Friday, January 27, 2012

The Fifty Year Itch

It is the first taste of summer, the first Friday of June, when the sun and wind are in perfect tune. It is the eve of my 50th birthday and the start of our 50th year in business. We are together again, just as we often are. My father sits on the front porch of our office in his classic white, high-backed rocking chair, too afraid to rock, and I stand beside him, too uncomfortable to sit. The depth of our conversations is narrowing.
He wants to talk shop and I want him to realize just how fortunate he is. How, at the age of 84, his ailments are minuscule compared to his quick sinking circle of friends.  He clings to his independence - his stubborn, thick Irish temperament - while I patiently wait for him to need me just as I have always needed him.  I wait for his Parkinson’s disease to slow him down enough for us to get to know each other.  I want to understand what fuels him, what haunts him, and what his regrets are.
“I started this business the year you were born,” he boasts.
“Yes, I know Dad.” I put my hand on his shoulder and he bristles, then shoots me a disapproving glare. My father does not like being touched.  I have no memory of him reaching out to me, holding my hand or wrapping his arms around me.  Lifting me up into a limitless sky the way Daddy’s often do.  Twirling me around and around.  Smiling, just for me.  Believing in me.
To avoid his sign of disapproval, I turn and look away.  I look across the street, past the towering juniper tree that guards the unpretentious two-family house that my father bought back in the early 80’s. He lives here now, in the first floor apartment, because he can no longer climb stairs. This is the same house I raised my son, Kerry, in and where he would return, years later, to raise his son. 
I look across the street, to the same two-family house where, 7 years ago, I found my son.  Lifeless. 
I look past the roofline, the green-shingled roofline.  I look past the chimney top and tips of neighboring homes.  I look past the limitless sky - upward, onward, closer to my son. I look for clarity, conviction, and guidance.
“Fifty years, fifty YEARS” my father groans, “Where did the time go.”
He founded Kennedy Security Services long before there was such a thing as no-fault divorce. With a cocked camera, pencil and pad at his side, he spent years shadowing adulterers – trailing unsuspecting husbands and less-than-perfect wives.  Primed in high school  as  a track and football star, he carried his competitive nature with him. He drank and ate more than his share - balancing it all with a plethora of women.
He ran with the best of them: affluent lawyers, doctors, politicians and businessmen. He was free spirited, gregarious and fun -- a welcome relief from the stiff shirts his white-collar friends encountered on a regular basis.
When they offered him a referral he took it. When they opened a door he walked swiftly through it. When they spoke of impending change, he listened. Hard.
“Dad, what made you want to start a security company?” I ask.
He laughs.
“Dad, why security? Why not be a cop?”
He laughs harder.
I push harder.
“Dad, tell me what to tell your grandchildren and your great grandchildren.  Tell me what motivated you, what made you who you are.  Tell me why you never stopped. Tell me why you were always such a hard ass!”
I pushed too hard.  His eyes point downward, his head slumps forward, his mouth opens and he sighs.  Two deep breaths later, he is fast asleep.

