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Sarah Sidis, M.D.

Unpublished manuscript, 1950


Mother at Eight

    When I was eight years old and lived in the Russian Ukraine, I had two babies and my sister Ida, who was eleven, had two babies. Ida cooked for the family, and I cleaned house and washed dishes. Every other night Ida would be up with all four of the babies, and every other night I would be up with them.

    Mother and Daddy would sit on the front porch and rock, and if a baby cried, Daddy would say, "Ida, your baby is crying!," or "Sarah, your baby is crying!"

    By the time I was eight I had learned that if you were always kind and gentle to the babies, and never punished them, or struck them or were cross with them, they were very much better and gave Ida and me less trouble. If we told them little stories and always spoke in a nice Voice to them, they went to sleep when we wanted them to, and behaved nicely for us.

    It came about that I had these babies because my mother had i5 children, and the older children took care of the younger. When I was a child I thought that that was the way the world wagged, and that it was so in all families. Neither Ida nor I resented this situation.

    We were quite happy to do all these things, because my mother was beautiful and gentle and we loved her. Even after we came to Boston and I was married I used to come every Sunday morning and clean house for my mother, because I thought, "What does my mother know about housekeeping?"

    My father was gay and gentle and I adored him. He was very quick and deft in his movements, and so strong he could break a penny in two with his hams. I used to walk down the street in the village holding his arm and felt that he belonged to me.

    So that I might help him with his accounts, he taught me to add, subtract and multiply. But I never learned to read or went to any school in my childhood.

    Now this pattern developed in my family because my mother and father married so young, and because they had so many children. When she was fourteen, Fannie Rich was a beauty, and Bernard Mandelbaum married her. He was seventeen and still a student.

    Both of them were from moderately well-to-do middle-class families and they lived with those families for five years after they were married, while father finished his schooling and started himself in business as a grain merchant. First they lived in Zaslav with mother's family, and then in Stara Constantine with father's family.

    It was called living "on board", and it was not uncommon in middle-class Russian families for young married couples to live in this way until they could take up independent economic responsibilities. Both families had several servants--domestic servants were paid $35 a year and even less in Russia then. Mother was a pet, she had no domestic responsibilities.

    Later, after they bad their own home and after she had had so many babies, her health was none too good, so it certainly seemed fair to the older children that we should do the work. I was the fifth baby, but two children before me bad died in infancy, one with  smallpox and one with typhoid. First of the living was Harry, and then my Ida. Then I was born, on October 2, 1875, in Stara Constantine.

    The town is in the Ukraine, in the rich farming section of Russia, and while there was always plenty of work for us, there was also plenty of food. I never remember the pinch of poverty in either my family or in the village about us. It was a good section of Russia to be born in.

    Family walks on Sunday afternoon around the village park, and through the woods and streets are my first vivid memory in life. The feeling I remember is that it was a vary nice thing to be me, and to be one of my family. I must have been about four years old.

    By the time I was four, I was started on household tasks. Father built me a little footstool and I made the beds and dusted the house. Ida, who was three and a half years older than me, was doing the cooking by then. As the new babies came, Ida and I took care of them.

    Father was always devoted to Mother, and after she would have a new baby, he would take her away for a month or six weeks to rest, and Ida and I would take care of the others.

    Though they gave us all this responsibility, Father and
Mother were also very good to us. They were kind and gentle, were never cross with us, never punished us, never struck any of us. My older brother Harry was the only cross one in the family.

    Once I walked in after he had struck one of the children.

    "You hit one of my babies!" I said. "You can't do that!"

    "I can," he said, "and I will hit you, too!"

    "No!" I said. There must have been some great fury in my voice and mien, for he never did that again.

    When I was about eight Father made me a present of a sewing machine, and soon I was making all the family clothes, even my father's trousers.

    With all the work, I had plenty of left-over energy, and I could always dance to any gay tune. The town said, "That Sarah is a marvel!" And they said, "She has such sparkling eyes."

    In those years, though I did not learn reading or fractions, but I did, from my father and the sewing machine and the domestic chores, discover two marvelous things about teaching and about learning. The discoveries came by chance, certainly, because I was lucky and because I was healthy and energetic.

    When I was eight and learned to make trousers for my father, I could learn to do it quickly and fairly well because I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying. Who expects an eight year old girl to be a finished tailor' If she succeeds passably well she is praised, and if she fails she is not blamed.

