Embracing the good and bad in my dad
By MADGE STEIN WOODS
I recently saw a bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It made me think of my father — a man who loved his toys, particularly his bright red Ferrari, which he bought during a midlife crisis that seemed to last most of his adult life. Besides numerous sports cars (too many to name), his toy collection included racehorses, art, fine wine… and other women.
His gift for lavish spending came from the fact that hewas a self-made man who started his own business and sold it when he was 39. He was given a shitload of money and a covenant not to compete. He invested in real estate and that was all you had to do in the late ’50s to make money.
From my earliest memories, my father was a risk taker and gambler. During one family vacation to Monte Carlo he won $10,000 in lire at the craps table. For days, my father was on top of the world as we walked into banks to cash the money into American dollars.
When we weren’t traveling, my father spent a great deal of time on the phone with his bookie. One day the FBI showed up at his office. He spilled his guts quicker than a jackrabbit — he had a family to protect My father owned race horses (a rich man’s folly, he once told me.) One year the whole family went to the Kentucky Derby to watch one of our horses compete — it came in fourth. It was an amazing trip and one of many amazing memories.
When my dad was aging and in poor health, my sister and I took over his businesses. We divided the tasks and I took accounting.It was during this time that I started to piece together parts of his life that he had kept hidden from us. IRS refunds he said he never got but when I checked with the IRS, the check had been cashed. One friend of his helped me solve these mysteries and told us many more stories. I always knew he was a risk taker, but I hadn’t realized those risks went beyond fast cars, casinos and bookies to womanizing with no boundaries. My dad’s boundaries were so out of whack.
As I explored with friends and former neighbors, they confirmed stories that he had even hit on some of my more attractive friends and their moms. I would like to say this was a total shock to me, but looking back, I had my suspicions even as a teenager that he had roving eyes.
My father was not a really religious man but he definitely believed in heaven, so he felt if he vomited up every wrong he had done it would cleanse him enough to get there. He started confessing his sins, but not to a therapist, friend or rabbi even, like any normal person would do — instead he spilled his guts to me and my sister.My mother was not privy to the tales of the infidelity. My dad wanted to make sure I never said anything to my mom, as he was sure she would finally leave him. I felt my mom had chosen her path and knew a lot of what went on, so I never told her anything of our investigations.Both died believing what they wanted to.
We’re all a product of our parents in some way and looking back it’s easy to see where my father’s actions affected the choices I made in my own life. I ended up married at the age of 19 to someone who I imagined was different than my dad, or so I thought. Over the years, my dad talked to women everywhere and was flirty with elevator operators, waitresses and saleswomen — my husband wasn’t like that. I also thought in some way he could support me and be a real equal partner. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
I was a control freak as my dad was and I took over everything in the marriage and after 20 years I finally realized that I wanted someone who was capable of taking care of me at least some of the time. I really wanted someone who enjoyed life, was adventurous and somewhat of a risk taker, but in the good ways that helped my father prosper and become a great provider. That never happened, so there was no other option but to become free.
As a little girl, my dad was my hero, and it was easy to buy into the myth that surrounded him. The stories of his life made him a legend to many. That lust for risk and adventure that made his eyes sparkle and took us around the world on amazing trips was the same engine that drove him to gamble and run around with other women. I don’t know if one would exist without the other, so I embrace them both.
I often wonder what that red Ferrari would have said if it talked. So maybe “the man who dies with the most toys, does win,” but on the flip side, the man who spends his life in pursuit of those toys really loses his identity. The toys become bigger than life and eventually take over that life. I feel sad that he thought he needed them to be a good father, a great provider and a terrific person.
His legacy to me was his charity, his joy of life and his family loyalty (which despite the other women) was never in question. He was willing to help anyone with his time, money or energy. He taught me to be generous, giving, and to look out for the less fortunate by volunteering. That continues to be my mantra to this day. I’m happy to have inherited those values from him, but I do my best to keep my toys to a minimum.