The Father I Always Had
I hated my father most of my life.
When I was five years old my father had a bipolar breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric institution. The post breakdown events that followed forever defined my relationship with my him: violent outbursts, endless days of him sleeping away the afternoon on the couch, picking him up and putting him to bed after many too many beers, late night calls when he needed a place to stay, bailing him out of jail. I spent of my life angry, embarrassed and ashamed at whom and what he became. When he died in 1992, I put his ashes in my closet and put him behind me — or so I thought.
When I first started photographing “Glove” in early 2011, I wanted to reconnect with my father by imagining what it would be like if things had been different — if I had a more normal, adult relationship with my father. I began by imagining he lived with me. I photographed articles in my house that I remembered him owning: a wallet on my nightstand, razor on the bathroom sink, baseball glove in the closet. I photographed them large and direct, seeking to dissolve the movie I had in my head of a weak, failed man and replace it with images that were strong and masculine.
One step led to another and the process became more and more integral to the images that were being created. I dug into his professional past, finding a man that was different than the one I knew, one that I could be proud of: pledge captain at his fraternity, top salesman at IBM and 3M, President of the NJ Jaycees, MBA at Seton Hall gained several years AFTER his breakdown. I photographed a college ring, a “How to Win Friends and Influence People” book, a briefcase. The images filled a void I had about his work life.
I started a journal that recorded the days of our imagined life together: at the beach, the coffee shop, the ball field. Our time together sparked memories and images: cooking Christmas pancakes, fishing on a tiny pond, trips to Yankee stadium. The more images I created the more I remembered and the more I wanted to be his son again.
Painful memories still resurface, but my relationship with my father has been completely transformed. Three years into this process and 20 years after his death, I have found the father I always wanted and in many ways always had.
Someone once asked me; “When did you break with your father? When was the moment he was no longer “God”? ”. I think we all have a moment like this. The moment when the spell is broken. The moment we realize our parents are fallible. The moment our father or mother is pushed off the pedestal.
My father and I are playing catch in the backyard when it happens. A couple hours earlier I had raced home from 1st grade desperate to see him. My father had spent several weeks at psychiatric hospital after having a nervous breakdown — at least that was what they called it then. I had burst through the front door and jumped into his arms. I felt the roughness of his 3 o’clock shadow against my cheek. It was comforting. An hour or so later he said the magic words; “Get my glove.”.
Now in the fading light of the backyard, my father throws the ball and I catch it. Just like I knew it would be. I am good at this, this game of catch, and no matter what I imagine I have done or said to make them take my father away, I know I am good at playing catch and it makes it all better.
Then I miss one. How could this be? Another throw and another miss. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I am confused. Hurt. I’ll get the next one I vow. A throw, a miss and another shameful walk to pick up the ball. I am near tears. I can’t look at my father. I pick up the ball and throw it back. Now, trying really, really hard, I concentrate on following the ball into my glove, the way my father taught me. Another miss, but this time I realize the ball isn’t going straight, it is moving right to left, it is curving. My father is chuckling and it suddenly dawns on me that he is doing something to make the ball curve. He is MAKING me miss! My body starts screaming but I am silent. I throw the ball back hard. Okay this time, this time I will catch it. He throws again. I watch the ball as it moves right to left and then down. I reach with my glove just as the ball is about to hit the ground. I catch it! That is the moment. I hold the ball for second to make sure I have it and then I throw it back with a glare and a force that is a five year-olds’ equivalent of “Fuck you!”. My father is off the pedestal forever.
12 years later I stand on the mound on warm and windy day. Senior year in high school. The catcher puts down two fingers and I throw another deuce. It is breaking big and wide today. The batter flails helplessly. Strike three. Someone on the bench enters another K in the scorebook as I walk off the mound. It is the end of the third inning. I have stuck out eight of the first nine batters.
I went on to strike out 14 batters that day. 14 strike outs. One walk. No hits. It was that big sweeping curveball that was the killer, starting right at the batter’s head and then sweeping across and catching the low outside corner of the plate. Unhittable.
I rode that curve for a long time. It was my ticket to college, securing my spot at Rochester Institute of Technology (the Yale of colleges for aspiring photographers then) when my grades alone wouldn’t get me in. My RIT schooling then opened the doors to a lifetime of career opportunities. These days I am still playing baseball and creating photographs, and in many ways, it all started that late afternoon catching curveballs in the backyard at age 5.
My father threw me curves most of his life, an unchangeable game plan since he had bi-polar disorder. For a long time it made me angry, angry that he was throwing them and angry at myself for not being able to catch them. Now I realize that we were both doing the best we could given the tools we had. It is simply accepting what is and what has been. I don’t think we can ever go back to those magical moments before the “the fall”, but now I think of him and I think of baseball and I think of throwing that curve again, and it feels like we come damn close.
Things My Father Gave Me
When I first started this photographic process the only thing I remembered my father giving me was headaches and heartaches. When the movie reel ran in my mind, all I saw was excessive drinking, desperate late night phone calls, days slept away on the couch, trips to bail him out of jail and other tragedies. However, the process revealed, to my surprise, that there were other movie reels from my childhood stored off in the corner of my memory, neglected and covered with dust.
Three objects related to my father that have remained with me from the day my mother and father divorced and my father moved to the YMCA some 50 miles away; my father’s movie camera, his film projector and our family’s 8mm home movies. These three objects have stayed with me as I moved from apartment to apartment, house to house, bachelorhood to married life, and young adulthood into middle age. I really didn’t think much of this other than I am a photographer/filmmaker and old cameras, projectors and film are interesting to me.
