Spanning 43 years, My Letters To And From A Distant Dad

“…do not capitulate. It may be too late sooner than you think. Be adamant, my boy.”

I publish these excerpts from letters between my biological father and myself not because they reflect a person who contributed positively to my life, nor because they display any father-son dynamics as most anyone else would recognize those. I publish them because I believe they are interesting.

dad and me LETTERS wordpress
Two George Morrisons, writing the news for WAVE-TV in Louisville circa 1950, and the younger, now named Brian Arbenz, at a signing of one of his books in 2011. 

I have only a patchwork of the many missals written until my father’s death in 2007 at age 82. The correspondence began one evening in 1964 when our mother encouraged us to write to Dad in advance of a trip to Albuquerque my sister and I would make for a two-week visit. I was five and this was three years after my parents, who had lived in that city for four years, were divorced. The great majority of letters between my father and myself are lost forever, but this collection (encompassing letters, then e-mails starting at the usual 1990s point) is a treasure trove of observations on personal and worldwide matters (genres which intertwine in me) between two people 2,000 miles apart. Both are named George Morrison (my legal name until I changed it in 2014 was the same as my father’s, though we had different middle names).

These communications, which sometimes are supportive, sometimes straightforward and critical, are not classically those of a father and son, but two complex, gifted and oft struggling people. For 11 years in my adulthood, we were estranged, with no contact of any sort. The angry letters that launched that period are not in here. As said, this is not any complete look at a familial tie, but talk between two Georges who were very different people, yet alike in that they were unconventional and often went against their generational grain. The younger George Morrison became a radical leftist in the late 1970s, when the campus me-generation was raising beer glasses, not consciousness like a decade prior. Yet I was so ideologically precise and abstinent from pleasures that a ’60s campus existence might not have fit me much better.

Mom and Dad, though continually at odds over unresolved divorce fallout, had during their college years at the University of Louisville in the late 1940s been united as significant others, literature lovers, champions of intellectual freedom and, I figure, Henry Wallace voters.

“Your mother and I believed art was the salvation of man,” Dad wrote circa 1980 when I was about 22. That sets the time frame for the rest of these letters, which mean nothing more and nothing less than what they say:

Summer 1964, me to Dad:

“I’m not sure I want to fly out to Albuquerque to visit you if the North Vietnamese don’t stop shooting down American planes.”

(After I read this aloud to Mom, she explained the geography involving the war her five-year-old son was hearing about on the news, and I erased that sentence.)

Summer 1975, me to Dad:

“I’m writing this letter at 2:30 a.m….. Not only could writing letters to you be, like you said, a good way to restart the lines of communication and develop my writing ability, but a good insomnia cure!”

May 1976, Dad to me:

“I received your graduation announcement and being sorry that I cannot respond in some material way, I can only say ‘congratulations.’… You did not seem too overwhelmed with what was being done to you the last time I talked to you on the telephone. But being a bright lad, you… are most likely at least minimally prepared for university work. I hope the meaning of that word ‘university’ has made an impact on you. It comes from the Latin aggregate ‘universus,’ which means ‘universe’ and that means everything there is to know in reality. That would seem to imply that in a university, one is allowed to sick himself upon all there is to know that he doesn’t know, including how man thinks; but I wouldn’t rely on it if I were you. They will still try to shape you the way they want you to look. It seems to me that what a man must do if he intends to take studying seriously is to brace himself for that final confrontation when he tells the teachers to go fornicate with themselves, that he is by far the best judge of how and to what extent he will achieve autonomy.

“The best advice I can give you as your elder, not necessarily as your father is: do not capitulate. It may be too late sooner than you think. Be adamant, my boy. I feel compelled to say also that one is not irrevocably tied to his genes. It is true that you are to a great extent what your mother and I and our predecessors made of you. It is true that you are different from everyone else living today or who has ever lived in the potential you have for developing yourself, for understanding your uniqueness, for reverencing your human sensitivity, for knowing and coming to terms with a world that is not always, in fact not even often, very nice. Dare yourself to think anything you want to think.”

