DAD WAS *MORE* THAN A CONTENDER – Garry Armstrong

A friend emailed me info about a popular boxer who just improved on his very impressive record. I had to admit knowing nothing about the prizefighter. I’m a self-proclaimed baseball maven but know nothing about professional boxing these days.   I’m not a fan.

I don’t get my jollies watching two people bashing out each other’s brains. This is no ethical line in the sand.  I enjoy football but never have fantasized about tossing a final second ‘hail mary’ pass to win the Superbowl for the home town team. I flinch when I see the guys grinding each other into the dirt just to pick up a few yards.


My Dad wouldn’t agree with me. He was the boxing maven in our family. We used to watch the old Friday Night Gillette boxing matches. It was our one Father-Son bonding event.

We used to watch the likes of Kid Gavilan, Chico Vejar, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong (no relation), Rocky Graziano,  Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Floyd Patterson, Jersey Joe Walcott,  Ezzard Charles, Ingmar Johansson, and the young Cassius Clay – Muhammad Ali.

Joe Louis was Dad’s hero.  Unfortunately, I only remember seeing Louis in the declining years of his memorable career.  Dad used to describe listening to his fights on the radio when “The Brown Bomber” was in his prime.

My father is on the left and Marvin Hagler is on the right.

I remember seeing Louis’ pictures in the homes of many Black families.  He was more than a boxer, more than the heavyweight champion of the world. He was a folk hero and legend to people of color.  Louis was a sport and cultural icon before Jackie Robinson. My Dad could recite, chapter and verse, round by round, of many of Joe Louis’ fights.

As a young boy, I looked at pictures of my Dad in his boxing prime.  I was always awed. Dad was  6-feet plus a few inches. A tall, matinee-idol handsome man. This isn’t fog of memory sentiment.  My Dad never lost those strikingly good looks – even in the autumn of his years.  My girlfriends visited, they would stare at my father with jaw-dropping admiration, then glance at me with a, “What happened to YOU?”  look. It always deflated my ego.

When we had visitors, it was like living with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, or Denzel Washington as my Dad.  All three of the Armstrong boys addressed our parents as “Mommy and Daddy” even when we were adults, well into our professional lives.  It may seem bit old-fashioned now but it felt normal for the 50-year-old Garry Armstrong, noted TV News Reporter to talk about his “Mommy and Daddy”.  My friends always smiled with appreciation,  maybe a little envy.

I am drifting here.  Typical Garry.  William Armstrong, Sr, the pride of Antigua and World War 2. Decorated Army Veteran  ( The EAME Service Medal, The WWII Victory Medal and the American Service Medal),  did a lot of amateur boxing during the war where he saw lots of active duty and action, including the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Vineland, and Central Europe.

I don’t recall Dad’s boxing record.  He said it was recreational.   An avocation. Something to do between combat.  I suspect it was Dad’s way of getting respect during a period when our Armed Services were still segregated.  When asked, he begrudgingly said boxing was relaxing for him and his opponents were usually friends or Army peers.  As I write,  I don’t remember if Dad ever fought a White opponent.  I never thought to ask that question as a kid.

Dad taught his 3 sons some basics about self-defense but never made it a big deal. He never tried to force boxing on us.  I’m not sure he shared our passion for baseball.

Dad showed rare outward passion when “nice guy” Floyd Patterson suffered boxing defeats.  He always thought Patterson should’ve been a little tougher but the one-time heavyweight champ had a very sensitive outward demeanor that rankled some old school boxing fans.

Rocky Marciano’s undefeated career record was always appreciated by my Dad.  I wanted to say my Dad commented “Good stuff for a White Guy” but, no, my Father wasn’t given to such acerbic comments.  Leave it to his oldest son with a slightly bent sense of humor.

During my Boston TV News career, I met Marvin Hagler, the pride of Brockton, Ma. and a champion pugilist. We struck up a friendship beyond reporter-prizefighter when I talked about my Dad and his love of boxing.

I managed to score a painting that showed Mavin Hagler and “Bill” Armstrong, head to head, in a boxing match.  An artist friend did the painting and Hagler was kind enough to add a personal sentiment to ” a fellow boxer” for my Dad.  It was an emotional TKO for me.

When I presented the painting to my Dad, he gave me the biggest smile he’d ever shown me in my life. I felt a deep tug in my heart and barely held back the tears. My Father really LIKED the gift.  It’s hard for me to explain how important that was for me.

