The Story of Three Fathers

The Story of Three Fathers

These were neighborhoods that encouraged walking and friendliness.

The Story of Three Fathers

The 99th Street Train Station

This is the story of three fathers in my life and the neighborhood that connected them. It is the story of a typical southside Chicago neighborhood where city blocks of various-styled houses marched along, occasionally interrupted by a cluster of stores–commerce that arose because of the presence of a Rock Island Railroad station at 95th, 99th, 103rd etc.

The neighborhood grew around access to the train and the city north. Sidewalks lined every block, slicing between the lawns of the houses and the lawns of the parkway where elm trees grew and short streetlights supplied only pools of light, because that was all that was needed. These were neighborhoods that encouraged walking and friendliness.

My father lived on the street with the simple name Wood. In the middle of my father’s block, three houses with three very different families lived side-by-side, fruit trees or a driveway marking off property lines. Of course each block had a house on either end—the proverbial corner house that had a certain cache. But if you turned the southern corner and walked past three other houses, you’d come to my father-in-law’s house that sat way back from the sidewalk.

That’s how close these two men’s lives were geographically in the quiet neighborhood of Beverly Hills in Chicago. My father, Albert Pfordresher, was eight years older than Edward Havey, so they never attended either grade or high school together. They did go to the same church. And ironically, after each was married, they lived in those same houses, the ones where they had previously lived with their parents.

But my father died suddenly at the age of 45 when I was just a child, and thus would not be there when I rode my tricycle and then my two-wheeler around the block, past the house where Edward Havey was now living with his growing family—which included his first son, Johnmy future husband.

So you see, this is a story that can be repeated over and over in the lives of many folks in this country, folks living in farm towns or small cities, or living in the suburban areas of huge cities. It’s a story of bumping into people, of knowing them and connecting with them and finally NOT being surprised when the connection becomes deeper, becomes family. It’s a story that echoes with the phrase—it’s a small world. Because then, when I was growing up—it was smaller. People grew up and stayed—like my maternal grandmother who moved from a big Victorian home with her many brothers and sisters to a smaller house—again just blocks away. And lived there for over 65 years—content.

But Readers, you know all about change and far-flung relationships. You know all about the positives and negatives of insular living versus spreading your wings. It’s history, often family history. It’s life. It’s all very fascinating.

In 1931, a news article appeared in the neighborhood newspaper, the Southtown Economist. It was a review of a recent musical that occurred at the local church, St. Barnabus. Albert Pfordresher was the co-producer and Edward Havey took part in the performance. The article also mentioned Bob Singler, whose father was my grandmother’s brother. All families who would be intertwined.

But in 1931, my mother was only fifteen. I guess I wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at that point in time. But so fascinating to imagine my father putting his hand on Edward Havey’s shoulder and saying,

“Wow, thanks for all that you did to make this performance go so well. It was great. We should get together more often.”

And my father-in-law responding,

“We should. Why you’re just around the corner from me. Maybe we could sit on your porch and talk about life and our futures.”

Imaging and wondering about conversations that could have taken place works for me. After all, I’m thinking about fathers today and want to say thanks to my father. Even though his untimely death took him, he left me with an amazing mother and my two loving brothers. And thanks to my father-in-law, whose courage and strength got him through WWII so he could come home and with my mother-in-law bring my future husband into the world. And thanks to my husband, my best friend, my advocate, my partner in all things.

To quote a writer whose words truly touched me: There’s something like a line of gold thread running through a man’s words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself. ~John Gregory Brown

Credit: Family photos and  Part of an ongoing Family History Project

The Story of Three Fathers

I guess this was a day when I was not riding a bike.


The Story of Three Fathers

A typical south side street.

Finding My Father

I lost my father when I was just a three-year-old kid, but his death, at the early age of forty-five, led me to become a nurse.

Growing up, I had no memories of him.  Of course my mother told my brothers and me stories about “Daddy.”  We knew he died of a heart attack in our home.  We’d heard the story so many times we could picture him sitting in the big red chair in the living room and then just slumping over, leaving us.  We could almost hear his newspaper rustling as it fell to the floor.  But we weren’t there.

That was our mythology as we jumped in that big red chair or passed by my father’s photograph, a handsome man looking out at us wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a maroon tie, a man with kind eyes, a half-smile.

But we didn’t think of him.  We had my mother.  We said a prayer to him every night, a prayer rattled off like a jump-rope rhyme.  On some level he was there, the thought of him present in the background of our lives.  But we were kids.  Deciding who got to wear the Davy Crockett raccoon-tail hat or discovering what was for dinner was more important to us than thoughts of our dead parent.

School changed that.  My fourth grade teacher handed out forms for us to complete.   I tackled mine until I came to the blank for “father.”  I stopped.  Everyone else was writing busily.  The teacher had her back to me.  I raised my hand and kept it up until finally she turned around.

“What do I put for father?” I asked.

