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June 13, 2015


as taken by my father in 1959

The presence of absence is undeniable.

Fatherhood is celebrated this time of the year, but the love of my children, beyond all hope and expectation, does not change the complicated things my own fatherhood, and that of my Dad, visit upon me daily.

It was only when my wife and I had children that I, in my late 30’s, came to know how much children need.

That was not an easy realization. The extremity of dependence, the fragility of confidence, the factual lack of physical and emotional resources of my young children were not charming or cute to me. The reality of their  reliance upon our parenting deeply scared me, and revealed the incapacities that were, and are, still with me.

Unfortunately my own lack of emotional resources made the normal vulnerabilities of my young children an abiding sadness. In seeing their unalloyed but natural fear in every unknown, or the ecstasy in every modest happy circumstance the damage of my early childhood was discovered as if it had happened 5 minutes ago.

The ignorant cope because they cannot hope to control what they are incapable of understanding. I could not understand my Mad Men childhood until I received the knowledge my coping had pre-empted.

There was literally nothing tragic about how I grew up. No illnesses, no poverty, a WASP family in Westchester at mid-century. Private schools, too much good food  , both parents together, mother working at whim, not necessity. Two older siblings who made the mistakes I could learn from, and a modest gift of intelligence that I could burnish into an isolated place of confidence.

But the flip side was the unseen actual world Mad Men distilled: alcohol was as usual as the morning cereal, but it started at 6:30pm and went until 12 or 16 ounces of it had been consumed – usually by 8 or 8:30. Then bed, or sitting at a desk, smoking relentlessly and sorting stamps until sleep.

Early bed meant a secondary element: that anger, fighting, and screaming had exhausted my mother and father into an early bedtime. I was never the cause of any anger, but I did know, know, that in some way, somehow, I should make it better. But that never happened.

The accrual of this 7 day a week, 52 week a year routine of dysfunction meant that at 13 I was sent to Buffalo, to be with a brother who had experienced this anger machine for 5 more years than I, and had born the brunt of its damage.

My mother thus discovered a place to be away with defendable justification: she went to Buffalo every 6 weeks for 6 weeks to be with “the boys”. It was really only after I had been out of Westchester for a few years that I knew she was not coming to be with us, but to be away from my father.

Of course this meant my father could also, defendably, live away from his children, in whom I think he felt great sadness at his own incapacity to understand or help. He loved to watch New York Giants games on our black and white Zenith- with the tuning fork remote control. But when I felt the need to try playing what he watched he was incapable of understanding or encouragement, although he did profess amazement at the one game of mine he saw (I was motivated).

When he missed seeing all the things all the other parents saw because he was “earning a living” he had cover, but no solace. In a pale echo of his isolation, the natural absence of our children empty nesting us by going away to college gave me the whiff of the desperate incapacity he must have choked on every night in Westchester as I lived out my high school years in Buffalo.

The alcohol could not have made the absence any easier, but what do I know? He was missing, and I have to believe he knew it.

The choice to be “right”: stoically earning a great deal of money and spending it on private schools, a second (actually third) home in Buffalo and supporting his family was, in truth, the only way the alcohol consumption could be sustained and bring on sleep. Alone.

Missing me play Nathan Detroit, missing all but one college visit with me even though I went to his beloved alma mater, missing any connection with my day-to-day was easier than the alternative. Hanging onto control by separating himself from the risk of parenting meant his life had the purpose of being the Lawyer, the bread winner, the stamp and coin collector for the collection he would give to his children upon his death.

When he refused to co-sign the modest loan I needed to graduate a semester early from architecture school because, (in a drunken slur), I was “a bad risk” it simply made real what our mutual absence meant: he had missed most everything about both of us.

Missing is not acting out: he was never cruel or even angry with me: unlike my siblings. He just knew that I had gone away, or he had, but that, finally we were missing.

When I paid the loan back by dint of dangerous high paying work and I then had no money, and no desire to risk my life any more, no girlfriend and no prospects, he allowed as I might spend the fall of 1978 drawing up my thesis in our Westchester attic and look for work in New York.

But in coming home at 22 for a few months, it was clear we were still missing each other. We had gone different ways so early that being together was now, and for the dozen years he lived on, simply not possible.

This is not tragic, just sad. It was sadness then, and bizarrely, inexcusably, it is sadness now, abiding in me, for no good reason. Our missing each other justifies no inadequacies I daily evidence, nor did it make me a better parent: because missing, for me, and I am pretty sure for my Dad, teaches nothing except absence.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2015 7:02 am

    Dear Duo,

    I have rarely read such a poignant and insightful account of a boy’s relationship with his father. Your ability to cast in words what the mind sees amazes me.