Me and my father at our wedding.

Years later, after my parents had passed and we were on the verge of putting the family house up for sale,  my two brothers and I were deciding who would get what. It surprised me when they said I should get most of Dad’s boxing stuff.  I didn’t expect it because my two brothers were closer to Mommy and Daddy in their final years while I was busy with my career in Boston.  I didn’t forget them but my visits were fewer.  Yes, I felt a little guilty because I was so focused on my job.

When I started going through Dad’s stuff, a flood of memories came back. All those Friday evenings watching boxing matches.  Dad’s expert take on the state of professional boxing (he didn’t like where it was going).  Dad’s own recollections when he sifted through his equipment.  The gloves, the shoes, the pictures.  I could see my Father reaching into his own past when he was the boxer, master of his own moments in the ring, and maybe a magic moment in Madison Square Garden — standing beside his boxing heroes.

Top of the World,  Dad!   You made it!

NOT NOW, DAD – Rich Paschall

A Father and Son Tale, Rich Paschall

As he was nearing the end of his life, Mr. Fine often reflected on the past. He could not help but do so. As for his health, he had good days and bad. Sometimes he felt as if nothing was wrong. On other days he could just feel that his body was wearing out, and the illness was doing him in. He tried to keep the situation as a private matter between his wife, his doctor and his lawyer. Before it would be too late, his wife knew there were others to tell.

Work room

Mr. Fine’s contemplations were mostly about his son. He wondered if he should have done anything differently. Should he have been more strict? Less? Should he have pushed him into certain sports? Music? Something else? Should he have made him work harder? Perhaps he should have been less demanding regarding work. He just could not decide if his parenting decisions were correct.

When Samuel Fine was young he seemed to enjoy watching his father work. He would follow him around and stare at the things Mr. Fine was doing. At times, he just seemed to be “under foot” but Mr. Fine tried to be patient with this.

“Now just stand over there son so you will be out of the way, and I will tell you what I am doing.” At that Mr. Fine would explain the work.  He would explain each step of his painting projects. He would give detailed explanations of how he was fixing anything mechanical or electrical. He wanted his son to understand the importance of maintenance and the value of repair rather than throwing something away. Mr. Fine was under the impression that his son was learning from all this.

When Sam was a little older, Mr. Fine had determined that the boy was big enough to assist with his projects so he invited the boy to partake in whatever he was doing.

“Sam, do you want to help with this painting project? Today we will prepare the front porch and stairs for a new coat of paint.”

Front porch

“Not now, dad. I have to meet the guys, we are going to play a game at the park.”

“OK, son. Maybe next time we can work together.”

The next time, however, Sam would have something else to do. In fact, every “next time” Sam would have something to do. Every request for help by the father was met with “Not now, dad.”

For Sam, life was too busy for dad. He had a game, a school event, a meeting with the guys, whatever that meant.  He had homework to do or he just did not feel well.

“Son, can you cut the grass today? I am feeling rather ill and the weather is nice.”

“Not now, dad. I am not feeling too good either.”

For many years, this was the way of things. Mr Fine would ask for assistance and Sam had a reason not to help. Sometimes the father would gently try to push, even insist, that Sam help around the house. Sam would push back, then go off to do whatever he thought was more important.

University

When Sam was done with college, he left home for an apartment with friends. After a few years, he got married and had a family of his own. He had a nice job, a nice home and children who were expected to do their chores.

Sam would come around to visit his parents, but usually picked a time when his father would not be home. He just did not want to face his dad. He could not explain the feeling, but it was something that he knew went back to his youth.

“Sam, why don’t you come around when your father is here” Mrs. Fine would say.

“Oh mom, he will just want me to help with some project that I have no time for. I just hate to have to say no and see that look on his face.”

“What look is that?”

“You know, mom, that wounded look.”

“That disappointment look you mean, don’t you, Sam?” Mrs. Fine responded. Sam had no answer. He said his good bye and went on his way.

The final test results

When his doctor advised there may be just a few months left for the father, Mrs. Fine disobeyed her husband’s request and told Sam of the situation. She had hoped they would end on a better note than in recent years when Sam rarely saw his father.

One afternoon Mrs. Fine found her husband staring out the window. “Mort, what are you doing?” He looked around as if he was in great pain and could barely turn his head.

