My father, James Franklin Charles Michael, was born on October 25, 1929 in Reading, PA right on the verge of the Great Depression. He was the first of two children. His parents, like almost everyone else during the Great Depression, struggled to make a living. When my father’s little brother Joseph, or Uncle Josie as I came to know him, came along, my father was handed off to his grandparents (his father’s parents) to raise temporarily so that each household shared the fiscal responsibility of only one child. I am told that during the Great Depression this was not the most uncommon of practices, and it does make logical sense when one knows that the grandparents were much better off than the parents and little felt the effects of the economic downturn that was to grip America until World War II. My father James, or Jimmy, wanted for nothing during this time – nice clothes, music lessons, elaborate birthday parties complete with pony rides – except for the love and attention of his parents. But for reasons that were never made fully clear, neither to me nor more especially to my father, the arrangement became permanent. My father never went home again to stay, and he never forgot that his parents had given him away all the while keeping his brother.

Years went by. My father was a very successful musician, his brother a very successful Cadillac mechanic. The Great Depression ended, the extended family members never stopped communicating with one another. When I was born both my father’s parents and grandmother were still alive. My father’s mother had become agoraphobic, allegedly the end result of being unable to reclaim her firstborn from her in-laws. On one visit shortly after I was born she frantically cautioned my mother, “Don’t let her steal your baby the way she stole mine!” My parents let me visit my great-grandmother with frequency, but the threat of becoming a permanent resident was never an option. According to both my parents, on one visit my great-grandmother did say, “You can go now. I’m keeping him,” to which my mother replied, “Like hell you are,” and the threat quickly dissipated never to return.

In 1999, the year before my father’s death, as his health was starting to fail, he also started to open up about his past. He had lived a full life, but regretted a lot, much of which he never shared. The biggest questions on his mind as a sixty-nine year old:

Why hadn’t his parents loved him enough to come back for him when the Great Depression ended? Why hadn’t they put the family back together? Did they just love Josie better than him?

He had never gotten a successful answer during his lifetime and it still haunted him the year before his death more than anything else.

I don’t think my grandparents or great-grandparents were bad people, quite the opposite. My dad’s parents did what they thought was necessary to survive during a national crisis and my father’s parents being better off were willing to help out, as it should be. None of that was ill-intentioned. But then something else happened: some people in the situation – my grandfather and his parents – got comfortable with the arrangement and didn’t consider how others affected by the situation felt. Perhaps my grandfather just assumed that my father had a better life with my great-grandparents (which was true from one viewpoint) and left well enough alone; we’ll never know. But if my grandmother’s recollections are to be believed, she had no say in retrieving her son, a decision that must have been made against her wishes and was supported by her husband and his parents. She was outnumbered and slipped into mental illness as a result. My father had nothing but praise for his grandparents; they treated him better than anyone in his position could have been treated during the Depression. It was his own parents, especially his father, whom he questioned and to some extent resented.

My father had a full life, but there’s no question in my mind that he went to his grave haunted by the actions of his parents that he couldn’t reconcile with his own worthiness, and that they (especially his father) never chose to explain, account for, or even fully comprehend. It’s also true that my father never really confronted his parents about his upbringing, that was not really in his character either and, again, he had not been mistreated, quite the reverse. He just knew that something didn’t feel right and he couldn’t make sense of it. And by the time he had the courage to question or confront it the moment had passed, life had moved own, and his parents and grandparents were dead. The unintentional damage was permanently done.

So on this Father’s Day as my little boy, John Adams, is about to turn two I just wanted to take a moment to remind myself to say “I Love You” to my son as much as possible; to bear in mind that all my actions affect my son, and that those actions can have a lasting effect on his mind and character for years and years to come; to never give him a reason to think that I don’t love him with my whole heart, for I do.

And as for my own father, I hope that he has reunited with his parents and reconciled with his past. I hope he has found his answers and by way of them found peace. And that he knows that here on earth there are many people who still remember him and love him for who he was.

I Love You, Dad.

Happy Father’s Day All

Dad in 1997

Dad in 1997

What Makes a Family?

On June 10, a friend of mine, Ellie, shared a blog post on her Facebook that she said made her “sad.” The post, No, Your Dog Is Not Your “Baby” — Saying That Is An Insult To Moms by Elizabeth Broadbent can be found at this link for those of you who desire a personal glance:


In the post Ms Broadbent compares raising a dog to raising a baby and finds that there is no comparison. After a string of examples she concludes with the following words:

“Say you love your dogs. Say they make your life worth living. Say they’re your one-and-only. Call yourself a dog person. But don’t call your dog a baby. Don’t call him your ‘furkid’ or ‘furbaby’. Because baby, it’s not even close.”

Though I don’t share her opinion, it’s not my intention to take Ms. Broadbent to task (hundreds and hundreds of angry responders have already done so), but rather to share two examples from my own life where the species of the family member was really not the yardstick by which we measured how much we could love each other.

