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

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.


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