11/27/2013 11:58 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2014


My grandmother's first husband was Jacob Smith, the name changed from Schmiko when he immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, from Poland. But his new Americanized name and youth, his grand handlebar mustache and his young wife couldn't protect him from the tuberculosis epidemic--known in those days as consumption. He died at the age of thirty after a long illness leaving my grandmother, Anna, with nothing but four small children, a meager grocery store and her own cold heart.

Tending to her few customers, she left her small daughters to the streets of the Scovil Avenue neighborhood. That is, until the day a neighbor paid a visit to the authorities and reported Anna Smith's appalling neglect of her three little girls, who, dirty and hungry had been running wild in the neighborhood for weeks, months. My mother, Florence, was three years old, her sisters, Lillian and Mabel, five and seven.

Soon after, a man with a walrus mustache and a watch chain showed up at Anna's grocery store, emerging with papers in his breast pocket. One at a time he lifted the squirming, screaming little girls into the wagon, (the baby, Della, was too young to be taken) climbed in behind them, and as the neighbors watched through their windows, jiggled the horse's reins and disappeared, rattling down the cobblestone street.

In my sentimental imagination I picture Anna running after the horse and wagon, arms outstretched, tears steaming down her face, crying My babies! My babies! Like in a silent movie. Like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid. But I know better. What I know of Anna is that she turned away to wait on a customer. Or simply stood watching them leave from her window.

When the children arrived at the Jewish Orphan Asylum on Woodland Avenue and 55th Street, the smell of rot rose from the earth. The sisters stared at the high iron-spiked fence that surrounded the large buildings with their barred windows, and sobbing in fear, eyed still another frightening stranger come toward them. Later they would learn that he was Doctor Leo Wolfenstein, the director, whom they would come to regard with fear and awe as a surrogate for God Himself with his strict discipline and constant admonitions about living a moral life.

The sisters were then separated into their respective age groups among the other 500 "inmates" (as they were called in their lives behind bars.) My mother was taken to a large damp room in the basement (infested, like the orphanage's other nineteenth-century buildings, with huge rats, lice and bedbugs.) Staring with alarm at the large pool of green water with two ladders leading down into it, she was stripped and examined for lice by one of the older girls. The probing of her head and body by yet another stranger set her off again into a rejuvenated fit of wailing until she was dragged into the tub and shocked into silence by the scalding water. After being scrubbed, her hair was cut off--starting a lifelong preoccupation. (Over the years, following the fashion of the day, she had her hair bobbed, upswept, permed, straightened, marcelled, streaked, layered.)

Scrubbed, de-loused, and shorn, exhausted and subdued, she was put into thick, gray undergarments with long legs that itched winter and summer. Black stockings went on next, then a red flannel underskirt and finally a dress of wool that reached the ankles. Over that went a blue striped apron. Shoes were made of thick leather that laced up over the ankles. After being dressed she was assigned a number that was sewn on her uniform and by which she was henceforth known.

She was always hungry. While doing her dawn-to-dusk chores, during her hours of Hebrew and Bible study, she was hungry. Attending classes in German, English and mathematics, history, social studies and geography, penmanship and spelling, she was hungry. Sitting among the five hundred other orphans at long wooden tables of ten in enforced silence, there was never enough to eat and for every hour of each and every day, for the next twelve years, she was hungry. But she was also smart, performing academically at the top of her class every year.

Once a week the children were assembled in the Prayer Hall on the top floor of the schoolhouse for one of Doctor Wolfenstein's lectures on personal morality, integrity, uprightness, virtue and the Ten Commandments. I know she took it all in because she taught me everything she learned. But no matter how much she preached I saw her ultimate rejection and even contempt for every one of Wolfenstein's revered institutions--marriage, religion, politics, formal education, medicine, law, government. "Don't do what I do, do what I say," she told me.

Taught religion, she became an agnostic; taught truthfulness, she lied; taught humility and gratitude for an orphan's room and board, she developed a ferocious pride. Instructed on modesty in dress and behavior, she exchanged her scratchy uniform for the glittering dresses she loved and spent her widow years before the Crash as the quintessential flapper.

And at the age of fifteen on a lovely June afternoon in 1912, Florence, my mother, graduated valedictorian from the Jewish Orphan Home. After the ceremonies, her Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Adler, climbed the stairs to her dorm when she was packing her few belongings.

"You're to go to the office," she told her.

Clutching her valedictorian medal she ran downstairs where a woman in a brown coat and feather-trimmed hat stood waiting.

She stared at the stranger.

"This is Anna Smith," the office secretary said.

Puzzled, Florence looked from one to the other.

"She's your mother," the secretary said.