“I was just thinking that tomorrow I will cut the grass. It looks like it’s time.” Mrs. Fine just shook her head.

After a few moments, the doorbell broke the silence in the room.  Sam had arrived to see what he could do. He did not want to give up his mom’s confidence so he carefully chose his words.

“Hi, dad. I heard you might not be feeling too good today so I thought maybe I could help with something.”

Mr. Fine just stared at Sam as if he must be kidding. It was an odd sort of look that Sam had not seen before. At first, he did not know what to say and the two spent a few moments just staring at one another.

Lawn

“Perhaps I could mow the grass or something,” Sam tried out on his father.

Mort Fine stared at the man before him. He was assessing what his son had become. He flashed back through the years of Sam’s life. He remembered the good things and the bad. He remembered his school days, his friends, his activities. He remembered his dreams and his goals. The memories of Sam washed over him like the ocean tide in a storm. Finally, Mort Fine knew just what to respond to Sam’s offer.

“Not now, son. I don’t need you anymore.”

AHEAD OF HIS TIMES – ELLIN CURLEY

Most of us believe that our current beliefs have been our beliefs forever. Of course we know that germs cause disease and that the earth is round. But people didn’t always know these concepts as “facts”. We once thought the earth was flat and had no idea what caused disease. Someone had to propose these “new” and “revolutionary ideas. And someone just as assuredly had to argue against them and give the proponent of the new ideas a hard time.

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My father was a brilliant, innovative thinker in the fields of psychiatry and the social sciences. All he got initially was a lot of grief and aggravation. Even today, only a few academics have heard of him.

His name was Abram Kardiner. He had a long and varied career in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and psychiatry from the 1920’s to his death in 1981. He deserves at least part of the credit for three major contributions: the idea of interdisciplinary studies, the concept of early, “pre-school” education, and acceptance and understanding of PTSD.

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Everyone knows that interdepartmental studies are the best way to thoroughly understand at least history and cultures. Didn’t we always apply the tools of sociology, economics, political history, art history and other cultural history to the study of history? The answer is no. In fact, the concept was anathema until the 1960’s.

When I went to Barnard College in 1967 (the sister school to Columbia University), I was one of the first classes to be able to take an interdisciplinary major. At the time, I was old enough to understand that my father’s struggles at Columbia University in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s had cleared the path for me to be an American Studies major in the 60’s.

My father studied with Sigmund Freud in 1921 and came back to New York to help establish psychoanalysis as an accepted and respected “new” field of science. But he was also interested in sociology and thought that using psychiatry to better understand the individuals in a society would help understand the society as a whole. So he decided to study more primitive cultures (anthropology) to further establish the interrelationships between the individual (psychiatry) and the society (sociology).

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Unfortunately at the time, each academic field was considered a totally separate entity. No one was allowed to stray into another academic’s carefully guarded territory.

For more than 30 years, my father was bounced back and forth between the psychiatry, sociology, and anthropology departments. No one wanted to claim him. He was “tainted” with methodology and ideas from a different discipline. This sounds ridiculous today. But even now, the only department at Columbia that recognizes his accomplishments is the Department of Psychiatry, the department he helped found.

When I had my first child, I enrolled him in play groups and I planned to send him to preschool when he turned three. My father, once again, had been on the front-lines years before, espousing the importance of the first three years of life. He believed that early childhood intellectual and social stimulation was necessary to foster a child’s ability to learn and to adjust socially throughout it’s life. His writings became the basis for Head Start, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s program which provided pre-kindergarten for all kids. Dad also focused attention on the optimal environments for preschoolers to develop well intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

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Reading to your children, playing counting games, and talking to them — these concepts, now so familiar, became part of the standard of early child care, in part, because of my father. He helped prove, scientifically, how important these activities are both for children and for the society.

When a member of our family was ten, he had a tonsillectomy — and awoke during surgery. This resulted in PTSD as well as a myriad of other issues. Guess who was one of the first people to study PTSD and recognize it as a psychiatric syndrome?

You guessed it. My dad! He studied World War 1 veterans and built on Freud’s concept of psychiatric trauma. He published a book called “The Traumatic Neuroses of War” in 1941. But it wasn’t until the Vietnam War, in the 1970’s, that PTSD became a hot topic. Luckily, by 1991, further advancements in this field, building on my father’s work, helped our family cope with the aftermath of childhood trauma.

So, thanks Dad! You cleared the way for me to have the college major of my dreams, a well-educated toddler, and a family member with doctors who could understand and help him. I wish I could tell you your name is now known throughout the world for your amazing contributions.

But I understand and appreciate what you have contributed to society and now, maybe some blog readers will know, too.

FREUD AND MY FATHER, PART 2 – ELLIN CURLEY

All quotes are from my father’s book, “My Analysis With Freud, Reminiscences”  – A. Kardiner, M.D.

In 1921 my father went to Vienna to be trained by Sigmund Freud in the new scientific field of psychoanalysis. My previous blog talked about some of my father’s experiences with Freud as a teacher and as a world-renowned scientist. But Freud liked my father and in their six months together my Dad was lucky enough to get to know Freud fairly well. So I can share with you some of my Dad’s favorite stories about Freud that will shed some light on his personality behind the spotlight.

Freud with signature-editedMy father was very fond of Freud. He described him as “likeable” and “dear”, “charming” and “full of wit and erudition.” My Dad said that Freud was so natural and unassuming in their encounters that you would never have known that you were dealing with a world-famous scientific giant. My father often said to Freud that he couldn’t reconcile the image he got of Freud in their private sessions, with that of the man who wrote all those great books. Freud laughed and said that “This is where familiarity breeds contempt.”

Freud was a devoted family man and talked about his family often. My father once commented to Freud that at times he seemed depressed. Freud admitted that he was having a hard time dealing with the death of his daughter, Mathilda, earlier in the year. He confessed that he could not get over it, which is testament to the fact that he was a decent and caring man.

Freud also had concerns about his surviving daughter, Anna, who was following his footsteps into the new profession of psychiatry. Anna’s inability to choose a husband was the subject of heated debate among Freud’s students. Freud once asked my father if he had a theory about Anna’s indecisiveness. I find it funny that the father of “Daddy Issues” would ask that question. My father’s answer was totally on point. He said, “Well, look at her father. This is an ideal that very few men could live up to and it would surely be a comedown for her to attach herself to a lesser man.” Student teaching the teacher.

Kardiner Family Pics group-edit- 1My favorite personal story about Freud involves his views on marriage. My father was a bachelor and was concerned that he would never marry. He had suffered many childhood traumas, including the death of his mother when he was three. Because of this Freud suggested that my Dad had “issues” with women. But Freud didn’t feel that this doomed my father to permanent bachelorhood. He told my father that in fact he hoped that my father would someday be “lucky enough” to make a good marriage. (Spoiler alert: He did, but not until the age of 59!) My father was puzzled about this comment and asked Freud if he thought luck was involved since as a professional, he knew so much about people. Freud said that luck was always involved with good marriages. He felt you could only know so much about a person without living with them and that you could only really get to know someone after living with them for many years! And in his day, living together before marriage was just not done.

Freud could be humble about his own ideas. He was discussing a minor theory with my father one day and said, “Oh, don’t take that too seriously! That’s something I dreamed up on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” On the other hand, the people around Freud got into serious trouble if they didn’t take all of Freud’s ideas seriously and show total loyalty. My father found this aspect of Freud’s personality confusing and difficult to manage.

Freud could also have a sense of humor about psychoanalysis. My father was talking to him about two Viennese analysts who had committed suicide and Freud’s comment was “ Well, the day will soon come when psychoanalysis will be considered a legitimate cause of death!”

As expected, Freud worried about the future of psychoanalysis. In particular, he was afraid that it would be labeled as “the Jewish science” since most of the people drawn to it in it’s early days were Jewish. The real problem that would plague the movement through the years was the fact that Freud insisted on maintaining tight, hands on control over everything. Everything had to go through him – who did what, who had what jobs, who had which patients, even in America. Most important, he controlled the purse strings. This caused lots of rivalry, infighting and politicking among his followers. In the end, this did more damage to the burgeoning profession than the “Jewish” label Freud so feared.

Kardiner Family Pics-1

One of the most interesting and revealing exchanges my father had with Freud dealt with Freud’s analysis of himself as an analyst. Freud admitted that he had no real interest in individual therapeutic problems. He also felt that he had several handicaps that prevented him from being a great analyst. One was that his real interest was with theoretical problems. That is where he devoted most of his energy. Another was that Freud admitted to tiring of people quickly and said he had no interest in keeping them on as patients for an extended time. He also felt that it was important to “spread his influence”, so he treated/taught many people but only for short periods of time. Fortunately that did not catch on as the standard of treatment in the general public.

Overall, my father enjoyed his time studying with and getting to know Freud. He greatly liked and admired the man and was in awe of his professional accomplishments and innovations. However my father was never a fundamentalist type Freudian, as many were. He believed that Freud meant the field he created to grow and expand with the times. He believed that Freud would have wanted new scientific data and theories to influence the practice of psychoanalysis and would have welcomed new ideas and new techniques into the field.

My father dedicated the rest of his life to expanding the horizons of psychoanalysis and incorporating psychiatry into the already existing fields of anthropology and sociology. My father believed that the only way to thoroughly understand any society and it’s people, was through an interdisciplinary approach. He wrote several books outlining his interdisciplinary methodology. He continued to write articles and lectures on this, and other topics in psychoanalysis, until a few years before his death at almost 90, in 1981.

FREUD AND MY FATHER, PART 1 – ELLIN CURLEY

(All quotes are from my father’s book, “My Analysis With Freud, Reminiscences”, by A. Kardiner, M.D.)


My father’s first contact with Sigmund Freud was a letter he received in 1921 accepting him as a student of Freud’s in Vienna. My father had graduated from medical school in New York City and was having trouble finding a job in a specialty that interested him. He thought it would be a great opportunity to study with the founder of this new science of the mind. He also believed that this field was the wave of the future. There were only eight psychiatrists in New York City at the time and it appealed to my Dad to be a pioneer and make a major contribution in a whole new area of science.

Freud with signature-edited

During my Dad’s 6 months as Freud’s student (that was the contracted period of apprenticeship) Freud had six students, each of whom he saw five hours a week. He charged $10 an hour and asked that he be paid in dollars, which were worth more than the Austrian crown. He also apologized that he could not give more than thirty hours a week to his students because his wife and daughter had forbidden it! They cherished their time with him and didn’t want him working longer hours.

Freud did not treat his students equally. My father’s distinction among his group of students in Vienna was that Freud talked to him in his therapy sessions. Freud was apparently silent with other students, particularly with the two English students who were there with my father. The Englishmen complained that Freud often fell asleep in their sessions and that he would only wake up if they stopped talking. One day the Englishmen asked my father to tea and confronted him with the rumor that Freud actually had conversations with him. When my father confirmed that Freud was quite garrulous with him, they wanted to know what my father did to get Freud talking. My father was a wonderful raconteur so his only explanation was that he kept Freud interested and engaged – and therefore awake.

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Ironically, despite this conversation with my dad, the English contingent must have left Vienna with the belief that Freud’s “silent” analysis was the method that he was imparting to his students. This evolved into what was known as the “English School” of psychoanalysis, in which the therapists said nothing to their patients except “hello” and “goodbye”, often for years!

I used to complain to my father that Freud had done a terrible job analyzing him because he was still riddled with anxiety and neuroses. My father agreed with me. He said that Freud’s training and analysis were both woefully inadequate by today’s standards. In the ‘20’s, the only training that existed to become an analyst was to be analyzed yourself, for a mere six months. We now know that six months is too short a time to accomplish much in psychoanalysis. We also know that you need a greater body of knowledge to be a good therapist than what can be gleaned from a personal analysis.

To advance their education, my father and his fellow students got together and organized lectures for themselves (with Freud’s approval, of course). They got some of the other great minds in the field who were also in Vienna, like Karl Abraham, Otto Rank and Helena Deutsch, to present courses to them. These turned out to be the first formal didactic courses ever given in psychiatry, anywhere.

In Freud’s day, analysis was not only the sole training tool, it was also very limited in its scope. Freud’s goal of treatment was to give key insights to the patient. The patient was then expected to go off on his own and apply these insights to his own life. It is understood now that insight is only the starting point of any therapy. The major goal of therapy today is to help the patient integrate these insights so that they can help change the patient’s perceptions, emotions and behavior. My father never got this part of the process so his analysis was incomplete. However, my father felt that Freud was brilliant at dream interpretation and was very intuitive in interpreting free associations. So my father’s analysis was not without its benefits.

