My father, Ezekiel Israel, was born January 18, 1894. He died when he was 87. I often think about him. In fact today I woke up thinking about him. It was not even after a recurring dream I sometimes have, when Dad visits me. He sits in a chair in my bedroom and asks me how I am. I tell him that I’m well and when I awake I feel sad and nostalgic. And then I realized that today is his birthday!
Six years after his death I was encouraged by my counselor to write him a letter that he would never see. She suggested that writing a letter would help me express the grief that I seemed to have difficulty allowing myself to experience. I rummaged through my box of memory papers this morning and found the letter I had written in 1987.
Here follows some excerpts from the letter:
This is not going to be an easy letter for me, as I have not written to you in such a long time. So much has happened to me in that time that perhaps you wouldn’t recognize me. On the other hand, you always seemed to recognize me – whatever happened. I get so choked up when I start to think of things to tell you. Dad – I miss your letters every week in the post box. That pale, blue air letter and the colourful Rhodesian stamp in the corner.
Can I tell you how shocked and deeply sad I was to see you that first day in the hospital? I hadn’t seen you for six years. Suddenly I heard that you were really ill and after sorting everything out I came as soon as I could. I traveled with Gilad close to 36 hours – spent a few hours at the Johannesburg airport and then continued onto Zimbabwe. Oh, Dad, so much had changed. The sweet little airport of Bulawayo with only one flight and the place seemed empty, cold – lonely. Was it Mrs. Amato who drove me into town? When Gilad and I arrived at the hospital I simply could not recognize you. I stood at the door –tired, so estranged, with my little boy at my side. You were small and thin, your skin was yellow and wrinkled. I wanted to cry out. I missed you so much at that moment.
The following days seemed surreal: the long, lush lawns and the roses – oh Dad, the roses! The smells of Rhodesia, the wide avenues, my little town! The daily visits to you in the hospital – just sitting by you as you slept, holding your hand, waiting with you to meet Death together. Ever since I was small I remember your hands – large, soft, wrinkled, warm – always warm. Dad, you had such a tender, loving smile at me. Do you remember when we’d walk in the park around by the ducks and the toy train with the beautiful bougainvillea and Jacaranda?
You were always concerned if I was “bored” when you took me out – I suppose you felt old in those days. And if I was a little bored I never told you – never wanted to hurt your feelings. Daddy, I never feared you. You were always gentle and kind with me. Did you know that I always dressed my very best to go out with you? I think you must have known because you always commented on my “prettiness.” I felt very delicate and lovely when I went out with you. There was something terribly gentle and charming about you, Dad. Almost aristocratic. Something very fine. However much I hid my love of you I have you in my heart. Am glad and proud that I shared your Death with you.
Daddy, thank you for all the beauty, softness, sensitivity and vitality of the Sephardic heritage. Thank you for respecting Mommy. Thank you for all your letters to me. I know it’s too late to tell you this – but I loved you – and I love the memory of you.”
Perhaps these memories of my father came to me after reading one of three poems a friend gave me to read recently. He spent all of last semester in Krakow. David’s experience in Poland was recorded partly through three poems that he was moved to write. I was privileged to read them these past two weeks and found them to be passionate, painful and intellectual all at the same time.
I would like to dedicate this poem to the memory of my father today – as a gift for what would have been his 111th birthday:
My Father Sang to Me by David Gerber
My father sang to me in Yiddish,
but I did not hear him, or failed to listen,
until he had been dead two years.
in the corner of a synagogue,
now a museum dedicated to the memory of the dead Jews,
Polish students sat on folding chairs,
and formed their own Yiddish winkel.
In a language that is not their own,
and is no one’s,
they sang the old songs.
Tanz balalaika! Spiel balalaika!
It was then I remembered: my father sang to me in Yiddish.