This is a very personal blog post. Now that I am in my 70s I want to share some of the stories that make up my life. There will be more to follow.
I was born Arnold Stephen Goldfinger on January 27th at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. I was named after my mother’s maternal grandfather, Abraham Levy and my father’s maternal grandmother, Sarah Banks. It is a custom amongst Jews, to use the first initial if not the whole name, of close family members that had recently died when naming children.
There were two unusual events that took place at the moment of my birth. The first was the liberation of Auschwitz which I always think about on my birthday. The second one, was that the moon and the sun were rising in the sky,together. My mother and her mother had both been born in this same hospital. My mother, Marilyn Jean Harris had just turned 18 three months before my birth. My dad was 21 years old. My mother’s mother was 37 years old. Her mother Bessie, my great grandmother was 68 years old and lived long enough to hold my eldest son, Adin in her arms. With the exception of my father, Clarence Sanford Goldfinger, they are all gone now. Bessie died at 97 years old. Della was almost 94 when she passed. My mom died when she was 66 years old, five years younger than I am now. She took her own life, sadly. I am not going to discuss my childhood other than to say it was very difficult.
My parents had a terrible marriage. They fought constantly. They were such different people it is hard to understand why they ever got together. The only thing that they had in common was that they too, had terrible childhoods and wanted to escape living with their parents. My father left my mother when I was eight. I missed him very much and remember laying out his clothes on the bed next to me so that I could imagine he was still there. My two sisters, Beverly and Marlene, were younger then me, just six and three. We did not have a lot of money. My mom, then 26 years old, had to get a job. She became a waitress at a donut store/coffee shop where she met Joel Miller, a student at San Francisco City College located close by. Joel was 24 years old and had just served in the army during the Korean War. They started dating. Less than a year later , once my parents divorce was final, they married. Joel was just fifteen years older than me. Beverly and I never considered him our father. We continued to see Clarence who would take us out during in the weekends. For various reasons, Clarence was not really interested in Marlene. Joel adopted Marlene soon after he married my mother and her last name was changed to Miller. Marlene also took her life when she was 27 years old.
As I got older, my relationship with Clarence grew tense. I liked my dad. I found him intelligent and funny. But my dad was very judgemental. I was a sickly kid and a poor student. My dad thought that I would end up a failure and took every opportunity to tell me that. It hurt me a great deal. In the meantime, he married Eleanor, a woman that was very different than my mom. She had graduated from Stanford University, taught grade school and came from a good family. My dad wanted me to leave my mom and move in with him and Elenore. I could not imagine that. My mom was emotionally unstable. She was bipolar although I don’t think that term had yet been invented. I loved her very much. She taught me love, passion, and generosity. There is a hardly a day that goes by when I don’t think of her and miss her.
As I grew into my teens, I became more of an outsider. My interests were poetry, philosophy, and music, in addition to science and history which had been passions since I was a young child. I probably read a book a day.
During this time, I continued to do poorly at school which was largely due to the fact that I never went. Fortunately, my mother sent me to a private school which allowed me to test out and gave me a high school degree. I discovered the Beat Generation and started to hang out in North Beach at the City Lights Bookstore. I would read the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and read the books of Jack Kerouac. Just a few years later, I would hang out with Ginsburg at the Blue Unicorn, the place where the hippie movement started but that is another story. I developed a close friendship with Richard Falvey who remains a friend to this day. Richard had a major influence on me in many ways. Most importantly, he introduced me to musical composition. It was around this time that I discovered Jazz.
In 1963, I became very ill. I had a spontaneous pneumothorax involving my left lung. This was basically tears in the lining of the lung that leak so that that pockets of air form between the lung and the chest wall. Eventually, the lung collapses. This is what happened with me. It was probably the result of severe childhood asthma. I was in the hospital for weeks. Many procedures were tried but failed to heal my lung. Eventually, I had a major operation which resulted in gluing half of my left lung to chest wall. So from that time on I had only 1 1/2 functional lungs.
While I was recovering, I had a visit by my father. It did not go well.The first thing he said to me when he come into my hospital room, was that if I thought he would be paying for my hospital bill, I was crazy. It would be the last time I would see him for more than 15 years. I was so upset that I vomit up the avocado sandwich I had just eaten and could not eat avocado for years.
Prior to being admitted to hospital, I have been studying at the Merchant Marine Steward and Cooks School became certified as a Steward. Once I recovered from the operation, I got a job on the President Cleveland and sailed to Asia. I was just 18 years old. After about six months of sailing back-and-forth between the USA, Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines. I decided that being a seaman was not for me. Fortunately, I had earned a fair amount of money during this period, so I did not have to work full-time for several years. I became very active in the civil rights movement and participated in many sit-in protests which lead to my arrest on a few occasions.
