The Story We Were Never Told

I’ve been thinking about what to say at my dad’s memorial, and I have so many wonderful memories. He was such a great dad in so many ways, and a great friend to all who knew him.

And I realized that there is no reason, on this occasion, to bring up the fact that Bob’s father, Bob Senior, was institutionalized — and subjected to shock therapy — after burning a barn on his farm in Maryland.

This was a central fact of Bob’s life, but I don’t think this is the time or place to talk about it, except, perhaps, as an explanation of why he was so anxious for the last 12 years of his life. He was so afraid of going crazy that he went crazy

For my close-bound cousins and me, this has been the story we were never told. My cousins and I are closebound because of our grandmother, Essie, who taught us all how to be decent human beings.

But Essie rarely spoke about Bob Senior, her first husband, our grandfather, who passed away before we were born. I remember once trying to direct the conversation that way.

“It’s hard to be with someone who’s not quite right,” she said, and beyond that we don’t really know anything more…

Except there are some clues in the works of my uncle and godfather, Nathaniel Hartshorne, my favorite author of all time — in a class with Dumas, Pushkin and the blind Greek guy.

Uncle Nat wrote a play about a kid visiting his dad in the mental institution. The dad keeps asking the kid for matches, so he can smoke… I never realized how funny that was.

Then the dad introduces the kid to a fellow inmate who asks, “Is this the kid you’re always bragging about?”

And the dad says, “No.”

Ouch. Uncle Nat is like Hemingway. He tells the truth and let the chips fall as they may.

Then in one of his short stories, Uncle Nat talks about the farm in Maryland, how Bob Senior went nuts and bolluxed everything up to where he had to burn down the barn, and, apparently, got caught.

Uncle Nat doesn’t provide any further information on this p0int.

To understand the story fully, you have to know that Essie and Bob Senior once entertained the governor of New Jersey and many other notables at Mona Lea, their estate in Red Bank, where my father and his brothers grew up and where Essie’s dramatic productions gathered together an acting company that survives to this day.

She loved to have the Russian Army show up at critical junctures, which gave the hair and make-up departments their chance to shine.

Essie herself was among the very last Americans to visit tsarist Russia. She took the train from Russia to France in July of 1914 — with her cousin Edmund Wilson. One month later and they would have found themselves  in a Solzenitsin novel.

Bob Senior did great in 1929 because he had money on hand when there were a lot of bargains around. He bought a purple Packard.

But he got torpedoed by the collapse of 1936. That’s when he pulled out of the market and bought the farm in Maryland…

My dad used to talk about his dad buying a purple Packard and raising Scotties in Maryland. But he never said a word about what happened at the farm.

For us, the grandchildren, Mona Lea was like Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, an ideal that could not survive into the present day.

And the ensuing catastrophe in Maryland was simply something no one ever talked about, ever, even though this story is at the center of our family history.

I can’t believe I never asked my mother about it; but I never did. Too close for comfort, I guess.

Our grandfather, Bob Senior, died of a stroke in 1950, just before my older brother was born. Whether he came home and got better after his treatment, you’d have to ask my Uncle Nat. Nobody else knows diddly squat.