member of my family who allowed me to be comfortable with my blindness. She allowed me to talk about not seeing which helped me to adjust to being blind. Sometimes she took me to a toy store where she described the toys in the glass cases. On one such occasion we purchased a blue toy automobile. “Do you like it, Puddin’?”
Another time my stepmother took me to the zoo where I remember seeing big elephants with their long trunks. I was scared of them and held my stepmother’s hand very tightly saying, “Let’s go.” She replied, “OK, we’ll go, don’t be afraid; do you think I’d let anything happen to you?”
During this time I continued residing at my grandmother’s house. I was very unhappy. At times, she tended to be cruel and mean spirited. If my brother and I asked to stay up a half hour beyond our bedtime to watch TV on a school night, she would arbitrarily say “No!”
Sometimes my grandmother got very angry and when she did, she could scream the house down. She communicated mostly by screaming. It was only when I went to live with my stepmother that I learned there was an alternate and more pleasant way to interact with people that did not involve screaming to communicate. I wonder where my grandmother learned this most unpleasant behavior. Anyone in earshot from the lobby could hear her from the apartment on the fourth floor. She had a strident pitched voice and was quite imposing. She stood five feet eight inches tall in her stocking feet and had a rather large frame. All she needed was a few warts on her face and a broomstick. As a young child, I was frightened and quivered because of her fierce temper. “Where’s my broom?” She would sneak up behind you when you least expected it. There seemed to be no place to run or hide because I knew I was going to get a whack and no one could save me or comfort me from this terrible onslaught of anger. Rebecca, my grandmother’s friend, told me as an adult that she and my grandmother had gone to the green grocer on Amsterdam Avenue. My grandmother, always wanting to have the advantage, would wait until the grocer turned his back and add more string beans to the scale. But he caught her and said, “I don’t want your money. Just take the string beans, get out of my store, and don’t ever come back!” Rebecca said, “Olida, why would you do that?” I laughed until I cried when I heard the story, knowing how sneaky my grandmother was.
At times my grandmother would be railing, and calling my stepmother “everything but a child of God” or “that West Indian bitch”. About this time Muriel would appear at the door and greet my grandmother, my brother and me. Olida, my grandmother, would mute her temper and transform her voice into a sweet, soft, sugar coated welcome saying, “Muriel, it is so good to see you!” (Sarah Bernhardt, you missed your calling!) My stepmother told me years later when I was an adult that she had heard my grandmother from the first floor, hearing everything she said. My stepmother ignored my grandmother’s angry outbursts and did not take up the challenge. I guess she was sparing Myron and me from experiencing yet another argument. I experienced many arguments at my grandmother’s house where she was the center. As I got older, I adjusted to her outbursts.
My grandmother was inflexible when it came to eating. I disliked hominy grits and scrambled eggs. Daily, she would prepare this dish and force me to eat it. “And you sit there till you finish it!” Very rarely did she allow me to eat something else. This felt a lot like living in an orphanage rather than in my Grandma’s house. The important thing to take into account is that I needed nourishment. It shouldn’t matter what I ate, be it breakfast food or otherwise, as long as I would not have to go to school on an empty stomach. I can remember the unpleasant routines of breakfast ending up with my crying all the time and all the way to school. She made me sit there until I finished eating. Today I abhor hominy grits and eggs. Wonder why?
As I grew older, I became a little bolder and wiser. In fact, I always had a ready-made answer for her, and she nicknamed me the “Answer Man”. I guess this was a self-protective maneuver as my grandmother tended to rule with an iron hand. I did not eat everything that she put on my plate. I seized the opportunity when she left the kitchen to open the kitchen window and throw the contents into the alley below or give it to Blitz, our pet boxer. However, all of the food did not reach the ground all the time. Instead, it sometimes landed on the neighbor’s sheets and clothes hanging on the clothes lines below. In those days, it was inconvenient for people to go to the Laundromat to dry their clothes. It was easier and cheaper to hang them from the window to let them air dry. Miss Powell, the neighbor living beneath us informed my grandmother, in no uncertain terms, of what my brother and I had done. “Miss Avon, your grands threw food out the window and it landed on my clean sheets!” Naturally, my brother and I blamed each other for the misdeeds. Although my grandmother scolded us and hit us, our food dumping did not stop. I know Miss Powell must have been furious, especially after washing the clothes and hanging them on the line to dry. Not being able to see, all I knew was that I was getting rid of that awful food.
Eventually the food incidents got back to my stepmother and father. I believe they spoke to my grandmother in an effort to modify her behavior. Nevertheless, she was as stubborn as a mule and did what she wanted to anyway. I refused to eat and often went to school crying on a half empty stomach.
My grandfather, Papa, was a very kind and loving grandfather. However, most of the child rearing was left to my grandmother. Papa was passive in some respects, until he got angry. My grandmother used to harass and chide him about an affair he had 20 years before I was born. She always nagged him about “the other woman, the other woman” and my grandfather would reply, “Oh woman, shut up!” She never forgave him for the affair. Here I was hearing the same story 20 years after it had happened, like a constant echo or a broken record. In fact, at one point, she irritated my grandfather so badly that Papa tried to kill her. One day, Papa had had enough of my grandmother’s recriminations about other women. This particular day, Papa told her to shut up – and, of course, she wouldn’t. Papa proceeded to the kitchen and returned with a butcher knife and said, “Woman, I will cut your throat!” My grandmother fled in terror to Ollie Jones’ next door screaming, “Get the children,; get the children! Robert’s trying to kill me!” I, being blind, thought that their bickering was just routine. Not sensing the immediate danger, I only became alarmed when Miss Jones ran into the apartment, snatched Myron and me by the arms, and dragged us into her apartment and bolted the door.
Papa, as I mentioned earlier, sat in the corner in the dining room and read his newspaper and worked on his crossword puzzles, keeping out of harm’s (my grandmother’s) way. Papa didn’t talk a lot. He seemed rather quiet and, subdued. If you talked to him, he then seemed to come to life. He was quite animated and spirited once you got him going. He reminded me of a wind-up toy. Once the toy wound down, it became lifeless again. But all in all, Papa was a kind person. I don’t recall him working a great deal when I was small. I’m sure he was glad to escape from the house for a little peace and quiet, away from my grandmother’s overbearing nature and volatile temper. Don’t misunderstand me; I loved my grandmother. However, I just could not live under her roof. You never knew when she would erupt.
There were good memories, such as Easter when my grandmother made sure all the Easter baskets were filled with lots of candy and Easter eggs, for all her eleven grandchildren. However, I was extremely glad when I became old enough at age ten to go and live with my stepmother and father. My brother Myron and I wouldn’t need as much adult supervision. Hurray! My stepmother knew how unhappy I was and arranged for the move herself. My grandmother tried to sabotage the move by not sending our clothing. She had a secret wish that it wouldn’t work out and that her “babies” would soon come back toher. My stepmother, after asking for the clothes a number of times, dropped the issue and went out and purchased each of us a brand new wardrobe.
I did feel sorry for my grandmother. I know it must have hurt her to see us leave after raising my brother and me from infancy to ten and eleven years old. She would often try to manipulate me to feel unwanted by my stepmother so I would want to go back to her. In fact, when I would visit with her she would tell me that once my expected brother was born my room in the new house would be shifted to the garage. Naturally, I was very upset and told my stepmother. My stepmother Muriel said, “You don’t say those kinds of things to a child!” She became infuriated. I begged my stepmother not to do battle with my grandmother about this issue. I knew that this confrontation would create turmoil and confusion and knowing my grandmother, she would deny everything. My stepmother, obliging me, consented. “OK Dana, I’ll drop it.” The threat of being banned to the garage added to my feelings of insecurity as a child. That was a mean thing for my grandmother to say, but so characteristic of her need to always be the Queen Bee.
I still don’t know today how I survived the terrible ordeal of living with my grandmother. She was so overbearing and intrusive. Before I could finish talking, she would complete my sentences for me. In later years, I expressed my thoughts and feelings in therapy and to Aunt Dolores, my stepmother’s sister. I told her I felt as if I were being “swallowed up”. I don’t know how I didn’t become schizophrenic. Aunt D replied that there were enough supportive people around me to prevent this from happening. That was very encouraging. My aunt was warm and sensitive and knew just what to say. That was the therapeutic intervention of Aunt D, social worker.
My grandfather, Papa was very kind. He didn’t yell the way my grandmother did and always seemed to be even tempered. When he did lash out, it was at my grandmother, not at Myron and myself. He seemed to come from a more tranquil environment. I don’t actually know much about his background. However, I know that he was raised by Reverend Becote and his aunt Martha in a town called Society Hill a subdivision of Darlington in South Carolina. In the census, his aunt and uncle listed him as a son and in another census he was listed as a nephew. It seems that the Becote and Avant families were intermingled. Some were listed as white and others were listed as mulatto. He had two sisters, Sarah and Caddy, and a brother named Sidney. I understand Sidney deserted the family when they were having a hard time and moved to Chicago. I don’t know anything about his lineage or what became of him.
Papa often told me about his experiences during World War I in the trenches of France. He would say, “You better not stand up, or your head would be blown off” or “Watch out for grenades and booby traps.” And I would ask, “What is that?” I enjoyed listening to his stories. One of Papa’s first jobs was working in the post office. He was fired for embezzling money and BJ, my grandmother’s father, had to pay someone off to make the charges disappear. At one point, before I was born, Papa worked at Abraham & Straus Department Store, an upscale department store in Brooklyn, New York. I believe he was a maintenance man. Later I also learned that he was employed as a handy man at the Cotton Club, the famous nightspot in Harlem where white people from downtown would come to see black entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington.
Winnie, who was the sister of my father’s best friend, Wesley, sang with Duke Ellington’s band for a short time. Winnie was often mentioned by famous New York City newspaper columnists, Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell, as “the most beautiful woman in Harlem”. Winnie was married to Stepin’ Fetchit. He played the role of the subservient houseboy in several movies of the time, including one of the “Our Gang” series. At that time it was very difficult for black actors to obtain legitimate roles on the stage and in the movies. If they wanted to work at all, they would have to accept stereotyped roles, such as butlers and maids. I found the buffoonery that black entertainers had to endure very upsetting. Bobby Johnson, Wesley’s brother was a dancer and his father was a red cap – a Pullman porter – and in his spare time started one of the first amateur black baseball teams. From my mother Jackie’s account, most of Wesley’s siblings, including Bobby, Stretch, Winnie, and Shirley knew a lot of people in show business. In fact, their mother was an ex-chorus girl from the Cotton Club. My mother told me that, as a teenager, she was friendly with Wesley’s sister, Shirley. Shirley was married to one of the “Step Brothers”, a famous dance duo that was popular during the 40’s. My mother still remembered the rows of autographed pictures of celebrities that hung in the hallway of the apartment.
