I am going through your things, Dad, and there is the black and white Kodak picture with the curly edges, me on Thunder, just a Sunday morning at the pony rides.
Oh Daddy, please take me for a pony ride; please, Daddy, wake up; it’s Sunday morning; let’s go; you promised to take me to the pony rides. Daddy, can I please have riding lessons; Aunt Louise said she’d take me when she takes Shelly; it’s only once a week, okay, Daddy? I got straight As again, Dad, so that’s $5 each, right? Dad, look at these cool new shoes I got at the store on the ship Mommy and Cathy and I took to France this summer. Hey Dad, can we go to a Broadway play for my birthday this year; thanks, Dad; and can I bring four of my friends, too; thanks. Dad, will you get tickets for me and AnnaMarie to the David Bowie concert, the Elton John concert, Beach Boys, Chicago, Frampton, Three Dog Night, the Steve Miller Band. Cool; thanks, Dad.
* * *
When I was a child, and even through most of my teenage years, even when I was convinced he was a hopelessly old-fashioned dolt, my father seemed to be able to get anything done. Tickets to any event. The son of a friend out of a parking ticket. A nephew out of jail. A new toy every store was sold out of. Broken stuff fixed, in the house, car, factory. In touch with someone important, maybe even famous. The back story. The back way to get somewhere. The right thing to say. How to convince someone to do, or make, or arrange something they didn’t want to do or make or arrange. Reservations, when every seat or room or table or flight was booked and had been booked for months. The right amount to tip. Which person to tip, and the way to fold the bill and when to offer it and how.
* * *
I am going through your things, Dad, and here is the canceled check for Poco that I mounted sloppily once and gave you with a big THANKYOU written across it. Remember? Mom said we can afford a horse now, Dad, so please can I; you said maybe one day. Dad, can we take Laurie on the trip to Florida so I’ll have someone to hang out with; oh thanks, Dad. Can Laurie come to Bermuda, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, everywhere? That’s great, Dad. Dad, I’m going to need a better horse, my trainer says so, so how about it, I want to go to the better horse shows. Oh, about $6000 I think. Dad, can I go to drama camp, take acting lessons in New York City on Saturdays, go to modeling school, get a summer job at your friend’s newspaper? Hey, Dad, it’s time for another horse; I’m getting better, my trainer says. Around $8,000.
* * *
I recall having a sense that no matter what terrible thing might happen, or threaten to happen, it was okay, because my father would be able to fix it, smooth things over, make it right. He knew, it seemed at the time, everyone. Important, influential people. Or he knew how to get to them. Anything, everything, could be worked out. I was in awe of this ability, and of course, I abused it. Tickets to rock concerts I was not even that interested in going to, but I knew that being able to get four tickets at the last moment would make me, at least momentarily, a certain kind of popular.
* * *
I’m going through your things, Dad, and here is the letter I wrote you from college. That was the college for me, Dad, one of the best for what I want to do. Dad, I’m going to need a new car to drive around in the snow up there. Can my horse come, too; there’s a stable not far from campus. I want to live in the apartments junior year, Dad; please, it’s not that much more. Hey Dad, thanks for the necklace, the Giants tickets, the Amex card. I’m doing great in the horse shows Dad, and Eddie thinks it’s time for the next level horse. Maybe twelve grand or so.
* * *
In 1975, when I was editor of the newspaper in high school, and a football fan, and at the time harbored dreams of becoming a sportswriter for the New York Times, I pressed my father to arrange an in-person interview for me with NFL superstar Roger Staubach, the popular, successful, dashing quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, when the team was in New York City to play against the Giants. Because my father and Staubach were both major donors to the same Dallas-based charity, and because one of my father’s Texas polyester buddies knew Staubach socially, the favor was arranged. With tape recorder in tow, I met Staubach in a conference room of a Manhattan hotel for an hour, during which he patiently and politely answered my questions (hatched with my brother’s help the night before), signed an autograph, and kissed me on the cheek.
It was not until many years later that I gave a thought to how many return favors—or concessions on a future fabric deal—this may have cost my father. It was not until I was working in public relations and had occasion to schedule NFL players for media interviews in connection to charity appearances, and Olympic athletes for appearances in connection with sponsorship endorsements, that I thought about the imposition this had to have been on Staubach’s time on the day before an important game with a tough rival. It was not until many years later that I even thought of this day at all as having been made possible through equal parts childish entitlement, parental love, and gentlemanly good manners. I am sure I never said thank you to my father, anyway.
