My Two Fathers, Part II

Charles Frederick Russell. Charlie. My stepfather.
Perhaps it would be best to begin this by giving some background.
Charlie was the oldest child with one younger brother, Albert, and two younger sisters, Susan and Bertha. He was born in Manhattan but his father, a contractor, soon moved the family to Long Island where he built houses that he would later sell. They ended up in Lynbrook in a big, sprawling three family house where they lived on one side and rented out two apartments on the other side. Charlie would eventually buy this house after his mother died, paying his three siblings their market value shares, but that’s getting ahead in the narrative.
Charlie went to high school in Lynbrook and then to Gettysburg College, a private coed college in Pennsylvania. This was just before the Great Depression in 1930s America, and he graduated in 1930 when that Depression was a year old.
He was a mathematics major so he found employment in the one place math was essential: banking. Charlie went to work at Chase Manhattan Bank (the bank Rockefeller built) in NYC and worked there until the US entered WWII, then Charlie joined the army, became a staff sergeant, hit the beaches at Normandy on D Day, and eventually was assigned to General Patton during his push to Berlin. There’s a letter I found while sorting through the attic before coming to Turkey from the US State Department informing Charlie he had some medals that he was awarded that he needed to pick up. A Bronze Star was among them. Charlie, though, never collected his medals, just filed the letter away with his other papers from his military service. I wished I had known about those medals while he was alive because I would have liked to know what he did, and why he never picked them up.
Charlie lived his whole adult life in the house his father built in Lynbrook. He also worked for Chase Manhattan Bank as a loan officer until he retired in 1972. He was a shy man and was described as follows in his junior year in the college yearbook of 1929: “’Charlie’ blew in from New York three years ago and has not found his way out. His many week-end walks lead but to the Battlefield. We don’t like to say that ‘Charlie’ is a misoginist, but it sure looks that way.”
In addition to misspelling misogynist, they also misread his character. He didn’t dislike women; he was just painfully shy around them. And those long weekend walks were not just about investigating the battlefield, but respites from the pressures of having to be socially active.
His two sisters, though, throughout his life kept trying to introduce him to available women, but he stayed a bachelor until that irresistible force known as my mother set her sights on capturing him. It started innocently enough, at least for all appearances in the Russell family, as my mother, a widow for almost 10 years, started playing cards with Charlie’s mother, who, though also a widow, had her two sons, Charlie and Albert living with her. My mother, who, of course, will be the subject of her own post, had a plan with a clearly defined objective: Charlie.
It started with grocery shopping. My mother let drop in conversation with Charlie’s mother how the elder Mrs. Russell was so fortunate to have a son who did her shopping for her. She only wished, my mother would say, that she had someone to take her grocery shopping. And, of course, Charlie took the bait and offered to do that.
Soon the visits to the Russell household escalated into more intimate conversations after his mother’s death and Charlie, who was always described as the shy one, found himself inviting my mother to take a vacation with him on one of his many trips to Europe. And that vacation changed his life irrevocably. Charlie married my mother at age 66 in Italy during that vacation and returned to find himself not just a husband but a father and grandfather as well. I guess you could call that a case of instant family.
Charlie took to his new roles with an enthusiasm that was quite remarkable. He was kind, patient, helpful to everyone and was instantly loved by my multi-cultural family. There were my sister and her husband, five children, and several grandchildren, and my three brothers who, though not biological brothers, were integral parts of our family. My parents had been foster parents and I had, altogether, 7 brothers which I’ll have to explain in a different post because their stories are quite complicated, but at the time of my mother and Charlie’s marriage, there were three brothers who were part of the family: 2 Chinese (Johnny and George) and one Irishman (Robert). And since my mother was the acknowledged focal point of the family, all roads on her side of the family led to our house. My two Chinese brothers and I were no longer living at home by that time, but were all in Manhattan, and only Robert, who was still in high school, lived there but we all converged on the house for regular monthly Sunday dinners and holidays saw 30 odd people seated around the extended dining room table with several kids in the kitchen. So Charlie became, with my mother, the host to not only her children and their children but to her brothers and sister, our cousins, boyfriends and girlfriends, eventual husbands and wives, and interracial pairings that had, up to this time, been a foreign concept for this conservative Republican who found himself growing more liberal after each family gathering. To say Charlie blossomed is an understatement. He was always kind and considerate, but now he had dozens of people to whom he could open his heart to. And we all took this shy, humane man into ours.
