J. Laurence Shea, 1907-1966
Jerome Shea June 20, 2009 Weekend Wonk
On this Father’s Day I am taking the liberty of reprinting an essay that I wrote for Century magazine more than 20 years ago. This is for you, Pop, one more time.
It’s three a.m. and I’m up for the second time. Now, at least, I have figured out why. Yesterday my six-year-old son, anticipating donuts, reminded his mother that Father’s Day was getting closer.
My father, long dead, keeps me awake. He keeps me awake because his memory troubles me even while I want so much to celebrate it. That his memory troubles me is my own affair and I will try not to let it intrude here. But it probably will, because the point of my celebration is that my father, whom I now love more than is mortally safe, was a tragic man.
What a wonder to have the ideal father: a judicial figure, redolent of pipe smoke in his book-lined study; or a steel worker father, home at night, sweaty, and tossing you three miles in the air. My father was part of these. Make no mistake, he was a good man. I went off with him on school holidays. I sat outside in the Oldsmobile while he charmed the socks off his clients. Then we would roar home, he happily bawling out the highway incompetents while I thrilled to the 300 horses under the hood. He was a good man. Witty, he was, and he loved people knowingly. He knew kids: he brought my buddies and me back in line many times when we were growing up. The whole adolescent mixture of idealism, lust, and confusion he could capture and signal in one bittersweet grin. I will always remember him grinning. I think he was born with crow’s feet.
Evidently I’m talking about a poet, and he had the poet’s blindside. My father’s tragic flaw was love. I don’t mean floozies in far-flung hotels rooms. No, my father loved only my mother, and with his whole soul. She was his everything, his heart’s necessity, under all the wisecracks, under all the mix of sentimentality and tough guy that men expect of themselves. She was more than his better half: she was his whole. Any fledgling shrink can point out the risks there; any romantic poet, if you catch him sober, will admit them.
My mother did deserve that love, and she took his adulation gracefully. Every evening, in a fresh dress, she welcomed him and they had a quiet time in the high-backed chairs in the living room in front of the picture window. Home was the harried salesman, home from the roads, loving his wife, his sons, his piece of the world. And life was good. Pop always said, “Twenty-five cents more you go first class,” so we managed Oldsmobiles and steaks and big Sunday breakfasts.
He seldom gave direct advice, but one piece of it I can still see him barking out, with fear behind his eyes: “Never be a ‘weak sister.’ Nobody loves a weak sister.”
My mother spent 1957 and 1958 dying. The breast cancer was misdiagnosed or mis-treated or something. The mastectomy came too late, and maybe one can’t blame the state of the art in those days. Pop and I were there on the September morning when she died at home. Dr. Farquhar, an old and good friend, shook our hands. Then I sat out front by the dogwoods, waiting for the workaday hearse to come. It was a soft, beautiful day.
Grim stuff follows, but not right away. What has to be told and celebrated is that first year or so, perhaps the finest in my father’s life. With his pins knocked out from under him, with despair grinning as surely as it must grin at the climber flung off the mountain, Pop recognized his own frailty then looked despair full in the face and gave it the proper obscene gesture.
Some years ago I started a poem, but never finished it. The best I could do was “You gave me so much more / Than coffee and peaches.” But he did give that, every morning, early. He didn’t just shuffle me off to college; he hurtled me off to college, well fed with more than breakfast. Wryly he dubbed the house Happy Hollow Boys Ranch, and every single Saturday he led our attack on it—vacuuming, dusting, washing windows inside and out. He beat back despair with Bon Ami and Glaswax. There is a lot to be said for appearances, for whatever self-respect takes. Because of Pop I know, better than books ever taught me, that tragedy is pain turned into hard joy and tremulous defiance.
Despair did get him. He was, I like to think, whistling and wisecracking along, the only and bravest Larry Shea in the world, when despair jumped out from behind some damn bush and took him down. Drink followed. Drink did the most, but there is nothing so self-righteous as a young and very terrified twenty-year-old. “Shape up!” was the only advice I could scream, so I screamed it over and over again.
He did shape up, finally, marrying a woman who did him a lot of good for a couple of years until she herself was cheated when he died in the night. I had just got back from showing off my new master’s degree when the phone rang and I caught a plane.
“Hey, I thought you’d left,” said the guy at the gas station.
“I did, but Pop died last night.”
“Oh Jesus,” he said, his face crumpling. Everybody loved Pop.
That’s why I’m awake now, with a pale blue over the Sandias that most of us seldom see. For 40 years I’ve been my father’s son, so I will glory in the good stuff and take my chances with the rest. I’m sad that my own heart’s necessity, waking up in a few minutes to jog, never knew Pop. Nor, of course, did the kids, one in a bed, one in a crib.
With all my heart’s strength, Pop, I salute you.
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