This may be a series: Letters from my Aunt.
My idea for this blog in the beginning was very different than most of the posts that I have been writing along the way. I saw this as a place to share stories; mainly historical stories about strangers. I never intended to share so many personal stories. But as it turns out, every story is personal to someone. Many of you reading this blog may not even know me, which makes these stories…just that. For those of you who do know me, the curiosity to continue reading may be more personal than just basic story enjoyment.
I think we all tend to appreciate many of life’s gifts way too late. It is very ironic to me that I started this blog when the one person who shared my deep love of history and story-telling was not around to read it. It is also pretty ironic that she and I had actually talked about writing a book, and that book would have a theme of something like, “Letters to my Grandmother.” I do feel a sense of peace about allowing her letters to me from the last couple years of her life another outlet and audience: You, dear reader.
Around the same time that I had asked my aunt to share more about my grandmother, I had also asked her to tell me more about the relationship she had with my grandfather. I knew that she and my mother had very different relationships with him, but I wanted to know just how unique her relationship with C. Jackson Baldwin really was.
Here is what she said.
I was born the oldest child and the oldest daughter of C. Jackson Baldwin, who had been born and raised an only child during the Depression. I mention that because I think it’s a big part of what kind of father he was. He emerged from WWII, married and started a family as a product of a generation where the husband/father was supposed to be the breadwinner and the wife stayed home to “raise” the children. Both wife and kids were traditionally reflections not only of the father’s loins, but of his success in life.
I think Dad fit into that picture very well, at least while Mom was actively capable of doing the raising and putting on a ball gown to be on his arm at the Orange Bowl Ball. I remember those “good years” well. It was a time where I was often seen as who my father was: President of Baldwin Insurance & Mortgage/Rotary & Miami Club/Orange Bowl Committee/Young Presidents Association. I was taught to be proud, and I was, but I often felt like all that was more important to him than me. He was a great provider. I don’t remember us lacking anything. There were football games, new school clothes, a maid to cook & clean, the country club and our own pool, a house & a farm outside Hendersonville to go to in the summer and one in the Keys where sometimes the whole family went for a weekend. In other words it was the Fifties. He worked hard and made it happen. I was proud and grateful, but he gone a lot. When he wasn’t working he was playing golf, off to parties with Mom or playing cards with the guys. Looking back I don’t remember one time that he came to a school event of mine, a dance recital etc. It was typical of most fathers and daughters, most of my friends’ dads didn’t come either, and why I think so many women of my generation pushed their husbands to be in their daughters’ lives as well as their sons once they started their own families. (I remember lecturing male friends of mine about taking their daughters fishing and to ball games and making sure they got to the ballet recital!)
My very earliest memories of him are when he used to introduce me to other adults as Susanne Francis Baldwin, so-named after my grandfather to offset the disappointment that I hadn’t been born a boy. I guess I started out a disappointment to him. Because Jack was less than two years younger than me, he was around by the time memories were being made that I can recall. He was always Dad’s focus. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know it wasn’t personal, that Dad simply could relate to a boy better than a girl, (I also know it was a pressure on Jack I’d never have), but as a little girl when it came to Dad, I always felt “bested” because of my plumbing!
Some other early memories were when Mom started drinking the first time…I was about five or six. I remember falling asleep hearing them yelling at each other through the wall. Sometimes Dad would come in, and he’d always say the same thing, that I needed to be a big girl and help him take care of everything. To me at that age, that translated into I had to be the Mom of the house, and like any child, I further translated it that if I couldn’t be an adult, he wouldn’t be proud of me or love me. Jack and your mother were way too small for him to try to do anything but shield. Inadvertently, he made me part of that shield, but I was way too young to get much more than it must be my fault that I didn’t know how to do it. In the long run, even when Mom stopped drinking, I always felt guilty about being a child. As a result, I have very few memories about what it felt like to be a kid. To please him, I always felt I had to be separate from “the children”, and often that didn’t seem to work.
Once again, because it was the Fifties, Dad spent time with Jack alone, taking him on fishing trips etc where girls were excluded. He went to watch Jack play sports, (he may have gone to watch your mother play) but other than as a short term as a cheerleader, I wasn’t into sports and he was never into what I was into. When he’d come home from trips with presents, Jack always got something unique, and your mother and I got exactly the same thing. I think he was proud that I got good grades but he never said so. It was like he expected it. For the most part, between the ages of 7 to seventeen, I remember him seeming distant, at least from me. The things I remember him drilling me on as a teenager were that I must NEVER flirt with a boy because it would lead him on, and I must ALWAYS be ready to walk out the door when my date arrived because a girl shouldn’t make a boy wait. (Subliminally, because my first real boyfriend in jr high used to play the piano when he came over and Dad treated him like a bad smell, I also learned never to date a boy who didn’t play sports because Dad couldn’t and would make no effort to relate to him).
