Consequences Of The Skirmish At Lewis Farm, March 29, 1865


I don’t believe in God the Father, but I grant that the sequences of misery He visits upon sinners “unto the third and fourth generation” are as common as grass. They often are associated with wars. My father was a third-generation casualty of the American Civil War.

He was a good man, honest and gentle—by my memory he hit me only twice in my entire childhood—but he was a black hole, invisible to direct examination, yet powerfully assertive, somehow, and confusing and disturbing to think about. He would park the car beside a gas pump and then, while the attendant filled the tank, wander off, leaving my mother, who couldn’t drive, and me, too young to drive, to deal with the honking cars behind us and the attendant waiting to be paid. My mother would send me off to the men’s room to find him, but he was never there. She would fume until, having asserted himself, he would reappear and rescue us and, in answer to her complaints, smile mysteriously as if he had been hiding Easter eggs. He could be conspiratorial all by himself.

If offered a choice between being competent or incompetent, he would, if there were witnesses, chose the latter. As a young man, he had been a carpenter and was manually adept, but never to useful ends. One of my earliest memories is of the hearing aid he invented in order, he said, to become rich. It had no batteries, no source of energy. It was a light tin disk, about three inches across, neatly grooved and cupped, shiny—well made—to be worn around the ear. It looked like a cookie cutter, and it enhanced hearing as effectively as a cookie cutter. But my father was not a fool, so what did he think he was doing?

I wondered what had made a scoundrel of my grandfather. Did he, too, have a dreadful father, a tormented mother?

He slid his new automobile into another car on an icy day in February: a minor fenderbender. When the other driver tried to exchange the required identifications with him, he mewed, “Oh, my beautiful new car. Oh, my beautiful new car. Oh, my beautiful new car. Oh, my beautiful new car.” I took over, completing all the paperwork neatly. I was as proud as punch to do so.

He paid for my food, clothing, shelter, and a good part of my education; and once he may have saved my life. I had swum off a Maine beach to rescue a woman yelling for help. She grabbed me; we both went down; I changed my mind about heroism, kicked loose from her, and set off for shore alone. (A real lifeguard arrived soon after and brought her in.) I foolishly swam as much against the waves as they receded from the beach as with them when they rolled in, and exhausted myself. My father, standing chindeep, reached out and took my hand and pulled me in the last few feet. A stranger would have done as much, but my father, not a stranger, was there, and my father did it. The memory persists like a heart murmur, slight, rarely noticed, but always there.

He worked a forty-hour week, but otherwise I really have no idea how he passed his life. He had no hobbies, no friends. We probably did not exchange a hundred sentences of actual conversation in all our years together. He was as much a cripple as if he had lost limbs or reason in a war.

For as long as I have been conscious of how incomplete a person he was I’ve wanted to dignify his disabilities with a cause. I have investigated his early life and the lives of his parents and grandparents. I have done so as best I can with the scanty documentation available; these people were not important and left few traces. Sometimes I have turned to literature in the hope that contemporaneous poems and fiction can be as useful as records of the past as census lists and death certificates.

Until I was forty I did not know my father’s parents’ names. The sum of my knowledge about his beginnings was that he had been, he said, the product of the first successful cesarean delivery in Massachusetts (or was it New England?), successful, he claimed, in that both the mother and child survived. It was something that he very rarely mentioned, but in which he took shy pride.

The attending physician was Dr. Alfred Worcester, after whom my father was named. I met and spent an hour with him shortly before I went in the Army during the Korean War. He would have made a fine adjunct father, I am sure, but we did not know each other long enough for that. We had nothing to talk about except that he was old and I was young and that I, named after my father, had a name like his. We discussed the fact that when he was a youngster, there had been a game of balls, bats, and bases, but not yet the word baseball (or so we thought). What impressed me most about him was his skin, pink tracing paper with a scramble of veins underneath.

Long after Dr. Worcester’s death and a decade before my father’s, I discovered an article that Dr. Worcester had published about his birth. I showed it to my father, thinking that he might find it interesting. (Or was I playing his mother’s final trump card?) He turned away, embarrassed, even hurt.

His mother, my grandmother, Ella Carbee Crosby, had four pregnancies before the one that produced my father. The first terminated in a craniotomy of the fetus in order to save the mother. The second ended in a stillbirth, the third in another craniotomy and a dangerous postpartum hemorrhage for the mother. In 1891 she was pregnant again. The baby died the day after birth.