But now let’s talk a little more about Stretch. Stretch, who was the oldest son, whose real name was Howard, became an educator and social activist. He in the truest sense was a man for all seasons. Stretch had a short stint as an actor and played a role in the famous Clifford Odetts play, “Waiting for Lefty”. Although he was a Communist and traveled around the world to a number of Communist conventions, he later became disenchanted with their ideology and left the Party. During World War II, he joined the Buffalo Soldiers, a segregated unit where he won two Purple Hearts. He went on to earn a general equivalency high school diploma, then a degree from Columbia University. Stretch later taught sociology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. When he lived in Hawaii, Stretch founded an African American newspaper. Stretch’s uncle, James Anderson, was the founder of the Amsterdam News, a prominent weekly black newspaper which remains one of New York City’s most influential. I met Stretch on only one occasion, which was at his brother, Wesley’s funeral and wish that I had had more opportunity to get to know him as the family spoke often of him.
I didn’t have much information on my father’s relationship with his father, Papa. I know that at 17 my father lied about his age to join the U. S. Army to escape the confines of his mother’s (my grandmother’s) house. My father joined the Black National Guard and the troop was federalized in 1939 or ’41. I do know that he served on active duty in the Pacific Theater in World War II where he received the Bronze star for heroism in battle. He also was in the Korean conflict. In total, he received 15 medals from his war days and retired from the Army as a full Colonel. I never knew any of his old war stories or how he achieved the medals because we were never close enough to talk about his war days. My sister shared with me that all I had needed to do was ask him – but by that point, it was too late. We never established a “father-son relationship”. There was no father-son camaraderie. I couldn’t play catch with him like other boys, but I’m sure he could have found other things that we could have done together. He was distant and didn’t know how to be a father, especially to a blind son. I must have been a disappointment to him. He would always remain in thebackground, elusive and out of reach to me. He was always focused on his career and it seemed that his family took second place. I do remember, however, the slides of Korea and Japan and the Kabuki Theater that he would show us and the stories of sleeping in the cold with rats gnawing on his feet. At the time of my birth, he was a postal worker at the General Post Office on 33rd Street in New York City, the main post office in Manhattan. He completed his education at Cuyahoga College in Cleveland, Ohio and attended the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After leaving the Army, he became a narcotics agent with the FBI and later became a special agent of the Criminal Investigation Division. He was one of the agents who worked on and broke the infamous “French Connection” case and the “North Avenue Irregulars” (where members of the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, New York, confronted the Mafia, resulting in numerous arrests and convictions). I never even knew of these achievements until I read them in his obituary.
I never realized how scary his work was until I was much older. I guess I was lucky to have my father home for dinner. Police families have to live with the uncertainty of never knowing whether their husbands or fathers will return home. Although we weren’t close as adults, he did show some paternal concern. He would come over to the house to help me with various chores such as assembling a computer desk or drilling the holes for my curtain rods. But there was very little communication between us. If we had a conversation, it would usually be about music or more specifically about jazz. It was never about us.
Of course, when he was home, he barked too many orders – just like the colonel he was. “Dana, take the garbage out! Don’t walk around in your bare feet! Where are your shoes? Clean up your room! Go wash your face…” My parents’ friend Avis used to laugh and call my father “the big noise from Winnetka” which was a popular song during the 1940’s. I was always glad when my father left on assignment and tranquility would once again reign.
My father was a strict disciplinarian, and very methodical about how things should be done. On occasion, he returned home from work in the wee hours of the morning, and when he found dishes in the sink, he awakened the whole house to find out who the offender was. When he learned who had committed the infraction, the guilty party was roused out of bed and marched down to the kitchen to do K.P. (Kitchen Patrol). Sometimes I was guilty, and I would have to obey the order. It did not matter the day or the hour. Although this would make me angry, I dared not utter a word for fear of reprisals. After being awakened in the early hours a few times, I soon learned to clean up after myself. From my father, I learned discipline and a sense of responsibility. In my thirty years of working, I developed a strong work ethic, which resulted in a recommendation for two merit increases in salary.
My relationship with my father was tenuous. I felt that he was not available to me as a child. My stepmother told her friend Eileen who was former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton’s ex-wife that when we were babies he was good to us, but as we grew older, he withdrew. I feel that he may have had a problem with intimacy himself because of his relationship with a domineering mother in establishing closeness with us. I wish that he had spent more time doing things together with me and my brother to build a father-son relationship. Instead, as Eileen wrote in a case study about my family that she undertook for a psychology course, he treated us as “enlisted men under his command”, always barking orders. Eileen witnessed how differently my father interacted with my younger siblings as opposed to my brother and me. She wrote that “the same love, tenderness, patience and tolerance that Myron exhibited toward his son and daughter was not evident where the older sons were concerned.” It is sad that our relationship was not a positive one. I sometimes think that my blindness played a negative role in our interaction, causing my father, subconsciously, to have difficulty relating and interacting with me. My father tended to interact more with my sighted older brother, Myron. This experience left me feeling abandoned and isolated. My Aunt Dolores has told me that she remembers me being treated as if I were invisible.
The lack of support that I felt would continue to grow as I grew up. If you don’t receive nurturing from your family, where are you supposed to get it? I can remember being hurt by my stepmother and father who were not interested enough to show up at open school week. At one point, I even suggested that I babysit my younger brother and sister so that my stepmother could attend this event, but she appeared to be uninterested and preoccupied. My aunt later told me that my stepmother was preoccupied because of tension in her relationship with my father – my father kept long hours, was often away from home, and was in general a part time husband and father. The stress was, in part, due to his womanizing.
My stepmother’s words, which I have discovered recently in reading her friend Eileen’s term paper, resonate with the pain we all felt. “I am at the point where I like the idea of Myron not being home; as a matter of fact, everyone feels more relaxed and happy when he isn’t home. Most husbands bring tension into the home, but Myron looks at us as his possessions. He never took the time to encourage his son who is legally blind. He won’t talk with the boys as some fathers do. The older sons resent him, but the blind son keeps trying for closeness with his father. Myron withdrew from his children when they reached the age of twelve. They had problems the same as all teenagers but he just blocked them out. He never talked with us as a family unit; instead he used me as his ‘top sergeant’ to carry out his orders. When I tried to talk to Myron in private, he remained adamant. I have decided since Myron was not able to communicate with us as a family, I will do things my way. I will continue to teach the children right from wrong without being intimidated or fearful, and I will continue to help his sons to the best of my ability. I am tired of Myron’s dictatorial attitude.”
My father did not want my stepmother to work after they had two children together. He felt she should be home raising the family. Looking back, I believe that the fulfillment that work can bring would have been very rewarding to her. My stepmother would have been a better wife and mother if she had been able to continue working after my younger siblings were born. Knowing my father and the type of person he was, I recognize now that it was all about control. He did not want my stepmother to have any financial independence. That way she would be tied to him and subject to his rule. Being a dutiful wife of her time, she obeyed. It definitely took a toll on her. She began to eat out of frustration. She slept a lot – she was depressed. In fact, she said to her friend Eileen that “my husband doesn’t care about my feelings or the reasons why I am not happy. I don’t have the energy to care about anything anymore. I don’t care about not going out to social functions with Myron; as a matter of fact, I don’t care if he has a girlfriend. I’m not interested or curious. I don’t see myself as a hard person but rather as a soft person who has lost herself. I know I have become more intense and I find myself crying more and more…I don’t feel like myself anymore. I am lost as a person.” My stepmother used to read a lot, and I felt this was an escape mechanism for her everyday pain. As Eileen writes, “Muriel’s complete withdrawal from the outside world has her friends, sisters and brothers and her children very worried. Muriel’s day consists of reading endless novels, looking at television, and confining herself to a small area in her living room.”
My aunt Dolores shared with me the struggles my stepmother had with my father regarding work. She explained that he definitely did not want her to work as he felt her role was to take care of the children. However, when my stepmother began to raise my brother and me, my father had no objection to her working and she did, continuing her career as a beautician until my younger brother, Wayne was born. When I was a teenager around 18-19 years old, my father did consent to letting my stepmother go back to work, part time on the weekends. He felt that at this point I would be able to handle my younger siblings. This arrangement was short lived. I believe she worked about a year, if that. My father made it as difficult as possible for her, finding fault with her housekeeping and anything else imaginable to sabotage her independence. She would do her housework before going to work, cleaning every inch of the house – including waxing the floors and preparing that night’s dinner, but he still found reason to complain. Eventually, she stopped working in order to please him.
When I was in my 30’s, I asked my stepmother if she wanted to go back to work. “Dana I don’t have the desire or strength any longer.” She could no longer stand on her feet, and her hands were crippled with arthritis, all of which made it impossible for her to work as a beautician. I really felt pain for my stepmother. I’m sorry she didn’t have an opportunity to be fulfilled.
Over the years, the tension between my father and stepmother began to affect my relationship with my stepmother, and the chasm between us just kept becoming bigger and bigger. I don’t mean that I was mistreated, but I began to feel emotionally neglected. It seemed we had reached the point of no return and the relationship was never the same after that. I wish my parents had the insight to get help for me and follow through on it because I saw a social worker briefly at the Lighthouse which is a rehabilitation agency for the blind and they told my stepmother that they should enroll me at the Payne Whitney outpatient clinic for therapy – nothing ever came of it until I sought help as an adult when I was in social work school. Nowadays, the issue would be addressed with therapeutic intervention.
Family life wasn’t all bad, however. There were some good times. I remember going to Jones Beach as a child on several occasions. My parents had a country house nearby in Amityville, New York. We went back there to shower and have a light dinner before returning home to the city. Sometimes on these beach outings my parents’ friends, Allie and Burt and their children, Tony and George would come along. We always had lots of fun. When we went to the water, the adults would have to escort me, as I did not see well enough to go down on my own. The beach was often crowded, and I would inadvertently step on blankets and worse – on people. My victims had no way of knowing I was blind and they would often get quite upset. “Watch where you’re going. What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?” Once I got to the water, I could hear the crowds having fun. I knew when a wave was coming by the pull of the tide and shrieks of the people. I would brace myself, but I would be swept along with the crowd. Sometimes I would sit in the water and dig my feet into the sand. Occasionally, I would find clamshells with my toes. I would have so much fun at the beach just sitting there, listening to the crash of the waves and feeling the spray caressing my body. And there was always the promise of finding another clamshell.
