My Father Was A Nobody

First, an admission: I’ve been spending hours studying videos of Donald Trump rallies and interviews, but it has little to do with politics. I’ve become obsessed with trying to figure out the man behind the mask, by watching his body language and listening to his phrasing. I’ve read anything I can get my hands on about his early family life, keeping my eye out for the clues that could lead someone to end up so totally bombastic. I may have found one.

I read recently that Donald’s father had a salient theme when it came to rearing his kids. Apparently, he pounded it into his children that the worst thing in the world that could happen to them was to end up “a nobody.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Old Fred Trump, who’s been dead for almost twenty years. After all, he wasn’t alone in forming his son. Donald had a mother and extended family and a neighborhood that all had a hand in mixing up the nurture/nature equation that begat The Donald.

But if “Don’t end up a nobody” was the single loudest refrain of Donald’s childhood, that’s a fascinating thing to teach a child. If you follow that directive, it means you have to do everything you can to stand out. To win. Never to stop swinging for the fences. Never to say “I’m sorry,” or “I made a mistake.” Never to stop selling yourself. If nothing else, it sounds exhausting.

But, of course, there is something else. Donald and I are roughly the same age, that age when simple math lets you know you have a lot more years behind you than you do ahead of you. I don’t know about him, but I find myself taking stock more often, sifting through what’s really important and what I no longer have time to worry about. And often I think about a clarifying life-moment I had in a Buffalo high school auditorium thirty years ago with my friend JoAnne.

We had tickets to a lecture by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the famous psychiatrist who studied death and dying as her life’s work. I’m not sure why we felt compelled to hear her talk about a topic that was — back then — so removed from us. Our children were quite young; all four of our parents were vital and healthy. Death wasn’t exactly on our agenda.

Kübler-Ross was in her late fifties then and the leading expert in the field. She talked for a bit about the phenomena most common to dying people. I thought it was all interesting. Not life changing.

But then she said this: By now, I have sat and talked with tens of thousands of people who knew they were dying. Never, in those many, many conversations, have I ever heard someone say, “I wish I’d had more money. Or a bigger house. Or better jewelry.” She paused. Never once. But too many times I hear them wonder why their children don’t visit, why they have been left alone.

By Trump standards, my own father was a nobody. Beyond our family, our neighborhood, and the people he worked with at Grumman for 40 years, no one ever heard of him. He read books but never wrote one. He earned a salary that afforded us a summer vacation every year, and that was a big deal. He was a company man, a good provider, a faithful husband.

Contrary to the axiom, he did suffer fools gladly and still walked away from those conversations with a smile, never needing to prove himself or tout his accomplishments. The most critical he ever got was his absolute insistence that even an expensive toupee never tricked anyone, a comment launched as a quiet aside in the direction of a man who was sure he was deceiving the universe.

I suspect poor old Fred Trump might have been sorely disappointed in the man my father became.

My dad died at a ripe old age, peacefully, in his sleep. My memories of his wake a few days later are a jumble of greeting old friends and relatives and all of us laughing through tears at our stories about him.

One of the last moments of the evening came when I watched our Hamilton Avenue neighbors — three men who had seen my brothers and me grow up, three men who never knocked but just walked in and out of our house for decades the way characters in 1950s sitcoms reruns do. At the coffin, they put their arms around each other and looked down at my dad and said their goodbyes. One of them was retired NYPD. One was retired FDNY. My whole life, they were tough guys who everyone counted on, who never cried.

They cried that evening. A lovely, silent ovation to a man who was a nobody. An act, I’m guessing, that would have had Fred Trump scratching his head. An act, I’m thinking, that would have evoked nothing more than a disinterested glance from his sad, sad son, who could not begin to get what all the fuss was about.

My Two Fathers

My father-in-law and I were always the early birds in the family. On one of their holiday visits to Buffalo, we’d had a big family celebration the night before. The kids were young and always excited to see their grandparents. I worked hard to get the house shining and cook meals  that didn’t rely on Hamburger Helper. Their visits were sort of a big deal.

He and I were sitting in the living room, drinking coffee and talking about the night before.

“You know what I loved most?” Bill asked.

I knew he pretty much loved everything, but I asked, “What?”

“No one got drunk. There was no shouting. No one got punched.”

I knew he wasn’t making a joke, and that was the sad part. My father-in-law came from a family that early on stopped thinking of holidays as a reason for civility. Bill’s father had died months before he was born. He grew up the youngest of five children of an immigrant mother who washed floors at the movie theater down the street in Brooklyn. Bleak would cover it.

Then when Bill was only ten, his mother died, too. He went to live with his much older sister and her husband. It was here that my father-in-law lowered his standards about holiday gatherings for all time.

My father was born in Sanford, Maine. He was three when his mother died. His father was unable to care for him and his sisters for reasons that went unsaid. They were sent to live with different sets of relatives. Though French Canadians in their mill town stuck together, sometimes it was hard to find the next placement for an energetic 3-year-old. He might stay a month. It might be a year. He said he was always loved, just never permanently.

My father and his mother, the year she died
My father and his mother, the year she died

My grandfather left Sanford (and his heartbreak, probably) and moved to New York City to find work. Years later, when my father was ten, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew. Their first meeting was at a drug store soda fountain. My grandfather spoke to him in the only language my father knew.

“This will be the last time I will speak to you in French,” he said. “From now on, only English. You have to learn English here.” My father remembered the last sentence in French his father ever said to him: “Maintenant, terminer votre crème glacée.” (Now, finish your ice cream.)

My grandfather had found janitorial work. The two of them lived in shabby walk-ups or boarding houses and regularly moved ahead of the landlord the night before the rent was due. It was 1930. Times were impossible.

Happily, I can flash forward to the rest of their lives. The two men married women who believed in them. They fought in the Pacific during WWII and came home safely. They had children and bought homes in the suburbs. The jobs they landed were the ones they kept until retirement.

My father-in-law during WWII
My father-in-law during WWII

Bill and my father never found much to complain about. Despite the pain of their childhoods, neither one felt sorry for himself a day in his life, and I marvel at that.  Maybe they suffered in silence. Maybe it wasn’t manly to bring up childhood wounds, or they just couldn’t find a group with which to commiserate. Maybe they were too busy.

Father’s Day was never a big deal to either of them. My dad called it “one of those made-up holidays.” Bill had trouble keeping track of holidays that didn’t occur on the same day every year. Once I made my father a Father’s Day cake, and he looked a little embarrassed. When he got old, I’d send him flowers. He’d laugh on the phone and say, “You should save your money!”

When I think of them now, I picture them in the way they spent their days — putting one foot in front of the other. Laughing when things went their way and just getting on with it when they didn’t. Without role models or support groups, somehow they became tender fathers, men their children could count on. Firm but not judgy. Loving but not mushy. Imperfect but always present.

Happy Father’s Day to the good dads everywhere. And to mine. Both of them.