SHIRLEY TEMPLE AND ME
As a child, I lost myself in the books I read so
voraciously, and in the movies I attended, leading my little
sister by the hand, every Saturday afternoon.
I remember how depressed I felt, leaving the Loews Theatre
with its make believe worlds created by Shirley Temple, Jane
Withers, Spencer Tracy, Greer Garson, Betty Davis and Errol
Flynn, and stepping out again into the dusky "real world" of
Every Saturday afternoon, starting when I was seven years
old and Miriam was four, Mama would give me 62 cents. That paid
for the 35 cent chicken chow mein lunch at the Chinese restaurant
across the street from the movie house and half a block away from
our Belmont Avenue apartment. It also paid for our tickets to
the movies--ll cents apiece--and for a box of cherry-flavored
hard candies that we meticulously shared, down to the last
precious morsel, which I bit in half.
My chubby little sister was frightened by some of the
mysteries portrayed on the screen; so when one of the double
features happened to be something like "The Cat and the Canary,"
or "Land of the Living Dead," she folded her seat and sat on the
floor. I was braver--I remained in the comfortable seat, but
covered my eyes when the going got rough.
Shirley Temple was about two years my senior, and she was my
idol with her beautiful golden curls, dimples, marvelous singing
and dancing talent, and wardrobe to match.
Everybody loved Shirley Temple, but I wasn't so lucky. I
was poor, and sometimes unloved--and knew it. My long blonde
hair was "straight as a stick," and my meager wardrobe left a lot
to be desired. Daddy loved me all the time, but with Mama it was
different. She could be wonderful, but she could also be
terrible when the mood hit her. And unfortunately, there were
many times when I was the recipient of her bad temper.
I'm glad now that I didn't grow up in a mansion in Sunny
California like Shirley Temple, because then I wouldn't have
learned that happiness is sometimes watered with tears.
One day, just a few years before she died, Mama announced
proudly that she had never hit her children. This was not so,
and when I told her, she didn't believe me.
"Don't you remember Mom, when you used to chase me with a
broom?" I asked. "You sometimes beat the hell out of me."
"Not me," she said. "Never."
But I remember the many occasions when I waited anxiously
for Daddy's return from work, greeting him at the door, crying
"Mama hit me!"
"Du tor nicht schlagen a kind!" (You musn't dare to hit a
child!), he shouted at her in Yiddish. And then the "fireworks
began," (Mama's expression). Daddy yelled and Mama yelled
"Let everybody hear you!" he said, opening all the windows
in the apartment. "Let everybody know what you are!"
"Stop it." Mama shouted, running from room to room, shutting
the windows again. "It's nobody's business!"
I tried to shut my ears to the fights, which left me feeling
desperate and alone--but sometimes they continued for what seemed like hours.
Later, if Mama left the room as we were sitting at the
supper table, Daddy would refer to her as a "Teegerrr" (tiger) or
as a "Jekyll/Hyde" (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
"Watch the way she changes when she's with her friends,"
he'd explain, imitating her lovely wide smile and shaking his
head from side to side.
Mama's friends could make anybody smile. They danced with
her, sang Yiddish songs together, visited cabarets like "Cockeyed
Jennie's" on Freeman Street (where my sister Shirley's wedding
ceremony was held in l948), and played endless games of poker.
There was "Rosie Nose," (Daddy's nickname for her, and the
reason was obvious; I greeted her at our front door one day, and
was embarrassed after I realized I had shouted, "Ma, Rosie Nose
is here!) and her lover Moishe. I guess Rosie had a husband, but
I never met him. Anyway, Moishe was crazy about her, despite the
length of her nose. I didn't think of it then, but she was
probably excellent in bed.
There was Mrs. Redboard (that's the way I remember the
name), a big, heavy-set women who loved to dance; Lillie, a
graceful refined type with two daughters, AnnaLee and Lala, and
tiny Mrs. Gordon, the mother of Irwin and Phyllis.
Irwin, who was in my class at school, was a tall, thin,
awkward boy with a talent for drawing. Mrs. Gordon had dark hair
and was about the size of Dr. Ruth Westheimer. "When she hits
Irwin, she stands on a chair," Mama told us.
Phyllis Gordon, a beautiful girl with light brown hair and large brown
eyes, died when she was fourteen. About a year before she died, Phyllis
developed cancer and her leg had to be amputated. I remember
visiting her on many occasions. She sat in a wheelchair, and
never seemed sad. I remember thinking, and telling her, that she
resembled the actress Susan Peters.
Many youngsters, including myself, attended her funeral --
my first experience with the death of a peer. There were so many tears,
and it was frightening to see a coffin, especially one containing such a
young person, being lowered into the ground. Mrs. Gordon seemed to
hold up well; I don't remember ever seeing her cry.
Mrs. Gordon, Mrs. Redboard, and Rosie Nose and Moishe were
among the group of people who sat around our dining room table
once every week or two to play poker. The poker games were
profitable for Mama, because she took in "kitty, for the house."
This meant that a certain percentage of every pot went to her, as
But Daddy hated the game, and referred to the players as
"the dirty gemblers" (gamblers).
One night, someone reported to the police that there was a
card game taking place in our apartment. The cops came to our
place, and arrested the players, including my father. The poor
man was taken into a paddy wagon, hollering, "Vat do you vant
from my life, I don't gemble!
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