    If I made a mess of the first pockets I ever set, no one blamed or punished or teased or jeered at me. Anything Father suggested that I might learn to do to be helpful seemed to me a pleasure to do, and I was never afraid to try. No one was ever cross or surprised if I did not succeed the first time--after all, I was so young, and I was not even the oldest daughter. These chores, and household domestic skills were not laid on me as weights and duties. They were presented as interesting challenges. I had nothing to lose, there was not even a slight or indirect punishment for failure.

    So later in my life I knew very well from my own practical experience that children, and indeed all people, will try much more readily and much harder at learning anything if there is no punishment for failure--neither the punishment of a blow nor of ridicule.

    I would cheerfully try to do all sorts of things because my feeling was, "What have I got to lose?"

    Also, I discovered that it I worked very hard for several hours at learning how men's trousers were put together, and failed, I was much more tired than if I worked very hard and succeeded.

    On those rare occasions when I went to bed thinking that things had gone wrong and were snarled and a task was to complicated, all the frustration made me weary and tired.

     But if I worked very hard all day and did a good job and succeeded, then pleasure and triumph filled me with energy, and I could dance in the evening. So I learned to put aside any difficult task that seemed in danger of thwarting me, with the idea, "Tomorrow I will solve that."

    If I wanted to feel good, I found, I must never, never say, "That is just too hard for me. I just can't do it. I can never learn to make men's trousers properly."

    It was not pride or vanity or a desire to show off that made me keep trying at hard tasks I had set myself. It was just that I wanted to avoid that droop of body and spirit that comes with frustration and failure.

     If a plan I made was quite irretrievably wrecked, I would immediately pick up all the pieces and go to work on another plan. Mine was not the way of butting my head a against a stone wall, but of climbing the wall, or going around it, or tunneling under it.

    So it was in my childhood and from my early family life that I got two ideas that are still with me, and that have shaped all my life: I thought I could do anything, and I was afraid of nothing but dogs.

    The fear of dogs I resented, it made me uncomfortable, but there it was. It came when I was five. I was chased across the fields by a pack of--something. They might have been wolves, and they might have been sheep dogs as savage as wolves. My memory does not go into zoological detail, but I have a very clear memory of bursting lungs, and the terror that I was lost when I fell through the door or our house.

    Today it is more than seventy years since that terror, and I am still willing to give even a dachshund whichever side of the street he wants. I will take the other.

    Father was a grain merchant, and he did well enough in my childhood. When the bolt came that resulted in my father's decision to leave Russia forever, it was a bolt quite out of the blue. There had never been any cruelty or grief or sadness in the family or around us, as I remember it. As I look at those early years they seem to me quite happy.

    So this thing that happened when I was about thirteen is something that stands entirely by itself in my memory, as an unspeakable event that does not color the rest of my childhood.

    A traveling band of robbers fell upon our household one night. They were as senseless and villainous as robbers are in fairy tales.

    Father stood in the door with a pitchfork and shouted to the older children. "Run! Escape! Fly!

     The robbers overpowered my father and knocked out his front teeth. They hit my mother, and she fell to the floor unconscious, and they picked up the baby she had held in her arms and swung her against the floor so that she was killed instantly.

    Barry and Ida and I ran out the back door and into snow-covered fields. We went that night to a nearby brick-yard. and crawled into the warm oven where they had been baking bricks, and slept there.

    The band of robbers carried away all of our belongings worth anything, and partially razed our house. If they had not been complete strangers, traveling thugs, this thing might have made a different impression upon me. But as I remember, I had the same feeling that one does towards the sudden violence of nature, towards a tornado or a bolt of lightning.

    "We must leave a country where such things can happen," said my father, and with that I agreed entirely.

    With all he had ever had destroyed, Father could raise only enough money for two of the family to come to America. In a conversation I was not supposed to overhear, he said to Mother, "I will take Sarah with me, because she is the brightest."

     Did my Ida ever mind? Not that I knew. So many times she said, "Sarah's the brightest! But she had the best heart of us all, was the kindest, the most generous.

    Ida stepped first into a bigger role in the family than I ever filled. She worked harder than I ever did. She had more responsibility.

    More was expected of her. Maybe she worked too hard. for she died too young, in her early forties.

