- Historic Sites
Visions Of My Father
You can rise fast and far in America, but sometimes the cost of the journey is hard to tally
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
He was not a complete stranger. In public my father was almost always the genial politician. At home he blew up without warning, particularly at my mother. She said he was an Irish type: “Street angel, house devil.”
Another vision is rooted in a 1932 picture of my father with his arm around me and my brother. We are at the beach, all in bathing suits. My father’s suit is black and old-fashioned—tank style, with shoulder straps. I am four or five, my brother is about two. We boys are skinny and look somewhat disconsolate. I don’t think it was anything serious. Probably the sun was in our eyes. But my father’s expression is troubled on a deeper level. His face seems full of doubt.
The picture was taken during the Depression, when the future was no longer rosy. But I sense my father’s mood also had something to do with marriage and fatherhood. His marriage was no longer happy. My mother had grown discontented with his decision to remain a local politician, to be a team player and run only for offices that the machine selected for him. He looks worried. He is grasping my brother and me around the waist with almost grim possessiveness.
That picture connects me to a painful memory. In my early teens I fell under my mother’s influence and grew to dislike my father. I thought the only thing he cared about was his political career. One Sunday, out for a ride in the country in our Cadillac, I sat in the back seat reading a book. My father impatiently wondered why he was taking the trouble and the gas to show me some beautiful scenery and I did not even bother to look at it.
“Who are you kidding?” I snarled. “You don’t care about me. You don’t care about any of us.”
The car lurched wildly. We slithered off the road, and my father leaped out. He was crying. I was frightened. He walked up and down along the side of the road. I got out and approached him fearfully. “You said I didn’t love you,” he sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You and your brother. You’re all I’ve got,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
That was when I realized underneath his toughness my father was a sensitive man. I can also see, now, that I had forced him to confront the boredom, the lack of accomplishment he felt as a local politician.
I always contrast the beach picture with another picture of my father, which I have on my study wall. This is from the 1920s. He is sitting on a folding chair at the railing of the Sandy Hook steamer, on his way to a weekend at the Jersey shore. He is wearing a dark suit and tie. His shirt collar rises high above his suit coat in the twenties style. He looks like a young executive.
The picture is in profile, and his face has a meditative look, as if he were thinking about his life, from the newspaper days on West Street through baseball and war to his present prosperous state. He looks young and strong—but sensitive.
Near that picture on my study wall is another photograph—an arty shot of my father when he was a powerful politician in Jersey City, sheriff of the county, leader of an important ward. Half his face is in shadow. He looks dignified and strong. But he has grown fleshy. There is an aura of tough worldliness in the half of the face that is exposed to the light. At first glance he could be a Mafia boss.
But a second glance conveys another impression. There is an unexpected sensitivity around his mouth. The overall effect is thoughtfulness. He is not simply an order taker or giver. Here is a man who has examined his life. There is even, in the shadowy half of the picture, another unexpected quality: resignation. There is scarcely a glimpse of the ferocity of my newspaper and baseball and Army visions—or of the buoyant 1920 skier in Central Park. Was this the man who was living on borrowed time?
By now my father was aware of life’s limitations. He knew he was never going to be more than a powerful local politician. That had its rewards. But it also had its frustrations. A political machine did not give an intelligent man much chance to grow. He spent his life dealing with people considerably less intelligent than he was.
Perhaps another frustration was to be irrevocably Irish-American. His transformation in the dentist’s chair had not taken him out of his boyhood world. It had only made him a leader of it.
Perhaps another frustration was to be Irish-American. His transformation had not taken him out of his boyhood world.
I used to think he would have left that Irish-American world with relief, as I did. Throughout his life, although he was intensely interested in politics, I never heard him say a word about bleeding Ireland. He had no interest whatsoever in the country, although his father had a brogue so thick the old man was incomprehensible to me, at the age of six.