In the summer of 1958, we took our first family vacation. My parents took my brother and me to Canada. I remember being very excited about our three-day holiday. We started early in the morning about 5:00 a.m. I eagerly got up and dressed and was raring to go. It was warm outside, and my brother and I sat in the back seat of my father’s Cadillac. My stepmother sat in the front. We drove for several hours, and around 8 o’clock, we stopped in Kingston to have breakfast. I ordered pancakes and bacon that I hungrily wolfed down. After breakfast, we continued our travels. This was when I got bored, and the ride seemed to go on forever. During this time we played games such as geography with my parents. Also, my father old us some riddles and recited tongue twisters like “rubber babies rubber bumpers” and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Inevitably, my brother and I became restless and began to fight, as all children do after getting bored with listening to the car radio. My stepmother said, “You sit on this side, and you sit on the other side, and if I hear any more out of you, I’m gonna slap you both.”
Finally we got to Canada around four in the afternoon. It was great to be in Toronto. We stayed at Le Fountain Bleu on Jarver Street. I loved it – it was a nice hotel, and that was my first time staying in a hotel. I liked our room. It was a living room suite with two beds and two additional beds that folded out of the closet. This was the first time I encountered a Murphy bed. I was afraid to sleep in it. I told my stepmother that the bed might fold up with me in it. She assured me that it was safe and that everything would be all right. That’s what she said but I felt differently. I think there was a Laurel and Hardy movie where Oliver Hardy somehow got folded up in the Murphy bed and I certainly didn’t want that to happen to me. I remember that we all showered and got dressed in our finest clothes to go to dinner at a neighboring hotel. That was the first time that I experienced a buffet. There was so much food: turkey, herring, roast beef, chicken, an assortment of vegetables, potatoes, and rice. I wanted everything, as all kids do. My father later commented, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” I enjoyed the gastronomic delight.
The next day we went sightseeing. I do not remember what we saw, but I do recall visiting a stadium and seeing a stage show as well as seeing the movie star Danny Kay perform ‘Hidey, Hidey Ho” which was Cab Calloway’s signature song.On the last day of the trip, we visited Niagara Falls and toured the Cave of the Winds. We had to use an elevator to go down into the rocks and stand on a ledge exposed to the spray from the falls. I said, “I’m afraid to go down in this elevator. Will we be swept away by the current?” My father said, “We’ll be ok.” We wore plastic raincoats supplied by the business. I liked the feeling of the spray hitting my face and the roar of the falls crashing into the rocks. We took pictures and saw several tour boats passing. My father told us to wave at the passing boats. All too soon, we were back in the car on our way back to New York, bringing our family vacation to an end.
One thing I had in comment with my father was the love of music. My father played the saxophone and was a jazz enthusiast. I guess I inherited his love of music because of my exposure to the big bands and jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. My father would play their recordings on the stereo. Music was therapy for me. It was like a hypnotic drug, something I had to have every day. It helped fill in the hours of loneliness because I did not have a lot of friends in the neighborhood and missed the support of my father and family. The music provided solace like a friend would. This shared love of music could have been the means through which my father and I could bond.
My father had a musician friend, Harry Carney from Duke Ellington’s band, who once visited our house. I was not a jazz enthusiast at that point; when I was older I remembered Harry’s visit and wished that I have been mature enough to appreciate his presence. I certainly would have talked to him and learned about him playing in the bands as well as his experience since I was interested in pursuing a career in music.
My father’s voluminous collection of records is invaluable. I wish I had had the opportunity to listen to the many records he had while I was growing up, but he would not allow me to use his records. He knew that sometimes I damaged my records by scratching them. He feared that I would not handle his records carefully. Fortunately, my father was not just a music lover but was also handy around the house. Occasionally, I would go down to the garage and listen to him solder the arm back on my phonograph. “Dana you are too careless with your record player. This is the third time I have had to solder this arm back on your phonograph. Slow down and take your time.”
When I was much younger, I was living with my grandmother, grandfather, their grown son, and my Uncle Bobby, in a fourth floor walkup. My uncle soon married Aunt Mamie and started his family. His children came rather quickly, and in no time there were a number of us living in this six-room apartment. My Uncle Lawrence, whom I am named after, was divorced and gained custody of his five children and brought them to his mother to care for. At that time, there were 11 children: Myron, Dana, Debra, Charlotte, Roslyn,Raymond, Jimmy, Rita, Kathy, Jerry, and the baby, Sylvia all living in the apartment. Out of the 11 children, there was a set of twins, Roslyn and Raymond. Jimmy and Sylvia were the youngest. I don’t remember who did the cooking or cleaning, but I certainly didn’t envy their job.
The apartment was dusty, dirty and filled with mice and roaches. I don’t remember anyone ever dusting the furniture or the blinds. When the vacuum cleaner broke, it was never replaced. If you put your glass down, when you took it up again, you might find a roach in it. My bedroom was off the dining room, but instead of being a comfortable bedroom, it was filled with boxes from the floor to the ceiling. There was no dresser or table to store personal effects. Even behind the bed and under the bed there were boxes!! My grandmother’s room was just about the same. The furniture was old and dilapidated. I never saw anyone vacuum the sofa or heard my grandmother say, “Let’s get a new living room set.” the sheets on the beds sometimes had holes in them just like the washcloths and towels that looked like something that should have been torn up and used for rags or better yet, put in the garbage. My grandmother would deliberately tell my father that my mother never did anything to help with the housework, and of course, he believed his mother. My mother said that when it was a nice day outside, “I’d take you children to the park and stay all day into the evening just to get away from that house.” I asked my mother if the two grandmothers ever visited. My mother said, “Dana, the way your grandmother Olida kept her house, my mother certainly didn’t want to visit her or have her come over to visit.” So it seems that my grandmother could never be trusted to tell the truth because whenever she gave you information, there were always facts missing. Never the whole truth. Ms. Jones, our next door neighbor said, “When Avant tells you something, cut it in half!” Sometimes in the afternoon Ms. Jones would come over and chat for 15 or 20 minutes. She always sat on the couch across from my grandmother. “Come here, Dana; let me see you. Avant, he’s getting tall. He’s gonna be tall. Avant, take these rags off these children. Where are their clothes?” I heard this many times from Ms. Jones. My grandmother had a habit of saving our “good” clothes that we received for birthday and Christmas presents stored in the closet. By the time she would put them on us, we had often outgrown them and they were too small. At my tender age, I had no idea that my clothing was so worn and shabby that it wasn’t even worth salvaging to donate to any cause, not even the Salvation Army. Sometimes Ms. Jones would take me shopping with her to the neighborhood supermarket. At the end of her shopping, she would buy me a box of Cheezit crackers. In the evenings, I would go over to her house while she was watching television shows such as Dinah Shore or Bing Crosby. I would sit on the love seat next to her and pull the bobby pins out of her hair. Her long hair would cascade down her back. She would then give me the brush to brush her hair. I must have been no more than 6 or 7 years old. We repeated this ritual many times. She was the grandmother I wish I could have had. My grandmother was really a mess. What a piece of work she was!
In the kitchen cabinet, there were chipped, mismatched cups and saucers and some of the dinner plates had big cracks across them. My grandmother couldn’t cook and the food was tasteless with no seasoning. Let me tell you about the diet; she prepared baked beans from the can, fried pork chops, rice and nasty tasting spinach from a can. When she made fried chicken, the batter would be falling off. And oh my goodness, it seemed that whatever was left in the refrigerator was in the soup that she called “homemade”. What a greasy mess. My Aunt Mamie, Uncle Bobby’s wife said that the soup tasted like dishwater. I mentioned to my cousin Cathy that the food tasted like slop, something you would feed to the hogs. Thank God, with my mother’s family, I learned how to differentiate between tasty and unappealing food. My maternal grandmother prepared things like roast beef, baked potatoes, asparagus, roast chicken, things I dared to dream about in my paternal grandmother’s house but that I knew she could never prepare. She only used the oven twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas when she would roast a turkey. I never saw anyone clean that oven.
The environment was reminiscent of a Dickens novel with the exception that there was no child labor and it wasn’t a workhouse. It is amazing that the beds were made because there were always dirty dishes in the sink. My grandmother would wash the dirty dishes in hot water, but without soap so that there were always remnants of food left on the plates. I found this practice disgusting and unsanitary. The kitchen was filthy. I cried constantly to be left in this wretched, squalid place. There was no place to go. My father didn’t seem to care because he left us there. When I grew older, I had such hatred for him as a teenager, I wanted to poison him. For a child to have these feelings towards a parent indicates that it obviously is not a good relationship.
My grandmother, who must have sometimes felt like the “Little Old Lady Who Lived In the Shoe…” would get a headache at times with all those children. She would have to wash and iron the clothes, clean the house sporadically, and keep the children in order like a mother hen. Sometimes we children would get rather noisy. She would say “Stop all that noise.” Sometimes there would be tension in the house. My grandmother would get into an argument with her son or daughter-in-law and there would be shouting and door slamming. “Bobby, why don’t you take your children and get an apartment?” And he would respond, “If Myron’s kids can stay here, mine can stay here too!” There was definitely sibling rivalry between my uncle and my father, and they were adults. My father imitated his mother’s actions of favoring some children over the others as in his actions towards me. I was the least favored child. As an adult, I can now understand Uncle Bobby’s rivalry as I experienced the same thing with my own siblings. My grandmother just wanted her sons to reclaim their children and establish independent homes for them so she could have peace of mind.
We children thought it was great living together, in spite of the mice and roaches. Sometimes mice took up residence in the bottom of the piano. My grandmother’s friend, Rebecca, came over one evening to sit and chat, and when a mouse popped his head out from the piano, she said, “Olida, I’m going home. You’ve got mice in this piano!” Rebecca sprinted down the hall and scurried away home, just like a mouse. Just imagine your own sweet grandma running away. I thought it was hilarious; I laughed and laughed. She definitely didn’t want to hear any music, at least not “Mickey Mouse music.”
Speaking of mice, I remember we played a lot and would sit around the TV and watch the “Mickey Mouse Club.” My grandmother used to tell my cousin Roslyn to shut her mouth as she sounded like a foghorn. I always used to laugh at my grandmother’s incongruous reference as Roslyn’s voice was shrill. Today I still tease Roslyn about it.
Aunt Esther, who I mentioned previously, was not married and lived in the family house in Columbia, South Carolina. Her stepmother Kate had remarried and moved out. Aunt Esther assumed custody of my five cousins when their father, Lawrence, stopped working, got divorced, and began drinking heavily. They moved down South with her, as the job of caring for and supporting them was too great a burden for my grandmother. I missed my cousins after they moved away.
My grandmother’s friend, Rebecca, told me as an adult, that my Uncle Lawrence quit his job as a New York City Transit Clerk because he did not want to pay alimony to his wife, Aunt Gwen. This is when he began to drink heavily. When I would go with my father to my grandmother’s house on occasion, my father would say to Uncle Lawrence, “Get a job, man! You’re a bum.” My grandmother in her usual contrary way always chose the wrong side and supported my uncle wholeheartedly and allowed him to live off her.
