Silent Affection

Posted: Jun 10, 2015 12:01 AM

Do you have a noncommunicative father and grandfather? Do you wonder if they love you?

I’m thankful to WORLD members who thought my Father’s Day column last year (June 14) was helpful. Recently I’ve thought about that day in relation to Paul’s famous 1 Corinthians 13 statement that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

As a child and young man my understanding of fatherly love was too narrow. Neither my brother nor I remember our father ever saying to either of us, “I love you.” His love language was providing acts of everyday service: We never went hungry. We never lacked beds or clothes.

I took all that for granted in the way my father, who grew up during the Depression and made soup out of cafeteria ketchup and hot water, did not. I also recall now some expressions of service that went beyond the ordinary: Even when my father was fighting cancer, he painfully packed up my books and mailed them to me.

Once I was an adult, what was my love language toward him? No acts of service and very little quality time. At least when I was 34 and he was 67, rendered bald by chemotherapy and wearing a ball cap for the first time in his life, my final words to him, whispered in his ear, were “I love you.” Didn’t receive any words in return, but he kept performing acts of service, with the last a lack of complaint as he hurtled toward death.

My mother, on the other hand, repeatedly complained about her father, and I’ve heard from cousins that their parents did the same. Robert Green was short but strong as a bull. When he had a growth on his finger, he cut it off with a knife. He sat at his kitchen table eating whole whitefish, stripping the meat with his teeth, then sucking on their heads and dropping the skeletons on the floor. He grabbed boiled chicken legs and sucked their toes.

Originally named Rachmiel (“God is my comforter”) Menikov, he ate that way in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania). He knew no English but during westward travel learned the word with which sailors mocked him: Greenhorn. Later, asked his name, he repeated that word, left comfort behind, and became known as Robert (“bright with glory”) Green. He worked hard and made money peddling used mattresses. He eventually owned a furniture store. He loved walking into a bank in shabby clothes and receiving scorn—until he showed his bankbook.

Money was his god. His oldest son, Hymie, designated fetcher of bootleg liquor during the 1920s, broke a bottle on his way home one winter and chose to stay outside for hours, smelling of booze and having to choose between potential police arrest and paternal beating. Cold and hungry, he finally went home and received the beating: Money-waster. My grandma, Molly Green, had come to America on a boat fare paid by a man looking for a wife; but that man turned her down, and grandpa was able to get her on the cheap. They had six children, a great return on a noninvestment.

But my grandpa did show love by giving what was hard for him to part with, money. When his eldest daughter couldn’t find a husband, he paid a man to marry her. He paid for a nice wedding for my mother and for her sisters. His love language was providing, and he thought that was enough.

When I knew my grandpa, he smelled of whiskey, which he drank out of Coke glasses. He smoked Lucky Strikes to their ends, lighting one from another. My cousins all disliked him. So did I. He spoke mostly Yiddish, which I did not understand. He had stubble on his chin and cheeks. He liked to rub his face against mine, which he did while handing out silver dimes, like John D. Rockefeller.

I didn’t understand at the time that this fierce grandpa had a love language. One of my tasks as a small child was to provide entertainment by reciting the alphabet backwards and doing similar tricks, at which point he would puzzle me by muttering, “Marble, Marble.” Only recently did a cousin tell me that he was impressed and was calling me “Captain Marvel.”

I never suspected that he loved me.