Surprisingly, My Father’s Son

I’m reading Alan Cummings’s memoir, Not My Father’s Son. It is a beautifully written book that details the complicated and painful relationship that Cummings had with his abusive and angry father. I’m enjoying the book tremendously.

At the same time, I am very involved in cleaning up my father’s estate. My father is not dead. He is 87 years old and next week goes into the hospital for major heart surgery: a mitral valve replacement.

The surgery was scheduled to happen two weeks ago but was canceled at the last minute when they discovered a urinary tract infection. That short reprieve turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We learned that my father’s personal and business bank accounts had only one person able to sign the checks: him. We quickly arranged for my mother to be added to his personal bank account and my mother and brother to be added to his business accounts.

But as we talked, a much larger and more serious set of issues emerged. My father had been saying for some time that he was short of cash. At times he would say that he had a cash flow problem. While I have had numerous discussions with my brothers and sister over the past two years about what could be draining his cash, I never really paid serious attention to these comments because he never gave me the details or asked for my help.

As my mother and I sat down with my father following his surgery reprieve, to talk about his finances, we discovered he was heading towards serious financial problems. My father has always held his finances very close to the vest. Even my mother was not given access to his personal checking account until last week. But when someone faces the possibility of a very long recovery and even death, their perspective changes, and for the first time, my father saw that he needed our help. The kimono opened for the first time.

Dad had a number of long term investments that could not easily be converted into cash and at the same time was spending large amounts of cash to support my youngest sister, a failed filmmaker. He was also making regular investments in projects that he was passionate about, but could no longer afford to invest in. I called an emergency phone meeting with three of my four siblings and laid out the problem. Then I began, with one of my brothers and my mother, a quick triage of his financial situation. We quickly learned that dad’s finances were complex, messy, and potentially ruinous for him.

While my father was never physically abusive like Cummings, we have had a complicated and difficult relationship. My father was a man of strong beliefs. As a life long republican he always spoke with certain righteousness about how he saw the world. Anyone who saw the world differently was derided and made to feel stupid. Just like Cummings, who did everything he could to avoid his father’s physical outbursts, I did everything I could to avoid my father’s verbal outbursts and derisions. I made the decision in my early 20’s not to talk politics with my father — ever! There was no way I could win a political discussion with a man who felt he knew better, with a moral certainty, how the world worked. Growing up, his ‘always right’ attitude played out vividly with my mother’s sister, a life long democrat. My aunt was always one to speak her mind even when she should not, and like the fly entering the spider’s web, my father would simultaneously belittle her perspective and chide her on. To this day my aunt hates my father. 

Growing up in my parent’s house, dad and I fought constantly during my teen years. There was never the warm closeness between us that I observed with one of my sisters and my brothers. As I entered my teen years I began to take on a counter-culture look: long hair, thrift shop clothes, and Indian jewelry. I began to focus on art, spending hours in the art room doing fine art, pottery, or practicing stage makeup. I was also emerging as a young gay man and began to have more effeminate mannerisms that I am sure made my father uncomfortable. 

By the time I was 16 years old, I could not wait to get through high school and get out of my parent’s house. I found my parent’s world stifling. In high school, I had access to a car and was rarely home. When it came time for college, I refused to stay in Philadelphia, as my mother urged me to do. I was so ready to get out on my own and begin my life. I do not remember ever being homesick at college. I never looked back and welcomed my new found freedom.

If you could ask the young man who I was at eighteen years old, what was my future? I thought back then that my two brothers would be highly successful. I saw them as younger versions of my father: smart, driven, business savvy. I thought my sister would be a highly successful filmmaker. But I saw myself as the artsy one, which was lower on the totem pole of value in my family. I could not imagine entering the business world of my father. It was all too foreign. Clearly not me.

But at the end of college with a degree in design, I made the decision to go to graduate school for an MBA in finance. After working in the design field part-time throughout college, I can to realize that I was not a very good designer. I felt the budding business skills I had demonstrated at my part-time jobs showed that I could successfully work on the business side of the design field. And I really liked the accounting and finance courses I took in college. The decision to pursue an MBA led me to discover information systems. Soon IT began to emerge as a passion and a career possibility.

As I step in, with my brother, to untangle the business and personal finances of my father, after a long career in information systems management, I know that I have all the business and financial skills I need, and more, to do the job. I never imagined that my father, who I felt was so knowledgable and strong, would make such poor financial decisions. I never expected this man of pure business, the great entrepreneur, to be in such a precarious financial position at the end of his life.

