Recovering My Father: History in Pictures
by CB Bassity
During World War II my father carried a rifle
and a camera, but he used the camera exclusively. A first lieutenant
in the Army Signal Corps, he led a photo team that recorded history at
Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge. As
young kids, my brother and I often pored through the photos bound in a
stack of albums in Dad's study. Columns of Jeeps and trucks carrying
troops along French country roads, war wreckage, grinning men outside a
farmhouse, men devoid of grins—we were puzzled by the black bar marked
across the eyes of men who were obviously alive. Well, yes, Dad said,
he’s alive in that picture. In 1945 the French decorated my
father with the Croix de Guerre. But I didn’t know this until
I read it in his obituary.
I have a picture of Dad somewhere, a harshly lit
snapshot. The flash on the boxy little Kodak I got for my ninth Christmas
reflects in the glass of the front door behind him. He has just come
in the door from work one evening, his broad smile full of the pleasure
of family and fatherhood. Having taken the bus home from his New
York office and walked one New Jersey block from Route 17 to our house,
he stands just inside the door where we kids used to run and jump into
his arms, calling, Daddy’s home!
There was plenty I didn’t know about Dad.
I knew he was elected president of the Overseas Press Club in 1977.
But I learned from his obituary that letters he had written to the Vorster
government in South Africa on behalf of jailed black journalists had aroused
international action. Some men make up heroic exploits for themselves,
fueled by a sense of unworthiness perhaps; the same fuel, I believe, led
my father to suppress his real achievements.
He was a virtual orphan. His father
died two months before he was born in 1915. His mother had to work
to support her three kids. Attorneys stole all but a fraction of
her husband’s estate (his will “disappeared” from a safe the night he died).
Dad, the youngest, saw little of her. He apparently considered his
childhood not worth remembering, and told us very little of it.
He talked only a little about the English
boarding schools where he washed in cold water and stood up to the masters’
tyranny and the big boys’ abuse. His school stories led directly
to lessons in stoicism, like the boy who was taking a live fox from a snare
when the gamekeeper showed up; the boy thrust the fox under his cloak and
stood talking to the man, never letting on while the fox ate his guts.
Dad worked his way across the Atlantic and
got a journalism degree at Syracuse University. He started out in
newspapers, writing and shooting pictures for a Syracuse paper. He
remembered shooting photos of utility poles after a blizzard, only their
tops protruding from the snow. He remembered dairymen pouring milk
on the ground during a strike rather than sell it below cost. He
moved from newspapers to public relations, and from Syracuse to New York
He did not make marriage plans with
the young woman he met while in Officers’ Training school; she built
the fantasy, and her mother helped propel it. Once it was in motion,
he probably felt powerless to stop it, not wanting to hurt her. He
wouldn’t find out till later that even as a teenage girl she had been treated
and hospitalized for psychotic episodes. She made such a good first
impression. (Later, among us three kids it became a long-standing
joke that friends meeting our mother for the first time would invariably
say, “She’s so nice—how can you say those things about her?” although a
short time later the same people would invent any excuse to avoid her.)
How he was snared is irrelevant, but later when the fox ate his guts my
father tried to anaesthetize himself with scotch.
But that photo moment—my dad at the front
door, happily returned to his family—belonged to an endangered species,
soon to be extinct. Evenings during those years were settling into
Unless The Phil Silvers Show or Jackie
Gleason’s Honeymooners were on TV, he usually went to his study.
Sitting in his recliner he read “the Trib” (the New York Herald Tribune)
or The New Yorker, and his pipe clinked softly on the heavy glass
ashtray. (When the Trib folded, a victim of predatory business pressures,
Dad mourned almost as if a family member had died.) During the best
of times, his door was open and we kids could climb up on his lap, maybe
fill a pipe for him from the orange and black tin of Sir Walter Raleigh.
I remember nights when he drank a mug of tea—with lemon, no sugar or milk—that
sat by the ashtray on the end of his desk. But, in time, scotch and
soda replaced the tea. And eventually the tea belonged strictly to
mornings and weekends. In the now familiar routine he would go to
the refrigerator, fill a glass with ice, and pour scotch over it.
Then my mother enters the scene.
Mingled with the tinkling of ice against glass
is her “Oh, Tony, no—please don’t, don’t start, don’t . . .” And
her voice has that edge—not the full, anguished tone of psychosis, just
the promise of it. “Oh, Tony, no”— even as an eight-year-old I wondered:
Can’t you see that if you’d just shut up, maybe one or two would be enough?
