SECRETS OF A GAY MAN GROWING UP IN THE 1950S
by Jonathan Feinn
The Blessing of Self -Acceptance
I decided to write my memoir when I reached my mid-eighties. Given the gift of longevity, I felt a strong need to review my life openly and to recall both the joyful moments as well as the days and nights of feeling anguish and hopelessness. Highlighting events and experiences in my life has given me the opportunity to better understand the emotional and physical cost over the years of denying the person I am and the pain of self-rejection.
My parents grew up in very different families. My paternal grandparents immigrated to America from the Ukraine when my father was only a year old. Grandma Sonia had been a victim during a pogrom and through the efforts of a cousin living in the United States, the family was able to come to America and settle in Chicago.
Neither of my grandparents spoke English but were fluent in Russian and Yiddish. They parented five sons one of whom had a very serious dysfluency and was thought to be retarded. Given the lack of understanding and resources during his early childhood, he never received any specific help and suffered throughout his life from emotional problems. I don’t remember having much connection to him, but I was aware that Uncle Joe felt rejection from my father who was a lawyer and the youngest brother who was a doctor. I remember feeling, frightened as a young child when my father would yell at him. The oldest son was married and already had a son when I was born.
Three of the uncles lived in an apartment with my grandparents above ours in a two flat building. There was much tension between the brothers and throughout my childhood I have memories of yelling and screaming fights between the brothers. I felt somewhat closer to my uncle Jack who I remember sitting me on his lap when I was a young child and singing to me; ’Thai Thai tiddly tum’ I remember feeling safe with him.
Looking back, I realize my paternal grandparents were depressed. I never saw them affectionate with one another. Grandma Sonia had been raised in a family in Moscow with some financial means and had opportunities to be educated in the arts and dancing. My grandfather came from a religious but impoverished family in Odessa. Neither grandparent ever shared anything with me about their lives in Europe which saddens me. I realize how difficult and painful it would have been for them and of course, there was the language problem. From time to time when my parents were out for the evening my grandfather would be my ‘babysitter’. I was told when I grew older that one night when Grandpa Zelig was the sitter, my parents returned and found him fast asleep and snoring while I was up playing with my toys.
My parents spoke to my grandparents in Yiddish and as a child I wanted to understand what they were saying. Over time I began to develop a beginning understanding of Yiddish and knew a few expressions which I tried to speak to my grandfather. He would always say ‘You American boy. NO speak Yiddish.’ In my adult years, I regret a missed opportunity to become a competent Yiddish speaker.
How difficult it must have been for my grandfather to support the family on a fish peddler’s income though the war years were hard financially for most people including my parents; my father did provide financial help to my grandparents in addition to supporting the four of us. Meanwhile grandmother Sonia Sarah had to adjust mealtimes to each of her son’s different schedules and preferences. She was very protective of her disabled son and on her death-bed begged family members to promise to care for him, Despite my uncle’s disability, he was able to work and live an independent life eventually getting married.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and was trained to serve both as a teacher and administrator providing guidance to staff and to children and adolescents with identified emotional disturbance and behavior disorders. He has served as a consultant to differing programs in both public and private school settings and was the director of a high school off-campus learning center serving students who required part-time placement outside the main building.
He has held faculty positions at National College in Evanston, Illinois and Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania where he taught students studying for both Master’s degrees and state certification. Prior to his retirement, he taught gifted elementary students in a ‘pull-out’ program. He is currently retired and continues his love of travel. To date he has visited 22 countries where he developed meaningful and lasting friendships with people in differing settings throughout the world.
Jonathan Feinn will be awarding a $25 Amazon/BN gift card to a randomly drawn winner