When I was quite young, for about three or four years, we had a Great Dane named Max. Max was a black Dane with a beautiful white star on his chest and an even more beautiful disposition. We were inseparable and he and I all too briefly were the best of friends. I used to lie on Max’s belly and watch television, and he would sleep in my bed during thunderstorms. He was protective and kind and I sometimes think he thought I was his boy. In a way I was. Max developed cancer of the back end but as a child I was left unawares of this by my parents. One Sunday my mother and I were sitting in church while the minister droned on about some such and in a moment that I can’t explain I leaned over to my mother, said, “Max is gone,” and continued to not listen to the sermon. When we arrived home we discovered my father weeping in the garage over a blanket, under which lay the deceased Max. I can’t explain what happened in church that day other than to say that Max loved me and I loved him and before he crossed over the Rainbow Bridge he dropped by the church to say goodbye. We were, after all, family.


In December of 2010 I lost another great love of my life, a Russian Blue cat named Ivan that I often refer to as my “first born.” Ivan and I shared life together for twenty years – literally half of my life up to that point – and were for large parts of it inseparable. Ivan had wandered into my father’s music classroom at Conestoga Valley High School around 1990, a kitten straight off an adjacent breeder’s farm. When my father tried to return the kitten the breeder remarked that he would just drown him as Ivan had been born impure (he had faint white rings on his tail signifying tabby blood), and as such his life had no value. Enraged my father stormed off, cat in hand, and Ivan became officially a member of our family. Ivan and I had twenty years to play together, laugh together, eat together. We romped in and out of the house; he briefly stayed with me at my first apartment; he moved with me to Virginia when my mother went into a retirement home. In October of 2010 it became apparent that Ivan’s kidneys were failing. For the next few months Nancy and I gave him subcutaneous injections of IV fluids to keep his kidneys from shutting down. He grew weaker and weaker and it became evident by Christmas that he had had enough and was ready to cross over. On December 27, after days of round the clock watches, my mother, Nancy, and I went out for a rare breakfast. We returned home to find Ivan in our bed, but gone. He had wanted to cross over with dignity and wanted to do it without us present. Ivan is never far from my mind and often when I think about my own time to cross over he is the first face I envision seeing.


I do pity Ms. Broadbent. I think her blog was wrongheaded though well-intentioned; I just don’t think she thought it through. We live in an age where far too many people are making a cottage industry out of telling others who they should love and what that relationship should be. Her remarks about not calling pets “fur babies” strike a broader chord in our culture. Who is she, or for that matter anyone, to decide how you or I will love and how we will choose to label that relationship? For many people a pet is all they have, all they can afford, or all they know. Rather than wasting time trying to define the rightness or wrongness of the relationship and its labeling, perhaps we should all just be thankful that within the diversity of life on this planet there are other species that want to cohabitate with us. And some of them, some very special ones of them, become family.

RIP Max and Ivan

I’ll be seeing you again

A Visit with the Hermione

On June 5 my family and I drove to Yorktown, VA to catch the arrival of the Hermione, or L’Hermione, as it is known in its country of origin. This wholly new reconstruction of the 1779 frigate, seventeen years in the making, had just sailed from France and will be conducting a multi-city tour of the United States over the next several weeks before heading to Nova Scotia and then finally home. Made famous for ferrying the Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic on his second trip to America to herald the arrival of the French fleet during the American Revolution, the original Hermione holds a special if albeit largely forgotten place in U. S. history that this new Hermione seeks to restore more front and center to American consciousness.

Though we were delayed by an open drawbridge and therefore unable to attend the initial arrival in port and the firing of cannons in its honor, we did nonetheless arrive at the Yorktown waterfront in time to hear the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, make his welcome and opening remarks to the captain, crew, and dignitaries that oversaw the voyage. The waterfront park was beset with demonstrations of shipbuilding, makeshift museum displays on Lafayette, the original Hermione, and the American Revolution, park service kiosks, and food vendors; and overrun with re-enactors, some from Colonial Williamsburg, some not. By the time we were able to tour the ship (3 PM), John Adams was a little over the experience, but bore up well as we hoisted him up the rickety ladder to see this piece of history come alive.


The new ship adorned with faux cannon, fleur-de-lis, a lion figurehead, and a striking yellow and blue paint job is nothing short of marvelous. Though visitors were only allowed on deck (the tour is free after all), newsreel and internet footage shows the crew living in relatively proximate conditions to the 18th century. There are some modern conveniences such as state of the art navigational equipment and two 400-horsepower engines in the event of no wind, but for the most part all things modern are carefully concealed so as to leave the impression that this is an antique sailing vessel newly restored, rather than a lovingly crafted copy of the original.

I can’t stress enough the importance I place on shared cultural or historical experiences like these. Like Colonial Williamburg, or Mt. Vernon, or many others, seeing the Hermione was an opportunity to touch a piece of the past (albeit an impressively reconstructed one), to immerse oneself in a piece of history, to learn, to grow, and to get excited about something other than what modern culture or social media have to offer next. In this case it was probably a once in a lifetime experience for us as a family. And that’s the other part of the day that gets me so excited about it. The Hermione is here in the United States for only a brief time and then she’ll be gone. She may be back again someday, but for the time being the window is narrow and therefore the seeing of her is extra special. For my part, I know that Nancy and I created a unique memory with our son that was fun, educational, free, and definitely worth our time. And we bought the T-shirts! I would encourage anyone else who is able and so inclined to do the same.

If you’re interested in seeing her while she’s in the U.S. here’s their website with scheduling and lots more information: