In the first decade of the twentieth century a man and a woman from Poland, another man from Poland, and a woman from Russia undertook to cross a continent and an ocean with little more than a fierce determination to find a better life in America. They were my grandparents, and they found that better life in Brooklyn, New York. Had my grandparents not emigrated when they did, I might have been born Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II, or I might not have been born at all. Instead, I was born in 1942 in New York City.
The story I heard was that when each of my grandparents landed on Ellis Island, an American immigration official wrote down his or her name. My paternal grandparents' surname, Glayman (pronounced GLYE-man), was written down as Klein, which means "small" in German. Though not German, my grandfather, David, was of small stature and, at four foot eight, his young wife, Mollie, was even shorter. Their DNA and the similar stature of my maternal grandparents would foreclose a prepubescent dream of at least one of their future American granddaughters. Predestined to reach a maximum adult height of five feet two inches, I would never grow up to become a tall, slender fashion model.
My name at birth was Carol Joan Klein. It would take me five decades to appreciate my surname and the history that came with it. Along the way I would add an "e" to Carol and acquire several more surnames.
Note to self: wanting to change your surname is not a good reason to get married.
My father's name was Sidney Klein. Everyone called him Sid. My mother's name was Eugenia Cammer. Everyone called her Genie. They met in an elevator at Brooklyn College in 1936. Dad was studying chemistry; Mom's majors were English and drama. They were married on October 6, 1937, after which my mother rechanneled her considerable ambition and intelligence into running a household on a weekly budget of fifteen dollars. My dad left college before graduating and worked briefly as a radio announcer, thereby setting the precedent of a Klein in front of a microphone. He didn't stay in that job very long. With job security on his mind during the Great Depression, he went into civil service and found his calling as a New York City firefighter.
My dad liked helping people and solving problems. He did both every time he pulled someone out of a burning building. My father's captain proudly described him to my mother as "always first on the nozzle," a revelation that brought little comfort to a fireman's wife. Though many of his colleagues died saving others, my dad lived for many years after his retirement. When I was very young, his shift at the firehouse kept him away from home for several days and nights at a time. I missed him, but the upside was that we were able to do things as a family on his days off. Sometimes we went to Coney Island, a short bus ride from our house, where Mommy and Daddy would sit on a bench nearby while I played in the cool, damp sand under the boardwalk. After a while I'd climb up onto the splintery wood and let Mommy brush the sand off me. Then I'd skip along the boardwalk between Mommy and Daddy, holding both their hands, until we arrived at the stand where Daddy always gave me a nickel to buy a huge sugary mound of cotton candy.
But the thing I remember most about Coney Island is Daddy, Mommy, and me crowded into one of those primitive audio recording booths to record my voice on a black acetate disc so they could preserve the moment for posterity. That was my first recording experience. I no longer have that disc, but I still remember my three-year-old baby voice saying, "My name is Carol Joan Klein, and I live at 2466 East 24th Street in Brooklyn, New York." I sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." And then I began to cry.
From "A Natural Woman: A Memoir," by Carole King. Copyright 2012 by Carole King. Excerpted with permission from Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group.