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Reflections on the father of Paul and Alexander Theroux

Decent life led by ordinary man

Albert Eugene Theroux - moral, almost beyond words
  • Albert Eugene Theroux - moral, almost beyond words

WHEN I WAS A PRETEEN, I LOVED GOING TO MOVIES, sitting in the flickering dark of the old Medford theater in the late 1940s, usually with one of my brothers — we had paid 12 cents each — and one of my all-time favorites, along with Boys’ Town, The Secret Garden, The Babe Ruth Story with William Bendix (who threw a baseball like Liberace), and the terrifying Storm Warning with Steve Cochran (a story of the Ku Klux Klan, which my parents would never have let me see, reminding me in consequence how often I sneaked away on Saturday afternoons), was Life with Father, starring the self-reliant, irrepressible, and slightly snobbish Clifton Webb. Recently in my reading I came across in a book these lines from Frank O’Hara’s “An Image of Leda,” a poem about moviegoing:

The cinema is cruel

like a miracle. We

sit in the darkened

room asking nothing

of the empty white

space but that it

remain pure. And

suddenly despite us

it blackens.

And nothing of the empty white space but that it remain pure. How those words in a series of jogged memory steps brought back the long-forgotten image of midget me in my cinema seat, and then, suddenly, of Clifton Webb, ol’ marshmallow martinet, taking charge of his family — and then, of my father. The rebus of purity, my innocence, the white screen, and the rectitude of a close family with a strong figurehead, all made me think of my father, the most moral man I’ve ever known. And, I am convinced, the greatest.

My father passed away this year on May 30, 1995. He was described in a long obituary in the Boston Globe as “patriarch” of seven children, loyal husband to his wife, Anne, of 58 years, and father of a lawyer, teachers, and four significant writers. He was indeed a patriarch in the high old sense of the term. But he was distinguished in the ways of the world that would ordinarily go unrecognized, except by particularly insightful people such as Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, who, after decades of heroic seclusion, at the end of his life explained that, in his opinion, it was not extraordinary — extreme—virtue that set a man apart as being so singular, but rather a decent life led by the “ordinary man.”

Albert Eugene Theroux was born of working-class French parents on January 13, 1908, in Stoneham, Massachusetts. At 17 years old, he was taken into Boston by his father to. work at the American Oak and Leather Company. He had little money and less opportunity for college. He married my mother, a second-generation Italian, in 1937, had three children in four years, and there were four more to come. A congenital and chronic asthmatic, he was kept unwillingly out of World War II. He worked all his life in the shoe business, at first shipping, then selling sole leather on the road — traveling often by public conveyance— and later in a small, non-lucrative concern of his own, a concession in a men’s store. My parents, with a small down payment, bought their house the year they got married and then paid off the mortgage in a short time.

An anomaly perhaps today, my parents wanted a large family, and both my mother and father, without riches, nevertheless put their resolve into the family they were proud of and that they worked hard to see through those hard times. The first three children were boys, Gene, Alex, and Paul, then came Anne Marie, Mary, Joseph, and finally Peter. We proceeded on to college, unlike Mr. Belvedere, unlike Clifton Webb, unlike my dad.

It didn’t matter. In his case that fact only helped. My father, an autodidact, was a historian in his own right. All his life he was a fascinated reader, a man of ideas, on certain subjects even a scholar. It is my firm belief that good parents grow in relation to their responsibilities to their children, soulfully, humanely, intellectually, etc., and are, in a sense, raised by their children. In a paradoxical sense, Wordsworth is right, “The child is father to the man.” But in the oblique sense, in this instance, that the father learns from the love he brings to those he would teach. What did my father read? He read the books he read to us at bedtime by candlelight — for drama! Reading us Treasure Island, he mimicked the sounds of Blind Pew, hobbling along with his cane. Kidnapped was another favorite. I can still feel, as David Balfour did, the empty black maw of space where that stairway ends. My father loved Robert Louis Stevenson, but read us many classics. Huckleberry Finn. Puddinhead Wilson. (“I wish I owned half that dog, I’d kill my half.”) Gullivers Travels (an edited boys’ version). Don Fendler’s Lost on a Mountain in Maine.

My father’s intellectual growth was born of his natural curiosity and the fact that we lived in a historical part of this country. Nothing failed to interest that man. The whaling industry, Boston politics, the Civil War, battles of the Revolution, etc. He would instill in all of us an interest in the same subjects. One of my favorite books as a boy was Fifty Famous Americans, a series of celebrity portraits that fascinated, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Washington Irving, who was pictured on one page, I thought impressively, in a cerebral pose, with pondering fingers supporting his head. (I wanted to be an author!) My father was an expert on Lewis and Clark (“They were tormented,” we always laughed, quoting him), and knew every detail about their dangerous sojourn.