Once again, Myron and I were left in the apartment with my grandmother, grandfather, Uncle Bobby, Aunt Mamie and their four children. Uncle Bobby played an important role in our lives. He would always include us in his excursions with his family. We visited the circus, the zoo, the beach, and drive-in movies. If it were a hot night, he would pile us all into the station wagon and take us to the Whitestone Drive-In Movie Theater in the Bronx. On one particular evening, and I believe there was a quota on how many viewers could be in the car, I remember my uncle telling my cousins and me to “get down on the floor” so the cashier wouldn’t be able to get a correct count of how many kids were in the car. We managed to squeak by and get in. Kids emerged from every opening in the car; so if people near us had seen what we were doing, it might’ve been funnier than what was on the screen! It was reminiscent of the clown car at the circus where the clowns just keep piling out. Once I got my popcorn and soda, I was content to listen to the movie, as I could not see the screen. Eventually I fell asleep and when I awoke, we had arrived home. I asked my uncle what happened in the movie and he said, “You fell asleep.” But I really wanted to see “101 Dalmatians” and that ended my night at the drive-in.
My father and stepmother were both working and Uncle Bobby helped to fill in the gap. My mother, Jackie, was still in my life. We saw her on Saturdays and Sundays. She came to get us and take us to her mother’s house (our maternal grandmother, who we called “other mommy”). We often went there and spent the entire day with “other mommy” and grandpa. My mother attempted to be a real mother on the weekends by planning excursions for us like ice skating, trips to the beach, visiting the circus and going to the movies and the zoo.
When my mother would come to pick up my brother and me at my grandmother’s house, we would be all bundled up in leggings and woolen gloves and matching heavy coats with hoods. I hated that. They always seemed to dress us alike and we weren’t even twins. We were almost identical in height and weight, so our clothing was, for the most part, interchangeable. Of course, we would always fight over which clothes were whose. This continued until we were about eleven or twelve years old. I was glad when I could finally assert my individuality. Then I no longer had to hear that annoying question, “Are you twins?”
After my mother picked us up, we got on a bus and went to Central Park near the zoo, where there was a little skating rink for the children. I don’t think that more than a couple of children could fit in that little rink. Having not yet learned how to ice skate, I was not able to keep my balance and it seemed that I spent the whole time at the rink holding on to the railing for support or falling down onto the cold, hard ice. Even at the age of six, it seemed silly to go around in a circle. The real treat for me was at the end of the session when we stopped at the zoo cafeteria, got a hot dog, and then visited F.A.O. Schwartz.
I loved that toy store, but it seemed that they had so many toys and huge stuffed animals, like giraffes, that I could only look at and not touch. My mother told us that she could not afford to buy us any toys there because they were too expensive. In the end, we walked away empty handed and disappointed, with sad faces. It was upsetting that my mother didn’t have the money to buy us anything. It seemed to me that it was only a toy store for rich children and looking back now, I realize that I was right; but I loved going there anyway.
During the separation, my mother moved back home with her mother on West 158th Street. Later on, when I moved in with my stepmother, I lived around the corner from my grandmother. After the divorce, my mother got her own apartment. There was a lot of physical violence when my mother would come to pick us up on the weekends. My father often abused her. She would be crying and say, “Stop, stop”; using her hands as a shield to defend herself. But she was no match for this bully. Naturally, witnessing these repeated incidents of domestic violence traumatized me. I was scared as my father was quite tall and very forceful. I saw him punch my mother and I heard her cry. I heard his fist hit her and heard her trying to fight back, but she was no match for him. My grandmother, who was often nearby in the kitchen, would hear the commotion, but did nothing, pretending to be busy at the stove. I don’t know what the fights were about, but it seemed that whenever my mother came to pick us up, if my father was there, there would be a fight. When I was older, my mother told me that when he was already married to Muriel, he would drive over to Queens and stalk her in his car. Years later, in therapy, I was able to talk about the trauma and handle the pain associated with it. No one in my surroundings helped me deal with this traumatic experience, which frightened me. The violence seemed to escalate. At one point, my mother told me that my father tried to throw her out of the window of our apartment house on one of the staircase landings. I felt that my grandmother could have or should have done something about the situation. I saw that my grandmother liked to play people off against each other, and relished the role she played in fomenting discord; she was evil. I believe she enjoyed the violence handed out by my father in some sadistic way.
In that era domestic violence was not deemed a crime or a social problem as it is today and if the police were called, they often sided with the husband, while the wife was victimized. Today there are laws prohibiting domestic violence and there are support programs and services available to both men and women. I know this from my experience as a social worker.
My mother was now living in her own apartment in a three-family house in East Elmhurst, Queens that her cousin’s husband owned. At that time, my mother’s cousin, Una, who is my second cousin, began to have children near my age: Roddy, Elyse, and Susan. We saw our cousins on a weekly basis and enjoyed their company. Later, after we moved in with my stepmother and father, we continued to visit my mother and her cousin’s family.
So there we were, Myron and I, old enough to commute back and forth to Queens on the subway on our own. Sometimes Myron and I got lost and would have to get help from strangers. It was all right back then because the world was a safer place and it seemed that nobody bothered children. On one occasion, we got off at the wrong stop on Continental Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens, and we had to backtrack several stations to get the connecting bus that would take us to our mother’s house. Another time, we almost ended up on the bus to LaGuardia Airport. It was confusing because at the bus terminal there were so many local buses going in all directions. We were glad and relieved when the journey finally ended successfully at my mother’s house. She greeted us with comforting hot apple turnovers and hot chocolate.
Sometimes Myron and I did not want to go to our mother’s house when our stepmother and father were going out and we could not join them as a family. We couldn’t join them because we were obligated to visit our mother weekly. At times, this created tension. I was torn between three families and I did not know where I rightfully belonged. I didn’t know to whom I should make my allegiances. One good thing about having three families was that, when Christmas came, we were assured of getting a lot of presents. It was as if we had a direct pipeline to Santa’s workshop, and we were in excellent standing with him. I often wonder what became of the myriad of toys that were given to us. I searched for years without success for my beloved Christmas present, my Bell Organ in my parents’ home. I loved that organ because of its bell sound. I wish I still had it. If you remember the Frankie Avalon 1959 hit recording “Why” then you know the sweet sound of theBell Organ. I remember there was a sequence on the Perry Como Show with the Emine Bell Organs being played while people danced with hula hoops. Perry Como was a barber who became a crooner and had a national network variety show.
My stepmother reminded us that we had to visit our mother. “Come on boys, no crying, you have to go.” While we were at my mother’s house in Queens, we played with the kids on the block. We played tag, hide and seek, and rode their bicycles. My mother’s neighbor, Blanche, who lived up the street, was a dancer who appeared in many stage shows such as the Cotton Club and other Harlem venues. Her husband, Charlie Shavers, was a virtuoso swing time jazz trumpeter who was often featured on the Jackie Gleason TV show. Charlie wrote the tune “Undecided” that Ella Fitzgerald and many others recorded. He also played on many of the early Billie Holliday recordings in the 1930’s. He was a prominent member of the John Kirby Sextet and a member of the Tommy Dorsey Band. It’s sad that Charlie died in 1971 at the age of 51. What a great talent we lost. My mother told me that she went to see Blanche and offer her condolences. The house was filled with numerous celebrities such as Honey Coles. She added that her job was to collect the sympathy cards and money that people offered and keep them in a pillowcase like bag. My mother said that the bag was filled to capacity. She said that she also answered the phone. She told me, “Dana, I almost dropped the phone when Frank Sinatra called.” Blanche also had a famous cousin, Pearl Bailey, whom I met twice. The first time I met Pearl Bailey, I was around eight years old – old enough to realize that she was somebody special. I was playing up the block with Blanche’s nephews, one of whom was named Ward. The boys were visiting their Aunt Blanche from Virginia. Blanche called Pearl to the window and said, “Pearl, I want you to meet somebody. You know my neighbor down the street, Jackie? This is her son.”
“Hi,” Pearl said. “What’s your name?” She sounded just like she did in the movies and while I cannot quite remember, she probably called me “Doll” and “Sugar” just like she did on the stage and screen. “My name is Dana,” I replied. “How old are you?” “I’m eight. I saw you in the movies, and I liked your picture.” She played a maid named Gussie in a film entitled “That Certain Feeling.” This was a Bob Hope vehicle introducing child star Jerry Mathers, not yet famous, who later would become “the Beaver” in the “Leave It To Beaver” television show.
“Oh, I’m glad you liked it,” Pearl said. “Nice meeting you. See you later.”
And that was that. I met Pearl one more time when I was eleven on a visit to the Apollo Theater with my father and stepmother. We went to see Count Basie and Della Reese, of TV’s “Touched by An Angel.” Blanche and her troupe were featured dancers that Sunday afternoon. Blanche noticed my brother and me in the audience and she called us up on stage for the finale. At first I was nervous and didn’t want to go, but we finally went on stage. And there was Pearl once again. So along with other children, we danced with Pearl. I distinctly remember taking her arm and twirling her around, as if I was a junior Fred Astaire.
As we got older, our relationship with our mother grew worse. I found it difficult, since my mother tried to be a full time mother one day a week. She would yell and tell me that I ate like a pig. “Look at your nails,” she shouted. “They are filthy!” It seemed that she had no understanding of adolescents growing up. Sometimes boys go through stages when they don’t want to bathe or change their clothing. All my mother seemed to do was nag, nag and nag. In addition, she didn’t take us out. So we would just sit in the house week after week. Eventually, my brother and I rebelled and refused to go. When it was time to go to my mother’s house, we started to cry and said that we weren’t going to go. My brother said, “You can beat me. I don’t care what you do. But I’m not going.”
“You boys are old enough now,” said my father. “And if you don’t want to go, I’m not going to force you.” This was the beginning of the separation of my mother and her family. No one stayed in touch and this hurt me. Did we just disappear? More about this later. I found the situation at my mother’s house mostly unpleasant – as I had a “mother” at home. I certainly did not find my mother’s nagging endearing. In fact, it repelled me.
When I was eight, my father gave my mother custody of my brother and me for the summer vacation. That was the worst summer I have ever had in my entire life. At that time, I don’t know if my mother was drinking heavily but I do remember her having a few drinks. I had asked my sister if my mother’s drinking had anything to do with my premature birth. She told me that my father said, “Jackie drank like a fish.” My stepmother told me when I was older that my mother was an alcoholic and I feel this impacted our relationship and her unavailability to me. In fact, her drinking became so bad it almost caused the collapse of her second marriage. She was referred to Smithers, the well know treatment center in Rhode Island for alcoholics.
