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“Think only of how much I love you”
Sylvia and Ray Fell in Love in an Orphanage. They Married, Raised a Family, and Kept Their Past a Secret. Then Ray Got Sick, and Their Bond Was Tested One Last Time.
Sylvia Bach lugged her suitcase up the steps of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in the fall of 1932. It was a towering institution at 136th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. Sylvia, 11, was nervous. Her foster mother—who Sylvia had always believed was her birth mother—had told her the orphanage was where bad kids lived. But she had passed away, and Sylvia had nowhere else to go.
Her foster father, Mr. Arons, wasn't obligated to care for her. Mr. Arons's sister explained to Sylvia that she was a ward of the state—an orphan he and his wife had taken in when she was five so they could earn extra money as foster parents. Sylvia's birth mother had died of breast cancer when Sylvia was an infant; her father had died of tuberculosis soon after. Mr. Arons handed her the phone numbers of a few of her brothers and sisters.
Sylvia found her oldest sister, whom she'd never met, living in a small apartment in the Bronx. Her sister directed her to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, a mecca for the city's parentless. She said Sylvia could live with her; she'd pick her up at the orphanage in a few days.
Sylvia dropped her things in a large room with 50 other beds. She didn't unpack for two weeks. Her sister never came.
Ray Lang did.
The first time Sylvia saw Ray, he was taking shots on the orphanage's basketball court. Three years had passed since she'd arrived. Sylvia's best friend, Judy, had been talking about Ray, 14, for weeks. He was a boy from Judy's neighborhood whom Judy had a crush on.
When Judy got word that Ray was there, she grabbed Sylvia, now 14. They walked to the playground, where the courts were. Ray was wearing gray slacks and a white shirt. His eyes were dark and mysterious. Judy yelled out Ray's name.
Ray, whose father had abandoned his family because his mother was schizophrenic, looked up. He glanced over at Sylvia and held his gaze. Sylvia giggled.
She knew she was going to marry him.
Sy lvia Lang, 83, is petite and thin, and she walks delicately, like a ballerina. Her silvery hair is pulled back in a bun. Her lively spirit makes her seem ten years younger.
One evening several years ago, Sylvia and her husband, Ray, gave a dinner party at their Chevy Chase home for two couples. Sylvia had always enjoyed entertaining. She could spend hours cooking roast beef and baking cakes so ornate that DC's Mayflower Hotel once asked if she wanted to work as a pastry chef. She would force Ray, who was reserved, to socialize.
Ray liked solitary pursuits like reading—unless he was with Sylvia. Then he loved long walks and bike riding. He always preferred spending time alone with her. When their three kids went off to college, Sylvia suggested they take in a foster child.
"No way," Ray said. "I waited 26 years for your undivided attention."
Sylvia never wanted anyone in their neighborhood to know she and Ray had met as orphans. She feared people would pity them; they'd mark her as different in an affluent enclave where she already felt out of place. Even after they built their first home and their accounting firm grew to 100 employees, she was ashamed. It was a secret they would take to the grave.
Sylvia, Ray, and their guests had just finished eating when someone mentioned having come to America from Germany. Someone else asked Ray where he was from. When asked about herself, Sylvia typically said New York. If anyone pressed further about her past, she'd say she went to Wadleigh High School.
"I lived in New York at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum," Ray said. Sylvia couldn't take her eyes off him. It was the first time he'd mentioned the orphanage to anyone. "That's where I met Sylvia."
There were questions: Why were they in the orphanage? What was it like? How did they find their way to Chevy Chase?
Sylvia was stunned. Their secret was out.
Th e orphans gathered for choir every Friday evening. Sylvia was happy when Ray joined. She walked up to her section, and Ray stepped aside to let her pass. She watched him sing. His voice was out of tune, but she smiled at him. He smiled back.
