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.

General Hospital, Baking Pies, and Why I Never Made Dean’s List

My list of college accomplishments was short. I was guilty of falling in and out of love hard and spending too much time in front of my mirror. I didn’t have a clue how to balance a check book or to begin writing a term paper any sooner than the night before it was due. All true.

But thanks to my cousin, Kathy, I learned to bake a pie while I was in college. I’m putting that down as my #1 achievement, sad as that may sound to those of you who made Dean’s List. I’ll own it.

As kids, Kathy and I grew up a few miles from each other on Long Island. We shared family meals and holidays. We spent shimmery afternoons playing hide-and-seek in the apple orchard across from her house. Now, by coincidence, we had both relocated to Cortland. I was a student (at least some of the time), and she was a young wife and mother.

I’ll blame this on her, but it surely could have been my fault: Somehow, we got hooked on General Hospital.  Since I didn’t own a TV, I would stop by her apartment a few afternoons a week to see what was happening in Port Charles. She would put her son down for his nap. After the scintillating dialogue and plot twists had consumed an hour, we’d tiptoe past her sleeping toddler’s room and go to the kitchen.

She would make a pie. I was her helper, doing the easy jobs, like whisking the flour and sugar together or coaxing ice water from cubes. Kathy would use her pastry blender to cut in the shortening. Then her fingers — quick and deliberate — to form tiny pebbles of dough before she would begin drizzling in the water.

Kathy came from a home where my aunt made everything from scratch, even brioche French toast. My mother was most comfortable reaching for an easy fix in the freezer and had a whole comedy routine about it. She called herself “The Swanson family’s best friend.”

Kathy was also the cute one — blonde and perky, and a cheerleader. I was the spindly one who took forever to grow into her stork legs. Then, in our late teens, it all changed. She married young and had a baby. I went off to college. As I was making fraternity parties and football games my full-time endeavor, Kathy was planning casseroles on a budget and researching preschools.

“I think I’m going to break up with Paul,” I might say as we baked on those lazy afternoons. She would already be crimping the dough into the pie pan as I was still going through the merits (or shortcomings) of Paul, or Tim, or Peter. She kept them all straight, a credit to her cousin love.

She talked about toilet training, and I tried to add comments where I could. We told stories about our mothers. We worried General Hospital was turning our brains to mush, but admitted we couldn’t give it up. We’d chat up until the last minute, until her son began calling, “Mama!” from his crib or her husband came through the door after a day of classes.

A few weeks before graduation, I wrote out the recipe. I thought I’d need the exact amounts if I wanted to recreate Kathy’s pies.

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I can see the card has been used often in the years since I left Kathy and left Cortland even though pies aren’t hard to make. Only five ingredients, six if you count the ice water.

But even talented cooks might read the recipe for Kathy’s crust and fall short. Because it’s all in the wrist and the fingers. Best made when you’re laughing, or sharing a childhood secret. And letting a slow, delicious afternoon wash over you. And never forgetting  it.

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.

What I Learned About Love, at 12

On Saturday mornings in 1962, my mother would take the car keys off the hook by the front door, jiggle them a little and call out, “Who’s coming?” even though she knew the answer was only me. My brothers’ standing excuse — Quick Draw McGraw was about to start — didn’t seem like enough, but it always worked for them.

The nursing home we drove to was attached to Brunswick Hospital, where my mother had worked as a younger woman, the reason, I guess, that Aunt Bertha ended up out here, on Long Island. Bertha had never married, never had children of course, and had outlived everyone who might have more than a passing interest in her, except for my mother.

As a girl, my mother spent two weeks each August at her great-aunt’s third story walk-up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Aunt Bertha would take her annual vacation from being a secretary and treat my mother to some intense attention — devotion she might have directed toward her own daughter if she’d had one — all lovingly distilled into fourteen days once a year.

My mother would talk about those vacations sometimes on the way over to visit Bertha. The tone of her voice seemed oddly pleasant to me, since the visits included sweltering nights, having her hair braided several times a day, and choking down liver and onions for dinner. It didn’t sound like much of a vacation, but my mother said that from the time she was a little girl, she realized how much her aunt adored her. And at 12, I knew that being adored counted for a lot.

In 1962, Bertha sometimes took a few minutes to recognize us when we suddenly appeared at her door, and because she was easily startled, we always began our visits in the lowest gear we could manage. We moved in slow motion so we wouldn’t make her flinch. We spoke softly even though she was pretty much deaf.