During that summer, my mother was so mean. Sometimes she would put me under punishment. Sometimes it wasn’t clear for what reason. One time I remember having to sit on the milk crate on the steps outside the house and I wasn’t allowed to get up or play with the other children. But my brother was allowed to play. On another occasion, she tried to teach me how to tell time. She had constructed a clock face out of cardboard with simulated hands to show the hour and the minutes. I could not understand how to read the hands on the clock. For some reason, I couldn’t distinguish the function of the big hand versus the little hand. Although she showed me many times, I still got the time mixed up. My mother became infuriated with me, and she beat me many times and I would always be crying. It’s amazing that I didn’t become traumatized about learning how to tell time. I doubt very much if I learned how to tell time that summer. At least I can say, years later she did get help for her alcohol addiction. My mother’s drinking had gotten so bad that she had blacked out and an ambulance was summoned to take her to the hospital. My stepmother related this story to me years later after she heard it from my father. It seems that my father’s friend, Wesley who was a policeman, heard the call on his radio while on duty that day. Even after I became an adult, my mother continued to act out negatively with me, constantly fighting with me and having no consideration of my limited vision. There were so many incidents; I can’t remember them all,
The end of that summer when I returned home to my grandmother, I was so relieved to go back to where I was at least left in peace, even though I was unhappy. My grandmother would rant and rave about my stepmother, “that floozy” while she was sweeping or ironing clothes. At least I wasn’t being hit or tormented and I would sit on the floor, playing with my blocks.
I don’t have a lot of information about my mother’s side of the family. I do know that my grandmother and grandfather, Una and Jack Skaggs, were married in 1925. However, they divorced and my grandmother was remarried by the time I was born. The reason they were divorced was because of my grandfather’s alcoholism and his physical abuse towards her. My mother told me that my grandmother would have to flee the house in the dead of winter, in the dark when it was snowing and run up to the roof in her nightgown to avoid his beatings. My mother’s godmother, Aunt Savannah, told me that Jack was hospitalized at Bellevue for the drinking. He got so bad, he got the D.T.’s, delirium tremens; this condition results in an acute mentaldisturbance due to withdrawal from alcohol, marked by sweating, tremors, anxiety, and both visual and auditory hallucinations. I learned that my grandfather, Jack, came from Texas and that he was part Indian. My mother told me that she saw a picture of my grandfather’s father and in the picture he had long hair flowing down his back, which was characteristic of an Indian.
I remember Grandpa Skaggs was very kind. He also appeared to be very tall, at least in my eyes. I recall Grandpa Skaggs coming to visit Myron and me at my paternal grandmother Olida’s house where we were living. Grandpa would always come with a pocket full of change. He would always pick my brother and me up in his arms and give us a “great big hug”. Sometimes, he would give my grandmother money to buy us ice cream. One time, he brought ice cream for Myron and me, and some of our friends. My grandfather put me in charge of sharing the ice cream. There were so many children; it seemed as if he treated the whole block to ice cream. I enjoyed my role as the ice cream man, deciding to whom I was going to give ice cream. I heard the chorus of children shouting…”Give me some, give me some.” I remember handing Dixie cups to Gregory, Johnny, Delores and all the kids.
After Myron and I moved in with my stepmother and father, we lost track of Grandpa Skaggs. I really loved Grandpa! The next time I saw him was at his wake and funeral. I was 15 then and I was very sad. Some of his friends were present at his funeral and they shared with my father, brother and me how he always talked of his grandchildren. One of his friends, a lady, told my father that Jack would often lovingly speak about his grandchildren. She went on to say “We don’t know what happened to the insurance policy.” That’s because there was talk of an insurance policy being left to Myron and me; however, the policy was never found. I never met any relatives of my grandfather, so I have no idea whether I have great aunts or uncles. Also, I know nothing about his parents.
On my mother’s side of the family, my grandmother Una had a sister, my grand aunt Ruby who used to reside in Fairhaven, New Jersey. She died at 94, just a few months before her 95th birthday. I know that Una’s mother, from Nevis in the West Indies, had died at 49 and I heard she had a difficult life trying to raise her two daughters alone. I heard through family talk that they moved often. At one point, my grandmother and Aunt Ruby lived in Canada. Later on, my great-grandmother Sadonia, my grandmother and Aunt Ruby settled in the Red Bank, New Jersey area. My mother told me the few facts about her family history that she knew. I believe that my grandmother also had a brother named George who was a valet to New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia during the 1930’s. Later on my grandmother married Paul Roane. I don’t know a great deal about his family, but I do know that he had a daughter named Paula and that his family was one of the first graduates of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Howard was one of the first all-Black universities in this country. In fact, my mother has his diploma. It is somewhat faded, but my mother plans to restore it. Aunt Ruby had two children, Una and John. Aunt Una, as I mentioned, had children around my age and Uncle John started his family when I was about 12 or 13, so I didn’t get to know my cousins Denise and Joy well until I was an adult. Uncle John’s wife, Aunt Iris, had a knack for one-liners and you could always get a good laugh from her. She and I were talking about growing old and the responsibility of being caregivers for other family members when she said, “Whatever happened to my Golden Years? The only thing I see golden is my pee.”
As I mentioned earlier, the relationship with my mother grew worse. By the time my brother and I were 15 and 16 respectively, we stopped visiting her as we no longer wanted to be around her. My father called my mother up and told her that we didn’t want to come anymore. “Jackie, the children don’t want to come anymore. Now that they are 15 and 16, I’m not going to force them to go.”
At this point, war broke out. My grandmother Una called my father and stepmother and accused my stepmother of turning us against our mother. My stepmother said that she had never done that, and in retrospect, I agree with her. Consequently, I lost contact with my mother’s side of the family. Neither my mother nor my grandmother attempted to reconcile with us. We were teenagers and they were adults. I felt that my grandmother Una should have attempted to reconcile my mother with us. I found this upsetting and quite disturbing. I found this behavior unnatural and puzzling. We didn’t do anything wrong; why were we being cast aside? I felt my mother and grandmother should have bonded with us during the rest of my teen years. During the time we were separated, my mother and grandmother never sent us birthday or Christmas cards. It was as if my brother and I had never existed. I felt sad and couldn’t believe what had happened – that none of the adults on my mother’s side of the family reached out to Myron and me. How could you just forget about your family? Were we throwaway children? But that’s what they did.
I found my grandmother to be a cold person. She never initiated kissing us, nor did my mother, and I felt that was strange behavior, as I was used to hugs and kisses from my father’s and stepmother’s sides of the family. It seems that physical affection was not expressed openly in my mother’s family. In fact, the only evidence I have of my grandmother’s affection was her placing a bib around my neck.
I realize now, as an adult, that my grandmother must have been a very unhappy person. She never seemed to talk about herself or what her childhood was like. As a social worker, I am aware of spoken as well as unspoken communication. All behavior is meaningful. To me, her silence is evidence of her unhappy life.
In 1972, I asked my father if he knew how I could contact my mother. My father told me that he had a friend who knew the whereabouts of my grandparents and through them I could most likely contact my mother. He said, “I’ll call Tommy Curtis. They’re friendly with your grandmother. They live in Co-op City.” Later in life, as a young adult, I looked up my grandparents and mother, but they never, as far as I know, inquired about my brother and me. I told my grandmother “I got your number from my father’s friend. You know Tommy Curtis.” She replied, “Yes, what about him? We dropped him when we learned that he was friendly with your father.” I thought to myself, “How strange that seems. That’s rather childish.” When I called my grandmother in 1972 she seemed to be distant. The conversation seemed void of emotion. She didn’t ask how I was doing or what I was doing. No “How are you doing; are you working; are you going to school?” What a strange way to interact with your grandson. My mother shared with me years later that my grandmother told her, “I told Dana ‘Don’t call your mother if you are not going to stay in touch. She’s happily married now.’” I was horrified when my mother told me this, but my grandmother never said those words to me. Maybe she wanted to, but she didn’t. I didn’t pursue the issue as I felt it would only exacerbate the relationship as I was trying to get reconnected with my mother and her family. After many years of separation, I rejoined my mother’s family in 1972. When my mother relocated to the Bronx, she never even contacted her children. I told this to a therapist 30 years later and he couldn’t believe it. I can only assume that my mother wasn’t capable of this action due to her own inadequacies. Before this story ends, you will be surprised at the turn in our mother-son relationship.
I had not seen or spoken to my mother in nine years. When we spoke on the phone, she told me she was remarried and living in the Bronx, New York. She said “I was so happy to hear from you. I’ve been missing you and crying about you.” This was right after my 24th birthday. I went to visit her that week. She showed me her apartment and also showed me pictures she had of me when I was a little boy at the beach. We also talked. I tried to explain to her what had happened, and her response was that we had not wanted to see her. At that point, I changed the subject because it was futile to go on discussing the breakdown of our relationship. I had been a child, and she had let me go. And in all that time, she had not changed. Much time had been lost and our relationship was never the same again. After this, I always felt like a stranger in my mother’s family because the closeness I had experienced as a child was lost.
Years before, my brother had stopped trying to rebuild a relationship with our mother. His relationship with my mother was always strained as she often made inappropriate and sometimes inflammatory statements. To my knowledge, up to her dying day, he never tried to reconcile with her. This gives a little insight into what he was like, cold and unforgiving. That’s why our brother-to-brother relationship suffers today.
It seemed that she could never accept my loss of vision. Even as an adult, she continued to act inappropriately. I recall that when I began to lose a lot of my vision, my mother called me on the phone to give me a number. I told her that I could not take the number down as I could no longer see to read it. She seemed incapable of understanding my situation. It seemed as if I was talking to the wall. This indifference certainly continued to indicate that she was still in denial and could not accept my blindness.
Another example of this non-nurturing behavior, years ago there was a wedding on my mother’s side of the family. A cousin was escorting me to my assigned table at the reception where I was seated with several five-year-old children. I felt uncomfortable being abandoned at a wedding reception forced to sit with young children. As it was in New Jersey and I didn’t know my way around, I was forced to remain. If I had been in New York, I would have gotten up and walked out. When I confronted my mother about this, she told me that she could do nothing about the seating. I felt as though she didn’t want to do anything.
Another incident of her non-nurturing behavior occurred when as an adult I did not buy her a Christmas present. She began to stew and sulk over this like a child and became withdrawn and distant from me. We spent Christmas night at my cousins’ home in Long Island. On the return train trip to Penn Station in New York the following day, she had nothing to say. When we reached Penn Station, she asked me which way I was going. I told her I was going to the “E” train. When I started off in the wrong direction, she called me back and turned me in the direction of the subway. I still got lost. Luckily a stranger noticed that I was having difficulty and escorted me to the train. This shows how indifferent my mother was to my welfare and how immature she was.
