Mourning My Father Part Two: The French Chairs
by Jeff Grant
I prayed this morning. I got up early but instead of my usual early morning ritual of pot o’ coffee and a couple of hours of writing, I went to church. The chapel at the Second Congregational Church here in Greenwich is glorious, especially in the wee hours as daybreak first streams in. It reminds me that it is a holy place. Since my father died this past December, I feel lost. It is a strange and uncomfortable sensation, especially since my father and I were not especially close. The legacy he left is only first beginning to emerge. This morning I prayed for guidance and for healing; healing for me and for my family. I received a reply.
About twenty years ago, my ex and I were in Paris shopping in the flea market at Clignancourt when we happened upon the most beautiful chairs, in such interesting shapes and sizes. They were bent wood, art deco, and definitely not for everybody. They had been designed for a hotel in Barbados that had gone out of business. The dealer in Paris bought up the entire inventory of the hotel and shipped it back to be sold off piece by piece. My ex spotted one of her interior designer heroes, Rose Tarlow, and her entourage making a beeline for the chairs. Rose knew exactly what she wanted and ordered four of the chairs on the spot. I guess that was the tipping point for us because as soon as Rose completed her transaction, we bought two of the French Chairs and had them shipped to us back in the States.
The French Chairs were beautiful but were very uncomfortable, and we really never knew what to do with them. In truth, they were more like objets d’ art, or maybe huge doorstops, that we lugged around from home to home. When my ex and I split up, I guess it wasn’t much of a surprise that I got the French Chairs; after all in our baseball-card game of need it/got it… they came in close to last. Yet, even after I remarried and Lynn and I made a home here in Greenwich, the French Chairs sat majestically in our living room: a tribute to days and dreams gone by (and probably our inability to see the madness of dedicating thirty percent of our living space to chairs that we couldn’t possibly sit in). Nonetheless, they were a part of the family.
My daughter and her husband are presently selling their house in Greenwich, and are making their way up to the hinterlands of Fairfield. I called my daughter and told her that our time as custodians of the French Chairs was thus drawing to a close. Upon hearing about the availability of her beloved French Chairs, she waxed poetic and drove right over to pick them up. After all, to her these were way more than chairs; they contained the memories of her childhood and were markers of those nostalgic times (even if those times had to be spent on the floor in front of the chairs and not on the chairs themselves).
After the French Chairs had been safely passed on to the next generation, Lynn and I wasted no time in filling the void with a pair of Crate & Barrel upholstered chairs that we bought used at Consign It on Mason Street. It was nice to be able to finally use that side of our living room; we found out that we actually have a sliver-view of the Sound.
Today I am emailing a copy of this column to my entire family along an invitation to join me for dinner at my favorite restaurant on Thursday evening at 6pm. There are only two things on the agenda (although I admit these things usually take on a life of their own). The first is to pay tribute to my father, Stanley Grant. The second is to celebrate our family, in whatever shape and size, no matter how beautiful or uncomfortable, despite how much space we take up, no matter where we reside, or how much it makes us think about our yesterdays or our tomorrows. To sit and get to know each other as we are. To mend fences, make amends, and cherish the little time we have left together on this planet. To tell stories, laugh, shout, sing and listen to our hearts.
I miss my Dad and I wish he could be at dinner to join us. I waited too long to invite him. I won’t make the same mistake again.
By Jeff Grant
My Dad grew up in Brooklyn at a time when it seemed everybody was from Brooklyn. He was tall, smart, good looking – he joined the Navy and then went to Pace University. He was the captain of the tennis team, and went on to enroll at the Columbia University Business School. His own family business beckoned before he could complete school, a successful handbag company, and as the heir apparent Dad was to take it to unprecedented heights. He met my Mom, a beautiful Brooklyn girl seven years younger, and they married at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in New York City, where the General Motors Building now stands across from Central Park. Shortly after their marriage, the handbag business folded and my parents decided to move to Boston to put some distance between them and Dad’s family.
In the 1950’s, Boston was not a city known for being overly hospitable to Jews, so my Dad sent out two groups of resumes: one group with his family name, Goldberg, and the other with a name he had gotten out of the phonebook, Grant. The story goes that he received five times the amount of replies under the name Grant than Goldberg, accepted a job, and had his and my mother’s name changed to Grant. I was born in Boston less than two years later; my brother and sister were born in the Boston suburbs in obligatory two-year intervals. But Boston proved no Promised Land and in 1961 the family moved to Merrick, Long Island looking for a fresh start.
