Father Figures

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Hippo Playground in Riverside Park. 7:15 PM. Photo: JH.

Monday, June 20, 2022. Another beautiful weekend in New York, with temps ranging from the low 80s on Saturday  and into the low 70s yesterday, Sunday, Father’s Day. With lots of sunshine.

Paige Peterson took this photo last Thursday about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway. The man had obviously set up the scene before dozing off, including offering vitamins in the jars if needed. Various messages were written out on cardboard.

He was not an old man, maybe in his 30s. The longest message was as follows:

“I heard a collection of Buddhist Monks gather with no preplanning in Washington DC for a group meditation focused on healing the Earth, as far as their combined aura can reach, while also devoting energy to lower the crime rate negativity of the area. In witnessing this, I believe everyone we know should come together in the name of Love from any/all locations to focus on our communal Energy Force as big/stable as we can to cast a ‘healing Ripple’ as big and far as possible.”

Then, on the attached yellow pad:

“Love Is The Foundation of The Law. Light is foundation of the world. One is the Foundation of ALL. Stay Good.”

Yesterday, as you may know, was Fathers Day in America. I’ve written about my own father who died in 1973 at 73. We never celebrated the Day when I was growing up. I don’t recall it even being mentioned.

My father Frank had a difficult life really from the very beginning, and as he grew up and got older it seemingly became more difficult. Much of it had to do with family and fate and his own issues stemming from his experience growing up. I’m referring to his family life although he was a Brooklyn-born Irish boy who came of age in the late 19-teens when Prohibition was established and changing the tenor of the city.

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 Radziwill.

When he was fifteen he was present when his mother and father got into an argument about money, and how she spent it. Evidently the parents had a rocky relationship exaggerated by his drinking which often led to his terrible Irish temper.

The discussion heated up and Frank’s mother pulled out a gun and threatened her husband’s abusive temper.  In his fury he walked away from her and she shot him and killed him.

The incident was reported. Frank’s mother claimed self-defense and my father testified that was what he witnessed. But she was arrested and went on trial for murder. The trial was in all the local and daily New York papers, emphasizing the wife with the gun. My father, all of 15, testified that it was self-defense, and his mother was found Not Guilty. Although it was reported that not all jurors believed she was innocent.

The temperament that led to that drama has run down through generations. Although he never drank, never touched the stuff, he had a classic gambling habit that created more drama in his life and that of his family over the decades. Family dramas are just that and I was bound as a young kid that I wasn’t going to live like that, like him.

Although he was prone to outbursts of temper (in “discussions” with my mother mainly having to do with the Rent) and could be physically violent in expressing – doors, windows, furniture – he was never thus with me and never unkind to me or abusive. In fact when I had a scuffle with mama as a kid, he’d advise: “be nice to your mother.” I used to think – but not say – “you be nice my mother.”

She was always going to leave him when I grew up. Or so she said more than once in her distress which was serious at the time. Listening to her, I was a kid thinking about how old I would be when I’d “be old enough” so that she’d leave him. I thought she should have left him then but this was a kid thinking. When I left the house – first to college and then to New York – she didn’t leave him. She never left him. There was a bond there and a deep one.

My father testified that it was self-defense, and his mother was found Not Guilty.

In the years after I’d left, he’d grown old and sickly and cranky. It took a great toll on him physically. It was as if that terrible temper had eaten him inside. They lived in the same house in which I grew up. They saw my sisters and their children. And they stayed together fifteen years later.

From this purview decades later, thinking about my father on this Father’s Day, I see that their relationship was fated and in fact they needed each other. They both empathized and sympathized with each other’s childhood fate. He was a tough one to live with, but a wounded one. I knew him in his rage and I saw him in his final days when he lay in hospital with little to say. I only remember him saying, as if summing up, in his weakened voice, “well, at least I never went to jail.”

It had been a life of deep regret. And he was finally leaving.

Frank and Tillie Columbia at the wedding reception of me and my wife Sheila, October 1964. Frank was 64, and had been in very bad health for quite some time.

I was happy to get away from that household and I swore to myself that I would never live under such emotionally stressful circumstances. Easier said than done. Although I would never describe myself as stress-free, I see from this vista of their lives, despite their misfortunes and tragedies, my mother and my father gave me the tools for a good life. They were kind to me, caring, accepting my adolescence, providing what I needed to go out into the world.

Only two years ago when I was sent a lot of archival information about my father’s parents, did I learn that I was named for his father. Because it was a subject never mentioned, I never knew the names of my grandparents. He never spoke of them. My father had five sons. I was the fifth and his last child, and named for his father.

Now. Thinking about the subject of fathers, coincidentally, yesterday afternoon, JH sent me a link to a YouTube lecture on TEDx Talks, What Representing Men in Divorce Taught Me About Fatherhood, given by Marilyn York at TEDxUniversity of Nevada.

Since we were thinking about the subject this day just passed, I turned on the video. Ms. York is a very good looking woman, the kind of good looks where you’re inclined to think of her as an actress, or a model or a television host. Well, she’s a lawyer from Las Vegas, and she talks about FATHERS.

She’s very smart and her good looks disguise the lady’s brilliance. She knows something we don’t know and we should know because we are it. She’s also a humanitarian by nature which is a good luck charm for all of us, and gentle in her goodnight. I’d advise watching the video. You will end up surprised that you’ve learned something you didn’t know and it has to do with you and your life.

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