    Of all the people in my childhood. the two I was closest to for all their lives were my father and Ida. Certainly I loved Mother, but she remains a little shadowy in my memories. Maybe that is because I was one of the older children, and so much of Mother's strength of body and spirit went into the babies. Maybe before I can remember I was to Ida, Ida's baby.

    When Ida came to die she had made a will about which she had said nothing to me. The will said, "To my sister. Sarah Sidis. I leave everything I possess to do with as she pleases."

    Now, when she was dying Ida's youngest son, Eddie, was only thirteen. More than anything else in the world she wanted to be sure that Eddie could go to college. She left what she had to me, knowing that I would see that what she wanted done, was done. I did. Eddie graduated from Harvard. What there was between us lasted all our lives, and her children were to me like my children.

    When Father and I left Russia, I was fourteen. Ida was left at home to take care of Mother and the younger children. The younger ones living at that time were Rose, Israel, Bessie and Charlie, who were twins. and Joe. Jack. the baby, was born after in America. Our grandparents were able to help take care of the family until Father and I could make enough in America to send for them.

    When we reached Hamburg to embark for the United States, Father found that the money he had been able to scrape together was only enough for a fare and a half, and they said I could not go half fare.

    "We must go back to Russia and wait until we can raise more money," Father said.

    "No, no, let me try," I told him.

    So I went the round of the ships' captains. Four refused me. To the fifth I said, "If I am to go to America with my father, I must go half fare!"

    "But you are too old to ho half fare," he told me.

    "What difference does that really make? Let me go! I replied with all my heart in my eyes and voice.

    "Why not?" he said.

    So we sailed, and what I thought mostly on the boat was, "We are going to America, where I can learn everything!"

    Why this land meant learning to me, and why I should want at the age of fourteen more than anything else in the world to learn, I can hardly explain. It seemed to me then as it seems to me now perfectly normal to want knowledge more than things. Towards the pursuit of knowledge I felt as the roué feels towards the pursuit of his pleasures. To pursue knowledge was the easy way, the line of least resistance.

    Learning seemed to me a marvelous luxury because I knew that had I grown up in Russia it would have been quite impossible for me. Knowledge was the most finally and tightly closed door to women in the land of my birth. Had I lived in Russia until I was twenty, I should surely have married, and I would have been "babushka", which is to say, "granny," at twenty. And it seemed I would live all my life without tasting the beauty and the power and the magic that lay between the covers of books.

    So it was that on the boat I said, "In America I will become a doctor." It was the most outrageously improbable thing far me to become, the goal furthest from my reach in Russia.

    But the knowledge for which I hungered included simply everything about the world, how it worked, and why it worked that way, as far as men could explain. I wanted to know about people and history and mathematics and geography. Tricks of all trades fascinated me, and I could learn with interest from watching a scrubwoman at her work better and easier ways to scrub floors.

    Later I watched tailors and upholsterers at their work, because it seemed so interesting to know just how they did it. Many years later it was absorbing to me to learn pruning and tree surgery by watching skilled workmen and then doing it myself. Complicated, deft, sure movements I liked. And I found that if you ask intelligent questions, most people are kind and like to explain what they are doing.

     Of course, I ran across the mean vanity of trying to make work hard and mysterious in all types of people, both those who work with their hands and those who work with their brains. Such people, I discovered, were never the really good workers. In many skilled workmen I found that generous pride that says, "Look, "it's easy when you know how." Later, when I went to medical school, all my best teachers had that same attitude, and the best surgeons all made it look easy.

    When Father and I landed at Castle Garden he had fifty cents in his pocket, and tickets on the Fall River line to Boston. To disembark we had to show sufficient money to customs officials to prove that we would not be destitute. We rented this money on the boat from other immigrants, and returned it to them after showing it to the customs officials.

    Perhaps as we walked about the streets of New York that day, eating bread, knowing no word of English, Father was a little afraid, but I was not. His uncertainty was a challenge, and I thought, "I will show him it will be easy!"

    For already I was long past accepting anybody else's estimate of what was hard. My plans could be shattered time and again, but I always picked them up, because that shimmering bubble of pride inside me had never been broken.

    Only once in my life has it ever seemed to collapse, and that was for a few months after Boris Sidis died.

      The next day we went to Boston on the Fall Rive line, and there was a steerage on that line, too. We went with the chickens. Boston was our destination, and certainly my life would have been very different had we chosen any other city than Boston.

