A Childhood. Sandra Barnard and Myrna Shoa record their stories. The world through the eyes of children. The stories of first generation immigrant's children born in Cheetham Hill Manchester, England. Their stories may resonate with yours. Sandra and Myrna are artists, teachers and storytellers.
Saturday, 24 February 2007
Our first days at school
When we were about two years old and three years old respectively our mother found it far too hard coping with her small daughters and arranged for us to attend a private Jewish school, Cassel – Fox, about quarter of a mile from our home.
On their first day there Sandra can remember crying when mummy walked away from them, but she was lucky having her big sister taking care of her. Myrna had to be strong and brave for her little sister.
We would go to school first thing in the morning, have lunch there, then be collected by our mum in the afternoon and walk home. The teachers were very strict about not wasting food and would be angry with any child who left food on his plate. We learned tricks such as wrapping the food we didn’t like in our handkerchief and hiding it in our pocket. Sandra remembers that she really liked the lochen pudding and never had a problem in eating it all up.
When a child had been tearful, he or she would be sent out of the classroom and not allowed back until the crying had stopped. Sandra can remember being filled with righteous indignation when on one occasion the teacher came out of the classroom to see if she had stopped crying, which she had, but wouldn’t let her come back because her breathing wasn’t yet under control after expending all that emotion.
The children were not allowed to use their fingers as an aid to counting. Sandra got round this prohibition by leaning on her elbow and counting with her fingers on the side of her head. When challenged by her teacher as to what she was doing she replied that she was thinking.
Myrna remembers hating the food. It was after the second world war and food was still rationed, choice was limited and you had to take what was available. But, as a child Myrna didn't know, care or understand the situation: she just hated the food.
Joseph Tishler a fellow pupil aged five or less kissed Myrna up and down her arms and in his strong passion pursued her relentlessly....to no avail.
It was at Cassell Fox that we started to learn the Jewish rituals, stories and Hebrew with no understanding of what the words meant. Yet Myrna and Sandra felt guilty if they failed to say their prayers in Hebrew at night before going to sleep. Deeply disturbing questions Sandra and Myrna and friends asked each other were..Who do you love more, God or your mummy or daddy?'
Mum and her ‘Problems'
Our mother enjoyed a drink and a smoke whilst watching TV. She would have a glass of whiskey and orange. When she and dad came back from their dinner dances she sometimes had a problem keeping her balance, drunk almost falling down when getting out the taxi. This didn’t become a major problem until in 1954 she had a really bad accident falling down a long flight of steep stone steps outside Joan Lakes house. She claimed she felt all right and drove herself home in her Ford Console.
Later in the day she felt very ill and called the doctor who diagnosed concussion and told her to rest. He missed the point that she and she was in fact bleeding into her brain and a blood clot was forming. This necessitated an emergency operation to remove the blood clot or she could have died. Roughly the same time her youngest brother James was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was flying backwards and forewards to Scotland to see him. She felt she had to go and visit him. She seemed to take the news really hard, yet we didn’t know she cared that much as we had never met him or his family. He died within a year of the diagnosis.
She started drinking secretly and heavily and became a danger to herself and others. She was falling around all over the place. Her voice was often slurred. She made pointless and senseless demands and became extremely difficult to live with. She hid her alcohol, brandy anywhere in the house. Many times we came home from school she was drunk, her voice was slurred and the gas poker was on but not lit. She kept saying that she wanted to die. We used to call Dad when we felt we couldn’t cope. He would come home and help us manage her. 'Myrna, Myrna,Sandra, Come here,' Mum would call us. We would find her naked, drunk, and horrible. She would place her hands on the shoulders of one of us, so that we could take her to the toilet and then back to her bed. Because she was drunk she would sway and could easily have toppled over. 'Myrna, Myrna Sandra,' she would call. Sometimes we would find her on the floor, drunk and unable to get herself up. We had to haul her up while she continued ranting to us about how bad we were or that we didn't care for her. We missed a lot of secondary schooling thorough having to be at home to keep an eye on her. We didn’t want anyone to know outside the house. It was difficult for girls, pre teens to cope with.
That fall and the subsequent drinking exaggerated who she was already, Myrna thinks. We couldn’t bring friends back to our house after school in case we found our mum drunk. The shame and embarrassment would have been too much to bear. We had to take on the responsibility of the cooking, cleaning and looking after the house. We were only eleven and twelve at the time. Also, she never liked our friends. She would verbally pull them to pieces and tried to stop the friendships in this way. Mum’s problems continued to dominate our lives through all our teens and into our twenties.
