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 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, John—my 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.

Childhood: It Never Leaves Us

Childhood: It Never Leaves Us

It’s a moment I will always remember. Fourth grade. That day my teacher handed each child a form to fill out. I remember I wrote my name, carefully spelling out my last name, almost always filling all the given boxes—eleven letters in my last name.

Then there were boxes for Father’s Name. Mother’s Name. I wrote my mother’s name. But after that I sat, stared at the paper. My pencil got sweaty in my hand. I swung my legs back and forth, looked around at my classmates, their heads down, pencils moving. I put up my hand, but the teacher had her back to me, writing on the black board. I kept my hand up, waved it around. Nothing. Everyone else was finishing, their pencils hitting their desks. Finally, my teacher set her chalk in the metal chalk rail, turned around, saw me.

“What? What is it, Beth?”

“I don’t know what to write, where it says, Father’s Name. Because he…”

“Write deceased,” and my fourth-grade teacher looked down and busied herself with something on her desk.

Deceased? A word I didn’t know, but one that somehow described my life.  


We all have ways of coping with the ups and downs of our lives. Childhood, young adulthood often provides the impetus to who and what we finally become:

  • maybe we go into the parental business;
  • maybe we leave home at an early age to strike out in totally new territory;
  • maybe we are bound to the familiar, eager to teach, heal and build right where we were planted.

My escape, which has also become welded to my occupations and my purpose in life–is to write. So it only make sense that at some point I would find myself writing down my history.

I did this in my thirties and forties–my mother helping me with details. I badgered her with questions so that I could broaden and expand my memories. She was so generous, contributing to the story that she lived when her husband, my father, died and left her with three young children. Then I wrote it all down, generating computer printouts from our earliest printer–a daisy wheel. I still have those pages, though I have reentered, edited and expanded all of that initial material, finding what to me is treasure. And it being Father’s Day, I will now share some excerpts with you.


Dedicated to She, my mother, for making our lives wonder-full from the very beginning.

I am three when my father dies—this house my life, this small yard of grass and weeds, these few trees and bushes, this overgrown garden. I know it, know that the ruts on the left side of the driveway become puddles when it rains; that she can easily open the left garage door, but not the right one; that the furnace always bangs and clanks, and that she will hug me, take care of me. But one day when I find her in the closet taking out my father’s suits, my father’s shoes, I will scream and cry.

After my father’s death, on one dazzling summer day, we are out for a walk, she pushing Bill in the buggy, John and I scraping our shoes along the sidewalk or searching for sticks in the grass. We meet a woman from the neighborhood who murmurs condolences, bends into the buggy to take Bill’s tiny hand in her fingers, saying, “But he left you three million dollars.” She, being realistic to a fault, wants to protest—’No he didn’t. Things are tough.’ But stops, seeing the look on the woman’s face, then nodding, understanding. The woman is childless.

This singular moment changes her. My father has left her gifts, left her us—her three million dollars.  But when a salesman comes to the door or an old woman wants to sell her potholders, she becomes “just a widow with three kids.” But every night at the dinner table, as the years stretch on, there is laughter or we argue about who will wash the dishes, or we watch Bill try to tell a joke and then fall on the floor laughing and rolling around. Later we sink into bed and sleep like the dead. We are safe, with no fears. At least the three of us are. We don’t think to ask how it is for her.

The swing on the cherry tree is mine and when I am older, she tells me that when my father died, I being three and too young to understand, I spent most of my time on the swing. It was a place of solace, one I refused to share with anyone, yelling, screaming when a little friend, Tigh, sat on it. My swing. Mine. From my father’s death in June to the cold autumn weather, I would swing, back and forth, back and forth, my little body taut with an energy I could not expend normally, my mind full of ideas I could not articulate except to sing a song my father taught me over and over “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily merrily, life is but a dream.”

I’m the swing and the swing is me—and we work our way up the dimensions of the yard day by day. The first few seconds my feet, my toes inside my shoes, can stretch to the patchy grass by the apple tree, then to the gravel car turnaround under that tree, and finally, when I’m really going, my toes touch the high branches of the apple tree and the roof of our house.

I fly and ride and then I’m singing: songs that I know, songs that I’ve learned rocking myself to sleep in my bed at night or listening to the old black record player that for years sits on the floor between our living and dining rooms, songs from the musical comedies our family loves—“Oh what a beautiful morning” and “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” (though I have no idea what the words mean) and popular songs like, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore.” Most often I’m alone, clouds moving along the border of my sky, as if I’m seeing the very earth spinning on its axis.

But as I grow and my brother Bill grows, “boys” come into the yard, Bill and his friends, and older boys too. They play baseball till there’s no grass by the apple tree. But I keep swinging and singing, sometimes just watching the sky as I float back and forth, back and forth, my head held straight, my body like an arrow hurtling upwards.

But then one day I look down and the Davis boys are in the yard. They are fighting, rolling in the dirt and hitting with their fists on backs and stomachs. Bill runs into the house. One of the Davis boys starts to cry. One says, “I’ll beat the shit out of you.” I keep on my swing, high up, away from them. When they leave, I sing a last song, wait until my feet come back into the sand under the swing, until I am forced down onto the heavy earth where the clouds are harder to see and the wind doesn’t move as quickly through my hair.


photo credit:

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.