I worked for my father’s company right before, during, and after graduate school. While he gave me the job in his company, once there, I got very little support from him. My father had no idea what it meant to mentor someone. Beginning in the late 1970s my father had gotten heavily involved in Republican politics and worked to elect Ronald Reagan President. When I came to work for my father in the early 1980s, Reagan had been elected, but my father still had a lot going on in the political sphere that took him away from the real estate development company he ran. I was left alone to work with his business partners, who had no interest in helping the boss’s son get a foothold in the business. I began to see that in the long run there was no place for me in my father’s company. Dad was incapable of helping me at work. I found being the boss’s son restrictive and uncomfortable. I wanted to make it on my own and knew that I had to leave to do so.

About six months after getting my MBA and returning to work for my father full time, I informed him that I was leaving his company and moving to New York City. He was disappointed, hurt, and angry. He felt he had given me a big opportunity and I was walking out on him. He did not understand that it was not enough to open the door and give me a job. He needed to help me learn and grow, something he was incapable of doing.

Moving to New York was the best thing I could do. It separated me from my father, his business, and his finances. I began immediately to make it on my own in New York. I quickly got a job for a small design company selling their design services. The owner of the company was impressed with my MBA, and as an Orthodox Jew, liked the fact that I was Jewish. But he did not focus on the fact that I knew nothing about sales. After six months of trying to sell his design services, and failing, my boss and I agreed that it was not working out and I left. I needed to earn money and was fearful of a break in income. I came up with a plan to do temp work in offices while I looked for a permanent job. I was a fast touch typist and within a few days, I was temping in Manhattan offices using Microsoft Word and Lotus 1-2-3.

I remember my father’s anger and disappointment with me: “You have an MBA in finance from a top school! What are you doing temporary office work for?” But I had a plan that I could not easily explain and that he could not really understand. I wanted to work in Information Systems. I had learned a lot about IT in my MBA program and through self-education and now continued my learning at NYU’s School of Continuing Education, taking evening classes to build up my IT skills. After a year of temping, I struck out on my own and began to do Lotus 1-2-3 programming for a company I had temped for. Two and a half years later, when I finally got a full-time job in information systems in a real IT department, I remember my father saying: “What the hell do you know about computers?” And I remember thinking, quite a lot at this point, thank you.

The picture of my father is not complete without saying that even with all his challenges, he has been supportive and generous with me. I always felt that if I really got into trouble, he would be there and help me. But since my mid-twenties I have not needed to ask for his help. I have been successful at almost every job I have held, and each job has led to bigger responsibilities and larger roles. From my late twenties, I was able to earn a living and never again asked him for money. The financial independence and business success I achieved, step by step, gave me a level of confidence in myself that I did not have previously have. I was independent, and there was a power in my independence that I have only recently begun to understand. My relationship with my father evolved to a cordial friendship, but we never had what I would call a deep closeness that I saw he had with my siblings.

Helping my father clean up his finances. Stepping up to lead and navigate his business and legal issues has been an eye-opening process. Over the years I had become a talented and successful IT business leader, but in my heart, I was still my father’s son. In the recesses of my mind dad was still the talented and sophisticated business leader and I was still the artsy ignorant kid. But the reality today is quite different. My father is now an old man making bad business decisions. I have become the adult helping to guide him, clean up his mess, and bring order to his chaos. This sudden realization that I have long since surpassed my father on many fronts has been surprising. It has had me think about the road that got me to this point.

None of us really make it fully on our own. It was my father who pushed me to go to a top business school, once I had made my intentions known. I also had years hearing my father espouse his entrepreneurial vision of the world, his can-do attitude, and his belief that anything was possible. Dad held on to the John Galt vision of the world, putting the entrepreneur on the highest pedestal. I am sure all of this rubbed off on me. I found, to my surprise, that I was very successful working in large corporations in information systems. I have long since walked away from the Ayn Rands world view that my father held so dearly and landed on the democratic side of the fence. But my father’s perspectives and world vision helped give me the drive and perspective that I could accomplish anything.

I am glad that I can step in, late in my father’s life, and help him. It has me see myself in a new light and is one more step in getting rid of the old messages in my head about who I am. I am a highly successful professional in my own right and no longer need to see myself as somehow less than my father. I had a few sleepless nights last week thinking about the monumental task of righting my father’s financial ship. Within a few short days, my brother and I had gotten our arms around my father’s finances and put together a roadmap for how to stabilize his financial situation and ensure that he and my mother have sufficient funds to live on. I feel proud of what I am able to do for him and see more clearly now that whatever may come in further working through his estate, that I am ready for the task and highly capable of doing the job.

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