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.
     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 City.
     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.

     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!
     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 a pattern.
     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 up.
     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 Mexican quack-house?”
     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, they think.”
     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 darkness.
     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

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