The Words of the Porter Family
Last Sunday, a few hours before his bath dad and I sat outside on the back porch in the sun, warmed by it, but squinting to see each other in the bright reflection off the lingering snow. He had been complaining about being cold and it had certainly been an unrelenting winter. I strummed a guitar and we watched the dog chase what was left of a soccer ball around the yard. We had talked about his desire to take a bath the day before but between chores, shopping, and runs to the garbage and recycling center, we didn't get to it. I started the water running and then went downstairs to work on something. My wife and brother were in the house also, knowing dad was taking a bath, but not overly concerned about it. While feeble, he was capable of getting around on his own, and either way one of us was checking in on him every few minutes. I walked back upstairs and knocked on the door to see how dad was doing. There was no answer.
Today we will talk about Dad's life. You'll hear several perspectives of it. They are not the only perspectives, and certainly nowhere near the whole picture. What you'll hear from me is Dad through my eyes. Many of you knew him during one period and remember that man. I'll relay what I saw in the hope that it might help explain the reasons he may have been that man and why he might have been a little different at other times.
While dad suffered a stroke in October of 2012, his physical and emotional decline was starting to show tangible evidence about this time last year. It was his 70th birthday and we threw him a big party. I remember thinking then that while he was happy to be there, surrounded by friends and family, marveling at some of the old pictures we'd dug up and shaking his head at some of the crazy things his friends said that it was not without a hint of melancholy. His smile seemed to stop at the neckline. He was uncharacteristically quiet for a man known for tireless sociability. His eyes were sad. I had assumed it was because he missed his wife, our mother. But I think there was more to the story. About that time he had started eating less, culminating in rapid weight loss. The weight loss exacerbated his body's increasing unwillingness to cooperate in daily functions, getting him up and down stairs, in and out of cars, etc. And one can only wonder what long term affects the cocktail of drugs he took daily for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other things might have had. When my uncle called from England seven months after his birthday party to inform me of the stroke, I can't tell you I was particularly surprised.
Dad was born into trauma. His early memories of running for cover at the sound of Nazi air raids during the Second World War, were complemented with those of food and clothing shortages, of strict English school teachers ready to lick naughty little children with sticks and of a long national reconstruction. His mother's family connections allowed him to attend elite boarding schools, so he didn't spend much time at home. When he did, his mother, whom he often referred to as "the battle axe", expected rigid adherence to English etiquette. The children wore jackets and ties for dinner and pudding was reserved only for the well behaved. She was a strong woman, the type that would face adversity head on, as the saying goes, keep a stiff upper lip come hell or high water.
You'd be forgiven for concluding that Dad as a result was an extremely tough man. In some ways he really was. But going through the numerous emails I received from friends the words "tough" or "burly" never came up. What did were words like "polite", "intelligent", "thoughtful", "loyal", "caring", "giving", "big hearted", "energetic", "a gentleman".
Of his mother, he wrote "A woman of very strong faith, my mother was a missionary in Canada during her youth and also ran many charitable organizations in our area. She always felt that since we received much, she wanted to give out in return. My father, as a doctor, felt that he too had a mission to help people. On the whole, my ancestors and immediate family were known to be a hard-working people; we always felt blessed for what we had."
I believe his happiest days were spent in Italy. In his early 20's he kept leaving England, ending up in Italy, finding Italy an infuriating and incomprehensible place, going back to England, only to end up right back in Italy. Eventually he just skipped the return trip to England and stayed in Italy. I don't know why he kept going back. In his own writing he says it was for education and then for work, but I suspect he was really enamored by the closeness of Italian families. He must have found them a warm and compassionate alternative to the English. To this day, the majority of his closest friends are Italian and many are from those early days. He also liked the food. In fact – he loved the food! And by his mid 20's he was overweight and miserable and thinking of once again returning to England.
But it wasn't just his weight. He'd never completely settled. Not on a career, not on a woman, not on a life philosophy. He was plagued by big picture questions regarding the meaning of life, questions for which he found no answers in traditional paths. He dabbled with accounting, but found it boring. He joined a photography company. That led to work in film, which seemed to occupy his time, but never really fulfilled him. He was at his most depressed while working on a documentary about children with polio. The setting was heartbreaking and awful and advanced his increasingly desperate need for answers.
About that time that he met a group of young expats that had lots of answers – all the answers, in fact. Among these early disciples of a new self-proclaimed messiah, Dad found his place at last. He found purpose and reason to live. He became a soldier of sorts – a soldier for God, a soldier for his newfound faith. His new friends accepted him wholeheartedly and he them. And together they proselytized tirelessly, ultimately building a community of hundreds as well as numerous business interests. Within two years of joining the group, he rose through the small ranks to lead this Italian religious brigade. He proved an energetic, talented communicator and a very good strategic thinker. He loved what he was doing and this period may have marked the height of his happiness and success.
