Sunday in the Park
The black-and-white photo of the smiling, handsome man, in the fitted suit and tie, with the slicked-back, thick black hair and mustache, is probably circa 1955. He is sitting behind an executive-style desk with his feet up. His eyes are full of mischief. Think Don Draper from the hit series, "Mad Men," add the ‘stache and you’ve got it just about right.
It is one of the very few pictures I have of my father, who was asked to leave our family when I was six.
Lots of folks love the television series that focuses on advertising men and women in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The hard-drinking, oversexed, class-distinct, bigoted characters make for award-winning riveting drama. For me, they are a kind of anthropological research — a viewing of the lifestyles that family members never really shared with me.
My father was in sales. An electronics firm. Real estate. I’m not certain of it all. He had a Purple Heart from the war, but I don’t know how he earned it. He was a decent golfer and I was told he won the "Am" part of the Bing Crosby Pro/Am at Pebble Beach somewhere in this period. He liked steak and champagne, but I remember him showing me how good melon tasted when you poured a little salt on it. He had an infectious laugh and people liked to be around him. And just like those characters on the show, he drank his lunch. Often. He stayed out late at card games. And he got in a car accident, with another woman in another state, while he was married to my mother. Which signaled the end of that marriage.
I came home from first grade one day to find my mother’s mother sitting at the red-Formica chrome-rimed kitchen table with my mother. Who was in tears. My mother proceeded to tell me that our sassy Pomeranian dog, Tabasco, had been hit by a car and killed. And by the way, my father wasn’t going to live with us anymore.
I was never sure if she was crying because the dog died or because my father was leaving.
Being a child of divorce in the ’50s was still slightly scandalous, and my mother was now twice divorced. With no college degree and no marketable skills, ill-equipped for the work world, she took a string of secretarial jobs (insert here the full figure of the series character, Joan, and the hair to match). Mother dated. A lot.
By the time I entered high school, I had only seen my father once, in all those years since. He had come back to pick up a set of golf clubs. My mother played a fierce game with him involving child-support payments and a kind of complicated emotional blackmail for past indiscretions. I knew none of that. I just thought he didn’t want to see me.
When I was a freshman, my mother remarried. When I was a sophomore, she had it annulled. (In my junior year she remarried that same man and in my senior year she divorced him.) She picked me up at school one day, which never, ever happened. She told me the very gruesome details of my father’s death, in a fire of his own accidental alcoholic starting, in a house he was living in, in Australia. Then she told me something about her plans to be gone for the weekend. My immediate sense of abandonment was breathtaking.
So I watch the popular drama with a kind of morbid fascination. I find myself wanting to jump inside the set and have a serious talk with Don Draper about where his destructive behavior might lead and the long-term effects it may have on his children. I want to caution the writers not to let Don’s character continue on with his success AND his drinking. I want to see what happens to the children of his divorce, who clearly adore their father and struggle with their mother’s instant remarriage to a much older man. In an era where civil rights and free love and marijuana and hippies are about to be introduced, what happens to his oldest child, Sally, who is not yet a teenager but still a formidable child?
As clearly dangerous as I now know it was, I want to ride again, standing up, on the long bench seat of my daddy’s fire-engine-red Cadillac. Ride to the smoke shop where I could load up an empty cigar box with penny candy while my father pretended to buy cigars but really was placing bets with his bookie. I want to find who that man was and ask him so very many questions. But for now I will try to understand how immortal these men, who had survived war, must have felt upon returning to a land of so many opportunities and shifting mores. How they were heroes with secrets who used booze and women to anesthetize their scars. And I will appreciate the brilliance of writers who can allow me to see a man I never knew but I am starting to understand, just a bit, this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.
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