That boy wouldn't know the details surrounding his father's death for many years, until he was a 21-year-old newlywed with a niggling suspicion that he hadn't been told the whole story...and spent hours in the library poring over old newspapers until he uncovered the devastating truth, and then shared his newfound knowledge with his beautiful young bride.
Not a great way to begin a marriage, you might say; but that tall, handsome newlywed with the Paul Newman-blue eyes and the movie star good looks just celebrated 60 years of wedded bliss with his one and only sweetheart. I'd say that's not too shabby, for a boy whose life could have been irreparably shattered by events that took place when he was only six.
After his father died, the boy's mother (who was the eldest of six siblings) went away to attend nursing school and get her career started, so that she could eventually become the sole supporter of her children. The grieving widow left the boy and his younger sister with her mother, who'd become the head of the family after the crash of '29 robbed her father of his financial success and left him a broken man. "Mimi" was a tough-as-nails matriarch, a sensible, hard-working, no-nonsense woman who, when it came to her fatherless grandson (an admittedly sometimes naughty little tyke!), never thought it was best to spare the rod if it meant spoiling the child.
This might sound like some horrifying Dickensian tale, but never fear: that boy adored his upbringing in that tiny town in upstate NY, describing his seven years in his beloved grandmother's care to his own offspring in later years as the most idyllic of childhoods imaginable. He was surrounded completely by women (his grandmother, his sister, and several teenaged aunts who were still living at home at the time); he had no strong males in his life to use as role models for later on, when he would become a husband and dad himself. And yet he was married at 21 and soon after became the dad of many. By the time that boy was just 28, he was already the father of five: three daughters and two sons.
Once, when that boy's eldest daughter's fourth son was six years old, it suddenly occurred to her that he was the same age as her dad had been when he lost his father. The idea of leaving her own boy motherless was so difficult to contemplate that she asked him if he had any memories of his father. "Nope," he said, in the tight-lipped fashion typical of him when he didn't feel like talking about something. "None at all." And the boy's daughter was unspeakably sad when she heard his answer.
But a few years later during a thunderstorm, the daughter realized that her dad hadn't been entirely truthful when he gave her that curt reply. As a fierce storm raged outside, she told him how much thunderstorms frightened her. "Oh, not me," he replied. "I love 'em. One of the earliest memories I have from when I was a little boy is of sitting on my father's lap on the porch, watching the lightning come down."
"Aha!" thought the daughter. "So he does remember his father!" And she was happy, because that meant if she'd died when one of her own boys was only six, he might remember her, too.
That boy is an old man now. His health is deteriorating, and he is facing the end of a long life well lived. He's handling the most recent prognosis from his doctor with his usual courage...because at six, he had to learn how to be brave and strong at a much younger age than most of us have to; at six, he learned to take what life threw at him without complaining or asking for pity. He didn't have a father to show him the ropes when he was growing up, but he learned how to climb them on his own. He was a boy who figured out, all by himself, how to be a man.
I am proud to call that boy my father.