When it became clear that this project was taking a very personal and autobiographical turn, I dug out the home movies from the closet. I wanted to look at them carefully, so I found a used 8mm film editor on eBay. It was nearly 50 years after my father’s breakdown. I eagerly opened the tattered box that arrived from Indiana with an old Kalart film editor inside. It was just like the one my father edited with at the kitchen table as he sought to turn our home movies into polished productions suitable for Saturday night viewing. I strung up an old 8mm reel and the images came to life on the small viewing screen.
The editor allows you to stop a single frame in the viewer and look closely at seemly insignificant images that usually fly by in an instant when show on the standard projector and screen. Stopped, as single, solitary images, they became very strong and revealing. One frame, from a 3 second clip showed my father at around 28 years old, full of promise and potential.
The edit points were initially interesting mostly because the glue over the images produced some interesting visual effects. Then I suddenly realized that these weren’t just random or clean up edits, they were edits that pieced together carefully thought out scenes. Five year old Jay runs across the screen. Cut. Pan across the house and stop on Jay in the driveway. Jay waves. Cut. Jay climbs up on the ladder and dives into the backyard pool. Cut. It was clear that my father was the Director and I was a willing and available actor. I have no memory of these experiences, but watching the films I can imagine my father saying “Jay, run from the top of the driveway and then right towards me.” or “Jay when I point to you, wave to the camera.”
“Mmm, interesting. My father was an amateur filmmaker….”. Then it hit me, “My father was an amateur filmmaker. I am a photographer and filmmaker. Really…could it be?…no!…Holy shit!” After 50 years of focusing on what I didn’t get from my father, I suddenly realized that my introduction in the world of photography, films and editing came from my father in our backyard, on the driveway and at a Kalart editor on the kitchen table.
The movie making pretty much stopped for my father after he had his breakdown, but it continued on for me. It has taken me to rural mountains of China, to the bush of West Africa, to the ghettos of San Paulo Brazil. I’ve interviewed the President of the United States, a Secretary of State and hundreds of everyday people who’ve been generous in sharing their thoughts, beliefs and values with me and the camera. Most of all, I’ve spent my working life doing something that feels like play.
Mickey Mantle Day. A Day to Remember. Differently.
June 8, 1969. Yankee Stadium. Mickey Mantle Day. Mickey had announced his retirement earlier that year and this was the day they retired his number. It was billed as “A Day to Remember.” My father had come home from work the night before with tickets and we were lucky to be among the 61,157 people who sat within the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium that day.
Mickey was my idol (as was the case with most 11 year-old boys in the New York area at that time) and I was elated at the chance to go to Yankee Stadium to see my hero get his due. I knew there would be a long, adoring standing ovation and I was eager to be part of it.
I remember sitting on the edge of my seat along the third base line as Yankee Broadcaster Frank Messer stood at a microphone near the pitcher’s mound and introduced teammates past and present. Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Mel Stottlemyre, Joe Pepitone and many others. Then it was time. The iconic Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen was brought to the microphone. He was brief; he was introducing someone that needed no introduction, “….one of the all-time greats, a magnificent Yankee…”, he motioned toward the dugout, “…the great number 7, Mickey Mantle!” Roar! A roar so load, so exhilarating, that I felt as if it would lift me off my feet and high into the sky above the classic Yankee Stadium facade. There was Mickey! The cheers now louder still. I clapped and I clapped and I clapped, imagining that if I clapped long enough and loud enough that I could will the crowd to stay standing, stay cheering forever. 2 minutes. 3 minutes. 4 minutes. The cheers would start to die down only to swell up and rise again, as if we were determined to give Mickey a memory that was as great as the ones he had given us. The longer ovation the went, the more determined we were to keep it going. But then something happened that ruined it. My father sat down. He sat down, stopped clapping and took a chug of his beer.
I was shocked and angry. “Get up! Get up! ,” the voice inside my head was screaming, “It’s Mickey Mantle!” I clapped harder and harder, as if do so could bring my father back onto his feet. But nothing I did could fix it. My father was embarrassing me. Just like he always did. Just as I knew he would.
The newspapers the next day would say that the standing ovation had lasted 8 ½ minutes. Mostly what I remembered for the next 40 years was that my father had sat down and drank his beer in the middle of the tribute to the greatest baseball player of all time.
It was “A Day to Remember”. How might I remember this day differently? I might remember that I had pleaded and pleaded with my father for the tickets. I might remember him at his desk, making phone call after phone call trying to give his 11 year-old son a once in a lifetime experience. I might remember that he came home and surprised me with two tickets the night before the big day. I might remember that he was as excited to see my reaction as I was to see the prized tickets. I might remember that thousands of 11 year-old boys wanted to go to Mickey Mantle Day, but didn’t get the chance. I might remember that my father loved me.
Mickey Mantle Day. A Day to Remember…differently.
Great Day for a Ballgame.
Journal writing has been one of the most important tools in reconciling my relationship with my father. During the process of creating Glove, I spent a few moments each day imagining that my father lived with me and capturing the details of our time spent together.
Journal entry June 17, 2012 – Father’s Day:
“Father’s Day. A beautifully cool, sunny day. A great day for a ballgame. I am playing right field in my over 40 league. The ball jumps off the bat and heads deep into the right center field gap. I take off at full speed and at the last second I leap and make a nice over the shoulder catch, keeping the ball from heading to the wall for a bases clearing triple. Satisfied that I still have “it”, I smile to myself as I jog into the infield and look over at the empty bleachers. I imagine my father sitting there as he had for many, many little league, Babe Ruth league and high school games. He gives me a wave and a smile and then he leans over to another imagined man sitting next to him and says “That’s my son.”