My relationship at age 50 in 1998 with my mother was tenuous. This fighting had been going on since I was a child and at this point I had given up and really didn’t desire any contact with her. The way her mother raised her, she felt she was always right and could do no wrong and that infuriated me and added tension to an already broken relationship. Clearly, the anger that my mother felt towards my father was displaced on my brother and me. If anybody should have been in therapy, she was the one. Over the years, my mother and I tried to have a relationship with each other. But there was always tension between us, and we fought constantly. We broke off contact again in 1998 after a final fight that made me realize that my self-preservation came first. She had promised to take me out for lunch for my birthday. “We can go anywhere you like, as long as it’s not too expensive.” I chose a Brazilian restaurant that we had been to together before and had both liked. At the end of the meal, she informed me that she could not pay the bill as it was too expensive. I was infuriated and hurt by this behavior, as she was the one who had invited me to lunch. She said she thought I was taking her out. To top it off, during lunch I had given her a card with $50 in it for her birthday which had been a few weeks after mine. I got up and walked out of the restaurant, so I assume she paid the bill. I then broke off contact for the next four years. She called me, but I didn’t return her calls. I no longer wanted to go through the fighting. As a mature adult, I realized that I couldn’t change her, I could only change the way that I interacted with her.
Everything my mother did, she did wrong. She was a failure as a mother, as a wife, and to herself. She never got help to resolve her own conflicts. My mother drank too much. Her own unfulfilled relationship with her own mother combined with the drinking impacted upon her relationship with my brother, myself and her second husband who had been kind to her. My mother told me that she had an unhappy childhood. She was handed around and sometimes mistreated by the people with whom she lived. I don’t remember all the abuses, but sometimes she was forced to do inordinate amounts of housework, not commensurate with her age as a child, doing all the scrubbing and washing. She never resolved her own issues of abandonment and neglect with her mother. Aunt Savannah, her godmother, told me that on the way home from the hospital in the cab, my grandmother said unbelievable things to her. “Well, here’s your baby,” she said. According to Aunt Savannah, my grandmother probably did not want the baby as much as her husband did.
Another incident of neglect that Aunt Savannah told me about was that once she happened upon my mother in a baby carriage all by herself at the neighborhood vegetable stand at the corner. Aunt Savannah then went into the market and asked the grocer, “Where’s the mother?” The grocer told her “She went shopping downtown and asked me to watch the baby for two or three hours.” Aunt Savannah was horrified and took the baby, her goddaughter. I too was horrified to hear that my grandmother could abandon her child outside a store. Luckily, the world was safe then and not filled with baby snatchers and mean people. What could my grandmother have been thinking?
I learned more recently from Aunt Dolores that my grandmother Una and my grandfather Jack along with Aunt Savannah and her husband, Leslie, had a joint wedding. Aunt Savannah was one of my grandmother, Una’s, best friends and also godmother of my mother. Aunt Savannah’s nephew, Uncle Alex, married my stepmother’s sister, Aunt Dolores. This is how the two families are linked.
My grandmother really didn’t want to get married to Jack but felt the pressure to go through with the nuptials. So there she was married at 21 and she didn’t want the marriage, let alone a baby to look after that would come soon. I believe my grandmother wanted a social life as she dressed impeccably with matching hat, bag and shoes at all times. When she left the house, not a strand of hair was out of place; she definitely made a fashion statement! It was said that she looked elegant in he finery.
My father also was not as supportive as he should have been. As an adult, our relationship was no better than it had been when I was a child. One time when I was crossing the street with my guide dog, a car hit me. However, I wasn’t seriously hurt. I merely sustained some superficial cuts and bruises. I telephoned my father to come to my aid. At this time, I was in the emergency room at the hospital. Instead of my father being supportive of me, he told me,“Dana, get home the best way you can. If you can’t then I’ll come and get you.” What a thing to say to your blind son who had just experienced the trauma of being hit by a car. I experienced a lot of this type of negative interaction with my father throughout my life.
Friends had told me that adversity in life makes you stronger. I guess I am pretty strong because I am a survivor. I felt that both of my parents failed me. The only one there for me was my stepmother, Muriel. My stepmother accepted my blindness completely. She was the one who was instrumental in seeing that I was educated properly. She felt that I should have a chance to succeed in life and blindness should not hold me back. She saw me as intelligent and capable. Contrasted with my stepmother’s total acceptance of me, my paternal grandmother, Olida and my birth mother, Una were in complete denial of my blindness and refused to deal with it honestly. They would always say, “Use your eyes” or “You’re not trying hard enough.” This made me feel conflicted and that I was living a lie. In front of my mother and grandmother, I had to pretend to be sighted. Around other people, I didn’t have to play this game. I could let my guard down and be myself. If I couldn’t see something, it was no big deal. People didn’t become upset when I asked them to show me something. They would describe it for me and let me touch it. All through my formative years, up until I turned 21, I felt ashamed of being blind.
The relationship with my mother never changed until she had a stroke towards the end of her life that left her incapacitated and forced her to move into a nursing home. I believe that the change in her physical circumstances forced her to reevaluate her attitude towards my blindness because before this happened she never accepted my blindness. I finally heard her say to the nurse, “Dana is blind.” That was the very first time she ever openly acknowledged my blindness.
My father never acknowledged my blindness either. However, he wasn’t as cruel. He would guide me with his hand on my shoulder. “Dana, we’re going to cross the street now.” Come to think of it, that was the only affection I ever had from my father – him touching me that way. He probably was unable to show affection because his mother never showed him love or tenderness. He also never became upset when I couldn’t see something. But the downside of things was that he never encouraged me as a blind son to develop my capabilities.
As I got older, my relationship with my brother began to deteriorate. As youngsters, we were very close. I would always share everything I had with him. I remember as a child when the neighbor next door offered me a piece of candy at her house, I would always ask for a piece for my brother. Years later, my stepmother told me how my brother would take advantage of my kindness. As an example, my brother would break his toy, knowing I would offer him mine. She told me my brother’s behavior infuriated her. Anyway, the reason my brother and I drifted apart was because he continued to steal from me as a teenager into adulthood. And being blind, I would very often not notice. Taking things from each other goes on all the time between siblings. However, when you’re blind, it adds another dimension. I felt that he was taking advantage of me and manipulating the situation. When I complained to my father and my stepmother about the situation, nothing was done about the matter to alleviate it. They would merely tell him, “Just give Dana back his things.” I became increasingly bitter and grew away from him and annoyed with my parents as I felt they mishandled the situation. I feel that their failure to correct him led to his having more serious problems later in life. He never apologized or acknowledged what he had done. An example of my brother’s dishonest character and lack of integrity is that he once stole my parents’ car. It was only when they had reported to the police that the car was missing that they ultimately learned that my brother had “borrowed” it.
My brother lives in the suburbs of Westchester, not far from where I live in New York. He has a wife and two adult children, a boy and a girl. I don’t see them. My brother does not wish to have a relationship with me. He doesn’t feel that it’s important that I see his children. So I stopped sending them any kind of remembrances. I realized there is no hope for reconciliation. His tendency to steal my things, as children will do, turned into the demise of our relationship as adults. In 1968, when Myron was first married, I had very little money as I was going to school and not working yet. I saved dollar by dollar to treat my brother and his first wife and me to a night out at the theater. I gave him $50 to buy the tickets for us to go. He never bought the tickets with the money, and I never brought the incident up again.
As for my younger brother and sister, Wayne and Myra, our relationship was not close because of the age difference. I am 16 years older than my sister, and 12 years older than my brother. When they were growing up, I was already out of the household. Today Wayne is a talented musician and is working with his band.
I guess that’s what happens when there is a divorce and you have two sets of parents and two sets of children. My stepmother and my father should have worked hard to make sure that all the children felt close to one another especially since there was such an extreme difference in the ages of my brother and me and our sister and brother. We should have done more things as a family. Holiday dinners at Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t enough. Relationships must be continuous, and they must be nurtured and developed. My stepmother and my father both failed in this regard. The end product is the heartbreak that resulted from their neglect. When they died, the relationships continued to deteriorate. All communication ceased between myself and my siblings.
Family is important to me. Sometimes we all can’t be a part of a close knit family. I take an optimistic view here, as I did receive some nurturing along the way; although it was not sufficient, it sustained me. I think of the many children who come from homes where there is no love, and the children in foster care who feel as if they have been abandoned. Therefore, I am blessed because there was at least some semblance of a family despite the deprivations and hardships that I endured. As a social worker, I’m now aware of faulty parenting and its total impact and disruption on the entire course of family life as well as the importance of correcting the faulty parenting and breaking the destructive cycle. Maybe my parents were unaware of the impact their neglect would have on the family structure. Thank God I was able to survive and emerge as a whole person. Jervis Anderson, This was Harlem, 1982, pgs. 340-341  ibid, pgs. 342-344  ibid, pg. 341 CHAPTER 2 P. S. 46 P. S. 46 was an old school built in the late 1800’s in a neighborhood referred to as Sugar Hill. It was located on St. Nicholas Avenue between 155th and 156th Streets in Manhattan. In fact, the front of P. S. 46 was a former horse stable, which later was converted to a school. My earliest recollections of P. S. 46 date to 1953 when I was enrolled in kindergarten in Miss Klein’s class. The class met five days a week, in the morning from 8:30 until noon. I remember my grandmother telling me prior to my enrollment in the school, “Next year you will be able to go to P. S. 46 also, just like your brother, Myron.”
My classroom was located in the front portion of the school, possibly the original stable. There was another kindergarten class across the hall, taught by Miss Rubin who I thought was mean, as she tended to yell a lot. Both classrooms were located off a little hall with a co-ed bathroom. Miss Klein, as I remember, was a nice teacher who appeared to be on in years. She often played the piano for us while we sang with the accompaniment of cymbals, triangles and tambourines. My personal favorite was “Mr. Froggy Went a Courting.” I’m sure as youngsters we must have sounded awful, all out of synch, what a cacophony! But I do remember we had a great deal of fun.
Show and Tell was another activity that I enjoyed. Children brought their toys, such as trucks, cars, boats and dolls, and the teacher asked questions, getting us all to talk by saying, “Tell me about your toy.” Sometimes it seemed as if Miss Klein was pulling teeth because so many of us were shy and had few words in our vocabulary. She was teaching us to articulate.
At one point during the day we had naptime. We were all told to lay our heads on the table and close our eyes. At five years old, I did what I was told. But I didn’t want to rest. The cookie and milk period stands out in my mind, though. Everyone brought a penny or two for a handful of cookies grabbed from a barrel. It was no easy feat to get pennies from my grandmother because she could never find any. She could only come up with nickels and dimes, and she certainly wasn’t going to give me any of those!
Sometimes in the morning we had free play. We could finger paint, stack blocks, and wander into the dollhouse to spill cups of water as if we were serving coffee. It was one of the parents’ worst annoyances, children playing with water and coming home wet, next to playing with matches. I certainly came home wet many days. I also enjoyed finger painting because I loved the way the paint smelled. And it was fun to smear the paint. I guess I was creating my own version of the Rorschach test, budding psychotherapist that I was. I liked playing doctor and nurse with the girls, poking dolls with a stethoscope. Sadly, I pronounced them “gravely ill”, using a phrase that had no meaning to me, but that I had heard often on radio and TV.
