Reminiscences on my father’s life


Argh It’s February 13th, and the world’s abuzz

with hype about Valentine’s Day and America’s Super Bowl.

I went to Met market, to ready for my son’s upcoming visit.

Red and white paraphernalia met my eyes everywhere (wow- such a lot of artful decorating),

Cards and snacks decorated with heart-shapes-

Sweet’s and specials covered the display tables and throughout the aisles.

Or so it seemed,

Serving as intense reminder,

Of a holiday I’m not particularly celebrating.

(Fortunately since I mislaid my list,

My visit was brief.)

Sure, I was feeling the heaviness of loves “lost” and my current solitude,

But mostly

My dad died last week,

and I’m in a state of acute mourning[1]. He was 92 and been living in a nursing home.

So I’m writing a tribute,

May his soul rest in peace.

*****

I visited him last a little over two years ago-

Which I knew would be the last time.

When I saw him, he was mostly lucid, though had a little incontinence. In a wheel chair, he was newly divorced living in a small apartment with no yard. I couldn’t stand to see him so, and after all we had been through… maybe I was cold in my decision, but visiting his family, was consistently not comfortable.

*****

My dad meant a lot to me up until I was ~9 [2].

After divorcing my mother, we detached

– other than for a few years seeing him for quarterly visits, including

Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays,

…And phone calls when I’d predictably ask for money

For activities outside school that

I knew to him were important- such as

piano or exercise[3]. Anything that might get me off my duff,

He’d acquiesce without much begrudging.

With a slight snort and particular (fake) ratchetty crying –

In seeming pain, he’d write out a check to me – or school.

I still remember the mannerism, though its been 30+ years.

Then, it was easy to make the case for ballet and piano 

‘til I had earnings of my own,

I’d loved them both as pillars of substance since I was quite young.

Both helped my moods, which could easily swing; (and I’ve learned is a maternal family thing.)

*****

I suspect he felt a little guilty, especially when my sister and I went into foster care[4], as he didn’t feel quite up to parenting us three, that is- my brother, sister, and me.

Busy between marriages, in the ’70s he was Hefner’s club regular (where my 9 year-old brother had his birthday party- surrounded by bunnies wearing tufts.

Protecting his lifestyle was very important – which we two might thwart.  The judge agreed. and the rest is history.

*****

During the 60s and 70s, and a good ~ten years before his third marriage,

My dad worked for his “old man”, Donald Sr.

(We called him, “Apoo” though my aunt’s kids called him “Bapoo”)

Sharing a business suite with his father the president,

Another long-time associate (D.D), and Vickie – the office girl, was for my dad a form of support network.

Vickie worked there for years- doing her job efficiently and putting up with my Dad’s friendly but often annoying banter.

Otherwise the office seemed stable and predictable, with little snacks in the fridge and coffee on a warmer.

From Vickie’s desk, my dad’s office was on the the right –

his dad’s and the associates were opposite- on the left.

Now, Dad’s desk was always horrifically sloppy,( sorry Dad, but you know it’s true!)

With time-filed papers, meaning oldest on the bottom, and trade magazines strewn across with occasional coffee cup[5].

Sitting right out in front of the mess, he had a

placard that read, “ A clean desk is a sign of mental illness”. I agree that sounds not so nice.

Early on, he even smoked and had an ashtray full of butts (briefly when I was a toddler)!

I loved visiting and riding the elevator – a metal cage from which you could see each floor whisk by and hear the clack, clack, clack of high heels walking down shiny beige linoleum corridors. The attendant was a quiet old (black) man who wore a traditional blue cap and striped pants. He operated the lift and gave special instructions to ‘keep my fingers and toes close’. Being cautious, I always took special care to listen to him too.

The associate’s and grandfather Apoo’s desks were both neat as a pin[6]. Neither of them smoked either.

Though I only saw my grandfather’s office once, it was a corner office with nice leather chair and broad plate glass windows overlooking South Station…it seemed quite lovely, if not a bit austere.

