Remember Who You Are
By Steve Carr
Thinking about Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June, reminds me that both my parents came from families with long histories of spotty churchgoing traditions. Although Dad preferred to ski or golf on his rare weekends off, he was tacitly supportive of Mom taking us to Sunday school. We didn’t pray together as a family, except to offer gratitude once a year over Thanksgiving turkey. Family dinner conversations focused on the world around us, especially the wonders of Nature and biology. Religion was personal and not discussed.
In Sunday school, I was taught to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. In our home, it was understood that such things were unhealthy for growing boys. The church teachings, at least my gleanings, seemed less about avoiding sin and more about the importance of honoring a commitment of abstinence. You can see why my physician father was only too happy for his boys to receive the church’s endorsement of a good health policy. Typical, I suspect, of the times, our relationship with our father was rather formal. We knew he loved us, we just never heard him say it. Dad’s only refrain to his teenage sons as we’d head out the door on a Saturday night was, “Remember who you are.” Like the Thanksgiving prayer, I guess, he believed that should be enough.
My first job, after getting my driver’s license at fifteen, was to deliver fruit and vegetables for Norton Fruit Company. It didn’t occur to me then, nor for many years thereafter, that Dad’s close friendship with Earl Norton may have played some small role in me landing the coveted position. Occasionally, my route called for a delivery to one of the many local bars.
One early afternoon, I pushed a hand truck with boxes of lemons and limes through the alley delivery door of a narrow, sixty-watt-lit, downtown bar, the walls impregnated for years by cigarette smoke. Even my virgin nose understood there was a whole lot of story there. As I guided the fruit down the narrow hallway, I passed a high-walled back booth. The memory is vivid these decades later, and now as I re-see it, it plays like a scene from a Bogart movie. Sitting in the booth, his back to the front of the bar where only someone coming in from the delivery alley could possibly see him, cigarette burning between practiced fingers in one hand, cocktail clutched in the other, trench coat and fedora hanging on the bench post, was my church leader. Our eyes met, separated by a curl of smoke. Regardless of upbringing, an unsullied fifteen-year-old sees mostly in black and white. I delivered my lemons and hurried out the front door before the bartender could turn me around.
The mix of emotions I felt was new and complex, not unusual I guess for my age. I didn’t understand how complicated life would become. What felt to me like pure hypocrisy then was most certainly a mixed salad. My appearance in the bar that day likely added one more item to the good youth leader’s load. What some part of me did understand, back then, was that there was no chance I would have seen my father in that booth that afternoon. Dad, like all of us, was less than perfect, but had he been in the bar, for any reason, he would’ve been in the front, by the window.