The Sprecher & Rose

Sally Wiener Grotta talking with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM) about storytelling
Click to hear Sally reading this story on ArtScene with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM). The photos are from a previous appearance on the show.

My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher

In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.

At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.

The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.

Rose survived the Spanish flu when millions did not; she lived a good long life, as a wife and mother, aunt and friend. According to Dad, Grandma believed to her dying day that the sprecher had saved her child.

Dad was ever the rationalist who didn’t believe in superstitions. But he taught me to always be with a loved one in trauma, especially in illness, to never leave them alone. And even when you think they can’t hear you, to talk to them, let them hear your voice and feel your loving touch. They’ll know it’s you, he told me.

I’m not sure what I believe about the sprecher and Rose. Yet I have lived my life according to Dad’s lesson. When Mom became ill, I spent as much time as I could by her side, laughing, crying, sharing stories, touching.

Dad died suddenly, in his sleep. When I found him, I knew he was gone. Whatever a spirit is – if we have one beyond this life (which I doubt) – his had already slipped away from his body. Yet, I talked to him, caressed his brow and held his hand, probably more for my sake than his – to hold his spirit within me. To keep my heart, my spirit from flying away.

Soon after Dad’s death, Daniel was taken to the hospital one last time. All that weekend, I touched him, lay by his side, massaged his feet (he loved foot massages), trying to keep him here with me. Finally, my voice was stilled. No one was left in that shell of a body to hear me.

Dad’s story of the sprecher and Rose, and the impact it had on who I am, how I love, has been on my mind a lot in these days of isolation.  I sit here in my home, alone, except for sweet Shayna, the dog that Mom, Dad and Daniel never knew. And I remember the touches, the connections that may not have kept them alive, but made living with them so wondrous.

The one thing that Covid-19 is denying us is touch. If someone falls victim to this new coronavirus, we’re told to isolate them, so we may protect ourselves, protect our community. If she is taken to the hospital, no one is allowed to visit. And for those who die, the last words they hear, the last touch they feel are probably those of a nurse, who cares deeply, but doesn’t love them.

I also think of the sprecher who healed with words. And that the miraculous connection we can create through our words is the one thing that no one and no thing can steal from us. That’s why, like so many millions around this globe, I’m spending far more time on the phone with friends and family, racking up hours on social media, and Zooming so I can hear voices, see faces, share our stories and lives – touch each other with our words, hold our spirits within each other’s heart.

May your words hold your loved ones’ spirits, and keep them connected to this life until you can touch them once again.

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