“You can’t tell ANYONE. It’s a secret.”
My father whispers to me as he slides a small Christmas present out of his pocket and places it in my hands. Here he is with a Christmas present…but our family is Jewish.
Maybe I was eight or nine-years-old when this tradition began, one that lasted only a few, sweet, years. I knew, without him saying so, that the most important ANYONE I couldn’t tell…was my mother, as it was her rule he was breaking. She was generally not the one who voiced the rules in our home but was very clear on this point: Christmas was not allowed in our house. NOT AT ALL.
My eighth birthday was in 1961 and by then, some Jewish families were beginning to blur the lines a bit, giving in to the deafening pleas of their children. Some families had invited what was called a “Chanukah bush” to come inside, and others gave in completely and had a Christmas tree. Not at our house. My mother reminded us every year that Chanukah was a minor Jewish holiday in the 1920’s when she was a child. She thought it was only getting more attention because parents were trying to find a way for Chanukah to measure up to the enormous breaking wave that Christmas had become. It was all a bit confusing to me and I sang out the anthem, “It’s not fair……….” because, oh did I want Christmas to come inside, even just a little.
That my father did this, that he broke her rule, was astonishing to me even as he was placing the gift in my hand. And, it was a gesture so rare I placed it in an entirely separate compartment of my mind where it remained forgotten, hidden, for many years. He, too, was Jewish, and though he did not expound on the Christmas dilemma like my mother did, I knew he agreed with her. So how could this happen? How could my father break my mother’s rule and give a Christmas present?
The gift was the same every year, with the same size box, same wrapping paper. The paper came from his small store just a half-mile from our home. It was torn from a huge roll of Christmas paper. The colors were muted, but nevertheless they were Christmas red and green, with smiling Santa and Christmas trees scattered across it. The roll was mounted on a metal stand and bolted to the shipping-bench; a spring held a metal cutter snug against the paper. If the paper was held at the proper angle and torn with enough speed, it made an impressive “swoooosh” kind of noise. Each year he’d let me try it…once. I was not able to master it, even from my perch on a stocky, wooden chair.
So I recognized the paper when the box came out of his pocket. I also knew that he wrapped it himself – he had no employees and he couldn’t ask my mother to do it. This was part of the magic of the gift. He did it himself: he picked it out, and he wrapped it. When we received our Chanukah presents, the cards were always signed by both of them, but we knew that my mother did the shopping and the wrapping.
The small, square box was flat, with a bit of heft to it. Even though the present was the same each year, that did not diminish the experience of carefully removing the paper and slowly taking off the lid to reveal a gleaming, silver dollar, nestled inside. What a grand and magnificent secret and I kept my promise to him and did not tell ANYONE. I didn’t even tell my sister and that is truly a miracle, as we shared the same bedroom for much of our childhood. It wasn’t until thirty years later when somewhere in the midst of a sisters’ conversation that began with, “Do you remember the time we…” that we found out that dad had been giving those precious silver dollars to both of us – neither of us had “told”.
His action still mystifies me – it reveals a compassionate and tenderhearted man. As that eight-year-old child I had little awareness of my father as a person, as an adult with a life story, with dreams and disappointments, with heartaches and grief. At best I was intimidated by him, and often frightened. He was a stern man of few words, and spent much more time with our older brother than he did with us two girls.
That small gift faded into a distant memory as I approached the perilous bridge of adolescence. A wedge hammered deeper and deeper between my father and I and there was no space for even a breath of gentleness. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that he had the courage to again make such an offering. It was simple, practical and made by his hands.
Being a 1950’s family, the kitchen was the domain of the wife, and whether mom wanted to be there or not, that was the law of the land, so it was noteworthy when dad began entering the kitchen to make a sandwich. When my parents first met, he worked in a Jewish deli and had made many a sandwich. Sandwich making became part of my father’s realm because mom, well, because she just didn’t have “the sandwich groove” as my jazz musician brother might have said many years later. Luckily, we lived just a block from a Jewish bakery and had the luxury of fresh loaves of dense, Jewish rye bread dotted with caraway seeds or moist, golden-yellow challah. These became my father’s palette.