Merrick was a culture of second and third generation Jews escaping Brooklyn, all moved en masse to their version the good life. Somehow, this entire generation collectively decided to become some sort of holocaust deniers. The war and the holocaust were never mentioned to any of us even though the war had ended less than ten years before many of we baby boomers were born. We all grew up without any real sense of history or family. South Merrick, where we lived, was a brand new town on the South Shore of Long Island, built on dirt and garbage dredged from the bottom of the East Bay. Merrick was pretty much like every other town that we would pass on those rare occasions that my Dad would take me into the city with him. Or later when I would go with my friends to a Mets game. We would hop on the Long Island Rail Road, the “largest commuter railroad in the country;” it was a sea of dads each morning going off to their brave new worlds in New York City. Or, perhaps, like mine, escaping their families.
Dad had taken out a V.A. loan in 1961 and we moved into our house in South Merrick. Ours was the only house on our street. The street would not be paved for a year or two, and the other houses were being built all around ours, like dinosaurs rising up out of the dunes. The roar of trucks and barges dredging was everywhere. Every kid in the neighborhood who moved into the neighborhood was about the same age, and had a brother or sister exactly two years older or younger. It was a kids’ paradise. The Dads took off early in the morning, and the Moms did whatever Moms did. We really didn’t know, because none of us ever saw our parents. It was a town completely devoid of history and rules; we had to make them up as we went along.
Like his father before him, my Dad had a business failure in his early forties that was a turning point and changed the fabric of our family. It proved to be a piece of prophecy and prescience that would haunt me for the rest of my life. My Dad had a business in Manhattan that had one huge claim to fame: it was the world’s first marketing agency. Back in the early sixties, when his eventual partner Sam and he both worked at Loft’s Candy Corp. in Long Island City, nobody even used the word “marketing.” But Sam and my Dad did the marketing for Loft’s, and built it into a powerhouse of early franchising. They left together with Loft’s as their first client, and then built a marketing agency that specialized in franchising. As a kid, I remember going to store openings for all sorts of companies whose jingles were on television or the radio; and, of course, we always had free stuff from them all over the house. But my Dad’s fame came from the fact that he was the marketing guy for Carvel Ice Cream. Our freezer was always stuffed with Brown Bonnets, Flying Saucers and Lollapaloozas.
Dad’s office on East 55th Street in Manhattan was set up with a glass top desk, wrap around sofa, and Barcelona chairs – for Dad, image was everything. On one of the few days that Dad took me into his office, I was sitting on the sofa when Tom Carvel called in. Tom Carvel was a very famous guy in New York back in the 60’ and 70’s. He was a cultural icon, as he appeared daily in hundreds of Carvel Ice Cream ads on television. He had a very distinctive low raspy voice. I’m certain that my Dad meant to impress me, and asked me to pick up the phone extension next to the sofa at the same time he picked up his phone on the desk.
“Stan, it’s Tom. How the hell are ya?”
“Great Tom. What’s doing?” Dad was proud, beaming.
“Hey, why don’t you hop in your car and drive up to Yonkers [Carvel’s headquarters], I’ll get us some hookers.’’
Dad’s face looked ashen, as he waived his arms for me to put down the phone.
The shit was all pretty much hitting the fan anyway. My father’s huffing and puffing was intolerable to my Mom, to his partner Sam, and to almost everyone around him. It wasn’t that he was arrogant; he was just full of a certain type of self-deception meets impunity meets righteous indignation, in which he thought that he could do things better than other people, but never quite delivered on his own promises. With business doing well, Dad marched into his partner Sam’s office and announced that he needed a better split of the profits since he was responsible for most of the sales. Sam calmly told him that a business needs a front room guy and a backroom guy, and that without both of them it would be closed within a year. Unimpressed, Dad pushed the issue. Sam left and, sure enough, the business collapsed. Dad soon started having health problems, perhaps coincident to when he found out that my Mom had been having an affair with his biggest client.
