Excerpts from Something About The Author
[Autobiography Series, Volume 26. With an updated section at the end.]
Young Barbara, 1950
There I was, seven years old, trooping behind my father along with my two younger brothers to the large vegetable garden that grew by the railroad tracks. We each carried paper bags to hold the tomatoes and cucumbers and radishes that we would pick. Not an unusual event, you're thinking, but to us it was. At the time, we lived in the middle of New York City on the fifth floor of a fifteen floor building that was part of a larger apartment complex. How my father found this garden tended by the railroad workers in their spare time I don't know. Since no one else ventured there, the railroad workers smiled at us when we came and let us pick what we wanted.
My father, who was born on a farm in the Catskill Mountains, was forever "exploring," as he called it, and we children were delighted with his finds. To this day I still love the city and the country and "exploring." Thanks to my father, I became just as used to picking blueberries in the woods in upstate New York as I was crossing the busy city streets going to school or falling asleep to the sound of the elevated trains outside my bedroom window.
My mother tells many stories about me from the first eight years of my life growing up in New York City. She says that when I was about two years old, she lost me in a big store and was frantically looking for me when she saw a large crowd by the cash registers. She feared the worst-that I had hurt myself. But when she reached the circle, she saw me in the center, dancing around and putting on a show. I must have thought I was at one of our family gatherings.
Another story she tells is that I loved going to the movie theater. In those days, the theater played the same movie over and over again, and you paid one admission and could sit there all day long. Once when I was around six, she had to send Uncle Lou after me to drag me out of the theater. I had sat through Elephant Walk about five times. It's no wonder that, to this day, I have a vivid image in my mind of a huge herd of elephants stampeding through a villa with Elizabeth Taylor looking on in terror.
When I was two and a half, my brother Robert was born. I must have been a bit jealous because there's a story about me squeezing cherry juice right into his eyes. Bert was born a few years later. For years I was the "big" sister, until Robert and Bert grew to be over six feet tall and I stayed a shrimp of five feet two and a half inches.
My mom read lots of books to us when we were little, and this must have helped give me my love of books. But I had trouble when I went to first grade where they taught reading by emphasizing sight recognition of whole words. As soon as my mother saw my very poor grade in reading, she took over and taught me to read using phonics, which emphasizes learning the alphabet, the sounds of the letters, and blending the letters together. I did much better in school after that.
Another memory I have of these years in the New York City apartment house was coming home from school and seeing fire trucks in front of my building. Immediately I worried that the fire was in my apartment. It was. A fire had started in the kitchen and smoke filled the whole place. By the time I arrived, my brothers were hiding under their beds and my mother was trying to convince the firemen not to chop up the furniture.
Sometimes I liked being the oldest child and sometimes I didn't. I liked being the one to get a watch first and go to bed later than my brothers, but I didn't always like being in charge of them. Robert and Bert could be a handful. Once my mother sent me off with Robert to try out the brand-new wading pool in the nearby park. It didn't take us long to find out, however, that the pool didn't actually have any water in it. Its cement cracks had recently been filled with a black tar which was still drying. Of course my brother Robert found the tar and smeared it all over his hair. When I brought him home, my mother had to cut a good portion of his hair off, and she wasn't too happy with me either.
When I was eight years old, my father accepted a job transfer to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was only ninety miles from New York, but it was worlds away to me. We moved midway through the school year, my third grade year. Besides leaving my extended family in New York, my school, and my friends, I suddenly found out that I was different. I was the new kid in the class, the school, and the neighborhood. I was teased and bullied because I was new and had a New York accent.
In fourth grade things improved. I had a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Chambeau who supplied us all with books from her own lending library. That was the year I really began to lose myself in books. We also moved to a house on a street full of kids of all ages. I roller-skated with them in the street, jumped hopscotch and rope, and swapped secrets. In summer, everyone moved outside. It was too hot inside in those days before every house had air conditioning. Parents dragged television sets out onto the stoop, the steps in front of our attached "row" houses. They watched favorite shows like Ed Sullivan and The Honeymooners, chatted with neighbors, and kept an eye on all the kids. We, the kids, played hide-and-seek among the bushes, jacks on the steps, bottle caps in the street, and ball bouncing games against the brick walls. We played until the last possible moment.
All the way through the twelfth grade, I continued to live on this same street in Philadelphia. I worked hard in school, "hung out" with my friends, and enjoyed my family. My father still took us "exploring," often to Pennsylvania Dutch farm auctions where we'd get stuck behind horse-drawn Amish wagons and eat shoofly pie at farmers' markets.
My mom, who had been a medical secretary, stayed home to take care of us. She made lots of cakes which never lasted long. She'd put a just-baked cake out on the kitchen table to cool, and one of us, most likely Bert, would eat a piece out of the middle, the moistest part. If Mom did get a chance to frost the cake, one of us would invariably come along and gobble up finger fulls of frosting off the cake, thinking that no one would notice.
