Inside Actress Marlee Matlin's Silent World

When my mother talks about her early years, it is a story of abandonment and disappointments. An aunt and uncle had helped Libby's mother, Rose Hammer, and Libby's older sister, Sara, and brother, Jack, who changed his name to Jason, emigrate from Bledow, Poland–a village about halfway between Warsaw and Lodz– in the late twenties, saving them from the almost certain death they would have faced as Jews had they been there for Hitler's invasion in 1939. Libby, the family's last child, was born in 1930 in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a new world full of possibilities. But the family would soon begin to fracture.

By the time Libby was nine, her family had moved to Chicago, where her parents ran a small baked-goods store, though that didn't last long. Libby's father, Paul, diagnosed with tuberculosis, soon moved into a treatment facility in Denver, her brother eventually left to live with the aunt and uncle in Yakima, Washington, who'd helped the family emigrate and Libby's sister moved in with another family as a boarder. That left Libby and her mother to make their way alone.

Rose, who spoke Yiddish and little English-- barely enough to get by-- mostly found work in the Chicago sweatshops sewing dresses for little money and long hours each day. Rose and Libby lived in rat- and roach-infested tenements in the city's worst areas, a life that Libby remembers as "soul-destroying."

Her one good memory is of an uncle, a shoemaker who one day put taps on a pair of her shoes. She loved to dance in them for hours, but worried that her overworked mother might take them away or see them as frivolous in their hardscrabble life. Libby would sneak off and find a little bit of bare flooring away from the apartment where she could make the tap shoes sing.

She says she had no real dreams for herself as a child, it wasn't a life that allowed for dreams, but there were those tap shoes and somewhere along the way the hope that maybe, just maybe, she could be the next Shirley Temple.

More disappointments followed. When Libby was twelve, her mother found out that her husband, by then getting his TB treatment in San Francisco, was involved with another woman. Rose divorced him and Libby felt she had lost her father forever. I never knew any of this until after Grandpa Paul passed away.

He would come into Libby's life again when she was nineteen. By then, her sister had tracked him down and reconnected him to the family. He was living in Los Angeles and running a small dry cleaner's on Vernon Avenue, and the next time Libby was in town she went to see him. Maybe it was more out of curiosity than anything else; she said she could never forgive him for emotionally devastating her mother.

A few years later he came through Chicago and asked to stay with our family, but it was awkward and tense. My mother remembers one day going downstairs to the basement with a knife in hand to retrieve some ribs from a fridge down there. On the way down the stairs she stopped and, unable to shake off the rage she felt for the father who abandoned her, rammed the knife into the wood paneling along the stairwell. They rarely spoke again, and when he died in the nineties, she didn't go to the funeral. I happened to be in L.A. then and went to the service, the only one in my immediate family there.


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