“It’s me, Jeannie,” my mother would say. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t.

My mother performed the same duties each week. She’d reach for the lotion and squirt it between her palms to warm it, and then rub her aunt’s mottled hands, carefully maneuvering around her swollen knuckles. Even on days she didn’t know who my mother was, Bertha would let her confusion go with the first warm strokes on her fingers and just sit back in her wheelchair and enjoy it.

She used a baby’s comb on her aunt’s hair, so thin that a brush would have scratched her scalp. She took tiny scissors out of the drawer and snipped her chin hairs. She set Bertha’s false teeth in a glass of white fizzing liquid that was supposed to transform them from their putty yellow color. We’d wait for five minutes, watching the bubbles. Without teeth, Aunt Bertha’s whole jaw caved in. She wouldn’t talk again until my mother had rinsed the uppers and lowers in the bathroom sink and popped them back in.

Trying to give our visit the arc it often needed, my mother would say, “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”

Then she would take inventory of the metal bedside table to make sure everything was there, items essential to this life – as opposed to Bertha’s jewelry and mink collar circa 1930, safely stored at our house and waiting for her in case she miraculously got young again, I guessed.

We’d push her wheelchair to the Great Room after that. I held my breath down that hall because the floor-to-ceiling tiles smelled of strong disinfectant. My mother said whatever it was, it probably warded off staph infection or something equally deadly in old people. I silently vowed never to be old.

In the Great Room, people’s wheelchairs formed a circle of faux camaraderie. Some people nodded off and snored, others had visitors, and the only man in the whole place sat in the corner and chain smoked all day. Other kids were a rarity, so I can say — without swagger — that I was always in demand in the Great Room. Women awoke as if from a dream to reach out to me.

Sometimes Aunt Bertha would say to me, “I have something for you!” The first time she did it — her eyes all wide and expectant — I thought maybe it was something like a diamond ring or a fistful of hundred-dollar bills. She pulled the gift out from under her left thigh, wrapped in a dozen of the nursing home’s cheap one-ply napkins. Her body heat had made it warm. It was a roll she’d taken from breakfast. Maybe that day, maybe another. I would thank her and on our way out of the building it would hit with a thud in the trash can. Again, I’d make my vow.

One morning, just as we’d delivered Aunt Bertha back to her room and had our coats on to leave, she looked up and asked, “Where is Mr. Raffensberger?”

It was an insistent tone, like he was supposed to be in the room and she was demanding to know where we were hiding him. I’d never heard her speak in anything louder than a raspy whisper. “Where is he?”

My mother acted like she hadn’t heard the question.

“Let’s see . . . where in the world did I put my car keys?”

We were halfway home when I got up the nerve to ask. She never took her eyes off the road. She sighed a little, deciding how much of an answer to give me.

“Mr. Raffensberger was her boss. They were in love. He died about twenty years ago.”

“Why didn’t they get married?”

She sighed again, bigger this time.

“He was already married.”

When I was 12, I wanted to know everything there was to know about love, and I didn’t know anything yet. Aunt Bertha’s story became an unfinished chapter in my studies. So, she hadn’t always been old and crusty as I’d suspected. She’d been young once and in love, and for the whole ride home I sat in a confused silence trying to take it all in.

My mother, sensing she had said too much maybe, didn’t speak of it again. So the rest I had to make up on my own, something I was pretty good at back then.

Even years after her death, the scene went like this. Aunt Bertha cooking dinner in her sparse kitchen, waiting to hear him bounding up the steps. He had a big mustache on a plain, round face. He was a little balding, even in his thirties. He used a cotton handkerchief to mop his brow and couldn’t help talking about the humidity in August by the time he got to the third floor.

When she finished washing the dishes, he said, “You need to take care of these lovely hands, Bertha.” Then he rubbed them in his, with lotion he took down from the shelf above the sink. She relaxed in the touch.

Why I Don’t Throw Away My Parents’ Letters

When my parents were in their 70s, they downsized and decided on a sensible condominium. That meant leaving the house on Hamilton Avenue, in Massapequa, where I had grown up. They began getting rid of stuff, and my mother made it clear that I should make room in my car on my next visit to take some things back to Baltimore.

