It’s In The Genes
The very fact that I can sit here, using the technology and software needed to put this post together, encompasses abilities I got from having a geek for a dad. The urge to write comes from my mom, but just about everything else — taking and developing photos, using computers, writing code, using art software like Photoshop — I inherited from my dad. And my dad, I’m proud to say, inherited these same abilities from that tiny Swedish immigrant lady who was his mom, my Nana. Of that I have no doubt. My Nana was a talented, resourceful, resilient technological genius who lived to be 96 and never needed reading glasses. I inherited her eyesight, which requires me to wear glasses when I drive. But I can attest in middle age to the fact that I do not need reading glasses as most of my peers do. Thanks for that, Nana!
My dad’s mom was one of those iconic, amazing immigrants who embody that Horatio Alger myth, one of those up-by-the-bootstraps folks who work hard, solve their own problems, and don’t expect a hand-out from anyone. She was a young mother when the Great Depression of 1929 hit, living in Boston with small children and a husband with a bad back who never worked during my father’s entire childhood. With a neighbor lady as her midwife, she birthed all six of her children at home. She sewed her family’s clothes, baked their bread, cooked everything from scratch and started her own business to pay the bills. I believe it started when she took in mending, but because she was an engineering genius, she eventually became a tailor and dressmaker, who could whip up coats and suits without a pattern that were better than anything you could get in a department store. Happily, I have some of the things she made, including a handsome late-forties style suit she made for my mother when my parents became engaged. I used to wear it — pearl gray wool gabardine with a slight black thread through it, a pencil skirt, and a gorgeous fitted jacket with padded shoulders, cuffs, bound buttonholes and a gathered back attached to a short peplum. She also tatted lace, embroidered, and hooked rugs from strips she cut from old clothes. She could fix anything, make anything, figure out anything, and build a house with her bare hands. If she were young today, she’d probably be the CEO of a company like Apple. And she passed all of her considerable talents onto her firstborn, my dad, who in turn passed them onto me.
When my parents met in their late twenties, they were both working for what we all used to call the Phone Company, aka Ma Bell. My mother was a switchboard operator like Lily Tomlin’s ‘Ernestine.’ My dad was an installer/repairman who would retire forty years later as an IT specialist. Dad was a World War II veteran, retiring as an Army sergeant. He took and developed photographs as a hobby as well as a source of part-time income. He was the lead singer/arranger/keyboard player in a small swing band that gigged regularly up until I was six years old. In school, he had been double-promoted twice, and thus graduated from high school when he was fifteen. College was an expensive dream way beyond his aspirations. Instead, the Army and the Phone Company provided his technical education.
He was the oldest boy in his family, filling in for many of the responsibilities his father should have shouldered. Like him, my mother was the oldest girl in her family, and remembers standing in bread lines and soup lines with her brother when the Great Depression hit. She, too, had to fill in for her mother, who birthed eight children and then developed diabetes and a weak heart. My mother tested with the highest IQ in her class at Brookline High School. They were both geniuses, my parents, both the children of large, Catholic, immigrant families, both troubled by lifelong psychologial issues — dysthymia and alcoholism in my father’s case, a personality disorder in my mother’s manifesting as occasionally paralyzing depression and a tendency to imagine that the neighbors were conspiring against her. They were good-hearted, fought with each other like cats, and were always a little ‘different’ from other folks. They both read constantly, loved the arts, worked hard. They were often sad. They loved me, their only child, sharing their passions and their pathologies with me, including some deeply hurtful wounds that arose from their own deeply hurtful wounds. Their sorrows were often leavened with humor and the ability to be silly. They both did the very best they could.
Side By Side
After my mother died, in 1994, some nine years after my dad, it took a psychologist to point out how much like my dad I had turned out to be. When I think how surprised I was to hear that at the time, I marvel at my lack of insight. I had, like many girls, always identified with my mom. At least I thought so. But as soon as this therapist related her observation, which was based on information that I myself had provided her, it hit me how right she was.
It was not easy being the only child in a home with two dysfunctional, sometimes mentally ill adults. But there were lots of compensations. We had a piano and an accordion in the house, both of which my dad played by ear. Even though he was the lead singer and arranger for his band, I don’t think he ever actually read or wrote music. He just was musical. He had a clear, smooth tenor voice, and he was fond of comically revising the lyrics of popular songs à la Spike Milligan. Our basement was his playroom. It was filled with musical equipment, stereo components, reel-to-reel tape recorders, huge amplifiers, microphone stands, even a “cookie cutter” which was a machine that turned wax disks into 78 rpm recordings. He built his own darkroom in a corner of the basement. By the time I was seven, I was regularly pressed into service as his darkroom sherpa, helping him develop the black and white film photos he took with his myriad cameras. On Sunday afternoons, one of our favorite things to do together was to go to the Hayden Planetarium of the Boston Museum of Science and get lost in the stars. We enjoyed ourselves so much, my father bought us a telescope.
