I’ve heard that the last words my father said to my mother were, “I don’t mind dying because I’ve never really lived.” He died shortly after, at 67.
It’s said the biggest impact upon children is the unlived lives of the parents. I’m posting this short piece on Father’s Day about a mystery from his childhood that I’m seeking to unravel and write about. And, especially, to learn how my father’s own “unlived life” and traumas have shaped and coursed through my own. Here it goes:
I’m somewhere in my pre-teens, sitting in the kitchen on summer afternoon, while I consume a bowl of ice cream – my favorite, real lemon, the kind you don’t find anymore these days. My father and I had just brought it home from a local dairy and I didn’t waste any time getting to it. Meanwhile, my father had sat down and poured himself a glass of port wine. I’d tasted it once back then, and immediately disliked it. I asked him why he drank something so unpleasant. He joked, “Keeps you warm during the winter, when the snow is piled high and you’re freezing your ass off! Had to do that, working on the railroad up in Regina, Saskatchewan,” he added.
“What?” Isn’t that in Canada?” “Yeop,” he said, in that slightly French-tinged accent he carried from his earliest years in far-upstate New York. He went on to say that he gone up to Canada and hopped freight trains, back when he was about 14 or 15. And that was right after he fled from the orphanage in Massachusetts he’d been deposited in a few years earlier by his father and new stepmother. He described it as a place ruled by punitive nuns -- and their sometimes hidden consorts of priests.
The backstory was that his real mother had died when he was just one year old, after she fell down the stairs, pregnant again. His father remarried a widow to raise the several children, but a few years later she died also. Then, he married a younger woman and moved down to Whitehall, NY, away from family’s upstate town of Altona. All the older siblings had left by then, leaving just my father and the young wife. Apparently, she didn’t want to raise him; became pregnant, and persuaded her husband – my grandfather, who died a few years later - to dump the remaining kid.
So, my father continued on with story, pausing for another sip of wine. He said, almost casually, that he decided to run away from the orphanage and make his way up to Canada, to hop freight trains across the country. He told me that he rode the rails all the way to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then to Regina, Saskatchewan. He didn’t say whether he was just setting out on an adventure, like a hobo; or was looking for work – and at that young age? It didn’t occur to me to ask.
Actually, It wasn’t until after his death that I began asking, why did he do that? And was his story even true? He recounted the story of his travels a few times. Usually when he had more than a few beers, or some wine. Then, he’d segue into a rare reflection of his younger years, especially about his first stepmother. I always felt uncomfortable when he did that, because I knew that he would soon begin to cry. It was predictable; triggered by the same memory: His stepmother frequently gave him, the youngest, a thick slice of bread with syrup as a secret treat. The only other time I recall seeing him cry was when he came home from work one afternoon, and described seeing a car plow through a red light at an intersection and run over a traffic cop there – which killed him instantly. You can imagine that the traumas underlying the small leakages of emotion must have been pretty powerful, and he kept them locked away, somewhere
Eventually, though, the story about the Canadian trip faded into the recesses of my memory. But it resurfaced later, after he died and I sought to learn more about my Quebec ancestors; why one of them, my great-grandfather, brought his wife and children across the border into New York in the 1860s. Questions about how and why people do as they do – what the myriad of circumstances and life experiences are that impel them to what they do – had always intrigued me. I especially loved reading a series of children’s biographies of famous people -- explorers, historical figures, scientists. It was always easy to spot one that I hadn’t yet read on the school’s library shelves, because they had bright orange covers.
As my father’s story about his train-hopping across Canada after fleeing the orphanage came back to mind, it renewed my desire to know what it was all about. I decided to ask my older siblings, all of whom were more than a decade older than me, what they knew or remembered.
Their responses were strange: They had no memory of hearing about his train trip at that young age. One of my sisters thought she had heard him say that he had gone to Kansas, looking for work, before he married our mother. But Canada? Hopping a freight train? Nope. Had I had conflated it or confused it with something else? Had he just made up an entertaining story to tell me, and liked to repeat it sometimes?
The questions answered themselves one rainy weekend afternoon, as I looked through some old family photos and documents. Folders of writings, documents, and scrapbooks of clippings about my father – mostly about his work having organized and lead the labor union at his factory. My mother had given all of that to me after he died. I hadn’t dug very deeply into what was there. But that day, I did.
Some small items, buried among other documents, caught my eye: Two postcards and two small photos. The postcards were sent by him to one of his sisters who was living in New Hampshire. I had no idea how these postcards ended up in that folder. But on one of them, he wrote that he was out west, and would send her an address as soon as he had one, if he stayed longer.
It was postmarked Winnipeg. The other was postmarked from Minneapolis, but on it he had written that he was headed down to Chicago, from Saskatchewan. Of the two small photos, one was of him standing in the snow along the train tracks. “Regina” was written on the back. In the other photo, he’s sitting along the tracks in the snow. It was labeled “Winnipeg.”
So, the story was true! Judging by the dates on the postcards, he would have been 14 or 15. And the scene did look like it would “freeze your ass off,” as I recall him saying so long ago.
What propelled him to run away from the orphanage? Where did he go? And what drove him to hop the rails across Canada, at that young age? That’s forever unknown. More than that, how did that shape his life, his sense place in the world; his desires and ambitions? I knew that he had been taken in by an older sister and her husband in Albany, and lived with them for a time; that he sold newspapers on the street near the State Capital. And that he did other odd jobs until he lied about his age to get hired by the large chemical factory that sprawled across the eastern side of the Hudson River from Albany. He was 18 at that point, and the factory required employees to be 21, but somehow he talked his way into a job. A few years later he met the young woman who would become his wife, and became the father of four children.
Why did he decide to organize the local of the Chemical Workers Union, which elected him President for 10 terms, and which was often dangerous, especially at strike time. Why did he embrace the accusations that he was a Communist, and enjoy tweaking management by, for example, distributing “subversive” writings of Freud and Spinoza to workers. When told to cease, he went to NLRB and won the case.
An uneducated, but street-smart, politically astute man, he must have had many dreams and longings for a life that perhaps appeared out of reach. He certainly masked unspoken traumas with his forceful manner and colorful humor. A natural leader, with an outwardly cheerful spirit, he was totally fixed on providing for the family, but didn’t really know how to be a father. He enjoyed sitting in a grove of trees, drinking his beer, and writing small tracts; often for speeches he gave to the workers. Over the years he put on too much weight, smoked, ate poorly…and seemed to gradually give up. Perhaps he resigned to what felt like struggle-filled, unfulfilled personal life. And that may be what he was feeling when he spoke those final words to my mother.