Chapter 1. Orphan Boy
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The earliest surviving photo of Johnny, at eight years old.
As the Great Depression hit bottom in 1933, I was born to a thin, drug-addicted housemaid, age nineteen. I made my first public appearance at the age of four, begging for bread from our rooming-house neighbours. They called the police, who found me making a sandwich for my younger brother. Mother lay on our only bed, unconscious. Father's whereabouts were unknown.
I was born on August 24: sun in Virgo, moon in Libra, Scorpio rising. Astrologers say that with these stars "you will search long and hard for a mate who satisfies your discriminating tastes. You will engage in many relationships." I've lived with thirty-two partners, loving and losing, again and again.
The stars also say a typical Virgo spends much of his time analysing his own life in the spirit of Socrates, who advised: "The unexamined life is not worth living." My whole life has been a search and research for the purpose of my being, which I now know: to love and be loved in return.
Love is the focus of my professional work, the motive of my romantic adventures, and, only recently, my feeling for myself. Finally, with age, compassion has come for the brave little boy who lives inside me. He is an impressive survivor, ready at last to tell his story.
I learned my mother's name for the first time when I reached sixty. It would have remained forever unknown to me, but for my son's urgent wish to become a landed immigrant of England. I had a childhood memory that my mother was English born. If I could prove this, an ancient law of England would allow her grandson to live there. With the aid of a cabinet minister I persuaded the Ontario Registrar and the Children's Aid Society (CAS) to release the documents of my childhood. In 1994 I read my mother's name with excitement: Edith Anderson.
My father was John Lee, no middle name. I have no idea how they met, or how they came to the tiny village of Maxville, in eastern Ontario, where I was born. My father worked as an auto mechanic. He longed to own a garage of his own, but those were the worst years of the Great Depression. After he bought some garage equipment on credit, his business failed.
My brother David was already on the way. Dismayed by the burden of debt, the wretched prospect of two small children, and a wife addicted to drugs, he left and never returned. Mother moved us to Toronto.
Our first social worker recorded that our room was reeking with fumes of ether. I stumbled about on wobbly legs. My brother David bawled in his crib. The worker describes my mother as "a sad and listless woman. Mrs. Lee lacks a number of teeth, which causes her to speak in a peculiar way. She lost her mother when she was ten, and was not happy with the stepmother who followed when her father married again."
The CAS contacted Edith's father in England. He was a well-educated man but believed his daughter had married badly: “She made her own bed and will have to lie in it.” He refused to help us.
The social worker checked mother’s worthiness as a parent with our physician. He insisted that she was "doing her best." Yes, my brother and I were in poor physical condition, but this was due to our “mental subnormality rather than to malnutrition.” The worker concluded: "not enough evidence to go to court." David and I continued to live with Edith.
I have few memories of mother: cooking on a hotplate, crying at a kitchen table, sleeping off her drugs in a tattered bed. My clearest memory is about food. A neighbour gave me a chocolate bar. I ate one small section and hid the rest, saving my treasure for another hungry day. When I went to retrieve it, the chocolate was gone. I ran to mother. I can still hear her pleading her own great hunger.
On December 8, 1938, the police again called the CAS. My mother had been admitted to hospital after neighbours forced their way into our stinking room and found her unconscious. I had opened a window and was busy feeding my younger brother. As we had no clean plates, I was laying out food on a washboard. The CAS took us into emergency care.
My mother assured the CAS that she had learned her lesson, and we were returned to her. A year went by. Mother struggled to extinguish her drug habit and find steady work as a maid and cook. She now suffered a new addiction spending her scarce resources on fortune tellers.
On January 24, 1940, we were evicted for nonpayment of rent. Mother took us to the CAS Shelter. She had no money and no job. "Will you care for my babies for a few days?" The intake worker recorded six-year-old Johnny's parting words:
“Mummy, you’ll come and get us, won’t you, as soon as you find a room?”
The Shelter doctor found us severely underweight and suffering from rickets. When he took a blood test, I began to sing, explaining (he wrote): "I always sing when life hurts." It's a habit I continue to this day.