Her emotional manipulative manner continued to have a power over us for years. Even after she stopped drinking, she didn't stop being demanding and manipulative.
However, we both have ended up creative, warm women. We didn't let what happened in our childhood turn us into 'victims'. It had an effect on the people we eventually became, but it didn't dictate our lives. We both realised that it is easy to stop yourself from doing things because you convince yourself that you have to sort out your childhood problems first. It is easy to remain stuck in the child role, but we are not those children anymore.
Even before she had a drink problem, she made us curl up in embarrassment. On social occasions she was seen by many as good fun, ‘the life and soul of the party’. She loved to be the centre of attention and would dance the highland fling. She was a huge woman and to us she looked ridiculous and we felt that people were, in fact, laughing at her and not with her. The more extrovert she became the more introvert we became. After all she was old enough to be our granny and maybe that was why we felt so self-conscious?
Secrets were a part of our way of life. Secrets that she hadn’t been born Jewish, (By the time we were born she had in fact got a Ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract, therefore confirming that we were Jewish), and secrets that we ate bacon behind closed curtain surrounded by Jewish families. Secrecy about her drinking and suicidal tendencies. Dr Levy our family doctor gave her far too many prescribed drugs barbiturates which she became addicted to for many years. No-one was there to support us two young girls. Dr Levy and Dad would say that we had to care for our mum, our duty was to be there for her. It affected our schooling, our social life, our confidence: it put a huge strain on us.
We were part of a cover up to keep up pretences about what really went on behind closed doors. However we learnt to be ultra sensitive to drunkenness, emotional blackmail and manipulation.
STORIES FROM OUR CHILDHOOD
We were still at primary school in 1953. It was near to the end of October. Children were collecting firewood for their bonfire celebrations. The local children called at Aunty Rosie and Uncle Morris’s house in Brunswick Street. Aunty Rosie gave them an old broken down armchair she wanted rid of. They hauled it away and took it back to their bonfire site. As they were breaking it up, to their amazement inside the wadding, they found about a £1000 in old and out of date bank notes.
This would be the equivalent today of perhaps £40- £50,000 in terms of what it could buy. The excited children took some of the cash to Heighways, a local toyshop in Cheetham Hill Road, to spend it. Having made their selections they handed the money to the shop assistant who in turn called the police. The money was traced back to our family and returned to us.
Our Granddad, Myer, never fully trusted in banks and liked to have cash hidden around his house in tins, cupboards and under mattresses. He had come from Dvinsk in Latvia to England as a penniless refugee and hadn’t adapted to the new country. He was illiterate in his own language Yiddish as well as English, so he had to sign his cheques with a cross. Myer a religious Jewish man wore a yamulka and prayed, (yet our mum told Myrna that his fly was often left undone). One Sabbath evening during the war he just walked out of the house in Brunswick Street. As it was Sabbath he wasn’t carrying any money in his pockets and was never seen again. Mum and dad checked with the police, hospitals and the morgue to no avail. The most likely explanation was that he was killed during an air raid and maybe blown to bits. Of course he never made a will and for over twenty years the family solicitor was trying to sort out Myer’s estate.‘Next year god willing Joseph, it will be sorted.’ Myer treated our Dad badly he obviously didn’t love him as he wished our dad had died from the fever instead of his beloved youngest son Simon. He asked god why he hadn’t taken Joseph instead of Simon. After dad left school at the age of fourteen he was employed by his father but paid poorly. Even after he was married he was still on a low wage and he would often walk home from work to save his bus fare so that he could take Mum to the cinema. Myer would put a piece of coal on the fire, decide it was warm enough without it and take it off again rather than let it burn away.
Links to related sites, stories and images, video and animations
- A CHILDHOOD
- United Kingdom
- stories of a childhood for our families to read, to answer questions about their backgrounds, history and connection to the other cultures they have come from. 'We wish that we had found out more about our stories from Dvinsk'. Always find out what you can from relatives and friends about your history, your family stories, and write down or record them on film. All our stories are part of the patchwork quilt that makes up Life. You can't change the past but with a clearer picture of it you can walk forwards into the future instead of walking backwards into the future.