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Essay

The Dad I Had, or, Charlie, We Hardly Knew Ya

What to make of a man with whom I never in my life had a serious conversation on an emotional issue, a man who didn’t come to my first wedding but instead sent a cheque for the same amount as his plane fare would have been? A man who showed a documentary film about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at my younger sister’s third birthday party? A man who once walked out of a Sandy Koufax no-hitter that was being pitched in the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium he’d had a large hand in designing, explaining that nobody was getting any hits and he found the lack of action boring? A man who cared enough about me to accompany me to my conscientious objector hearing in Norwalk, CT, coming up all the way from New York to do so, but who, six years earlier, even faced with ample evidence that I had a serious drinking problem, hadn’t cared enough to get me the psychiatric help I was practically begging him and my mother to get me? And who, two years before that, had apparently been so determined to get rid of me that he took time off work to drive me all around New England in search of a boarding school where he could deposit me, my straight “A” average at Darien Junior High notwithstanding? A man who was such an inattentive driver that on superhighways he sometimes let the car bob and weave all over the road, like Floyd Patterson attempting to elude Sonny Liston in a championship bout? A man who was supportive enough of my interest in cooking to give me a wok and a fish poacher, but who never wanted to cook alongside me? A man who was allergic to cats, but nonetheless lived with two of them for many years? A man who continued to smoke despite having been told by his doctor that his lung capacity was 13%–one-eighth of the normal?

          It isn’t easy to put together any sort of coherent portrait out of such disparate and largely fragmentary recollections, but I’ll try.

          The first and most important fact to bear in mind about my father, Charles Peirce (1919-2002), son of Dr. George Peirce and Dr. Ethel Girdwood Peirce, is that he himself never had a living father, George Peirce having been killed in an explosion at the Colgate & Company plant in New Jersey in which he was working at the end of the First World War.  At that time, Ethel Peirce, already the mother of three young sons, was pregnant with my father.  As the story goes—I’ve never seen written confirmation but have no reason to doubt its veracity—my grandmother had a nervous breakdown either shortly before or shortly after my father’s birth, and had to be confined to an institution, leaving him to be raised by domestics, a virtual orphan for his first year of life.  This fact, together with the fact that after her recovery Granny had to be both father and mother to her four boys, all while maintaining her practice as a rheumatologist, inevitably left its mark on all four.  On my father, the biggest effect appears to have been that he was left emotionally frozen, incapable of expressing any emotion other than anger. It also meant that he never acquired any fathering skills, or indeed any nurturing skills of any kind, his mother, by her own admission, having been unable to be much of a mother to her boys, given the situation.  One can’t teach skills one has never learned oneself.

          As I became more aware of my father’s back story, I grew more able to understand many of the previously inexplicable lapses in his parenting.  This didn’t make the lapses any easier to take, however, nor did it make it any easier for me to acquire my own parenting skills, when the time came to do so.  Never having learned any parenting skills at home, I was forced to resort to trial and error in my quest to learn them.  Sometimes this worked.  More often than not, though, the results were unfortunate.  My own failures as a father, however inevitable they may have been given my lack of a role model during childhood, have continued to dog me to this day.

           Our best moments together were our weekly shopping trips to the Darien, CT, A&P.  For reasons still not clear to me, Mother never participated, except by writing the list.  I would walk to the store bearing with me the list, divided into two parts.  On the left-hand side: the meat and the produce.  On the right-hand side: all the remaining items, including frozen goods.  Arriving a few minutes before Dad did, I would start in on the non-perishables, handing him the meat and produce list as soon as I saw him. 

          There was definitely a kind of quiet camaraderie about these trips, almost a sense of being workmates at the job of bringing home the bacon (both figuratively and literally).  There was usually a bit of banter with the cashier at the check-out counter, and sometimes we would bet which one of us could come closer to guessing the total cost of the groceries.

          The last time I ever saw Dad, in 1999, was in Maine, at our summer house in Hancock Point.  We spent part of one afternoon going to Ellsworth and laying in a few modest supplies at the supermarket.  Each of us picked up six or eight items.  “Not like the old days,” he said, with a grin.

          “No,” I replied.  “Not quite!” I was secretly delighted that he’d remembered.

          Far less pleasant were the annual drives to Maine, on which I accompanied Dad to keep him company, or at least keep him awake. I envied my sisters who got to ride up with my mother on the old “Bar Harbor Express” train from Stamford to Ellsworth.  While they got to enjoy a night in a Pullman berth and meals in the dining car, I had to sit for 10 to 12 hours in a car with a seriously uncommunicative man, from whom I would be lucky to elicit six or eight sentences during the entire day, choking in the fumes of his cigarette smoke and nauseated by the stench coming from our two Springer Spaniels in the back seat, who often as not had become carsick by the time we’d entered the state of Maine.  Between the cigarette fumes, the stench of the dogs, and motion sickness from Dad’s erratic driving over bumpy roads, I would not infrequently become carsick myself, though fortunately I was always able to keep my puking outside the car.  Given that the best part of Dad’s and my relationship revolved around food, it’s no small irony that nearly all of those Maine drives resulted in my bringing up most of what I’d eaten that day somewhere between Kittery and Portland, along the Maine Turnpike. If I made it to Hancock Point (three hours past Portland) without puking, I considered it a minor miracle. These were definitely not memories to cherish.