Kardiner Passport edited w borders 1My favorite story about Freud shows that he was not only brilliant, but also prescient about the future of the profession he created. Freud attended a meeting in which the participants spent an hour and a half discussing what Freud said here and what Freud meant there. Freud was getting more and more impatient and he finally tapped on the table for order. He said something to the effect of, “Gentlemen…Why do you treat me as if I were already dead? Here you are, sitting among yourselves, discussing what I have said in this paper, what I have said in that paper … and I am sitting at the head of the table and nobody so much as asks me ‘What did you really mean?’ “ He continued to say that he took that as an insult and worried “…if this is what you do while I am still among you, I can well imagine what will happen when I am really dead!” Unfortunately the movement did splinter into warring factions after Freud died. And many of these factions were in fact based on differing interpretations of what Freud meant and how he intended his theories to be expanded upon.

Another story in this vein involves the origin story of the 50 minute psychiatric session. People have always assumed that Freud consciously and thoughtfully chose 50 minutes as the perfect amount of time for a doctor/patient session. The reality is much more mundane and insignificant.

Freud had allocated six hours a day, five days a week for sessions with his students. He had six students so each student had a one hour therapy session with Freud per day. However, there was a scheduling snafu and a seventh student appeared for a place in Freud’s class of ’21. Freud didn’t want to increase his teaching time to seven hours a day. So he proposed two options to his six current students.

He could send this seventh student away. Alternatively, each student could give up ten minutes a day from their hourly sessions to make room for the seventh student. The students agreed to a 50 minute instead of a 60 minute hour. To this day, therapists use the 50 minute hour as the ‘Freudian model’. Freud would be laughing now to realize that sheer happenstance had resulted in almost a century long tradition for psychiatrists all over the world.

When my father returned to America he helped found the first independent psychoanalytic training institute and the first university (Columbia) affiliated training program in America. Both were in New York City.

 

LIFE WITH FATHER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I had a very strange and strained relationship with my father. In his defense, he was 59 when I was born and newly married, for the first time. He had been a confirmed bachelor, living alone, for a long, long time.

Then suddenly he had a young wife of 33 and a child. Culture shock on all fronts. To his discredit, he never really tried to become more child-oriented and he never reached out to me at the various stages of my life. My Dad and Mom adored each other and had a wonderful relationship. But Mom could never get him to change his ways with me.

Dad played the piano for me a lot through my childhood.

Dad was a practicing psychoanalyst, a teacher and a published writer in his field. He lived in an intellectual ivory tower and was totally absorbed in his intellectual pursuits. That left little room for me. He would often walk by me in the hallway and not see me or acknowledge me. On other days, the only thing he would say to me was, “Where’s your mother?”

He also yelled a lot. He yelled out of anxiety rather than anger and was never mean or demeaning to anyone. Nevertheless, because of his aloofness combined with his yelling, I was scared of him. I usually didn’t want to be alone with him so my Mom had to be an intermediary between us. This made Dad feel hurt and rejected by me and created a vicious circle.

Me and my parents when I was 11

When I was about nine, my mom finally decided that we had to confront one another. She insisted that I tell my dad, to his face, that I didn’t like it when he yelled. I was frightened, but I did it. I’ll never forget my dad’s response: “Do I yell?” Dad then proposed that whenever he yelled, I should tell him he was yelling and then tell him to stop. It didn’t really reduce the yelling, but it reduced the tension between us and banished my fear of him. After that, whenever he yelled, I just yelled back.

Our relationship was epitomized by our dinnertime ritual. Both parents worked at home, as therapists. Dad always got out of work for dinner before my mom did. So we would sit at the dinner table, each at opposite ends, waiting for my mom. In silence. As soon as Mom arrived, we would all begin talking. Our conversations were lively, interesting and often filled with laughter. Both parents were interested in what I was doing and what I thought about whatever we were discussing. But the conversation was rarely between just me and my dad.

Me and Dad when I was around 22

When I got old enough to have serious intellectual conversations about history, current events, anthropology, etc., my dad and I had many on-on-one exchanges. One summer during high school, I read books on ancient Egypt and Dad and I shared many conversations on that topic. In high school, I started helping my Mom edit Dad’s writing. That provoked some heated discussions,

When I moved away from home, our phone conversations were short and stilted. We’d say, “Hello. How are you?” and then usually Dad would say “Here’s your mother” and turn the phone over to her.

