My Seven Fathers

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This comes late. Late because Father’s Day was last month and late because this essay was appropriate 50 years ago.

I read several “Father’s Day” blogs this past June. Only then did I realize I had multiple dads. To discover this in my seventh decade was quite a surprise.

When I say I had more than one, I don’t mean official stepfathers. Nor did my dad die young, followed by others trying to fill his spot. Yet, the truth is, others did, with his knowledge. I bear no grudges about this. My father was, as the trite saying goes, “doing the best he could,” working as many as four jobs at a time, providing for us all. I never doubted his love. I never doubted his pride in me. Still, he was not present a lot. Not for me, not for my brothers Ed and Jack, and not for my mother.

Not there physically. Elsewhere. Away.

Part of a parent’s job is to be home, but that’s not always possible or easy. It wasn’t for him, a child of the Great Depression, claimed by the necessity of making a living. Every other consideration came after the long shadow of a scary time.

There we were, Milton Stein’s family, with him in the lead, racing hard to escape his shadow. My mom ran to catch up, pursued by her own shadow, holding hands with me and my brothers. All of us were in a dash for dad and his time. To the good, dad won the race with the specter of financial ruin, in reality if not psychologically. Ed, Jack, and I settled in the second shadow behind mom, a darker place than the first: a mixture of her personal insecurity, teenaged malnutrition and tuberculosis, poverty, her alcoholic dad and paranoid mother.

I like to say I came upon my interest in psychology honestly. Including the extended family, living examples of text-book emotional problems could be studied every day.

Other father figures embraced me. Did they recognize what I needed? I’ll never know. What follows is a tribute to these men and all the nameless adults who fill-in for a biological parent. They are rarely acknowledged. It took me much time to realize they should be.

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One was a portly, white-haired, candy store owner named Mr. Sharon, who talked with me about our favorite team, the Cubs, and called me “son.” A neighbor — movie-star-handsome Mr. Maddock — sometimes played catch with me. Add to the list Mr. Hanel, a tall man with a small dog. On his walks down the alley behind my house he let me play with his pet, something my brothers and I didn’t have. The roster includes a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Friedman, who believed in me enough to give me a double-promotion. Nor should I forget Jim Bryan, my adviser in graduate school. His letter from Northwestern, informing me I’d be his teaching assistant, said he would “work with me and on me.” He did, to my benefit.

By far the most important father substitute was my Uncle Sam, mom’s only brother. As the first Fabian grandchild I received lots of attention, the most from Sam. My parents, Sam, and his wife purchased a two-flat building together in West Rogers Park, Chicago, when I was six. Sam and Charlene Fabian lived upstairs and the Steins lived downstairs. Until Sam had a male child (Marty) I was almost his adoptive son. My cousin calls us brothers of a different mother.

Uncle Sam took me bowling, to baseball games, and introduced me to famous bowlers. My dad didn’t know anybody famous, so you can imagine the thrill of meeting the keglers I witnessed on TV. I met Carmen Salvino, Don Ellis, and even received bowling tips from an older bowler, Joe Wilman, who’d once been named Bowler of the Year in the 1940s.

Sam secured autographed pictures inscribed with my name from Hall-of-Fame baseball player Luis Aparicio and Billy Pierce. We watched Mickey Mantle, the Yankee slugger, hit two home runs (one batting right-handed and the other left-handed) from box seats on a May evening in 1956. Mom’s brother built a table-top basketball game we played, carving the “shooters” and the baskets out of wood with his own hands.

Best of all, my uncle talked about his view of life. Sam offered guidance in how to live — how to “make it” in the world. My youthful home provided little wise parental advice. The house was a place where I often had to figure out how to proceed by my own inexperienced wits.

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Most of the adults I knew reacted to the world. Unlike them, my uncle took charge, created a business, displayed leadership. Sam was 6’4,” outgoing, generous, and unafraid of voicing strong opinions — a person with a large presence in every sense. His fatherly embrace and powerful hands offered a tangible understanding of what it meant to be a “man.” His interest in me conferred a feeling of worth almost by osmosis.

Things changed between us when his son, Marty, was born. I became yesterday’s news and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine how it could have been any other way. At 16, I worked a regular after-school job for Sam, but my employment loaded the relationship with unbearable emotional weight. We occupied the dual roles of uncle/boss and nephew/employee at a time when even one role was too much.

The growing psychological distance became a physical one, too. My folks purchased Sam’s portion of their two-flat at his request and the Fabians moved from Chicago to the suburbs. With the end of high school I saw relatively little of him. Sam died of a heart attack at age 49, leaving a wife and three children with an emotional vacuum impossible to fill.

