The actual distance from Greenwich, CT to Painted Post, New York is about 198 miles by modern highway guided by the GPS system in my sturdy German car. Deciding to make the journey, however, took 60 years and an email from my son early one morning last week.
I was sitting in the San Francisco Airport waiting for my plane east and saw I had an email from my son on my blackberry. He was letting me know there was a new book out about my family and his comment was “hope this isn’t too bad!”
There have been a few books out about my family, the “company”, and why things turned out the way they did. I have read all of the books and thought some were better than others. At times, I wish one in particular had spoken about things in a less personal sense. This new book seemed interesting as in the brief blurb in my son’s email, the author spoke about the connection between the temperaments of my father and grandfather and the currents running through the IBM Company over the years. This, I thought, was thought provoking and I immediately ordered the book on my Kindle, the amazing reading device that has changed the way we read in much the same way the computer changed the way we communicate and learn.
I read the book across the country: passing over the Rockies, the Midwest, up into part of Canada without even recognizing where I was as the book was completely engrossing. At one point the flight attendant called out to me asking if I recognized Rosie, my traveling Dachshund, who had escaped into the aisles of the plane. I hadn’t even noticed she was missing from her suitcase. I was fascinated by the book as it told a different story from those I had heard before. Somehow the author had found a way of correlating the stormy temperaments of my father and grandfather into the rise and fall of the IBM Company. This story was not told in a salacious way but in a tone full of truth and compassion. I learned about my grandfather’s father and his humble beginning in Painted Post, New York and my grandfather’s statement saying he was smarter than his father. I found this interesting and I wondered why he felt this and what he had based this decision on. I learned my grandfather had come from a family of women and had started work early in life in Painted Post. I wanted to see what Painted Post felt like and decided to make a visit there as I had no idea where it was. I knew my grandfather had been born there but we had not visited as children nor had my own father spoken about the town.
It seemed my grandfather had worked his way out of there and headed south to New York City where he could broaden his life and achieve the prominence he had dreamed of as an adolescent. I wanted to understand my Grandfather as when he died I was seven years old. Some might think he had little influence on my life but I remember him clearly for one simple reason. About a year before he died he took me to FAO Schwartz and told me I could have anything I wanted in the entire store. I remember being overwhelmed at the thought of the possibilities of this and I also remember my grandmother taking his arm and saying I should chose “something practical.” My grandfather looked at me with his large brown eyes and repeated once again I could choose anything I wanted. I have no idea why I was so lucky on that day to be the only child with my grandparents inside of FAO Schwarz but I was. Out of the 18 grandchildren I had lucked out. I have no idea if this was the first time my grandfather had done this or if each grandchild had this opportunity. I think I was in the right place at the right time.
I have been reading about my grandfather’s health in the latest book and he evidently suffered from colitis as well as ulcers and irritable bowel which were left untreated during his lifetime. It seems much of the time he was in pain as well as fearful. Rather than go to a doctor he believed it was better to ignore the pain and continue on in life. There is lovely piece in the book about my father and grandfather attending an event towards the end of my grandfather’s life. The event was to celebrate achievement within the IBM Company and my grandfather was called upon to give a speech. Prior to the speech my father comments on the apparently fragile state of his Dad and yet when the crowd began to applaud my grandfather’s presence he seemed to grow taller, walked with a more powerful gait and stood in front of the podium a much younger man than he had appeared some minutes before. It was “ShowTime” in the words of our family and he would be the showman he always was in order to play out the day.
I have been thinking about this aspect of my grandfather as “ShowTime” was a common phrase in our childhood. It meant you had to get ready to perform in your most charming manner: serve hor”deurves at a party, shake hands with the guests, trail a parent around an enormous room full of people shaking hands with each one, or just act as if you were the most polite child in the world. In our family we knew what “ShowTime” meant and it wasn’t hard to behave correctly. In a way it was easier to play a role than to be unprepared in life. I still hear the word in my head when I have to go to certain events or give a talk on why my charity deserves support. I say to myself, “it’s ShowTime” and I am filled with energy to do what I need to do. This is a good thing to learn as a child as life is filled with things we need to do in order to survive and flourish in our worlds. Sometimes recognizing you are doing them out of obligation is more empowering than just doing them.
Anyway, back to my grandfather and Painted Post. I have no idea what I am looking for but I am looking for something. I think it has to do with the illusive idea of happiness and satisfaction in connection with achievement. I have spent a lifetime thinking about achievement as I have a legacy of achievement in my family from my father and grandfather. I doubt my father was happy during his life as he was never able to look back at what he had accomplished and achieve a sense of satisfaction. He was restless in his nature and troubled in his relationships. I loved him dearly but couldn’t make him happy as no one could. I wonder if my grandfather was the same in temperament as the book suggests. Somehow I doubt my grandfather experienced a lot of joy as I think he was always convinced he might lose everything overnight.
I am curious about the genetic component of achievement and how one generation can be very successful and the next, hopelessly unmotivated. Often if there is a very accomplished patriarch there will be no successor as the patriarch prevents any offspring from achieving by refusing to recognize accomplishments and rewarding them in childhood. Children of very successful parents may have careers but have trouble believing their lives are in any way as important as their successful father or mother. The interesting thing about being a child of parents like this is learning how to value yourself and what you accomplish in your own life. How can any child possibly believe they can begin to compete with their parent if the accomplished parent has created a company like IBM?How can a parent who is incredibly successful insure their children will feel satisfaction from whatever work they chose?
Painted Post represents a path to more understanding for me. I am curious about how my grandfather did what he did and I would like to understand why my father was able to carry on the tradition without dropping out of the competition.Maybe a drive up the interstate through the dark cities of New York state will give me a sense of where I have been and where I will go from here.