The group he joined was the fledgling organization that would later become the Unification Church. For those of you unfamiliar with it – the core philosophy is that the Christian Jesus had failed his mission to bring the world back to a state goodness and perfection only found before the biblical fall of Adam and Eve. As such, a new man had to come along and complete that divine mission, and that man was Sun Myung Moon, or Young Myung Moon before he changed his name in 1953. His goal and, according to his writings, the goal that Jesus was not able to complete, was to establish a model family that would serve as the benchmark for all people. He would be the world's "true father", which is what his followers called him.
Other core tenets included the idea of original sin – a sin and guilt that everyone on the planet was born with as a result of Adam and Eve's transgressions and that explained the awful state of the world and the bad things that happened in it. For dad, it explained why innocent children could be born with horrific diseases like polio. To rid oneself of original sin one had to be married, or "blessed" as the church called it, by Moon himself in an elaborate ceremony where he also picked who married whom. The products of these unions were called "blessed children" – children officially born without original sin. As you can imagine, when dad was married by Moon to his first wife in group wedding of 43 couples, the race was on to pop out the perfect babies! That was when and why my sister and I were born.
The men and women that dad worked with, his religious comrades in arms, proved to be absolutely wonderful people. In those early years they didn't refer to themselves as a church at all and there was little in the way of stifling dogma or hierarchical bureaucracy. They called themselves "The Unified Family", or just "The Family". And it was true. They were a family. The rules were simple: love each other like brothers and sisters. And they did. They called each other "brother" and "sister". And they cared for one another as if they were a family. I can only imagine how wonderful that must have been for Dad compared to memories of sadistic boarding schools, scratchy woolen suits and crappy English weather. And the family endured. People that left the church didn't necessarily lose touch, nor were they ostracized or shunned. In fact Dad was still in regular contact with many former members from that time, and those people still considered dad, and he them, family.
But the community was only part of the story as to why dad joined the group. He was deeply moved by the group's interpretation of God as a suffering being waiting for people to reach out to him. He was also captivated by the idea that the biblical Jesus had in fact been tortured and died prematurely and that none of this had been God's original intent. Maybe the idea of a suffering God helped put his own internal conflicts into perspective. Either way, he felt, or was made to feel, that he was hand-picked by God to receive important secrets and to disseminate them like a modern day Saul.
In 1974 or around there, my mother and father finally divorced after five years of marriage. I'm still not entirely sure why. I'm sure it was complicated, as all divorces are. My mother said she was uncomfortable with some of the tactics of the church in recruiting new members and assets at the time and felt there was a materialistic undercurrent developing. But I think in the end they just really didn't get along as people. It was an arranged marriage and it was not what would have happened naturally. She was at heart a Franciscan ascetic – ironic, since she was from a rich family. Dad was at heart a religious politician and a lover of excitement. During the divorce, my sister and I were sent to live with our grandmother in England, the "battle axe", although she had significantly mellowed out by that time and we were able to dine without formal attire.
In the late 70's dad was moved by Moon to lead the church effort in Canada. I'm sure it must have been difficult for him to leave behind his life's work in Italy and so many wonderful people. But it proved rewarding nonetheless, as the Canadian membership was also chock-full of people who would become lifelong friends and family. Again, these people provided for and protected one another. They started in a small building in Toronto and within a few years had locations in most major cities in Canada and a large Elk farm. Correction – a "hybrid red deer" farm, as he would confidently claim to any regulator or game police that unexpectedly might show up. It was illegal in Canada at the time to keep Elk in captivity.
Canada was also when a new factor was inserted into the Dad equation. There was this new woman around now who my sister and I were pretty sure we didn't like. And yet every morning, there she was, again. Canada had presented Dad a chance to reconnect with his brothers, two of whom lived near Toronto, and I vividly remember an early family outing with them. This new woman came along too. Within a minute of our arrival I, of course, was engaged in some reprehensible act – I can't remember what. My Aunt scolded me. This new woman walked over. Great, I thought to myself. Now I get to be the lunchmeat in a sandwich of scolding. Scolding in stereo hi-fi. A mangled piece of cat between the jaws of opposing hellhound bitch monsters. I braced for the worst. Wait a second, what's going on here? Is she defending me?
Enter Marion, our new mother, formerly Dougherty, now Porter.
Dad had known Marion in Italy. Interestingly they both joined "The Family" in Rome, Italy within a year of one another. Their paths had diverged in the meantime, with Marion stationed mostly in the US. She had dreamy eyes that were tough not to fall in love with. But those eyes hid a strength and intensity forged in a difficult past. She was eager for a second chance at having a family and she wanted to do it right this time. My sister and I were going to be adopted by her whether we liked it or not.
