It’s Father’s Day this weekend and I am thinking about you. My faith is as not as strong as some of your other children so I don’t really know if I will ever see you again. But you do still live in the hearts and minds of those who love you and remember you.
My childhood memories of you include your hero-like qualities to the people and kids at Zarephath. From throwing hay bales to hitting a baseball, your strength was legendary. This strength was also demonstrated when you tossed little children or did your little trick of grasping little hands thrust back between the legs and flipping the child over and back on his or her feet.
You were very popular among the students you taught and the friends you had (my friends used to tell me how lucky I was to have you as a father). I remember also you holding forth while giving haircuts in the barber chair corner of the printery, the buzz of the Oster clippers tempered with the observations and repartee of standers-by and flavored by the pleasant greasy smell of printers ink from the presses.
I also remember your attempts to rid your gardens of groundhogs and crows and all the tricks you tried to triumph over them, from aiming your 16 gauge shotgun at a hole in the early morning until an unlucky groundhog poked his nose up, to dangling dead crows from a string on a stick to frighten the live ones away.
I recall with humor the time you came from Denver by bus for a visit to my home in New Brunswick with a paper bag of clothes, a huge Audobon bird book and half a binocular (a monocular?) strung around your neck (what must your fellow passengers have thought?!)
Some of my pleasantest memories were those I accumulated during adulthood on my summer trips to Denver to visit family. Being awakened by your early morning activity was really quite pleasant: from hearing you bang around with a shovel outside as you tended to flowers to hearing the rattle of the fenders on your bike as you returned from a trip to the college building to fetch milk.
I fondly recall the pleasure of sharing history with you. Even though we differed in our political views, we had wonderful discussions. I always felt close to you at those times when we discussed World War II or the Civil War. Of course, I could not match your knowledge of Winston Churchill so I mostly listened when his name came up. I guess I have made my own son the person in my life with whom I now share interest in history. For that I am so thankful, as you must have been for being able to share your interest with me.
Dad, I enjoyed your sense of humor. I never met anyone that appreciated Mark Twain the way you did. Reading funny bits from “Sketches Old and New” or gems from “Innocents Abroad” to you was truly precious and I enjoyed joining you in the uproarious laughter that followed. However, the hilarity you generated from making fun of or ridiculing other people is a somewhat less pleasant memory.
I have never known anyone with a more genuine affinity for the soil which you enjoyed and demonstrated your whole life. I can still smell the freshly plowed New Jersey soil which you cultivated so patiently, hopefully and expertly. I can also remember your prescient bent for organic farming, always rejecting chemical fertilizer for tons of cow manure to enrich the soil, with an occasional dash of chicken manure as well. Although I rebelled as a 14 year old at having to “plant lima beans eyes down”, most of my memories of you and farming were pleasant. From your efforts to make rows as straight as possible by training the muffler of the tractor firmly on a distant downfield fence post or tree, to your pride in your newly purchased Farmall Super A, to your pride in your sweet corn and “Jersey Belle” strawberries, to the smells and sounds of picking sweet corn in the early dawn in the fields on the Millstone River flood plain, I remember all very fondly because I was with you and I was helping you. You loved to grow flowers as well, especially dahlias, an obsession that began at Lock Haven with dahlia bulbs planted in the burned out stump in front of the house, and continued to planting dahlias around the Belleview house and buildings.
I remember how proud I was when you let me drive the new ’51 Chevy pickup into the garage at night, how crushed and ashamed I was when I erred and put a dent in the left front fender, and how relieved I was that you kept your anger and disappointment hidden. I also remember your kind effort to complement my saving for and purchase of a dream $1.99 fishing reel from Sears with a surprise fishing rod that I found on my bed one afternoon. And I remember the shame I felt when I foolishly and carelessly allowed that dream-come-true rod and reel to be stolen from me by a schoolmate and never recovered.
Very pleasurable to remember are the times on hot humid summer nights you used to take us on a drive around the township back roads with all of us in the back of the pickup truck. When an underpass was being constructed under the railroad in Manville, we used to drive over and check its progress. When little sister Elaine mistakenly called it the “underpants”, you teased her about it for months afterward.
And speaking of back roads, I felt so special to go with you several times to the Carfagnos’ home on one of those roads to watch the Papst Blue Ribbon Bouts on Wednesday night or Friday night boxing on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. These were the times I got to see Rocky Marciano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles and Sugar Ray Robinson, very special indeed.
Also, I enjoyed very much the times I and various other brothers and sisters accompanied you to the “Auction” (actually I think it was Packard’s Farmer’s Market) on Route 206 near Somerville on Wednesday nights or Friday nights. You sold sweet corn and vegetables wholesale to a vendor there and we kids were turned loose to visit the various booths and spend a little money. The books I purchased at the used book booth there still occupy a special place in my bookcase and in my heart.
Dad, I am sorry I was so difficult to raise. I was certainly not the ever obedient and obeisant eldest son you desired. We had numerous disagreements and arguments when I was a teenager during which we both lost our tempers. After being expelled from the church school in Denver as a high school senior, you drove all the way from New Jersey to bring me back (never saying a word to me) and did your best to successfully get me situated again. I am grateful for those efforts, which resulted in my living with Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil in Ohio, attending Wooster High School, and setting my life on a new course.
