I have met many critical people in my life, but the most devastating critic of all has always been my own inner voice chastising me relentlessly. Today, I silence that destructive voice by looking myself straight in the eye (a mirror is helpful for this exercise) and telling “me” that I am aware that I made a mistake, and I am working on myself each day to become a better person. This change was a result of an experience which took place 20 years after I was married. However, as with all events, my initial responses were a result of a long history that began in my childhood.

My father was a person who was always absorbed in his own worldMy father was a person who was always absorbed in his own world. He was unable to provide for our family, due to his inability to hold down a job. He was also unavailable emotionally. I simply felt no connection to him. He would often leave the house early in the morning and come home late. Where he went and what he did is a mystery I have yet to solve. When he was at home, he would lock himself in the dining room, which in our house was a separate room off the kitchen.

If I would happen to see him in the street while playing jump rope with my neighbors, he would barely acknowledge my presence. My father never touched me or displayed any type of affection. For me, this had a crippling affect because I was a sensitive child, desperate for love and approval.

One particular incident will remain forever etched in my mind. I was passing him in the hallway, and my hand accidentally brushed against his. I remember how he pulled away and scowled at me. I will never forget the shame that welled up in me at that moment. I felt dirty and worthless. It was at that precise moment, as I stood there trying to make sense of a senseless situation, that I thought, “One day you will come after me—and I will close the doors.”

When I was 13, my mother asked me how I would feel about moving away from my father. I felt just fine about it, and we left him and moved on with our lives. The change made my mother into a completely different person. She smiled and laughed, and we did fun things together. I did visit my father a number of times, but the visits were more of an obligation than anything else, and they slowly became few and far between.

After high school, I attended Touro College. I studied hard, but also had a lot of fun with my new classmates. I became quite friendly with one particular girl, who eventually decided to play matchmaker and introduce me to her cousin, a very nice-looking young man. We dated for quite a while, and I realized that he was more committed to Torah and mitzvot than I was. But his warmth and compassion won me over, and I agreed to make his religious standards my own. My father did come to my wedding, but that was the last that I saw of him for many years.

I was blessed with beautiful children who were the light of my life. I played an active role in my community, cooking for mothers who had just given birth. Our home had laughter and love. My mother played her role of grandmother by helping me out babysitting often, showering my kids with gifts and attention. They, in turn, adored her, and life seemed pretty good just then. My father, who lived in a small basement apartment about an hour’s drive from our home, did reach out to me a number of times. I, however, could not bring myself to answer his messages. I was afraid that somehow he would rob me of the peace and happiness I had found, and reawaken old and painful memories.

I was afraid that somehow he would rob me of the peace and happiness I had foundIn the 20th year of my marriage, I received a letter in the mail from some kind of rehabilitation center. The letter was from a social worker who was employed in that facility. She introduced herself as Sharon Cohen, and wrote that she is currently providing case management for Mr. Joe Weiss. My father! My heart skipped a beat, and I was tempted to shred and discard the paper without reading it to the end. But curiosity prompted me to continue.

She explained that my father had been in a car accident and had been hospitalized for quite a few months. During his stay, he refused to provide any emergency contact information, saying that he had no friends or relatives. He had been discharged to a rehab center, and she had coaxed him to open up and tell her about his past. He finally agreed to allow her to contact his daughter (me, that is) and attempt a reconciliation. She was aware that there was a very strained relationship, but asked me to be open to meeting with my father. She noted that my father had given her permission to mention that, after having received counseling, he began to understand how his childhood traumas prevented him from being the father he would have liked to have been.

With tears in my eyes I phoned my husband, who has always supported me. We both agreed to speak to our rabbi and were able to see him that very evening. After listening to my story, he said softly: “Your soul was at Mount Sinai, and heard the Ten Commandments directly from G‑d. The fifth commandment says: ‘You shall honor your father and mother.’ I know this is very difficult, but the greater the difficulty in fulfilling a commandment, the greater the reward.”