When I got to their house, five boxes with my name on them were stacked by the front door, my mother’s subtle way of saying, “Please get this crap out of here.”

Two contained books I didn’t read in college. Two more held clothes that might come in handy for a Halloween costume somewhere down the line, if I could ever fit into them, which would never happen. The last was a shoebox labeled, Linda’s Letters from College.

The box with the letters was unexpected. I didn’t know my mother had kept them, and knowing what they said, I wished she hadn’t. I considered just throwing the box away, unopened, knowing how embarrassed I’d be if I read them. Then I thought, “She saved them for 30 years.” So when I was back in Baltimore and alone, I opened each letter as if a hairy spider might jump out at me. They were every bit as bad as I remembered.

I can see I wrote every week of freshman year. I don’t know what got me the most — that I come from an era where people actually wrote letters, or that these innocent little envelopes contained such didactic drivel. Apparently, I had figured out everything by second semester away at a state college, and I felt the need to share.

I want to say it’s the letters from sophomore year in 1970 make me wince, but it’s worse than that. I’m ashamed of them. I was taking Sociology 101 that spring, which made me an expert on Vietnam, racial tension, and poverty. I had an epiphany in that class about my upbringing and, in those letters, hit my parents over the head with it, with lengthy paragraphs outlining their many mistakes.

They had given me a middle class childhood that I would now have to crawl out of because — really — there were few conditions worse than being middle class. Even I (who was practically a sociologist at that point) couldn’t think of anything worse. I lectured them on how they had bought into “the system.” They were materialistic. They didn’t understand oppression in America. If I had to label the tone I adopted, “How dare you!” would probably do it.

In 1950, ever the planners, my parents moved into our home a few months before I was born. Our neighborhood was just-planted maple trees, loose gravel on the road, and no sidewalks.

Most of the streets within a mile radius were named for American states and cities. But by the time they got to my street, Canada was suddenly involved with the street names Toronto, Ontario, and my street, Hamilton. I walked nine blocks to school, passing streets with names like New Hampshire, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Massachusetts, which gave me time to think about how the street-naming process should have been more organized. I wanted a street name that was American. I didn’t think it was too much to ask, considering the times and my patriotic heart. I took some solace in the fact that I didn’t live on the next street over from mine — Jerusalem — because I had no idea where Jerusalem was.

My parents wanted a house with a basement, not one built on a concrete slab, so Levittown was out. Ours was a two-bedroom Cape Cod with one bathroom. These houses also came with a garage, an unfinished basement, and an attic that, sooner or later, almost everyone would expand with a dormer for more bedrooms. Even when our parents looked at the tiny boxes these homes were, they were imagining the future.

The basement space came in handy for the rec room. I used to see ads in the Saturday Evening Post of families gathered around their ping pong tables, with trays of food behind them on a built-in bar. The lighting was always soft, and those rec rooms had carpeting. Some even had a fireplace and a piano with a dozen or so people arm in arm, belting out a tune.

Our rec room had trouble keeping up. It was at the bottom of our wooden stairs with those brown rubber pads on them so you wouldn’t trip. It had one tiny casement window, knotty-pine paneling that went halfway up the wall, and a linoleum floor in a pattern that looked like an accident of some kind. In the summer I’d make believe it was air-conditioned when we watched TV down there. In the winter you needed a blanket over you. My parents talked about mildew a lot. But at least our house didn’t sit on a slab.

My father signed up for the GI Bill and began college classes at night after his workday at Grumman was over. For twelve years, he commuted to Hofstra two evenings a week. The other three nights my mother worked the evening shift as a nurse at Brunswick Hospital, in neighboring Amityville. Those nights my father studied while taking care of me, and later, my two brothers. On the weekends they cleaned house, food shopped, and cleared the decks for the week ahead.

In the summers we took a vacation, but my father, a history buff and reader, was always partial to places like Gettysburg or Fort Ticonderoga, so even then I wasn’t having as much fun as other kids. Holidays involved the same cast of characters my whole life — aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. Food, fun, and lots of noise. Imagine my angst.

That was the life I was up against when I took stock in 1970. Years and years later, I got over the embarrassing situation my parents had put me in, and began carving out — imagine this — a middle class life for my own kids. The only differences were that I worked half as hard and talked about it twice as much as Jean and Ed DeMers did.

