|A portrait I drew of my father a couple of years ago.|
|My father in his late 20s|
|My father in his late 50s in our Brooklyn home.|
|My father with a friend at his retirement community.|
My father grew up in an alcoholic home during the Great Depression and in the 1940s. The Irish Catholic Kiernan family owned a house in Belle Harbor, Queens right along the Atlantic ocean and this is part of why they were not as poor as some, though still did not have a lot of money. It was my great grandfather's house. He had been a corrupt policeman and had retired early to become a bookie, but he made the wise choice of buying a house and allowing his children to live in it with him. My grandfather became an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler at a very young age. After my father was born in the summer of 1926, my grandmother became the steady wage earner and contributed to the family financially and in other ways. Mostly my father, an only child, grew up amongst a bunch of adults which my mother insisted contributed to my father being emotionally impoverished because he had no siblings to interact with.
My father grew up on a street that ended at the beach. Beaches have always figured prominently for my father. In 1958 when he was 32 and my mother 30, just before my mother gave birth to my brother Rob, they went looking for a summer house on or near the beach. They looked at a bunch of places and were horrified when they went to a community on Long Island that would not allow people of the Jewish faith to live there. My parents closest friends were Jewish. And so they kept looking. Finally, they found a very small house on the bay side of a barrier beach in Westhampton. It cost them $9,000. It was nearly perfect for my mother to bring my brother there and four years later me during the summer months when my father would be working except for a 2-4 week vacation.
My parents kept that house even after they both retired to Florida in 1989. When they did sell it they got over $300,000 for it. In Florida, they retired to Sanibel Island living on the edge of a golf course very near to the beach again. Both my grandmothers lived with them for several years before they died and after that, my parents lived a rather idyllic lifestyle for 10 years before they moved into their retirement community. Of all the Depression babies out there, my father and mother were very fortunate. Much of their fortune came from being exceptionally bright and knowledgeable, hard working and educated. They were the "good" kids and followed authority in a way that my brother and I shied away from. My father graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Law School with honors. He became a corporate lawyer for a large group of advertising companies and had a very successful career. Towards the end of his career he fought to protect the rights of his co-workers when a much younger boss tried to get rid of the lawyers who had worked at the company for a long time in favor of younger, more easily manipulated new lawyers. He retired early with a very good retirement plan.
But all this is somewhat superficial. Who was my father and who is he now? There is no doubt in my mind that my father was and is a very good man, but having grown up in an alcoholic home, he was also a wounded man. Handsome, bright, responsible, faithful but also emotionally inaccessible, off in his head, withdrawn from interacting with my mother, brother and me. My mother carried the load of raising my brother and me and she openly resented this. And because my father was not all there for us, my mother turned to my older brother and sometimes to me too for company and support and to vent.
My father has told me very little about what it was like to grow up in an alcoholic home, even after I began a relationship with an alcoholic. He only says that he loved his father very much and that his father was a very melancholy drunk and would openly cry as he struggled with his addictions. My father also will not tell me much about his nervous breakdown sometime in his mid 30s when he was hospitalized for extreme paranoia for 2 months and saw a therapist for 2 years. He just won't share this with me and because I see him as still fragile, I don't push it, even though I would very much like to do that. I feel he has deprived me of several opportunities to bond with him and to learn from his lessons, too. He will be 89 in August and I still feel like I only partially know him. This saddens me and yet I accept it. I know it could change. I might be talking with him once a week through a video call done through Skype. I really want to do that.
What is it with dysfunctional families, this no talk rule? My mother was the same way. She wouldn't talk about one of the most important relationship in her life, the one with her father who was verbally abusive to her at the same time he favored her and was proud of her. It's clear to me that we love each other in my family, but we are not demonstrative about it. So much has gone unsaid and with my mother, who died on January 2nd, 2014, never to be said. Now my father is in the early stages of dementia. I can still communicate with him, which is a blessing, though I have been withdrawn from him for a couple of months. I just know that I wish him well, now and always. I have told him repeatedly that I love him and he has said that back to me. I know it's true. I just wish we could have gone farther.