I was talking with some genealogical researchers today and we were discussing physical traits of our grandparents and great grandparents. Because I was born late in my parents’ lives, I did not know my grandparents and my kids barely knew theirs. There are records that give physical descriptions…mostly for men as they are military…that state height, hair color, eye color and ‘build’. On occasion there is a traveler who gets a passport that gives us our female ancestor description. Kids, you have seen my heritage portrait wall of black and white photos, but that doesn’t specify the details or the histories and I realized that I am your link to know about those facts.
So. Because my kids never knew him…their grandfather (my dad) was barely 5′ 3″ and though I know he was pretty slim, I don’t know his specific weight. Look at my brother, their Uncle David Martin…that is pretty much our dad. I do know that my father had straight, reddish blonde hair with a receding hairline and that he had (my) blue eyes. Oh…and though this is not genetic…he smelled wonderful of Old Spice and starch and just a whiff of lemon drops. He had his brilliant white shirts done at (pardon the politically incorrect language) the Chinese laundry and to hide his road tipple of whiskey, he sucked on lemon drops in an attempt to hide it from my mother. It never worked, but that is another story.
At the age of seventeen my father lost his right pointer finger and half of his index finger when his hand was caught in a piece of machinery when he worked at Beacon Milling in Cayuga (now part of Cargill). I held his hand without a hesitation when we tromped through the high grasses along Cayuga Lake while we looked for walnuts and butter nuts…and a handful of Tiger Lillies and Bittersweet for my mom. When he would pose for pictures, he hid his hand. Mostly in his suit coat pocket. Dad was nearsighted and had gold-rimmed spectacles that he would habitually remove and clean and replace in the same fashion. Left ear…nose…right ear…in such a familiar gesture that I can still see him doing it some 50 years later. His pockets were always filled with NECCO wafers or LifeSavers and he would share them with me while I sat on his lap. I spun the sweet candy idly around my mouth, dreamily listening as he spun odd tales in a ritual we called “The Big Lie”. It was mostly a deliberately garbled rendition of various fairy tales spiced with his inventive imagination and twist and turns that left us breathless laughing. Those were the good times.
He was a complicated man arisen from a 5 year old boy who witnessed his father committing suicide by swallowing carbolic acid. Dad was brilliant and entrepreneurial and could take anything mechanical apart and put it together again without one ounce of doubt. On occasion when he hit a snag, he might utter a ‘dammitall”, but he was persistent and by golly, it never failed to run. It was kind of a magical genius.
Human beings were another thing.
I was four when Dad was first committed to Willard State Hospital for alcoholism. I have a letter from his doctor that my mother tucked in the pages of the family bible. It spoke of a man who doubted his faith in being loved. He was in his late forties and to everyone else he was a successful self-made man. Dad had thrived during the Great Depression and WWII. He owned an airplane and a valuable piece of Ithaca real estate on State Street in the 1940’s that has since ‘disappeared’ into urban renewal. He also had a mistress…one Harriet “Hattie” Daniels. Mom always knew about Hattie. I can’t imagine what it was like for her. Dad would take the plane and fly down to D.C. on the weekends to see Hattie. The affair lasted for decades until I was born. You can imagine that Hattie lost it and told him to take a hike. Then my father’s unraveling truly began and we lost everything. Our home. Everything. While Dad was hospitalized, his business manager cleaned out the assets. When my mother and father came back to the business, it was an empty building. The inventory was gone and the office equipment including my little pink wicker chair that played nursery rhymes when I sat on it. The bank accounts were almost empty. Just enough was left to keep the accounts open. And the business manager had fled the country. The authorities including the FBI bumbled around and called the trail to South America ‘cold’. Years after my father’s death, my mother shared the story with me so I knew what happened to our Ithaca life and I suppose so she could mourn the loss with a sympathetic child.
To say that ‘Daddy” – I call him that to this day- had a difficult and complicated history is an understatement. But when I attempt to describe him with ‘my blue eyes’ and a slight build…it overly simplifies it all.
I have come to the conclusion that you cannot create a biographical profile in a sterile box and with just a physical description. That said, “what did my grandfather look like” is the question. We family historians cannot resist to fill in with the other senses and emotions.
Still and all, he was my ‘Daddy’ and that means something to my child self.
When my brother, Rich died this year, we sat by his grave…next to my father’s in Lake View Cemetery in the little village of Cayuga, NY…and I allowed myself to grieve for them both. I will return next summer and place flowers like I always do and choose to remember “The Big Lie”.
Author, Writer and Genealogical Researcher
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