I reached for my father’s hand as he lay in his hospital bed. Sensing his unease, I quickly let go. It was my last attempt at intimacy. He died several days later, maintaining the distance between us to the end.
I arrived in my father’s life as part of a double surprise, the elder of boy twins. Nine months earlier, he lost his seat as a congressman from New York and my mother accompanied him to Washington to close his office. They were the parents of two daughters. He was forty-three, she forty. I suspect that my father thought his begetting days were done.
My mother made no secret that we were conceived in a hotel close to the White House. She disliked the way politics kept our father away from home and the public scrutiny she felt it brought them both. Less than disappointed by his loss, she considered herself blessed rather than burdened by our arrival.
For my father, a passionate Democrat and rising star, his defeat had to be a crushing blow. But I never heard my father mention it. Glad, sad, or otherwise, he never discussed his emotions with me or, as far as I know, anyone else. As for sex, he shunned any mention to the point my mother once teased him, “Do you want your children to think they were conceived by the milkman?”
In the opening days of the post-war era, when a returning army of youthful G.I.s coached and encouraged their ball-playing sons, my father was an anomaly. Too old to serve in the war, he preferred homburgs to baseball caps. Instead of spending Saturdays on the playing field, he retired to his room to read. On Sundays after Mass, he tackled the crossword.
Any time we spent together was usually at my mother’s insistence. He took us to an occasional ball game at the Polo Grounds, or to the Bronx Zoo, or schlepped us to the Museum of Natural History, where we spent listless Saturday afternoons wandering among stuffed bison and dinosaur bones. Wherever we went, he was half-present, orbiting in his own mental sphere and landing in places that made him appear more grieved than distracted.
My brother and I attended the same schools he had. Lackluster students, we were inevitably—and unfavorably—measured against his star performance. He made no secret of his disappointment. Try as we might, his approval seemed out of reach. The best we could do was avoid his displeasure. “I don’t know if any man was ever less thrilled at having twin boys,” my mother said.
My father’s father was an Irish immigrant. Still in his teens, uneducated and unskilled, he paid his way west stoking coal on the railroad. He tried his hand at professional boxing, joined the labor movement, and became an itinerant union organizer. Eventually, he came back east, apprenticed as a coppersmith, married, and had a daughter. He fled to Cuba after his wife died, returned to New York, and married my grandmother.
My father never knew his father had a first wife or that his sister was his half-sister until informed by my grandfather from his deathbed. “I hope you won’t use that to cheat your sister out of what’s coming to her,” he said.
I never met my grandfather. But I have pictures of him. In one, he is seated on a horse at the head of New York City’s Labor Day Parade. In another, his laborer’s build is on display—thick, broad shoulders and Popeye-sized forearms. In contrast, my father as a young man had a dancer’s build. Tall, thin, a jaunty dresser, he was of a type his father’s generation disparagingly referred to as “narrowbacks,” those liberated by American birth and Jazz Age mobility from a lifetime of digging and hauling.
Afraid my grandmother was spoiling their youngest child into a “mama’s boy,” my grandfather occasionally brought my father along on his union-organizing expeditions. On one trip, my father remembered being surrounded by a menacing crowd furious with what his father had to say. Unintimidated, he continued with his speech.
My father enjoyed telling stories about his father’s exploits in Cuba, where he found himself caught up in the Spanish-American War, and the time the Pinkertons threatened his life when he was organizing a strike. In my father’s telling, there was a heroic aura about my grandfather that made him sound to me more like a character out of a novel than an intimate part of my father’s life.
There was also a hardness that could cross into the cruel. When my father was just five or six, he took him to a pier in Coney Island and threw him off. The lesson was simple. The weak went under. The strong taught themselves how to survive. My father never said how long he flailed helplessly in the water or how terrified he was that his father would walk away.
Deeply attached to his mother, my father never spoke of his parents’ relationship. Nor did he ever hint at the resentment he must have felt when his father disdained his ambitions to be an actor and pushed him into politics.
It’s easy to theorize that the distance between my father and me owed itself in part to a pattern of emotional repression that reached back generations through grim, unsparing annals of poverty, oppression, and famine. Hard countries breed hard men.