The Meal That Changed So Much

A few minutes of conversation revealed the meaning of decades of dysfunction.

Duo Dickinson / 11.3.21

It was the summer of 1959.

I know this because my father always had every August off. Every New York City lawyer did then. In 1959, my father had a fully travelable family: three children and his snappy wife.

It was time for a family trip in our new, used, 1957 Fleetwood Cadillac. With an electronic eye to dim the brights at night, those inverting triangular windows, and enough floor space in front of the rear seat that I could play with my trucks on the wall-to-wall carpet as we cruised down the highway and my parents smoked Kent cigarettes.

The first spot we visited, East Aurora, New York, was my mother’s ancestral home. The visit was to see her unwell Dad and her Mom. Her mom was a smart, former Roaring ’20’s girl — pretty snappy, herself. We stayed at “The Roycroft Inn” (Named after an arts group, whose founder, Elbert Hubbard, may (or may not) have had a scandalous moment with my maternal grandmother.) The inn was huge to my five-year-old’s eyes, with rambling, dark halls.

After dinner at my mother’s parent’s home, we went back to the inn, and the kids were tucked into bed. At some late hour, my father was, as usual, screaming at my mother in their bedroom down the hall. This happened every night, no matter where we were. Alcohol was fully inveighed in our lives. According to my sister (I have no memory of this), I heard him in full high dungeon and declared to my siblings “Dad is being ferocious!”.

We went back to sleep, as we always did, and then drove on to Toronto to meet the three siblings of my father’s long dead mother, the Hill’s. We had dinner at the house of the two spinster Hill sisters. They all talked, smoked, and were delighted by the full cow’s tongue — a perfect cold summer entrée that my wide eyes were fully transfixed by. I was more than a little freaked when the thinnest, delicate tip was expertly carved off of its standing glory with a side of giggling aspic suspended peas offering to us a terrifying meal from the 19th century.

This terror was soon matched by the calm, often detached recounting of my father’s years living in Toronto with his aunts. His Uncle Hill was there, too. My father then asked why he spent those years in Toronto, when he was between one and six years old. His father (my grandfather) lived in Brooklyn. It was a simple question, an unexplored curiosity. His uncle calmly replied, “We are pretty sure that a year after you were born, Lucy died while having an abortion. She never wanted to have another child with your dad.”

Perhaps it was the death of my grandfather the year I was born or that my Dad’s dad was simply a nasty man who buried his first two of his three wives, or that he shipped his first wife’s body to Northern Westchester to be buried alone, but this saga was now part of this one-time visit and who our family was.

It was explained that when Lucy died my father was quickly sent away to Toronto, only to be returned to Brooklyn five years later. At the age of six, my Dad was told that he was to be reunited with who he was told was his mom.

At sixteen, he cycled home from high school and found his mother, or so he thought, in a vale of tears. She blurted out that she could not pretend any longer to be his birth mother, that his mom was dead. That was all my father knew until this evening in Toronto, never knowing how his mother died, all kept from him, in the effort to limit her connection to his dad. A secret kept until that evening in Toronto.

My aunts, the Hill sisters, then went on to add about my father’s time in Toronto, “Georgie was always wandering off. We could not find him for hours and would always look for him on the docks in Lake Ontario, near our house. Once we found him and asked ‘Why Georgie, what were you doing?’ and he said ‘I was looking for my Mum.’”

When he wandered away, he was the age I was, then, that night. I sat and listened to these words; with eyes as wide as when I gazed upon the cow tongue.  A moment followed, then my parents abruptly said “thank you” for dinner, we gathered ourselves, and left.

Why do I remember this? Why did this happen at all? Why were the kids there to hear it?

How could this one night have happened the way it did? When it did? How could they dispassionately reveal the breaking point in a young man’s life? Revealed not only to him, but to his entire family in what turned out to be one of their last family vacations.

It was but a few minutes of conversation, but they revealed the meaning of decades of dysfunction. In the years since, I’ve come to understand the tragedies, the anger, the damages of a man whose triumphant education and professional success was only matched by the broken accommodation of his own pain — a pain he desperately tried to avoid with alcohol. I came to see that this abandonment, denial, and rejection was the reason he was so “ferocious”. This break was the reason my siblings were who they became, one to commit suicide at 69, the other careful to the point of isolation. And this break was the reason my mother spent her life coping and walking on eggshells, with my never understanding my place in her life.

There is no reason in some things. No rational human, truths that make sense in their happening. Bringing up death, abortion and devastation so simply, in front of a five year old, and to a man who they must have known was ultimately broken by the simple facts they told, was entirely unreasonable.

I think this happened because unreasonable gifts are still gifts. After 60 years I can only think that God was revealing to my dad his life’s almost original sin, one to which I was graced to overhear. If this conversation had never taken place, my father would have simply been to me a mean, inexplicably unhappy man. But with God’s grace of a loosened tongue, the abusive father simultaneously became the victim.

Whether good or ill, the gifts of God are senseless to us. We deserve nothing. Their causations are inscrutable; their ends equally mysterious. These moments of happenstance do not readily appear to fit together into any coherence. Love comes. Death destroys. But sometimes God reveals a momentary clarity, a reprieve from the chaos.

No matter our understanding, the inhuman gifts God gives us are his grace, whether we can know it or not — whether we understand them or not.

Duo Dickinson, age 5.

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3 responses to “The Meal That Changed So Much”

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