Sunday, June 21, 2015

What My Father Gave Me

Gifts can take mysterious forms

My pleasure reading has long been biographies and other non-fiction. Maybe since I write fiction myself, I often don’t find it “relaxing” to see how well someone else writes. (Though I do of course read some novels.) If you’re a true movie buff, you will have heard of a silent film actress named Lillian Gish. Her work holds up quite well to the test of time; she doesn’t seem corny but timeless, and has been called things like the First Lady of Cinema.

In any event, she wrote an autobiography in which she thanked her mother for teaching her love, and her father for teaching her insecurity. Like me, Miss Gish had a deadbeat dad who abandoned his family, which was how and why she became an actress as a child. And she kept on acting into her 90s, dying just shy of her 100th birthday. Still, when I first read this, I was not mature enough to understand how insecurity can be a positive force within the self. But now I am old enough to see how it has helped me.

I’m not advocating that people abandon their children because it will do them good. It does them harm, sometimes quite serious harm, and even when you make lemonade out of the lemon there is still a sense of loss. Still, I have to say that not knowing my father since I was nine months old is part of who I am, and the insecurity thereof has been something of a gold mine where my creative drive is concerned.

So, on this Father’s Day, for better or for worse, here is the story of my father.

When my parents got divorced, there literally was no money, so my mother got to take whatever there was. This included all of my father’s family heirlooms. So even though I never knew him, we had (for example) his childhood drawings and photo albums. I know that he grew up in a big house with servants (witness the maid’s bell we had, though we of course had no maid). He was his mother’s favorite, as far as I can tell. Apparently he talked to her every day until she died in his middle age. Nothing much was told me about his father.

Though of course I am guessing, I think his mother spoiled him. He thought everyone would accept him as she did, no matter what he did. I know now that he also dealt with chronic depression and possibly other mental conditions. None of this came in handy when, during the Great Depression, his family lost all their money. He never quite adjusted to this reality, and his poor money management skills played a major role in his downfall.

My father was a talented musician. His Master’s thesis was a classical composition still available in the University of Chicago library. He received several other degrees, and by all accounts was highly intelligent. I did not inherit the music gene from either of my parents (my mother was a singer), but I have been told I have some of his mannerisms. He also was said to have had a great deal of charisma, and when men, possibly loan sharks, came to collect the money he owed, he could talk his way out of it—at least for the time being.

Through music, he and my mother met and got married. He set up a music business in NYC. He did arrangements and produced record albums, mostly kiddie stuff as far as I can tell. My mother kept singing here and there, but with their growing family they decided to move to Florida, and take advantage of the real estate boom. My father was to be a contractor, though sometimes he was his only employee, and did some house building himself. He liked to bet on horses, and perhaps gambled in other ways, too. He did not do well. So he never paid his taxes, he won a bid from the government to build a building that never got built, he forged checks, and ripped people off in some bogus money deals.

My mother of course was not pleased by any of this, especially when he purposefully took advantage of innocent people. Pregnant with her third child (yours truly), they ran out of money, and shortly after I was born they divorced. I've been told I was given ten grand by my paternal grandmother at birth, but my father spent it up to throw into the bottomless pit of debt he collected.

My mother had her reasons for not being president of my father’s fan club. It was a bitter, vindictive divorce, and my mother told all three of us kids we never wanted to see him again. Not that we wouldn't see him, but that we didn't even want to. I can remember being maybe four years old and my mother showing me a photo. “This is your father,” she said, “and you hate him because he’s a bad man.”

I think all three of us resented our mother from keeping us from our father. And I do believe that part of her motivation was vengeance. But now I also realize she probably was frightened for her safety and our safety, as he had some pretty shady dealings and even did a stint in prison. I imagine she also did not think he would be a positive influence in our lives.

Years later, when I located my father’s widow, she told me that he always made a mess of money and still lost at the racetrack. The one time she suggested he handle money differently he tried to strangle her. Learning this was quite a wake-up call for me. For the first time I considered that while I still would’ve wanted to meet him at least once, maybe in other ways I was better off not knowing him. I also wondered if my mother feared for her life not just because of the shady characters who came to the house but because of my father himself.

His widow spoke openly about his depression and other odd habits. He seldom bathed, and stayed up all night playing piano and doing crossword puzzles. The entire time she knew him he was horrifically depressed over not seeing his children. Holidays and our birthdays were especially trying for her.  She told me she never had a non-traumatic Christmas in the many years they were married. Yet for all his crying about missing his children, he never picked up the phone to call us. I was curious to see how he looked in his older years, but he refused to pose for photos. Perhaps her being a nurse helped her find the patience to stay with him.

They lived in an extremely tiny home, and some of the windows were boarded up. On his death certificate, his principle occupation was listed as plumber. I have nothing against plumbers, who perform a necessary and well-paid service. But I doubt my father was content to be a plumber when he started out wanting to be a great composer.

In an earlier attempt to try to find him, I called someone by his name in the Florida city he was last seen in, and a very strange man’s voice shouted into the phone and hung up on me. Perhaps this was my father. If so, I suppose we did have a ten-second conversation. I “met” him, so to speak.

It is hard to harbor much hatred toward someone you never knew, and since he was the excluded party that gave him a dimension of sympathy. For most of my life I thought about him, say, a few times a year, and wondered why he hated me so much that he disappeared. But after learning that he missed me and my siblings, I let go of that particular form of self-flagellation. Telling my sister and brother that he never stopped caring for us gave me a sense of empowerment. I honestly don’t know what to make of him, but I’m old enough to accept that sometimes life’s riddles go unanswered, and that’s okay.

I also have known many other people over the years whose fathers were physically or emotionally absent. Sometimes I think that many people end up with the same father, whether he was physically present or not.

My next novel, to be released in the near future, is called Deadbeat Dad. It is pure fiction and not at all the story of my father or anyone else in my family, but I drew on the insecurity he gave me to write the book. So thanks, Dad, for the gift of insecurity. I hope I live as long as Miss Gish. 


  1. a stunning beautiful tribute to a man on Father's Day who doesn't seem to warrant the carefully chosen words to tell his story. I'm not sure I can say I "enjoyed" this story - but I'm glad I read it.