“Flunking” out of daycare
Marilyn Goldstein wasn’t off to a great start in her academic career. She managed to repeatedly flunk out of daycare. No one liked her. She didn’t play well with the other children. She was withdrawn. Although the term “antisocial” hadn’t yet been coined, Marilyn could’ve been an example cited in child psychology texts.
Each daycare director had the same complaint: All Marilyn wanted to do was sit by herself and read. Her mother explained that Marilyn had taught herself to read when she was three and read everything she could get her hands on. “Couldn’t everyone just leave her alone, since she wasn’t bothering anyone?”
“But she is bothering everyone!” explained Miss Susman, who ran Happy Day Childcare. “The other children think she’s strange and make fun of her. She’s just too much of a non-conformist. And personally, Mrs. Goldstein, I think your daughter needs help.”
Marilyn’s mother was put in an untenable situation. She needed to work because her husband was in the army. Marilyn was four, too young for kindergarten. By then, hopefully, the war would finally be over.
Reading to Chana
Marilyn and her mother lived in Crown Heights, a predominately working-class Jewish neighborhood. Her mother had a widowed friend who lived nearby. The friend, Chana, had very poor eyesight and was unable to hold a job. She could barely scrape by on the money that her married daughter sent her every month, so she was happy to accept what Mrs. Goldstein could pay her to look after Marilyn.
“Marilyn,” she said, “you know even I can see that you’ve grown so tall.”
This got a smile out of the girl.
“So, it would be OK for my daughter to stay with you until I can make other arrangements?”
“Certainly! It’ll be my pleasure to show her around.”
“Maybe you could take her to the library. She loves to read.”
“She can read?”
“Of course I can!” declared Marilyn. “I’ve already turned four!”
Chana laughed. “You know, I can’t read anymore. Maybe you can read to me.”
Marilyn looked at her mother, who smiled and said, “I think we have a deal.”
The Brooklyn Public Library
Chana had a friend who worked at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, just across the street from Prospect Park. Known throughout the borough as Grand Army Plaza, this imposing building had been completed just a few years earlier and was the pride of the entire Brooklyn Public Library system. It had very large reading rooms, many knowledgeable research librarians and a huge lobby that housed a vast array of card catalogues.
Chana had a library card and they were able to take out up to four books. She was surprised that Marilyn chose adult novels rather than children’s books. Marilyn explained that she’d become bored reading them, and wanted to read “real books.”
They returned to Chana’s apartment and spent the rest of the day having Marilyn read to Chana. When Mrs. Goldstein came after work to pick up her daughter, Chana would tell her what Marilyn had read to her. These were novels that she herself remembered reading in high school: books like David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities.
On the way home, Mrs. Goldstein asked Marilyn if she understood everything that she’d read.
“Not always, but Chana explained the hard parts. And when I got stuck on a word, I spelled it out, and Chana told me what it meant.”
“Wow! The two of you are a team!“
A library card of her own
Chana soon decided that Marilyn should have her own library card. So, the next time they went to Grand Army Plaza, they filled out a form and Marilyn was presented with her card. The librarian confided that she was the youngest card-holder in all of Brooklyn. “Maybe we should carve your name on the front of the building.”
Marilyn threw back her head and laughed and laughed. That was one of the silliest things she’d ever heard.
When her mother came to pick her up that evening, Marilyn showed her the library card.
“Really? I thought you had to be at least 10 or 12 before they gave you a card.”
“Well, Mom, I’m kind of tall for my age.”
One evening, when Mrs. Goldstein arrived, Chana had some bad news. Her daughter was having a very difficult pregnancy, and she needed to go to Chicago to help take care of her grandchildren. She felt terrible about leaving on such short notice, but she just didn’t have any choice.
On the way home, Marilyn didn’t say much, but her mother knew how sad she was. Of even more immediate concern was where she was going to find someone else to take care of her daughter.
Just a few days later, Marilyn and her mother walked along Eastern Parkway from their apartment to the Brooklyn Museum. Marilyn remembered walking past this huge building many times, but she’d never been inside. It was even bigger than the Grand Army Plaza Library.
“You’ll really like my friend, Gladys. She’s heard all about you and is very anxious to meet you.”
“Why, of course! She’s never met a 4-year-old who knew how to read.”
“Will she want me to read David Copperfield to her?”
“Probably not. I think she’s already read it. And besides, she has a very important job, and will be pretty busy.”
“That’s OK. I’m glad we brought the book with us. I didn’t have time to finish reading it to Chana. I want to know how it all turns out.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to read.”
They entered the museum and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Gladys’s office was next to the landing. Mrs. Goldstein knocked on the door and they heard a voice asking them to come in.
A very jolly woman was sitting behind a desk.
“You must be Marilyn. My name is Gladys.”
She got up and walked over to Marilyn, extending her hand.
“Glad to meet you,” she said.
Marilyn looked up at her and shook hands.
“May I ask you a question, Marilyn?”
“Do you have snoo on your shoe?”
Marilyn was puzzled. She looked up at her mother for some assistance, but her mother just shrugged.
