I turn 50 today, which is only noteworthy if you consider the alternative.
As I mentioned in my last post, my pre-birthday festivities included driving to St. Louis to empty my mother’s house of 36 years’ worth of stuff and get it cleaned and ready for sale. My siblings and I finished the job a day early, which is why I’m sitting here at my desk in Allentown on Tuesday.
If I’ve given any thought to turning 50, it’s been to laugh about it. Fifty is kind of cool when you’re in decent shape and settled into a life you enjoy. Otherwise, it’s just a two-digit number divisible by ten.
My father, by contrast, was completely broken down by this age, swimming in his own corpulence and consumed by his vices. He had a “bad back,” which became his excuse for avoiding all physical activity beyond whatever effort was involved in throwing more chips onto the table. (If he’d been a successful gambler, he could’ve doubled his exercise volume by raking them back in.)
What I didn’t realize until this weekend is that his problems started long before middle age. We had a trove of family pictures to go through, starting with baby pictures of my older sister, dating back to 1953. Dad was only 28, but already looked bad and behaved worse, according to family stories I heard for the first time.
The funny thing about the photos, though, is that they showed a guy who seemed to enjoy being a father. Sometimes I think we modern dads try a little too hard to give the illusion that we’re more enthusiastic about the program than we really are, while repressing whatever nostalgia we have for the type of fatherhood our fathers enjoyed. Admit it, dads — the idea of coming home from work with dinner on the table and the kids under strict orders to let Daddy “relax” after “a hard day” has some primordial appeal.
So my first thought is that anyone would look happy in photos if their sole parental responsibilities involved bringing home a paycheck and doling out corporeal punishment.
My second thought is that I shouldn’t judge him or his life one way or the other. He was an only child raised by a single mom through the Depression, joined the marines at 16, served in two wars, and went straight from the Korean War to marriage and fatherhood. If I’d been through all that, I might’ve indulged the same dark impulses in the same ways — gambling, whoring, escaping the constraints of middle-class life whenever and however I could.
Still, life is about the choices we make. The darker our desires, the harder we have to work to keep them under house arrest.
It’s breathtaking to look back and consider the choices he made. He turned 50 in 1975, the year I graduated from high school. His mother died two or three years later, leaving our family with an inheritance that must’ve seemed like all the money in the world to a guy whose financial expectations had never exceeded his next paycheck.
When I say “our family,” I mean that literally. His stepfather had been a lifelong saver and investor, and passed to his mother a substantial portfolio of stocks and other assets when he died in the early 1970s. My brothers and I have guessed that the assets were worth at least $100,000 in the mid-’70s, which would be just under $400,000 in today’s dollars.
But the amounts don’t matter. The key is that my grandparents seem to have recognized my father’s proclivities, and made sure that all the bank and brokerage accounts were in both my parents’ names. Probably the best sign of my grandfather’s intentions was the fact he bought adjacent cemetary plots for all of us. We weren’t related to him biologically, but we were still his family.
This could’ve been the turning point in my father’s life. After five decades of poverty, war, and family responsibilities, he could’ve enjoyed financial security for the first time in his life. And I think he did … for a year or two. He and my mother made improvements to our home, took the family on an expensive vacation, and enjoyed some nice dinners at good restaurants.
By 1979, the year I graduated from college, it was over. Dad had succumbed to the beast, forging my mother’s name on all their joint securities and gambling and whoring the money away in Las Vegas. He’d even sold the cemetary plots, as I noted in an essay I wrote for Men’s Fitness magazine a decade ago. My parents separated that year and divorced soon after. He spent the rest of his life squabbling over alimony and child support. (My youngest brother was still in elementary school when they divorced.)
Dad died in 1994, alone, three months shy of his 70th birthday. To his children, though, he was gone long before that. To his grandchildren, he was just a guy who showed up in old photographs of badly dressed relatives, looking at least a decade older than he actually was. If you didn’t know us, and saw the pictures, you’d assume he was our grandfather.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him since then, and the choices he made. I’ve diagnosed him as having a variety of psychiatric and psychological afflictions (ADD, narcissistic personality disorder, perhaps some bipolar tendencies). I try not to judge, and I don’t pretend he (or anyone else) needs my forgiveness, or that I need any sort of closure to move on with my life.
The greatest gifts he gave me — beyond life itself — are my memories of him, which I’ve spent the past few days organizing, clarifying, and correlating with my siblings’ memories.
In all those memories is one simple lesson: Don’t be him.
Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal.
Don’t take on responsibilities you don’t want, but don’t skip out on the ones you’ve assumed.
It’s okay to allow yourself some indulgences, as long as you allow your family the same. But don’t put more value on those indulgences than they deserve. The moment food or alcohol or sex or gambling becomes more important than work and family, that’s the moment you know you have a problem.
I like to think I’ve accumulated some wisdom in 50 years, most of it mundane. (For example: “A website will never be finished when the designer says it will. Whatever date he promises, add at least three to six months. And that’s just for the beta version.”)
But what I learned from my father is more than wisdom. Not being him is the foundation of my existence. Not being him makes turning 50 a laughably minor milestone.
Now, if I can make it to 100 by not being him, I’ll consider that an accomplishment. And I hope you’ll celebrate it with me. I’ll buy the first round.