I was also very involved in the antiwar movement which was beginning at the time. My name, an unusual name, Arnold Goldfinger, would end up in newspaper articles much to the dismay of my father. The James Bond movie, Goldfinger had recently come out which assure that my name got attention.
After he left my mom, my father, went back to school . He got a BA and then a masters degree in business. He went to work for a major bank and started what became a very successful career. My banker father let me know that he was very concerned my political activities as it reflected negatively on him. We had some very angry phone calls.
This continued for some time. I spent a year living in Europe studying music and writing poetry. When I returned in the summer of my 21st year, I was introduced to Shlomo Carlebach, an amazing Hasidic Jewish Rabbi who wrote and sang music. It was during this time that I changed my first name to Avram which is my Hebrew name. I thought about becoming a Rabbi, after all, I had a fully beard, and almost did. However, I decided to become a scientist instead.
Around this time, my mother came to my sister, Beverly and I with a proposition. She told us that since she and Joel never had children together, Joel thought of us as his children and wanted to adopt us. My mother was very manipulative and I would guess she told Joel that Beverly and I thought of him as our father and wanted him to adopt us. We didn’t really know how to say no. I asked my mother if she had talked to my father about this. She said that she did and he thought it was a great idea. Later, I found out this was indeed true. So there I was 22 and my sister 20, and we were adopted. I don’t remember going to court but I guess we had to do that. My last name was changed officially to Miller. My birth certificate was changed as well. The fact that Clarence Goldfinger was once my father was erased from all official memory. My birth certificate said that Joel Miller aged 15, had fathered me. I did not think to legally change my first name to Avram, although it was already on every document I had with the exception of my passport. It would not be until 1999 that I officially changed my first name to Avram. My sister married a few years after the adoption and shed the Miller name for good.
Now, I going to skip ahead fifteen years to 1982. I was living in Sudbury MA, and working at Digital Equipment Corp. Over the years, my sister had some contact with our biological father, Clarence, who now had two children from his second marriage. She told me that Clarence wanted to see me. While I had been very angry at him, I found that I no longer felt that way and I agreed to meet. I introduced him to my wife and my three children. Eventually, I met my half brother and sister. They had not even known that Clarence had a first family. Slowly my relationship with Clarence deepend. Over the years, he would try to explain the reasons he had acted as he did. I did not want to hear about them. I said that I would never forget nor would I forgive but that I was willing to go forward and build a positive relationship.
When my mother died, in 1992, Beverly and I decided that we wanted to undo the adoption that made Joel Miller our father. I had little to do with Joel although I did look after him as my mother had requested in her last note to me. Beverly, had nothing to do with him. We discovered that there is no way to undo an adoption. Our only choice was to be adopted by Clarence. But to do that would require a court hearing and Joel Miller would have to be served. The adoption system is setup for young children and not kids in their late fifties us. I did not want to hurt Joel who was very ill. A few years later, he passed on at the at 80. I then arranged for a lawyer to handle the adoption by our biological father. So at the age of 65, I was adopted for a second time. This time my new legal father was my actual biological father. The three of us had to appear at court. The waiting area was full of young couples holding babies and small children. I could not help myself, and I called out, “Daddy, Daddy, pick me up”. I decided to keep the Miller name since that was how I was known and also I had three children and a few grandchildren with that name.
My father, is now 93 years old. His memory is beginning fading. He recently asked me why it was that I changed my name. I told him this story. He remembered parts of it. I told him I wanted to write about it and it would not be very complimentary. He said that would be ok. Then recently, in talking with my daughter, I realized that she did not really know the story about why her last name is Miller although her grandfather is Goldfinger. So this is post is partly for her, and for my sons and their children, all named Miller.
My father has a son from his second marriage and my half brother also has a son. They and other Goldfinger relatives will carry the name on. Ironically, I will not.
Wow,Avram. What a story, what a life! I never knew any of it.
You astound me with your strength, courage, passion and compassion.
Sent from my iPhone
Thank you for this. I didn’t have the opportunity to talk with you about your life (or mine) after we went our separate ways. I was stunned by the very first photo of you and your parents down by the beach (near Playland). I had a paper route when I was 10 down in that neighborhood. Remember the guy who shot himself in the windmill near there? It used to really creep me out every time I walked by it,
Amazing post Avram. So much I didn’t know.
Respects and love.
What a great story. I enjoy your blog posts quite a bit and as I finish each one find myself wishing it was longer. At my pestering, my dad had written his stories down for me and I cherish them. At one time I had bought him his first computer (a Dell desktop) and he figured he had to put it to use. He’s been gone since 2000 and I’ve probably read those stories two dozen times each. I imagine your children and grandchildren cherish your writings and that they will become more valuable to them as the years go by. Thank you, sincerely, for sharing and being so candid about your life. I look forward to the next chapter.