He loved my mother unselfishly. He would spoil her with his gifts, his total commitment to her family, his unwavering support of her wishes and her dreams. My mother had faced financial struggle after my father died, and even when he was alive, we were a working class family that managed to always stay one step ahead of the net. Though we had a television, it was black and white (I still get surprised periodically when watching an old movie to realize it was actually filmed in color), and there was only that one vacation with my father, but Charlie took her to Europe a few times, to Hawaii, across the United States, and down to Florida once a year for their annual vacation. He bought her every piece of jewelry she wanted, even over her very feeble protests that it cost too much, bought her favorite Russell Stover chocolates on a weekly basis, ate whatever she put in front of him without once complaining, and was a passionate lover, too. In fact, Charlie became a role model for me in that respect. He taught me that when and if you truly love someone, you put them first, above yourself, because that is the true mark of love. That the person who did not want to be part of their lover’s world but instead insisted on their lover being immersed in their world did not really love the other person, but was exhibiting a kind of self-love. They wanted an admirer, someone to look up to them rather than be an equal partner in life, someone to feed their ego so that they could lose themselves in their own vanity. However, Charlie showed by his devotion not only to my mother but to her family, too, that if you truly love someone, you never put your own interests first but strive to find a way to fulfill both your needs. For the person who demands total capitulation to their wishes and their goals does not really love anyone but themselves. He also felt that if he was the one who was the stronger, the one who possessed more, then he should give more and he did. All the love he had stored in his heart all those solitary years was lavishly showered on my mother and our family.
There were so many acts of kindness that he bestowed on us. Personally, I’ll always remember how I came limping back to New York after losing everything in LA when my marriage and bookstore both went “belly up”, as they say, within months of each other. It was just the dog and me returning to stay at Charlie’s house on Lyon Place while I took a few months to regain my equilibrium and find a job. I had some cash from the going-out-of-business sale in the ruins of my beloved store which I budgeted to get me to my first month’s salary. But I needed a car and only had $1500 to buy one. So Charlie took me to used car lots while I looked at cars within that price range (this was 1980 so there were actually cars at that price range worth buying) but nothing caught my fancy until I saw this red Opel sitting in the lot drying in the sun from a recent washing. It was love at first sight but it was out of my price range ($3200) and so I sighed after lovingly running my hands over its steering wheel and patting its hood, but forlornly walking away. We got in Charlie’s station wagon and drove off to the next lot but when he parked, he turned to me and said, “You want that other car, don’t you?” I nodded, sighed, said I couldn’t afford it, and got out to look at other cars. Charlie followed me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll lend you the money without any interest and you can pay me back monthly.” I didn’t want to exceed my budget but he said, “Len, I want you to be happy and that car will make you happy. So I want to help you buy it.” After all I’d been through and all that I lost, that kind offer to give me something of value back in my life brought tears to my eyes. And I bought that Opel, a car I loved driving, but found I loved the man who helped me regain some small piece of self-worth even more.
There were so many other incidents of his kindness. I remember he drove my mother across country (Charlie loved to drive) to visit me in Los Angeles when I had the bookstore, and they stayed at the apartment with my wife Jane (not yet my ex-wife), me, and my dog Frodo in Hollywood. Charlie spoiled the dog by walking him 6 or 7 times a day. That dog, who loved me more than anyone else and would often climb up into my lap wherever I was sitting to sleep there (he was part German Shepherd, part Collie so he was not a small dog but weighed 60 pounds), soon made Charlie his second favorite person in the world. Charlie also discovered that Jane and I had a fondness for homemade fruit pies made at a bakery in the neighborhood and would buy a pie a day as dessert after the dinner my mother insisted cooking each evening. He also found a place that made homemade ice cream so it was pie a la mode each evening at our apartment in Hollywood during the week that they stayed with us. And finally, my good friend Chuck Thegze always mentions the one act of kindness that impressed him when he visited me in New York during my first months back. I was still staying on Lyon Place and had not moved out yet to live in Queens with Steve Cohen so Chuck stayed in the guest room on the third floor. We would wander around the city together during the day but at night, after dinner, we would be downstairs listening to music in what was my own living room on the first floor. Charlie came down that first evening with a six pack of beer which he put in the refrigerator that was down there and said, “This is for you boys.”
For Chuck, that is his most vivid memory of Charlie: that small act of kindness. But small acts of kindness are really what define the character of a person. It’s easy sometimes to be flamboyant in one’s gestures but to be consistently kind in all the small ways that make up our lives is really what makes a person special. And Charlie was special, is still special to me, and all of us in my family and my friends who met him. That shy man who became my second father occupies a very prominent corner of my heart. And whenever someone tells me that I have been especially kind, I think of Charlie and smile.
I’m sure if there’s a heaven, Charlie is up there sitting on one side of my mother while my father sits on the other side and both men have come to an understanding. Though they had very different lives and different personalities, they both loved my mother equally in their fashion. And both also know she loved them, too, and if asked, could not choose between them. They are like a couple, both men melting into one, and my mother, with her husbands by her side, holds court in their corner of heaven and says, “Let’s play some cards.”

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