At work things were changing at the margin and there was not much Dad could have done about it. The new generation of young people were not the hippies of the sixties or the searchers of the 70's. They were more cynical, less trusting and less interested in spirituality. They had seen movies like "Ticket to Heaven" based on the Oakland Unification Church, a unique organization in its own right, and they'd been warned by parents and media to be aware of religious cults, a term my dad detested. Recruiting new members became increasingly difficult and by the early 80's it was clear that this was no longer a growth industry. Church membership outside of Asia peaked in 1983 and started to decline thereafter. This was not unique to the Unification Church as the same was happening with many religious groups.
His last official job for the church was in Alabama where he ran a ship building operation, a fishing fleet and shrimp processing plant. He was brought in because despite the fact that he considered himself a missionary, it turned out he was pretty good at running businesses. I remember how excited dad was when we got there. He kept pointing at the Spanish moss hanging from the trees as we drove for the first time to his new office – "you don't have that in Canada!" he repeated for the 7th time.
The assignment was extremely challenging. Ship building is a highly cyclical business and shrimping and shrimp processing are a function of harvest quality. Some years it's great, some years it's just not. Dad arrived just as the cycle was turning for the worse. In order to keep the businesses going he had to make some pretty tough decisions some of which got him into hot water with senior church officials and with Moon. There was not a lot of room for concepts like business cyclicality in a contrived spiritual providence. If there was failure it meant you sleeping too much and praying too little.
In addition, the church itself was also undergoing a change. The early westerners that had built western based church divisions were slowly being replaced and new levels of management, mostly Korean, were being inserted. Where dad had historically reported directly to Moon's close lieutenants, he now found himself reporting to new people several steps removed. These people often had their own ambitions and had no shared history or emotional bond with western members whom they now oversaw. In fact a new theme was developing in Moon's ever-changing message, one that emphasized the Korean nation as chosen above others and condemned the sins of America. A caste system was emerging within the former "unified family" with some more equal than others.
I talked to several people who worked with dad in Alabama at the time and all basically say the same thing, that dad did the best possible under the circumstances. Some felt that without dad at the helm the whole enterprise would not have survived those poor business conditions. I was proud to hear that, and it was clear that in Alabama just as in Italy and in Canada, dad had found a family of wonderful people who regarded him with deep admiration. If he were here right now, I'm sure he'd say the same about them.
Incidentally, we did receive a condolence letter from one of Moon's early lieutenants, Mr. Bo Hi Pak. As I read the letter it occurred to me that Mr. Pak and my dad may have been kindred spirits of sorts. Dad often reported to Mr. Pak in the early days. Mr. Pak was an unusual man. He had the larger than life air of a high-level statesman. He was outgoing, positive, loyal and I think he really loved the western members, which must have put him increasingly at odds with the more regressive elements taking power at the time. He too was eventually marginalized in a sickening palace coup.
Two other big events happened for dad in Alabama. First, Lucas was born. He was round and gurgly and mom was ecstatic! Those two rotten brats she'd put up with for the past 12 years had been delivered damaged and there was only so much she could ever have done to save their souls. This one, on the other hand, was brand new! She now had a third chance at raising a family. This time she'd get it right, by god, and no force in the universe was going to stop that.
Second, mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was a peculiar kind of cancer, a fast traveling ruthless killer that starts in the eye and then wages war in a person's blood. It changed everything.
When dad was finally replaced in Alabama he was sent to Germany to consult for another ailing Moon business. This assignment lasted a few years, and while I wasn't there to witness it first hand, I don't think it was a particularly happy time in his life. Dad, Mom and Lucas lived in a small apartment away from all the people they'd grown to love in Italy, Canada and Alabama and doing a job that he wasn't all that enamored with which again put him in conflict with the new Korean hierarchy. I think he must have been pretty glad when I called to tell him that a church business in New Jersey was looking for a chief financial officer. Unencumbered by any official mission, he took the job and moved back to the US.
Here in the US dad had to adjust to a new reality, that of a New Jersey working stiff. Nothing could have been further from his natural habitat. In the early morning he'd get into his used nondescript taupe-colored mid-sized Japanese four-door shit box to beat traffic to a second floor workplace in a featureless office park of identical buildings. And as CFO, his days consisted mostly of mind-numbing spreadsheets and equally mind-numbing conversations with low level regional bankers. I remember one visit home for a birthday or Christmas or some such special occasion. We'd just bought a camcorder and Lucas, now 10 or 11 was having a field day with it. He spent a good 7 minutes filming dad, panning in, panning out, as dad stared into space with a look of pure despondence. Finally dad noticed the mischief and that day a new refrain was born – "LUUUUUUCAAAAASSS!!!". We've heard, and used, that refrain many times since.
