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