By the mid 60’s Greenwich, Connecticut, catapulted from a quaint, coastal New England community, into a city overflowing with opulence and opportunity. To match the demographics, he restructured the company into a full-scale, private security agency specializing in uniformed guard services for high-profile corporations, grand scaled events, and lavish homes.
But Greenwich is not where I grew up.  My parents divorced when I was two years old; I have no memory of them being together.
When I asked my mother why, she’d tell me that my father had an explosive temper, that he was loud, impatient, and uncouth, and that us kids made him nervous.
She told us about the time he came home early, and angry, and how my sister Colleen climbed into the attic to escape his fury -- screaming that ants were crawling all over her, when there were no ants in sight.
We left Greenwich in the dead of night. Mom packed everything she wanted, including a parakeet and us two kids, into a 1960’s Studebaker she nicknamed Betsy, and we headed to a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Surrounded in rural simplicity, we settled into an old country farmhouse on a dead end street that butted up to a wooded hill we kids called Snake Mountain.  Our yard included overgrown apple trees and a badly weathered barn with an attached, two-car garage.
A few blocks away lived Mom’s aunt and uncle, both of her brothers, their happily married wives, and a brood of cousins.  Their cohesive welcoming added calmness to our disjointed lives. But despite their efforts, it was obvious that our family was not intact. And I, the only one with dark hair, stood out as a constant reminder of my father. 
“If you wrap a towel around their head you can’t tell them apart,” my mother would say when asked which one of us kids was Colleen and which was Shannon. “They’re only 15 months apart - practically Irish twins.”
The only other one with hair my shade was Aunt Pauline and Uncle Zibe’s forever roaming mutt, a rat terrier mix that folks called by his full name, Blacky Martin. Blacky Martin was known for breaking into people’s houses and impregnating their purebreds. Every dog in the neighborhood looked a little bit like him and, like me, he was fiercely independent, stubborn, and unruly. 
I remember passing Blacky Martin as I wandered down the hill to an old feed store in the center of town. In the back was a large barn where they stored bundles of hay. They would stack them one on top of the other, creating mounds of soft cushion, perfect for jumping. I would leap from one bail to the next. Sometimes I’d jump so high, I was convinced I could fly. Everything about this place made me happy.
Occasionally I would steel salt licks and handfuls of hay -- things I would need to feed the pony I was determined to get. I even had a name for him: Chester.
After receiving a satisfactory report card, I dialed my father, stretched the cord of our harvest-gold wall-mounted kitchen phone to the far end corner of our pantry, cupped the receiver with both hands so no one could hear me, and begged for my faithful foal.
I didn’t know much, but I knew I was my father’s favorite. I was his “Black Irish,” and my pleading was impossible to resist. My father’s YES was no sooner celebrated than it was squished. 
“Absolutely NOT,” yelled Mother.  If it were not for her, I believed, I’d have had everything I wanted – a pony and a father. 
Mother may have been the boss of me, but she could not control me.  I was, and still am, a dreamer.  My dreams would take me anywhere I wanted to go. In the world of my imagination, I spent my days riding Chester across golden wheat fields that blanketed the crest of Snake Mountain.  Then, I would sneak him down densely wooded, serpentine trails, and into our barn in the dead of night. I’d feed him apples; watch his long, scratchy tongue lap the salt licks. I brushed his sleek, dark, mane. Chester was my favorite thing in the world, next to my father.
All was well until I started telling the kids at school about Chester.
Camille was new to the neighborhood.  She moved to Shavertown, Pennsylvania from Connecticut - the same state my father lived in. Her clothes were cooler than mine. Her house was newer and neater than mine. I wanted her to like me, so I invited her over for a ride on Chester.
Standing inside our dilapidated barn, I explained, “Chester’s not here right now, but this is his stall, he sleeps here.  And this is his hay, and these are his salt lick. He really likes his salt lick.”
“Where did he go?” she asked.
“He’s off gallivanting,” I told her.
Gallivanting is a term my mother used often when she spoke of my father, and it sounded like so much fun to me.
Sometimes, when I missed my father the most, I’d sneak out of my bedroom, down our slippery, uncarpeted staircase, out the back door and into the barn. There, snuggled in ever-growing mounds of hay, I’d drift off to sleep.
“Wake up Dad,” I shout.  I put my hand back on his shoulder and a shake him, gently at first.  When he does not stir I shake him harder. “Wake up old man,” I demand.
He hates being thought of as an “old man” and I am pleased to know that I can still get under his skin. 
He blinks twice and then bounces right back into his favorite topic – the good old days.
 “Our office used to be on Greenwich Avenue. Right where the Ralph Lauren store is going,” he reminds me. “They picked it up and moved it here back in the 50’s.”  
