“The Farewell,” a new film about extraordinary acts by a family to shield its matriarch from being told she is dying, has received lots of press lately including a piece Thursday by Brian X. Chen, a Chinese-American staff writer of The New York Times (https://nyti.ms/2LDH9Lq). An underlying premise of the film is that Chinese, or for that matter many East Asian cultures, choose to keep secrets, even tell lies, rather than reveal truths that might be harmful emotionally or physically to the uninformed.
I cannot dispute the notion but I would not limit silence as a tool to just Eastern Asian cultures. Even after my siblings and I grew up and married our parents kept quiet about health issues, about impending hospital stays. They didn’t want to burden us is how they would explain their silence.
Perhaps it was an Eastern European thing, as well. Our father’s closest friends all emigrated from the same small town, Ottynia, in Galicia, at various times part of Austria-Hungary, Poland and now Ukraine. Many lost relatives during the Holocaust. During their monthly poker games, wives included, nobody talked about Ottynia. Nobody talked about departed, murdered, family members. They kibitzed about the cards, about business, about everyday life. Nothing about the past. Nothing about Ottynia.
Was it any different from veterans of the Second World War who kept the horror locked inside military-issue chests stashed in attics, basements or garages until their exploits began surfacing after Tom Brokaw’s revelatory 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” released their collective heroism and trauma to a nation grateful but mostly uninformed to the sacrifices they made to protect and secure freedom for peoples around the globe?
I can think of no example of silence more profound than what transpired between my father and his best friend from Ottynia, Charlie Brooks. Charlie was the youngest of three brothers. Adolph the oldest. Next came Harry. All three with their wives were part of the poker game that floated each month from home to home of the eight or so couples who were regular players.
Eventually, all but Charlie, his wife Lily and my parents remained alive. They would see each other often. They usually ate dinner, then played cards to pass the evening.
His voice was loud, a combination of a cement mixer with a bad muffler. Charlie was an effusive, stocky man. Always smiling. Laughing. He always was happy to see me. And Gilda.
Several weeks before Ellie was born in December 1981 we came with three-year-old Dan to my parents’ home in Brooklyn one Friday evening for a weekend visit. Over dinner we asked about Charlie.
Matter of factly my mother said Charlie had died. What!?! When!?!
Right there, at the dinette table at which we were sitting, she dispassionately related. During a card game one Saturday night in August he suffered a heart attack. While they waited for an ambulance my father tried to revive him. He couldn’t.
Lily never forgave his failure. You have to understand. To many emigres from Ottynia my father was an unquestioned leader of extraordinary talents. It was incomprehensible that Charlie could die in his house at his dinner table. That Kopel could not save him.
I think my parents were caught up in the complex myth, as well. So they kept Charlie’s passing a secret, to be released only because we asked of him. Gilda and I did not have the opportunity to attend his funeral or make a shiva visit. My parents felt it was better to spare us the immediate sorrow of his death.
Charlie is buried a few yards from my parents in the communal plot assigned to members of the Ottynier Young Men’s Benevolent Association.
As is the Jewish custom, each time I visit my parents’ graves I place rocks atop their headstones and those of my father’s brother and his wife. And one on Charlie’s, as well.