    While I was reading of your father’s not-so-benign neglect, it occurred to me that in some corners of the animal kingdom, the fathers kill their offspring, perhaps to avoid later competition for mom, perhaps for other, even darker, reasons. But there can be no doubt that the Norman Rockwell father-model is the exception more than the rule.

    Our friend Bam watched his abusive and alcoholic father desert the family at age 11. He describes the ambivalent feelings he felt then and even now, those growing more complex especially after the father’s death some years ago. His father’s family in North Carolina viewed him as warm and fun-loving, “everybody’s favorite uncle.” But while still with the family, his father was incapable of showing any affection, let alone bonding. Weekends were 48-hour nightmares of alcohol, abuse, yelling, and physical violence. At one point Bam vividly remembers his father astride him on the floor, menacing his son with a large knife, threatening to kill him for not taking out the trash on time. So fatherly affection was in scarce supply.

    Instead his father taught Bam how to fight, and how to win against anyone, no matter how intimidating. He showed his son the fearsome techniques that he himself had learned from his father, a man also incapable of showing father-son affection. Bam, who says he never started a fight, now believes that his father’s teaching him how to defend himself in an uncertain world, was his way of showing concern and whatever affection he could muster for the boy that he knew would someday be on his own.

    We know that the ability of men to demonstrate affection unselfconsciously begins in early childhood. If encouraged by a positive response, that ability grows and becomes a characteristic of the individual. Almost tangentially, good parenting results from this. In your instance, I have marveled at your ability to be a father to two sons who are so different from each other. The dynamics must have been astonishing at times!

    Dude, I hope the sadness that permeates your posting can be successfully grounded and shunted away, like a lightning-protection system (perhaps on Center Church!) takes a lethal force and ushers it into its target harmlessly. I know you to be an intense and brilliant guy, but I often detect reflections of tenderness in your dealings with people, quite apart from your usual outgoingness. Sometimes obvious, sometimes less so…

    You, like Bam, have mastered the technique of channeling your sadness and justifiable anger into productive avenues – you in your work and at at Trinity Brothers, and Bam in his evening job with inner-city kids at risk. The basketball court is just a vehicle for the mentoring that cannot be found anywhere else for these kids.

    Dude, we grope our way through life sometimes, doing our best to leave the planet better than we found it. My father had a wonderful workshop in the basement that I was welcome to use, provided that I “(left) it better than I found it.” Yeah.

    In the words of the Dudemeister,



    • June 14, 2015 8:07 am

      Thanks: expiation once physical on the field, goes mental in the out years: and the Grace that passes all understanding is always about…

  2. Jon Saltzberg permalink
    June 15, 2015 4:03 pm

    Oprah Winfrey (I know she isn’t G-d), has just written a collection of essays culled from 15 years of O Magazine, called “What I Know For Sure…” not all the essays are so hot, but in one of them she says that whether you had the world’s greatest parents (shetland pony rides, chocolate chip pancakes every day, vacations in switzerland) or the worst parents (daily beatings, being forced to eat castor oil every morning), that doesn’t matter as much as the love you give yourself; you are free, and it’s your job, to love yourself, to nurture yourself (exercise, healthful eating, the occasional visit to the Bronx Botanical Garden);

    Sometimes I think you have a strong sense of stewardship and care for other people, because it’s a symbolic way of, in your mind, healing your relationship with your father (I think, I’m not sure); but you know what they say in AlAnon: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it” My own father was an extremely generous man to me and my brother, but he had to work like an animal to support my family, and it seemed to me he was very often emotionally absent (I’m saying this by way of observation, not in judgment); and I would think, “What’s wrong with me, that he isn’t here?” Now I know it wasn’t my fault, but just a function of him and his own issues

    As for your parenting Will and Sam, I don’t know them well, but I get the sense that they’re terrific people, and that’s a strong credit to you and LIz; I think you have a right to be proud of the work you and she have done in raising them up; their lives won’t be easy, for sure, but what’s clear is that they’ll have the emotional maturity and flexibility to build a place for themselves in this world. So enjoy that steak dinner with some interesting wine this coming Sunday.
    Take care.

  3. June 17, 2015 2:22 pm

    Duo, I still remember our first trip to Northern Ireland with the Hanna’s , how beautifully you fathered Will and Sam , bringing them at all, was the most GRACE filled parenting imaginable.
    (You) “Look to the hills for you know fromwhence your strength comes”…..You are a Super Dad, and a gift to all…… The Missing is that cross we bear Xoxo Mary Evelyn


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