I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I fell early and hard for Mad Men. The backdrop of this show feels like my childhood flashing before my eyes. It would be hard for me to resist for that reason alone. I recall vividly the furnishings, the fashion, the music, my parents’ friends smoking endless cigarettes, and the sound of ice clinking in their drink glasses.
Around the 3rd or 4th episode, it hit me how much Don Draper reminded me of my father in the 1960s. For you fellow watchers of Mad Men—the disclaimers: my Dad never stole a dead man’s identity, worked at an advertising agency, or smoked. Nor was he a serial philanderer. Didn’t drink much either. Technically, he was a contemporary of Roger Sterling’s character, having fought in WWII, not Korea. He came of age in urban, not rural, poverty during the Great Depression.
Now the likeness: tall, dark, and handsome… he could turn on the charm, engage and persuade. During his best years, he exuded confidence and authority. Still, in unguarded moments, it wasn’t hard to pick up there was something haunted and on-edge about him. Like a man guarding a secret. He’d lived and prospered to a great extent by his wits, learned how to pitch himself and connect in the entertainment world as a total outsider. He thrived on being the center of attention, or at least within the lively company of people he found smart or talented.
He loved the ladies, and they loved him back (especially during his MGM years). However, his marital indiscretions were few and fleeting, and did not deter Dad from his binding loyalty and devotion to my mother. He considered finding her to be the single luckiest break of his life. Without her in his corner, he believed he’d never have amounted to much.
In all the years I knew my father, he wore his unhappy New Jersey childhood like a layer of skin he could cover up but never shed. Perhaps only those closest to him could see it. By my father’s account, his own father was critical and belittling, and his mother was passively maternal at best. Their marriage had been forced by my father’s impending birth, and their screaming fights frightened Dad as a child. Both came from working class families who’d emigrated from England and Holland, barely surviving the Depression years. On his mother’s Dutch side, Dad had nine aunts and uncles. When he was eleven, his parents’ marriage imploded. His mother returned to live under her parents’ roof, his father retreated to his family down the street, and the two clans avoided one another in a permanent stand-off. Dad was sent to live with his youngest aunt and her husband in a nearby town.
His next eight to ten years with his Aunt Helen and Uncle Tom should have been the healing balm. Tom was the antithesis of his own father: upbeat, non-judgmental and supportive, a good provider who gave Dad a stable home. Tom shepherded Dad through a sticky patch in high school. He also enlarged Dad’s world through music. By the time Dad was fifteen, he was doing weekend country club dates, singing and playing bass with Tom’s own big band orchestra. Between high school and WWII, Dad lived on and off with Tom & Helen, supporting himself as a second-string band singer looking for his big break. Then the War came along. My father could really sing. He sang all the time, throughout his life – just not professionally, again.
The sting of early deprivation, feeling unwanted and unloved, never left Dad entirely. Except for Tom and warm, early memories of his Dutch grandparents, my Dad was obviously ashamed of his clan. They were all “ignorant”, “bums”, or worse.
His on-edge persona could have been nature, before nurture. ADHD, maybe dyslexia… even as an adult my Dad’s behavior was pretty textbook. Until recently, the only learning disabilities were “stupid” or “not trying hard enough”. That can leave scars on a kid’s psyche. I subscribe to the more recent philosophy that human brains develop on different timetables and we all possess different kinds of intelligence, most of which are never measured. That my father got through flight engineer training, and went on to ably manage most aspects of a pretty successful adult life seems to support this.
During the War Dad got to see a bit of the world. When he was honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1945, he was determined not to pick up his pre-war life. His recounting of this moment in time morphed somewhat over the years. But the essence was, from the moment Dad returned to U.S. soil—or his first meeting with my mother—he began reinventing himself.
Within a year of their meeting, he’d convinced my mother to marry him and move to California. My father gained an instant, replacement family with Mom’s lovable, six year-old son (my half-brother, Dave) as part of the package. A short time later at his insistence, they legally changed their names, thereby cutting another link with his past. Douglas Widmer Jenkinson and Sara Frances Jenkinson became Douglas and Frances Laurence.
My Dad saw his own mother perhaps a half-dozen times in the 40-50 years after he moved to the West Coast and before she died at age 98. His one attempt at contact with his father was rebuffed, so they never reconciled. He never came around to regard his parents with much compassion or a further understanding. I regretted this for him, even if he did not.
As for me… there’s a whole chunk of my lineage missing, another side of the story left untold. Even if I find my paternal relatives, it is doubtful I can ever know what was in the hearts and minds of those long gone.
At least I can stay tuned to find out how Donald Draper’s story arc will wrap up, at the end of Season Seven.
Postscript, 2016: Thanks to my cousin, Susie (the Ancestry.com power-user extraordinaire) and Facebook, I have found and connected with Claire, the daughter of my father’s first cousin Ruth Ann. One day soon, I hope, we will meet in person.