Magazine article The New Yorker

Family History-The Death of My Father

Magazine article The New Yorker

Family History-The Death of My Father

Article excerpt

In his death, my father, Glenn Vernon Martin, did something he could not do in life. He brought our family together.

After he died, at the age of eighty- three, many of his friends told me how much they loved him--how generous he was, how outgoing, how funny, how caring. I was surprised at these descriptions. I remember him as angry. There was little said to me, that I recall, that was not criticism. During my teen-age years, we hardly spoke except in one-way arguments--from him to me. I am sure that the number of words that passed between us could be counted. At some point in my preteens, I decided to officially "hate" him. When he came into a room, I would wait five minutes, then leave.

But now, when I think of him, five years after his death, I recall events that seem to contradict my memory of him. When I was sixteen, he handed down to me the family's 1957 Chevy. Neither one of us knew at the time that it was the coolest car anyone my age could have. When I was seven or eight, I discovered on Christmas morning a brand-new three-speed bike illuminated by the red, green, and blue of the tree lights in the predawn blackness of Christmas Day. When I was in the third grade, he proudly accompanied me to the school tumbling contest, where I won first prize. One day, while I was in the single digits, he suggested we play catch in the front yard. The offer to spend time together was so anomalous that I didn't quite understand what I was supposed to do.

When I graduated from high school, my father offered to buy me a tuxedo. I refused; he had raised me to reject all aid and assistance, and he detested extravagance. Because my father always shunned gifts, I felt that, in my refusal, I was somehow, in a convoluted, perverse way, being a good son. I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo.

My father sold real estate, but he wanted to be in show business. I must have been five years old when I saw him in a bit part at the Call Board Theatre, on Melrose Place in Hollywood. He came on in the second act and served a drink. Somewhere in our memorabilia is a publicity photo of him staged with the entire family: he is a criminal being taken away by the police, and his five-year-old son, me, surrounded by my mother and sister, is tugging at his shirtsleeve, pleading with him to stay. There was no way to explain to a five-year-old that this was not actually happening. During the war, he was in a U.S.O. performance of "Our Town" in England with Raymond Massey. Later, when I was probably nineteen, he wrote Raymond Massey a letter, reminding Mr. Massey who he was and promoting his son who wanted to be in show business. He never heard back.

Generally, however, my father was critical of my show-business accomplishments. Even after I won an Emmy at twenty-three as a writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," he advised me to finish college so that I'd have something to fall back on. Years later, my friends and I took him to the premiere of my first movie, "The Jerk," and afterward we went to dinner. For a long time, he said nothing. My friends noted his silence and were horrified. Finally, one friend said, "What did you think of Steve in the movie?" And my father said, "Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin."

My father did not believe that he was hurting me. He was just being honest. After my first appearance on "Saturday Night Live," in 1976, he wrote a bad review of me in the newsletter of the Newport Board of Realtors, of which he was the president. Later, he related this news to me slightly shamefacedly, and said that after it appeared his best friend came into his office holding the paper, placed it on his desk, and shook his head sternly, indicating a wordless "No." My father did not understand what I was doing in my work and was slightly embarrassed by it. Perhaps he believed that his friends would be embarrassed by it, too, and the review was his way of refusing to sanction this new comedy.

In the early eighties, a close friend of mine, whose own father was killed crossing a street, and whose mother committed suicide on Mother's Day, told me that if I had anything to work out with my parents I should do it now, because one day they wouldn't be there anymore. …

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