The last memory I have of my Dad in the Merrick house was him banging on the front door to be let in one night. My bedroom window was in front of the house, and as I stuck my head out the window to see what was going on, my Mom came up behind me and pulled me back in. She told me that my Dad didn’t live there anymore. There’s more to the story of how I became the adult of the family, and how this paradigm defines the eldest child’s life in these situations. I have never reconciled these issues with my brother or sister, both of whom were probably affected in ways I will never fully realize. Nonetheless, when my opportunity came to get out of Merrick, I jumped at the chance and never looked back.
Excerpted from Jeff Grant’s book, The Art of Surviving Prison, awaiting publication.
A column from Sept, 2012. I was the kick-off speaker at The Nantucket Project 2012 Fellows Academy lunch to start the weekend:
By Jeff Grant
An Ancient Chinese proverb says, “may you live in interesting times.” I have a feeling that The Nantucket Project will be a very interesting time.
I recently received my acceptance email selecting me as a 2012 TNP Fellow to The Nantucket Project this Oct. 5-8th. The email from Kate Brosnan (TNP Exec. Director) said, “I would need you to be here by noon on Friday since I have you speaking to all of our Fellows at the Fellows lunch. You will be following Senator Bill Frist on the program.”Really?
So here’s the deal. The Nantucket Project bills itself as an “event experience that brings together a select group of eminent and accomplished visionaries, thinkers, innovators and performers to one of the most storied places in the United States.” And I think that it’s pretty much true (present company excepted) from what I can tell from its website and from speaking with its Chairman, Tom Scott (a Greenwich resident). The presenters at this year’s event are mind-boggling, or in my case as I labor over my own presentation, mind-numbing. Here are a few names to get me crazy in the middle of the night: Greenwich’s own Eddie Lambert, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel of PayPal fame, the actor Mark Ruffalo and his Water Defense project, Larry Summers the Ex-Secretary of the Treasury. There are probably 30 – 40 presenters and panelists in all, and 350 people private jetting in to this oasis in the Atlantic to experience the experience and rub elbows. As a TNP Fellow, I have a scholarship to attend but I wasn’t surprised to find out that that no private jet will whisk away my wife Lynn and me to Nantucket. We do have a plan, however; if we start rowing from Greenwich Harbor today we may make it by the start of the event.
Why in the world would Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan select me, a seminarian/theologian and Director of a new prison ministry model, as a Fellow to this monster of an event? Well, I’m not sure. But I think it’s about two things. The first is about lifting up the voices of those who can’t speak for themselves; about understanding that the only way we can solve this mess we are in is to hold the oppressed at the center of the conversation. It is so easy to enlarge (or reduce) the discussion to meta-terms, think of the world as a big technological problem to solve. But who is actually speaking with and for the hundreds of millions of people on the ground in this country, the billions on this planet, who have to figure out how to live life each day on life’s terms? Can their issues, problems and traumas be reduced to some imagined collective and/or collected understanding from which business leaders will make decisions that will change their way of life and destiny? What are our ethical imperatives? Do we slow down enough to engage the people in the process, invite them to the table, ask them the questions about what they really need, or want?
The second is specific to the world of the imprisoned, the recently released from prison and those who are in fear or danger of going to prison. It doesn’t take too much time for them to figure out that the process is, and is forever going to be, life altering for them and their families. In fact, for almost all, it’s a life sentence regardless of their sentence. It is more trauma, after years or lifetimes of trauma, and it affects those in every economic background. In my work in Bridgeport and New York City, I’ve spent years with, and fighting for the rights of, families on the margins who have no resources with which to ensure a successful reentry from prison. Some succeed, but the majority succumbs to the cycle of recidivism that swallows generation after generation.
Headlines every day announce prison-centric issues that affect people in towns like Greenwich. It seems like no one is immune. For white collar types it is disturbing that there are virtually no services available to help make sense of this. Nobody, that is almost nobody, understands. The affected have never felt more alone, more vulnerable, hurt, afraid, and helpless. The old standbys that they used to rely upon (power, independence, intelligence) not only feel useless and unreliable, but they feel counterproductive. It feels like there is nowhere to get credible information, and nobody to trust. I meet with these people most days too, and offer my experience about the process, and hope that there is a different and better life on the other side.
So, I think there is little doubt that that The Nantucket Project will be a very interesting time. I will give a full report in my next column.
Link to my column, Practically Religion, that appears in various Connecticut-based media: http://hamlethub.com/greenwich-life/cat/people/19504-practically-religion-interesting-times-at-the-nantucket-project-2