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I grew up in New York City, where there were many places that made me happy. I had the biggest garden in the world – Central Park, which I shared with hundreds of people. I climbed to my favorite branch of an oak tree and there I read my books. I often went to the library. The librarian was kind. She picked out books for me and I loved her.
My father died when I was five and my mother was not able to take care of my older sister Janet or me. We were sent to live with my grandparents. I loved my Grandma Bertha.
She sang Russian songs all day and hugged me a lot. My grandfather was something else. He was so strict and scolded us all the time. I was afraid of him.
By age 7, I was back home in our New York City apartment. But my mother was not the same as she was before my father died. She never smiled and hardly talked to us. I read books all the time to escape the loneliness I felt. I loved fairy tales and reading about adventures in far away lands.
I began to stutter when I talked. My teachers never called on me because they saw how hard it was for me to speak.
My sister and I had just a few games and toys. In the winter, we shared one sled. We had one bike and one doll, which we tugged and tugged until it broke in half.
I made up games. I walked the busy streets of the city and pretended I was a detective. I picked out anybody who I suspected to be a spy and followed him. He always ended up walking into an apartment house or down into the subway station, like any normal person. Then I’d pick out another “spy” to follow.
I found a pair of sunglasses on the street, put them on and imagined myself a famous movie star in disguise.
After school at P.S. 9, I loved going to my friend Nola’s apartment. She had tons of things to play with, including puppets. She loved to draw and I would write stories for her to illustrate. Another friend was Judy. She was very tiny and I was very tall. We started a magazine together, called “The Greyhound.” Again, I wrote poems and stories. Judy’s father actually had our magazine printed and we sold it for a nickel. We made enough money to have a lunch in a restaurant – my first! I loved Judy’s parents and called them “mama” and “papa”. I always spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with their family. I loved their country house, with a black stove for heat and an outhouse outside for a bathroom. We had to pump water from a well. What a lovely change from my city life.
In the summers, Janet and I went to a camp in Massachusetts. The other girls made fun of my stuttering. Everyone had to be in the camp play. Because of my stutter, I was given the part of a grandfather clock, shaking my head back and forth and making a tick-tock sound.
My public high school in New York City had 5,000 girls! I made a friend, Carol, and we did crazy things together — hitchedhiked to get out of the city, and went to amusement parks, at night. She didn’t have a father either. She moved to Texas after our first year in high school. We exchanged friendship rings and promised to be best friends forever.
At 14 and 1/2, I applied for working papers to get a job. My first job was at a library, shelving books and fixing broken covers. I was in heaven, with books surrounding me. I worked after school and on Saturdays. The first adult book I read was The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling. At night, I wrote stories and poems. I had to buy my own clothes with the money I earned. With whatever money I had left, I splurged on food we never were allowed to eat at home – soda, cold cuts, cookies, candy and ice cream.
I had other jobs as a teenager. I sorted socks in a men’s clothing store, putting back clothes that were tried on in a department store, and I baby-sat for 50 cents an hour. I worked as a waitress, but I was fired for giving customers free extra coffee. I thought it was a nice thing to do – but my boss didn’t like it one bit.
I became a good listener because I still stuttered. I always carried a notebook and wrote down ideas for stories and poems. (I still do that, today). By now I was reading adult poetry and novels by Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and I tried to write like them.
I was a poor student, even failing Latin and Algebra so I graduated with low grades and I had to go to summer school. The University of New Mexico was the only college that would accept me. I traveled to Albuquerque by train, sitting up all night. At dawn, the view from the train window made my heart almost stop. Vast sky. Deserts. Cowboys herding cattle. Clear light. Sandia mountains tinted purple with the rising sun. I cried with happiness.
New Mexico seemed like a fascinating foreign country. Sagebrush rolled in the desert wind. People rode horseback to the store. When sand storms blew, we blocked the windows and doors with newspapers, but even so, sand got into our hair and clothes. A friend drove me to Santa Fe and oh, those adobe houses were beautiful. I visited Native American pueblos and tasted their fried bread and loved watching their dances.
The only A I got in college was in horseback riding. I fell in love with an English teacher and married him after my first and only year of college. I was 19. My son, Peter, was born when I was 20 years old and my marriage was over when I was 22.
Once again I took a long train ride. My trip back to New York City was quite different from the train ride I had taken to start college. Now on this second train ride, I was a single mom. I had an active 18-month-old child to love and care for. I wondered how this new life in New York City would be!