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Russell Frank: Life Review Includes Regret and Resilience

by on April 06, 2012 6:00 AM

Last weekend we took my dad to a show called “In the Mood: A 1940s Musical Revue” for his 94th birthday.

As the title suggests, he was very much the target demographic. My sisters and I didn’t expect to like it much, but we were pleasantly surprised. The band swung; the singers and dancers could, in fact, sing and dance.

At the end, the cast called on the veterans in the audience to stand, branch by branch. Dad rose with the Air Force guys. Women dabbed at their eyes with crumpled tissues. It was moving in the way that the specific, the flesh-and-blood is always more moving than the abstract: Many of these guys right here had danced to these songs and said goodbye to the very women who sat next to them in the theater. And they had come back, married, worked, raised kids, turned gray, retired. I wanted to interview all of them. I settled for my dad.

My sister Wendy and I joined him in the courtyard of the “independent living” complex in Dallas he now calls home. It was a warm, breezy day. I leaned in close with the recorder to make sure Dad’s voice wouldn’t be drowned out by the airplanes and air conditioners.

In December he and I had done a session that covered his Depression-era childhood and his WWII experience. Now, picking up where “In the Mood” left off, I wanted to know about his work life and family life in the ‘50s and beyond.

Things started well enough. Having apprenticed to a printer before the war, Dad got a job at a printing plant after the war. Child No. 1 came in short order. His boss, who took a fatherly interest in my fatherless father, encouraged him to do what everyone was beginning to do: buy a house in the suburbs.

The family grew, the raises came. Bit by bit, though, my parents became victims of their own optimism. They took on more debt than they could pay back. When I was still a toddler they gave up the house and moved us into an apartment. A couple of years later they tried home ownership again – with the same result.

Superficially, life was good: We were well fed and well dressed, had a TV and a car, ate in restaurants and went to ballgames and movies and the beach on occasion. But the ‘60s and ‘70s were an unending struggle. My dad hid it as best he could. Now I wanted to know how he had managed it: How did he live with the stress without breaking down physically or mentally?   

His answer was that he tried not to think about it. Of course. I’ve done the same thing at times. My dad and my sister agreed that he was right to shield us kids from the problems. I’m not so sure. I think kids are both smarter and more resilient than they’re given credit for. Try to hide the truth from them and they’ll get inklings and maybe imagine that things are worse than they are. Tell them the truth and they’ll feel entrusted with responsibility.

I hadn’t expected the conversation to take such a gloomy turn. What about the good parts, I asked. Dad conceded that the good parts were raising the family, but we couldn’t get him to offer any specifics. Possibly he was tired after talking for an hour. Possibly he was no longer “in the mood” after all that recollection of debt and anxiety and failure.

When I was a kid I liked the World Book Encyclopedia entries that featured clear plastic overlays. The article on the human body for example, gave each system -- circulatory, nervous, respiratory, etc. – its own page and as you flipped through you could see the components of each system in isolation from all other other systems.

Imagine an entry on the American middle-class family at mid-century. On the first page we see this happy crew, gathered around a bountiful dining room table. Flip the page and all the simmering dysfunctions are revealed – adultery, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse.

Luckily, my family didn’t have any of those problems when we were kids and our families don’t have any of those problems now that we’re adults. About the worst that can be said of us is that we’re fretful – we worry too much.

Right now, I look at the decisions my dad made 50 years ago, decisions that must have seemed like the right moves at the time or he wouldn’t have made them, and I worry that in a few more decades I’m going to be the guy in the independent living complex, tormented by regret.

On the other hand, my dad is nothing if not resilient. It’s one of the things I admire most about him. It’s one of the things I admire most about everyone.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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