Two Decades After His Death, I Finally Understand My Conflicted Father
My father’s hands were rough as sandpaper. His clothes smelled of paint thinner, gasoline, and developing fluid. He was a mechanic and design engineer. A musician. A photographer. An artist.
I never knew which version of my father to believe. Stories toppled on top of each other like the jars of nails and screws cluttering his garage worktable. He knew everything. . .and nothing. He had been everywhere. . . and nowhere. He read voraciously, especially when he wanted to disappear. He had an extended family back east that we never visited. Two mysterious ex wives. Down in his garage workshop, he refinished pianos and furniture. His second job. It was a place he receded to when the responsibilities of domestic life crowded in on him. It was also where he hid a great deal of himself from me. Where he kept mementos of a history I didn’t understand. A child’s violin. Curling photographs of nameless women in uniform. Stacks of books about WWII. A hissing radio tuned to big band music.
The only child of Hungarian and Prussian immigrants, my father grew up in New York. For most of his young life he lived with his parents in the servants quarters of a sprawling Long Island home where his father was the chauffeur, his mother the cook. When he was old enough, he was sent to a Catholic military school, which he loathed. His disdain for the Catholic church followed him into adulthood. A fact I was well aware of, since all my childhood friends went to Catholic school. Whenever I came home and regurgitated their proclamations, my father pounded his fist on our formica table and stomped off to the garage, muttering words I wasn’t supposed to know.
Add to my father’s complicated life, war. A war that took him across the North Atlantic to Iceland during WWII. On his voyage, he witnessed cruelties that haunted him his whole life. One involved the sinking of a troopship. On board were women as well as soldiers. There were not enough lifeboats for the men and the women so the order was given to sacrifice the women. To save the men for war. My father’s ship circled back to look for survivors and found the frozen bodies of dozens of women bobbing in the water. I heard that story from the back hall of my parents’ house. Standing in the dark, I listened to my father choke up as he relayed it to a neighborhood college student doing research on the war. Over and over he told her she couldn’t include that incident in her paper because it was still classified. Probably would stay classified.
“See, they were just girls. Out there in the middle of the ocean. I don’t know why they were out there. Jesus Christ, why were they out there?”
Many years later, when I tried to validate that story, I was told all records of troopship crossings during WWII were intentionally destroyed by our government. At first, I was angry and frustrated that all evidence was gone. Now I realize, it doesn’t matter.
Two decades after his death, I finally understand the stranger who was my father. Although he fabricated much about his life, I never doubted the validity of that story. Because I heard it that day, many years ago, from the back hall of my parents 1950s ranch home. In the quivering voice of my aging father. I heard his truth, his fear, his torment.
And I believe him.