There's a lot I don't know about my father, and never will. He vanished fifty years ago this year, on September 29th, 1959, never to be seen or heard from again. My twin sister Warren and I were six years old when we awoke that Tuesday morning to our mother Jaqueline's cryptic announcement that daddy had taken a boat out on the Atlantic Ocean the night before and was now reported missing. I remember feeling strangely ambivalent about the news at the time, already shielding myself from the hurt and confusion brought on by his sudden departure. In the ensuing days, all my sister, older brother Rocky, and I were told was that he was presumed to have drowned. An accidental drowning, was the implication; that went without saying, as did a lot of other things about my father from that moment on. Although his name wasn't officially taboo in our immediate family, it was seldom spoken in my presence again. Many years later when I found out what really happened, the truth, what there was of it, had a profoundly unsettling effect on me. The facts of which I'm certain are these: James Laurance Barber, my father Larry, graduated from Manlius, a military-style prep school in upstate New York, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied engineering. He served his country honorably as an Air Force pilot during the Korean conflict, and he loved to fly. He was the tall, lanky, handsome scion of a long line of high-functioning but raging alcoholics whose wealth and social status came from owning and managing the Barber Steamship Lines, which had offices on Battery Place looking out over the harbor towards the Statue of Liberty. Larry didn't want to be anchored to the sea; he wanted to soar across the sky, and his unhappiness at being earthbound, slated to follow in his father's terrestrial footsteps, must have weighed heavily upon him.
Daddy's grandfather James was the inventor of miniature golf. That sounds funny, but it's true. With amateur architect Edward Wiswell, James designed the first miniature golf course in 1916 at Thistle Du, his estate in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I suppose it was Daddy's father, James' son Edward, who steered his sons, Larry and my uncle Ted, into the shipping business whether they wanted to be in it or not. Daddy wound up working under Ted as vice-president of Barber Steamship Lines, and I wonder if he chafed at being subordinate to his older brother in an industry not of his ow n choosing.
After his abrupt disappearance, my father's name was seldom mentioned in our household. There was no funeral for him, no ceremonial acknowledgment of grief or loss, no concession to his abbreviated role in our young lives, or to his absence. Poof! He was just there one day and gone the next, metaphorically and almost immediately photoshopped out of the family portrait. I had no say in his paternal termination, and accepted the void that replaced him without question or complaint. Growing up, I never felt distressed or disadvantaged because I didn't have a father; this was a trick I learned early on, numbing myself into believing everything was fine. I was the obedient, eager-to-please, high-achieving daughter who got good grades and made friends easily, scarcely understanding my own compulsions. Although my twin and I were close, daddy's disappearance was a subject we never discussed. Perhaps it was too painful for Warren, but my reticence to demystify his departure stemmed more from an obliviousness to the intensity of its impact on me than from any fear of confronting the truth about it. It just wasn't an issue with me, or so I convinced myself. Then one day, thirty-one years after he vanished, I accidentally stumbled upon an article in an ancient newspaper stored on microfiche at the New York Public Library, and my universe was tossed off its conveniently tidy orbit as the entire construction of my life shifted on the unstable foundation of the deceit it exposed.
Ship Line VP Missing; Had Left Suicide Note, blared the headline from the Daily News of late September, 1959. The accompanying article mentioned an upper east side address, twin daughters and a son, a marital spat, an abandoned outboard motorboat drifting off the New Jersey coast with a .45 caliber revolver in it that had one empty chamber.... some of it sounded so familiar, while other parts made no sense at all. I was at the library to do some research about the 1959 "Go-Go" White Sox, and suddenly I was reading about my life as a tabloid tragedy. In short order, I located half a dozen other newspapers (there were at least that many city dailies back then) with item after item about the ship line v.p. who either had or hadn't killed himself. One of them, the long defunct Journal American, implied the opposite of what the first one said: Wife Denies Receiving Suicide Note, it screeched. His vanishing act was a copy editor's dream, perfect fodder for the front pages and society columns, soon receding into the background noise of other scandals, shenanigans, and unsolved crimes. As the shock of betrayal upon discovering what had been kept secret from me for decades subsided, I discerned a basic and unnerving truth about myself: that as a child I had been less affected by my father's death than I was now as an adult. Until that moment I always thought it was the other way around, that what had damaged me as a young girl lost its power to hurt me as I grew older. I would soon find out how fragile and false was the reality I had built around me like a moat, and how unforgiving the forces that had shaped my destiny.
I learned later that a lot of what the papers printed turned out to be either shoddy investigative journalism or outright fabrications planted by my uncle Ted, who wanted Daddy to be declared a suicide. This would have backed our mother into a financial corner because she wouldn't get the proceeds from his life insurance, and Ted would then swoop in like a savior/vulture and offer her ten cents on the dollar for her Barber company stock when the first bill for our private school education came due. My mother would have none of it. With all the moxie of a gun moll, she hired one of the best lawyers in New York, Herman Goldman, to compel the court to declare my father legally dead, and successfully sued the shipping company. We seldom spoke to any of the Barbers after that; at least I didn't. I adopted my mother's enmity towards her absent husband's family as my own, and cut myself off further from any attachment to the father I had idolized so briefly.
That all changed when I began to explore my real feelings about his disappearance shortly before I got married in 1995. I wanted to start my new life with a clean emotional slate, and as I began to exhume festering and deeply buried emotions in order to expel them, I finally acknowledged my fury at the betrayal his absence represented. I had never understood why he left, and always believed it was because I hadn't been able to make him love me enough to stay. Learning that the circumstances of his death had been hidden from me for more than three decades only amplified my anger at allowing myself to be deceived for so long. All was not sweetness and light; I had only convinced myself of that in an effort to defer the unbearable sorrow of his abandonment. He had gone off somewhere of his own volition, for whatever reason, and died.... and I was left behind, bereft, condemned to the torment of not knowing why and believing it was all my fault. This was the impotent rage of which I could not speak. All my anger became inwardly directed, silently viral, impervious to time and logic. Outwardly detached from my fury at his departure, I repeated the same abandonment scenario throughout my adulthood by purposely picking partners with whom there could be no hope of a permanent alliance and from whom I would disengage long before they had a chance to reject me the way I believed my father had. My marriage disintegrated after two years, but by then I had acquired a new equilibrium. Once I started asking questions, I was able to ascertain bits and pieces of the truth gleaned from relatives who knew both my parents, finally settling upon a conclusion about my father's disappearance that made forensic sense yet still offered me some small measure of comfort and assurance that I was not the reason he left that fateful night. This was an inference I had always imagined and denied, but could not shake until that fateful day in the library.
This photo of him and my mother is one of my favorites; they look so happy and in love. The world held such promise for them then, but what happened to my father at the end of his life cast a dark shadow upon mine for a long time. I miss him acutely fifty years after he disappeared even though he was around only briefly when I was almost too young to remember him. I often wonder what my life would be like had he stayed in the picture: would I be stronger? Happier? More successful? Or less? It's still a puzzle, but one that mystifies me without driving me crazy anymore. If I keep working at a resolution, I'll get to write my own happy ending to this mystery - maybe in another fifty years.