Six years ago I wrote the following about a trailer for Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life: “It’s basically saying that the cosmic light of the altogether is out there and within us, but the rough and tumble of survival (along with some brutal parenting at the hands of a guy like Brad Pitt‘s character) keeps us in a morose and damaged place. And what a sadness that is when brutalized kids (Sean Penn‘s character) grow up and start passing the grief along.”
I dealt with a fair amount of dark-cloud vibes from my late dad, an advertising guy who passed eight years ago this month. I’d like to think that I didn’t pass along the bad stuff to my sons, but of course I did to some extent. This is especially true concerning my younger son, Dylan, and for this I am truly sad and sorry. This morning I happened upon a piece that I wrote about my father a couple of days after his passing. It’s honest and decently written, and in honor of all that water under the bridge…
“My father, James T. Wells, Jr., had 86 years of good living, mostly. He was miserable at the end, lying in a bed and watching the tube and reading and sleeping and not much else. I think he was okay with moving on because his life had been reduced to this. He was a good and decent man with solid values, and he certainly did right by me and my brother and sister as far as providing and protecting us and doing what he could to help us build our own lives.
“But he was also, when I was a kid and a teenager, a crab and a gruff, hidden-away soul (his Guam and Iwo Jima traumas as a Marine during World War II mashed him up him pretty badly) and, when he got older, something of a curmudgeon. But not altogether. He could be funny about it. Mean funny. Two or three years before his death we were in a Woodbury luncheonette, and when one of the waitresses called out to another in a nasally tone — ‘Jeanine!’ — my dad delivered a nasal imitation that was audible to several diners sitting nearby — ‘Jeanine!’
“I feel very badly for his suffering the indignities of old age and the mostly horrible life my dad lived over his final year or two. I know that whatever issues I have with my manner, attitude or personality, it is my charge alone to deal with, modify and correct them. But I also know deep down that Jim Wells was the father of it. He lived in a pit so deep and dark.
“He was a lifelong Democrat who hated John Wayne for his pro-war posturings. He liked Simon and Garfunkle but never got the Beatles, which always flabbergasted me. He actually thought that Michael Herr‘s Dispatches was a waste of time. My younger brother Tony once tried to get him to watch Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey , and he wouldn’t do it.
“He lived in his own world (I know — who doesn’t?) and could be a real pain to hang with at times. He was quite the wit when he felt like it, but he could be curt. Socially he always turned on the charm but boy, was he someone else with his family! He was foul and nasty and a snappy contrarian about everything during a road trip we took to Lake George in the late ’90s. Dylan (who was ten at the time) and I did everything we could to escape his company.
“I distinctly remember feeling tearful in 1986 when I learned of the death of Cary Grant, whom I’d always regarded as a debonair uncle of sorts. I didn’t feel anything close to that when I heard the news about my dad the night before last. The truth is the truth.
“The best thing that happened between the two of us is that he taught me not to be like him. Because he was an aloof, non-affectionate prick with a martini glass in his hand during my childhood, I made a point of being as constantly loving and physically affectionate with my kids as I could, and it woke me to the perils of vodka and lemonade in the mid ’90s. My habit these days is to constantly watch my behavior for traces of Jim Wells-iness, and when I notice myself acting like him, I swerve in the other direction.
“In the summer of ’05 I raised a glass of respect to a former next-door neighbor named Doc Sharer at his 80th birthday party at his home in Westfield, New Jersey. I told him it was my ambition to have his joie de vivre and spirited attitude when I got be his age. I don’t ever want to be like my father was, save for his steadiness, decency, writing skills, creativity and devotion to history and literature. And he did give me the writing bug and the wiseass attitude.
“We went to a 20th Century Fox gathering on the lot a few years ago, and I remember saying aloud upon reading the menu that they would be serving ‘island food.’ Without missing a beat, he looked at me with a solemn expression and said, ‘Staten Island.’ I also introduced him to Tony Curtis during that trip. I remember that he gave Curtis a book of writings by Samuel Johnson.
“That was my dad. I’m sorry for my mom and what she must be going through (which I can only guess at) but I’m fine with working and posting today because in personal-emotional terms the man was never a pillar of support or strength for me.
“The bottom line for me is that he was the guy who did what he could given his baggage and whatnot — he supported me financially and helped me out of two or three jams when I was a struggling New York freelancer — but emotionally and spiritually he was a bust at fatherhood and knew it. He told me this in so many words in a rare moment of candor in the mid ’70s. He wasn’t cut out for it.
“And one result is that he contributed greatly to psychological and emotional factors that prodded me into being a malcontent — an anti-authoritarian rebel — and which almost turned me into an under-achieving suburban loser. Thank God I had the spirit and the moxie — summoned entirely on my own with no help from anyone — to climb out of that hole.
“I trust my father is now at peace. Outside of his readings of his favorite writers (Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway) and his love of fly fishing, he seemed to find little enough of it while he was alive. He may have known an entire spiritual life that was wonderful and serene for all I know, but the art of the man’s life is that whatever good things were going on inside, he kept most of them hidden.”