My Father has been a peripheral character in this blog. It is very difficult for me to write about him. Mainly, because of our complicated relationship that was ultimately unresolved due to his early death. He died in 1983 when I was 24 years old and he was 54. We had a complex relationship that, 30 years later, I am still trying to understand.
When I knew him, he was one of the Don Drapers of “Mad Men”fame. A man of his time and place, a salesman driven to succeed for his family. A man who shoved convention down everyone’s throat- including his own. That was how he was raised…
Daddy, and I will call him Daddy like a good Southern boy, was a complicated man. He was brutal, he was funny, he was brave, he was fragile and he was a survivor. He was also a slave to his times. I realize that now. He was a man who embraced the role he was given to play because he did not know any better and wasn’t brave enough to challenge it.
After 30 years of reflection, I like to think I almost understand him.
And I have almost forgiven him….
There is a saying that all girls become their Mothers and all men become their Fathers. The older I get, the more truth I see in that truism.
My Father’s story is one that I’ve pieced together from whispered conversations and funeral confessions. That’s how one finds what passes for truth in the South.
He came from a complicated background that could only have resulted in a complicated man. His parents married and divorced within months of his birth. That simply was not done in Virginia in the late 1920’s.
I don’t think he ever recovered from not knowing his own father. From what I know, his Grandmother, known to one and all as Mrs. Rush, ruled the roost. From all I heard from his relatives she was a “hard woman.” In today’s vernacular, that means a total bitch. From the pictures I have, she was one scary woman.
She did not approve of my Grandmother and his mother, Susan Catherine Rush, marrying Jasper Michaels. She did all she could to sabotage the marriage after they eloped.
She was very conscious of being a “Virginia Rush” with claims to the glory of being a FFV (First Family of Virginia) by way of my multiple -great grandfather/uncle (depending on the version) Benjamin Rush who was the founder of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and other tales of family lineage. This heritage would haunt my father throughout his life.
Susan Catherine, aka Susie, would have the honor of being the first divorcee in the family and the first one to go to the looney bin.
Apparently my Great Grandmother, Mrs. Rush, saw the scandal of divorce- and it was a scandal in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s- as preferable to allowing the marriage to continue.
This was not talked about when I was growing up. My father never met his father until late in his life. Mrs Rush erased him.
Mrs Rush kept her daughters close. Her daughters were Lily, Mary and Susie and they lived together most of their lives. Lily was married and had children, but eventually returned to the fold just like Susie. Lily was the plain, practical one. Mary, forever known as “Little Mary”, the family beauty, was the virgin spinster aunt of Southern lore. She was the pretty, fragile one who went to a tuberculosis asylum in the mountains in her youth and returned in “fragile” health until she died at 88.
Susie was the rebel.
I only have one picture of Susie and Jasper. It was in Mrs. Rush’s papers that I somehow inherited. In this picture, Susie is a stark, dark-haired beauty with bobbed hair and a flapper’s dress. I was taken in the mid 1920’s. There is a companion portrait of Jasper Michaels, a handsome, dapper man in a suit with half a mustache. I’ve always wondered what happened to the other half….I can’t help but suspect alcohol was involved.
Family legend was that Jasper was a gambler and, in Mrs Rush’s view, not good enough for Susie. Therefore, she broke up the marriage.
With all these elegant Virginia ladies of the 1920’s there was only one problem. It was a problem epidemic at the time. No money. Old name, lovely house but no visible means of support. Susie eventually became the one to support them- by working in a cotton mill. I can only imagine Mrs Rush’s thoughts as she confiscated and cashed Susie’s checks.
But my father was the family prince with four women devoted to his upbringing and development. He was the hope and dream of the four Rush ladies.
Eventually, Susie faded into the bread winner role and was put aside as the drudge.
The mill broke Susie.
There is another picture of Susie at my parent’s wedding. My mother’s family is showing their rough-hewn West Virginia roots. Susie, who was by then a mill rat, is wearing a hat with a jaunty feather and gloves. The only one besides my Mother wearing gloves- the then true mark of a lady of that time. But her face is thin and haunted. She would be put away in the State Mental Hospital, for the rest of her life, within a year of that photo.
There are many versions of the story as to why Susie was put away. My favorite version is that she called my parents one night and told them she had ground up a coca cola bottle in her Waring blender and made it into a milk shake and drunk it to try to kill herself. My mother swore to my sister that she had Susie committed because Susie tried to kill her with a knife. No one who knew my mother would view that as grounds for insanity….
That was in the early 1950’s. In all versions of the story, my mother was instrumental in putting Susie away. She forced the issue. And Susie would spend the rest of her life in the State Hospital for the insane.
My sister and I spent a good part of our childhood bracing ourselves for our annual visit to Granny Susie. We hated those visits and the Susie we saw then was the only Susie we ever knew. Daddy would park the car and go to check in with the administrators to check Susie out for our visit.
While we were waiting, the free-roaming, less insane inmates would come around the car, climb on the hood, beat on the windows and beg for money and cigarettes. Lou, my mother, said “just ignore them.” She was a master at ignoring the unpleasant.
We would take Susie out and drive her around Staunton and later Petersburg, Virginia. We would take her to civil war battlefields and drive her through decaying downtowns. She refused to recognize my Mother, the enemy, and asked questions like: “Why are all those colored people walking around?” She carried a notebook and made marks every time she saw a “colored” person. She could barely keep up in downtown Petersburg.
My Father talked to her like a person. To the rest of us, she was much less than that….
We had not known her before the breakdown and commitment….
This went on for more years than I can recall….
Jasper Michaels, my Grandfather, was never mentioned….
Susie died sometime in the 1970’s. I think I was around 12, I was there alone with my Father when the telegram came. Yes, a telegram. He said: “My Mother is dead.” and started to cry. The first time I ever saw him do that…
I remember saying: “Good. That means we don’t ever have to go back to that place.”
He slapped me. Not for the first time, but with more justification than usual. He said: “You heartless little bastard, my mother is dead. You don’t understand.”
I didn’t. I just walked away and roamed around the yard until he pulled himself together…
We had the funeral in Danville and everyone pretended Susan Catherine Rush had a normal life and a normal death. The secrets were to be buried with the body….
But my Uncle Joe, Susie’s brother’s wife, “Big Mary”, pulled my Father aside at the reception at our house after the funeral.
In the South, Funerals are a time for confessions. It’s a cliche, but it is true….
Big Mary said to my Father: “I have to tell you something. It’s time.”
Mary told a story. It seems my Grandfather Jasper, the man my Father thought had abandoned him and his Mother, had sent letters, presents and cards to him for years after the divorce. He had tried to see him on several occasions. Mrs Rush had destroyed the cards and presents and refused to let him into the house to see him or Susie….
Apparently, this had gone on for years after the divorce…
My Father never knew his Father cared….
At age 40 something, his whole world was turned upside down.
Shortly there after, Big Mary and my immediate family all piled into my Father’s new Ford LTD and went to see his Father.
Jasper was a little old man living with a woman, not his wife, in High Point, North Carolina. She would not receive us, but Jasper came out and we drove off, parked the car and visited in a parking lot.
He confirmed Big Mary’s story….
We took some pictures.
And we never saw Jasper again….
(to be continued)
Sharing the stories that our families once tried to hide is both brave and helpful. Many such stories bring lives into focus that had formerly seemed blurred and distorted. Thank you, Scott.