During a family dinner conversation, my cousin told me something that took me by surprise. Her parents were preparing to move and had been going through their things and deciding which antiques and keepsakes to save for various family members. My share of the spoils was to be the old mortar and pestle that our grandmother had brought from Russia. And there was something else. Among the family artifacts was an old photograph of my father and a beautiful woman to whom he had been engaged before he met my mother.
Decades earlier, my father had taken his own life. The trauma had left me in a haunting state of confusion. I was 20 when he died, but my father’s life seemed to have passed in a flash. I had learned so little about him in our time together and had no idea he had ever been engaged to anyone other than my mother.
I was overwhelmed with curiosity about the photograph and the insights it might reveal. But my cousin had sent it to me in the mail and, until I received it, I had to rely on whatever details she could provide.
She told me my father was about 25 or 26 when the picture was taken. He had just moved from Jersey City to a small town near Princeton, where he had decided to settle down, start a poultry farm and raise a family. He had embarked on a brand new life, the farm was beginning to take shape, and then came Nelly, an attractive young woman from Brooklyn who seemed to be everything my father needed to fulfill his dream.
My father and Nelly fell in love. He proposed and she accepted. But at the last minute, Nelly decided she couldn’t leave Brooklyn to live on the farm. Neither would my father give up the farm for Brooklyn. So the relationship ended.
Two years later, after my father had met and married my mother, an unexpected visitor showed up at the farm. It was Nelly’s older brother. According to my cousin’s story, Nelly was still in love with my father and had changed her mind about moving to the farm. She wanted to marry my father if he was still available; if he wasn’t, she had instructed her brother to return the engagement ring my father had given her two years earlier. My father took back the ring and returned to his life.
It was hard to believe my cousin’s story was about the same man that I had known. If only I could see the photograph, perhaps something in it would help me understand my father and provide some clues into the tortured course of his later life.
That was the part I knew something about. I recall waking as a child to the familiar sounds of the farm and accompanying my father on his daily rounds. We’d feed the chickens and collect the eggs, and then I’d help my mother pack them in neat rows in gray cardboard cartons in the cool, dampness of our cellar.
But the dream of the farm didn’t last very long. Larger farms began to squeeze out smaller ones, forcing men like my father to find other ways to make a living. The memories are distant, but I vaguely recall my father trying his hand at a succession of unsatisfying jobs. Eventually, he landed in a factory job that he hated and that drained his life of energy and enthusiasm.
Yet my father was an intelligent man with a quick wit and winning charm. I remember as a child feeling that those qualities made him seem strangely out of place among his acquaintances from the factory who occasionally stopped by the house for a visit.
I suspected as I grew older that because he could never be at peace with himself and his lot in life, my father was unable to shake his dissatisfaction for long enough to show my mother and me much affection. I know he never found himself, that he was plagued by depression and anxiety and tortured by demons I never understood.
I remember having a conversation with him not long before his suicide that helped me grasp the crux of his dilemma: He needed to change his life or adjust his outlook, and he couldn’t seem to do either.
Shortly after that conversation, I saw my father for the last time. It was August of 1972, just before the start of my junior year of college. I stopped at home for lunch from my summer job one afternoon and found my father had left work early and was lying on the couch, the way he sometimes spent his days when he was really down. “I come home to knock myself off,” he said.
There was no anguish in his voice, or sadness or fear, no special weight or meaning.
I remember not knowing exactly what to make of it. But I never imagined he would describe the act of taking his life in such casual terms if he were really serious.
When I returned later that day, I found him hanging from a rope in our garage. No note. No explanation.
All My Hopes in a Photograph
Now, many years later, I learn about this photograph. Irrational as it may have been, I felt certain that the picture my cousin recovered from a dusty shoebox in her parents’ attic would fill in the spaces, provide the missing details, reveal something important about the man I never really knew. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I couldn’t wait to see it with my own eyes.
When the enveloped arrived, I paused for a few moments, as I used to pause before opening my final grades from school in the hopes they’d fulfill my expectations and not let me down.
Then I opened it to find a faded brown souvenir card advertising Zimmerman’s Hungarian Restaurant at 163 West 46th Street, just east of Broadway. Inside the card was a photograph, dated November 28, 1943. My father, wearing a broad-shouldered, double-breasted, pin-striped suit, was sitting at a table at the restaurant with Nelly, who was thin and dark and pretty.
They looked young and carefree and happy. But not unlike countless other couples I’d seen in photographs from that period. The meaning, the missing details, the answers I’d hoped for weren’t there.
But something else was. The more I examined the photo, the more I realized how wrong I had been all those years earlier when, consumed by the anguish of his suicide, I told my mother, “It’s as if I’ve gone through my whole life without ever having a father.” The tragedy I’d witnessed had struck with such lightning speed and force, such irreversible consequences, that it not only extinguished my father’s life but obscured my memory of him.
An Album’s Worth of Images
But as I immersed myself in that one photograph, an album’s worth of images began to resurface. Three, in particular, stand out from the many.
In the first, it is the winter of 1956. I am five years old and walking with my father through the snow-covered woods behind our farm. The ground is a magnificent carpet of exquisite white, the shining, smooth surface immaculately unmarked, except for an occasional trail of tiny footprints left by a bird or rabbit. It is the first major snowfall of my young life, and I experience its tranquil beauty at my father’s side.
The scene of the second image is a favorite fishing spot that my father and I discovered when I was eight or nine. There one Sunday morning, after two hours with “nary a nibble,” as my father used to say, he hooks a monster that nearly bends his pole in half. Once the hook is set and the catch seems assured, my father hands me his fishing rod and gives me the thrill of landing the biggest large-mouth bass I’d ever seen.
In the third scene, I am 16 years old, driving an ice cream truck back to the lot after my first day on a new job. Having overshot the driveway, I flip into reverse, pop the clutch and smash into the front of a brand new 1969 Ford Mustang. It is the single most horrible moment in my life and I want to crawl into a hole and never come out. But within 10 minutes, my father is there at my side, holding the coupe in the smashed Mustang at bay and comforting me with his assurance that everything will be O.K.
Sure enough, it was. And I’ve never been in another car accident since. Nor have I ever lost my love of nature walks, especially in the snow. Or my sense of wonder at the mysterious creatures that can lurk at the bottom of a brook of the end of a fishing line.
These are gifts my father gave me. I had lost them in a tragedy long ago. But I found them again in a photograph that was taken before I was born, and that I’ll keep close to me for the rest of my life.
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