My Brother, Jack

South Ferry Subway Terminal

While I was enjoying life at Seward Park High School, things were not going equally well for my mother.  As a matter of fact, they were going rather badly.

Her pregnancy was difficult and the baby was born about two months early.  She named him Jack.   I don’t remember what the earliest signs were that all was not right with him, but I do remember his incessant rocking in his crib.  She took him to doctors, and eventually the diagnosis was that Jack had been born severely-profoundly retarded, had to be institutionalized and would remain so his entire life.  At about the same time Max Gringer showed up at the apartment, having made his own way to the United States, but not to marry my mother.  He held fast to his decision not to marry, but he did visit the apartment once-in-awhile and wouldn’t believe his son’s diagnosis.  This led to a string of arguments each time he came to visit, until my mother would ask him to leave. Eventually, a placement was found for Jack in Willowbrook State School, on Staten Island.  Years later Geraldo Rivera did an expose on ABC TV of what a house of horrors Willowbrook had become, which led to its being closed.  At the time, however, my mother knew nothing of that nor did anyone else.

Now began my mother’s treks to Willowbrook to visit Jack.  This involved taking the subway to the South Ferry Station, the Ferry to Staten Island (there was no Verrazano Bridge in those days), and then the bus to Willowbrook, and every other week, rain or shine, she never missed a Sunday.  Max, of course, never bothered going.  I also only went once or twice, and saw no reason to repeat the experience.  Jack didn’t recognize anyone in any case, and as I had no special attachment to him, although he was my half brother, I had formed no emotional connection.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but it is the truth.  My mother on the other hand visited regularly, and hoped for and looked for every little improvement.  One day, when Jack was already in his twenties, she was thrilled when she thought he had actually recognized her.

Now, with Jack institutionalized, my mother could work, and a job was found for her, possibly by the same Welfare Department that had supported us since our arrival in the United States. She still couldn’t speak English, but she began working in one of the innumerable clothing manufacturing establishments in mid-Manhattan, which at the time was still the Garment Center.  I’m not sure what it was that she did there, but she was happy finally to be able to earn some money on her own and to be able to support us.  One day, she received a letter from the Welfare Department requesting repayment and establishing a schedule for such repayment of the funds the Department had provided.  It took years, but my mother eventually repaid every penny she had been given by the Welfare Department.  Later in life, I worked for that department as a “social investigator,” (a euphemism for snoop).  Although she never earned much, my mother is the only person I ever heard of who actually paid back her debt to the New York City Welfare Department.

Willowbrook State School Administration Building

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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