Editor's Note: This article ran in The Davis Enterprise on Father's Day, June 20, 1993. It appears here on Father's Day, June 18, 2017.
This Fathers' Day will be different. This year I will allow myself to think about my father. He died more than 20 years ago [circa 1993, 44 years in 2017], two years after graduating from college. I shed no tears.
At the time of his death, we hadn't lived under the same roof for eight years, since he and my mother were divorced. I accepted the family myth that he was totally and unequivocally the bad guy in the divorce -- an irresponsible drinker and womanizer.
In the last years of his life I didn't see him more than a half-dozen times. We met once for coffee. We talked a few times on the phone. He sent me one or two rambling letters. He send me a dictionary when I was a student at Hiram College in Ohio.
In the summer of 1973, my aunt called to tell me that he died of a heart attack in a second-rate hotel in Chicago, where he'd been living since the divorce.
Only a few people attended his funeral service and burial. It was a sad end to an unhappy relationship and I set about putting his memory behind me as deliberately as I could.
As the years went by, I was concerned with my own career. I moved to California. When I turned 30 I realized that if I'd ever wanted to write about my dysfunctional family, it was too late. All primary sources, grandparents and parents, were gone. Let others talk and write of the way things might have been. I adopted another approach, which consisted mainly of forgetting the past and getting on with my life.
This seemed to work fairly effectively until earlier this year when I got a letter from my father's best friend, a man I hadn't known existed. The man, Bob Matthews, now a resident of Michigan for many years, found me through a cousin who still lives in Chicago.
Matthews wrote a short note introducing himself. I wrote back. Our correspondence grew more detailed. He explained that he had wondered for years what had happened to his old friend and I explained what happened: divorce, alcoholism and death.
I learned that Matthews and my father were best friends in grammar school the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, Ill., and at new Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.
“He had the very unique gift of making you feel better for having known him,” Matthews said. “I only met one or two people like that in my life.”
He told me that he and my father bought a 1924 four-cylinder Chrysler for $10 in 1938. It was their pride and joy.
He recalled the time that my father took a date to the Edgewater Beach Hotel for a very fancy dance.
He pulled up at the front door, hopped out, and instructed the doorman just to twist the ignition wires together – it never did have a key – and further explained that the crank was in the back seat. These jaunty directions were not of course accompanied by a tip of any kind.
Then came the war. Matthews joined the Navy, my father was a Marine fighter pilot. After the war, my father was an usher at Matthews' 1948 wedding in Kalamazoo.
But, then they drifted apart.
“I got a call from your dad out of the blue in the late ‘60s,” Matthews wrote. "He said he needed help. I came to Chicago to see him."
The problem was my father was broke. He borrowed money from his old friend and promised to pay it back. He never did. A few years later, my father died.
I wrote to Matthews and told him what had happened to my father and what I’d learned about the disease of alcoholism and how I’d come to terms with it. Blame isn’t part of the solution.
“Your letter made me feel so much better about your Dad,” he replied. “For not knowing what had happened to him preyed on my mind.
“My last recollection of him was so sad. I knew then enough about alcoholics to know that I couldn’t help him. On the other hand, had he turned to me as a last resort and had I let him down?”
As I think about it now, the answer is clear.
No, Bob, you didn’t let him down. Thank you for being the best kind of friend to my father – the kind that never forgets.
It helps me to be reminded that my father was many things, including a fun-loving kid and your best friend. That’s what I’ll remember on this Fathers' Day.
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at firstname.lastname@example.org
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