* * *
I’m going through your things, Dad, and here is the program from that big horse show with Cool Shoes’s name in it. Dad, I want to show horses and do freelance writing for a few years. But I need to do it with a different trainer, a better trainer, in Southern California, okay? I’ll just get a small apartment near the beach, if you’ll help. To do this right, I’ll need a second horse. I think about sixteen thousand. But the East Coast winter horse show circuit is better so I also need to go to West Palm Beach, Tampa, Jacksonville, Ocala. I’ll pay for gas and food; you take care of the trainer, hotels, entry fees, transportation, farrier, vet.
I’m writing for the equestrian magazines, Dad; it doesn’t pay much, but I’ve got lots of clips. Dad, I’m going to sell that second horse; do you want the money, or can I put it toward expenses? I’m moving to New York, Dad; got a writing job, but apartments are so expensive; can you help with the rent; I’ll need about $150 extra a month, OK?
Daddy, we’re getting married. Would I rather have $25,000 instead of a big wedding—ha! Very funny! No, we want a wedding; thanks, Dad. I found the gown of my dreams, Rolls Royce limousines, the house of our dreams. The bank wants 8 percent interest on the mortgage, Dad. You would; five percent? Oh Dad, that would be great; yes, we will: a check every month just like we were paying a bank.
* * *
I did not understand the limits of my father’s street smarts, skillful networking, and possibly his ease with the art of subtle manipulation, until my 30s when I was completely preoccupied with my own everything, and he was then in his late 60s and I noticed that he was unable to put together the newest business deals he and my brother were counting on. About 20 years before, he had purchased a huge parcel of empty land on an outlying feeder highway 10 miles from the Las Vegas strip, hoping to one day develop it into a resort, certain that the future would be all about casinos aimed at local residents and moderate income tourists.
Stymied by crushing costs of pre-development, working in a city where his influence cast a much shorter shadow than back in northern New Jersey, and operating in an arena far removed from the handshake world of textiles, he floundered, and finally accepted an offer to sell the land, and while he more than tripled his initial investment, I often wondered if the checks which arrived each month (my father had acted as mortgagor for the new owner), had been a too-frequent reminder of a certain kind of failure.
Always pragmatic on the surface, he said he was glad to be out from under the property tax burden and the never-ending development drama. When the business pages reported a half-dozen years after he’d sold the land that the most valuable development properties in Clark County were those lying on the perimeter along the gateway highways, I used to think I saw in his eyes something close to vindication, something closer to regret, some sadness—a loss of something.
* * *
I am going through your things, Dad, and we are finding so many crisp twenties and folded hundreds in books and drawers and papers—so many papers—with numbers on them that we have to make lists Dad of where it all is, how much is there. And oh, what’s this: file folders swelled with clippings; everything I ever wrote, edges brittled and yellow, and my dean’s list certificates, pictures of me and my horses in horse magazines. But I am not interested in those. My fingers want something else and land on your scrapbooks of charcoal sketches Mom said you did before all three of us kids were born, before me. There, deep in your den closet, we find your easel and art supplies; why did I never see you paint? There on the highest top shelf, your notebooks with stories and poems in a careful printed hand; why did you not write any more of them, not see about getting them published, not read them to us?
* * *
Before I could drive myself, my father drove me to horse shows at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, and I got mad when he stayed in the car and dozed off during the preparations, even though he got up, got a cup of coffee, and watched me ride later in the day.
The year I turned 21 and my horse qualified to compete in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, my father paid for me to stay in a Manhattan hotel for a week (though we lived just 12 miles across the river) and bought excellent first mezzanine tickets to all my horse’s classes. I got mad at him for not coming down to the cramped stabling area, and for not being impressed that Paul Newman and Brooke Shields were there, too.
A few years later, when he and my mother drove 200 miles from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to watch me in a horse show there and when I didn’t get a top ribbon, I got mad when he told my trainer, a titan of the equestrian world, that the judges didn’t know what the hell they were doing.
* * *
I am going through your things, Dad, and here are the poetry books with their uncracked spines that I will take back to my home, where I write essays about what it was like to have once been a rich kid, to be privileged and ignorant and carefree and entitled, and to understand too late what it was to be cherished and to be yours—and what it is like now to be a nearly always just-getting-by adult with kids to whom I can’t give. Every year after this on your birthday, I will read one of your poems and look at photos of you playing with my little sons, letting them pull your finger. I will cry, and I will look at some of your things and know that to me, at least, they are no longer things.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tim Bayman