I’d imagine from his dad’s point of view, my dad’s work ethic might have been judged as desultory- after all my dad freely admitted it was his desire “to work to live” and not the other way around. He insisted on having work/life balance.

[Personally I respected his decision- feeling it prudent, and sought that in my own life too.]

With his dad, commissions were substantial enough, working moderately, to afford a nice house in a (very) nice neighborhood. Nonetheless, years later, when Apoo turned 90, it was no surprise (to me) that his dad sold the company to a competitor – instead of bequeathing it to him. I know that hurt – even though he knew the whys of the logic.

*****

As a fine paper salesman, he always had a lot of fine paper samples.

In our home, were stacks ~ 2 feet high, of paper throughout lining doorways or in the living room.

Parchments, vellums, and smooth Bristol pates,

These were papers with heft and texture[7].

This being the ‘60s and ‘70s, he made his money easily with mis-cuts and slightly mis-dyed lots- seconds he could offer at discount.

He sold mostly to charities and small businesses

From which they might make brochures and cards.

At least that’s how I remember it, though my step-mother insists my memory is faulty.

*****

Some of the paper my brother, Donald III, would cut down

To make memo pads[8].

He’d then sell them to neighbors

bound with a red carmine gum adhesive he’d painted on an edge.

This great little after school business went on for years,

(I was told, while I lived elsewhere with my mother and sister- or foster home of my own.)

This kept both my brother busy and

Provided him with valuable life lessons.

*****

As a salesman, dad drove 100s of miles a week, visiting each place a few times a year. Every so often, maybe a couple of times before I was six, I got to go out with him on his circuit of potential buyers and sellers, including to a paper mill run by some nuns in Lawrence.

I remember being struck by their sweet kindness – they even gave me a roll of orange lifesavers- when we otherwise didn’t have candy[9]. I loved seeing machinery and the huge iron presses. The grounds I remember had an especially peaceful quality.

As his car was his (real) office, like his desk, it was also a mess-

Full of samples, bits of trash, and always sweaty gym clothes.

Together with his cigar smoke,

There was a sweetly cloying aroma. He usually listened to classical music- we’d guess and take bets on composers. Though sometimes he’d listen to baseball and AM’s WRKO talk radio.

*****

He filled out his public life (that I knew about) with squash and racquetball at the Harvard Athletic Club. For some years he was a sort of honorary member[10]. Sometimes I’d wait in the amphitheater-style wooden spectator stands waiting for a match to end- but could grow impatient. I’m a doer, not watcher- so

Once I explored ballrooms and found an unattended piano. As I began to play, a waiter came in and complimented me; it didn’t happen again, so maybe someone spoke to him(?).

Sadly it wasn’t otherwise much of a place for budding young lady to freely roam around.  Powerful men strolled the corridors sweaty, with white towels across their shoulders. More than once, I felt their grinning had a little bit of leering quality. (Later, after his friend Moe Kahn died, he switched to the Boston A.C. a full service gym and exercise facility without traditional charm.)

*****

After his workouts, he might go to Erewhon, an organic food store nearby in Back Bay, before driving back to Marblehead.

Though not a hippie in any way shape or form, always clean cut and clean shaven, Dad (once he quit smoking) was a “health nut”; and made his food from scratch and harvested throughout the year from a large vegetable garden he kept according to ORGANIC gardening principles. He was a classic Cancerian male -tenaciously caring for the land and his home; attached to images of ideals- challenged by changes of aging family and man. Notably, being a classic (male) homebody is a tough act to pull off in a workaholic heartland.

Grinding his own grains, he made bread weekly in a big yellow Fiesta bowl. Even if the loaves were a bit dense and firm, toasted they were yum!

His bread tasted good- unlike my mother’s, which was bland and somehow had a stale texture, even when freshly out of the oven.

He also made yoghurts (thin though – he didn’t try to make labneh), granolas, and pressure-cooked brown rice porridge. The latter did stick to my ribs. With his GE toaster oven, he made many a quick masterpiece! I loved his cooking.