I got accustomed to his drinking, the way a northerner does to cold weather.
It’s inevitable, so you dress for it. But he wasn’t a mean drunk,
or a sloppy one, and he wasn’t violent. For the most part he just
relaxed, turned a little jovial.
But sometimes his scotch and her troubled
mind teamed up unmercifully—as the old blues song has it: might as well
try to stop a runaway train. And the train made its way into the
night. Dad’s habit was retreat, that’s what scotch in excess is about.
He retreated behind his study door. My mother took that as an affront,
and she often went on the offensive. Not every night did we hear
trouble, like the screams of accusation and the splintering wood of the
broken door jamb. But she did break in. And pushed far enough,
any cornered animal turns to fight blindly. Maybe in the snapshot
there should be a black bar across my father’s eyes.
Life wasn’t all bad, of course. Dad built
a business for himself in public relations. After an early partner
changed the locks at the office and took off with the bank receipts, Dad
dusted himself off and started up again on his own. Jackson &
Perkins Roses, his major account for years, paid the mortgage on our two-story
house in New Jersey. When the house was built, Dad finished the upstairs
himself, selling illustrated “how-to” magazine stories of the paneling,
flooring, bathroom-tile, and ceiling projects. Jackson & Perkins
rose bushes— floribunda, Hybrid Tea, American Beauty—surrounded the house
and climbed trellises. We grew up picking Japanese beetles off rose
bushes, and summer was punctuated by the drone of the “duster,” a hand-cranked
aluminum device that spewed DDT and antifungal treatments. We vacationed
in lake cabins some years, and at the Beachcomber Motel cabins on the shore
at Montauk Point, Long Island. On long drives Dad regaled us with
stories of Tom Thumb and Skinny, spooling off epic, improvised adventures
of Tom, three inches tall, and his full-sized straight-man buddy.
(These stories charmed even my mother—a lover of fantasy, our family being
her greatest.) When Dad brought home the gleaming new ‘57 Dodge Coronet,
a gold and white two-tone with sweeping rear fins, a photo of our family
could have fit right into an ad in Holiday magazine.
He took on the Sterling Forest account when
I was seven, and we often spent a Saturday or Sunday at Sterling Lake,
a one-hour drive from home. Inspired by the 1957 LIFE magazine
account of the man who crossed the Atlantic in a kayak, a Klepper folding
boat, Dad bought one. The Klepper was an elegant, German-made two-seater
that cut through the water like a fin. I remember Dad in the garage
studying the little sheet of instructions for assembling the thing, and
surrounded by brightly varnished wood frame pieces: keelboards, gunwales,
cross-ribs, and coaming. Later he rigged pulleys, a winch,
and a sling and hung the boat in the garage, lowering it to the car’s roof-rack
each time we headed for the lake. Although the boat paddled effortlessly,
for a time Dad was determined to sail it—it came with a mainsail, jib,
and rudder. But maybe an essential part was missing (he got it second-hand)
because he usually sailed about as far as the Wright brothers flew, and
then we’d hear “AiyEEE!” and see him flopped over in the water, the boat
with its white sails looking like a drenched butterfly. He quit the
sails and we paddled it.
Later, in the family’s serious stages of disintegration,
he and I still made the occasional drive to the lake carrying fishing gear.
We rarely spoke. And when we got to the lake I paddled away in the
Klepper and Dad rowed his aluminum boat, meeting back at the car later.
Shared solitude was the closest we could get. In a way, the drive
to the lake and back with his pipe or cigar smoke and the radio playing
classical music from WPAT was strangely comforting.
For a long time, both my parents were seeing a
psychiatrist. He told Dad: You’ve tried to avoid your past by forgetting
it. It came as a revelation to Dad—I remember him talking about it.
I thought, What a good strategy, and immediately began training
myself to forget. It worked: I remember very little.
But there’s one night I haven’t forgotten.
Most times they fought with words, and cranked them up to high decibels.
But during the night the screaming escalated, and when I showed up in their
bedroom, he was astraddle of her, strangling her. My brother came
in—he was about eight—and unsheathed the old British infantry sword he’d
bought in an antique store. He held it up and yelled, Stop, stop
it! I was scared, just a kid, not knowing what to do, wishing only
that everybody would stop. But as scared as I was, I couldn’t help
but see that my mother’s eyes were defiant—not scared, not hurt—defiant.