That summer, the orphans were sent to camp in the Catskills. Lakes and forest separated the girls' cabins from the boys'. Sylvia saw Ray only when the boys and girls were brought together to sing around a campfire. She wanted to talk to him. Her friend Judy complained that Ray never wrote to her. Sylvia used the comment as an excuse to approach him.
"It would be very nice if you'd write to Judy," she said at the campfire one evening.
"Why don't you speak for yourself?" Ray asked.
He was right. She was telling Ray to write to Judy when she really wanted him to write to her. She went back to her cabin and penned a letter.
"I'm glad to see you," she wrote. "You have a nice tan. I always burn, so I'm impressed by that."
She couldn't afford a stamp, so she gave the letter to another boy during religious services, and he agreed to give it to Ray. Ray sent a letter back the following week.
By the time camp was over, Sylvia couldn't stop thinking about Ray. Her crush made going back to the orphanage easier. She still hated morning chores—orphans dusted, mopped, and scrubbed the living quarters before school—but she sped through them so she could get down to breakfast, where she'd see Ray. Boys and girls were seated on opposite sides of the room.
One day, he approached her. "Are you going out Sunday?" he asked. Sunday was a free day.
Sylvia put on the only dress she owned for the date—a rust-colored two-piece with a fitted waist. They went for a walk along the Hudson River.
Th eir dinner guests were gone. Ray sat at the kitchen table watching Sylvia wash the dishes. She often cleaned if she was angry. By the time she finished wiping the counters, she'd feel less upset. She sat down next to him at the table.
"How come you talked about it?" Sylvia asked.
Ray shrugged. "I just felt like it."
They never argued in the house. If they were angry, they'd get in the car and go for a drive to talk things out. Sylvia was used to Ray's reserved manner. He rarely kissed her in public. He never said, "I love you"—even in their bedroom.
He expressed his love in different ways. He let Sylvia rub her cold feet over his legs in bed. He built her a house she'd seen in a magazine. He took her to the theater even after he went deaf. He often held her hand.
At 75, Ray had just retired. For 50 years, he had left the house at 7 AM and returned at 9 PM. He rarely took Saturdays off. When he was home, he could be moody. He was always concerned that he wasn't making enough money—and he didn't want to have to ask anyone for anything.
If his children—Mana, Patricia, and Andrew—asked for something that Ray didn't deem necessary, Mana says, he'd sometimes tell them stories about the orphanage. His children yearned for his attention. They grew up feeling as though they didn't really know him.
As an adult, Mana never understood why her father didn't get up and hug her when she visited with her husband from New Jersey. Andrew quit working as a journalist in his early twenties so he could work with his father and try to know him. They worked together for 16 years.
Only Sylvia understood that Ray's quiet demeanor and lack of praise didn't translate into a lack of love.
Once Ray retired, Sylvia noticed a change. For many years, she had felt sad looking at his face. It was often tense and angry. In the months after his retirement, she couldn't take her eyes off him. It was as if they'd just met. His face seemed softer. He looked like a man who had lived his life exactly as he'd intended.
Al l it took was a wave in the orphanage's cafeteria for Ray to know Sylvia wanted to meet him in the basement. They held hands in the back corner and talked. When he kissed her for the first time, she felt hot and cold all over. Neither of them had ever kissed anyone else, and she didn't want him to stop.
On Sundays, they'd walk down to the Hudson River, where the George Washington Bridge was being expanded. They'd watch men pouring cement to position the pillars, or walk along the river until they spied a secluded spot. They'd lie together and stare at the sky, dreaming about their future. Sylvia wanted a family; Ray wanted a home to put down roots.
They were tired of the orphanage. They were required to shower on Fridays. Bathroom stalls had no curtains or doors. Before school, their hands and faces were inspected for dirt. When the monitors yelled "All still!," they had to stop what they were doing, often to gather for chores.
Both envied the children who had visitors. Sylvia would watch them get hugs and kisses. Then she'd find Ray and wrap her arms around him.