Not a picky eater myself, I appreciated his efforts- (especially since my Mother didn’t really cook much). I ate with gusto and tried to give compliments. Both my brother and sister were much harder to please.

Like the bulk foods health food store, his kitchen had a slightly grungy quality- dirty in the corners with somewhat sticky congeal. But it was well organized with labeled bins and unique storage solutions. I loved the mellow yellow cabinets suggesting warmth and coziness, even if it wasn’t squeaky clean.

He lived as bachelor after all. Across the top of one door, was a chin up bar for quick pull-ups while he waited for water to boil! He also took ~30 vitamins a day, which I thought wholly unnecessary- and steadfastly refused (except I did take my cod liver oil). Especially with his typically great diet, how could he want more vitality? At least that was my thinking.

*****

As an adult, I’d sometimes call him upset from an emotional disappointment[11] – he’d unfailingly have some helpful remark, which helped get me unstuck. During my 20s, we might talk for an hour. Afterwards, I always felt so much better!

Most significantly, my dad was the only person, to this day, with whom I could passionately argue. We’d get going on some philosophical point. He’d say something to set me off and from there, we might get vociferous. Despite that, we’d be able to spin to some resolution – not just agreeing to disagree, but with what felt were tangible gains of understanding.

We could argue religion and politics without bruising our feelings (which for me is near impossible). There was no concern for physicality; I felt safe with him.

 As I aged, and especially once he remarried, I was sad to lose that aspect of our relationship- which from there steadily waned as he got busy with his new family and his priorities shifted.

Living overseas and then on opposite coasts, I didn’t see him but a few more times over the last several decades. Visiting him with his new family wasn’t fun, but tense and chore-like.

I still loved him and (really) tried to forgive him for any real or perceived transgressions I conjured or construed. Despite other stories I’ve written, his connection with me I’ll honor as treasure and I’ll refer to his “faults” no more.

May He Rest in Peace.

In case he’s able to listen, “I miss you Dad and sad not to hear your voice again”. I know you are “in a better place”,

My tears come freely now.

Amen.


[1] Consoling me about my father’s death was the main reason for my son’s visit. He’d asked for me to get him a chicken. So I went to pick one up even though it was Sunday, when I usually chose to go not out or otherwise engage with the mercantile world.

He had been ailing for a few years already- living in a nursing home; then last year he got Covid, and never was the same- those his actual illness seemed mild.

[2] The same year he gave me a paperback version of “Gray’s Anatomy” for my birthday.

[3] My dad thought mental intelligence was the cause of my mother’s ill-ness, and that

cultivating brilliance- becoming highly educated, made her be “bipolar schizophrenic”. He steadfastly believed a woman is happiest barefoot and pregnant…and in the kitchen. He was wrong of course (about mother’s mental illness)- she unwound with her broken heart and isolation. Which in her case had little actually to do with him. Though his energy and roving eyes were like switches that flipped her. He also knew I hated competitive sports and would otherwise be a mushroom reading- glued on my butt.

[4] Instead of living with him and my brother when mother was found incompetent.

[5] Exactly as mine are now…

[6] Would his placard be considered workplace harassment? Hmm, I wonder.

[7] I just found out now that parchment is from animal skin. No wonder I felt it sacred.

[8] I’m sketch on the details – by then I was living 3000 miles away.

[9] Yes, it’s the same roll that got me my stomach pumped, but that’s another story already written and won’t be revisited.

[10] Not sure how that worked – he graduated from Williams.

[11] So while I “asked for nothing”, I did seek his understanding.

4 thoughts on “Reminiscences on my father’s life

  1. Your Dad (my brother) would be pleased and slightly humbled by this tribute to him, I believe. I was greatly touched by it Jen, and so glad that I found it. (Priscilla had forwarded it to me, but as I do not always check my emails it was a week later than she sent it that I found it). The love shined through. My love to you!

    Like

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