Monday, June 18, 2018

A Father's Day to remember

Walking across the 18th fairway at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Saturday at the U.S. Open. Photo: JH.
Monday, June 18, 2018.  A very sunny weekend with massive clouds passing through on Saturday, and a very warm (90 degrees with a Real Feel of 95) Sunday, for Fathers’ Day across America.

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Reni, circa 1635.
Until I sat down and did a little research to put this Diary together, I never knew that Fathers’ Day was a customary celebration in Catholic Europe dating back to the Middle Ages or before.

Growing up in mid-20th century America, I early imagined it was created by Hallmark cards since they did a big business with it.

In some countries Father's Day is still observed on March 19th as the feast day of Saint Joseph who is referred to as Nutritor Domini or: “Nourisher of the Lord,” father of Jesus. The Spanish and Portuguese brought it to Latin America although it wasn’t celebrated here until the 20th century, and even then as a companion to Mother’s Day.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Six years later, it was made a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972.

My father Frank Columbia about 1931 when he met my mother. He was then working as chauffeur for John "Black Jack" Bouvier, whom he idolized, and who later became famous as the father of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwil.
Good son that he is, JH went up to Connecticut to spend the day with his father. Good dog master that I am, I spent the day as father to my dogs. They were not impressed although they did eat all their breakfast, and they liked their walks (although the walks weren’t long enough).

I don’t recall ever celebrating Father’s Day when I was growing up. I would not have classified The Old Man (whom we called “Pa”) as a good father. Not at the time. Born in 1900, he managed to father nine — five boys, four girls — between two wives.

He was also “father” to my dear, departed eldest sister Helen. I was his last child, born in 1941. He died in July, in my 32nd year, and over the years that followed I was able to see him with the clarity of the retrospective.

Although to my friends and neighbors, he was always a very nice, friendly and hospitable fellow, and always kind to everyone, he was what in his day was called a “street angel and house devil.” He had a very hard life in many ways, and he made it harder in many ways for himself and for others. As it happened, he did not make it harder for me.

He was not affectionate — but then, nor did it seem, were many of the fathers of friends I had. — although he never said an unkind word to me. But he had a yelling temper bordering on serious violence, which could be scary for a child to witness. Once, when I was 11 or 12 and beginning to feel my oats, I complained to him during one of his fits of rage (I could run faster). His response was not to raise a hand to me but said, “if you think I’m bad, you should have seen my father.” 

My sister Helen sent me a number of photos she had taken of me when I was two (and she was 16). I have only a couple of vague memories of that time, but I see the trouble in the house on the child's face.
Here I was at 12 dancing with Ann Colton, who was my childhood girlfriend, when i knew I was going to be leaving that house and going out into the world.
I didn't know what he meant because I never knew his father, for whom I am named. But that was another story said in a moment of truth. Because he never talked about or even mentioned his father, nor for that matter any of his siblings. His father, I later learned from my mother, was so bad that one day his mother had reason to pick up a gun and shoot his father to death in front of him. That is a shocking thing even to consider, but I do think about his life in terms of that incident. It was a gunshot that reverberated down through three generations of many lives.

He was 15 at the time, and his mother went on trial for murder.  However, he testified in court that it was in self-defense so that he and his siblings would still have a parent. He never mentioned it, or anything else about his father, or his mother — except that she had quite a temper too (They were both Irish, so it was that kind of expressed temper – loud.)

All my early information about my father’s life and family background came from my mother, who thankfully talked to me all the time about their childhoods and youth, both of which involved early loss of a parent.

About twenty-five years ago when I was researching a piece I was writing for Quest about Vincent Astor, at the end of the article in the Times, my eye peripherally caught the name “Columbia” at the top of a short article: “Columbia Jury Acquits Woman” who pleaded “self-defense.” My grandfather, I had been told, was evidently well known in the community as an alcoholic who also had a raging, physically abusive temper. I understood: so did my father.

My father, and my mother, both born in this country, were children of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. They bore the brunt of that immigration and the dark memories of hardships left behind in the old country as well as the hardships of the New World. Neither knew or had the tools that we have to help them through their life crises and their own harsh shortcomings.

Despite that, they gave me a life that included those tools, as well as the opportunity to express it and look at it. From them, I am fortunate and that is possibly the greatest thing one could expect from any father. And mother too. They were there and got me far enough to get to here. Gratitude abounds, and that’s where love is planted.

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