Reflective Fathering

Reflective Fathering

Father’s Day 2019

It is 107 years after my father was born, June 12th, 1912.  Think about that, I do.  Dates over a century ago tend to blur our concept of time and tax our limited memories and sense of immediate history.  Our fathers would seem to dwell in our own, personal, immediate history; they sired us, raised us, and hopefully celebrated us into our current adulthood with praise and pride.  But not always.

While I currently have the aches and pains and physical life history of all men and women my age I, as I’m sure most of my Baby Boomer kin, still identify as a much younger person than I am or have a right to be.  Our life and times have been so incredibly fast-paced, change-filled, and fueled by an incessant need to “keep up with the times” that we understandably feel as if we are living a generation, at least, below what our chronology would insist we adhere to.  Post WWII life has been lived at warp speed and change and adaptability have been precursors to living any semblance of an adjusted adulthood.  “You’re only as young as you feel” “sixty is the new forty”……our mottos and our mantras.

For me, Father’s Day has always been fraught with emotional pitfalls; guilt and confusion topping the list. I never felt anything particular about my father, so I was continually egged on by the approaching special Sunday into a deep and foreboding sense of gloom and guilt that I did NOT feel any particular warm and fuzzies or even any gratitude for his presence.  Guilt and confusion. 

As a child in the 50’s, life was ostensibly simpler; social mores more rigidly defined, family structure paramount, appearances = everything.  My life in the 50’s was anything but those things.  Our family had all the outward trappings of those life-defining parameters, but we veered severely off course into a land of crazy-comparability where scary clowns and lurid funhouse mirrors were the norm and not the amusement.  I have tried for generations to understand why; where was the Father Knows Best in my personal history?

The father I was conscripted to was born to an affluent Washington, D.C. family at the turn of the century…two turns ago!  He was one of four brothers from a long, long, line of Olde New England founding fathers.  He came of age after WWI and during prohibition on the streets of D.C. and the expectations for his future were, I’m certain, bright. His father and older brothers were in real estate and there is the crux of the family mis-fortune.  The Crash of 1929 wiped out my family as it did so many.  My grandfather and uncles were further degraded by their venture into selling swampland in Florida to the unsuspecting, newly burgeoning, tourist trade that Henry Flagler was flogging for his nascent railway to Miami and eventually, Key West.

The resulting complete catastrophe left my grandfather dead on a wharf in a Newport News shipping factory at the age of 50 in 1935 where he had gone to find any work at all in the throes of the Great Depression.  My grandmother Tora, really the backbone and Southern Stock of the family tree, left behind in D.C. with one young son still at home, converted what was left of her family holdings in Virginia by buying a large Victorian mansion on New Hampshire Ave at Dupont Circle.  

She converted it into a boarding house, took in roomers, served meals to strangers, and fed her family. My mother, fresh off the train from rural Wisconsin with a job in the Civil Service, arrived at the boarding house door in December 1937.  The family dynasty that my mother created in that boarding house and that city lives on in fractured but traceable filaments to this day but that is, as they say, another story.

Today I am reflecting on what happened to my father.  Where did the promise and the future he had from birth disappear? The depression alone was not the culprit.  His two older brothers went on to successful careers in real estate and property management. My father married my mother, the boarder in his mother’s house, in 1939 at the Washington National Cathedral, no small justice of the peace wedding for my social climbing mother.  I believe SHE believed she had married up, and in many ways she did; from farm girl of immigrant background to the heart of the Nation’s Capital.  But what and more importantly why had my father married?

I believe his was never a love-match but an obligatory rite of passage he was a pre-destined to perform. It was only fifty years later that my mother outed my father to me as gay, on my own 40thbirthday, that I began to re-jigger the puzzle-pieces of my tormented youth and fragmented family into something that I could set down on paper and review in some logical progression.  Their decision to marry, and reproduce, was what they were socially proscribed to do in that era.  Full stop. Even though it was apparently “known” within my father’s family that he had a secret I have no understanding of how deep that knowledge ran. My only anecdotal clue was that my two older uncles went to my mother-to-be and warned her not to marry my father; “He’s not the marrying kind…” was the carefully coded disclaimer.

