Tuesday, February 21, 2012

the path (iv)

Many of my early childhood memories took place in my father's drugstore because that's where my family spent the majority of their time. My mother, and all seven of her children, in varying capacities (and some more than others), worked in that drugstore.

Or as my mother refers to it, "That God damned store."

My mother had six children in seven years. She had me, six and a half years after my brother, Wally. If I've got the facts straight, my dad bought the drugstore in 1964, which happened to be the same year that my brother was born. Dad didn't take his first vacation for six years, which ironically, is the same year that I was conceived.

My father lived and breathed that drugstore and it was his life goal to see it succeed. Without question, the drugstore came before his marriage and his family and well, anything else in his life. To the best of my knowledge, he never stopped to sit and enjoy a meal, or exercise. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, from morning until night, Dad worked. Late at night, he'd come home and do the books. He'd work. And work.

And work.

So did his wife and children. Because I was young, I didn't work as hard as the others. Although I was never recruited to "bring in the [news] papers", I remember my siblings being awoken at the crack of dawn to go down and lug in the Boston Globe on Sunday mornings and help get the papers organized for when the store opened and they'd fly off the stoop by people on their way to/from Mass. I remember helping to ring up customers at the cash register (candy bars were $0.25 and a pack of cigarettes were $0.75) and I'd dust the shelves by removing every single item on the shelf, and wiping every item and the shelf down with a damp cloth. Each item in that store - and the shelf upon which they sat - were dusted every single week.

The organization of that old pharmacy was unlike anything I've ever seen, in my life. That's how I was raised. There's always an inventory. Bottles line up and labels are turned out. The key to success is dedication, hard work, and a clean and organized process.

These days, it's hard for me not to notice the cleanliness of a store. I gauge the quality of that store by the condition of it's shelves. If the shelves are stocked and clean - it's a good shop run with a conscientious management. If the shelves are barren and items are in disarray and/or loaded with dust - it's a dump run by a bunch of slackers.

(I'm always willing to pay a little more to support the good ones.)

Dad offered a free "delivery" service to all of his customers and he would have prescriptions (and/or supplies) dropped off to anyone who couldn't (or didn't want) to make it the trek downtown. Some of my most vivid memories are driving around with my sister, Beth, on deliveries. She'd drive and I'd run the prescriptions in. We'd visit nursing homes, hospitals, and private residences. A lot of the time, people would want to talk with me. Especially the elderly customers that we're housebound, lonely, and knew my family.

When they'd see me, they'd smile broadly and pinch my cheeks and say things like, "Oh good heavens. You're growing up so much. I remember when you were just a tiny baby!" It would drive Beth totally crazy because sometimes I'd stay and chat, for several long minutes, and she'd finally have to park the car and come in to tell me, "JENNY, LET'S GO!!!"

But … but … Catherine was just telling me that she got her hair cut at a new salon and … look, she's got Pepperidge Farm cookies and Brach's butterscotch!

I believe that it is because of that store and the relationships that we built with the customers, that every one of my siblings has a rock solid work ethic and will push themselves harder than anyone I've ever met. I also believe it's the reason that we are all fiercely independent and feel completely responsible for our own success. The only person that comes close, is my friend, Marla, whose family owned a restaurant and she was raised in much the same way. Behind the counter - in front of the counter - working tirelessly for her family's business to succeed.

In many ways, that's a good thing. But in many ways, it's not. Now that I'm an adult, I largely blame the demise of my parent's marriage - and hence my primary family unit - on what happened to my family as a direct result of that store. More specifically, our inability to balance the store with other more important things in life.

My mother tried, though.

Good Lord did she try.

When I was a child, I always believed that Dad worked so hard so he could provide for his family. And yes, we had a nice roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on the table. There was an in-ground swimming pool and a beautiful yacht that he'd take us out on, every summer. But, it always felt like there was some thing missing...

My father.

I believe, in my heart of hearts that my father is a good man and I love him very much. It is my most fervent wish that he's enjoyed his life and has many happy memories. It brings me joy to know that just about everyone who knew my Dad, liked him. Regardless of how busy he was, he'd always take the time to come out from behind the pharmacy bench and talk with his customers. He cared and appreciated each and every one of them and they knew it. But I've always believed that he appreciated and cared for his customers and success a lot more than he cared for us. Or at least, that's how it's always felt.

When my parents divorced, my mother left. She didn't take anything with her except the clothes on her back. She didn't want any of the money that my father had amassed over their 23 years of marriage. That money, in her opinion, was the culprit for why he had sacrificed his entire family. So mom wanted nothing. And Dad kept it all.

Despite the fortunes that my father had made, all of my siblings who went to college, were entirely responsible for paying their own way. I was the only lucky one to have a (small) trust fund, that had been established for me by a wonderful woman named Marge, who worked in my dad's store. Nonetheless, I still needed to take out financial aid and work various jobs to make it through. According to my sister, Mary, the fact that she received absolutely zero financial support for her college tuition turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She's said that if she hadn't worked so hard to get through, she probably would have dropped out her senior year of pharmacy school.

As for me, I remember feeling a pang of bitterness when dad would easily drop $5,000.00 in cash to fuel his boat and I'd think of how that money could have been sent to my mom so she could buy a car with power windows instead of the roll-up manual variety. Or how that money could have covered a semester of tuition and made my life so much easier. There's no question, my mother might not have accepted the money. And I appreciate my education and am very proud of my accomplishments. But for my own children, I think I'll try to strike a balance - somewhere between helping them, but not giving them a completely free ride.

In my opinion, financial assistance demonstrates that someone is invested enough in your life and success, that they're willing to help underwrite it. It's just something you do, if you can afford it, for the people that you brought in to the world.

Even though my mother was living on a shoe string budget, she would do whatever she could to help offset our costs during school. To this day, my siblings and I will receive rogue checks in the mail from my mother, who is sending "a little something" towards the cost of a new water heater, or a grandchild's braces, or preschool tuition. Meanwhile, Dad's money is Dad's money. Money is definitely something to be carefully managed.

But also spent on and shared with those whom you love.

Although my father still owns the building where his drugstore once was, he sold the store and all of it's contents, several years ago. In the drugstore's place is a Toy Store. Smack dab on the corner of Main Street in downtown Concord. To this day, every time I drive past, I mist up a bit when the "What-If's" set in.

My father married another woman, shortly after he divorced from my mother. A few years ago, he divorced that second woman, after 25 years of marriage. She cared a lot more about money than my mother ever did, and took a large portion of my dad's fortune ~ that was built upon my mother (and her children's) shoulders ~ with her. When I think of how hard my mother has had to work - it seems terribly unfair.

These days, my dad is living at an assisted living facility. His health has been on the decline for the past several years and I think it's a miracle he's still with us. While the divorce disrupted our family unit, my father's condition has torn it to pieces. There have been heated arguments regarding health care proxies and power of attorneys and lawsuit threats and it hurts my head (and heart) to think of all the controversy and rifts in my family that will likely never mend.

Not long ago, when I was visiting with my father, we talked about life. Dad was sitting in a chair, with his walker in front of him. He had a blanket across his lap and he looked very frail; which is something that I'll never get used to, because I always think of him as a strong, confident man that can do anything. As we talked, his voice shook and he had a sadness in his eyes. "I worked so hard for so many years," he said. "If someone drove down Main Street today, and didn't know better, they'd never know that Snow Pharmacy existed. Nothing remains that would show it was ever even there..."

He was quiet for a moment, caught in reflexion, before he continued. "So, I wonder, what was it all for? What in the hell was it all for?"

The thought of such regret makes me very sad.

But I suspect it makes my dad even sadder.