The one event that MOST stands out was when I was a senior in high school. He was the incoming president of the Young President’s Association and as such was to be the focus of a spread in the annual magazine that would include pictures and a write up he would do on each of his children. When the photographer was due to come to the house, Dad told Jack to go put on his football uniform and your mother to put on her tennis outfit. Then he looked at me, looked puzzled, and finally said, “Go get a book.” Even then I knew it was a back-handed compliment because when he looked at me he thought first of me making good grades, but I was a senior in high school and did, and had done much, much more than that. He didn’t see any of it because none of it was anything he valued or understood, and I was crushed. Mom finally stepped in and told me to go get my guitar. The postscript of that story was that when the article finally came out, what Dad wrote about Jack and your mother was all about trophies and achievements. What he wrote about me was that all I talked about or thought about were boys. Yes, I liked boys, was sweetheart of a high school fraternity and had crushes but I was NEVER boy crazy in high school like some girls. I was a Beatlemanic, but Dad was probably embarrassed by that and John Lennon didn’t play football.
Some of that went well into adulthood. The first real job I had was a teacher. Dad could “get” that. When I went to D.C. and had many jobs over the years, he never “got” any of them so when people would ask what I did, he simply said I was a teacher. If they didn’t ask, because I did something he couldn’t understand, had no interest in and couldn’t brag about, and lived in places he believed no person in their right mind would want to live, I don’t think he ever talked about me at all. I used to call him at the office and I’d often have to explain I was his daughter. Once a receptionist actually argued with me saying Mister Baldwin only had two daughters, Bethany and Renn! On the occasion that I was home for some OB function etcetera, when he’d introduce me to a stranger the usual response was, “Jack, I didn’t know you had another daughter.” I got used to it and tried to laugh it off, but when it came right down to it, I was seventeen again and he was telling me to get a book.
There were some little memories I’ll always treasure from a kid’s perspective. I can see him boiling shrimp on the patio and frying fish in the kitchen. Boy, he just couldn’t wait for that country ham to arrive every fall. He’d brag about it and show it off like it was a fourth child. He used to play the ukulele and we’d all sing and harmonize at Thanksgiving and Christmas and other gatherings. He didn’t think girls needed to learn to drive because “boys take them everywhere” so Mom had to intervene so I could take my learners, and Mom taught me to drive. (Luckily for your mother he was broken in by the time she turned 16). It was also Mom who talked him into giving me the used Ford Falcon for Christmas my senior year, although as I found out later, ever-practical Dad figured it would become Jack’s car when I went to college!
Dad really got into Gables High football, and could relate to my boy buds that hung around the house much better than me, and never missed one of their games. He even drove us up to Tampa to watch the state championship game. (HIS idea!) My best friend Lewis Ashley was along and we had car trouble on the way home and stopped in this awful motel in Immokalee to spend the night. It was a “Freddy Krueger” kind of place and I remember him showing Lewis and me how to hook a chair under the door handle as a barricade. Mom had started drinking again at Christmas my senior year and couldn’t go to the Orange Bowl Ball so Dad took me as his “date”. I’ll also never forget when he took me with him when he drove up to Barnesville, Georgia to watch Jack play football (your mother was a freshman at Alabama). Jack was a kicker. After a punt he fell down in what looked like pain and I stood up quite upset that he was hurt. Dad yanked at me and said, “Sit down, he’s not hurt, he’s going for a roughing the kicker penalty!
I think I knew from the time I was little that Miami was not my town. When it came time to think about college, I wanted to go as far away as I could get. Dad limited my choices, and as he was paying, I heeded them. Of course the list of schools was limited geographically to the south, and all had good football teams where he knew the coaches. I went to Texas; then coached by Darryl Royal. A few weeks after school started, I came back to the dorm to be told by my hall mates that some joker kept calling for me claiming to be Coach Royal. They assured me they’d let the guy know it wasn’t funny. What wasn’t funny, of course, was that it WAS Coach Royal all along, calling to invite me to his house for dinner and promising to look after me as Dad had requested him to do!
When I was home for the holidays Dad made sure I had a date with a player for the “player party” that used to follow the OB Game. It was how I met Paul Crane, who with Joe Namath was a big star at Alabama. When I transferred to Alabama, he and I dated both before and after he went off to play for the Jets and came back to Tuscaloosa to actually graduate. Dad was thrilled that I was dating an All-American, (even more thrilled that Joe Namath often went on my dates with Paul when he was too shy to get his own date…before he became Broadway Joe!). Joe wasn’t the only one to change after a year in the Pro’s. Paul came back different too. One night after I’d gone with him when he made a FCA speech at a church, we were having an argument and he suddenly went nuts. They call it “date rape” now, but it was, up to that point, the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me. Dad didn’t understand why I was no longer dating Paul and asked me, “What did you do that made him stop dating you?” I never told him the truth because I knew he wouldn’t believe me…Paul was an All-American. Also not long after that, in an unrelated conversation, he said that if a woman was raped, she asked for it by leading a man on.