The three of us together could be quite a force. We regularly scared away baby-sitters by teasing them and spying on them when they brought their boyfriends over. But we soon found out that baby-sitterless, we were also very good at scaring ourselves. When our parents went out at night, we loved to watch all those scary movies on TV. The tricky part came when the movie was over. We'd all three make a mad dash for the stairs at the same time, pushing and shoving. Not one of us wanted to be the last one to reach those stairs, because, by an unwritten rule, that person had to turn off the TV and all the downstairs lights, and mount the stairs in the dark!
During these growing-up years, I read all the time, but especially in summer. And went on endless walks to the library to replenish my supply, especially any book by Enid Blyton I could find. I loved her adventure stories. My mother would try and get me out of my room into the "fresh air," but if my friends were at camp or "down the shore," she didn't succeed.
I didn't really think of myself as a writer when I was growing up. I didn't write stories or poems except in school. But I loved to tell stories. I'd often make up stories in my head before I went to sleep. And when I baby-sat, which was very often because I liked making my own money, I figured out a way to get the parents to ask me back. I'd tell the kids a story, often an outer-space adventure, using the kids as the main characters, and leave it hanging in the middle. They would beg to have me as their sitter. I also loved writing letters, keeping journals, and doing my own research that had nothing to do with school.
Barbara and her Dad
My dad loved to read about history, including ancient history. Maybe that's why I chose ancient Egypt as my passion. Or it could have been that I fell in love with an historical fiction book called Mara: Daughter of the Nile, but for a few years I read everything at the library about Ancient Egypt and kept lots of notes. I even thought I wanted to be an archaeologist until I went to college and fell asleep at the archaeology club meetings. My friend Kathy, who also thought she wanted to be an archaeologist, told me I snored.
A big part of my life growing up in Philadelphia was my synagogue. My family belonged to a small one that started in a house and grew larger over the years as more and more families joined. For the most important holidays of the year, the fall High Holidays, we had services in the movie theater because the synagogue was too small to fit all the people who wanted to come. We got to sit in those plush velvet seats and smell popcorn while the rabbi and cantor were up where the movie usually was.
For college, I chose the University of Chicago. The U of C was an ideal school for me, although I wasn't always sure of it at the time. The courses and professors were exciting and challenging, and I learned how to really do research, about everything. I am often thankful for my education there, because it has helped me so much in my work as a writer now.
It was during college that I settled on my career choice of teaching. I was especially influenced by some volunteer work I did on the south side of Chicago through a student tutoring project called STEP. I worked with the same boy Gregory for three years and helped him with his reading. I got to know a group of his friends and would often take them all over the city, to the museums, parks, downtown. One Halloween I took them trick-or-treating in my neighborhood where, to their delight, they collected bags and bags of candy. The problem came at the end of the night. They had to figure out how to get that candy back home without it getting stolen by the gangs in their neighborhood. Their solution was to stuff the bags under their coats and brave the walk home, luckily successfully.
The year I graduated from college, 1968, was also the year I married my high school sweetheart, Alan Goldin. For three years we were both teachers and spent our summers traveling-all over Europe, the United States and Canada. During this time of my life, I avidly explored various art forms like pottery and weaving, which I would later give up to devote to the one I find most fulfilling—writing.
One summer we traveled to western Canada and the Banff School of Fine Arts, where Alan took photography and I studied weaving. We lived in a tent, wove and took pictures, swam in natural hot springs, and hiked to tea houses in the Canadian National Parks. We were as likely to meet a bear on the trail from the campground to the studio as we were to meet a fellow artist.
During the school year, we taught in public schools in the Gloucester, Massachusetts area and lived by the sea. Gloucester was full of "atmosphere," and I loved waking up very early, walking along the harbor to Bear Skin Neck to have breakfast at Ellen's. That's where the local fishermen gathered before they went out on their boats to start their day's work.
After a year of course work at Boston University, I taught the educably retarded one year and the emotionally disturbed another and found it all a real challenge. It was around this time that I decided to concentrate on teaching preschool. Perhaps, I reasoned, if we got to kids in the early years, we could prevent, diagnose, and work with the kinds of problems I had seen in the older students. When I taught, I found that my special education background was an enormous resource for me in working with the children and their parents.
At this point, Alan decided he wanted to leave teaching altogether and study forestry out west. We soon left for Missoula, Montana, where, on my first day in our new apartment, I ran into another tenant skinning a black bear in our joint backyard.
I found a teaching job in a preschool, and decided to train in the Montessori method with a wonderful teacher and friend Valeska Appleberry. Spending a year away from Montana to do that, I immersed myself in a training course in Michigan for a summer, and in Valeska's school in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for the school year. I lived with her and her husband Lynton and learned much more from them than methods of teaching.
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