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Shirley Mark was a long-time member of the Memoirs class and active in the Downey community before she passed away last September at age ninety-three. Shirley had a zest for life even though her parents divorced when she was very young and life presented many challenges. This story about her upbringing in the multi-ethnic communities of New York, appeared in a published collection. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
When I was four years old, I was sent to an orphan asylum, as it was called in those times. I remember the line of children waiting to sit on benches at the long wooden tables like in “Oliver Twist.”
Apparently it wasn’t too bad because I don’t remember anything else about it.
From there I went to live with my aunt’s in-laws. They spoke Russian, which I picked up quickly and spoke the language fluently before I was five. The family was extremely musical: one daughter was a concert violinist like her father; the other a talented pianist. The pianist, whose name was Tamara, started my piano lessons.
The mother of the family was a wonder whom I could not appreciate at my tender age. Aunt Sonia, as I called her, was a doctor. That doesn’t seem so great in this era, but in the 1890’s and early 1900’s for a woman to become a doctor was a phenomenon – and especially in those days in Russia, a Jewish female. Now I am amazed and wish I could have had the details on how she did it.
Sometime later, when they couldn’t take care of me, there was another change. I went into a school for a while. I don’t remember what kind of school or how my mother could have afforded it unless it was some kind of charity school.
I do remember coloring with other children. I needed a pink crayon and asked the child across the table if I could have it. He said no. I, who had never asserted herself in her entire five years, insisted. The boy protested, called the teacher, and I was put in a closet. I have never forgotten the fear and terror.
In New York the houses were so close to each other, neighbors could share conversations, radio programs, even food, which could be put in a package and sent across on the clothesline.
A Spanish family moved in across from us. Their windows were almost next to ours. Their family name was Alegria. The father was from Peru, the mother from Barcelona. I don’t remember the names of the parents – the boy Alberto was a year older than I; his sister, Conchita, was a year younger.
The family was wonderful to me. The father belonged to a Peruvian Club that held dances every month. I guess on a Saturday night. I don’t recall how it came about – perhaps my mother had dates on those nights – but it seems like I was always going to the Peruvian Club events.
With my green eyes and long blonde hair, you can imagine what a contrast I was to most of the people there. They loved me – when they discovered I could play piano, I entertained by playing tangos and other Spanish songs, picking them out by ear. I learned the words to “Amapola” and other Spanish classics and have never forgotten.
I fell in love with the language, the music, the people, the culture. There were a lot of hard knocks in my childhood and worse knocks as I got older, but I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet and associate with different people during my formative years. Some were good, some not so good, but none were labeled according to culture, race, or religion.
Published: Jan. 16, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 40