          At home, Dad was as uncommunicative as he was in the car, scarcely involving himself in our lives at all, beyond providing occasional rides to ballet classes, evening basketball games, or Saturday music lessons. Throughout my boyhood, he was an all but completely absent figure, who spent the vast majority of his time at home either engaged in herculean construction projects, most destined never to be completed, or encased in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke behind the New York Times

          Granted, he was far from the only absent father around. From talks with my friends as well as some reading I’ve done, I get the impression that being largely absent from family life and any sort of emotional issues was almost the norm for fathers in the 1950s.  Certainly a great deal of poetry and fiction from that period revolves around absent or missing fathers.  But my father carried things to extremes.  His inattention to even such basic issues as whether we were in the house or not was such that I used to joke that if I’d run away with my bike to ride to California, starting from our home in southern Connecticut, I’d have been at least in western Pennsylvania, if not Indiana, before he’d have noticed I was missing.  No one ever disputed me.

          On the rare occasions when he did notice something about our personal lives, he was as apt as not to be completely off the mark.  The one time he ever commented on my public school grades, he criticized me for having gotten a “3” (average) effort mark along with my “A” in math.  I actually believe that the math teacher, who was very fond of me, had given me that effort grade as a kind of joke, or perhaps a suggestion that I belonged in a more advanced class.  In any event, I found the criticism laughable.  “I got an “A” in the course, Dad,” I said.  “How am I supposed to improve?” At least he had the sense not to pursue the matter any further.

          Searching for an image with which to sum up my relationship with my father, I can’t come up with anything better than the flickering signal from a radio station somewhere at the outer limit of the catchment zone.  This term may bear a bit of explanation.  If, as often happened to me as a kid, you woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, you would sometimes pass the time by playing with your radio dial, trying to “land” a station as far away from you as possible.  My dad was like a station on the extreme outer edge of that catchment zone.  Not like WBZ in Boston or powerful KDKA in Pittsburgh that you could get every night, or even the Chicago station that you could get two nights out of three, but the little station in Kansas City, or Miami, or Montreal, that you could get one night in five if you were lucky and hear for a minute or two before it faded away.   You never knew from one night to the next what you were going to get.  Depending on the night, the Montreal station might yield a few sentences of near-incomprehensible spoken French or the closing bars of an old Quebec folk song. The Kansas City station might send out some lovely jazz chords, or the ugly rant of a reactionary talk show host.  And so it went. Even more to the point, it might be a day or two—or a month—before you got that same station again. There was, in short, no consistency either as to the regularity of your contact with the station, or what you would hear when you did finally establish contact.

          Like my ever-futile attempt to develop some kind of consistent relationship with those flickering late night radio stations in Miami or Kansas City, my life with my dad was a near-constant, sometimes desperate attempt to establish and maintain some kind of contact—in this case, emotional contact. Though he was generally companionable enough, at any attempt on my part to raise a subject of an emotional nature, he would literally flee the room, vanishing as surely as that Kansas City station would whenever I was beginning to really get into one of its jazz numbers. I never heard a single song through to completion on that Kansas City station, and I never had a single conversation on an emotional issue with my dad, at least not any conversation lasting more than one sentence.  Ironically, his favourite saying was, “I feel for you, but I can’t reach you.” That sums up my relationship with him to a “T,” except that I was the one doing the feeling, and forever coming up short in my attempts to reach him, no matter how hard I tried.

          Our final moments together, in Hancock Point during the summer of 1999, in many ways epitomized our entire relationship. I was preparing to head back to Nova Scotia on the fast ferry from Bar Harbor.  Along the way, I planned to enjoy a lobster dinner in Ellsworth.  I offered to treat him to a lobster dinner, but he declined.  Instead, we just had a drink together, getting into the hard stuff despite the early hour (it wasn’t yet quite noon).  I had a gin and tonic; he opted for a bourbon on the rocks.  We clinked glasses, just as if we’d been two strangers enjoying a nooner together in some bar in Havana or Madrid.  We talked about trivial stuff, like the forthcoming Democratic presidential primaries (both of us supported Bill Bradley), never coming close to any emotionally-charged issue. After fifteen minutes or so, I heard the honk of a horn outside. My cab had arrived to take me to Ellsworth.  I believe I gave him a hug as I rose to leave, but frankly don’t remember. 

          As I ate my lobster at Jasper’s Restaurant in Ellsworth, I felt a certain emptiness inside, wishing that Dad had been there with me. But he’d been firm in his refusal, so there was no point in my punishing myself with regret.  I’d done the best I could.  He simply could not commit, even to the extent of sharing a meal. Of one thing I was certain: I would never see him again.  He was 80 and still smoking, despite his long-standing emphysema. The question wasn’t whether his emphysema would take him, but when.  (It wound up taking him about two and a half years later).

          To the very end, he remained as inscrutable as he’d always been.  While the fabled Charlie of the Kingston Trio’s “MTA Song” was the “man who never returned,” this Charlie, my father, was the man who’d never been there in the first place.   As I finished my coffee and got up to pay my bill at Jasper’s, I realized that even though we’d shared the planet together for nearly 55 years, I barely knew him.  Truthfully, I’m not sure anyone did.

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce

2 replies on “The Dad I Had, or, Charlie, We Hardly Knew Ya”

Just as powerful on a second read. You’ve done your old Dad proud.

Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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