Jack Loved Me
Father’s Day is almost upon us and thoughts of my own father are more frequent than they have been for a long time. Jack has been dead now for 41 years. That reminds me of how old I am. It also reminds me that he died when he was younger than I am. That’s way too young, but then when I think about it, the human body isn’t made to consume that much alcohol. My dad was a drunk. So was my grandfather pictured above. I hate saying it that way, but it is honest. He just was. People who knew him have a hard time talking about him without saying something about the alcohol. Curiously, that isn’t the main thing about him that I remember. Jack was also a good man.
The church side of my dad was over by the time I reached the age of memory. He told me he was a deacon in a Presbyterian Church when I was an infant. Since we never went to church, that one was hard to believe, but it came with corresponding stories. He was even asked to be an elder, but that position came with a pledge not to drink. Jack liked his Carling Black Label beer. Both the minister and other elders rolled their eyes at his persnicketiness, making it clear that this was not a pledge to be taken seriously. My father’s response was plain, “Then take it out of the oath for the office and I will consider.” This, along with other clearly hypocritical practices, led my father out of organized church for the rest of his life. I still wonder what would have happened to him had this been handled differently. Perhaps he never would have become an alcoholic? Church hurts.
Jack was quite monogamous by nature, a weird thing to say in light of the fact that he had three wives in his lifetime. His first, my mother, seemed to be the closest he ever had to a soul mate. I didn’t ever really know her, since she died when I turned three after contracting a staph infection while attending to me in the hospital. I am overwhelmed when I contemplate the pain he must have endured in the midst of it. Imagine having a five year old and a three year old and losing the love of your life. Before her death, she exacted a pledge out of him, “Promise me you will take care of the kids.” His interpretation, “Get them through college!” and he did, dying only five months after my college graduation.
It is easy to harshly judge parents from the 60’s. It was just a different day. Our home was stereotypical with a stay-at-home mom, one car, Fuller Brush Man and a formica table with the metal band around it in the kitchen. The kids were fed early as my parents sat at the kitchen table and debriefed the day with a cocktail. Athletic activities where something kids did with parents rarely attending. Mine never did.
Perhaps the worst thing Jack ever did was rush into another marriage after my mother died. I’m sure it was primarily pragmatic for him, since making a living and raising kids in 1959 must have seemed quite impossible. She was pretty and bright and available. She had no desire to have children of her own. She was also very dominant, unforgiving and relentless in her expectation of perfection. Discipline was old school including belts, wooden spoons and fraternity paddles. Any given week would have been fodder for Social Services today. Jack should have stopped it. I knew he didn’t like it, but he was too weak to stand up to her.
I’ll never forget when Jack quit the booze. My step-mother had given him an ultimatum and so he quit. Nine months he attended AA meetings and never touched a drop. I was 17 and I enjoyed the change. He was really honest about it all. Unfortunately someone in AA forgot about the Anonymous part of it and word got to his boss. Foolishly this led to a parting of ways and Jack went from V.P. at a large insurance agency to starting his own company. Endlessly he would express regret that he hadn’t done that earlier. Jack was a good businessman, but back in the day when two martini lunches were part of doing business, particularly in Pittsburgh. If that lunch extended through the afternoon, it didn’t mean Jack wasn’t working, it meant that he had another client that would be signed in the morning. All that changed when Jack became an AA guy. I went with him to many meetings which ended with a stop at Baskin Robbins on the way home. It was a nice bonding time for us.
It would be easy for me to be judgmental of my step mother during this time. Rather than fulfilling her side of the bargain when he quit drinking, she was caught having an affair. It broke my father’s heart, and was a terrible thing for her to do, but I’m sure that living with him all those booze-soaked years had done damage to their relationship that felt irreparable, alcohol or not. It was too much for him and he returned to the booze for four more years until he died from it, attended in the process by his third wife.
So why am I not more judgmental of my father whose self-indulgence left my kids without a grandfather and me alone to navigate adulthood without a Dad? I know Jack was wrong in many ways. His flaws were on the surface for all to see. He missed most of the real joys of being a father - the games, the growing stages, the intimacy only possible with parent and child. Like so many of his peers, he thought fatherhood was about providing materially. We lived in a gorgeous home. We never really wanted for anything, although he smartly encouraged teenage jobs to provide for our spending cash.
The absence of judgement I have for my father is rooted in my understanding of adulthood and psychology. I really don’t believe we can be healthy until we look at our parents as the flawed humans they were/are, understanding how much life was a struggle for them as it is for us. We wish they were the perfect super heroes we thought they were in our childhood years, but we know better. Accepting our parents failings and empathizing with the challenges they had is such a relief.
But Jack did one thing right. That one thing probably has affected me more than any other. Jack loved me. I never had any doubt that my father loved me, believed in me, and would give his life for me. Many famous talks and books have been promoted talking about the importance of a father’s “blessing” upon his children. Done well, such messages can reduce a group of strong men to tears. We want our father’s blessing. We need our father’s blessing. Without it, there is a painful void in our heart that is hard to fill.
So here is to you Jack on this Father’s Day! Today I smartly don’t have alcohol in my glass. I wish I could introduce you to Johnny and Kaitlyn cause I know how much you would have loved them too. Tim would take a while to explain, but you’d think he was great and all four of you would partner up together to tease and torture me. You would have loved it. I know I went a really different direction in life than you did, until I didn’t, but you’d still be proud of me. I do know this, I am Jack’s son and my heart is full in many ways because of it. If Jack could love me as he did, I guess it is a bit easier to believe that the Heavenly Father can too.