MY DAD'S CHILDHOOD was just as bleak. The Matlin family traces its roots back to Russia, where my great-grandfather was a blacksmith in Gomel, which sits on the banks of the Sozh River in what is now Belarus. By all accounts it was a thriving city in the early 1900s with a large Jewish population. But wars would transform it.
Five of six sons in the family were lost to the fighting during World War I. My great-grandfather died in 1908, before World War II would claim his wife and six daughters along with more than 2 million other Jews during the German occupation of the region.
Edward, my grandfather, the youngest child, was around twelve in 1914, and his mother knew if he stayed, he would have to go into the army like his brothers. She refused to lose another son. So with little more than the shirt on his back, he headed for the United States.
My grandfather made his way to Glenview, Illinois, just outside Chicago, where some other families from Gomel had settled. He went to work for a family that owned a barbershop/pool hall and soon started to learn the barbering trade, sleeping on the pool tables at night.
By the time my dad came along, the real business at the barbershop was a backroom bookie joint my grandfather ran. Eddie was a heavy whisky drinker–my dad would pour him shots throughout the day. The legend in our family was that Sammy Davis Jr. showed up one day for a shave and a haircut, but Eddie wouldn't let him in because he didn't cater to blacks. I wonder what Eddie would think when years later when I would count Sammy as a friend and mentor.
By his count, Eddie gambled away four barbershops over the years with a string of bad bets on the horses. He became a Chicago character, leaving more than a few customers with towels steaming on their face, while he ran to make a last-minute bet before post time. When a reporter asked why, after forty years, he kept betting when he kept losing. Eddie just shrugged and said, "I'm trying to get even."
The relationship between my grandfather and my grandmother, Ann, was just as sketchy. My dad hated to talk about it to me no matter how hard I tried. My grandparents would marry and divorce four or five times over the years and have one more child, my uncle Steve, who is nineteen years younger than my dad.
When times were bad, and they mostly were, Don was passed around from aunts to grandparents. He never knew where he would be living from one day to the next. He never made it out of high school–"I never took home homework, nobody was there to say I should or shouldn't." An alcoholic father and a mother who was easily distracted by the other men in her life, at sixteen my dad tried to join the Marines, a decision that his mother approved. But after three months, the Marines found out that he and two other boys in the company were all underage and sent them back home.
Don kicked around at odd jobs for the next few years. He had a serious girlfriend that he lost tragically that we would hear about over the years. Near Christmastime, they had argued, leaving things in a mess. That night she went out with another guy. As they were driving back home from their date, another car plowed into them. She was killed instantly. To this day, when Don says her name–and he rarely does unless pushed–he still cries. Another twist of fate; who knows what would have happened had she lived, my brothers and I might not exist.