He had hobbyhorses. Boston was one. He was an expert on that city’s side streets, its early history, its quirky legends. Revolutionary Boston was his forte, but he could tell you where to get the best macaroons, where Hull Street was, and the exact spot where Edgar Allan Poe was born. He knew things, like where Babe Ruth’s first wife came from and how Beacon Hill was reduced in size, and the correct pronunciation of S.S. Pierce, Co. My father was the only person I have ever known who could tell you the exact but riddling meaning, since the British were not going to Lexington or Concord by ocean, of Longfellow’s lines in the poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”:

One if by land and two if by sea

And I on the opposite shore will be

He loved Lincoln, above all, and was word-perfect as to every facet of the assassins’ lives, especially Booth’s. Of special interest to him was the Battle of Bunker Hill, literary New England, and the Pilgrims. My father loved words. He had a rhetorician’s love especially of: Polonius’s Advice to Laertes, which my dad was too guileless to see was, at bottom, sententious and pettifogging; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; and, Jacques’s “Stages of Man” speech. He particularly admired Hamlet and once saw a performance at Tufts College that he never forgot, sputtering for us various menacing lines of Iago’s down through the years. Sports, as such, meant little to him, although over the last decade the Red Sox with their blundering ways—he laughed at them — intrigued him in a rather casual way. He himself had played football in high school, when he hurt his right knee, which bothered him for the rest of his life.

Where did my father bring his kids? We went on excursions, which he called “take-ins.” Walden Pond, the House of the Seven Gables, the U.S.S, Constitution — “Old Ironsides,” the Harvard Yard. We climbed the creaky steps of Boston’s Old North Church, toured the whaling museums of Mattapoisett and New Bedford, and Henry James’s grave in Cambridge. We visited Hawthorne’s house in Salem, saw Gallows Hill, and knew the very spot where the witches were cruelly hanged. (Rebecca Nourse, slipping at the foot of the gibbet, rose and said, “I didn’t have my breakfast.”) We climbed New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in August 1951 and almost got lost. By the age of 12, I was familiar with Lexington Green; Louisa May Alcott’s house, or “Apple Slump”; Mother Goose’s grave; the Concord Bridge; Benjamin Franklin’s birthplace on Milk Street; and the statue of the brave Indian fighter Hannah Dustin in the town of Haverhill. (“Why is Haverhill always clean? It’s got Hannah Dustin.”)

We had my father for entertainment, his stories and tales. But he loved us to perform as kids — sing, recite poems, and write essays on the day trips we made. That was basically our entertainment. We had no other, no TV, for instance. We had an old Viewmaster with a series of disks with white stipple fingerprints on them and a huge phonograph on which we played and replayed songs from Bloomer Girl, with Celeste Holm. Radio was also fun for us. And drawing. (Cartoonists in the early ’40s to us were gods.) We were the Brueghels of Medford, Massachusetts, but it was my father and mother who taught us the importance of awareness, of drawing, or writing, of reading, of words.

My father was a man of verbal tics. “Abyssinia” was his farewell upon leaving for work. “Any mail of consequence?” he’d ask my mother when he came home. “It’s snowing,” for fair. “It’s raining to beat the band.” He invariably met you in later years, as you came in the door, with, “Well, well, well,” and when he agreed with you, he’d say, “Dontcha know it?” There were odd and enigmatic phrases of his that no other human being ever used, like, “Glory be to Saint Jack!” and “Copasetic” and “There’s a man a-sleep in Wakefield!” “And the child’s name is Anthony,” my father would pronounce upon successfully wrapping up some handyman’s job or other. He’d look at whatever he’d fixed (or thought he’d fixed) and say, “Bee-ooootiful!” But he was not handy. He had no green thumb. He grew tomato plants every year out of the sun, which never yielded, He was also a poor businessman, probably should have earned more money, and had pet peeves. He would not countenance arguments between his kids at the table, so often reined in our enthusiasms, which we thought anti-intellectual of him. “Let’s have five minutes of silence!” He wouldn’t hesitate to spank us or send us to bed without dinner, but for all of it he was never unfair. He was as improvident as Mr. Micawber, with whom he shared certain rhetorical traits, but like him he relied very much on God’s providence and fully believed that all things happen for the best.