It was kind of a seminal moment. I realized I wanted to feel protected, maybe because when I was so little he hadn’t protected me, but made me feel I had to help him protect my siblings. He’d made sure a stranger, Coach Royal, would “look after me”, but it was by proxy. Once again, with time and distance I understand more, but at the time, I felt betrayed.
Dad and I are very different. I may look like him but we saw the world differently from the start. I was born with some kind of internal thermometer that hated hot weather, (later diagnosed as a failure to perspire properly) and an innate love of cold weather, changing leaves and SNOW!!!!! You know you’re grandfather; it’s almost always too cold for him even in 90 degree weather. Just the opposite, I’m hot unless it’s below seventy. The problem was he NEVER understood that people could be different. If he thought it was cold, then it was cold, and if anyone didn’t think it was cold they were either wrong, lying or just trying to be rebellious. That kind of issue tempered our entire relationship far into adulthood. He thought Miami was the best place in the world. If I preferred D.C., I was wrong, lying or rebellious etc etc etc. He once asked me why I bothered to vote when no one I’d vote for could ever win. (The fact that Bill Clinton did indeed win that election was something I never brought up to him later.)
Dad is certainly not the only person who sees the world in black and white, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor am I the only one who can see the gray areas in life and believes that just because two people disagree doesn’t make one right and one wrong; it simply makes them different. The problem is that when your parent consistently rejects or dismisses what you think, feel, like, are, labeling it as wrong, a lie or an act of rebellion, it can be diminishing, devastating and painful. To stop it from hurting, and to protect yourself, you have to put some distance on your feelings; at least I did.
The irony is that it wasn’t until the last ten years that Dad and I stumbled over something we loved, and I believe saw in the same way, so that we could really share it, and that was the little house at 237 Tollgate Boulevard. Not only did he “get” that I loved it in the same way he did, he acknowledged it in language, action and deed. He even told me that no one understood or loved that place like he did not even Irene, but me. (That was the closest I ever remember to him saying he was proud of me).
I was with him when he stood at the controls of the Fishcatcher and admitted he didn’t remember how to start the engines. He cried and made me promise not to tell anyone. I cried too and until now, I’ve kept that promise. He never got on that boat or came down to Islamorada again, Jacqueline. He later asked me to sell the boat for him. He said he didn’t care about the money. He said he trusted me to find someone who would love it the same way he and I did. Your mother was upset about me being the one to sell the boat. She might well have gotten a better deal but I stuck to my guns and was able to find some people who loved that little boat, and because they lived next door, until they eventually sold it, it stayed at Caloosa and on Hurricane Creek, just where I think Dad would have wanted it. More important, I was able to keep my word to my father.
Another irony is that as he began to slip away, he and I began to communicate better. (Maybe as his memory went it didn’t matter so much to him that I was hot when he was cold.) During hurricanes at 1340 when he sometimes “forgot” what was happening, I knew he needed me. I wasn’t five anymore so I liked the responsibility that required. I didn’t mind repeating things. I liked when his face would suddenly light up as if he unexpectedly recognized I was there and was glad to see me. He was always sharpest in the mornings, and I loved it when he’d make toast for me at breakfast. He’d look after his little cats like they were children. Most of all I’ll always remember him with Chelsea, who had Alzheimer’s of her own in those days. It was like the two of them had a language of their own. He’d sit on that couch in the den in his robe, and she’d be right there focused on nothing but him as he’d eat a bite and feed her a bite; eat a bite and feed her a bite… When she died and I’d be at 1340, sometimes out of nowhere he’d ask me where she was. He’d always tear up when I’d tell him she was dead, and often he’d tell me what a good dog she’d been. Once, he simply turned to me out of the blue and said, “I sure miss Chelsea.” I don’t think I’d ever felt closer to him, or loved him more.
My favorite memory of Dad in those last years was when Renn & Terry, Dad and Irene and I went to Robert’s graduation in Orlando. (Chelsea was along too). I made it my job to stick with Dad at all the events so everyone else was free to be out and about. He was mostly alert although slow moving. It gave me time to be with him and I think he enjoyed it too. On the way home, he was in the front seat and Irene broke out the bloody Marys. Dad had one he’d put in the cup holder. Irene passed up a coke for Terry who was driving. Dad took it and poured it into his bloody, picked up the plastic glass holding the mixture, and drank, declaring it tasty. Terry proclaimed the new mixed drink a “bloody awful”!
