The Story of my Father
Writing the story of my father may only be an exercise in my own self --healing, but it may strike a chord in sons of other fathers as well.
- Born to privilege
- The money begins to slip away, and the war begins
- After the war
- Mom saves the day
- A friend gets my dad another job
- His drinking
- Thank the lord for Auntie Helen
- He never knew how to let me get close to him.
Born to privilege
My dad was born in 1903 in New England with a silver spoon in his mouth, to a wealthy merchant father and a doting mother. Spoiled as a child, he and his sister, three years older, never lacked for anything throughout their childhoods. Pampered and coddled he was.
Upon graduation from high school he matriculated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but he dropped out after only one year to spend more time with my mother, his high school sweetheart, and she dropped out of Smith College to spend more time with him. They married in 1928 and in 1929 my oldest sister was born. My brother was born in 1937 and my twin sister and I came along eighteen months later.
In the meantime, my grandfather, upon their marriage, gave my dad an allowance of one-hundred dollars a week. a princely sum in those days. My grandfather also gifted my dad a membership in the Longmeadow Country Club. Dad had never really worked a day in his life. All through the depths of the Great Depression he played golf, almost daily.
The money begins to slip away, and the war begins
My grandfather began to suffer from a pinched nerve in his neck in the late 1930's, for which he underwent surgery, which was not only unsuccessful, but left him partially paralyzed. He would spend the last nine years of his life in bed, needing round-the-clock care, which steadily drained the family fortune. Grandfather Kinsman had lost some of his money in the crash of '29 as well, so the family was no longer on easy street.
My father, at age thirty-seven, was conscripted by the government to work in the defense industry at the beginning of World War II, and he went to work for the first time in his life at a machine and gear plant, turning out parts for tanks. In thinking back I'm not sure this wasn't the happiest period of my dad's life. He got off his shift every day at three in the afternoon, and my mother would always drive us to the plant to pick him up. The workers would depart the plant in droves, all carrying their little black lunch boxes. I could see my dad laughing and joking with his fellow workers as he approached our car.
After the war
When the war was over, the family fortune completely gone, my father, now needing to work to support his family, found a job with a friend's life insurance agency. He was to be a life insurance salesman. Things went well for a little while, as he had plenty of his old country club friends to which he could peddle his policies, but he ran out of friends after a time and found that he had no talent for making cold calls and selling to a wider public. He took to cashing his customer's premium payment checks, thinking that he could sell additional policies and cover what he was taking. When the owner of the agency discovered my father's embezzlement he summarily fired him and moved to have him prosecuted.
Mom saves the day
I remember it as if it were yesterday (I had just turned seven) - my mother dressing up my brother, my sister and I in our Sunday best and driving us to my father's boss' house. She trundled us up to his door and rang the bell. He came to the door and she pleaded with him, tears streaming down her face, not to prosecute my father. "What will become of these beautiful children?" she implored and begged him. He liked my mother, thank heaven, and he said "Eleanor, for you, I will not press charges against him. But I don't want to ever see that son of a bitch again, or I might just kill him." Mom had saved the day.
A friend gets my dad another job
My father's best friend Len then secured him a job as an insurance adjuster. The job came with a company car, which was a good thing because our 1936 Reo was on its last legs. But here again, he had a hard time performing to expectations. He had lots of paperwork to perform in this job, and in the evenings he would pull up his chair to a card table, his work in front of him and a deck of cards to the side. He would run numbers on his calculator for a time, then push the papers aside, pick up the deck of cards, and begin playing solitaire. The head of the adjustment bureau wanted to fire my dad on several occasions, because he was always behind in his work, but his friend Len, also a friend of dad's employer, would go over to his house and talk him out of it.
Every Saturday and Sunday my dad would make himself a big pitcher of martinis - sometimes it was manhattans - and settle in to listen to the Boston Red Sox game. On Sundays the Red Sox usually played doubleheaders, and on those occasions my father would go through two full pitchers during the course of the afternoon. I remember my mother tearfully saying to him "the kids are walking around with holes in their shoes, and you bring those damn bottles of bourbon home every week."
Thank the lord for Auntie Helen
My father's Aunt Helen, his father's sister, was the one member of the family whose fortune remained intact. As she was a spinster, my grandfather took it upon himself to take care of her financially, and over the years she had invested her money wisely and well. When she died in the mid 1960's my father was left with a good chunk of her money. He retired from the General Adjustment bureau, much to the delight of his boss, and moved to Kennebunkport, Maine, where he and my mother bought a small motel. My mother was the driving force behind the success of the motel. She greeted and registered the guests and saw to their needs. He mowed the lawn.
He never knew how to let me get close to him.
When I was about five - maybe six - I jumped up in my father's lap and kissed him, whereupon he pushed me away and told me I was too old for that. "Men shake hands," he said. That was the last time I showed my dad any overt affection.
Much later, after I became an adult and moved to California from New England, I hardly ever saw my parents, but I would call them on occasion. I would have lengthy conversations with my mom about any number of subjects, and then she would put my dad on the phone.
It was always the same. "Hi Kiddo," he would greet me. There would be a strained second or two of silence and then I would say "the Red Sox aren't doing so great this year, are they?" "No," he'd reply. They need better pitching."
"Well, nice talking to you, dad. Take care."
"You take care too, Kiddo."
My dad died in 1986 at the age of eighty-two. My mother followed him six days later.
I've done a lot of work over the years healing the wounds of my relationship - or should I say lack thereof - with my father, and I have long since forgiven him his failings. He did the best he could with what he had.