A Daughter Remembers Her Dad
by Bunny Bernhardt
I was on the phone the other day with my brother’s wife in San Diego, reminiscing as we often do about the years we grew up in Boston only two streets apart. Ann brought up a time when she and Jack were young lovers and my parents invited her over for Sunday dinner (this was after I had left home). Since it was her first time meeting them, Ann was anxious to make a good impression, but there was so much bickering, my parents didn’t even have time to notice her. “[The fight] was, if I’m not mistaken, about the mashed potatoes,” she said.
At that I laughed. Ah, the mashed potatoes — the great bedeviling theme that dominated my childhood and our Sunday dinners. My father Harry and I were responsible for turning out fluffy, golden potatoes, our weekly pride and joy. But my mother Elsie, who was otherwise a darling, fought us ferociously. Too much fol-de-rol, too much fuss, too many pans. And when we tried to sneak in some chopped onion, she, with her white-bread Yankee upbringing, would almost collapse in a rage.
Thus by mentioning those two magic words, Ann unleashed a flood of indelible memories of the raucous, chaotic, but always exciting life of the Pritchard family. It is our family dinners that I remember best of all. Once we were seated at the table it would be Dad’s time to hold forth. In all my life I don’t ever remember him simply talking or having an ordinary conversation. It was all lecture and harangue.
Dad was a 5ʹ1ʺ, 115-pound bantam dandy full of pugnacious bombast overflowing with ideas, and basically it was me and my two younger brothers, Hank and Jack, who were the designated audience. It was the 1930s, and his ideas were decidedly radical ones. We were not only raised to be Stalin-worshipping Communists and strutting atheists, but at the same time to argue and debate our positions — all to keep the pot boiling over, day and night, relieved only by highly competitive games of cribbage.
These radical beliefs could only be practiced on the sly, since this was Irish-Catholic Boston, and Dad’s day job, assistant clerk of the Superior Criminal Court of Boston, allowed him to spend his life among the reigning pols of the city. A façade of acquiescence to all the papal rules that governed Boston, like the pretense of eating fish every Friday, was a small price to pay.
My father was born in 1885, conceived in Ireland and born in America, as he liked to boast. A graduate of Catholic schools, he worked days in a shoe factory while attending Suffolk Law School at night, graduating head of his class and class valedictorian. Then he went right into politics.
His first job was working for the mayor of Boston, “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, that rascally progenitor of the Kennedy clan. Then he worked for the Honorable Mayor Michael J. Curley, who, thank the gods, was able to secure him the position of assistant clerk, since Dad’s eager plans to be a union lawyer collapsed because of his fiery temperament, and we would surely have starved in those harsh Depression years.
How did this runty Irishman from an impoverished immigrant family — his six brothers simple workmen — come up with these revolutionary ideas? He was, in addition to his inflamed politics, a practicing nudist — one of the L Street Brownies who often swam naked in the ocean in midwinter. He was also one of the first in this country to espouse health foods (oh, Dr. Bragg’s hated whole wheat spaghetti on Saturday nights and the daily affront of the fruit and vegetable salads minced to unrecognizable mulch). He put up a gym set and initiated croquet games to instill an athletic and competitive spirit in us. And, as the eldest, I was the lucky mascot dragged to lectures all over Boston where, while he verbally attacked the lecturer, I’d smother my face in heavy scarves to hide my embarrassment.
Yet, lucky me, I think now in retrospect, for a girlhood bursting with such life among such outrageous people. Not to mention my fun-loving mom, or the parties at our house, where my uncles tap danced, sang, and banged on the piano, while Dad and I topped off the evening with our ear-splitting rendition of “Danny Boy.”
So, in 1974, as Dad’s 90th birthday approached, I visited my brother Jack in San Diego. Jack, his wife Ann, and I knew we had to come up with a truly memorable idea to celebrate this grand occasion, and in less than 10 minutes we found it. The invitations I sent out read merely, “You are invited to a wake where the body is still warm.”
September 18 dawned warm and bright, a lovely day for a wake. Dad was in fine health, still doing his daily 200 pushups. He and my mother, who had moved to Santa Barbara, came to my house in Laurel Canyon where, assembled on the deck, were 200 guests expecting a memorial service for my father. Out of sight of the guests, we ordered Dad into a casket that was in the back of a hearse and told him not to open his mouth or make a move. (He remonstrated at first but quickly got the joke.) The hearse then drove to the foot of the stairs leading up to the deck, and while a band played Chopin’s “Funeral March,” pall bearers carried up the open casket.
A priest resplendent in ecclesiastic robes (the great mime Jack Albee) began his funeral oration, ordering everyone to repeat after him, “I’m just wild about Harry and Harry’s wild about me.” When they finished, Harry hopped out of the casket and, to the frightened screams of the guests, dropped to the deck and started doing push-ups. Then, while everyone recovered and caroused, as a good Irish wake demanded, he mounted the stairs to the loft and recited the “Gold, yellow, glittering gold” speech from The Merchant of Venice. Thus concluded his 90th birthday.
It was the high point of his life, and none too soon. Seven months later, after only a two-week illness, he died of pancreatic cancer, leaving us with indelible memories of the most improbable father a daughter (and two sons) ever had. Again, lucky me!
Bunny Bernhardt, actress and singer, has lived in Santa Barbara off and on since 1959.