Beards have become so popular in recent years that they’ve gone beyond hip to become mere cultural wallpaper. If you can stand it, watch a few hours of TV commercials one evening and count how many bearded men you see with anything from sexy scruff to full Williamsburg, the Brooklyn neighborhood famously shared by similarly facial-haired hipsters and hassids. In my family though, beards have always been a thing. I grew up with a redheaded dad who sported a stylish goatee. My hippie brother had unkempt shoulder length hair and a matching gnarly beard—all of it coal black. As soon as I could, which wasn’t until college, I grew a goatee to look older, more like them, and to up my self-calculated masculinity quotient. From that point on, my chin has never been bare, except for the few times when I accidentally trimmed one side so much that I shaved the whole damned thing off out of frustration.
There was only one time when I desecrated my facial hair with intent. It was in graduate school when I found out the woman I thought I loved had been seeing an ex-boyfriend. My response was to shave my beard off because she liked it so much. This didn’t actually make much sense since I was in New York at the time and she was in Michigan and it happened before video calling. The result was shocking, at least to me. I didn’t have an ugly chin, but my face is long and narrow, and as much beard as I had back then kept me from looking like a Modigliani.
These days, my beard’s length and fullness come and go depending on my mood, or occasionally on the weather. Weirdly, sometimes people have asked to touch my beard, like children wanting to feel the belly of a pregnant woman. This has even happened at my gym, where a trainer I knew who couldn't produce much facial hair told me he envied how thick my beard was, whereupon he reached forward and stroked my "bad boy" as he put it. Looking back, I suspect there was more going on there than just beard envy.
I can remember the first time it occurred to me that I might grow a beard someday. I'd been on one of these visits to what looked like a Colonial mansion out of a movie where I was dazzled by a gigantic parlor filled with bright chintz-covered chairs and sofas. The room looked as big as our whole 1930s-era apartment in Upper Manhattan and everyone seated in this imposing space was a tiny elderly woman with white hair. They looked so much alike they could all have been related and I felt slightly frightened by the eagerness with which they stared at me. Did they each hope I was visiting them? Or was it simply my raw youth they envied? My aunt, who was one of them, needed to be reminded who I was, at which she remarked, “You looked better when you had a beard,” before lapsing back into somnolent silence. I was ten years old at the time.
"Not knowing who I am," my mother said during our drive back to the City, "There's nothing worse, except forgetting how to speak." I couldn't imagine my mother ever being silent like that because our home was such a linguistic hothouse. Between them, my Polish mother and Czech father spoke almost a dozen languages fluently and volubly: French, Flemish, German, Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Rumanian, Yiddish…and English, of course. Dad had picked up his English in New York, working in the garment industry with men from Brooklyn and used "dese" and "dem" for "these" and "them." Anyone he disliked was a "bum". Having grown up on a remote farm in the Carpathian Mountains, his speech in Romanian, as in English, was rough and percussive.
My bourgeois mother learned English after the Second World War in Belgium from a tutor born in England, so there was always an exotic edge to how she spoke. She never sounded like any kind of New Yorker. Her sentences were clipped and precise and she actually seemed to love the sound of English. She pronounced her t's distinctly in words like "butter" and was proud of her "th," a sound many Eastern Europeans have trouble with. The way she spoke matched her manner, which bordered on the majestic at times. A shapely five-foot-seven, with waves of auburn hair and perfect posture, she often had the aura of a hostess welcoming guests to an exclusive party. Or maybe something even grander, say a deposed royal family member of some tiny principality maintaining the mien of a court that had long since abandoned her for their own safety.
My mom’s judgments about everything from politics to fashion were swift and unyielding. Her smoker's laugh by contrast was unfettered and very human. I loved her fiercely from as far back as I could remember, and was especially impressed with her ability to move fluidly from one language to another like a champion swimmer doing a perfect flip turn. When she and her fellow Holocaust survivors used to gather to play cards, the air was a maelstrom of Eastern European languages and there was a kind of magic glow around them that felt almost like a force field. They had survived indescribable horror yet there they were, telling jokes, feasting on pastries, fruit and vodka, conversing in delicious detail about their luck with the cards or lack of it.
I was never tested but I was clearly surveyed: what sort of son would I grow up to be? Would I grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, a big business macher, a scholar? How would I acquite myself carrying on the legacy of a people whom Hitler and the Nazis had almost destroyed only a generation ago? I felt their X-ray scrutiny and suspected that I was only a shadow of the glories of their vanished past in Eastern Europe. How could I be anything else? I remember those cardplaying nights as festivals of life. Despite the tragedies they’d lived through, this band of survivors never looked defeated or depressed—and perhaps that was because they all took strength from each other. My mother's own strength, which could sometimes cross the line into bullying, was a rock for me as a child. I knew just enough of her history of torment and torture in the Holocaust to marvel now and then at how very normal she seemed, especially when I read some tabloid news story about abusive parents locking their children in closets or tying them to radiators.