1979, Dad to me, after I visited him for the first time in 12 years. I was 21 and was happily pursuing socialist revolution for the world and enjoying a job in a pizza restaurant (not really paradoxical to my leftism, as I was successfully testing my ability to work for ethical, rather than monetary incentives):

“My first thought is, what are you reading to support all these views?… Many others are going think ill of you, denounce you, and they’re not going to be gentlemen about it…. You may be seen as nothing more than a truculent neurotic masking his own failures.

“You have some grievances with society, but you still are a person who values money for college, and reliable airline service… So save that pizza money and consider making another trip out here.”

1983, me to Dad:

” ‘If you want change you must change the inner soul,’ Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky has said. This sums up exactly how I feel about the attempt to build socialism. It must stop being a matter of structures put in place by the ruling officials and must become based on personal values and an appreciation, by people on the grass roots, of cooperation. Voznesensky is not anti-socialist, but he does not favor the approach to governing used by the Kremlin. He has been in and out of favor with the state.”

1983, Dad to me:

“I don’t think much of this Russian you quote playing footsie with language. How can you support the Soviet Union when it represses writers and poets the way it does?”

Late 1999, Dad to me:

“Anticipation of the millennium began longer ago than most realize.  I remember the beginning of 1950 and the second half of this century.  ‘It won’t be all that long,’ someone said where we were all gathered.  I couldn’t help wondering which of us would survive.  Not many have; but it seems I might, barring some unexpected step-up in schedule.”

Me in Sandias for LETTERS WordPress
 A 9-year-old George photographed by his 42-year-old father in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque. 

Circa 2000, Dad to me, on the 1940s feminist in Mom’s life:“…Your mother was assistant to the Dean of Women at the University of Louisville when I met her.  Her boss was Hilda Threlkeld.  Dean Threlkeld advised your mother not to get married, that perhaps she might not like being married, that there were many other satisfying pursuits in life for women other than marriage, even sex, she said, although one must remain discreet.  Dean Threlkeld warned your mother specifically about me, saying that my war experiences may have left me with long term problems….  After our marriage, your mother and I drove to Maysville, Kentucky, to visit the Dean, who was raised in Maysville.  She seemed very curious about the progress of our life together.”

Circa 2002, Dad to me, when my job with the U.S. Census was at about the 2-year point:

“It was nice to hear from you.  You sound terrific, as if the rigid government bureau schedule is doing something positive. “  (In fact, Dad’s impression was right. The change from self-employment through much of the 1990s to a “real job” life helped me become more organized and contented.)

Circa 2002, Dad to me, on the Morrisons and media (Dad worked in TV news and wrote three self-published books):

“As for abandonment, I think you might consider the cumulative effect of abandonment, as it occurs from generation to generation.  I was abandoned and sent to an orphanage when I was seven.  I think you already know that.
“Does that help to explain my drive to entertain others in order to attain approval and establish identity?  I think it does.  Does abandonment in your father’s life in any way intensify facts you interpret as abandonment in your own life?  Yes, I think it does…. My own impression is that you have chosen a professional life that is best for someone who sees himself as abandoned as a child.  Writing is a marvelous way of daily dialogue with one’s secret self, even if the writing is for others on the business of others.  And you have developed a very good, lively writing style.  It should not be replaced, in my opinion at least, just for the sake of a mid-life change.”

circa 2003, Dad to me, on his son’s radical outlook:

“My real feeling… is this:  you have never had much of a feeling for the advantages to be offered by compromise.  No self-respecting activist can tolerate compromise.  Isn’t that true?  I see compromise as change or amendment of existing facts of one’s life.  In a positive sense, one uses compromise to bring about beneficial change.  There is no need to discuss the negative of the same equation, since I don’t see benefit in negatives.”

2003, me to Dad, after I made my first visit to Logan, West Virginia, where Dad was born and lived until age 3, when his father (also named George Morrison), a successful home builder but heavy drinker, died at about age 50.

(My visit was partly to talk to Logan Banner newspaper editor Keith Davis about the unsolved and widely written about murder in 1932 of Mamie Thurman. She was my father’s half-sister, (who was 25 years older than Dad) the topic of debates and student term papers, and supposedly a ghost who still roamed the woods near where she was killed. The headline atop page one of the Banner the next day was: “Mamie’s Nephew.” Well, sort of; I hadn’t even known of this woman’s existence until a year and a half before this visit. While in Logan, I wrote a piece about the community for FORsooth, the monthly radical peace and justice paper of the Louisville chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which I was the editor.)

