Ode to My Dad

Recently, my cousin Connie sent me an envelope stuffed with photographs, the one above included, as she had recently done a “big purge.” I so appreciated reviving the memories, with photos of my nuclear family at points along our development. It seemed appropriate to focus this week on my Dad, who remains the anchor to our diminishing nuclear family.

I never write about my Dad, though Jimmie says I should, because he is such an interesting man. I don’t know anyone like him, with his memory for details about people’s lives and fortunes and misfortunes. At 87 he only occasionally grasps for the tendrils of a story, (far less often than I do thirty years his junior), but tells them with such conviction that I believe them whether they are true or not. I suspect they are largely true. They are always colorful and a bit dangerous, like the one below which he shared with my brothers and me via email. I hope he will forgive my sharing here.

August 31, 1999

A Short History of Brass Knuckles, by Donald A. Collins
This “pair” of brass knuckles (why is this single, ominous looking instrument of cast brass referred to as a “pair”?) belonged to Alexander Tichnor Collins, born Louisville, KY in 1873, son of Jeremiah “Jerry” Collins, a minor politician and local water company employee and Sarah Collins, who died when young Alex was under 10. Alex was a latch key kid at 12 (e.g. pretty much on his own, coming and going with his own key to the home of his father and the father’s new wife, the latter being someone with whom he did not get along). He went to work for the Louisville Street Railway Co at 16 and became their paymaster by 18, known because of his young age, Kid Collins. Jerry’s brother, Hubbie Collins, was then a star infielder for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, soon renamed Brooklyn Dodgers, and Alex, partly emulating his uncle Hubbie, became an outstanding semi pro player in Louisville.

The knuckles were part of his paymaster equipment, as Saturday paydays could be occasions for trouble. The story most told by my father about Alex, my grandfather, whom I called “Buddy” was about a payday when a robber came into the street railway car used as a payroll car, with windows blocked out and the payor, Alex, sitting at one end, with his bodyguard. The man threatened Alex with a weapon, either gun or knife, but when he got to the desk, the guard took out his Bowie knife, stepped close into the robber and slit the intruder from stomach through breast bone. The guard left town quickly and no charges were pursued in the incident. Justice was a bit quicker in those days.

I was given two of Hubbie’s bats and leather bat case inscribed with his name by my grandfather. In the early days of baseball, the bats were shaped like bottles, not the slim handled beauties of today. Reason: The balls then had less bounce and a solid hit was needed to get the ball going. Hubbie was known for his solid line drives and his base stealing. His club record for runs scored in a single season for the Dodgers in 1991 (148) I believe still stands. Unfortunately, his bats and case were lost in a fire that swept my room and almost burned down our house after a lightening strike on June 1, 1950 in Greensburg.

Hubbie’s lifetime batting average was in the 280s. His team won 2 pennants while he lived. He died of scarlet fever at 26 in 1893 after only 8 professional seasons. His stats are in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Buddy married Irene Shupe of Mt. Pleasant, PA, the daughter of one of the town’s leading citizens, after a whirlwind 10 day courtship, the newly weds went to her home town where Alex became manager of the Oliver P. Shupe Flour Mill, owned by his father in law. Shortly, two sons arrived, my dad, Oliver Shupe Collins (1901), and Alexander T. Collins, Jr. (1909). IMG_0498

Alex, a handsome, personable man with a good sense of humor and an ability to speak in public, was twice elected Burgess (e.g. Mayor) of Mt. Pleasant, then a booming mining town and coking center, where 99 open, polluting coke ovens burned constantly, making huge illuminations against the night sky. Having 100 ovens together incurred a special tax, something their clever owner, the famous H.C. Frick, avoided.

There as in Louisville the Saturday night miners could get a bit drunk and Alex often carried a small “blue” steel pistol for protection as his life was threatened several times by the celebrants who ended in jails overnight. Alex sold the mill in 1942 during WWII, having earlier moved his family to Greensburg, the county seat of Westmoreland County, as he was elected County Treasurer twice, beginning in 1936. He retired just as WWII began, hastened perhaps by the premature death in 1941 of his beloved wife of uterine cancer mis-diagnosed by a local quack.

During WWII, my Buddy and I got very close; he was bored and we would go to the movies often and sit in the front row. Or play gin rummy for hours in my house or that of his other son where he had an apartment. Often in the Summer, he would drive me to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Forbes Field, some 30 miles distant. I became an avid baseball fan, despite the fact that the team in those years had weak ownership and players were even worse than most of those sad wartime teams. After WWII, I went off to college and he continued to live with his younger son, AT Collins and his wife Sarah Steel Collins until shortly before his death in 1958. However, the brass knuckles, which I now use as a paper weight on my desk, and those bottle bats, though long gone, remind me of my Buddy often.

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DAC and Jimmie, April 2018

The occasion above was my Dad’s 87th birthday and his most recent trip to Los Angeles to visit with us. He’s always been good about journeying to see us, even from the days of Jimmie’s and my early marriage, when we were ensconced in the Magic Castle Hotel during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Theatre in Hollywood in 1985.  Initially quite skeptical of our relationship and the difference in our ages, he has come to appreciate my husband as “the older brother I’ve never had.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more generous man than my father, both financially and with sharing his opinions, which he does on almost a daily basis through essay writing. Generally, he and I don’t see eye to eye on many of the topics about which he writes, but he continues to write and enjoys it.

The photos that Connie sent tell the story of our happy childhood, much of the summer days spent in the pool behind my mom’s parents’ house in northeastern PA.

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July 4, 1967

This photo captures us frozen in time, me age 7, Larry to my right, age 9, and Don to my left, age 11. Dad would have been a young father of three at 34. He and my mom had just finished building their home in southwestern Pennsylvania, at the base of the hill where my dad’s parents lived. The young plants around the door are just a fraction of the massive planting spree we did over the next five years or so, on our 1/2 acre plot.

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June 25,1967

When we were home, we had his parents hosting Sunday suppers on the screened in porch up on the hill, and probably about every month or so, we’d head to Wilkes-Barre to visit mom’s parents and her sister’s family who lived nearby.

I’ve learned so many things from my father. That hard work and building relationships are critical to one’s success. He taught us about the value of money and the relationship of money to work, paying us a penny per fly for swatting flies in the summer, and a dollar for every A we brought home on our report cards. You might now call that bribery, but it was motivating, at least until they bought a bug zapper for the back porch. He was a fierce disciplinarian. I won’t soon forget the moment when he discovered a pack of cigarettes under my bed when I was about 14. Or when I lied about pulling and breaking the light cord in the basement during a squeal-inducing game of tag with the Latchaw children. I also won’t ever forget how he and my mother shaped my future by giving me the educational opportunities that I had.

As an adult, he has taught me about getting my affairs in order, living with integrity, how to pick up the check at dinner, and how to speak truth to power. I can’t imagine feeling more appreciated as a daughter. Though he lives across the country, we have a standing date every Saturday or Sunday morning to chat via FaceTime. I wish we could see each other more often in person, but this works really well as a substitute.

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Dad with Terry, my sister-in-law, May 2018

Recently he underwent a knee replacement which is no small feat at 87. We were all relieved it went so well. I’ve seen way too much of the progress of healing (I tend toward queasiness whenever blood or stitches is involved). But I hope he’ll soon be able to get back to the golf course and do his 9 holes daily. This, too, he’s schooled us on: the value of daily exercise and good eating.

So, on the occasion of Father’s Day, thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done to make our lives so rich. Here’s to many more!

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”