Of his early life, he wrote "Looking at myself, I did not like what I saw, for my life seemed meaningless. Other people's lives left me uninspired as well. Without purpose and direction, I felt little motivation. I beheld my father, a dedicated doctor, who spent all his life trying to cure his patients. Yet I thought somehow we should find the cause of illness, rather than treat the effects, which occur again and again. I wanted to come out from under the umbrella of my family and my institutionalized environment." I can only imagine that living in a little house in NJ, playing the part of a regular dad with a regular job in a regular town, going to high school football games on weekends and watching the 6 o'clock news, that he must have felt like a soldier relegated to desk duty.
New Jersey wasn't all bad. Mom loved it. She had grown up two towns over and still had some old friends from her childhood in the area. And there were many Church members nearby, so our family had a strong support network and Dad had plenty of people with whom to talk to about spiritual things. Lucas thrived at school where he excelled in academics and in athletics. Andrea, my wife, and I would visit on weekends. Dad was becoming a pretty good parent, too. He spent nights helping Lucas prepare for athletic events and days helping him with tests. He and Lucas would take trips together to visit old friends in places like Canada. For all his professional misery, dad's home life had become quite rewarding. He would debate tirelessly with church neighbors on the nature of Christ and on what to do about social scourges like teenage sex.
Mom's cancer was spreading. Taking her to treatment centers and watching her eyes water, breath quicken, and fingers tightly clench anything nearby as she underwent painful procedure after painful procedure became routine for us. We all had our own way of dealing with it. Dad, ever silent about his own struggles, ever unwilling to say much, seemed a bit overwhelmed, a bit lost. Lucas was in avoidance. I had the luxury of being able to leave the house after visits. It was a difficult time.
When mom passed away in 2006 things were not ok. I thought that by selling the house in which Dad, Mom and Lucas lived, by relocating them to a different area, one with greater natural beauty and less hassle, that it would quicken the healing pace. I think it probably helped for Luke and maybe a little also for dad, but I'm not entirely sure about that. He went through many ups and downs. While money was always an issue since church missionaries were awarded no retirement, pension, or healthcare benefits, just a glass plaque, it was his need to do something, something he felt was providentially significant that most drove his disposition. When he had people to help and to commune with he was happier.
His faith appeared to evolve into a greater emphasis on mysticism and spirituality and less on any dogma or convention. He felt at times that he was conversing with Marion in the spirit world and would talk frequently about meeting her again.
In his last three years dad helped some Italian friends manage restaurants in Connecticut. It was a great role for him. He was a natural ambassador of good will and good cheer. The patrons came to love him. Several are here today. On weekends, back in his upstate NY home, we would hear him gush about all the interesting people he'd met that week, about the his business partner's great singing voice and about the exquisite food.
There are three things that are particularly difficult for me to accept about his passing. The first is not yet knowing how he died.
The second is that I – maybe wrongly – had convinced myself he was on the road to recovery. Two weeks ago we paid a visit to his doctor. He was anemic, but otherwise in reasonable physical health for someone in recovery from a stroke. All he needed was to eat three healthy meals a day, with emphasis on whole grains and leafy vegetables, supplemented by a multivitamin once per day and some exercise and he should make a full recovery. He was off all the prescription drugs and we had an action plan by which various members of the family would take turns caring for him and making sure he ate well. Unfortunately, that's not the way things worked out.
At Dad's 70th birthday party, Claudio, dad's Italian business partner, was badgering me about why I chose not to have children. He is a devout family man and just couldn't understand what the hell was wrong with me. Finally he blurted out – well, don't you think your dad was a good father?!
I hesitated considering the question. If an Italian man ever asks you whether you think your father was a good one, hesitation of any kind is the wrong answer! As I was busy mentally unbundling a catalog of memories with dad and categorizing them into pros and cons, it occurred to me that Claudio was turning beet red and my life might be in danger. Not only did I have to contemplate this important question, but also a quick exit. And as if that wasn't enough, I had just stuffed my mouth with a forkful of the most sumptuous ravioli. It was delicious.
And the answer?
My father was an example to me. He set standards by which I had to measure myself. His successes are successes I aspire to emulate. His failures are lessons that I inherit and have the luxury not to repeat. The question doesn't have an answer because it never made sense to begin with. There is only the father you have. And I'm deeply proud that he was the father I had.
Before I go I would like to share with you some of the more notable dadisms:
When he would call you on the telephone – How are we doing?
When he would answer the telephone – Konichiwa
Of his childhood – I was dragged up kicking and screaming in England
When checking in on Lucas – Are you working hard or hardly working?
When my sister and I would brawl in the back seat of the car – Oh Lord!
When referring to his grand dog – doggus
When referring to American Airlines – Agony Airlines
When referring to anyone doing less than 90 miles per hour in the passing lane – slow poke
When referring to my sister, or me – TimmyHanida
When my sister and were just arguing in the back seat of the car – Quieten down!
When referring to me – Lucas
When referring to Lucas – TimmyHanida
When referring to Marion – Mummybear!