The following Sunday, my husband and I made the hour-long drive to the hospital. I felt apprehensive about the outcome of the visit, and we had both agreed that for this first time we would go as a couple. My children at this time were all in their teens. I had never spoken badly about my father, but they had made some intelligent guesses which did not add up to a complimentary picture. I knew that after seeing my father, I would have a better idea about how to prepare the children for their visit.

I remember standing at the door. Room A626. This is it, I thought. You can do this! I said to myself. And then we walked in. What I saw was a tired old man sitting in a wheelchair. The nurse told us that he had just completed a grueling session of physical therapy. There was an awkward moment as we both looked at each other. My husband broke the ice by going over and shaking hands with him. I then fell back on the old trick of pulling out a pile of pictures, wondering how much interest, if any, he would be able to muster up. For the first time in my life, he surprised me. He seemed to wake up from his lethargy as he eagerly bent over the photographs. Most of them were of my children, past and present. Suddenly, he gave a start, an almost involuntary shudder. “Who’s this?” he asked, pointing. Without waiting for a reply, he wheeled his chair over to the night table and pulled out a very old photograph from the top drawer. “This is all I have left of my father,” he said simply. I reached out my hand and studied the picture. The resemblance was uncanny. I was looking at a slightly older version of my middle son, Shalom.

At that moment, I understood that this man had had a very lonely childhoodMy father averted his eyes and began talking in a gruff voice. “Lost him when I was four-and-a-half. You wouldn’t think a kid so young could remember, but I did and still do. Used to throw me up in the air, catch me and then tickle me. Don’t know what he died of, but it happened real fast. Ma got real bitter after that. She never was a talker, but after Dad died she hardly said a word. Refused to talk about anything. I guess that’s why the relatives never came around. I had to manage as best as I could. Guess that’s why I never amounted to much.”

I sat there stunned. I had always thought of him as “father” and myself as “child.” At that moment, I understood that this man had had a very lonely childhood. I also realized that while he had very bad memories of his mother, he actually had become like her in some ways. She suddenly became the “bad guy,” and some of my bitterness towards my father directed itself at her. Why couldn’t she have risen above whatever it was that she was going through to attend to her only child? I cleared my throat, determined not to reveal the plethora of emotions that were washing through me. Thankfully, at that moment the nurse stuck her head in the door and reported sternly that visiting hours were over. I looked at my watch said it was getting late and promised to return within the week.

During the hours and days that followed, emotions of anger and frustration ping-ponged in a triangle that included the ghost of my grandmother, my father and myself. I realized that, to some degree, I had broken the cycle that had been passed down as an unwanted inheritance, by being a loving and caring mother to my children. But what I had not given them was a history. I had neglected to embrace my past when I refused to acknowledge the messages that my father had sent at the beginning of my marriage.

My goal had been to disconnect from my roots, but in fact the ghosts of my father and grandmother had always floated in the background, casting a pall on an otherwise stable atmosphere. My husband and children had known that talking about my father and his family was taboo. The anger that I had felt towards my father had reared its ugly head in the form of excessive self-criticism and, sometimes, unfair expectations of my own dear husband and children.

I have learned that it is OK to feel anger and sadness, yet turn those feelings into vehicles of loveThree days after my initial visit with my dad, I decided it was time to complete the change by reuniting with my father and accepting what he had to offer. We would never be close, and I knew I would have to maintain my boundaries and be assertive at times. However, we could have pleasant social contact, and the children could meet their grandfather. What their relationships would be like would be up to them. We visited the rehab center as a family, and then assisted my father during the transition of returning to his apartment.

My husband has been my rock throughout this turbulence, giving me space and support as I navigate through this new, unknown territory. I am learning to face my problems squarely instead of tuning them out, to tackle them in a productive manner, making everyone a winner. I have learned to silence that inner critic that threatens to engulf me when I do make mistakes. I have learned that it is OK to feel anger and sadness, yet turn those feelings into vehicles of love, rather than direct them at myself or others. I know now that sometimes I have been my own worst enemy. I know now that in forgiving my father and my grandmother (who surely has her own story to tell), I am free to forgive myself every day as I move forward in my life.