At bedtime, I asked that some lights be left on, so that mother could find us.. She did not come, and on February 23 David and I were placed in separate foster homes.
Closing paragraphs of the covering letter of 1996 from the Childrens Aid Society, providing the case record of Johnny from age 4 to age 21.
The CAS ran newspaper ads to locate our mother. She saw an ad and wrote that she would be coming for us, but she gave no address. In June 1940, Edith accepted total defeat as a mother and asked the CAS to keep us. We became wards of the Crown.
First foster parents
My first placement was in north Toronto, with the working-class parents of Jack, a boy my age. In 1940 their house was half an hour's walk to open country. Today it is more than twenty miles. Building lots were just being developed. I loved to wander through new houses under construction, comparing them with my favourite storybook: The house that Jack built.
My new "mom" and "dad" vowed that Johnny was now part of their family, but my new brother Jack was a shy and wistful child who never let me forget that I did not belong. I stayed out of his way.
Miss Black was my grade-two teacher. She used a hand puppet to convey her thoughts. One day she ordered: "Everyone who washed his ears this morning, raise your hands." Mine went up. She went down the rows, her puppet poking into ears. When she came to me, the puppet found some dirt. Miss Black's squeaky voice did not complain that I was mistaken, or failed to wash thoroughly. Instead she howled, "Johnny is a liar!"
Do I owe my lifelong horror of lies and secrets to Miss Black and her odious puppet? Sometimes people accuse me of not respecting their privacy, because I blurt out things told "in confidence." But secrecy means little to me. I tell all, and damn the consequences. No one can blackmail me. My response is blatant: "Go ahead. Announce it quickly. If you don't, I will."
CAS Reports of my childhood.
Mae West's advice is good: "Keep a journal when you're young, and when you're old, it will keep you." Late in life I’ve proved this advice sound, first, because my journals have enabled the “summing up” of my life; and second, because they have uncovered the pentimenti of my life the early strokes which an artist later corrects. I began my first journal on May 24, 1955, and filled the first pages with reminiscences of childhood I might lose. Decades later I am able to verify and supplement those recollections, thanks to CAS records. Here are a few selections from their files:
January 1940: Report by child psychologist: “Johnny, age six, is a slow, small, goodlooking boy with brown hair and eyes. He is thin and poorly developed, friendly and talkative. His common response is “sure!” He seemed more anxious to please me than to give correct responses. IQ: subnormal (75/200). Passed none of the questions for a six-year old. Further testing deferred due to extremely poor physical condition.”
January 1940: Notes by Shelter Superintendent: “Johnny is an attractive, obedient and agreeable little boy who washes and dresses himself and plays well with other children. He is very creative in play, and loves the big building blocks. He constructs towers and bridges over canals with boats underneath.”
(A week later): “Johnny is very curious, asks many questions, and watches the other boys to learn from them. He is slow at meals because of asking so many questions. He had a ravenous appetite in the first few days but has now settled in. At night he often cries out for his mother while sleeping, but seems unaware of this and gets up laughing and teasing. He loves outdoor play and can play by himself for long periods."
October 1940: Report by child psychologist: “He is testing at normal intelligence (IQ 102/200). I also interviewed his foster mother, who says Johnny presents no problems in discipline, plays well, is well toilet trained, has good table manners, and sleeps soundly in his own bed in a room with the foster mother’s son, Jack, also age 7.”
Johnny has always been well organized: his camping gear list for the summer of 1941 (age 8).
Sent back to the CAS.
When the 1940-41 school year ended, my foster parents said they were taking Jack on a holiday, but not me. Instead, my social worker would come for me. In my mind's eye I can still see Johnny sitting on concrete steps, leaning against an iron railing, a suitcase beside him. His "parents" and Jack come out of the house. The car is already loaded. "Your social worker is late, and we can't wait any longer. Just stay on the porch until she comes." The old car pulls away, Jack waving in the small back window.
How's that for an abandonment scenario to baggage a wounded child for half a lifetime?