As if winning were more important than living. I couldn’t believe
he wanted to kill her; I still don’t. I think he wanted her to shut
One time Dad was involved briefly in some municipal
committee-work. An evening came when he was to host a meeting at
our house. As usual, my mother hounded him. “You can’t be drinking—you’ve
got people coming over.” She continued, and so did he. Soon
he was sloshed, weaving on his feet. As the meeting time approached,
I worried. Was this his way of defying my mother? Was he embarrassed,
afraid to call it off? Then came another of those indelible images
that define my abbreviated memories of home.
With his pipes and cigars, lighting a match
wasn’t unusual. But standing by the dining-room window he reached
up and held the flame to the window drapes. It was immediately clear
to me: he meant to start a fire—that would take care of the meeting problem.
Although he meant no such thing, ours was a life in which that seemed entirely
possible. Clumsily, he pulled the cord that closed the curtains,
and then lit his pipe. Some way or another the meeting didn’t happen.
One Friday night when I was fourteen, I needed
a ride to a party. My mother decided at the last moment that I didn’t
deserve to go. Other times I would climb out my bedroom window, drop
from the kitchen roof, and walk. But it was too late to walk way
across town, and the more I ranted, demanding she take me, the more she
delighted in withholding the ride. Dad hated such scenes and said
he’d drive. Drunk, he weaved all over the road. Between my
teenage commitment to social life and equal zeal for any excuse to escape
the house, I would not give up the ride. I gripped the door-handle
and seat and wondered if we’d make it. And then I worried and hoped
he’d make it home. He did. As far as I know, he was never stopped
for drunk driving.
Over time, our family disintegrated.
Simple erosion. My sister, five years older than me, left and mostly
stayed gone, first to California to live with relatives and later to college.
My brother also went to California for a while, and then was sent to Stowe
School in Vermont where it was hoped he might “straighten out.” My
parents tried separation, but that helped no more than the psychiatrist,
and Dad moved permanently into the apartment he’d been keeping in Manhattan.
And they divorced when I was a teenager—I couldn’t say exactly when.
In later years, when my mother lived alone
in our three-bedroom, two-story house in New Jersey, he occasionally drove
out on weekends. He would wash a load or two of his laundry, and
then do yard work for her, maybe hang window screens, or some other job.
It might have been his own Marshall Plan.
With this history, I didn’t figure on becoming
a parent. But when Marcia and I had been together for several years,
family began to seem worthwhile.
Our daughter Erin was born in May, 1977, and
Dad came to see us when she was only a few days old. He brought his
Leica and shot a couple rolls of film. Ever the photographer, he
composed portrait-quality shots. The black and whites are delicate,
almost gauzy, as if we lived in a dream world. I suppose from his
perspective we did.
Still (always) uncomfortable with him, I was
relieved to get out of the house, to work, away from the tension of what
to say, of what might happen. And it surprised and unsettled me to
come in and find him and Marcia engrossed in a discussion of politics and
current events. He smiled, pulled his pipe from his mouth and asked,
“What do you make of Carter’s administration?” And off they went
on another tack. It baffled me that Marcia so enjoyed his company.
Although looking back, it’s clear: she had shared none of the scenes that
undermined my confidence. I wanted to be that relaxed with him, wanted
it desperately. But I could not.
Later, after more scotch, he talked about
his late brother Johnny, whose cancer had led him to a questionable treatment
center in Mexico, and Dad roared, “Why’d he have to die in that goddamn
When we showed him to the guest bedroom, up
the steep farmhouse stairway, he was unsteady and swaying. I followed
close behind him, hoping to God he wouldn’t topple back on me.
When my father died, at sixty-four in December
1979, it surprised me that I cried. I was surprised by the strength
of my grief. I had grieved for him while he lived; if anything I
would have expected a measure of relief.
One December evening, I came home from work
(a young father), getting out of a pickup in front of my house. Marcia
came out the front door. When she said, “CB, Susan called” (my sister-in-law),
her face was all wrong, and her voice, too. I thought, Oh, no—what’s
happened to Bruce—my brother. But that wasn’t it.