“You don’t know what ‘snoo’ is?”
“No, what’s snoo?”
“Nothing, Marilyn. What’s new with you?”
Marilyn looked at her mother and just rolled her eyes.
Then she said, “You know, Gladys, that joke is kind of funny, but it’s also pretty dumb.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Goldstein. “I can see that the two of you are going to get along very well. So, I’ll leave for work now and I’ll see you both this evening.”
Gladys asked Marilyn if she’d like to see the museum.
“You mean the whole museum?”
“Well, today, maybe we can see just part of this floor. I know you must be anxious to get back to David Copperfield, to see how everything turns out.”
“Did you read David Copperfield too?”
“Oh yes! But that was many years ago, when I was in high school. That’s where I met your Mom. We were in the same class, so she read the book at the same time I did.”
“Did you like it?”
“Very much! It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“Have you read a lot of books?”
“Yes … but probably not as many as you’ve read.”
Marilyn burst out laughing. “Gladys, you’re pretty funny! But sometimes your jokes are kind of dumb.”
Dr. Bottomly and a beautiful statue
For an hour or so each morning, Gladys took the girl to a different section of the museum. For the rest of the day, Marilyn sat in Gladys’s office and read. It took them weeks before they got through the entire museum.
Gladys told Marilyn that she was free to wander around and look at everything on her own. But she had to let Gladys know where she would be.
One day, when Marilyn was visiting the Egyptology collection, she was struck by the beauty of a statue that rested on a plinth. So, she pulled over a chair and attempted to climb onto the plinth. She then heard footsteps approaching from behind, and a man with a heavy British accent asked her if she was on her way up or on her way down.
“I’m on my way up, but I can’t reach.”
“What are you trying to reach?”
“Her face. I want to feel it. I’ll bet her face feels cool.”
“So do I,” he said. “Would you like me to lift you?”
“Yes, thank you.”
So he lifted her and she reached out and touched the face. And it was, indeed, quite cool.
That was how she met Dr. Bottomly, who was the curator of the Egyptology collection. They quickly became good friends. He was very proud of the museum’s growing collection and had travelled all over the world looking for items to add to it. “After the war,” he confided, I’d love to go back to Egypt again.”
From then on, Marilyn spent an hour or two almost every day with Dr. Bottomly. He introduced her to other curators, and over the next few months, she learned more than many art students learn in a lifetime.
But then, one day, it all suddenly ended. A legal advisor to the museum director convinced him that allowing a 4-year-old to wander about the museum raised liability issues. Despite the protests of Gladys, Dr. Bottomly and several other curators, he decreed that Marilyn could no longer visit the museum unless accompanied by an adult.
Discovering the “secret room”
When Mrs. Goldstein got the news that evening, she couldn’t think of another person who could care for Marilyn while she was at work. Finally, in desperation, she asked her mother-in-law to watch her daughter. Marilyn’s grandmother was a very nice person, but, as several family members observed, she wasn’t exactly the brightest candle in the menorah. Not only was she illiterate, but she rarely had much to say.
Her husband, on the other hand, had perhaps too much to say and a lot of it wasn’t very nice. Everyone agreed that it would’ve been much better if his wife spoke more and he spoke less.
Grandpa Maier was a baker. He left for work at 4 a.m. and didn’t get home until the late afternoon. Every morning, Marilyn’s mother would drop her off before going to work and pick her up around 6 p.m. But she would rarely stay for supper, mainly because she found her father-in-law so unbearable.
Marilyn would bring a library book to read, and sometimes she would take a break and help her Grandma with her cooking and cleaning. Marilyn’s uncle and aunt still lived at home. Uncle Leib was 16 and spent all day at a Yeshiva. And Aunt Rivka, who was 20, worked in a grocery store just a few blocks away.
Sometimes, when Rivka got home from work, she’d take Marilyn out for a walk. She hated her job and couldn’t wait till her boyfriend got back from Europe, so they could get married.
“Is he in the army like my Dad?”
“Yeah, for three years now. But according to the newspapers, the war should be over soon.”
“I hope so. I can’t even remember my Dad.”
“Joey left when you were just a baby. Of course you can’t remember him.”
“Was he a good brother?”
“Well, yeah. But he wasn’t around that much. He and our father didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye.”
“So, is my Dad much older than you?”
“Yeah, almost six years.”
“Why do you hate your job?”
“Most of the time I work at the cash register. I don’t mind figuring out change, because I’m pretty good with numbers. But so much stuff is rationed that it drives me crazy.”
“You mean when people give you ration coupons?”
“Yeah, the government rations a lot of stuff, like coffee, cheese, butter and sugar.”
“So, you hate the ration coupons?”
“Yeah! The money I can handle. But sometimes the customers don’t have enough coupons, or sometimes they beg me to let them buy stuff without giving me any coupons. I’m telling you, it’s one big headache!
“And then I come home and have to listen to my father carrying on! I just can’t wait for this war to be over so my boyfriend and I can get married and get our own apartment!”
