By Richard Ammon
June 20, 2010
There have been several fathers and grandfathers in my life, some known in person, others through family stories, others by name only. My father and his father were the only ones I knew in person. My mother’s father died before my birth. All my great grandfathers were long deceased before me with only tales and bits of memory to bind them to me.
I think about these men and their times and their families and how things have changed so much that separates us, my life from theirs. My great grandparents and grandparents were all born in the 19th century, my parents in the early 20th century and my siblings and I came along about mid-century. We are now into the 21st century and into a lifestyle hardly recognizable to my ancestors.
I’m tempted to say the most significant difference between me and my forefathers is that I am gay, but this has not the significance one might think. Rather, I think the big change is the freedom I have; the choices I have open to me–and the money to make the choices happen.
My predecessors were all married in their young twenties (a couple of the women in their late teens) and started having children. My mother was 22 at the birth of her first child, my father was 26. My grandfather was a parent at 25.
None of these men were outstanding in wealth but rather had steady, mundane and routine work in American industry, grandfather as a maintenance foreman, my father was an accountant. Great-grandfather wrenched his way from Switzerland and was a manual pick-up worker most of his 54 years.
Saddled with kids and hemmed in by modest incomes their lives, their choices, were circumscribed by events of their own making (not necessarily chosen), the sort of events that followed cultural tradition and heterosexual orientation. My non-collegiate grandfather did see all his six children go to college of one kind or another. My father went to Bucknell University where he got a wife as well as his degree.
The next step was a job and then came the kids, four of us, so he never saw London or Paris—but loved Beethoven. The closest my grandfather got to Europe were the letters he received from his Swiss aunts and from his brother John fighting on the Allied front lines in France. (He was killed less than month before the armistice in 1918.)
Before that my great-grandmother apparently took her own life leaving behind six young children (including my grandfather) to be put into a children’s home, an institution. My grandfather never forgave his father for this perceived abandonment, although his father stayed in the area. (My grandfather refused to put a headstone on his grave after his father’s death.) Then a generation later, my father also took his own life.
Angry men with unfinished emotional business, big families and little money. That’s the significant difference I reflect on during this father’s day, 2010.
I’m the first in all my generations not to be a father. I am the most educated (PhD) and by far the most financially well-off of any of these sires. From this well-appointed and comfortable life, along with my long-time partner, I can’t help thinking back on the hard times of my fathers and the ‘caged’ lives they lived.
My great-grandfather likely wanted to be a horse trainer. My grandfather loved to sing and might have performed opera. My father played the violin and might have joined an orchestra (and might have been gay).
My heart feels heavy for these men. I wish they had had my freedom to claim their authentic selves without the hindrances of obedience and conformity. Instead they made families, intentionally or not, and spent their productive years providing for their offspring, going to work, repairing the roof, raising chickens or growing vegetables.
I look around today and see men in young parenthood pushing strollers and watching the birds fly and the wind playing with the trees, and I wonder…