On one of their walks, Ray told Sylvia how he'd ended up at the orphanage. His father had left his mother for another woman and then stopped acknowledging Ray and his two sisters when Ray was nine. The family had no money.
After elementary school, Ray would stand by a phone in a candy shop on the first floor of his apartment building. If it rang for a tenant upstairs, he'd run to tell her she had a call. He'd buy food with the pennies he earned. Sometimes he'd go to the corner grocer and beg for milk and bread.
Ray was 11 when his mother was hospitalized for schizophrenia. Without a home, he slept on relatives' couches while trying to attend school; he had skipped two grades in elementary school, and at age 12 he was admitted to James Monroe High School, an elite boys' school in the South Bronx. During his junior year, his younger sister, Edie, persuaded him to live with her at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Ray had refused to live in the institution before that.
He was ashamed that his mother was in a psychiatric institution. He didn't tell anyone but Sylvia. When he asked her to accompany him on a visit to his mother, Sylvia knew he was falling in love with her.
Af ter he retired, Ray began to reflect on his time at the orphanage. For years, he would reminisce about the songs he and Sylvia had sung at camp together. Oh, you can't get to heaven on roller skates. You'll run right by the pearly gates. He no longer wanted to keep these memories to himself. He told her he thought it was to their credit that they came from the orphanage; they shouldn't be ashamed.
Sylvia went along with Ray's new outlook, hoping to please him. She had always tried to be the perfect wife. Even before they moved to Chevy Chase in 1952, he'd directed her to keep an accounting book. She recorded every purchase she made. "Socks, Hecht's, $3," one entry read. Ray wanted to know where every penny was going so he could budget better. Stacks of these ledgers are piled in their closet.
Mana remembers that Sylvia studied the mother in the 1950s TV show Father Knows Best. Every evening before Ray got home, she put on lipstick and a fresh dress. She was always baking for him. Even after he retired, she kept herself up for Ray. Sylvia's passion for him didn't wane.
"A relationship is like a fine wine," she told her elder daughter. "It gets better with age."
Things weren't perfect. Sylvia wished Ray were more expressive. She dreamed of the day he'd tell her that he loved her or that she was beautiful or that he was happy. In 60 years of marriage, he never had. Sylvia would whisper, "I love you." Ray would smile or hug her. She knew what he felt, but she wanted to hear it. She reminded herself it just wasn't his way.
They kept busy in retirement. They volunteered for Meals on Wheels. Ray read books on finance. He giggled at Sylvia, who often read cookbooks.
Lovemaking was one of their favorite pursuits. On their tenth anniversary, Ray picked Sylvia up at home. They had tickets to the theater. He drove first to the Tidal Basin, where he broke out a bottle of Champagne. They sipped it out of paper cups. Sylvia suggested they skip the play and head to their bedroom.
Before the children left for college, they'd allow themselves one splurge. They'd rent a room in a downtown hotel and spend the weekend alone together. They'd take long walks and snuggle for hours in bed.
Decades later, they still made time for intimacy. Sylvia never once denied Ray, and he never denied her. No headaches, no excuses—even when age took its toll.
Says Sylvia: "There are so many other ways to make love."
On her 15th birthday, Sylvia's sister sent her a dollar. She took Ray to a movie, and they stopped at Chock Full o'Nuts on 116th Street for hot chocolate and raisin bread with cream cheese.
Later they met in the basement of the orphanage. A hall monitor caught them holding hands and reported them. The next morning at breakfast, the headmistress slapped Sylvia across the face and grounded her.
"You were in a compromising position," she told her.
Ray was serving oatmeal on the opposite side of the room. He got so mad he poured the pot on another orphan's head. When Ray swore to the headmistress that they were only talking, Sylvia was given back her privileges.
He planned a picnic for them at Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park. Sylvia was embarrassed to wear the same rust-colored two-piece dress again. She had already been humiliated a few weeks before when Ray pointed out that she needed a bra.
She decided to start a laundry business to make extra money. She charged the orphanage's workers two pennies to hand-wash a pair of underwear, a dime for a shirt. She saved up enough to buy material for a new dress.