“What I have to say about Logan could not be produced in the very tight time frame of the last few days, during which I had to get FORsooth out (with a column by me in it you’ll find interesting) and work at the bureau (of the census).
“Now, finally, I am free to write.
“Logan was spellbinding. In this parallel universe to my environs, it has been existing all these years. People were hospitable and hardworking, too busy to lament their town’s loss of population because of the decline of coal’s labor intensiveness. The town defied a number of stereotypes. It had nice restaurants, a fairly good newspaper, clean streets and pretty architecture. The accents surprised me, too — gentle southern, not twangy like Eastern Kentucky.
“Keith Davis, whose Central Ohio accent has been modified some by that southern, told me something during our “dialogue” (We interviewed one another simultaneously) that allowed me to more clearly understand the key difference between Mom’s family and, as you put it, the other half of my double helix.
He said my being in Logan was a matter of utmost public interest. Perhaps this was because it signified the entry of the Mamie legend into a third generation of Morrisons — perhaps even assuring its permanence.Me how I feel March 2016 (3)
“Here [in the Louisville area, specifically New Albany, Ind.] where I dwell because of Mom’s family, I am by no means a public figure, despite writing news and columns for weekly sections of the Courier-Journal. Mom’s family isn’t going to inspire any books. Students aren’t going to write term papers on the fate of any of its members. Youth won’t hang out in the woods in pursuit of any of its ghosts. Television stations and newspapers wouldn’t consider mom’s family worthy of any special series (although the New Albany paper wrote a very nice piece on Grandpa upon his death).
“Mom’s family excels at the conventional and the essential.
“Your family, on the other hand, can’t help but be the center of attention. Whether on Holden Mountain in June 1932 or the story of how your step father died [in a police shooting, circa 1930] and the ensuing existence in an orphanage and, certainly, by the legend of Mamie.
“Being a Morrison gives one a huge repertoire of implausible anecdotes with which to instantly impress people. Unfortunately, being a Morrison also gives one the need to impress people to compensate for a lack of self-esteem and security.
“I have lived many decades of my life putting my primary energy into trying to do precisely that. I was a pistol with jokes and voice impressions in every newsroom where I worked. I finally discerned, with the assistance of a good self help book and a couple of friends willing to be outspoken, that I was behaving outlandishly because I needed people’s laughter as approval.
“I even took to the stage in 1988, performing stand-up comedy in a bid to get that sense of validation on a grander scale.
“I was living the legacy of the Morrisons, using the only tools it gave me to offset the emptiness it left me with.
“I have another legacy, of course — that left by the Rodmans. They were not perfect. I know Grandma Olive Rodman was extremely difficult during her youth and middle age, before I came along. Still, Mom’s family gave basic, essential, non-glamorous if not always complete nurturing. After Mom, Grandpa is my primary hero for the job he did standing in as my substitute father, something beyond that which was required of him.
The family did nothing worthy of mystery novels or network television (Keith Davis said Unsolved Mysteries of NBC has called him about the Mamie case). They won’t be the source of amazing stories that will make me the life of the party. And I must resist the temptation to indulge in telling those attention riveting stories from your side of the family in excess, always telling myself that the family I want people to know about — the one I am a product of — is the one that was involved in the truly amazing spectacle of raising a boy and his sister and preparing them as best as could be done for the world.
“I mean a world where we are valued simply because we are people, not because of our ability to entertain people in perpetuity.
Something else I received from Mom’s family is an ability to be positive about life, despite everything.
“My life growing up was generally a very good experience and I am pleased overall with where I am today as well. I was able to learn fine reporting skills from Courier-Journal editing, something not available to all but a tiny few people in hinterlands communities our size. I am able to use those skills in a leftist, peace and justice newspaper that fits my sensibilities. Only a tiny few journalists in cities of any size can count that as a blessing.
I have said some things here that needed expressing. I hope they will add value to our correspondence. The Logan trip indeed was a worthy venture.

George

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