For most of the day, Marilyn was alone with her Grandma. One day, she decided to find out what was in the mysterious room that seemed to be off-limits to all the family members except Grandpa Maier. She’d tried the door several times, but it was always locked.
Marilyn asked her grandmother what was in the room. Her grandmother put her finger to her lips and made a shushing sound. “It’s a big secret.”
“What kind of secret?”
“Grandpa doesn’t want anyone to know.”
“How many books he has in there.”
“Do you know?”
“Bubala, I’ll tell you what I think. I think he has too many books.”
“What kind of books?”
“How should I know?”
Marilyn realized that her grandmother probably didn’t have any more information to give her about all the books in that room. She needed to find out for herself.
She began by looking in the room next to the locked door. It didn’t take long for her to find a key ring with several dozen keys. Patiently, she tried one key after another. Finally, her efforts paid off. She returned the keys to the drawer where she’d found them and entered the secret room.
It actually looked a lot like some of the rooms at Grand Army Plaza. Strange, she thought to herself, that Grandpa Maier would have one of those rooms in his apartment. Then she began looking at the books on each shelf. When she found one on Egyptian art, she pulled it off the shelf and began to read.
She found the going rather difficult, so she put it aside and picked out another art book. This one was much easier. When she looked at some of [Pieter] Bruegel’s paintings, she began laughing out loud. Rembrandt seemed much more serious, and the man clearly knew how to paint.
When Grandpa Maier came home early one day and saw the library door wide open, he became very angry. How could anyone have gotten inside? When he saw his granddaughter absorbed in an art book, though, he tiptoed away. He’d have to deal with this later.
As things turned out, he never did get around to dealing with this invasion of his sanctuary. He knew he could count on Marilyn’s locking the door after she finished, and even more importantly, her never mentioning being in the “secret room” to his wife or children.
Marilyn was very happy to have such a nice place to do her reading and such a great variety of books to choose from. She knew they missed her visits at Grand Army Plaza—not to mention her visits to the Brooklyn Museum—but she just couldn’t be everywhere at once. And very soon, she’d begin kindergarten. Her Mom had arranged for her to be in a special class in which all the children knew how to read.
Top student at Columbia
Marilyn was fine in school from the time she entered kindergarten to the very happy day when she defended her doctoral dissertation. In fact, when she was asked by her dissertation advisor to please leave the room for a few minutes, while he and the other professors on her committee discussed her dissertation, she knew this was just a formality—one that had been repeated countless times over many generations.
As soon as she was gone, one professor commented, “I think she’s the best Ph.D. candidate who has ever attended Columbia!”
“So, shall I call her back into the room?” asked her advisor.
They all nodded.
He walked out into the hall and said, “Doctor Goldstein, please come back inside. We know you passed. We’d like to learn if we passed.”
Returning to her roots
Marilyn had specialized in the French Impressionists, so when a Monet exhibit came to the Brooklyn Museum, she happily hopped on the Seventh Avenue IRT express, which took her right there.
As she entered the museum, it suddenly struck her that she hadn’t been back there in all those years. The lobby looked familiar, and she wondered if Gladys still had her office on the second floor. And if Dr. Bottomly was still in charge of the Egyptology division.
The exhibit wouldn’t open for another hour, so she decided to go to the “VIP reception,” which was actually for everyone who’d be attending the exhibition. As soon as she walked in, she saw him standing off by himself. As she approached him, he looked right at her and smiled. But he was just being polite, and clearly didn’t recognize her.
He looked puzzled for several seconds, and then he broke into a wide grin.
“Marilyn? My, how you’ve grown! Now you can reach the statues without standing on a chair.”
There were tears in her eyes. She hadn’t seen him in 25 years! He spread his arms wide and she rushed to hug him. Then he reached into his pocket and handed her some tissues.
“Marilyn, tell me everything that’s happened to you!”
“Well, Dr. Bottomly, that would take quite a while. But first, I need to apologize. I’ve felt so guilty, all these years, for not coming back to see you. I’ll always remember how kind you were and how much I owe to you.”
“Nonsense! It was a pleasure to have you around the museum, and I’m grateful that you still remember me.
“Tell me, Marilyn, what have you made of yourself? The other curators and I all believed that you had a great gift. You were able to see, to see and to feel, what we could manage just on an intellectual level. I knew that the moment I saw you standing on that chair.”
“Well, I’m afraid that I’m just another intellectual. A few days ago, I received my Ph.D. in Art History from Columbia University.”
“Why does that not surprise me? I knew you were destined to do great things! I’m just sorry that I wasn’t around to see them happen.”
“Well, in a way, you really were. You gave me my start. You showed me how much I could love art.”
“No, Marilyn. At best, maybe I just helped you see how much you already loved it. In fact, when I saw you standing on that chair, I knew how much you appreciated beauty. “
“Of course, my dear! So, tell me about your studies at Columbia.”
“Well, Dr. Bottomly … ”
“I specialized in the French Impressionists.”
“Oh my!” he said, shaking his head from side to side. But she saw the twinkle in his eye. “And all these years I’d been certain you would continue your career as an Egyptologist.”
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