She studied me for a moment, as if she were truly seeing me for the first time.   “Deceased,” she said curtly and swung back to her work.

What had she said?  What was that word?  I didn’t even know how to spell it.

But that day, and for many days after, that was my father.  Not a pilot or a doctor or a man who carried a briefcase.  Not a presence in my life, someone to take me to the Father-Daughter breakfasts, those ordinary affairs with diluted orange juice and stacks of donuts.  But they would have been amazing for me had my father been there.  In the pre-divorce age of the 1950’s my brothers and I were the only children in our grade school without a father.

I  felt the sting of this hole in my life even more as I grew.  Graduations.  Dating.  My friends claimed they could convince their fathers of things more easily than their mothers.  I ached for this connection and found myself yelling at my mother when we argued about boys.  I would turn away from her, wishing my father were alive—he would understand me.

And maybe I was on to something.  I was surviving his loss, taking care of me.  He had left me.  I felt no solid connection to him and knew little about him.  To change that, I sat with my mother, who I really, truly loved, and asked her to talk about my father.

He was a dentist.  She told me how my father’s wonderful sense of humor helped offset the pain he had to inflict on his patients in those years prior to modern dentistry.  At that time everyone hated the dentist.  But not my father.  When he died she received numerous letters stating how much he was loved and that there would never be anyone like him.  This made sense to me, for often the mention of my unusual last name elicited questions from adults who had known my father, praised his reputation and stressed that his early death was a true tragedy.

Then my mother took out some old photos, including a series taken of my father in his new dental office.

And then there was one more photo.

“It’s from dental school,” my mother explained of the black and white photo of my father and a large group of students in white coats standing in a medical theatre near two cadaver tables.

“It’s gross I said,” turning away.

And I was right.  It was gross anatomy.

In my thirties when I discovered I had a benign heart valve condition, I suddenly wanted to know more about my father’s medical history.  This led me to read every article about medicine I came across and to search for information about heart valves and heart disease.

I read books by Dr. Oliver Sacks and Dr. Richard Selzer.  I slipped my father’s lavaliere from dental school onto a gold chain and wore it.

I kept reading.  I read about diet and high cholesterol and plaque and blocked arteries.   I was approaching my mid-forties.  And I was my father’s daughter.

I knew some pieces of the puzzle surrounding my father’s death were missing.  I had to grasp it, understand it, make it part of me so that I could accept the many years I have lived without him.  And something else was happening.  I was experiencing a great desire to go back to school, to become part of the medical profession, to become a nurse.  It was a longing inexplicable to me in many ways, but it just wouldn’t let me go.

My husband and children and my mother supported my need to go back to school.  Again Mom recounted to me my father’s high blood pressure, the fatigue and insomnia that she felt were directly related to the stress of his profession.

Then she mentioned his left arm pain and chest pain.   It was nagging and constant.  An electrocardiogram, EKG, revealed nothing unusual.  My father sought other opinions, but there were no tests or procedures in those days to reveal coronary artery disease or to treat it.  And no one knew at that time that my father’s diet, which often consisted of his favorites—sweets and butter—was contributing to his heart disease.

But my father knew he was going to die.  A patient of my father’s told my mother that she came upon him sitting outside the dental office on a sunny day.  He looked despondent.

“Can I help you, Doctor?” she asked him.

He looked up at her.  “No one can help me,” he told her.

He knew.

Now it’s a pretty clear picture: coronary artery disease brought on by high blood pressure, high cholesterol diet, and stress.  Death: myocardial infarction.  Heart attack.  And genetics.  Now I had this knowledge.

Anatomy and physiology are required courses in the first year of nursing.  I was so fascinated by the study that I elected to take an additional cadaver class.  After weeks of examining drawings and slides, I stood in a white lab coat with my fellow students looking down on a spirit of medicine, a human body granted to us for study and learning.  I was reverent and careful, understanding the privilege of my position.  And I saw that such a privilege would always be mine when I reached out to touch anyone that I cared for—man, woman or child.

At that table I could feel my father hovering over me.  And I remembered the photograph of his cadaver class.  No longer gross to me, I saw that I had stepped across some great divide.  I had gone back to school to discover medicine and in doing so I had found my father.  I now believe that there were always deep desires and thoughts, yearnings and meanings in my life that I had to discover.  There were things beyond my knowledge and understanding that had to be completed.  My desire to know and understand who my father was had led me to a career where possibly I could help other people.

Now I don’t worry about his cardiac history.  My father’s legacy is one of life, not death.  I launched myself into a new career, but most importantly I filled a life-long emptiness inside me—I found my father.  No longer a stranger to me, no longer just the handsome man in the maroon tie, I knew him now, knew what interested and fascinated him, identified with the compassion and care he gave his patients, knew my longings were echoes of his own.  What I had discovered took my breath away—I was his daughter, we were alike—we had connected.  I was forty-five.