The social worker moved me to my next home, a "transition" placement with an exceptionally affectionate retired couple. I called them Grandma and Grampa. They asked if I would like to meet my real brother again. Oh yes! I had not seen David for two years. Soon he was with me, and the world was friendly.
We had our own room, with lots of children's books and toys. In the garden was a swing and a shed to hide in. My new parents gave me a big doll with a pottery head, and a toy broom and mop to help clean house. We were frequently hugged. I swelled with joy and gratitude, doing everything to stay in this new home. I washed dishes before I was asked, made beds and swept floors.
The summer flew by happily, until our social worker arrived: "I'm terribly sorry, Johnny, but this is not your permanent home. It's only a stopping place for the summer. Now I'm going to take you and David to your real home. There you will stay until you grow up."
The CAS records that Johnny had to be forcibly dragged from his cheerful summer place. And pulled out of the car at 297A Oakwood Avenue. David followed glumly. As soon as the worker let go, Johnny collapsed on the wooden verandah and refused to enter the house. His new foster parents got him inside, and somehow, despite many difficulties, this would be his "family" until he was twenty-one.
My new parents were Orca and Joseph Shinaman. They were the children of two immigrant Northern Irish families, raised in a thoroughly Orange environment. The Shinamans were working class, clean living and hardworking. They did not smoke or drink. They asked the CAS for an orphan girl to serve as sister for their only daughter. Records do not explain how someone persuaded them to accept two boys instead.
The Shinamans never adopted us, for that would make them financially responsible for our care. As foster children we brought a monthly stipend, which became a significant part of the family budget. We were the boys when we were good. Never our sons or even our boys. When we misbehaved, we were warned that we could be SENT BACK, words that would bedevil my inner child for many years.
The only surviving photo of Orca Shinaman (as a young woman).
Joe, Orca, Beverly
Joe was a short, stalky man only five feet tall but about 200 pounds. His massive build was topped by a bulldog face that clearly said "Don't mess with me." He grew up as the tough kid in his block but carried a fatal attraction for girls who welcomed his protection. He dropped out of school after grade eight and spent most of his working life as a labourer. Joe had no love of culture, but enjoyed sports, and never let me forget his disappointment that I played no baseball, football or hockey.
I never saw Joe cry, not even at the deathbeds and funerals of his only daughter and his wife. Nor did I ever see him rumble with a full belly laugh. He had no skill with words, and griped that I could "talk the hind leg off a dog." His only recourse when I "talked back" was to hit me. I never saw him hug anyone. Yet he was not a cruel or abusive man.
Orca was even shorter than Joe, with a slender figure and a vulnerable look about her face. She was intelligent, and a good teacher, but a hard taskmaster. I owe her my many household skills, from cooking and preserving, to ironing shirts, mending clothes, and removing stains. She loved art. I still have the first watercolours I presented her as gifts (she returned them just before her death). At age fifteen I bought my first original oil painting for her, and thus began a lifetime of collecting art. Orca also enjoyed good music, and played the piano well.
After I moved away from the Shinamans, I sometimes took Orca out for lunch, and discovered her life story. She had a far better education than Joe but gave up her life chances to shelter in Joe's protection.
Until I was eleven, Orca let me read aloud while she worked in the kitchen. It was a sad day when she insisted: "You're too old to do that any more." Not so. I soon won First Prize for reading at school ; then I won First in public speaking.
When I could no longer read aloud at home I decided to publish instead a "neighbourhood newspaper." There was only one copy of each edition, carefully lettered by hand, with small illustrations. My first headline announced "Velma gets engaged" fresh news about our neighbour's daughter. Thus began a lifetime passion for writing.
Orca believed that the devil seeks idle hands. There was always something to do. After homework came housework: cleaning, scrubbing, waxing. Orca was cheap labour herself; it fills me with despair to recall the hours she cooked and cleaned and washed and ironed.
Beverly, the Shinamans’ only child, was sandwiched between David and myself not only in age, but in the politics of the family.