Regards, Cheryl Kirk
Thank you for sharing. You had told us parts of this story, but it takes a lot of courage to lay your life open like this. Looking forward to reading the next chapter.
wow – amazing to know about your adoptions and naming stories, as well as more about your childhood.
Wow so much of this, I did not know. I have always known of your strength, your courage and your humor-I did not know so much of what molded you and influenced who you became. So many people would take the world that surrounded you and use it as a crutch. You have done the opposite, and carved new ways to forge your own destiny. This is part of why so many people love you…although some may not the origins of Avram. Thanks for sharing this… Love you.
While you may have gotten our dad’s ok, I am quite sure he does not understand nor comprehend this was something that was going to literally be shared with the world. Our dad is not the same person he was 70 years ago. He too had a horrible childhood and did the best he could at the time. Why drag him through the mud, at this point in his life, in such a public forum? Believe me, our dad and I have had a very fiery and contentious relationship at times, but now he is very elderly man in the twilight of his life, who does not need this now.
Avram, our early years are almost identical, right down to reading a book a day. Continue to chronicle and record your life for generations to come. You’re an incredible man who has accomplished so much in your life, you are truly an inspiration. This is YOUR story to tell. I really hope that at some point I might meet you. I would feel honored to meet you. Your work has impacted so many lives, though few realize just how much. I look forward to your next post.
I used to be a super techy person. Now I’m a genealogist. Avram, you have so much to share with future generations. You were one of the original developers of the Internet. You really should document all of that. I would love to be able to sit down with you and interview you – not just about how you were an inventor of the internet and all of your IT work (for lack of a better word), but also to document your amazing life. Your sit-ins, arrests, and activism are just a sidebar to your scientific contributions – contributions that have changed our world, that most people don’t have ANY idea about. There is such a story to be told about you. If not me, then find someone to sit down with who will record your life story – it needs to be documented. Tell it in your own words.
Wow, Avram what a background. You might want to post a video for your kids and grandkids…
Very moving Avram. I wish I knew that before. I will never see you the same way as before – in the positive sense of course. This mystery of you being half cold half warm is now solved for me. Thank you.
I remember Clarence coming to our house in Sudbury. I don’t remember you or Arianne explaining in advance who he was (though maybe you did) but I distinctly recall being struck by how much this man walked and talked like my father. It was really the physical movement that blew me away.
Did you tell us about your re-adoption? I honestly don’t remember you doing that.
Avram – Over the many years I have had the pleasure to be an associate, you have occasionally shared little cameos of your life, each adding incremental insights to a very insightful person, but still never really knowing you. Your extensive biography reveals the struggles and the conquering that makes you such a complex and interesting person. My early life has many similarities and parallels, broken family, health issues, school failures and becoming self-sufficient by the time I was eighteen but nowhere as daunting as yours. Thank you for sharing.
I loved it Avram, thank you for sharing. You have lived an incredible life. I am honored to be your distant cousin. I am very grateful that I met you and we got to share our lives on line together. I am having trouble walking, back and hip issues, if they get fixed I would love to visit you in Israel.
Thank you for sharing this, Avrami. My parents never belonged together either and stayed together for the child (me) who wished they hadn’t.
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Minor typo: ” I did not want to hurt Joel who was not very ill” -> ” I did not want to hurt Joel who was not very well”
Thanks. I fixed it.
Let me echo, “thank you for sharing”. I am glad that you seem to have come to terms with what must have been an awkward family life.
What a fabulous and heartfelt, vulnerable sharing. This touches me because:
1. you and I are 4th cousins
2. my mother was adopted and finding my biological grandfather is proving quite the adventure!
3. I have many friends in Silicon Valley and wish I’d met you while I was there working on the NASA Mars project.
4. I’d still like to meet you, but I’m not as dynamic as I was before my life partner passed in 2012….do you golf?
Blessings dear cousin! You can find me on FTDNA.com– do a search on Henderson and I might pop up.
-Keli Mc (Colorado)
This is an amazing, novelistic story. It’s interesting (Ok, Comforting) that even among the most successful people there is so much drama and pain. There is also something quintessentially jewish about it..this human born into chaotic situation – with all sorts of travails like poor health, etc – using pure intelligence to become incredibly successful. Being interested in things incredibly successful people usually aren’t – poetry, music, being moral – also seems very Jewish. Not really sure why I’m responding. You’re a maimonides-like person. Commitment to family even when not necessary is also a jewish value.
I think most families are complicated and you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to have one but it helps.
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