Ah, so many memories and so many years. So much loss, I don’t think he ever got over losing Jack, and the sons of men he was close to, and had watched grow up along with his children. I don’t know what he felt about Mom dying. He was already with Irene. He was stoic, at least in front of me, when Boppy, his father, died. Dad was a great son to Gaye, especially in her last years, spending at least one night a week at her place making her a bourbon and visiting, and doing all that was humanly and financially possible to keep her in her home when she slipped into what, if not Alzheimer’s, was a form of senility. It must have been devastating to him when she didn’t know him. (It was like a knife through my heart when he didn’t know me.) He suffered the loss of many friends and colleagues as everyone does as they age. I know how much he loved Irene. I’m still not sure how much of her death registered with him. Maybe the blessing in losing your memory is blunting loss.
To offset that loss, there was you. He loved you dearly and loved being your Granddaddy. I liked watching him be your Granddaddy. It is one of the many faces of C. Jackson Baldwin, who no matter his faults and idiosyncrasies, (and we ALL have them), is and always was, a man of integrity who I think when it’s all said and done, sincerely did his best to be a good father while coping with his own life and the pitfalls and pleasures that can only be found within a family.
Trust me on this, Jacqueline, I don’t care how old you get, how independent or self-assured you are, a relationship with a parent can be complicated. It often brings out the worst in you, (and maybe in them too…I don’t know since I was never blessed with children of my own). I have many female friends who think their father was their hero. I think your mother sort of looks at Dad that way. She once told me about the time she had with Dad when Mom was drinking all the time and Jack and I were off in college, and to me she was describing a man I’d never met. (I think the Mom I knew may well have been a woman she never met.) It happens like that. Just a shift in time and circumstance changes things, and when it comes right down to it we all look at the world and the people in it through the prism of our own perspective and our own unique DNA.
One last story. Dad liked to write too. It may well be the only thing I inherited from him beyond physical traits. I’m sure you know that during World War II, he was behind enemy lines in Germany after D-Day, when he was hit in the head, and thanks to some British troops, evacuated to England, where they saved his life and put a plate in his head before shipping him home. He never talked about it, but when I was in high school I found this yellowed, typed document titled, “From College To Combat” that he’d written. It told the story of how he’d been at the University of Florida when the war broke out, and how he’d wanted to enlist, but Gaye and Boppy insisted he graduate first. He went into some kind of sped up course enrollment, stuffing four years of college into two, and went off to Fort Benning, in Georgia to earn his stripes.
One of my favorite, and most unforgettable stories in the dialogue, was sharing a bunk with a black man; something in Dad’s day that was a much bigger deal than don’t ask/don’t tell. They had been housed alphabetically. Chester Backus had the top bunk; Dad, the bottom. Dad wrote about feeling the bed shake at night, and at least as I remember it, kind of understood that the fear had nothing to do with being a soldier about ready to go into battle, but being a black man among so many whites. I obviously never met Chester Backus. I THINK I remember he was from Detroit. I don’t know what happened to him, but Dad’s words imprinted that man and his dilemma on my mind forever.
He also wrote about what it was like when he was in Devises, in England; his task to “teach” soldiers to see Germans as the enemy so that that they would be prepared to kill them. Then, there he was in battle himself. He described being in a foxhole with a sergeant. When the attack finished, Dad looked over and saw that the sergeant no longer had a head. Things were rough. As a lieutenant, Dad was the ranking officer. There were lots of casualties and when there were no longer any living medics, Dad described a German prisoner who spoke no English as stepping up to treat the wounded. Dad was evacuated just before everything fell. (As a PS, he took Mom back to a little town in Germany near there years later where he was welcomed like a returning hero!)
The whole thing blew me away, Jacqueline. I put it back where I found it and it was a while before I could even tell Dad that I read it. I don’t know where it is now. I wish I had it. Anyway, when I finally found the courage to tell him I’d read it; he didn’t comment, but admitted that he’d always wanted to write a book. He said he even knew what it would be about… the history of South Florida, as seen in retrospect through an old man in the Keys who was about to have a life and death operation and was remembering his past.
Obviously Dad never wrote that book. I’d try to write it for him, but I don’t have the passion for South Florida that he did. Maybe you some day?????????????????????
I didn’t set out to write so much, but hopefully all this gives you a glimpse of who your grandfather is, as seen by his oldest daughter. I’d like to think you might have a better understanding of me as well. What I want most for you is that as you approach knowing the man who gave you life, you’ll understand that throughout time nothing that matters follows a simple formula. Love is easy; forgiveness hard, but with effort and time, worth everything the good Lord promised it to be. No matter how many surrogates, you only get one father. Whatever else, I’m glad I love mine and always knew he loved me.
I love you too honey, Aunt Susi