That’s probably the most wonderful thing about him: Dad never did anything by halves. If he developed an interest in something, it became an avocation that took over our house. After he bought the telescope, the cosmos conveniently provided New England with a solar eclipse, which my father photographed in our backyard by mounting the telescope on one of his film cameras, propped on a large tripod. When I brought home a live goldfish from a church fair, his willingness to help provide the right accoutrements morphed him into an amateur ichthiologist. By the time the goldfish expired, my father had filled a long counter in the basement with enormous fish tanks filled with freshwater tropical fish, and eventually developed a new strain of angel fish with crimson-streaked fins. Photos of their mating and the birth and rearing of their progeny became the springboard for one of my science projects in the sixth grade. Naturally I got an A.
I used to wonder what would have happened if I’d had a brother. It was unusual in those days for dads to turn their daughters into geeks. But my dad identified more with his mom, grew up with three sisters, and was especially close buddies with his sister Helen. So, in many ways, I think my father was gender blind. Most of the time, I’m not sure he even saw me as a girl, but as a chip off the ol’ geek block. Whatever he thought of me, he and I genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. We were a lot alike, we were nerdy, we were a bit obsessive. I was the only girl I knew at age nine to get a chemistry set for Christmas. My Nana gave me her old sewing machine and my mom helped me learn how to use it. But I learned to take it apart and fix it because I was my dad’s geek-girl.
As I was musing about this post yesterday, I heard an interview on NPR’s “Science Friday” with Ken Denmead, the author of the book Geek Dad. He described a project whereby you could tie a video camera to a bunch of helium-filled balloons so that you could take aerial videos. This is sooooo something my dad would have done, I ran out then and there to buy the book. I also bought another irresistible, geeky book: A Pop-up Gallery of Architectural Wonders. Hey, it was even on sale! As a kid, I probably read and absorbed every kids’ project book in our local library. I could write a book like this. My dad could write this book. He certainly helped me try out enough projects to fill a book. Yes, I loved frilly dresses and Barbie and my ballet lessons, but I also loved using the microscope I built, growing crystals from my fathers photographic chemicals, and constructing a polariscope in high school. My undergraduate degree was in liberal arts, but it was probably inevitable that I got a graduate degree in science. With the brain power my parents passed on in their genetic material, I have no cause to feel smug. If I’d really lived up to their intellectual abilities, I would have won a Nobel prize by now or at least made a zillion dollars from a start-up dot.com enterprise.
After my father died in 1985, it was one of his 35 mm cameras and a trip to southern France that started a dad-like tsunami of interest in photography. I didn’t just take snapshots. I ended up having an art show at a local bistro with enlarged photos from that trip. Over the next five years, I took the plunge into digital photography, bought a new camera, taught myself to use Photoshop, went to RISD, started my own website, and won a whole bunch of art awards in juried art shows.
Whenever I buy a new piece of technology or teach myself to use some new & complex software, I think of my dad. The last time I saw him was the day after Thanksgiving. He and my mom had not felt well enough to join me for Thanksgiving, so I went to visit them the next day to bring them some left-overs. He had just bought one of the first CD players on the market and a bunch of music disks. He had already rearranged and relabeled all his other music recordings with labels he printed out on his desktop computer. Like a kid with a new Xbox, he brought me downstairs, handed me a pair of headphones and fired up the new CD player. We stood there, side by side, the volume cranked up in our headphones, listening to two different digital recordings of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” One recording incorporated digitally-created fireworks, the other a recording of the real thing. We stood there comparing fidelity. The real fireworks won hands-down and the digital reproduction of them nearly lifted us off our feet. That was the last time I saw him alive. The next day he had a massive heart attack that killed him.
He’s here with me though, enthusing about the internet and blogging and social networking. He would so love to get his hands on all this stuff. But I like to think I try it all out with him. So, thanks, Dad, for helping me wrestle with WordPress and create this blog and write this post. I love you. You’ll always be my favorite geek, and I’m proud to be your daughter. Happy Father’s Day. And give my love to Nana.
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