"You're so American," my mom would sometimes say to me, disapproving of some idea I expressed, or some toy I wanted because all my friends at school had one. It was a verdict I couldn't escape. Though not as chilling as when she dismissed a neighbor as a "fishwife," a politician she disliked as a "viper", or anyone at all who displeased her as a "behaymeh"—Yiddish for a creature, a terrible person. There was an authority in these labels as impressive as the view from our nondescript 1950s kitchen, which faced north to the massive, hilly uptown cemetery of Trinity Church, filled with aged mausoleums and centuries old trees that seemed to have soaked up their stony gloom. After school, in that dimly lit room, she’d serve me milk and fresh-baked golden sugar cookies—her specialty—and would occasionally talk about her own childhood before the historical terrors that would mark her young womanhood had struck. That formica topped table was a smaller, more intimate version of the one at which she merrily played cards with her friends and I always felt sheltered there, welcomed and appreciated.
Over several afternoons when I was a little older, she taught me curses and insults in Polish when I asked, even though she said there was no reason to learn such a difficult and not-very-useful language. After all, who spoke it now that she still wished to speak to. Besides, it was a language full of linguistic brambles: "bedsheet" in Polish was the mouthful prześcieradło. She laughed: "What a language with all its psh- and sh-sounds!" But she’d spoken it growing up in Wilno (now Vilnius) and in my clumsy way, I wanted to enter those erased years of hers without yet realizing that was my wish.
So, with wide eyes and uplifted chin she jauntily taught me Polish swearing as if she were a museum curator proudly displaying locked-up treasures to a VIP. Her favorite translated to "shit on a stick": gówno na patyku. Then there were the expletives jasna cholera and cholera czemshka, equivalents of goddammit! or holy shit! Dupa wolowa meant idiot or dumbass, but her favorite was the bizarre yet very common "dog's blood," psia krew, which she used as an all-purpose cry of frustration. And she even made one up just for me, or perhaps it was her own invention as a little girl: rotten dishrag, zgniłe ścierki, which I won't even try to transliterate. Where did that one fit in her universe of opprobrium? I think it was closer to fishwife than viper or baheymah. And where did these lessons fit that were nothing like her helping me with math or French homework?
She told Polish jokes, too, that is jokes Poles themselves told before the War, and she could stretch them out like a classic comedian on the Ed Sullivan Show. Her favorite was about the peasant woman in confession who begs her priest to tell her husband to use a condom. "But my child, that's a sin! Why would you even think of such a thing?" "Father, someone told me that every fifth child in the world is Chinese and my husband and I have four children already—what will the village say if I have a Chinese baby?" She'd tell it differently each time, with new twists and turns and I felt cherished by the telling in ways I've never experienced since. She was giving me a glimpse into a culture I could never know because it had been effaced, but whose quirks she seemed to relish despite Polish anti-semitism between the wars. It had, after all, been her home, although vanished now as Atlantis. Even the Jewish cemetary, where family graves went back to the 1600s, had been paved over by the Nazis or Russians—or both.
She could and would discourse on any topic, which oddly made her very American, or certainly very New York. So the onset of stroke-caused dementia in her seventies which reduced her conversation to rambling, disconnected sentences, and ultimately a descent into Russian baby talk (as my father explained it to me), felt cruel beyond belief. What she most feared had come true. The initial lightning strike and verbal decline was followed by years of complete silence until she died in her eighties.
I tried writing about her losing her to dementia and won an essay contest for my attempt, but what was the prize when I couldn't share it with the woman who’d always encouraged my writing?
Then, about nine years after she stopped speaking, at around two am, my old style bedside phone rang and there was only crackling silence on the other end. But I heard or sensed something—this was no crank called or misdial.
"Mom," I asked, "Is that you?"
I kept repeating the question until she replied "Ah, I'm all right," in the heavy smoker's voice I hadn't heard in years, before she hung up and the haunting call ended.
Later that morning, the phone rang again. I lunged for it, wondering whether the mysterious experience would be repeated. It was my brother calling to tell me he'd just heard from the hospital our mother was dead. I told him I knew, that she’d called me earlier. But how, we wondered? She'd been completely silent and unresponsive for close to a decade. Could she really have miraculously regained the power of speech, or been able to reach for a phone and dial my number? Was it a dream? A hallucination?...Or something else? My grief in the following days and months was softened by that call, and by the comfort of her last words, however they had reached me. Illness had silenced her but, for me anyhow, death had not.
Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-seven books in genres from memoir to mystery, including one which has sold over 300,000 copies. His books have been translated into fifteen languages. He mentors, coaches and edits writers at: writewithoutborders.com.