In those years, my visits to see my parents were brief and infrequent. Without fail, on the morning of my departure, dad would offer to make a sandwich for my trip back home. Early on, I wanted to say “NO”. I was still mad at him for a myriad of infractions and didn’t want to dilute my anger with receipt of anything from him. But I just couldn’t say it. Somewhere in my heart I realized that he was making an attempt at something that I couldn’t yet appreciate. I remember the first time I unwrapped one of his sandwiches on the plane: leftover chicken from the previous night’s dinner, fresh, aromatic rye bread, and the pungency of mustard, all filled the air. Nearby passengers looked longingly at my lunch, as they were served the “meals” that used to be included in the price of an airline ticket. That first time I took a bite of a “Ted Silver” sandwich with envious fellow travelers looking on, made me realize what a prize I’d received.
As I remember the first gift, that hefty, silver coin, I see the tenderness and compassion wrapped up with it. It remains a grand mystery to me: what moved my father to go to such lengths with this small gift?
I came to learn many things about my father over time, especially in the last few years of his life after he became a widower, and as dementia began to seep into his way of going about things. His parents were both widowed in the “old country” and met on a ship coming to America, each with two children in tow. They went on to have five more children together, my father being the oldest boy. My grandfather succumbed to tuberculosis, and so my father became the head of the household at the tender age of eleven.
Theirs was a hardscrabble life; they were achingly poor. The part of dad’s childhood…the part about his father dying when dad was only eleven…he said it enough times, and without emotion, that for me it simply became a naked sentence, devoid of humanity, of life, for that matter. I never thought about it in terms of the reality of what he was saying. I never thought about what it might be like to lose your father at that age, and maybe, in those times, it wasn’t that uncommon, so he didn’t think about it much either. I do have a marker of that age in my own life – I was eleven when we lost my maternal grandmother to cancer. I adored her.
The world seemed to be ending. Mom was gone, back in New York at the funeral. I remember lying on my bed, sobbing, after I learned of grandma’s death. My eyes let loose a river of tears and a large, dark, tear-soaked stain formed on the brown and orange bedspread. A tall silhouette appeared in the doorway of our unlit bedroom and my father demanded in a loud, angry voice, “Stop your crying!” And I did. It is a command that I still seek to undo, even five decades later. I believe that my father, when faced with his own father’s death all those years before, knowing instantly that some as yet unknown, unspeakable and weighty responsibility landed firmly on his shoulders, didn’t need anyone to holler “Stop your crying!” The command was unspoken but clearly pronounced and obeyed.
There are many stories like my father’s. There are many men of his generation who had their childhoods stolen away, who lost one of their parents and sometimes both, to TB or Influenza, then as young men went to war and had the rest of whatever capacity they still had to feel, to show tenderness, that they’d somehow hidden and tried to protect – many of those men lost much of their ability to let their compassion, their humanity, be seen. By the time they came back from that war, many returned as a closed book. Not all…but many. I think of my uncle, who actually saw much more combat than my father; he would cry at the drop of a hat, he had an enormous heart and he was not frightening. But my uncle was not the oldest boy, he was the youngest; he was not the one who took on the mantle, “the man of the house”.
So these gifts, given to me by my father…by his own hand, they are enormous gifts when I see them through the lens of time, of compassion, of love and reconciliation. I also see that although he gave them, they were somewhat hidden. Either he declared a “secret” so I could not share the beauty of the gift, or he gave them as I was leaving, when I would not realize the full gift that had been given until he was out of sight. This was as direct as he could be about something that exposed so much vulnerability.
We never spoke of these things, he and I. That was something that would not change. When dementia came on, he remained a man of few words, although toward the end he couldn’t stop himself from breaking into song in the middle of – anything…anywhere. Even now as I write, it seems a miracle that he found a way to give these gifts.