Voices from the Past - Part of the Memories series

Voices from the Past

Copyright 2006 by Leonard Grossman

When I was a little boy my father became ill and had to continue his law practice from our home. When he had to go to court, my mother would drive him Downtown. When he was finished he would drop in on one lawyer friend or another and try to reach my mother by telephone so that she could pick him up. Often he would then schmooze with the lawyer until Mother got there.

Once, when I was just eleven, he stopped in attorney Phil Howard's office after court, but Mr. Howard had a client and couldn't sit and talk, so he put a microphone in my father's hand and explained the workings of an early tape recorder to him and told him to talk. He then left my father alone in the room with this new fangled machine. My father was an excellent after-dinner speaker, so he extemporized a twenty minute talk to his family on a new device he had never seen before. His deep love for his family, and especially my mother, is evident in his talk. There are clear signs that he recognized that his health problems were serious and that he was concerned about how we would handle the future.

That was in December 1954. Less than two years later, he died. The informal recording became a family treasure. Some time later I had the tape transferred on to 33 r.p.m. records. Over the years I heard the record many times, but eventually my copy of the record was damaged. I hoped to find a way to fix it but time went by. My daughter had never heard it.

A few months after my father died, I became a bar mitzvah. A story grew up that for some reason, although I chanted the blessings over the Torah and Haftorah, I did not chant the Haftorah, but read it. Another legend said that I actually read it in English instead of Hebrew. In the years when I sat on the pulpit as an officer of the congregation our beloved old cantor would tell the b'nai mitzvot [bar mitzvah kids], "You did [even?] better than our president."

But stories become legends and myths and it is hard to sort out. What did I really do? and why?

Well, a year or so ago, I came upon some old tape recordings. Very few people have half track reel to reel tape recorders around any more, but I ran into a friend, Paul Koko, who loves to play with old audio and video recordings. He has more different types of recorders than anyone I know. I told him my story and he asked me to bring over the tapes. We began to play one tape. It began to pull apart. Decades old splices gave way. Paul patiently went through the reel and redid all of the splices. We started to listen. It was a strange mixture of informal conversation about people I didn't know, and radio broadcasts and commercials. The sound was terrible. After a while I said, that can't be it. We listened a little while longer but soon he skipped to the end and he turned the tape around. Instantly, I heard my father's voice. Over the years I have practically memorized the tape and I recited his corny puns and endearments in unison with it. But it sent a chill down my spine to hear that slow southern voice over the speaker. My friend played the recording again, this time recording it on a CD. Now I can store and share it in modern formats.

Meanwhile, his wife Pat and I were addressing newsletters for a community organization. I barely noticed when he started patiently to listen to the other side again. The volume levels went up and down, there was a horrible buzz. Then suddenly I heard Hebrew. Who could it be? The voice was familiar. Then I understood. I was practicing for my bar mitzvah. I chanted the brochas but I read (did not chant) the maftir in Hebrew and read (did not chant) the Haftorah in English. So the conflicting memories were both correct . The riddle was solved, including why I read instead of chanting. My 13 year old voice was breaking, squeaking and shifting octaves. The brochas were painful to listen to, as were the pauses in the Maftir as I struggled to pronounce the Hebrew.

And there was more. There was also my simple bar mitzvah speech... and a miraculous surprise!! In those days tradition had it that the bar mitzvah's mother gave a kind of maudlin talk about her son (bat mitzvahs for girls were several years away in that congregation). The father usually read a simple prayer and chanted the Sheheyonu. But legend has it that in my father's absence my mother chose to forego the speech and to take his part. Without any sense of irony, Mother read the Sheheyonu, blessing God for keeping us alive, and sustaining us and enabling us to reach that season. She stumbled over some of the words of that tongue twisting brocha, but made it through with a few tears. Later it became family tradition that my mother always was assigned that brocha at Hanukkah and Pesach and other occasions.. She always stumbled and we always laughed and remembered the legend. But was that what happened?

Well, as I listened to the tape I suddenly heard her clear young voice (now she is 93 and often finds it difficult to articulate what she wants to say). At first I couldn't believe it was her. I didn't remember her pronounced, but elegant, German accent. I guess I was so used to it I didn't even know she had an accent, but there it was. And when she got to "v'kiyamonu" she tripped, just a bit, at the same place she always did. But on the tape there were no tears, just her clear voice.

This time I cried. Years of clouded memory collapsed on me. Now in a nursing home, after a long and independent life, Mother finds it hard to speak, to articulate the words I can see forming behind her eyes. Listening to this tape now has a very special meaning for me.

It was another 36 years before I read my Haftorah again. This time I did chant it -- in Hebrew!! And I have done it several times since then on the anniversary of my bar mitzvah. The last time was in January, 2005 My voice isn't breaking any more. But our new cantor still says only, "You're getting better." I still haven't had the courage to tackle the maftir, but I told the cantor I wanted to do it for the 50th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, in January 2007. "Better get started," he said.

A few days before my 65th birthday in November, 2008, my wife Cindy surprised me with a large dinner party at the Parthenon Restaurant in Chicago's Greek Town. The biggest surprise of the evening was a leather-bound volume containing many of the essays and other non-legal writings I have written over the years. Many of them she captured from my ModemJunkie articles and elesewhere on this website. But she also included well over a dozen other essays and some other materials. The entire book is online under the name she gave it Extraordinary Words.

Last January my wife heard a review of a play called "These Shining Lives" and realized that it had to be about a case I had told her about. My father represented Catherine Donahue in the Radium Dial litigation more than 70 years ago. Seeing the wonderful play in January inspired me to finally do something with the thick, dusty, 70 year old scrapbooks of newspaper stories. Even though the case concluded five years before I was born, stories about the case are among my most treasured memories. So, I have created a website that carries the story from loss of their first lawyer to victory before the Illinois industrial commission. I hope to add to the collection as time permits. The website also contains links to additional information on the subject.
The Case of the Living Dead Women

NEW Visit Trudel's Truth, a "blog," based on my mother's letters to her family after she left Germany in 1934. Also included are photographs from her photo albums and contemporary sources.
And now you can download the first two months of the blog in chronological order by right clicking on this link.

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