One of my favorite memories of kindergarten was a matching plaid pants suit, and I wanted to wear it all the time. Of course, I couldn’t – clothes get dirty quickly when you’re five years old. I always enjoyed school and never had a problem getting up in the morning to go there. In fact, I couldn’t wait! Some children woke up cranky and had to be coaxed and cajoled to attend.
I never pretended to be sick in order to stay home. In fact, when I really did get sick with the measles, I was miserable until I was able to return to school. I kept asking my grandmother, “When can I go back to school?” Her answer was, “Just as soon as your spots disappear. So you can give me some peace of mind!” It seemed like it took forever. Two weeks is a long time to be confined to bed. I kept on popping out of bed, like a jumping jack. My grandmother scolded me, placated, me but it seemed not to work. I don’t know whether the measles were harder on me or her.
Besides these memories, nothing earth shattering happened in kindergarten. The school year was so uneventful that I almost didn’t notice its end, and no one even mentioned going on to first grade. Even worse, no one told us that while we had played together for the whole year, we would go our separate ways into different first grade classes in the fall. The only thing I knew was that we would be going to school for a longer period during the day.
Once enrolled in school all day, I became aware of the candy store across the street from our school. I made a pilgrimage there every day, with my hand full of pennies to stock up on Mary Janes, Squirrel Nuts, button candy, or jelly apples. By the time I was seven, I was addicted to sugar, a real candy addict. Because I was always going to the dentist, my father remarked that he couldn’t afford to send the rest of the family.
As a child, I can remember first going to the dentist at five year of age. I refused to open my mouth when requested by the dentist. He cajoled me into opening my mouth by offering me a lollipop.
Of all things, the dentist should have known better than to give children candy. Perhaps his subconscious motivation was to make a life-long patient out of me. And he succeeded! Later I came to hate the dentist as much as I hated the eye doctor.
At that time, my eye condition had already been diagnosed as “RLF” (Retno Lethnol Fibroplasia). Today this is known as Retinopathy of Prematurity. I had been seeing eye doctors and specialists since as far back as I could remember. As my father was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, I saw the best doctors available. I can remember my early experiences attending the Columbia-Presbyterian Eye Clinic “too often”! Oh, it made me mad to go so often to the clinic. When clinic day arrived, I resigned myself to go through the torture of being poked and having things stuck in my eyes and holding my head a certain way, and I could never keep still enough for the doctor. Of course, when the time came to have the awful drops, they made my eyes tear and burn. I felt so powerless and anxious. I just wanted to run away, especially as we descended the steps to the doctors’ offices in the basement. I would begin to whine to my grandmother, “I don’t want to go. Please don’t make me go.” Dr. Reese was my doctor, and he was a famous surgeon. I learned as I grew older that Bob Hope, the comedian, was one of his patients. After I saw Dr. Reese, my grandmother would pacify me by buying me a can of chicken noodle soup, as found the examination stressful and the side effects of the ether made me feel dizzy and throw up. I didn’t like going to the eye doctor because I knew what I was in for. As I grew older, I wondered how these constant eye examinations were helping me and what benefit they served. I certainly was not seeing any better.
As there was no formal custody arrangement with the courts between my mother and father, for all intents and purposes my paternal grandmother was my primary caregiver and my legal guardian. She was in denial about my blindness and refused to accept it. She treated me as if I were a sighted child. I remember at five years old having the freedom to play downstairs in front of the building unsupervised. At that time, we were still living at 36 St. Nicholas Place in Upper Manhattan. One particular autumn afternoon, I was playing on the front steps jumping up and down, and I injured myself just above the heart valve on the ornate fence work that surrounded the steps. Somehow word reached my grandmother and paternal uncle upstairs that I was injured. I remember crying hysterically as Uncle Lawrence placed me in his green Ford and rushed me to the Columbia Presbyterian emergency room. Years later, I learned that this accident could have been fatal, for it had just missed puncturing the heart valve. I shudder when I think of what could have happened because no one was willing to acknowledge my blindness.
Today with public awareness and child neglect cases in the forefront of the media, I’m certain my grandmother would have been in big trouble. Today she most likely would have been charged with child neglect and endangering the welfare of a minor. As a social worker, I am well aware of neglect and child abuse issues. My grandmother probably would have had to undergo counseling and be enrolled in a parenting class. To carry the scenario to the extreme, my brother and I might have been removed from the home and placed in foster care, depending on the risk factors. Thank God that didn’t happen. This would have been another disruption in my life and who knows how I would have been treated and turned out as an adult. I already experienced enough turbulence and I certainly didn’t need any more.
That brings to mind another story, when my brother and I were young, possibly five and six years old. One afternoon, we were playing in our fourth floor bedroom, I was in the front bedroom window and Myron was in the back bedroom window. We were pulling the clothesline back and forth, standing on the windowsill overlooking the alleyway. This was before the advent of window guards. I don’t know what my grandmother could possibly have been doing not watching two energetic youngsters. Luckily for us, when she discovered that we were precariously close to falling from the windows, she alerted our neighbor, Ollie Jones, who resided next door. She ran next door, hollering “Ollie, Ollie, the children are about to fall out of the window!” My grandmother explained to Mrs. Jones what had occurred. Together they devised a plan. My grandmother stealthily worked her way to the front bedroom to pull me from the window while Mrs. Jones covered the rear bedroom to rescue my brother. This proved to be too much excitement for the ladies, as they were well into their late 50’s or early 60’s. They decided to take us next door to Mrs. Jones’ apartment, give us lunch, and put us to bed. Mrs. Jones suggested to my grandmother, Olida, “Avant, give these children something to make them sleep and put them to bed.” My grandmother wasn’t a drinker, but considering this event, she could have used one or two, no doubt, one for each kid. This ended another typical day in the adventures of Myron and Dana.
When September rolled around again, I was promoted to the first grade, class 1-1 with Miss Chin. Prior to attending Miss Chin’s class, sometime during the year, I was accompanied to the Sight Conservation Class to meet Mrs. Nurenberg and my fellow students. The class was a resource room for students with visual impairments. For part of the day, I spent time with Mrs. Nurenberg who helped me with reading, penmanship, spelling and math. I remember learning how to write on thick lined paper with heavy black pencils. It seemed that I got the pencil lead all over my hands. At first, I wasn’t good at forming letters. I used to write b’s for d’s, as many children often do. We had special desks that we could raise the top to slant – which brought our paper closer to our eyes. This was really no help as I still had difficulty in seeing, even with the desk and special lighting overhead. Ms. Nurenberg would try to help me and would say, “Let me make this larger for you. Where is my felt pen?” So writing for me was very frustrating, and should have been a secondary activity, something to have fun with, however, braille should have been the primary learning tool. This resource room was a haven as we visually impaired students got help in a supportive environment, and we didn’t have to feel ashamed or uncomfortable holding paper close to our faces since we all shared similar eye conditions. In my other classes, children would make fun of us and call us cross-eyed and other derogatory names. At that time, Mr. Magoo wasn’t yet heard of; because I’m sure I would have been the brunt of Mr.Magoo-type humor. Mr. Magoo was a near sighted cartoon character of the 1960’s who was laughed at because he would walk into dangerous situations not seeing them, always narrowly escaping peril.
When I wasn’t in my Sighted Conservation Class, I spent the balance of the day in Miss Chin’s class. The memories I have of Miss Chin’s class are vague. I think the possible reasons that I don’t remember much was due to my limited vision. I remember the class using textbooks that I couldn’t see to read. I don’t recall how much I learned to read in that class. At one point, I remember Mrs. Nurenberg trying to teach me phonetics. Mrs. Nurenberg would say “a” as in “apple” and “a” as in “April”, but I didn’t know a long “a” from a short “a”. She might as well have been speaking Greek; I never caught on. On one particular visit to Mrs. Nurenberg’s class, I took the notion to go around the room and hit all the children. Mrs. Nurenberg said, “Dana, you cannot not do that; that’s not nice.” I thought it was funny to go around hitting all the children. On another occasion, I pulled up a girl’s dress. Mrs. Nurenberg informed me under no uncertain terms, that if I ever did that again, my grandmother would be sent for, and most likely I would get a spanking, not to mention the infraction would be written into my permanent record. I must have behaved myself after that as I remember getting promoted to the second grade. The promotion must have been based on my conduct, not on my ability, as I don’t recall having learned much in first grade. What could the school have been thinking? Social promotions were just as popular in 1954 as they are today. However, that is changing because the standards today are much higher than they were then.
As I mentioned earlier, I was not able to see the large print textbooks clearly, although they were designed for students who were visually impaired. As I reflect on this early childhood experience, no matter how large the print was, it was still not large enough for me to read. I did not read like sighted children who were able to glimpse a whole sentence at a time. Instead I read word by word and at the end of the sentence I could not remember what I had read. How was I expected to learn this way? As I think about it now, this was sheer madness. Reading is hard enough for a youngster. To have to sound out the letters of each word in order to pronounce it, and focus on the page at the same time, made it impossible, especially for me, being visually impaired. No wonder, as a child I didn’t enjoy reading! Braille should have been my primary means of education, and print should have been used to supplement the learning.
In the second grade the approach to my learning was not handled any differently. I was locked in a battle between the sight conservation teacher, Mrs. Nurenberg, and my grandmother. I was the unfortunate victim of educational conflict and my early education suffered as a result. The sight conservation teacher was adamant that I should be placed in a braille class. And she was correct. On the other hand, my grandmother was just as steadfast that there was nothing wrong with my eyes and that I should remain in the sight conservation class
In fact, Mrs. Nurenberg had me placed in a braille class at P.S. 59 in Manhattan. She acted quickly and my transfer took effect right away, but I only remained for a week. My grandmother who would not be outdone conspired with my birth mother who was also in denial about my blindness. My grandmother said, “Jackie, he is not blind and he doesn’t belong with blind children. Help me go down to Brooklyn to the Board of Education.” Together they took me to the Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn and convinced the officials to overturn what they argued was Mrs. Nurenberg’s high-handed and unilateral decision. My grandmother said, “There’s nothing wrong with my grandchild’s eyes. He can see.” My mother agreed.
The next week, I was back at P.S. 46, and I was confused about leaving the new school and returning to the old school. I learned later that Mrs. Nurenberg maintained that the school was unable to cope with my special needs and in nouncertain terms told my grandmother, my birth mother, and later my stepmother that I would not be able to go on to higher education without learning braille. Mrs. Nurenberg said, “He has to learn braille or he will not be able to succeed.” Fortunately for me, Mrs. Nurenberg was a kind person. Another teacher might have projected their frustration and anger on to me rather than on my parents. At the time, I could read no more than three pages of my textbook before my eyes gave out. This educational conflict was not resolved until I moved in with my stepmother and father three crucial years later. Until then, I was allowed to play for most of the school day.
