A Mystery about My Father

May 22, 2009



When I was a child, it was clear to me that

A) My father was a very intelligent (perhaps brilliant) man.

B) He was unable to get and keep (until late in life) a decent job.

C) My parents’ marriage had been a very bad idea.

One thought that has occurred to me only recently is that my father got my mother pregnant before they were married and that they had to get married. No hint of this was ever spoken to me by any of my relatives, but it might account for their ridiculous and pathetic joining together as a couple.

As I was growing up, I had the impression that my father had started attending the University of Chicago as a young man, but had dropped out about a year before he was to graduate because

D) He got married.

E) I was born.

F) He joined the United States Army (during World War II) and was assigned to serve in India.

I can’t remember if they ever specifically told me that sequence of events. I remember some college textbooks around published in the 1930s around our house. I remember my father talking about finishing his degree by distance learning. A lack of a degree (or so I understood) was one of the main reasons he never seemed to be able to get or keep a decent job (until the very last years of his life).

Quite a while after my father died, my extended family had a couple of family reunions on the East Coast of the United States (paid for by my “Chinese” millionaire cousin, Joanna Nichols).

At the first reunion, my father’s three sisters, Diana, Naomi, and Henriette sat around reminiscing about their childhood in Chicago in the 1930s and answering questions from the rest of us (the younger relatives).

I asked about my father dropping out of the University of Chicago.

My three aunts looked astonished. “Michael never attended the University of Chicago,” my aunt Naomi said in a definite manner. “He might have taken a class or two at the community college in Chicago, but that would have been the most college education he ever had.”

I was astonished. I looked at my mother in puzzlement. At that time, my mother was aging and failing fast but she was still coherent (though none of us realized that she was in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s Disease). However, whether she was very weary that evening or chose to act as she was too tired to follow the conversation out of embarrassment, she acted as if she didn’t understand what we were talking about.

So I don’t know. Did my parents intentionally create a myth (mainly aimed at me, as the oldest of their five children) about my father dropping out of college when no such circumstances were in fact true? I will never know, I guess.


5 Responses to “A Mystery about My Father”

  1. David Says:

    That’s quite the mystery. I wonder whether it was a story your father told your mother, and perhaps she never knew the whole truth of it?

    Impending births sometimes, but not always, explain ridiculously unsuitable marriages … my parents were married for six years before they deliberately got pregnant and inflicted me on an unsuspecting world. The longevity of that marriage continues to baffle me.

  2. modestypress Says:


    I don’t know. My parents were rather fertile, having five children, and seemed to have little idea of how to use birth control. (Admittedly, birth control was more difficult in their time, but some people managed. Although birth control failed my wife and I on our honeymoon, we had no more “accidents,” after that.

    Whether my mother didn’t know the truth about my father’s education (or lack thereof), I don’t know. I wasn’t abused as a child in the same way you were, and I don’t have “repressed” memories, but I think I a) was very confused and unaware of much that was going on as a child; b) misintereted and mythologized much of it; c) have fairly deliberate “repressed” my memories in a sense as a way of surviving my childhood.

    My wife says about herself, “I live in the present,” and it seems like a fairly good way of dealing with life, so I think she has influenced me in this regard quite a bit.

  3. woo Says:

    I think we pretty much all mythologise about ourselves when we are unhappy about the reality. Whether or not your father ever really studied at the University of Chicago, he clearly desperately wished he did and that tells you more about him, probably, than an actual degree would have done.

  4. modestypress Says:

    True enough, woo. With all her mommies and daddies, not to mention grandparents, Random Granddaughter will be able to create something like a Hindu pantheon of relatives.

  5. pandemonic Says:

    Maybe you imagined it?

    My kids knew I attended a university (same one as their father, at the same time coincidentally even though we didn’t meet until many years later) and just assumed that I was a graduate. My daughter only found out a couple of years ago that I wasn’t. I never said I graduated, only attended.

    Perhaps your father wanted to be more than he was?

    My mother did the same with her relatives back in the old country. We didn’t realize it until she died. She told them she only had four children when indeed she had six, and there were other falsehoods we found out about later.

    Honesty is truly the best policy.

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