Perhaps we expect too much of relationships: that they should be forever fulfilling, at least as long as both parties live. Experience tells us most serve for a time, not more. We change, the other changes, the times change. Life goes on with new people and fresh concerns. Accepting this reality is difficult. Sam served more than well in his fatherly role and, perhaps, I was what he wanted for a time: a son borrowed, not yet born. As Marty says, we are “brothers of a different mother,” and therefore sons of the same father, in tandem.

Still, when I think of Sam it is with a sense of wistfulness. I regret few things in my life, but wish we had been closer at the end. Given a magic wand, I’d like to spend a few more minutes with him, knowing all I know now. I’d give him a big hug and say thanks.

Seven fathers. A lucky number. I could have done much worse.

Much worse.

The top photo displays four generations of the Hebert family, three of whom are (or are about to be) dads. From the rear, Tom, David, Keith (my son-in-law), and ______? The fourth generation is shown in an ultrasound image. The compilation was created by my daughter  — Keith’s wife, Carly.

The second photo was taken at my Uncle Sam’s wedding. Left to right: Aunt Charlene, me, Uncle Sam, and Aunt Florence Fabian. The final image is of my father and mother.

10 thoughts on “My Seven Fathers

  1. Great read. I hope all is well.

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  2. Thanks for such a moving and thoughtful post, it made me recall, with a lot of gratitude, the adults outside of my family who provided encouragement and nurture along the way. It is perhaps, sweeter, knowing that that did not have to offer it, but chose to anyway.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you. Yes, the kind of generosity of those adults is something special, more typical of a time when the world was smaller. As the saying goes, “It takes a village.”

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  3. I love this idea. I just wish we could have this wisdom as children and not in hindsight. It got me thinking of all the wonderful mothers I’ve actually had who were not related to me as well as a few men from the past who offered some of the fatherly qualities that were lacking. Good reminder.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Gayle. Perhaps it takes time and the changes that a distant perspective brings. As the old saying goes, “youth is wasted on the young.” Of course, if we thought and felt like 60-year-olds at 16, we would only be young by the numbers.

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  4. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Stein. It’s never too late the thank the “fathers” in our lives. Your story brought to mind a male high school teacher who took my younger son under his wing. He was six when his father left us.

    “Perhaps we expect too much of relationships: that they should be forever fulfilling, at least as long as both parties live. Experience tells us most serve for a time, not more. We change, the other changes, the times change.”
    ~ I have found this to be true in my own relationships. Some people enter our lives for only a short time. They influence our lives profoundly and then move on.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I suppose, in part, I hoped to pay tribute to these men because it is too late to thank them. I wish it weren’t so. Thanks for resonating with the theme, Rosaliene.

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  5. What a wonderful and moving post….thank you – for writing it, and for sharing that part of your story here. It made me think of the two or three figures who were in a similar role for me (though in a ‘motherly’ role), before my teens, But it also made me realise that another thing that changed when I lost an extended family member (through death) and also moved locations, growing up, was the loss and non-replacement of those types of figures.
    Although you may not have realised their importance at the time, I am so glad you had them in your life and now have the memories to hold on to. The way in which you often talk about knowledge, understanding and awareness gained through living and experience, is inspirational. I have a tendency to think that if I only do things the right way, or think hard enough, I should be able to figure things out now, or at least, soon. But your honesty in re-telling the things that life has taught you, over whatever timescale, helps me to do exactly what my own therapist encourages me to do – to wait, to sit with uncertainty, to go forward on the journey without knowing where I’m going or exactly how I’m going to get there. I think you could say that even if I was missing my own ‘seven fathers or mothers’ (or any other number) in an important period growing up, I am unconsciously looking for them now. How that turns out, only time will tell! I am not a child, but I still feel the need…..
    Thank you again……

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    • drgeraldstein

      You are most welcome. I think you understand what I say better than I do! As in this: “I have a tendency to think that if I only do things the right way, or think hard enough, I should be able to figure things out now, or at least, soon.” I remember thinking much the same thing 30 years ago, although I believed that such an approach would allow me to outsmart “fortune.” Understandable, but foolish (I’m speaking of myself). Another quote from you: “my own therapist encourages me to do – to wait, to sit with uncertainty, to go forward on the journey without knowing where I’m going or exactly how I’m going to get there.” Sounds like your therapist is doing her job very well. I’m increasingly persuaded that we are always moving, always in flux, with no permanent earthly destination. We interpret, reinterpret, and reinterpret some more. And, of course, one hopes we spend lots of time living and not in our heads. Take care.

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