Here’s a contrarian Mother’s Day story about the one hour I spent with my father. Note: the one hour, period. This wasn’t the best or worst hour, nor the happiest or saddest hour. It was the only hour I spent face-to-face with him.
Well, not counting a bunch of hours when I was a baby that I can’t remember. These are the only photos that I have of my father, John Hines. They always have been part of my Baby Book. I used to stare at them a lot when I was a kid, wondering what my father was like.
My mother never talked much about him. They were divorced in October 1952 when I was four. But they split up quite a while before that. I have no memory of my father other than that one hour, which I’ll get to in a little bit.
I don’t think about my father much. I don’t have much to think about. He came to mind recently because Friday I found an envelope in a filing cabinet that Laurel and I were cleaning out. Mice had gotten into the cabinet and shredded quite a bit of paper. Fortunately the envelope that I had gotten from my mother’s things after she died in 1985 was still mostly intact.
A clipping of her engagement to my father was in the envelope. It was the second marriage for both of them. This one only lasted five years. My mother had kept the probate court divorce declaration also. The cause was “that the libellee [my father] being of sufficient ability, has grossly wantonly and cruelly refused and neglected to provide suitable maintenance for said libellant [my mother] and their minor children [me and my sister, Evie].” Ouch.
Evie, my mother told me, was the reason they got divorced. She was born with a congenital heart condition. My father supposedly refused to move from Massachusetts to a drier climate where, the doctors said, she’d do better. He didn’t want to leave his job. My mother moved to Texas and stayed with my grandmother anyway. Good for her. Sadly, Evie died anyway.
My father was supposed to pay $50 a month to support me. He never sent a dime, at least during the time I was old enough to know whether he did or not. He also never sent me a line—no letters, no phone calls, no visits. Every Christmas I’d get a card from him with a check for a small amount of money. The card would be signed, “John.” Not “Dad” or “Your father.” No “Love” either. Just “John.”
So those were my memories of my father until my thirties. Two photos and a few laconically signed Christmas cards. I wanted more, naturally.
Divorce was very uncommon in the 1950s. I think I was the only kid in my elementary school whose parents were divorced. I wasn’t religious, but I did talk a lot to God in my room at night asking him, “Why don’t I have a father like my friends?”
My mother enrolled me in Boy Scouts and sent me to YMCA summer camp for some male influence. The first question boys would ask at camp, once everyone was settled in their cots, was “What does your father do?” I remember lying in my cot petrified as the question circled the room and was answered by camper after camper. I had no idea what to say. It was unthinkable to admit that I didn’t have a father.
My best friend bailed me out with a distracting joke at just the right time. I’ve never thanked him for this until now: if you read weblogs, Kenny Hart (you probably go by “Ken” now), bless you for being so sensitive.
When I was in my early thirties I picked up the phone one evening and heard, “Hi. This is John, your father.” Hmmmm. Okay. So? He did most of the talking. I could tell right away that he was much more interested in telling me about himself, than in learning about me and my family. That figured. The way he abandoned my mother and me, I didn’t have him pegged for a saint.
My father was sick. He had emphysema. Apparently he wanted to do some long distance conversing with his son before he got sicker. He told me a lot about himself. I don’t know how much to believe. A genius IQ? Maybe. One of the country’s top computer experts and a NASA consultant? Maybe. A founder of a high tech company, Systems and Computer Technology Corporation? Certainly—he sent me some stock in recompense for all those years of not paying child support.
A kick-ass efficiency expert for General Electric? Yes, I confirmed that later, during my one hour with him. Let’s see, what else? He said that he was adopted by the Hines’ and put a lot of work into researching his family history. He found out that his parents were Polish speaking Germans who came to this country early in the 1900s to work on the railroad. His mother died giving birth to him. His father cut and ran. Like father, like son.
At the time he told me about being a co-founder of Systems and Computer Technology Corporation, I had recently become a Ph.D. dropout after completing two years of coursework in a Systems Science doctoral program. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Like father, like son.” But I didn’t want to be like my father. Yet, obviously in some ways I was.
What little my mother told me about John Hines was along the lines of, “He was an ex-Marine, tall, good-looking, a fine writer, charming.” Also, a jerk. I didn’t mind associating myself with the 50% of my genetic heritage that had positive qualities. But it began to creep me out the more my father would phone and ramble on about his life. I started to realize that, as the saying goes, I was cut from the same cloth—or at least half of the cloth—but had just unfolded in a different way, owing to other influences.
During one of our conversations I told him that I was going to attend a Systems Dynamics computer modeling seminar at M.I.T. He was staying in a Boston hotel and getting treated at a local hospital. I agreed to meet him at his hotel the afternoon before the seminar started.
Most people have spent lots of time with their fathers. A few people never have seen their fathers because of adoption or death. I haven’t heard of anyone like me who got to spend just a single hour with his or her father. As you can imagine, I was nervous walking down the hotel corridor to his room. I knocked.
My half-brother, Mike, opened the door. Apparently my father needed some support during this visit. John walked up to me and shook my hand. We didn’t hug or anything. No tears of joy. Nothing that you see in the movies. Real life isn’t like the movies.
What is real life like? Real life is having one hour in your life face-to-face with your father, and spending that time looking at General Electric manuals that he had arranged on the bed prior to my arrival, efficiently opened up to pages that he wanted to impress me with.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. I dutifully thumbed my way through manual after manual, listening to my father’s stories about how he went into GE plants that were having problems and got them back up to speed. “What the hell?” I kept thinking to myself. “If this is how my father wants to spend his time with his long-ignored son, so be it.”
We got through all of the manuals. I shook his hand again. When the door shut behind me and I started walking down the corridor to my rented car, I was so happy. Not happy that I had finally gotten to meet my father—happy that I would never have to see my father again.
Which I never did.
Moral to this story? If there is one, it’s that fantasies aren’t reality and what you get in life often is better than what you want in life. Growing up, I wanted my father. When I was grown up, that one hour with him taught me that I was hugely better off fatherless. I’m already too much like him. If I had grown up with him, I might have become him.
That’s too scary to think about. Time for a mind-cleansing nap, hopefully with fatherless dreams.