While Walking the Dog
Memories of a Jewish Childhood
By Lynn Ruth Miller
While Walking the Dog
Memories of a Jewish Childhood
By Lynn Ruth Miller
one means all he says
And yet very few say all they mean.
Henry Brooks Adams
When I was a child, I escaped the static of childhood by visiting
our landlady, Mrs. Berlin. Mrs. Berlin was a very large soft woman who had no
children of her own. No matter when I rang her doorbell, she had all the time in
the world for me because she rarely moved from her armchair by the window. When
my mother insisted I go outside to play with children who ran too fast and
shouted too loud I dashed across the street and called “Are you home, Mrs.
“Come in,” she bellowed and I pushed open the door to gallop into the safety of
her arms. She stroked my hair and tilted my face to hers. “Did Dale call you
names again?” she shouted.
I nodded and rested my head on her shoulder. “How did you know?” I asked.
She smiled. “I read it in your eyes.” she hollered.
I never understood why Mrs. Berlin spoke in such thunderous tones until the day
I happened on her while she was talking on the telephone. I was on my way to the
comfort of her voluminous lap and stopped in amazement. Mrs. Berlin didn’t hold
the long black receiver to her ear the way my Mama did when she talked endlessly
to her sisters or my Aunt Sally. Instead, she held the phone against her bosom
and looked downward when she responded to the sputtering sounds I heard coming
from the instrument against her breast. She looked as if she were conversing
with her belt buckle. “Why did you put the receiver on your chest?” I asked her
when she finished her conversation and put the earpiece back on its hook.
She lifted me into her arms and held me close. “Because that is where my hearing
aid battery is, Lynn Ruth,” she said.
This was in 1937 when help for the deaf was neither subtle, streamlined nor very
effective. Anyone whose hearing was impaired had very poor choices open to help
him keep in touch with his world He could either lip read, resort to an ear
trumpet to amplify the sound around him, or wear a very complicated unsightly
device like the large apparatus in Mrs. Berlin’s ear attached by unsightly wires
to the bulky battery inside her blouse.
Mrs. Berlin didn’t give me much time to ponder her unusual audio equipment. She
smiled at me and said, “I know a little girl who would love one of the chocolate
cupcakes I baked last night!”
“Oh I would!” I cried and my smile must have been very bright because it made
Mrs. Berlin hug me even harder than usual.
I had not finished my breakfast because I hated the taste of milk and my mother
didn’t think it was good for me to put sugar on my cereal. My tummy was rumbling
so loudly it was actually visible but I was four years old and unaware of
obvious evidence Mrs. Berlin recognized immediately. “How did you know I wanted
a cupcake?” I asked her.
“You have a hungry look about you,” she said.
I came home that afternoon while my mother was involved on the telephone talking
to her sisters about the clothes they bought that afternoon. She looked up when
I pushed the back door open, put her hand over the receiver and nodded, “Go wash
your hands Lynn Ruth, dinner is almost ready.”
I tugged at her sleeve. “You won’t believe what I saw,” I said. “Mrs. Berlin
doesn’t listen with her ears like we do! She hears people with her heart.”
“Shhhhhh!” hissed my mother. “ Can’t you see I’m busy?”
I was crushed. I thought I had made a spectacular discovery and obviously my
mother didn’t think it was worth so much as a pause in her conversation. ”Mrs.
Berlin is never too busy to talk to me,” I said. “Why are you?”
My mother pointed to the bathroom. “Go!” she said.
That night at dinner, my father explained why Mrs. Berlin had such a strange way
of listening on her telephone. “Lynn Ruth,” he said and folded his newspaper to
the financial page. “Mrs. Berlin doesn’t hear with her ears the way we do. She
had to go to the doctor to get a special machine that makes sounds louder just
like the dial on our radio. She can’t understand you unless she turns her dial
just like I can’t hear the news unless I switch on the radio.”
I looked up from my tapioca pudding. “That’s not true,” I said. “Mrs. Berlin
doesn’t turn a knob to hear what I say. All she does is look at me and she knows
right way what I feel inside. She listens to me with her heart.”
I looked defiantly at my father but his face was hidden behind the newspaper
again. My mother returned from the kitchen and pointed to my filled custard cup.
“Finish that tapioca, Lynn Ruth or you can’t have your hydrox cookie.”
“I don’t like tapioca,” I said.
“Then go to your room,” said my mother.
Through the years, I never forgot the kind, loving woman across the street who
comforted me when I fell off my bicycle and wiped away my tears when I stepped
on the lines in hopscotch or couldn’t make the yoyo go up the string. I never
had to tell her why there were tears in my eyes or bruises on my knees. She
always heard my longings because I suspect she had some pretty big ones of her
own. “Does your heart tell you when I want to cry?” I asked her one day and she
“You could say that, Lynnie Ruth,” she said. “My heart reminds me that I was a
little girl like you are once; the kind who loved teddy bear and books more than
swings and baseball bats.”
“I knew I was right!” I said. “My mother said you listen with a hearing aid and
I said she was wrong because you hear me with your heart.”
Mrs. Berlin nodded. “You both are right, honey,” she said. “And right now I know
a little girl who would just love a scrambled egg with toast and jelly.”
She rose to make me a snack she knew I adored and I followed close behind her.
“How did you know my mama made me leave the table when I wouldn’t eat pea soup?
I just hate pea soup, don’t you?”
Mrs. Berlin patted my head. “Pea soup is an acquired taste, ” she said as she
lumbered to the stove. “It’s like potato soup.”
“I hate that too,” I said. “But I just LOVE scrambled eggs.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Berlin.
“Did your heart tell you that?” I asked..
“You could say it did,” said Mrs. Berlin. “I know a hungry little girl when I
She placed a fragrant plate of eggs and buttered toast on the table. “Tuck your
napkin under your chin, honey,” she said “We wouldn’t want you to stain your
brand new Shirley Temple dress.”
Now that I am a great deal older, I know that the words I said to Mrs. Berlin
had very little to do with what was whirling around inside my head. I know, too,
that I was very fortunate to have someone in my life to hear my aches and cure
my invisible wounds.
Indeed, all of us might communicate with one another more easily if we allowed
our intuition to reveal the sentiment behind the words we hear. Listening with
our hearts is an art well worth developing because it nurtures the compassion we
all need to cope with our world.. Would there were more people in this fast
paced world of ours willing to take the time to tune in on another’s pain and
try to answer his needs instead of his sentences.
I like to think more marriages would endure and fewer children would be battered
if we could learn from the Mrs. Berlins of this world. We would sharpen our
senses and recognize the broken hearts behind the defensive remark and the lost
daydream under an artificial smile. To touch a hand, to erase a frown, to
restore a bit of hope. Isn’t that what we all seek? And it is so easy to give if
we would only take the time to speak to one another like Mrs. Berlin spoke to me
so very long ago: heart to heart.
One thing talk can’t accomplish is communication.