I recently had my Mountain Messenger columns assembled into book form, which I have shared with my friends and colleagues. In return, I have received a number of responses from people which, perhaps inspired by my own personal musings, often include reflections on their own lives. My life-long friend Jerry, who I grew up with in Rochester, New York, sent me profiles he had written some time ago of his parents. Fathers were the toughs in our lives. Jer’s father was tethered to the TV, which was a new invention at the time. Because of his fragile health, he was home all day, which was unusual for us since most of our fathers worked during the day and in most cases evenings as well. When we visited Jer, we tiptoed around the house so as not to disturb Jer’s dad. Any noise prompted a serious shushing from Jer’s mother. Ron’s dad was the owner of a men’s clothing store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Rochester, around Kelly Street and Joseph Avenue. In the winter he would drive a few of us –Ron, Jer and myself– to school some mornings, sparing us the wait at the bus stop. The trouble was that he was a chain smoker. Because of the below freezing weather outside, he wouldn’t let us open the car windows, which always led to a fight between Ron and his dad, and which Ron always lost. Ron’s dad was typical, in that all the men in our lives were heavy smokers during this era. Secondhand smoke was unavoidable and probably contributed to health issues for many of us later in life. I stayed away from smoking until I was introduced to the habit in college and stayed addicted for the next seven years, finally quitting when my father became ill with emphysema.
Mothers were the main influencers in our lives. My late wife Judie’s mother was a single parent living in a cottage behind the grandparents’ main house on Rauber Street, with two beautiful teenage girls– both sought after by young, thirsty University of Rochester college students. My high school prom date was Sharon. Her mother was another single parent of four– three boys and beautiful Sharon. When Sharon and I dated, I was never far from the watchful eye of Murph, her brother who was just a couple of years older than myself and who was a linebacker on our high school football team. When he wasn’t around, her older brother, home from attending law school at Syracuse, was never far. Sharon and Judie’s moms worked outside the home since they were supporting families on their own. The other moms were mostly stay-at-home housewives, although I recall Jer’s mom was a saleswoman for Encyclopedia Brittanica and we all bought a set from her. The stay-at-home moms were there in the morning to prepare school lunches and in the evening to make dinner.
My mother didn’t work outside the home, but her hands were always full, and I often helped her. Sometimes it took the form of protecting her from my father’s harsh words, because of the tough fathers, mine seemed the toughest. Whether he was dissatisfied with his dinner, or furious from the disrespect he felt from my older brother or sister, his temper was easily triggered. My mother was always defending the conduct of my brother and sister, however insignificant it was in my mind and it led to constant flare ups. My sister refused to go to college and married young, which caused tension in our family, as education was ingrained in us as paramount. My brother left for college in his senior year of high school to get out of the house and away from my father. With my brother and sister gone, my father had only me and my mother as targets for his anger. I learned early on to stand between him and my mother when she started to cry, a sure sign of an escalation in hostilities. Standing face to face with him, he zeroed in on me as a target for his anger. I would lure him away from her until he physically chased me around and outside until we both collapsed from exhaustion. I was always proud that I could outrun him. Even at the end of his life my father was tough on my mother. By then, she was suffering from dementia, and unable to perform the usual familial duties–such as putting dinner on the table every night– that he expected throughout 60 plus years of marriage.