For the picnic, she wore her design: a brown and green A-line dress and a matching hat. They lay down near a few benches and trees. Ray took pictures with a borrowed camera. Sylvia blushed when she realized her slip was showing.
A few months later, Ray, 16, graduated from high school and was accepted at George Washington University. The orphanage awarded him a scholarship.
Sylvia was devastated. Ray was leaving her.
Sy lvia's bedroom closet was cluttered. Tax-return files from the past 62 years were piled on the shelves. They were organized by year, beginning with 1941—when Sylvia and Ray were married. Ray had saved everything: correspondence, receipts, returns. It drove Sylvia nuts. She constantly begged him to part with the files—they didn't need them.
Ray started going through the files in August 2003, several years after his retirement. He sat at his desk and sifted through each year, reading over every paper before discarding it. Sylvia squealed with delight every time he handed her a bag of trash.
He wasn't sure how much longer he was going to live. Six months earlier, doctors had found an abnormality on an x-ray, and a few weeks later Ray was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 82. The diagnosis explained his hacking cough. Quitting smoking 20 years before wasn't soon enough.
Sylvia wished she could erase the cancer. "Out, out, damn spot," she'd say, loosely quoting Lady Macbeth.
Ray wanted to fight the cancer. He was convinced he could beat it. He wasn't ready to say goodbye to Sylvia. He scheduled surgery to remove the tumor. When doctors learned that the cancer had spread, Ray agreed to chemotherapy. It weakened him.
One day while going through the files, Ray came out to the kitchen to get a snack. Sylvia hugged him. "I love you, Ray Lang," she said.
Sylvia turned toward the sink and listened as Ray walked back to his office.
"I loves you, too," he called out behind her, quoting his favorite song from Porgy and Bess.
Ra y tried to visit Sylvia in New York whenever he could. He excelled in economics, and his professor began grooming him for a job with the Treasury Department. Sylvia enrolled in a nursing program. In 1941, she was a nurse in training at a Jewish hospital in Brooklyn.
Ray was so desperate to see Sylvia that one time he got a ride to New York in an open-air rumble seat during a snowstorm. When he walked into the hospital, his hands were blue. Sylvia pulled him close and wrapped him inside her coat.
They wrote regularly. Ray's aunt Lottie, with whom he lived, disliked Sylvia and hid her letters. So Sylvia began addressing them to Ray's friend, who passed them on.
After a visit to Washington in August, Sylvia returned to nurse's training.
On a break, she wrote to Ray:
Thanks, darling, for the first three weeks and again for that weekend in Great Neck. Being with you so constantly has taught me ever so much about you, and I love and admire you ever more for it. Our love is beautiful. I find pleasure in recalling many of our moments together—the fun we did have! The very thought of you, the mention of your name, immediately fills me with exuberance, lightheartedness and touch… .
Sylvia decided soon thereafter that it was time for them to marry. She sent Ray another letter, detailing her fears—they were having premarital sex—and her desires: She wanted to start a family.
The next time Ray visited, he came straight to the hospital. They went for a walk. "I got the letter," he said.
"I'm frightened," she said. "I'm taking chances. I could get pregnant."
He nodded. His only request was that they wait a few months for him to turn 21. Ray didn't want to ask anyone's permission to marry her.
He never proposed. Sylvia said they'd go to a justice of the peace in Washington. Ray said he'd take care of the paperwork and hotel reservations.
Ray couldn't afford a ring, so he gave Sylvia his high-school pin. She wore it on a chain. After Ray returned to Washington, Sylvia went to a dime store and bought a gold engagement ring with tiny hearts engraved on it for $6.
By early January 2004, Sylvia was used to the hum of the oxygen machine. She'd snuggle up next to Ray and listen to it pump air into his lungs. A few weeks before, he had fallen on his way to the bathroom. Sylvia wasn't strong enough to pick him up and had to call 911. He had to stop going through the tax-return folders. The last year he got to was 1985.
