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Some Are Men (and Fathers)

June 19, 2021

In 1908 Harry Dickinson met Lucy Hill. He was a bricklayer who blew out his knee playing soccer for the Brooklyn Immigrant Leagues a few years before. Lucy was a worker in a cloth making factory, newly arrived in America. Both were from England. Both were “older” for marriage in their time.

I have zero knowledge of their lives or circumstances beyond these simple facts. But they married, and in a year Lucy gave birth to George Arthur, named after Harry’s uncle who had died in a shipwreck.

By the accounts I have, it was not a happy marriage. So much so, that when Lucy found out that she was pregnant just a year after George was born, when she was 27, she found the only method of birth control she had. She went for an abortion. And she, and her baby, died, during it.

It was 1910. Harry was a brick layer. In Brooklyn. Lucy had family in Canada. George was shipped there to be with Lucy’s sisters. For five years. He would wander away. His aunts feverishly looked for the 4 year old. When they found him, they would ask him “Why did you leave?” He would answer “I was looking for my Mum.”

His return to Harry was because he had a new wife. George thought that she was his mother. For about 10 years. But the convenience ended, the truth was revealed, and the legacy of break continued.

A life of achievement followed. George was the first to graduate from high school, number two at Boys High – a great school, Then college, law school, then his own marriage. A decade of partying followed, through the Great Depression. A joy ride, at least in the retrospect I was given.

Then World War 2.

The party was over, Years of being in the military. In their 30’s George and his wife knew that all the death of the war needed to be answered with children. They had one, stillborn, then a girl, a boy, then me in the next decade.

The break of 1909 lived fully in George’s life, so in the lives of his children. His wife decided that the broken nights of drink and anger over his lost lives of academia, partying and being in New York City were not enough to end their marriage so a life of being a lawyer by day, and drinking for an hour till drunk at night became the next 20 years.

The following 20 years, through the 70’s and 80’s, were a place where the emotional breaks of the previous 50 years became physical. The daughter broke away at 18 to be in California. His sons went to second home in Buffalo, with their mother visiting and returning to their father. George visited his sons a week or two a year.

The connections between the humans in our family were never there, because the break never left. Before I was shuttled to Buffalo to high school, I would be alone, brother in college, sitting 12 feet from him during nights of drunken stamp sorting and my doing homework, and there was no connection. So leaving for Buffalo simply changed venue.

So I, and my siblings, were broken, too.

In his last months, my father stopped drinking for the first time in 60 years. I never found out what that meant to him, because he never said a word about the central compensation of a broken childhood, except that he “had to.” Along with ending his continual smoking, which he then declared “a filthy habit”.

His first two children never had children. One has never touched a drop of any alcohol. The other married twice amid booze and cigarettes and other intoxicants, found religion, changed sex, and ended her life.

I work. At many different things. Just about every day. My, our, 40 year marriage has bound the broken. We worked at being the parents neither of us had. We never knew if it was OK. But after 30 years our sons are in good places.

It is Father’s Day tomorrow. A simulation of a role model that is virtually impossible, because everyone is broken. Some more, some less.

I wish I knew more about my parents’ first 40 years, but they simply detached from their children, beyond remote (and full) support in school, food, shelter, clothing – all needs were met except our need to understand, to love, to be part of anything beyond fulfilling the requirements they knew their children needed.

It is now fully 20 years since my mother died. Parenthood was as central to my life as it was peripheral to hers. I wish I understood what her children meant to her.

Father’s Day is a broad brush that tries to paint over innumerable complexities. It creates a sentimental prefabrication that tries to end the absence of understanding that life imposes on all of us to some degree.

But the absences of our childhood remains, under the paint. Not tragic, not even sad, but there.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. mary zahl permalink
    June 19, 2021 11:39 am

    Thanks, Duo. You’ve done yeoman’s work in arresting and turning around a seriously negative pattern. Happy Father’s Day! Mary

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