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1969

August 21, 2015

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:

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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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Janice Gruendel permalink
    August 21, 2015 9:27 am

    There is deep pathos in this piece, my dear friend Duo. We talked a little about your birthday when we met yesterday, so this was a sort of deeper continuation for me.

    I don’t believe your last sentence, but I am deeply aware of the inter-generational strands between sons and fathers that continue no matter how far into the dusty corners we seek to push them.

    You know I spend my work time now at the intersection of developmental neuroscience, the science of adversity (ACES, toxic stress and trauma) and two- or more generation frameworks. You are there, my friend, you are there.

    Much love. JMG 8.21.15

    PS. Writing is good. Architecture — the way you do it — is an act of creation in context. (Remember our “conversation” about context and work._

    Perhaps both (writing and your kind of architecture) are your inevitable outlets from a childhood of challenge…..

  2. Andrea Bradford permalink
    August 21, 2015 3:49 pm

    Whatever the itchy circumstances of your creation, I am grateful for it. I hope your day was filled with loving family and friends. Keep up your excellent writing.

  3. August 21, 2015 3:54 pm

    the mirror gets clearer as my eyesight worsens: hopefully the net-net stays better for a while: thankyou for the kind words…

  4. August 21, 2015 8:04 pm

    I always think of you as 39, just with many markings of it in time. I’ll raise a glass of water for you in celebration

    Kuchta, the Landscape Man

  5. Susan Dobuler permalink
    September 1, 2015 10:40 am

    Duo, just reread this piece (is it possible I saw it at some earlier time? Or it was another similar piece about your father?) and it reminds me how important it is to traverse over and over (and sometimes over) again, the most important details of our early years. Clearly the details don’t ever really go away, even if you may feel you’re “over it, already”; the repeated touching base with the issues is actually therapeutic because you get closer to some sort of epiphany, like reaching the highest heights of a mountain range. There is always more to learn and seeing it in the context of your life (like your 60’th birthday) can trigger something very important, maybe even a letting-go of pieces long covered over and defensively clutched very closely.
    Love the honesty of your writing, Duo.
    xo
    S

  6. September 18, 2015 10:23 am

    This made me think of this. At the end of the day, all a person has is their own acceptance or lack thereof of the work they do and their own perception of its worth.

    “My satisfaction level is independent of your opinion. If I feel a piece has worked, there’s nothing you can say that will take that away. And the flip side is, if I know it’s failed, there’s nothing you can say that would make it OK.”
    -Banksy in an interview with Juxtapoz Magazine, Oct. 2015.

    We are our own harshest critic, taskmaster, and unsatisfied customer. Great things rarely come from easily satisfied, casually accepting people. Being idealistic and stubborn is what drives a person to create extraordinary things but it’s a nightmare to be inside that head 24/7.

  7. M L Waller permalink
    September 18, 2015 10:38 am

    What did your father do in the war ?
    Did he have a combat role ?

    • December 24, 2015 10:04 am

      he was an intelligence officer on aircraft carriers: by luck missing combat: but, like everyone else, the war truly killed on several levels…

      • December 24, 2015 10:20 am

        If you were to read Ernie Pyle’s books reporting on the war, ” Here is your War, Brave Men ” they will give you a very realistic understanding of what your father experienced in the war, combat role or not. Everybody smoked, and drank excessively. My father, unfortunately had an intense combat role, at Anzio, and in Germany in Patton’s armies. He came back as a hardcore alcoholic and did not get into AA until after I was married and I had a similar experience with him as you did. They all did the best they could considering the times ——

  8. Al Jacobs permalink
    December 28, 2015 7:52 am

    Duo

    My take simply is you are not your father and he is not you. If he were more like you, I daresay things may have been different. Best to you.

    Al

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