“Your Dad died,” she said, “a heart attack,
Only a few months earlier he’d been to a cardiologist,
whose assessment had led Dad to say, “The old ticker is in fine shape,”
somewhat of a miracle considering he drank scotch by the case. But
that December morning he had not shown up for work, pounding out copy for
the New York Times News Service. It was so uncharacteristic of him
that the Times office called him immediately. His phone was busy,
stayed busy all morning. And finally they went to his apartment on
West 57th Street, where he lay collapsed across the bed, phone in hand,
the phonebook open to the hospital.
I went inside my house and sat in the livingroom,
dazed. I heard my father-in-law say, “I’m sorry,” and my wife ask,
“Can I get you something?” At twenty-eight I had no illusions about
death or its timing. My old man had died, as he inevitably would
one day. Things happen and you go on.
My father-in-law said, “Take the day off tomorrow—I’ll
handle things myself.”
“No,” I said. If I had learned anything
from my father it was stoicism. No—the same as my father would have—I
said, “I’ll be ready at eight.” Just like any other day.
Then I let loose and bawled. And I took
a day off.
It has become hackneyed: I never got a chance
to tell him how much I cared. If Dad had somehow managed to trick
his heart and liver, if he had lived to be eighty, I probably still could
not have told him what he meant to me. I learned to appreciate him mostly
after he was gone. His groping efforts had not seemed like love.
The stories I knew of love and family and fathers and sons followed an
established pattern—one that my father had no experience in, had no model
for. I think he knew the stories too. I think his expectations
may have resembled mine. He was good at beating himself up.
It might have helped matters if among the
conventional templates for families there had been one where a man finds
himself in impossible straits but muddles along regardless. It would
have been good for Dad to know that he did well against great odds.
But I think the early years of routine family fiasco, of fighting blind,
and the accumulated weight of impossible expectations took their toll.
I think he expected more from himself than he was capable of.
Back then family was defined by popular myth.
It meant Ward Cleaver, Robert Young, Boy Scout adventures. Myth is
often held up as an ideal, something to shoot for, to inspire us to virtues
like courage and love. Maybe sometimes it works. But I wonder
if myth also serves as an impossible goal, inspiring a sense of inadequacy
in those who “fail” to measure up. Should is the worst profanity
in our language. He should, you should, and worst of
all—I should have—the poison of regret.
I’m wary of drawing a conclusion to this story.
I may be writing this to my dad, to let him know I don’t believe fault
or blame helps anything in this world. To let him know that it was
less him I was uncomfortable with, than what happened to him in life.
Maybe to my kids this story will help explain my awkward silences, my un-fatherly
This could also be a story about deceptive
appearances, erroneous inferences, and problematic myths—a cautionary tale:
be careful what you believe about yourself and others. But it might
just as well mean that some people come genetically-supplied with a melancholy-switch,
since the same melancholic strain that I saw in my father extends through
me—in somewhat lesser degree probably because I’ve suffered far less external
adversity to trigger it; and I see a shadow of it in my younger daughter
who would seem to have suffered none, raised in a stable home by a loving
mother, in the supportive company of a brother and sister, and Grandma
and Grandpa nearby. Given that such spirit-crippling switches may
exist, and given that an early-dying father, orphan-hood, a crazy wife,
or a host of other troubles may trigger them, who knows what determines
whether we stumble or soar, or what accidents may tip the precarious balance
between sailing and fighting blind.
My father won, lost, and gave up various
battles in his life. He seemed better prepared for work than for
home. But the old work-horse never for one minute quit plowing.
I hope to God he’s found the good pasture he deserved all along.
There is one thing I can do for my father, a piece
of history I can record:
It might be my sixth or seventh birthday.
I have just gotten neat stuff: a plastic magnifying glass and a cork-gun,
the cork shoots out on maybe a foot and a half of string and then hangs
loose. I’m Sherlock Holmes for a while, examining the livingroom
floor through the magnifying glass. “Here’s a clue!—it’s a wild animal
track. Hey, let’s go on a turkey hunt!”—now that I have a gun.
Dad asks, “Where do you think we’ll find turkeys?”
We trek out from the back yard into the meadow.
I’m leading the two other kids, and Dad brings up the rear. “Look,
here’s a track,” I say “—look, there’s more!”
We come to the little creek with the fallen
log across it. “C’mon—they’re on that side.” I cross the slippery
log, and the other guys too. Then I hear KER-SPLOOSH. I turn
to see my Dad standing in muddy water to his knees. I’m laughing,
we all are. He’s laughing—and his eyes are clear.
CB Bassity ©2000 All Rights Reserved
Back to my home page