But marry they did and the socially sophisticate-wannabe that was my mother pushed him further than his stunted, gay-washed, psyche would normally have allowed of him. 

He worked as a night clerk at the Chastleton Hotel on 16thStreet while putting himself through George Washington Law School.

 I came across my father’s law degree in his things after his death; that and his Certificate of Good Standing to practice before the Supreme Court.  I also found a framed, engraved, invitation to the inauguration of Herbert Hoover astonishingly, designed and engraved by my artist uncle, my father’s oldest brother.  He also designed much of the paper money we still use.  So, what happened to the promise of this man from this family?

How did I end up with the beaten-down version of the father that I remember?

My father missed WWII. He was a student, a father of a young daughter, and the sole support of his family and increasingly his aged mother as well; exemption granted.  All of his brothers, older and younger, served.  There is a degree of suspicion, distaste, embarrassment, and unspeakableness that pervaded the entire family after this moment in history.  My mother and father NEVER spoke about this, ever.  There were snide asides by his two surviving brothers on occasion, or at least references to their “service”.  Was my father’s un-acknowledged homosexuality somehow at play even then? I’ll never know.  I do know that my mother never let that bit of ammunition grow cold and unusable over the decades.

After all his efforts to graduate law school, pass the bar, and feed his family my father never practiced law, ever.  And he never even mentioned that he was a lawyer…..ever.  No one in my entire extended family EVER mentioned that my father had achieved these astounding benchmarks in the midst of the great depression.  I subliminally knew this information, but it was not until I held his diplomas in my hand and read the words on them that the import of what he had done penetrated my rational mind.  It was the only moment of pride I had ever had in my father.  More than that, it was the only human moment I had ever glimpsed of the man other than the tempestuous, angry, beaten-down person who shared my living space for eighteen years but never occupied a place in my soul or my life.

On this Father’s Day I reflect on my own father but realize that it was my mother who molded, threatened, harangued, and blistered open wounds onto his personality that would scab over and scar the man who once was and never became.

Did she use his homosexuality against him the way she used mine against me?  Chances are more than good that she did.  I was witness to the sneering derision that was their relationship literally all of my life.  I did not understand it at the time, it was just what my life as a child was; uncomfortable, scary, fraught with danger and an unspoken warning not to get in the way. They were combustible.  She was a tiny (5’4”) factory of venom and he was a huge (6’6”) red-headed volcano of temper.  She lit the match; he was the predictable explosion.  Rinse and Repeat.

The story line has always been that my father didn’t practice law because it was the War and he had a family to support so he took a good “steady” job as the business manager for a major, family-owned (mob?) meat packing firm in D.C.  He stayed 25 years.  He ended his career as a building service manager for a cancer research facility in suburban Maryland.  He was a janitor.

The seething resentment he felt towards my mother; his failures, the place he had landed after so much promise, and possibly his own sexual shame was palpable.  It was unnamed during his life but expressed in a thousand fatal fireworks of frustration.  His anger was legendary, his impatience a badge of dishonor that plagued him all his life.  Like me, my father was an extrovert; a gregarious man who would talk to anybody about anything (mostly to avoid talking to my mother) but this genuinely human and endearing characteristic was continually derided and thwarted in shameless openness by my mother. Her own sisters and his brothers were embarrassed for the both of them but the charade of family had to continue.  It was the 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s; to divorce and maybe, just maybe, find some peace was not in the cards for people who came from social roots that penetrated back to the historic ground from which they had sprung.

My father lived a life of not so quiet desperation; tinged with regret, anger, debasement, embarrassment, and shame.  And what did he leave me?

He left me the lessons of another era and the courage to find my own way despite the confluence of confusion that was my heritage.  He left me to learn lessons from his history; not consciously but they are there for the finding.  After thirteen generations in this country (1644-present) the family name ends with me. There are no more male heirs and so a name that traces back through the ages of time; through kings and queens (of all sorts!) ceases upon my death.  It is an intriguing position to be in.  I get to write the entire history, tell the entire story.

My mother gave me curiosity. My father, through his weakness, gave me strength. 

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