In search of my father

Purple Clover, 2017

I hoped going through my father's boxes would help me understand him better. He was a strict Catholic and very critical when I came out as gay after college. He died in 1999 from a heart attack at 81, the same week I turned 50.

My mother and I sat at the dining room table of my childhood home in Paterson, New Jersey, sorting through cartons filled with his memorabilia. My father was a pack rat. Mom was in good shape for 94, but she didn't want to leave her three children with a mess of dusty boxes hauled from storage closets in a three story Victorian house that has been in my family for a century.

I was really desperate to find Dad's creative writing. My mother had promised me it was here somewhere. I knew he had penned some short stories before I was born and I was eager to know him as a young man. He stopped in his early 20s as he threw himself into his career as a high school English teacher and department head.

I opened a little box that contained his old-fashioned saxophone strap from when he played in a swing band in the Glenn Miller era. I ran my fingers along the cord, picturing my good-looking young father swaying in the horn section. Mom said I could keep it; I was the kid who insisted upon sax lessons, a deal cut so I'd continue piano under Dad's tutelage.

The living room still held the ancient upright piano where my father gave me lessons every Sunday after church. I'd sit on the bench with Dad on the couch while I played show tunes or Chopin. After practicing the assigned piece all week, I was relieved if I only hit one wrong note. I turned to see what he thought of my performance.

“That's not it,” he asserted. “Your timing is off. “Move over and I'll play it. Listen carefully. You don't have the time signature down right.”

I scooted to the side of the bench and Dad sat next to me. It really sounded like a waltz when he played it. I liked watching his hands. “Try it again,” he said, moving back to the couch.

My piano playing could never please him, so I quit after a few years and taught myself guitar and started writing songs. I ended up as a music reviewer for major outlets.

“I still miss him,” Mom said as we opened another crate. They were married 57 years.

I loved the story of my parents' courtship. My father was my mother's high school teacher in New Jersey. Francis Walter started dating Agnes Cooney right after she graduated. He was five years older, the pampered only son of a widow in a middle-class family. My practical mother was an Irish immigrant who didn't want to have a family with a struggling writer. Teaching offered security.

Dad played in the swing band while I was in elementary school, but he stopped writing before I entered the scene. I recalled the group had gigs every Saturday night. All he needed to do was show up with his sax and follow the charts. He advised the high school jazz band. Composing stories was a solitary activity with no guarantees.

“Did Dad ever submit anything?” I asked as we lifted yellowing folders from the boxes.

“I think so,” said Mom, “but he got discouraged.”

I certainly could relate to his frustration.

“Here it is,” said my mother, handing me several folders with my father's typewritten manuscripts. “I knew it was in here somewhere.”

I felt like I discovered buried treasure as I held the pieces: his short stories, a humorous essay, a one act play, even a rejection letter from 1941.

That night, I sat at my dining table in my Greenwich Village loft with a glass of white wine. I hoped I would not find anything upsetting, like when I read his late-life journals after he died. During his retirement, Dad started keeping a daily journal, a log of events. I stopped reading when I saw he prayed for me to return to the Catholic Church.

I opened the folders and started to devour his early work. I appreciated my father's playing with word choices on handwritten first drafts, his tiny script, so small and precise. As I saw typos crossed out and final drafts in carbon copies, I had new respect for him composing in the eras before computers.

The content struck me as the literary equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting. But I imagine he was aiming for the folksy short stories published in then popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. His short story “Reunion at Christmas” described a dying woman praying to see her son who was missing in World War I. On her death bed, she saw an apparation of him. Then her caretakers saw muddy boot prints in the room and wondered if his spirit really had visited.

I had no idea my father believed the dead could contact the living. I imagine he longed to meet his own father, who died suddenly three months before he was born. Dad once told me not knowing this man was his greatest tragedy. I thought this loss made my father distant. He had no male role model at home.

In the short story and in a one-act play, the theme was that hope gave people the strength to keep going from day to day. What was my father wishing for when he was a young man? The nuns thought he'd become a priest but he told my mother he wanted to create a happy family.

Another theme was that looks are deceiving. His story “Subway Station” recounted the chance meeting of two men who'd gone to college together. They bumped into each other waiting for a train. One was dressed sharply, indicating he was doing well as he headed to a party. Then he got on the subway car and exited for his job—walking around wearing a sandwich board sign reading “Dress Clothes for All Occasions, Sale or Hire.” So the man in the expensive suit was a fake—he wore borrowed clothes and had a low-paying job.

Over the years, I heard people call my father handsome. He was tall, thin, with wavy hair, blue eyes. My aunt said he resembled Paul Newman. Now I pondered if how he looked on the outside did not fit how he felt on the inside. I guessed he had mixed feeling about being judged for his appearance, something superficial, instead of his good character and intelligence. Maybe he wondered if people really liked him or just wanted to hang out with him because of his looks.

Did he feel inside like the sandwich board man? Impoverished, emotionally deprived, because he lacked a father. My father was an anxious person who had to pray all the time. Did he feel like he was wearing a borrowed suit? That was the way I felt before I came out.

While growing up, I knew Dad was a religious fanatic. He went to mass and communion daily. Most devout Catholics (like Mom), only went on Sunday. But I was surprised to see his handwritten drafts had the sign of the cross and the letters JMJ for “Jesus Mary Joseph.” The nuns in my grammar school in the 1950s taught us this header but we'd all dropped it by the time we got to Catholic high school. Dad still used it as an adult. He wanted God to bless his work.

“Driving Delights” was a humorous essay about annoying habits of drivers. I agreed with Dad's notes on his early draft: too long, be terse, keep examples, needs better intro, better transitions. Like him, I make up funny essays about things that annoy me.

I was astonished at the fast snail-mail reply of a rejection letter to him—a three-day turn around. I was intrigued by his themes. Mostly I was disappointed my father didn't continue.

“He had too much going on with teaching, playing in the band, then you kids came along,” explained my mother when I probed. “Not enough time.”

Although my father enjoyed his distinguished career in education, I wondered if he regretted that he stopped being a scribe. I'm glad he lived to see my bylines appear on The New York Times op-ed page. I knew he was proud, buying and saving numerous copies and calling to congratulate me. After he retired at 66, he volunteered as the pianist at weekly church services. But he never went back to his typewriter. I like to think he lived out his publishing dreams through me.

My parents' belief that “it's too hard to make a living as a writer” was a legacy I inherited. When I was in college majoring in English and publishing reviews in an alternative weekly, they insisted I take education courses “to have something to fall back upon.” It was good advice and I spent my life juggling two careers: teaching and writing. I've struggled to go further than my father by becoming a book author .

I never gave up. I sold my first book when I was a senior citizen. An avid reader, Dad would be proud that my work is in the New York Public Library. I kept going for him.