Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Hush Puppies Box - Part 3

The remaining memories my father placed in the Hush Puppies box date from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. Of note is a photo of a scene from the play “Bus Stop” by William Inge – a production at a little theater company in New Orleans, probably about 1957. Look closely at the actors, and you see the bus driver standing by the counter at the cafĂ©.

The bus driver is my father. My father was an actor in a play. And this wasn’t the only one.

When I was young, I can remember my parents taking me to see plays at little theater companies. The last one was “The Music Man,” staged when I was 8. I remember it because I was in third grade and had accidentally taken home a textbook that was supposed to stay in the classroom. And I was horrified, certain I was to meet my doom when I arrived at school the next day. It hung over me all through the play.

That was the last play my parents attended. My younger brother was born two years later; my father was caught up in his printing business (we wouldn’t see him for days, sometimes; he’d be gone in the morning before I got up for school and home after I’d gone to bed at night). But there was a period in which my parents enjoyed theater.

The Hush Puppies box also contained a March 1955 copy of The Fisherman magazine. Before he started his printing business, my father worked as a ciculation manager for a publishing company in New Orleans that printed magazines like Work Boat and Shrimp Boat and Southern Bottler – trade publications for various industries and associations. He traveled (by train) to conventions and trade shows all over the country. There are a couple of photographs of my father at trade shows, and he looks so much like my younger brother that it’s startling.

A feature story in The Fisherman is about fishing for croakers. One of the four fishermen is my father. Another is a long-time friend of my father who died some years after he did; they worked together at the publishing company. A third is the man who with his wife founded the Bon Ton Restaurant, still on Magazine Street in downtown New Orleans (and still a where the locals like to eat; tourists rarely hear about it, like other well kept secrets in the city).

The interesting thing (to me) about this story is that my father hated to fish. Absolutely hated it. He was drawing upon some of his acting ability to get through that story, and probably had to do it because of the company he worked for.

But he liked going to trade shows. Once, and this is likely my earliest memory of my father, he came home from a trip to New York City with a jack-in-the-box for me. You turned the handle, and the box played Pop Goes the Weasel, a clown’s head popping out when the music reached the “Pop.” I remember sitting on the living room floor as he came in the front door. He was wearing an overcoat (so it must have been wintertime; he had worn it in New York and was still wearing it when he came home). If I have the time right, I would have been about 3 ½ years old, possibly a bit younger.

The shoebox contained little else. It’s as if the memories stopped sometime in the 1950s. Perhaps he got too busy. But he never placed anything else in the Hush Puppies shoebox.

I added a few things to the shoebox, things connected to my father, like a photo of me and my mother. I was about 2; she would have been 30. With her 1953 hair-do, she looks elegant. She always looked elegant in her photos, especially those from the 1950s. I also added my father’s business card for his printing business – Direct Mail Enterprises, Inc. My mother never called it Direct Mail or the office or even the business; she always, always referred to it by its current address – 424 Gravier, or 501 Baronne – streets in downtown New Orleans. “Where’s Dad?” I’d ask. “424 Gravier,” she’d reply. There was a lot packed into that short response, far more than a child, even a teenager, could understand.

And I added his driver’s license. His last one. The one he had in his wallet when he died of a massive stroke in 1987. Driver license photos are notoriously bad, but he doesn’t look well in the photo.

We weren’t close, my father and I. My childhood coincided with “424 Gravier” and a lot of time was lost, or never made. I remember spending part of a Saturday with him in New Orleans’ French Quarter and having my picture drawn in pastel. It’s dated February 1960; the artist’s name is Lee Stallings. It would have been near the time of "The Music Man" production. I remember it because time spent with my father was rare, and my parents had had a fight about it that morning – he needed to go to the office, yet he had promised to take me to the French Quarter. My mother won the argument. But we all lost.

I don’t doubt that he loved me, my brothers and my half-sister. It was difficult for him to show it, but it was something common across my parents’ generation. Surviving a depression, even if it killed your dreams; surviving a war; surviving two divorces before he met my mother – experiences like that can keep a lot of emotions permanently submerged.

Last year, I bought an archive-quality box with acid-free wrapping paper, and emptied the Hush Puppies box. There was a lot of sentimental value in the shoebox itself, but the contents needed better storage. The Young family Bible, dating from the 1840s, went into another archival box.

I’ve only added one thing since then. A Caravelle wrist watch, circa 1964. My first watch, a present from my parents. The band has a slight break, but the watch still works.

Like the memories.

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