Father at work

Bob Brody Essayist, LettersToMyKids.org
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Your father always worked. He left the house early, before we woke up, and stayed out late, usually after we all went to bed, even on weekends. Day after day and night after night, he came home mainly to eat and sleep, the first quickly, the second loudly, snoring away.

He managed real estate, office and residential buildings, working alongside and under his parents. He collected rents and oversaw maintenance and paid the superintendents, often putting in 18 hours a day.

Even while briefly at home, he remained remote from us, all but incommunicado. Often, unless he puttered in the garage, he went down to the recliner in his den. There, exhausted from working all the time, he napped.

As a little boy, you felt wronged. Your father was always on the go, here and gone, but more gone than here, no sooner here than gone again, always going, going, gone.

His job frustrated him. Early on, back in high school, he tinkered with telegraph machines, experimented with chemicals in a homemade laboratory. As it happened, he was able to take apart almost anything mechanical, whether a clock or a washing machine, and put it back together again, only better than before. He was drawn to technology and the possibilities of innovation.

In 1969 he found his true calling by accident. He went hunting by himself and slipped on a rock and hurt his back. Barely able to move and unable to call anyone for help, he took seven hours to crawl to his car. The traumatic episode gave him an idea — to establish a network that enabled the deaf to communicate by phone with one another and everyone else for the first time.

Toward that end, your father, who was severely hard of hearing, founded a non-profit organization. He bought, stored, adapted, promoted and distributed old teletypewriters, or TTYs. He worked out of a home office, a closet in our den with a fold-out desk. Within a few years, the devices, outfitted with special modems to tie into regular phone lines, cropped up in homes, schools, hospitals, libraries and local police, fire and emergency call departments, first in New York and New Jersey, then nationwide.

The TTY enterprise took over his life for the next 28 years, and thus yours as well. Your father connected with everyone except his own immediate family. As a teenager and then as a young man, you felt more wronged than ever.

Your father kept inventing, ever devoted to research and development, and created the world’s first Braille TTY for deaf-blind people. The deaf community honored him with awards. In 1975 Bell Telephone accepted him to the Telephone Pioneers of America, only the 29th member since Alexander Graham Bell in 1911. He once received a letter on White House stationary, congratulations on his accomplishments from President Ronald Reagan.

He dropped dead in 1997, at the age of 70, from a massive heart attack. After we buried him, about to leave him alone at last, much as he always wanted to be left alone, your Uncle Ward said something to you and your sister. “We all know he could have spent more time with his family,” he said, “but he’s a hero to the deaf community. So we should still think of him as a success.”

Back then, in the 1950s and 1960s, your father acted as fathers were expected to act. He worked. That’s the lesson fathers had learned from the fathers who came before — to be all business.

But that’s something of a red herring. Your father had another motive for being a workaholic, another rationale. He had a debt to his own father that needed to be repaid.

Your father’s father came to the United States from Austria at the age of 12, alone. He had no money, barely any education and spoke little English. He lived with an aunt and uncle he had never met.

Once of age, he ran a tavern in Newark. He worked seven days a week, coming home only to eat and sleep. He saved almost every penny he earned — enough, eventually, to pay to bring his entire immediate family to America, his mother and father and six brothers and sisters, to an apartment he furnished himself.

Then, in 1931, in the very bowels of the Great Depression, he financed an expensive special education for his son. Tuition plus room and board at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis for the next 10 years cost him more than later putting all three of his children through college. As the boy who became your father boarded the train for the Midwest year after year, he noticed that his mother still wore the same dress.

Thanks to this sacrifice, your father learned to function as well as any hearing person.

So many fathers have always worked. They could have worked less. They could have spent more time being fathers. As a result, so many children feel wronged. But maybe our fathers have done some good in the world. What then? How much of a right do we have to feel wronged?

Maybe none.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, is a father of two and blogs at letterstomykids.org. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among other publications.