Beverly was short, with dark hair, and a round face frozen in petulant countenance. Six years as an only child did not prepare her to share cheerfully with new siblings. She was forced to contend with the natural coalition of kinship between us “boys,” and she was physically feeble and facially pock-marked due to an early bout with scarlet fever. She was unremarkable at school, both in marks and popularity. [After an unhappy teenage, she died in her early twenties, leaving the Shinamans childless but for two ironically unadopted boys].
It’s time to let the CAS record carry the story forward:
October 1941: Psychologist’s report : “By now Johnny is testing at high average intelligence, but he is still badly underweight for his age. I have asked the Shinamans to provide plenty of approval to relax his anxieties.”
March 1942: (summary of long record): Johnny's brother David is in hospital with scarlet fever; Johnny is terrified he might lose him. Orca has enrolled Johnny in the local Scouting "pack." She paid for the regulation sweater and socks but the Scout breeches were "too costly." Johnny must use the ordinary winter breeches which the CAS supplies in their seasonal clothing handout.
March, 1943: Report of child psychologist: “At ten, Johnny is still a thin, underweight, 52-pound boy. He catches colds and suffers frequent nose bleeds. He is in grade 3. He seemed to love arguing with me. Mrs. Shinaman seems a competent foster parent but it is possible she might be more affectionate.” [What diplomatic language! ]
September 1942: A new social worker observed: “Foster mother is an undemonstrative person and rather cold and off-hand. I wonder if Johnny is receiving much affection in this home?”
She continued: “Johnny tries to get on well with foster mother’s daughter. He accompanies her each Friday afternoon to her music lesson and waits for her and brings her home.” [ The fact was that I loathed those piano lessons. It’s a miracle I ever learned to love music. I cringed at the impatient shouts of the teacher when Beverly made a mistake, and at home, the nagging by Orca to get Beverly to “do your practice"].
Johnny with his brother David and his foster sister, Beverly.
February 1944. Eventually another social worker divined the real relationship between Beverly, David and myself. She writes in the third person: “Worker noticed that there are several advantages which fo. mo. provides for her own child which she does not give to Johnny or David.” A talk with my grade four teacher, Miss Griffiths, caused her to record: "Johnny is considered a fine boy in class, gives no trouble, and is artistic, with a fine sense of colour."
April, 1944: Report by psychologist: “IQ average (Terman 101). He is drastically underweight, but apparently cheerful.”
July 1944: The social worker reported that Orca gave David and me a small puppy, a cocker spaniel. I named it Night because it was solid black.
November 1944: A new social worker visited. I was at school and the worker entered: “fo. mo. was not particularly friendly.” After her next visit just before Christmas she reports: “Fo. mo. complains Johnny is saucy and will not do what he is told.”
Orca took umbrage at this latest worker; in February 1945 she phoned the CAS and asked to speak to our former worker, who “knows the boys better.” This worker phoned to explain that she was no longer on my case. She told my new worker, who dutifully entered in the record: "I do not feel too happy about the Boarding Home of Mrs. Shinaman. David and Johnny should have been adopted some time ago.”
March 1945: A CAS supervisor reports confronting the Shinamans: "I asked for more co-operation. Did they really like the boys? Did they intend to keep them after they quit school and started work?" Orca said she wanted to keep us, but she "would like a rest from us this summer." The Shinamans proposed that we be sent to summer camp: “Johnny is rather feminine and does not enter into boys’ sports. He is timid of the water and fo. mo. thinks that camp would be good for him.” Meanwhile, Joe finally deprived me of the hard-headed doll I’d hugged to sleep for years.
The supervisor concludes her report: "If a better home could be found for the boys this summer it would be a good time to make the break.” David and I went to Camp Norval for July and spent August in a temporary boarding home. My only clear memory of that home is sitting in front of a big radio the day the atom bomb was dropped. I followed every detail with great interest.
September 1945. The Shinamans set conditions for our return after the summer break. Our social worker records: "Mrs. Shinaman considers the CAS boarding rate too low, and warns that if she does not receive the boys' Family Allowance cheques, some other home will have to be found for the boys.”
November 1945: Report of psychologist: "Terman IQ 135. Great improvement in testing. He is a very pleasant lad, mature in conversation with a good sense of humour. He mentioned in a matter-of-fact way that he has been picked as one of the 30 most intelligent in his whole school.”
