Show Me the Way to Go Home is a memoir by my Douglass College classmate, Deejay Schwartz (Dorothy Jane Cullen Schwartz). The subtitle, Memories of an Unsettled Childhood is almost an understatement, because after I read it, I was amazed that she not only survived her childhood, but also absorbed lessons that helped her thrive as an adult.
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I assumed that everyone lived as we did: a stay-at-home mother, a hard-working father, siblings that you both loved and hated, and attendance in the same school system from kindergarten to graduation from high school. Of course, by the time I was a teenager, I knew this was not so, but Deejay’s story blew me away.
Dorothy Jane moved 18 times in the first 14 years of her life, which are the years she writes about. Her mother was single, having divorced her husband when Deejay was quite young. Divorce was not only uncommon; it was frowned upon in those years. Also, childcare at a certified center was unheard of, so Deejay moved from one relative or friend to another in her early years. Sometimes it was with her maternal grandmother, which wasn’t that difficult, except her mother and her grandmother did not get along at all, which made Deejay feel as though she was caught in the middle between her concern for her working mom and her love for her grandmother. For one year she lived in a group foster home, which had a long-lasting negative impact on her young life, because the situation was almost untenable.
Perhaps her happiest time was when she lived in a former golf club in Central New Jersey (after her year in the group foster home), which became Deejay’s playground. Here is what she says about that time:
At that moment I was the happiest kid in the world. I had everything to make me happy: people to love me; good, wholesome food; safe shelter; and a wonderful natural world all around. But I had something more as well: I had the memory of great unhappiness. I had spent a year being miserable, lonely, picked on and disliked, frightened, and hopeless. ….Children are meant to be happy, and all over the world, those whose basic needs are met usually are. But I was one of the luckiest of all because I was aware of my happiness.
Because she learned at a very young age what unhappiness was and also lived during WWII and learned about children who were orphans and refuges of the war, she had a great appreciation of how lucky she had become. Not many children of seven or eight are that astute and I think that is part of the reason she survived her early years without becoming discouraged or depressed about her difficult life with a mother who became an alcoholic.
The book is rich in details, describing important incidents still clear in her mind. And because we are both from New Jersey, I recognized the areas she lived in, which made her descriptions familiar. There are also many family photos that follow the story of her early years, wearing the same pigtails I wore and similar clothing. While I could identify with much of what she wrote about, I was shocked at the constant disruption of her daily life as her mother placed her in yet another living situation, some of which were positive, but many that were not. For example, I was never hungry, but Deejay describes how her aunt and uncle, who she and her mom lived with for a time, could afford only a 15-cent box of macaroni and cheese for the four of them. This was post-depression, when things were still tight, but I never experienced many of her hardships. And we were never hungry!
Rising above a very difficult childhood is not easy. Deejay was able to go to college and become a kindergarten teacher. I am sure she was a wonderful teacher, because her own childhood had been so unsettling. As the flyleaf on the inside of the cover notes: “It is a tale of resiliency and courage, of a child’s growing awareness of her predicament, and her gradually achieved maturity.”
My thanks to my classmate Deejay for my review copy and for an eye-opening memoir. I found it both heart wrenching and heartwarming because of her courage and fortitude in difficult times.
Show Me the Way to Go Home is published by Bunim and Bannigan and costs $18.95. For more information, go to www.bunimandbannigan.com. Available through www.Amazon.com and can be ordered from local bookstores.