    The years when I grew up in Boston were the golden age of the town, the decades of the 1880's and the 1890's. America was coming into maturity in science and art, and Boston was leading the country. For many years it was my city and in my heart I feel for it a warm affection and devotion. So did my son all his life. [Meet Boston]

    The report was current that Boston was mannered, fossilized, and rigid. What I found was a warmth and generosity of thought not rivaled In any other city in this country in which I have ever lived. 

      None of these things were in my mind when we went there by the Fall River line. Hazel Barnett lived in Boston, and her mother was a friend of my mother. Hazel was young, just married, and her husband was Just starting in a plumbing supply business. She took Father and me in, kept us for three years, launched us in this new world. Father slept on a cot, and I slept on four chairs in the kitchen and fell off occasionally.

    For the rest of my life the Barnett family have been my friends, and I tried years later to do for Hazel's children something as big as what she did for me, but I doubt if I succeeded. Hazel bought me a corset, and had me discard the peasant scarf. She launched me on the road to getting a job.

    That first job paid $3 a week, and consisted of sewing on buttons for a tailor. "Have you had any experience?" he asked, and I said, "Try me!" After he saw the work, he showed me a stack of coats that literally almost touched the ceiling. I was to sew buttons on them.

    "All of those?" I asked.

    "The way you work, you can do it in nothing flat!" he said.

    Never in my life has there been a harder year than that first year of mine in America. My father got a job pressing, and then he got a better job. I got a better job. We saved every penny to bring the others to America, It took us a year to save enough out of our combined salaries of about $15 a week to bring Ida to America.

    Then Ida and Father and I worked and saved another year to bring the others over. In that second year my experience with the sewing machine paid off, for I went to work for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, teaching their customers who had bought machines how to use them.

    Each day I went to the office on Tremont Street and picked up the addresses of the machine buyers whom I should visit, in one section of the city, now in another. I went to them, and taught them how to operate the machine, how to make ruffles, how to use the presser-foot hammer and the buttonholing gadget. Ten hours a day I worked. The rule I made for myself was that if the distance between assignments was no more than two miles, I would walk it, and save the three cents carfare. Ida worked harder than I did after she came over.

    Two years of this saw all the family together again in Boston, and by that time Father had opened the little candy store in Chelsea by which he supported them for years. He made his own candy, and his own ice cream, and the children who were his chief customers liked him enormously. It was certainly necessary in our family finances that we all work, but no one was ever desperate for money, and by then I might spend a dollar on myself occasionally.

    "Look here," said I to Ida and to our friend, Shaninda, "Let us have a little school." For $1 a week we could rent a room, and we persuaded two young college students that they should tutor us for nothing. Two or three nights a week the girls and boys met, and the students, who were Russian immigrants like ourselves, but who had been here longer, taught us reading and fractions.

     Our little school lasted for one winter, and it was very pleasant if not sensational. We met and worked and laughed and joked. After Mother and the rest of the family came, there were always many parties. Mother enjoyed company and with one daughter who did all the cooking and another who did all the cleaning, entertainment was not to difficult.

    No longer were Ida and I mothers, for the younger children had grown enough so that they no longer needed so much care. To have only the ten hour a day job with Singer and the housekeeping to do made me feel emancipated. Each Sunday morning I gave the house a thorough cleaning, and when I entered the room on that day the youngsters would cry, "Get out! Here comes the hurricane."

    This pattern of work and play, for the school was play to me, lasted for one winter and was very pleasant until first one and then the other of the boys who ware teaching us fell in love with me. That was embarrassing. I was a child with pig-tails down my back, and the other girls in the little class were older.

    Love, I thought, meant marriage and children and no more studying and for that life I did not care. Of what it really meant, physically and emotionally, I had no idea, but it seemed to me greatly over-rated. Never having been in love, I judged it from the outside, and from the outside it was certainly the end of the story. Shrewd, innocent and terrible is that naïve judgment so many teenagers still come to pass on love!

    "What a nuisance!" I said to myself. and we let the classes dissolve. It was then, when I was about sixteen. that I heard of a young man whom they said was a genius. His name was Boris Sidis. He was a Russian immigrant, and he made his living giving lessons at a dollar a week for three lessons.

    "I cannot afford three lessons a week," I thought, "but perhaps he will give me two for 65 cents."


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