He loved leather and the feel of it all his life. He never smoked, drank Canadian Club — he very rarely bought a bottle, which became our Christmas gifts — and had an appetite for things like kidneys, asparagus, and pot roast. He adored ice cream. He disliked credit cards, insincerity, eating out at restaurants, and snobs, who he always referred to as “fakers.” He insisted we wear hats. “Cover up,” he’d say. “Put on that hat or you’ll be frozen for fair!” He was a lifelong Democrat, disliked Nixon, revered FDR, was amused by Jimmy Durante, tried to sing like Al Jolson, and, for some reason unknown to me, admired Giselle MacKenzie on Your Hit Parade. He never liked television, however, and we were among the last people in the United States, never mind the town of Medford, to get one. “I’d like to put an ax in it,” he’d say, passing by, as he saw us wasting our time glued to some program or other.

He always picked up hitchhikers in our neighborhood, even people waiting at bus stops. They would get into the car, and we’d be grumpily squinched up, five perfect strangers all sitting there in silence, jammed in, but he didn’t think twice about it. Whenever he drove down the highway, what did he call the frost-heave in the road? A “thank you, ma’am.” He disliked parsimonious people. “Tight as wallpaper,” he’d say of some costive soul. “Tight as a duck’s rectum.” He was always grateful for the hammer I bought him every Christmas from 1946 to 1952 — but he was grateful for everything. “I can always use socks” was his Christmas catch phrase. He gave his kids his full attention when you spoke to him and was fully absorbed in your problems.

My father was moral, almost beyond words. He never refused to take back shoes from unhappy customers. He had exalted expectations of his children. “Remember who you are,” he would always say whenever we left the house. We were not allowed to talk about money at the table, crush the counters of our shoes, leave dirty silverware on the sideboard, or refer to our mother as “she,” which he found particularly disrespectful. Waste irked him, like water running uselessly, lights left burning, food left uneaten. “That’s a lazy man’s load,” he’d say when we were carrying too much to avoid two trips. He was an old-fashioned American, really, in the Life with Father mold, early to bed, faithful to his wife, never on welfare, a voter, a contributor to the church, and usually paid cash for everything. He often said the rosary in the car, waiting as my mother went shopping. He always said that if we ever gave a teacher grief, we would pay double for it at home.

He insisted we sit up straight at the table. “Elbows off the table!” he’d say. “Sit around squarely!” He was very much like an admiral. In fact, our house was a ship — communal, neatly maintained, with jobs to do to keep it orderly. Orders were given, “Clear the deck!” “Everybody pitch in!” “Look alive!” We had assignments, jobs, family responsibilities. “Lend a hand!” “Make yourself handy!” And he actually did say, “Get everything shipshape!”

And whenever he was upset, you would hear, “God bless us and save us!” “Children ruin a marriage.” “Good gravy!” “Do I have to get the strap?” (My father shaved with a straight razor and in times of crisis did not hesitate to use it.) “Quiet up there!” he’d call at night, when he heard the radio going in our room after bedtime. My father’s marriage taught me a lot about men and women. No man ever cooperated more with his wife or tried to make her life easier. “Anne, did I tell you today that I love you?” “You set a wonderful table, Mother.” “What did I ever do to deserve you?” These remarks we grew up with, like refrains. But my mother is so beautiful. It was so true, we took it for granted. “This is the day the Lord has made” was the way my father met a sunny day. He had sprezzatura, a Renaissance sense of curiosity and understanding, the prince’s gift. He stood for right reason. He was not puritanical but simply had taste, in the moral sense of the term. I will never forget the time a monsignor from our church, favoring our simple household with a visit, stopped by and in the course of dinner, sat back, smugly, too congenially, to tell a slightly risque story. Halfway through that distinguished man’s anecdote, my father detected the story’s randy nature. He paused for a moment and asked, “Is this an off-color joke?” The monsignor looked sheepish. “I won’t hear it,” my father said. “Breaks down authority.”

“I’ve never taken a comfortable breath of air in my life,” my father once told me — a fact, not a complaint—surprised that I had asked why at one particular time he was breathing so heavily, although most of the time he was badly congested. He almost never complained of his lack of good health but manfully got with what he had to do. In a real sense he was never healthy. On his last day on Earth, May 30, he woke up in the Hyannis Hospital, attached to an artificial respirator. It was 10:30 in the morning. He was thankfully relieved of the machine. He blinked, cutely, I thought, like a gerbil, and as we stood around the bed, he asked my mother, softly and almost smiling, “What brought this on?” He meant, specifically, had he only had another bout with hard-breathing? He was not aware that he was in danger or even that he was in the hospital. We took turns holding his hand and talking to him. He slept for several hours. At about 2:00 p.m., as we stood there, his last words were, “What a grand reunion!” He fell asleep again, he was tired, and at 8:00 p.m. he passed away and went to heaven.

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