Fathers, Sons and Missed Opportunities
My father never talked to me.
He talked AT me, and often.
He exploded in pent-up, rage-fueled, anger storms that seemed to come from an inexhaustible well of discontent and frustration that even then, as a child in search of connections to the greater world through the vehicle of parental modeling, I knew had more to do with his lack of self esteem than my lack of….anything.
But still, the scars were formed and remain still, today.
I come across authors everyday who speak lovingly of the molding and formulative effects that their fathers imparted on their growing sons and the lasting effects seem evident, compulsory, welcome, and comforting.
I feel a sadness that has no cure.
All that I know about my father, really, comes from a few rudimentary family tales, some cursory history about his upbringing that he chose to share with me as a child, but mostly from my forensic rummaging through the family archives and lore, and a large amount of caustically critical vitriol that I have had to filter, again and again, which my acerbic and acidic mother felt compelled to poison the atmosphere of my upbringing with.
I have spoken before about the uneasy truce that was my parent’s marriage. A sort of Vietnam era demilitarized zone where only the occasional smart bomb managed to cross the scorched void of their unease to land with a lethal ferocity in the midst of the world I only wished was more like the ones I was witnessing on Father Knows Best.
But where in this combustible and combative world were my father’s dreams and aspirations? What place had they once occupied in his psyche? What part had they played in their early marriage? And when had they been suppressed, subverted, and sequestered?
I know that he was 27 when he married in 1939. Late, but there was that “gay issue” undoubtedly clouding his horizon. He would eventually be “outed” to me by my mother on my 40th birthday. How hard must that have been to be that different, that sensitive, that isolated? In a family of 3 boisterous brothers and a bear of a father whose real estate speculating and aggressive worldview permeated their world and butted heads with a formidable female, his wife named Tora. Theirs must not have been an easy life in the 1920’s either.
I know little of my parent’s courtship other than my mother was living in a boarding house run by HIS mother along with the rest of his brothers and assorted other boarders. I know they went to Glen Echo amusement park on dates where my mother refused to ride the roller coaster (too scary, and the beginning of her phobias regarding me, I’m sure). There is one photo of my father around this time, the height of fashion in his leather bomber jacket and pleated trousers, posing for all the world like a Tom Ford model of his day. He was 6’6’, a shy smile and my own shock of dark red hair. But what did he imagine of and for himself. I’ll never know. But what’s with those dirty white tennis shoes? Really? Intrinsically confident or simply unabashedly unaware?
They married and took 3 years to produce a child, my sister (again, that gay thing?)
During the early years of their marriage he worked as a night clerk at a hotel on Connecticut Avenue and went to George Washington University Law, putting himself through school. I know he graduated. I know he passed the bar and I know, only by finding his certification documents, that he also qualified to practice before the Supreme Court. I also know he never practiced law.
I was told in some form of revisionist history that he now had a family to raise and so, took a job as the business manager for a large meat packing house, Auth Bros, on the Southeast docks of D.C. I also know there is more to this “story” that I’ll never uncover. Was his shyness and reserve in a public forum like the law a hindrance he could not overcome? Was my mother’s forceful ambition too formidable a fortress to even approach? Was the prospect a job in hand too tempting not to hold on to during the Great Depression?
He remained with Auth Brothers for the next 25 years, finding a “family” of sorts with this family run operation. Why he left, another well guarded family secret, as were his thoughts and motivations, hermetically sealed away in a historical vault of secrecy almost 75 years ago, too embarrassed or too beaten down to ever air, even within the confines of his own family though judging from my own feelings of insecurity and danger there, it is no real surprise.
I read with detached interest, authors impressions of their fathers, their similarities to them, their differences, the wisdom they felt privileged to have garnered from them and the methodologies gained from them to help navigate the unsteady waters of their own wave-tossed, adolescent worlds.
I have none of that. It is a lacking I feel more keenly as I age and, with no children of my own to impart this particular frustration upon, I wonder; what if?
I have only the example of negative reinforcement foisted upon me by my utterly unhappy mother. What not to be. How not to act. What not to emulate. Nothing remotely forward thinking and useful to ply into usability, only retrograde angst, and anger, and ennui, upon which to build…..what?
After every nuclear meltdown my parents fomented into existence, I never recall a correspondingly sweet denouement. Certainly no make up sex there! The most commonly uttered refrain, spoken to me in private, as my father axed firewood into submission outdoors was; “Just don’t grow up to be like your father”.
What the fuck? Really? This was the sum total of my life lessons? Don’t grow up to be like HIM?
Yet here I am………him.
I look exactly like him. From my earliest years, the Puerto Rican cooks and waiters at the nightclub my father owned in Georgetown called me “Ditto” and “Repeat”, I was such a dead ringer for him.
And I’m sure, now, in retrospective introspection, that I act exactly like the genetic coding he installed in me as well.
I mention the nightclub. I might expand.
The Town House, was on Wisconsin and “O” streets in D.C.
During the Auth Bros years, he bought half interest in a supper club frequented by the glitterati of Washington in the 1950’s. Then Senator Jack Kennedy lived up the street and the justices, the lawyers, and the Capital Hill denizens all hung out at the bar and did deals over the white-clothed tables. I suspect that this was his one and only escape valve from the Harridan House in which we all lived at the time. He worked at the meat plant from 5am until late afternoon and then went over to Georgetown and socialized at the club until almost closing, existing on 4 hours sleep a night and while fueling my mother’s harangues about alcoholism and a wayward nightlife, I’m sure he welcomed the respite from just such confrontations.
I never saw my father on weekdays.
On the occasional weekend day when my mother would allow him to take me downtown to the restaurant, I lived a briefly alternative existence. I was allowed to roam freely about the streets of Georgetown, buy penny candy at the Rexall Drugs on Wisconsin Avenue, eat my fill of “death balls” at the White Castle burger joint and revel in the attention of the completely foreign element of completely foreign restaurant workers.
I was 7 years old. I was free.
Free from the tensions and taught-spring tripwire I lived at home. And I know, somewhere in there, was a spark of pride in my father….but one that was never fanned, never expressed, and most of all, never to be mentioned in tales of derring-do brought home to my mother for fear of a retribution greater than one the god they didn’t really believe in could elicit.
After he sold the club, my father began to fade away in earnest. For the next several decades he became a paler and paler version of himself. Where he was reportedly garrulous and conversational with each and every customer he met while on the “stage” of his element, the nightclub, he was now, post club, reduced to playing the obedient supporting character in my mother’s highly publicized dramatic version of “Life According to Her”.
Yet something of our “sameness” still resonated within me even through the hormone-poisoned years of youth. Once, after I had been caught cutting over a month of classes in my senior year (my office spies knew my mother was on the phone with my adviser, attendance records in his hands), I intrinsically knew that my father would be my only ally in this world-ending drama-to-be-unfolded. I left school (duh) and drove to his office, where, coincidentally, I caught him with a cigarette (he purported to have stopped a dozen years before), and threw myself on the mercy of the Paterfamilias-Court and enlisted him in my crime. My instincts were correct and the fact of his complicity somehow blunted the wrath that was preordained to befall over dinner that evening.
We almost never spoke again.
After I left home, pretty much for good at 18, I don’t recall a single conversation with my father about anything other than the weather, the animals, or how horrible my mother was to him until his death some 30 years later.
Missed opportunities. On so many levels and on so many parts.