Posted by Myron Barnstone, edited by Joel Bowers on April 13, 2016
I was born in Portland, Maine in 1933. My earliest childhood memory is that of setting fire to a field. I think I was using a magnifying glass. For a moment, I really thought the thing was going to race through the whole neighborhood. It was piece of open ground but I managed to stomp it out before anything terribly tragic happened. But I was quite traumatized. I was very young. I must have been five or six years old.
My father was in business with my uncle, my mother’s brother. They had an Army-Navy store. My father’s partner didn’t treat him very well. And that upset me terribly. But they were able to move from the edge of a slummy area (although we lived in a nice house) to a nice middle class area called Deering in Portland.
Shortly after we were established there and we moved out of my grandmother’s house and moved to Deering, when I went to school, I met two other children, one by the name of Kenneth Waxman and another called Steven Alpert. We became pretty inseparable all the way through grammar and high school. I’m not really in touch with either of them now, which I am sorry about. It’s amazing how if you don’t nurture a friendship and spend a lot of time maintaining it, when you reach out and you talk to your old friend, it seems kind of hollow and you discover that things are different and you have moved away from each other to such an extent that there is not much common ground. You can begin to reminisce but it begins to feel a bit corny and embarrassing.
When I finished high school, because I had studied art always, meaning I took the art courses and became an art major in high school and went to a local art school, I was active in various youth groups in the community. Being Jewish, I belonged to Jewish community center and I was elected president of the Youth Club, as was my brother Leonard after me. I used to do all the posters and I did the scenery for productions at the center. There was active group of theatre people many of whom were very professional. They were in touch with Oscar Hammerstein and people in the New York theatre and, in the front row, were visiting critics to give the authors their opinion. So it was a pretty sophisticated community.
My mother and father hadn’t had a whole lot of schooling. When we were very young, my father, who had to leave school in the eighth grade to support his mother and two sisters, bought a floor-to-ceiling, ten-foot-wide bookcase filled with a collection of classic novels, essays and short stories. No important author was neglected.
My mother finished high school and then went to New York and did some secretarial work.
She developed Bell’s Palsy. It is a condition where a person’s face becomes terribly twisted up. I think there is much that they can do for them today. But in those days, there was almost nothing they could do. It made her terribly depressed. She would have been a very attractive woman. She had a beautiful singing voice; she sang opera. But she hated appearing in public. But she could hide in the chorus and she managed to appear, while singing, in public. It was very embarrassing. It was very sad. And, as you age, you become even less attractive. Near the end of her life, my mother was confined to a nursing home. She never lost her wits and was frustrated to be put in a room with a near-comatose lady who talked to herself. One day, when she was particularly frustrated and finding no nurse coming after frequently pressing the emergency call button, she, naturally, called the police and the fire department. For some reason, shortly after her call, the parking lot filled with police cars, ambulances, fire engines and the rubbernecked curios. My mother's fury was increased considerably when she found the phone in her room had been ripped from the wall. Ripped! Mother was an impatient lady...I, at least, know where I inherited that trait.