The psychologist interviewed Orca, and then called me back to suggest that I try to please my foster parents more: “Mrs. Shinaman was annoyed. She wants Johnny to know 'I don’t have to keep him.' He is not considerate and does little to help. He likes to paint by the hour. He does not bring his friends home." The psychologist notes that I get 15 cents-a-week allowance. "Johnny has saved most of it to buy war bonds, and Mrs. Shinaman refuses to allow him to sell them to buy a proper Scout uniform."
“In spite of her complaints, foster mother admits that Johnny’s behaviour at Sunday School and at school is perfect. She says: 'I can’t figure him out.' In my opinion he is now too bright for her, and outwits her in argument. While there is no serious neglect, examiner feels this is not a suitable home for this boy.”
March 1946: Supervisor’s report: The Shinamans ask that David and Johnny be sent to a farm in the summer, “where they would really have to work, so they would appreciate a good home when they came back.” I called Johnny in to ask about his duties. He said he makes his bed in the morning, helps fo. mo. with the dishes after each meal, washes floors, puts out garbage, walks his dog. Johnny would like to have a paper route but fo. mo. does not approve as she does not think he is strong enough.
June 1946: The Shinamans were much annoyed when the CAS ignored their farm proposal and instead arranged to send both boys to a first-rate summer camp. The social worker reports: “Called at fo. ho. and had a long talk with fo. mo. who as usual was in a belligerent mood. She claimed that both boys have been a great trial to her. I suggested the boys should be in a home where they are really happy and have a feeling of belonging. Fo. mo. agreed to discuss the matter with fo. father. At this point Johnny was called into the room and asked to explain his behaviour. With big tears in his eyes he said he really tried to do his best to please fo. mo."
July 11, 1946: Joe Shinaman took the unusual step of calling the CAS himself, saying he would take us to the cottage for a time, while Orca went somewhere for a rest. Joe was upset at the idea that we might be moved: "It would affect the family income drastically." The worker reminded him that the idea had come first from “fo. mo.” a year ago: “It was pointed out to fo. father that the boys were under no obligation to remain in present fo. ho. as their happiness must be considered first.”
Whatever transpired on Oakwood Avenue that summer, the record is silent. CAS reports become less frequent every two months. David and I spent a week at Christmas on “a farm near Unionville” which was "Aunt Daisy’s half-acre." No doubt the worker is correct in saying we had a great time; "Aunt Daisy" was a big easy-going woman. I last saw her in her nineties, in a senior’s home, long after the Shinamans were dead.
In 1947, I began attending art classes on Saturday. Meanwhile, Orca's aging mother, "Grandma Lillie" moved into Oakwood, and David and I began carrying up her meals, snatching every opportunity to talk with her.
Johnny on a school field trip, 1944.
"Grandma" was an Irish immigrant of Orange convictions, a cousin (she loved to remind us) of the famous actress, Beatrice Lillie. From the first time we visited her home in 1941, she showered us with affection. Her house was modest, but her garden beautiful, and she encouraged my love of flowers. Sunday dinner at Grandma's was a joyous ritual, and she often gave me private time to air my laments about life at home.
Grandma did her best to help me understand why her daughter and son-in-law did not love me. She assured me that she loved me enough to hear anything I wanted to share. I don't believe she ever betrayed my childish confidences. Today, I can still sit in her old rocking chair, the only memento I have of her. I am still fond of saying "My grandmother used to say...." for she was full of wisdom and kindness. Grandma Lillie died in the autumn I began high school. For me the loss was devastating.
In June 1947 I was almost 14, only five feet tall and 72 pounds. My annual interview showed IQ still rising: "Now Johnny has a mental age of 20." At school I was "top of the class." The CAS psychologist writes: “Johnny says things at home are getting better as he gets older and is allowed more responsibility. Foster mother is beginning to realize Johnny is outstanding, though she probably cannot comprehend this fully.” He concluded: "The CAS should do everything possible to help him continue through university."
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