You seemed proud of me (but never said you were) when, after being accepted to Rutgers, you took me to the bookstore for my books, my dink (a beanie all freshmen were required to wear) and my tie (also required). But living in our chaotic home and commuting during those first years of college were difficult, as were the financial struggles. After losing my job at Ford because of my previously undetected scoliosis, a job which I expected to be my financial salvation, and after a bitter argument with you, I kissed my little brothers goodbye during the night and drove to Colorado with one of the family vehicles. I suppose you could have reported a theft and pressed charges. I am grateful that you did not.
Dad, although I often condemned you for consigning your family to a life in the Pillar of Fire church, perhaps I never properly appreciated the political tightrope you walked to keep us there. I often blamed you for not having the courage to leave and get us all out into the real world. I recall when I first went to teach for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and made good money teaching and paid only $50 per month for my very nice rental house. I urged you at that time to make the break. But you didn’t, or couldn’t. It is likely you thought that at least in the church the kids would always have food and a roof over their heads. I don’t think it was ever out of a true religious conviction that you kept us there but simply because you knew no other life.
It must have been difficult to accumulate money, any money at all, in those days in the church when we children were all quite young. I look back at the automatic washer we finally bought and the deep freeze, and realize that the money for those appliances came very dearly, from work in the “missionary field” or from raising and selling vegetables.
Along with these mostly pleasant memories, there are some sad ones too. Dad, I feel to this day the pain of hearing you extol the virtues of other young people. You were always commenting on someone’s uncommon strength, ability or intelligence or size of their hands, never realizing how much your thin oldest son (with smaller hands) craved some recognition too. You had favorites among your students in the classroom and even had favorites among your own children. This caused intense emotional pain for those not included in this favored group, among them me, and likely imposed a heavy emotional burden on those that were. You also enjoyed teasing your kids, I am not sure why. You can see a tearful Elaine, hurt by your teasing or a crying little Charlie in the old color slides and movies. I vividly recall another “teaser” that you enjoyed – extending a pencil to us and flipping it as we reached so we grasped your forefinger instead.
When things got difficult at home – Mom not feeling well, the house chaotic and confused, full of needy children, piles of dirty dishes and buckets of soiled diapers, you were not there to take responsibility, exercise leadership, lend a hand and set things right. You found all sorts of reasons and justifications to be at Zarephath for twelve or sixteen hours a day, taking courses, teaching, working or much of the time I think, just escaping. Much of household management became the responsibility of the older children, a job we secretly resented and from which we tried to escape, each in our own way. And I recall how badly our shabby and leaking house needed attention and instead you helped other people paint and reroof their houses.
This perpetual absence was symptomatic of a general neglect of Mom back in those days which all of us felt. We all missed so much a Mom and Dad together in love and support and both parents giving us love and support in turn. You left the church and your family once to make a point with the church management and worked for Nides Appliances in Denver for about six months. I can remember a buzz among us children in the morning as the word spread that you had returned during the night. You and Mom responded to a cautious tap on the bedroom door and we kids crowded in to welcome you back. The sweetest thing about this event was observing a very happy Mom and Dad in bed together. This is the only time I can remember seeing you this way and feeling the joy it gave me. I am happy that in your retirement years, and prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, you and Mom apparently drew closer together as a couple, although Mom always seemed the active and demonstrative provider of affection and you just the passive recipient.
Dad, I feel to this day an aching void inside me. I never experienced the joy of you hugging me or kissing me. Nor did I ever experience the joy of you telling me you loved me or that you were proud of me. I suppose much of my need to achieve was driven by this futile desire to obtain your love and approval, which never came. Oh yes, you apparently told others that you were proud of my educational and professional achievements but I would have given the world to hear it from you. But Dad, even though it does not dry my tears or fill that void, I do realize that you simply never learned from your own parents how to show love and approval to your children. I sense in you the same defiance of your father that I had of you and the same false empowerment from your mother that I got from mine and I sense that your father never hugged or kissed you, told you he loved you or was proud of you either. My youngest brother told me of a time when, your eyes filling with tears, you responded to him that you had done the best you could. And I am sure you did.
Dad, your last years were spent in confusion, desperation, madness and darkness from the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s disease. What a tragedy to see your fine mind totally destroyed and your engaging personality crumbled to nothing. How horrible to see a perfectly healthy elderly man, still with a good physique and no gray hair, not recognize his wife or children. I do remember an occasion, before any of us suspected what was happening, when I visited you and Mom in Colorado. You were both watching television as I entered the house and you both rose to greet me, but I could see from your eyes that you were startled and perhaps didn’t recognize me. However, you took cues from Mom and were properly cordial and civil. But I knew something was wrong.
I surely wish I could see you again Dad and talk heart to heart with you. I will never know really how you felt about me. I only know that, like you, I did the best I could, with the emotional, intellectual and physical qualities I inherited from you and Mom. If you ever wished that you could have been a better father, I certainly have wished I could have been a better son.
On Father’s Day I, your oldest son, in this torrent of mixed memories and emotions, remember you with love.