Mom and Dad when Dad was in his late 70’s

My dad cared about me and worried about me a lot. He just shared all this with my mother, not with me directly. Mom would report to me about what my father thought about what was going on in my life. We would have three-way conversations when I had serious issues and Dad would be attentive and insightful. This only made it more painful to me that we could only have these conversations when my mother was present.

I realize now that in many ways, my dad was more in tune with me than my mom was. He was also usually more likely to say, “Let her do it her way. Don’t push her.” My mom was more controlling and had a fixed idea of what my life should be.

My favorite picture of Dad in his prime

The last thing my dad said to me before he died, was, “What did I do to deserve a daughter like you? I didn’t deserve you.” I replied, “You’re right. But I love you anyway.” I guess for us, that was a form of closure.

REMEMBERING DAD ON HIS 100th BIRTHDAY

I planned to write an epic piece about my Dad who would have been 100 years old today. But my body has staged a mutiny, so I’ll be brief.

Dad must be smiling.

William Benfield Armstrong was the real life Quiet Man. I’m the oldest of three sons who realized that Dad meant what he said — just by the look on his face.

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My Dad was a handsome guy. Tall, lean and with a smile that dazzled women and men. I always thought he could’ve been a movie star, rivaling Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

Dad rarely showed emotions. He kept it all inside. The day I left for basic training in the Marines, I saw something rare. Dad was crying as he put me on the train.

My Father didn’t talk about his experiences as an Army Staff Sgt. in World War Two. We knew he saw action in Germany but he never offered any details, always giving us an annoyed look if we persisted with questions. I finally got some answers a short time before Dad passed away in 2002. He told me about seeing his best friend killed in a jeep explosion, just a few yards in front of him.

He said it was an image he carried for the rest of his life. Dad talked and I listened. It was the longest conversation we ever had. When he finished, he just looked at me with a sad smile and patted my shoulders.

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After my Father died, my two brothers and I were going through his possessions. We found, buried under clothing, several medals he had been awarded in that war so many years ago. My Dad was a hero! We always knew that but never understood or appreciated him in that larger context.

So here’s to you, Dad. At 100, you’re still a ramrod, tall and proud.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, MOM AND DAD!

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I intended this to be a Father’s Day tribute to my Dad. But my youngest brother, Anton, just reminded me it’s a double celebration. It’s William and Esther Armstrong’s 73rd wedding anniversary!

Dad has been gone twelve years, Mom seven. But I’ll bet the house they are celebrating right now.

We were never big on talking about our feelings. Maybe it’s a family thing, maybe it’s generational. Whatever, my two brothers and I never doubted our parents love. We tested their patience many times and were duly rewarded.

Dad was from the John Wayne school of conversation. Brief chats and meaningful looks to make his words (or silence) crystal clear. He was handy; I wasn’t. Remember what I said about patience?

One of our most emotional moments came after I enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was one of the rare times I saw Dad cry.

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Mom, Dad and baby me

My Father was a World War II veteran and like most vets, he didn’t talk much about his combat experiences. He kept it to himself for decades. Near the end of his life, Dad talked a little about some truly horrific war experiences. After he died, we found medals amongst his stowed away possessions.

Mom was always the voice of the family. She was the classic strong woman, but it came at a price. It was our last lucid conversation before dementia began to take its ugly toll. Mom, who always seemed estranged from Marilyn, asked how things were going. Before I could finish, she interrupted and quietly but firmly told me I should show Marilyn my love, to make her feel wanted and appreciated. Mom had a funny look on her face.

I just listened. Mom talked about the courtship years with Dad. It was fascinating. I never could picture Mom and Dad as young adults with all the ups and downs of dating. Those were the days when you wrote letters to your loved one.

It wasn’t easy for them. But, finally, loved conquered all.

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Perfect wedding

Their wedding in 1941 was something out of Hollywood. Bigger than big. Lovely women, handsome men.  Mom and Dad never looked happier.

My parents never talked about their dreams. I think they were put on hold — permanently — after I made my début the following year. Dad was off to war. Mom was beginning six plus decades of molding our family. I guess their dreams wound up in the lives of my two brothers and me.

I still see Mom and Dad in my dreams. Dad in his uniform, Mom looking like a cover girl. I’m the kid from central casting.

Here’s looking at you, Mommy and Daddy!

EVIL DREAMS

There is a herd of elephants in my living room. Sometimes there are so many elephants lolling about that there is hardly enough room for me to settle down, have a cup of tea and watch the Red Sox on a warm summer evening.