One morning, Sylvia sat holding Ray's hand.
"Don't make any big changes," he said.
Sylvia wasn't sure what he was talking about. As a certified public accountant, he usually told his widowed clients the same thing. He advised them not to do anything rash after their husbands' death.
"Yes," Sylvia said. "I know, honey."
"Give yourself a year," he said. She nodded, but the advice didn't register. She was so busy doting on Ray—helping him shower, rushing him off to chemo, kissing his forehead—that she hadn't faced that he was dying.
They discussed whether she should stay in the house alone. Ray feared Sylvia might pass away first. "Who will take care of me?" he wondered.
"I want you to know how to get into the spreadsheets," he said. Ray kept track of their money on the computer. He made Sylvia get a notebook and write down the password.
He told her that after he died he wanted friends and family to donate money in his name to the Jewish Child Care Association, the successor organization of their orphanage. He wanted to donate $100,000 to a local Jewish charity.
Ray had always been generous: He'd paid for his children's undergraduate and graduate educations, donated 10 percent of his income yearly to charity, and secretly paid off the educational debts of several family friends.
He told Sylvia to get a financial adviser and to ask their son who the best CPA in town was.
"I'll be gone," he said, "but you'll have to keep living."
Tw o years after Ray and Sylvia were married, they went to visit Ray's aunt, who was distraught because her only son had been drafted in the Second World War. When Ray walked in, she looked at him.
"Why would they take my Tassie?" she said, "Why wouldn't they take you? No one cares about you."
Sylvia was upset on the car ride home. Ray tried to shrug the comment off. Inside, it made him angry—made him want to work harder and prove his aunt wrong. People were going to care about him. He was determined to earn the respect of those around him.
Soon after, Ray took the CPA exam, scored the third-highest grade in the nation, and started an accounting firm. Sylvia put the children to sleep at 6 pm so she could work as his secretary, typing up forms and correspondence. They paid back the educational loans the orphanage had granted them. Though money was tight, Ray always sent extra to help other orphans.
They borrowed money from Lottie and from Ray's sister for a down payment on a house. In 1952, Connecticut Avenue was a dirt road and the Beltway a forest. As the house was being built, Sylvia would take the children to roast marshmallows in the fireplace.
Because the orphanage had never celebrated birthdays, Sylvia made a big deal out of them. The children got a pile of small gifts. Sylvia wrapped two socks separately to make it seem like they were opening more. She never used Scotch tape so she could reuse the wrapping paper.
Without a father to learn from, Ray wasn't a natural parent. He wasn't affectionate to the children. Once, two-year-old Andrew was jumping on his father's leg to get his attention. Ray pushed him away. During tax season, the children never saw him. Sylvia invented a holiday: Day Alone With Daddy. Each child was given one day to spend with Ray to do whatever he or she wished.
Sylvia and Ray fought. He was under stress trying to build his business. She wanted him to give her more money to buy the children things. Once, they got into such a big fight that she left. She walked around in their neighborhood to cool off. She was gone for three hours.
When she came through the kitchen door, Ray studied her face to see if she was still angry. He burst into tears. Stunned, Sylvia hugged him.
"I was afraid you weren't going to come home," he said.
She hugged him tighter and said she'd never leave him.
Ra y was in a reclining chair in their bedroom when Sylvia got out of the shower. His oxygen tank hummed. He watched Sylvia walk into the bedroom naked. She started to dry off.
"You have a lovely body," he said. He'd never said anything like that before.
It was as though Ray had waited a lifetime to express himself. Usually Sylvia initiated affection. Now he was kissing her all the time—her hand, forehead, arm, neck, any part of her body he could reach. Even when he grew too weak to hold a magazine, he would hold her hand to his lips. If she left the room, he'd call out her name. He didn't want her to leave his side. Sylvia loved how openly he needed her.
