My father turned 60 in late December of 1969.
The circumstances of his birthday were complicated that year.
His family had left him to his practice of law by day in New York and to sort stamps and coins by night in Westchester. My mother had bought an unloved home in an unloved neighborhood in downtown Buffalo New York, and putting her 2 sons in it, serially visited us as we went to high school and college, leaving my father 500 miles away.
So my father spent his 60th with his 19 and 14 year old sons and wife knowing they would leave in a few days after New Year’s.
I turn 60 today.
My family has lived in a home we built and expanded and polished for over 30 years, far longer than my father had lived in his home in Westchester. My sons are away in grad school. My wife is with me.
I do not sort things, but I write.
But the hollow footfalls he experienced in abandonment echo in my mind today. He was a man who felt deep failure if perfection was not achieved – in his children, wife, but mostly himself. His coping mechanisms were not unique to him. Before 5 on weekdays (other than August) it was his career. After the train dropped him back home and weekends it was alcohol. And everywhere in between Kent cigarettes.
Clearly his sense of failure did not come from his adult life. First in his family to finish high school, he was #2 in his class at Boys High in Brooklyn, and degrees at Cornell verified his intelligence and drive. Here is the driven young man in 1932:
His honorable late-in-life military service in World War 2 hobbled his legal career, but he was still a partner in a Wall Street Law Firm thankyou very much.
When he was 1 his mother died while having a secret abortion. His father sent him to live with his mother’s sisters in Canada. During his five years with them he would wander off “looking for Mama” on the docks of Toronto – according to the spinster aunts who raised him until he was 6. He had thought his father’s new wife was his mom, until she could no longer keep the secret when he was 16.
Having a hot wife and jazz and booze and hard work filled his pre-fatherhood years: he could dial up enjoyment of the moment to turn away from a sad infancy.
It must have been a bizarre siphon of social necessity that when he returned from the war he abandoned all that (except the alcohol part)and followed the Greatest Generation herd to children and the suburbs. Even weirder was the conception (in full poison-ivy inflammation, according to my over-sharing mother) of a 3rd child when he was 45. Me.
When you feel wrong, made in error, fully misfit, you opt for what others have said is “right”. He loved jazz, booze and loving his sexy young wife, but that veil of distraction was not cutting it after the war.
His misfit became his children’s.
To a degree we, like him, are not-so-proud of much. We do not think about birthdays as celebrating the miracle of life but simply the passage of time. It was not odd to my parents, or my siblings, that none of us had a birthday party after we were 5 or 6. There was cake and gifts (or by the time I was there, $20 to spend in my favorite store), but there is little joy in misfit, save the sense of carrying on despite it.
So my father sat blowing out the candles with his family in 1969 knowing, despite the several drinks he had had, that in a day or two the family he created would leave the life he created for them to the life my mother had to retreat to.
Birthdays are not nothing. But birthdays are not, in themselves, achievements. Your birth was a gift, not a success. Your achieving whatever life you have was not earned, it was given to you by luck, grace and imponderable circumstance that you, hopefully, have taken advantage of.
Being in the here and now is not an entitlement, but the incumbent gratitude for undeserved fortune was never part of our lives growing up. So we addressed birthdays with a resignation of making the best of a bad situation: it was a misfit life, and we must deal with it.
The legacy of the silent passage of time was what my father felt 45 years ago. The lives he had pursued were finished with one that followed no acceptable model, unlike the Ivy, Jazz, Wartime, Suburban/Kid models he had followed for the first 60 years.
He was alone, in a place both made for and by him. I will never know what his sober thoughts were then, and that’s probably a good thing.