The Boy Who Became My Father: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father graduated from Rutgers in 1948 – I forgot to mention he entered the Army for a spell, too, and apparently trained pilots; I saw photos of him, in his flight gear, near a plane on an airfield – and again, for anyone with so little hearing to finish college in those days was no small accomplishment.

By the way, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the decision my grandparents made to send my father away to school. It’s easy to pass judgment and call this a terrible decision, inflicting a second sense of loss in a small boy like that, maybe just to get him out of the house. But it was the 1930s, the Great Depression had already set in, and my grandparents were doing what people with deaf or almost-deaf children did back then, turning to the acknowledged experts for help. So I want to be fair about that.

After college my father went to work at a place called Three Guys From Harrison, a kind of precursor to Home Depot My father told me how the job interviewer asked him whether he knew anything about retail sales. The answer was no, but my father said yes. He had to bluff to get the job, and so he found himself hired. I guess he tended to customers in the aisles and labeled prices on products and loaded stock in the backrooms, but it was no job for someone with his mind, so scientific and inventive.

Years later, my father would tell me he probably could have become an engineer – and maybe should have – rising through the ranks at some company like IBM or Xerox or Boeing or GM. It would turn out he was good at anything mechanical, whether a clock or a car or a washing machine. He was drawn to technology, had an aptitude for it, was fascinated by it, was what marketers would be quick to call an early adapter.

Eventually, and happily for him, he would answer his calling. But now it’s 1949 or so and my father goes to some local event held for the deaf community and meets a woman named Aileen, then 21 or so. She’s beautiful – no really, she looks like Elizabeth Taylor, almost a dead ringer for her – and she comes from a solid professional family in New York City (then living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx). I heard his advances toward her were unwelcome at first, but he persisted.

One day he climbed a ladder or a fire escape onto her apartment building in the Bronx and crawled into her window.

I always wonder how the families saw each other then. On one side, you had the Brodys, my grandfather Harry Brody an eighth-grade dropout and still a peasant at heart, owner of a bar, the son a hard-of-hearing Rutgers graduate. On the other side, you had the Shefts, my grandfather Benjamin a certified public accountant in a proper office, my grandmother Gertrude by then already putting on airs, the daughter completely deaf from a bout with meningitis in infancy.

It must have seemed a step up for my father, winning the heart of a gorgeous girl from New York City whose father, unlike his, had also graduated college). It might have seemed a step up for my mother, too, because even though the Brodys had less money and lived in New Jersey – imagine that, people living in New Jersey! – he was only hard of hearing, able to benefit from the better hearing aids now, and certainly he was ambitious. Why else would he climb into her bedroom window that night?

Whatever the case, they soon became engaged and married. They honeymooned in July, 1951, at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills – then and for a long time considered the Plaza of the Catskills – and took a one-bedroom apartment at 910 Sheridan Avenue, near The Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for about $100 a month.

Eight months and two weeks later my father and mother became parents for the first time.

Can you guess who that kid was?

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