When do you get far enough away from your childhood to really see it for what it was? Maybe when you get your first job and that alarm clock isn’t your friend, and it dawns on you that your dad did this every single morning while you were asleep in your cozy bed.

Maybe the moment you see your first baby. And that overwhelming love takes you by surprise. And only then do you understand how your parents felt the day they met you.

I think my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she handed me that box of letters. It was as if she was saying, “Someday you’ll see.”

And I kept them all. And I do.

My Neighborhood “Uncles”

She is wearing a fluorescent green bathing suit. She is 10 maybe. I can see from her body language that the ocean is just not her thing.

The man she calls Uncle Nick is gently coaxing her into the surf, to her ankles, then her knees, where they let the waves break over them, and she begins to laugh. Before long, the girl has mastered the art of riding waves and coming to a sandy halt. Then, as if on repeat, she jumps up and she leads him back in so they catch the next one.

I’ve seen  her go from “I don’t want to,” to “Watch me, Uncle Nick!” in the space of an hour. And I’m remembering my 10-year-old self. And thinking about my uncles.

I was accorded several real uncles, who appeared automatically in my life the day I was born. But like most of the kids in my Long Island neighborhood in the 1950s, I was also entitled to other “uncles,” not related to our family but connected in a way that was just as real. They were my parents’ oldest friends or neighbors who knew me my whole life, like Uncle Herb, who lived around the corner from us.

I was a cautious child who liked lots of practice in private before I did anything publicly. Riding waves with scores of people standing in the surf at Jones Beach carried too many risks for the child I was. Wading would have been forever fine with me, had Uncle Herb and I not stood together that day in the shallow surf, ankle deep. He was getting his toes wet, chatting with me about the school year that had just finished. His children, a slew of blond hearty kids who were never afraid of anything, had already taken their positions out past the breaking surf, and were yelling for their father to come out and join them.

I’m pretty sure I was an afterthought. “Come on, Linda,” he said, “Let’s ride some waves.”

He held out his hand. Hoping he wouldn’t make fun of me when he saw how inept I knew I’d be, I went, but just barely. He talked me through my nerves as the waves bounced me around.

“Put your arms like this,” he said. “Try to keep your head down,” and I remember how different he looked wet and without his eyeglasses. He held on to me when a big wave overpowered my skinny body and I was tossed under.

Uncle Herb stayed with me until I caught on, and I continued riding waves (with a certain panache, I’ve always thought) for a few more summers, before watching lifeguards eat their lunches became more worthy of my time at the beach.

Labor Day that year, it was barbeque time. In a houseful of company, most of whom were relatives, my mother decided to pass around some of my poetry. I was never sure about this. I was proud that she thought I had talent, but she seemed oblivious to public opinion. Most of the adults would glance at a page  and then mumble a few kind, vague words, having not really read any of it. Then they’d go back to talking about more important issues, like maybe the sale on pork chops at Bohack’s.

“Herb,” my mother said, “Have you seen these poems?”

I would say “poems” was a kind way to put it. I would say that I was blessed with a mother who thought I was pretty when I wasn’t, had a flair for the artistic when I didn’t, and who believed that she had given birth to the next Emily Dickinson. Hence a continual thread of conversation in the living room that began, “Have you seen these?”

Now it was Uncle Herb’s turn, and frankly I thought he had already put in more than his share of time with the whole ocean thing. But he smiled and took the handful of notebook pages. Peeking in from the kitchen, I watched his eyes moving over every word. After he finished the last piece, he found me and pressed them into my hand. And as if he had unearthed a great secret between us, he said, “You’re a writer. A real writer.”

My “uncles” told us when it was time to go in on summer nights when we didn’t want to stop playing tag. They sat on our back patio and popped open a can of Budweiser as they discussed the Mets. They toasted my college graduation. They danced at my wedding. They held my babies in their arms and pronounced each of them beautiful whether they were or not. Even now when he answers the phone with a soft, barely audible “hello,” I wouldn’t think of starting any other way: “Hi Uncle Herb, it’s Linda.”

If we’re lucky, we have an adult in our lives who, even for one summer afternoon, teaches us how to negotiate the surf — when to jump, when to dive, and how to ride the waves all the way to shore.

“You did great,” Uncle Nick is telling the girl in the green bathing suit now, as they shake the water from their hair and jog toward their blanket on the beach. I watch her face.

Same ocean. Different uncle. I hope she remembers, too.