They are the elephants of my childhood. Snidely grinning elephants. Scary elephants. One pachyderm carries a belt. I know he’s going to beat me. Others smile sweetly. I don’t to trust those smiles. These are not real. The smiles are camouflage to hide an evil so deep it makes my blood turn watery.

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For most of my life I had a recurring nightmare. I would be sitting in the middle of some particularly bucolic setting, a field, meadow or alongside babbling brook. The day would be perfect. Blue sky, puffy clouds and sunshine. I was happy. Content to sit and watch the birds, bunnies or butterflies. In the midst of this bucolic setting, the cute little creatures would transform into flying or crawling little monsters that would swarm over me. I’d wake up screaming, drenched in sweat.

The monsters were never the same twice. Sometimes they looked like spiders or snakes; other times, they resembled nothing in the real world. Perhaps they could have emerged from the primordial ooze or a sleazy horror movie.

Always there were many monsters attacking simultaneously. Escape was impossible and in any case, I was paralyzed with terror unable to run, barely able to scream. Only waking ended the attack. But not the fear. The fear stuck around.

The dream sometimes went away for a few months, but inevitably returned. And so it continued for more than forty years. Finally — a lifetime later — all the little monsters came together and formed a face. My father.

My eyes snapped open. I was fully awake and understood.

I never had the dream again.

Weekly Writing Challenge: DNA Analysis – Mirrored Images

DNA is a funny thing. It doesn’t kick in all at the same time. That’s why, as a toddler you may be the spitting image of your dad, but by the time you’re 30, you look like a clone of your maternal grandmother. And when you are old, you look in the mirror and you say … “Mom??” Because she died years ago, yet there she is. Alive. In you.

Me and the kid

Me and the kid

We carry the physical imprint of our ancestors. It’s obvious. Less evident are the emotional footprints left in our psyches. Positive and negative, our parents and many others change us, leave bits of themselves behind for us to absorb. Good and ill. Relationships and marriages we should have skipped. Friends who were there for us in our darkest hours and those who weren’t. The doctor who took our case when we had no money or insurance. The one who botched the surgery and left us hanging out to die. It’s all there, imprinted in the way we see the world and react to it.

We are such untidy packages, made up of bits and pieces. Funny and sad, honest and untruthful. Self-pitying and brave. Lazy, yet determined. No one is of a single piece. No one is all good, all bad, all anything except all human.

Me? Today’s me is much changed from the young, idealist who planned to fix the world. Now I know I’m not going to fix it. I make a few little tweaks here and there, but the big bad world will have to look to younger souls to get the job done. Assuming the job can be done and assuming anyone will have the power and will to give it a go.

I sound shockingly like my mother. My opinions, my way of expressing them. I thought she was so cynical, so lacking in faith. She made me crazy and I loved her anyway … and now, I am her. The plain-spoken way she had of saying what she meant without bothering to pretty it up or disguise it with polite protestations. And the tenacity. Like a dog with a bone, she never let go and neither do I. Whatever it is, I worry it to death. It gets me into trouble. With everyone. Yet I wouldn’t change it. It is my most useful and least pleasant character trait — abrasive and annoying — yet it’s the thing I appreciate most in me and which has best served me professionally (less so personally) through the years.

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The whole famdamily. I’m the one with rolled up jeans.

My fuse is too short (dad), but usually under control (mom), except when it isn’t (dad). My humor rarely fails me (mom) and being able to see the funny side of disaster is a saving grace in a life fraught with crises. Arthritis makes it hard for me to do much (I think I have an entire family tree to thank for that piece of DNA). The cancer is plain scary (mom, grandma, grandpa) and the heart disease (dad, you just never stop giving do you?) is an unpleasant surprise. I didn’t get a really healthy package to work with. I can’t seem to fix things as fast as they break down.

Intellectual curiosity? Definitely mom. Passion for books? Mom again. Ability to tell a funny story? Okay dad, you get a point on that one. All those jokes you told over the years … gads, I’m still telling some of them. They were hoary 50 years ago, no less now. And dad, thanks for this great line. I still use it:

“It isn’t what you don’t know that’ll get you. It’s what you do know that’s wrong.” — Albert Friedman, terrible father, great salesman.

For everyone who gave me a piece of themselves to carry along this strange path called life, I give a hearty “Thanks. I think.”

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