Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dreams (and Archaic International Postcards) of My Father

cards 2
interior china yunghung
Fondest Wishes from our multinational conglomerate!

As I spend this Father's Day scanning in old family picturesi, I'm reflecting on my dad. One of the things I regret most is not just the usual “ I wish I'd spent more time with my father”. That's a given for any son, at some point or another. What I regret is I didn't spend more time talking to my parents about their lives before us. I knew my dad as a dad, but didn't have a lot of time to get to know him as an adult and a person. I knows bits and pieces, but not a lot of detail, partly because my father didn't spend a lot of time telling stories, and I didn't spend a lot of time asking. What I know from those days is cobbled together from the few stories I knew by heart and the debris he left behind.

dad young
portrait christmasdad young high
school prom picturedad high school guitar elvis lookdad young
ROTCjustin and dad
manure sign
Pieces of Dad: child, teen, young man, father.

Going back through the pictures of my parents' young married lives fundamentally changed my conception of our family. It put it in a new context. There was a time, miraculously enough, when my parents were pretty darn coolii. That makes me a smile a little, but also makes me realize how little I knew about them then, and how likely it is there are holes I'll never piece together now.

dad car
70'sMom with Ford
Mustang Convertible, 1967mom and day
honeymoon 1966mom and dad
vacation maine 1969
Dad and the Pontiac Straight 8, Mom and the Ford Mustang, Matching Sweaters on the Honeymoon, Sailing through the 60's

I could write a book's worth of reflection on that, but this is father's day, and it's dad I'm thinking about most right now. Before my parents moved to the North Country and took up residence in an absurdly large and decrepit farmhouse and grounds, dad was an international sales executive with a firm in Syracuse. It's a piece of his life I know very little about, and scanning their old pictures only deepens the mystery. Not that dad wasn't a professional in Watertown, but the Don Draper-esque pictures from the 60's and 70's in Syracuse portray a different person that the one I knew. Before the duties, both joys and hardships, of his life weighed so heavily on him.

dad work
dad work
ASHRAE 1973dad work
Cambridge 1973 2
Well-coiffed Men, Partying it Up, All Business

Among dad's stuffiii was a massive pile of Christmas cards from his clients and business associates from his international sales days. What struck me, other than the odd realization that dad's early days played out on an international level, was that the cards were such an odd mix of beauty on the outside and perfunctory business on the insideiv. Beautifully intricate Japanese scene graced cards from from “Mushiko and Company, ltd. a subsidiary of Mushiko Conglomerated” . They speak to a different time and business world, all very Mad Men. An austere facade of formal business, but what were the interactions of these men? What parts of my father did they know; the rural kid from upstate NY, the beanpole college boy, the young married, the well-coiffed businessman? These cards are just a frame; a specific vista without context. But more to the point, they're as much of a contradiction in some ways, as my conception of dad's life before and after the time I entered it. It's kind of an odd piece of the past-before-my-past that I may never really get to know. These cards obviously meant enough to keep all these years. Now they're just opaque windows...

cards 1
japancards 2
chinacards 3 taiwan
chinacards 4
interior pakistancards 4
pakistancards 5
greececards 6
bermudacards 6
bermuda interior
cards 7
germanycards 8
Indiacards 9
venezuelacards 10
thailand 2cards 10
thailandcards 11
koreacards 12 maybe
chinacards 11 korea
interiorcards 13
Japancards 14
Japancards 15
chinacards 16
Switzerlandcards 17 south
cards 18
swedencards 18 sweden interiorcards 19
koreacards 20
japancards 21
Japan, Korea, Greece, Portugal, China, Germany, Venezuela, Bermuda, Thailand, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.

I can't know how much dad was a different person then, or the same person I knew in a different skin. But like everything in life, context changes everything. I'm not really sure what made my dad move away from international clients and cocktail parties and seek a new start in a small firm in Northern NY. I know there are some dreams of his life I'll never know. For today, I'm content with being an archaeologist dusting off these cards, peering into them hoping to find some deeper understanding of an era.

iWhen my mom passed away, my sister and I took the family photos and agreed to scan them into digital versions. A pursuit which has been taking far more time than I expected...and a much different emotional impact as well. I had expected it to be bittersweet, emphasis on the bitter. It's hard to see the pictures without the shadow of subtext that mentally accompanies them. The stuff behind the smiles that you can't look at without it sinking like fishhooks into you. But honestly, the memories have been so clouded over for so long, that seeing some of the familiar childhood sights...well if not balancing, at least moves the mind in a sideways directions.
iiThat being a relative term. Obviously I think my parents were always cool in their own way, but in an absolute sense, they stopped being hip in a relative sense somewhere in the 1966-1970 time frame. My parents were alive and young swinging singles during one of the most turbulent time frames of the 20th century, but they checked out of youthness sometime around 1966. My parents never followed the Dead on tour, or probably ever smoked Marijuana in a VW bus. They wore matching sweater outfits on their honeymoon. My parents were early 60's cool. But while they were, they were. My dad drove a Pontiac straight 8 convertible, with mom as a mod ornament on his arm. All of their pictures from the late 60's have that sunlit, slightly corny early 60's aesthetic to them. In their defense, I'll take Don Draper-esque cocktail parties over Haight-Ashbury any day. Part of me is betting, however, some of our older family friends might read this and say, hah, let me tell you a story that will change your whole conception of your parents. Until then, this is the picture of my parents I've built.
iiiWhich also included a massive collection of matchbooks from seemingly every restaurant he ever went to. He spent a lot of time on the road, and over the years it added up to boxes of accidental fire waiting to happen. However it also was an oddly interesting journal of places and times.

ivOddly, in that way they're almost exactly the opposite of the dad I knew, to whom the confidant perfunctory business side was on the outside.   


Joel said...

I had a similar experience when my father's mother, who I only knew as a hard drinking, chain smoking withered old crone, passed away. My mom, aunt, and I were putting together a photo collage for the funeral and came across a black and white portrait of her in NYC in her twenties, in what must have been the late 1930s or early 1940s. She looked like a movie star, and I realized that I knew my grandmother, but didn't have any idea who the woman in the photo was at all and that it was too late to ask.

Justin Bower said...

My dad's dad is an even harder cypher to build a person around. He died in WWII, and his mom remarried. All I have are a bunch of pictures from right before the war and during, and all his medals and clippings after he was shot down. At least some of my parents friends are still around. I don't think there's anyone alive who knew my grandfather other than my grandmother.

~Kari~ said...

It was nice to see pictures of your dad. I remember him being gone on business trips a lot. How did your parents meet?

Justin Bower said...

I don't recall the specific instance other than she was dating someone else at the time, or had a date with someone else I think. He was a (senior?) at Clarkson and she was a (sophmore?) at Potsdam.

And yeah he was gone on business a lot.