When his daughter Mana, 59, came in from New Jersey, he said, "I'm so happy you came." It was the first time he'd ever greeted her in a loving way. A few days later, Ray sat with his son, Andrew, 55, and told him he loved him.
Ray told Sylvia he worried about his funeral. Conservative branches of Judaism require ten men to hold a service during the mourning period of shiva. Without a large family to fill in the gaps, he was concerned that too few people would attend.
On e morning in early January, Sylvia listened to Ray wheezing. She sat up all night watching him struggling to breathe. She hadn't showered in two days. She left his side only to use the bathroom. Two nurses—Ray grumbled about how much they were costing—were on hand in case his health declined.
Ray had joined the family at the dinner table the night before. He'd asked what they were celebrating, and Andrew had said, "You, Dad." Ray drank a glass of red wine while everyone reminisced.
Around dawn, he asked the nurses to help him stand so he could hug Sylvia. His legs wobbled as he wrapped his arms around her. Their children watched.
Then he lay back down and grasped her hand. He stared at Sylvia. Some time later, he picked up his other hand and lifted the oxygen tube from his nose.
"You can't live without the oxygen, honey," she told him, putting it back in.
Ray continued to stare at her. He slowly pushed it off again. His breathing got heavier.
"Mom," Mana said, "it's okay. Remember the article."
Sylvia had read in the New York Times that you should respect the wishes of the dying. She reluctantly held back.
Ray looked at her as he gulped air. Sylvia stayed still. He held her hand. She could feel the tension in his hand sliding away. She watched his eyes roll back. She listened as he exhaled his last breath.
Th ey talked often about the afterlife. One evening after a friend's funeral, Sylvia told Ray she'd like to believe that you meet up with the dead in heaven.
"It's a nice thought," he told her, "but don't count on it."
She agreed. When you die, your spirit dies with you. Ray was gone forever.
At his funeral, she spoke to no one, even though more than a hundred friends, clients, and family members attended. Andrew told the congregation that his mother and father had met as orphans. Business associates were shocked by the revelation.
Sylvia felt numb. She stared at the pine coffin—Ray had insisted good money wasn't to be wasted on something going into the ground. Afterward, she wouldn't leave the burial site until the coffin was covered with dirt. She was old enough to remember a time when cadavers were stolen.
She invited family members to her home to pick out something of Ray's. Everyone wanted a keepsake; his grandson took his underwear.
Following the advice of a book on grief, Sylvia got rid of most of his remaining belongings—except for a navy-blue baseball cap he loved. She keeps it in a shoebox at the top of her closet.
One morning three months after the funeral, she took out the hat. She pushed her nose into its brim and inhaled.
Sy lvia stares often at the indentation Ray left behind in their bed. She runs her hand along the outline of his body.
Mornings are the hardest. She bought an electric blanket to keep her warm. Continuing to live—feeling happy without Ray—feels disloyal. To soothe herself, she recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. She always ends with "I love you, Ray Lang, wherever you are."
She's surprised by how relieved she feels now that everyone knows she and Ray were orphans. "When there are no secrets," she says, "you feel most yourself."
She doesn't believe they'll ever reunite—but she's not ready to say goodbye. Instead she lies in bed, staring at his indentation, wondering: "What possessed me to love this man so?"
A few months after the funeral, Sylvia was cleaning out the last of Ray's drawers. She found a letter she had written him tucked inside. The envelope was frail and yellowed. The postmark was August 6, 1941—four months before they were married. The paper was thin and had thick creases.
Thanks, darling, for the first three weeks and again for that weekend in Great Neck… .
It was the letter Sylvia had written Ray on a break from nurse's training. Ray had saved it for 63 years. As she read the words, they echoed through the empty house—and through Sylvia's mind.
For the while, think only of how much I love you, she had written him. Surely this will keep you happy.
Sylvia and Ray took pictures of each other on a date in a New York park. At the time, they were teenagers living at an orphanage. When she first saw him, she knew she was going to marry him.