Who knew spreading his ashes could be so much fun,
He was always a bit of an enigma, my father.
Born the only child to an older, stage-and-silent-movie-actress mother and entrepreneur father who died when he was eleven, my father lived a lonely life away at boarding school and later a military academy.
When we were still very young, his mother lived in a nursing home in the small, Maine town where we grew up. It was our mother who took us to visit. My father refused to go. We never really understood why that was so, and it remained mysteriously, weirdly astonishing to us until she died.
As we grew older, he could present to friends as erudite,urbane, and a slick dresser, yet, on the other hand, show up late for mass on Sunday wearing a trench coat over shorts exposing bare legs shod in loafers with no socks like some kind of flasher, a source of shame. This was the same guy who wore men’s sock garters and shined his shoes every morning before work. Who the hell did this?
Because we figured he had suffered growing up, my five younger siblings and I felt sorry for him and kind of forgave him a lot of shit that included walking out on our mother and us for a year when I was 13 and my youngest brother was 2, and then returning to grace us with another sixteen years of alcoholism before our family had an intervention, got him sober, and he decided, finally, to leave for good.
He moved to California without a dime and reinvented himself initially working as a janitor at a burger joint (some kind of penance?) before slowly getting his life together marrying again, making a successful living in real estate, and giving back to the AA community.
Over the remaining thirty years, he came East once, sometimes twice a year. These visits usually precipitated conflicting feelings of dread because he stirred up the past and took up so much space, and the hopeful anticipation that my indifference about him might warm, and, as a now adult, I might actually enjoy seeing him.
After all these years, I still can’t decipher the heart’s language of what he means to me. I guess I loved him. Not in the Father’s-Day-card kind of way( I never sent one), but more like a funny uncle from whom I learned resilience, a terrific sense of the ridiculous, and a love of The New Yorker cartoons of George Booth.
When my dad died five years ago from lung cancer, and much like the time thirty-one years earlier when he left, he decided he’d had enough and checked out before any of us could get on a plane to see him one last time.
He’d often stated in the past that when he died he wanted no service, and we could just bury his ashes in an old coffee can. We made good on the no service request but not quite the coffee can and opted, instead, for a more traditional, unadorned urn. But what we did do surely would have made him laugh.
After scattering some ashes at the lake he loved and his parents’ grave site back home, the six of us, along with several of his grandchildren, carried what remained of his ashes in a baggie to New York City, a favorite haunt of his youth.
We had bandied about the likes of MetLife Stadium, home to his beloved Giants, and The Meat Packing District on the far west side where his ancestors had once thrived, but it wasn’t until we found ourselves milling around on a street in Midtown when in a moment of pure spontaneity, one of us — I like to believe it was me — hatched the perfect plan.
Where we were exactly was the corner of Madison Avenue and East 44th Street, in front of the flagship store of the iconic menswear brand, Brooks Brothers, his favorite store. The plan was the six of us would grab a hefty pinch of dad, and with hands in pockets, sneak a dribble here and there throughout the store where he could shop and preen among the expensive suits and ties for all eternity.
The plan was met with hoots of Yes! That’s perfect! He’d love this! And like a pack of gleeful adolescents trying to stifle smirks and smiles, we entered its gentleman’s- club-like inner sanctum trying to appear nonchalant.
What I remember next is that we scattered like city rats in every direction trying to cover as much territory as we could, all the while throwing both caution and dad to the wind.
I took to the stairs to find the expensive suits, a favorite. Someone else hit ties, of which he owned hundreds. Since there weren’t many people in the store, we had to act fast because we quickly drew the attention of store staff who probably suspected they’d been hit by some motley shoplifting ring.
One by one we eventually tumbled out of the store in a gasping, laughing heap in front of our kids. I thought to myself, all in all it was a pretty benign caper but was this the kind of behavior we should have been modeling?
I figured wrong. The overwhelming consensus among his grandchildren was that he would have gotten a big kick out of it.
I wondered maybe this could become a thing? Do other families have similar tales?
Brooks Brothers filed bankruptcy in 2020; its flagship store is now closed, and the real estate will be repurposed to accommodate some other business venture. But whenever I think of this most American of iconic brands, I’ll picture my father outfitted in his finest suit, shined shoes, garters, and all.