Today such a conflict over placement in a braille class would not happen. Fortunately, laws now protect students, parents and the schools. One in particular is Public Law 94-142. It states that a disabled child is entitled to a free, appropriate public school education, with no cost to the parent or guardian. There are several definitions in the law related to handicaps and services. The defined handicaps include a wide array of disabilities such as deafness, blindness, orthopedically impaired, lameness, dyslexia and emotional imbalance and perceptual disabilities such as brain injuries. Most critically, the law shifts the burden of proof from the school to the parent or guardian to explain why a student identified as having a handicap should not be enrolled in a special resource class.
If this law had been in effect when I was in the second grade, it is likely that my grandmother’s unrealistic evaluation of my visual ability would have been overturned, and I would have been educated properly. Instead, all I knew was that she couldn’t accept my blindness. She often told me, “Use your eyes!” This confused and frustrated me. I did not know which way to turn, both figuratively and literally. Nosupport was given to me to validate my handicap. My grandmother and I were engaged in a game of make-believe. Fantasy was my playmate.
So, after the long, hot summer of 1956, I found myself back in second grade again. Even worse, not based on my ability but on my eyesight, I was placed in the slow-learners class. Not only did I miss my friends from the previous year, I felt stigmatized in being left back. I felt hurt and embarrassed because being left back was a stigma and I couldn’t tell other children. I was truly in the dark, as no adults would discuss my situation with me.
Although my academic education was compromised, I received a broader education through a variety of life experiences. Mrs. Nurenberg was a wonderful person and a dedicated teacher. Every year she planned community trips for her sight conservation students. We took our trips on the subway, which required a volunteer class mother. My grandmother was the only volunteer to help Mrs. Nurenberg. Without my grandmother’s assistance, none of these trips would have been possible. It was quite courageous of Mrs. Nurenberg to undertake such a feat of transporting eight to ten visually impaired students on the subway at rush hour and keep track of all of them without losing them. We visited the Statue of Liberty, the circus, the coliseum and many other interesting places. The coliseum was located at 59th Street and Columbus Circle. This venue hosted flower shows, boat shows, car shows and other popular events. While my grandmother was misguided in her desires for my education, she was very much involved in school activities. In fact she was the treasurer of the PTA.
Despite my grandmother’s good intentions, I felt her actions did me an injustice. First of all, I wasn’t allowed to admit that I couldn’t see. As mentioned earlier, I had to play a game of pretend. When I did complain to my grandmother, or my mother, that I couldn’t see something, they would say “There’s nothing wrong. You’re not trying. Use youreyes.” There was no understanding or compassion for what I was experiencing. My blindness was neither accepted nor validated, leaving me feeling confused, hurt and angry.
In fact, when I got older, I found it difficult to ask people for help. My family had instilled in me that I was not visually impaired. My perception could have been distorted if I hadn’t been grounded in my own reality to ignore their denial. This could have led to serious consequences; I could have wound up on a psychiatrist’s couch, having an unrealistic perception of myself. Fortunately, I became a social worker, not an aviator.
My grandmother was the reason my stepmother decided to remove me from the pain and discomfort I was experiencing at her house. I felt for once, in my short life, that I could now experience family life, that is, based on the idea of coming home from school to a mother and father to be part of a family.
Prior to that time, as I mentioned earlier, I saw my stepmother and father and birth mother on the weekends. Now, all this would change. Emotionally, I think this was a significant turning point in my life, making me feel better about myself, as my grandmother was quite manipulative and domineering. I felt relieved that I would no longer have to witness and be part of her destructive behavior. I felt so ill at ease in her presence, and uncomfortable. I was happy to get away from that torment, and could not experience normal family life. I hoped that there would be no more head games, such as hidden agendas and subterfuges, that had been so much a part of my life until then. For example, my grandmother would promise to take me to the park. However, when I would later ask when we were going to go, she would not remember discussing the matter at all. She would say, “I never said I would take you to the park.”
Getting back to Mrs. Nurenberg, I remember visiting the Tastee Bread Factory and the Fanny Farmer Candy Company in Brooklyn. I never forgot that candy factory. It was every child’s dream come true! I remember a man in a white uniform who escorted us on a tour through the factory. We went up and down stairs and saw vats of every size imaginable. I loved the smell of the chocolate; it was overpowering! All I wanted was to stick my hand in any of those vats and scoop up some of the lovely goo! I didn’t understand the tour at all. The presence of all that chocolate was much too distracting. At the end of the tour, our guide took us to a candy shop in the factory. Finally, I got to actually eat what we had been discussing for what seemed like hours. The tour guide gave each child a bar of candy and adults got a small box of assorted chocolates. I still couldn’t help thinking that the chocolate in the vats would have tasted better.
We also visited the Museum of Natural History, the Planetarium, the flower show at the New York Coliseum, and even LaGuardia Airport. I guess I am one of the very few New Yorkers that have actually been inside the Statue of Liberty. Most New Yorkers are put off by the opportunity to visit the historical site. It seems that they don’t have the time or the interest to visit the island. Most visitors are tourists.
What I enjoyed the most was the trip the class planned yearly in the spring to visit Mrs. Nurenberg’s home in Leonia, New Jersey, a nearby suburb of New Jersey. In fact, one year when most of us were young, Mrs. Nurenberg was able to engage the services of my Uncle Bobby and my father to transport us from the school to her home in their cars. This was done so that the seven to ten students would not have to travel in the rush hour, as we were young children. However, we would return to school on public transportation about 2:30 p.m. and then return to our homes. Today, these types of trips would not be possible as there are stricter rules governing teacher-student interaction, and with child abuse and child molestation in the forefront, this type of visit could not exist. I was fortunate that I was able to experience such a wonderful trip to my teacher’s home in Bergen County.
The trips to Mrs. Nurenberg’s house were very exciting. Mrs. Nurenberg and the class planned an elaborate luncheon. We planned the menu consisting of hamburgers, French fries, apple juice carrots, apricots, milk and chocolate chip cookies. Back then, hamburgers and French fries were considered nutritious. Today they would be considered junk food. All year long we asked Mrs. Nurenberg if we would be going to her house again in the spring, and we children looked forward to this and could hardly wait until the day arrived. To me, it was like Christmas and all its trappings. I could hardly wait to visit 420 Fort Lee Road, Mrs. Nurenberg’s home. It was a two-story brick house perched on a hill, with an expansive lawn that had a sharp drop-off on the side. Mrs. Nurenberg warned us children to stay away from the wall, as it was dangerous because the property tended to slope and she did not want us to get hurt. Mrs. Nurenberg was maternal and nurturing, and I liked being in hercompany. Sometimes she would bring us candy and at Passover she would even bring us matzo. Her house consisted of six large rooms, a living room, combination dining room/kitchen, two bedrooms in the rear, and there was a side room off the corridor with a private entrance. The side door opened into a room and also led to the attic. Mrs. Nurenberg explained, “The attic is large and spacious, but very hot in the summer and cold in the winter.” I liked this house because my grandmother was not a good housekeeper. Our floors were often unswept and dusty, and she tended to have junk piled up in every room. Mrs. Nurenberg’s rooms were clean and orderly, and everything seemed to have a place. I liked going there as I also liked being in the country, to play in the grass, run, sit on the porch, hear birds – these things were not part of my life in the city. I was used to concrete sidewalks.
Mrs. Nurenberg took us down to the basement and we saw the washing machine and dryer in her husband’s work area. We enjoyed exploring the house from top to bottom. The first thing we did when arriving at Mrs. Nurenberg’s house was to embark on a tour. I liked the tour; I especially liked going up to the attic and looking out the little window and seeing the grass and trees below. I imagined that this would be a good place to play hide and seek as there were many things up there to hide behind such as old dressers, an old bed, a table and suitcases. These were personal glimpses of her that I could not get in the classroom. We enjoyed the tour very much. At that time, Mrs. Nurenberg served us apple juice and carrots and apricots for a snack. Later we played outside on the lawn or stretched out on the chaise lounge on the porch.
Luckily, my grandmother came along as the class mother. Otherwise there would be no trips. After the tour, my grandmother and Mrs. Nurenberg made their way to the kitchen to prepare lunch for the crew. After rough and tumble play, we children were quite hungry. I remember eating several hamburgers and several portions of French fries. The food was good, not like my grandmother’s awful cooking that had no seasoning. In a little while, Mrs. Nurenberg served us chocolate chip cookies and milk for dessert. She suggested that we all gather on the porch to rest before resuming play. Two o’clock came too soon for me and it reminded me of the tale of Cinderella, when this entire lovely splendor would vanish I’m sure the rest of the gang felt the same way. I felt sad to go back home and I didn’t want to go. Even though I didn’t want to go, I had to. We were off to catch the bus and return to P.S. 46. After arriving back at school with Mrs. Nurenberg and my classmates and my grandmother, we said our goodbyes, and my grandmother took me home.
The next day Mrs. Nurenberg helped us develop our language arts skills in writing compositions about her home. I don’t remember what I wrote; everybody had something different to say in their compositions. Mrs. Nurenberg read everybody’s composition out loud. They sounded something like this. “Yesterday we went to our teacher’s house. She lived in the country in a big house with trees and grass. We had fun. We had cookies and milk for lunch. It was fun to play at our teacher’s house…”
Another nice thing that Mrs. Nurenberg did for me and the class at the end of the school year was to buy us toys at a neighborhood toy store. I selected a yellow plastic pig which was a bank. What I remember about that toy was that it had no opening so once the money went in that was it. Eventually I broke the bank to get my money out.
At Christmas and Easter, she always had a party for us and, of course, we had lots of candy and soda. I don’t remember what else was on the menu. I do remember singing traditional Christmas standards and at Easter singing “in your Easter Bonnet” and “Here Comes Peter Cottontail, Hopping Down the Bunny Trail.” At this time, I guess I’m about nine years old going into the third grade.
On one occasion Mrs. Nurenberg tried to teach me braille. She took a piece of paper and a straight pin and made little holes in the paper and had me read them with my fingers. She told me that was the letter “A”. I don’t know how much braille Mrs. Nurenberg knew, if any, but this was her way of reaching out to me.
Mrs. Nurenberg was wonderful to me. Up to that point, I’d never met a person like that who was so giving of herself. She made me feel special and loved and secure in a way I hadn’t before. Not even my own parents made me feel the way Mrs. Nurenberg made me feel. Mrs. Nurenberg always asked my father to bring me over to see her. She was just as fond of me as I was of her. I surely felt that she took a special interest in me.
Mrs. Nurenberg was my teacher for several more months. Some years later, I lost touch with her, and I am filled with such pain and sadness when I think about her since I never had the opportunity to tell her how much I loved her.
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