In the late 70s, my father moved his understated office above a string of trendy shops on West Putnam Avenue into a house owned by the family of a close friend - a local lawyer who went on to become the first selectman of Greenwich. The even side of the street is business zoned, allowing him to transform this colonial revival into a comfortable work and living space.
“Will you look at that,” he says as he points to the ornate black iron railing wrapped around the second tier balcony of our newly constructed neighbor. – a 5300 square foot, federalist-styled brick town house stuffed into a ¼ acre lot. It’s perimeter brick wall butts exactly 8 feet from our foundation.  “THAT is gaudy!” he adds.
It’s “urban sophistication,” I tell him.
“Well, I think its shit,” he contends.
Because we are located in the heart of downtown Greenwich, 40 minutes outside of New York City and within walking distance to the train and Long Island Sound, our address is in high demand.
 “No need for a car,” my father will tell you. School, library, church, grocery store, drug store, restaurants and boutiques - everything is in close range.
You’ll hear the locals complain a lot about how much the town has changed yet its upscale essence remains. A community infused with wealth, culture, and charm. A population of 60,000 thrive here along with one hundred of Connecticut’s largest corporations. Museums, a symphony, polo grounds, and marinas interlace with 8,000 acres of protected land - including 32 miles of coast, 20 parks, four beaches and a municipal golf course.
“They should have NEVER made the Avenue one way,” growls my father, “and you can’t get a decent hot dog, let alone a burger now that Finch’s is out of business.”
My father wore many hats before he struck it big. One of his favorites was “soda jerk” at the food counter in Finch’s Drug Store. It’s been 20 years since Mom and Pop stores ran the Avenue, trampled by trendy trademarks such as, Kate Spade, Baccarat, Tumi, and Tiffany. If it’s a $5,000 vase you’re looking for I can easily point you in the right directions these days, but nowhere can you find a needle and thread.
The average net worth per person is 430 thousand, the typical home costs an estimated 2.4 million, and the combined real estate value exceeds 50 billion. Dubbed the “Hedge-fund Capital of the World,” it is easy to see why the affluent flock here.
“You can work three jobs if you want,” he’ll tell you, “You’ll never go hungry here.” This is his way of keeping us grounded.
“Dad, what made you come to the office the day Kerry died?” I ask.
It was Memorial Day, my father was celebrating the beginning of summer over dinner with friends when he sensed an urgency to go to the office. He walked in not knowing what he would find just as I did not know what I would find when I walked into my son’s house, 30 minutes earlier.  But unlike my father, I had no hint of the devastation that hid behind the door.
“I don’t know Shannon. I couldn’t eat, my stomach hurt. I knew something was wrong.”
My father has always been instinctually aware of looming work related problems but I had never witnessed this on a personal level.
After discovering my son’s cold gray, lifeless body in the two-family home where he lived, his eyes locked open and upward, I fled in horror and in disbelieve.  I ran down the stairs and out the front door. I ran past the towering juniper tree, across the street, and back to our office.  I ran without looking.  I ran hoping oncoming traffic would hit me, and kill me, so that I could follow my son. 
I reached the office in a panic, grabbed the phone off my fathers desk and collapsed on the floor, in a fetal position, where I rocked and screamed for a very long time. I wanted my father, I needed my father, but I could not dial the phone. I could not focus through my tears.  I could not form words. I could not comprehend a world without my son.
My screaming triggered an involuntary reflex of urination. My skirt was wet, the carpet beside my fathers desk was wet.  My screaming also caused a bulge, a hernia, to form in the pit of my stomach, just below my ribcage. I would moan and massage this mass for days, months and years following Kerry’s death.  I reach for it still. 
A neighbor heard my cry and called the police.  Two squad cars arrived at the same time as my father.  “I killed my son” were the only words I could speak. 
“He was mad at me when he died, Dad” I remind him.
The last thing I said to my son was “get your act together” and this outraged him.  Less than an hour later, he was dead.
“It’s not your fault,” my father reminds me. 
“Today, I know that’s true Dad.  But back then I blamed myself just as I blamed you. I pushed him hard, just as you pushed me.”
Guilt, blame and shame is what I wore when I began my journey through grief.  I search hard and long for answers. I search in places I never thought I’d go. Today, 7 years into my journey and 50 years into my life, I realize that Kerry’s death has taught me many things, mainly how to live. 

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Thank you for encouraging my JOY of writing. By reading and commenting you are feeding my soul, stroking my heart, and in the end...making me a better writer.

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Shannon E. Kennedy


Photo by Joan Harrison