Remembering a father who was largely a stranger

Michael Widmer recalls a meeting at the Statler in Hartford

IT MAY HAVE BEEN the most memorable day of my life. When I relate the story to others, they always ask, “How did you feel?” Some 67 years later, I still don’t quite know how to answer that question.

It was a beautiful Sunday in May 1953 and the three of us — my formidable 50-year-old mother, my younger brother Eric, 13, and I, aged 14 — were in our 1952 Ford Fairlane driving to the new Statler Hotel in downtown Hartford “to meet my father.”

“Meet” as in seeing him for the first time since November 1940, shortly after my second birthday, when my mother, brother, and I sailed from Basrah, Iraq, on a Norwegian freighter on a perilous six-week journey through Japanese patrolled waters before arriving in Long Beach, California in early January 1941.

My parents had met, courted and then married in Beirut in the 1930s, my mother having founded the collegiate School of Nursing at the American University of Beirut and my father, a Frenchman who was head of the French section of the Boy’s Prep School.

But with the German invasion of France and war threatening in the Middle East, at my father’s urging the three of us returned to the United States. Our odyssey led us to Storrs, Connecticut in August 1942 where my mother founded the School of Nursing at the University of Connecticut.

In the ensuing years my mother set a place for my father at the kitchen table where we ate all our meals. The plan was that my parents would be reunited after the war, but by the war’s end my father had decided to seek a divorce and move to Africa (in due course with a new wife) as part of the French colonial service.

Because I was so young when I had last seen my father I could not remember specific events of those first two years, but he had been a huge presence in my life and his absence left a large hole in my heart. During the four long years of the war, I constantly asked my mother when the war would end and I would see my father again.

However, my expectations turned to great sadness as the war neared an end and my father wrote to my mother that he would not rejoin the family and wanted a divorce. She pleaded that the boys would be crushed but he wouldn’t budge.

I can still remember how I learned the news. Eric and I had spent two weeks living with a family on a farm in western Connecticut in July 1945. My mother picked us up and we stopped on the way home to enjoy a picnic lunch in a field by the side of the road.

“I have something to tell you,” my mother said, as we were eating our peanut butter sandwiches. “Your father will not be coming home.”

I was stunned and I’m sure I asked her all sorts of questions, trying to wrap my six-year-old mind around this staggering news that I would not be reunited with my idol.

Years later I discovered my parents’ exchange of letters ending their marriage. Expressing disbelief at my father’s decision, my mother wrote, “They look up to you as someone very wonderful who is a brave soldier in the war (he worked for the Free French) and who loves them very much. How can I tell them that you have abandoned the family? Eric might get over it eventually but I truly believe it would permanently wreck Michael.”

My mother may have overstated the lifetime impact that his abandonment had on me but there is no question that it left a very big mark.

I have scant recollection as to how I coped in the ensuing years of my childhood. The photos of my father in Beirut before the war — tall, thin and dashing —  which had given me much solace, now were painful to see, triggering a profound longing and sadness. We received only infrequent communications from him. He would send Eric and me a telegram on our birthdays, and once a year at Christmas he would write a letter to our mother who would read relevant parts to us. On occasion he would send some odd memento like a stuffed pangolin or a piece of elephant hide, which subsequently rotted in our back closet where my mother had put it for safe keeping.

Meanwhile, to all appearances Eric and I had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the bucolic setting of the University of Connecticut campus, a gigantic playground with surrounding woods and ponds that provided an endless source of fun.

Then out of the blue in the early spring of 1953 my mother announced to Eric and me that we were going to meet our father. He was planning to fly to New York to be treated for a small cancer growth on his ear and would take the train to Hartford where we would join him for lunch at the Statler.

As an adult eight years passes in a breeze, but for a child it is an eternity. I was six between first and second grades when I learned that my father would not come home, and now I was 14 in my freshman year in high school. And of course I was only two when I had last seen him.

The strongest memory I have of the weeks leading up to the visit is one of apprehension tinged with excitement. I had done my best to bury my feelings of loss, and presumably anger, and all of a sudden I was to meet this mythical figure in person.

On that May morning Eric and I dressed in our finest — each in our only suit, white shirt and tie. We were to meet our father at noon at the Statler, Hartford’s newest hotel and directly across from the train station.

We arrived a few minutes early, parked our car and waited in the downstairs lobby from which we could watch everyone entering the main lobby up the stairs.

Those were some of the longest moments of my life. A man would enter the upstairs lobby and Eric and I would immediately ask our mother, “Is that him?” No, she answered.

Another man, no. And another and another, still not my father.

Suddenly a man entered and my mother almost shouted, “There he is.”

I was flooded with emotions but I recall the distinct sense of feeling disappointed. My father was noticeably heavier and older. In the photos he was young and thin, just 36 years old. Now he was almost 50 with wider girth and greying hair, still regal but a middle-aged man.

We all raced up the stairs to greet him, my mother announcing, “Boys, this is your father.” He gave us both a traditional French greeting of a kiss on each cheek. To this day I am uncomfortable with that greeting, and at that moment I was totally embarrassed.

We went to a table in the dining room where my mother sat to my right, my brother to my left and my father across. I have no recollection what we ate or discussed. I do remember that after we wolfed down our food, Eric and I were excused to explore the hotel, which was a novelty in those days.

After some time we came back to the table and the picture of my mother and father still haunts me. They were in deep conversation (of what I never learned), but what struck me immediately was their obvious affection for each other. I was only 14 but I could see caring in their faces.

Shortly after — almost mid-afternoon by then — we said our good-byes, another awkward kiss, and headed to our car. At some point on the one-hour drive home my mother and I got into a terrible shouting match. I don’t recall the subject of our fight but clearly the emotions were too much for both of us. And no one ever talked about feelings in those days.

I saw my father perhaps a dozen more times over the years until his death in 1984. We had a form of reconciliation but he never would discuss the past and the decisions he made.

I wept when he died, more for the loss of the father I never had than for the passing of my actual father. The truth is that I never really lost those feelings from May 1953, the extreme oddity of meeting this man who was my father but felt in many respects like a stranger.

Michael Widmer is a long-time analyst of Massachusetts state government who lives in Belmont.