My Father’s Voice

Posted on June 21, 2022


My parents were both born in eastern Europe, my father just before and my mother just after World War I. Life was fragile, and especially so for Jews.

They each made it to the US, my mother alone at age eight and my father at age 13, with a falsified birth certificate so that he could start working full time, in order to support his widowed mother. He had never been to school. My mother, at age eight, was needed to care for her half-brother and half-sister, while her father and stepmother worked full time. Neither of them spoke English and neither knew anything about the country they had come to. They only knew their responsibilities.

For both of them, there would be no higher education, no cultural experiences, no travel, no free time in which to develop interests and passions. Whatever intelligence, talents and abilities they had were turned wholly toward the need to survive.

My father, raised to be strictly observant in Judaism, was never able to have a Bar Mitzvah. The Bar Mitzvah itself is the ceremony that denotes the passage of a boy from child to man at age thirteen. My father’s passage was, instead, over an ocean. He left as a child and arrived as a man, with all the responsibilities that entailed.

My father was a quiet, introverted soul. He experienced great trauma in his pre-war childhood and carried that trauma with him for the rest of his life. He survived by hiding his voice and his abilities and whatever dreams he had had for his life.

My father tried to be invisible, fearing that were he not, “they” would come after him. Whenever I tried to talk to him, he would first hold up his hand to stop me. He would make sure the window was closed and the blind was down. Only then would I be allowed to continue speaking. When people out in the world called attention to his thick accent and innocently asked where he was from, the panic set in. Afterward he would always ask me why they were interested in him and what were they up to. My answer, that they were simply curious and meant nothing by it, didn’t serve to allay his fears.

When Then Husband and I planned a trip to Europe, giddy that we had saved enough money to make the trip, my father didn’t understand. “Everyone is trying to get away from there,” he said. “Why are you choosing to go there?”

Several years ago, my elder son purchased a poster showing the ship my dad came to this country on from Eastern Europe, in the exact year he arrived. The poster has been hanging on my bedroom wall. While I was in Brooklyn last week, helping to prepare for my grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, my husband called from home and told me that he was awakened during the night by a loud crash. He searched the house and couldn’t find what had happened. On Friday, Now Husband arrived in Brooklyn.

We returned home yesterday, on Father’s Day, and I discovered what had happened. The framed poster of the ship had fallen from the wall, tore out the plaster, hit the chair rail, dented two places on the adjoining wall and came to rest nestled in a box of padded envelopes. Had it landed one inch over, it would have shattered on the hardwood floor.

I stood there staring at the poster in the box of padded bags. For the first time in my life, I experienced my dad using his voice. Unbeknownst to us, he had made himself part of his great-grandson’s Bar Mitzvah in the only way that was possible for him. And he made sure that I discovered what had happened on Father’s Day. But he also, in pure Dad fashion, made sure that the precious poster remained unharmed.

I heard you, Dad, loud and clear, with no windows shut and no blinds drawn. And I have never been so comforted by your voice as I was in that moment.

Posted in: family