Where fathers are concerned, I have been twice blessed; my mother chose well. My biological dad was a fiery redhead, in temperament as well as appearance. From all the stories I heard about his younger years, Leith Tierney was a daredevil bordering on hellion: motorcycle racer, athlete, warrior. He sailed off to England in 1939, at the tender age of sixteen, to join the effort to stop the German juggernaut. He had wanted to join the Air Force, but my grandmother would have no part of it. Under pressure from my grandfather, or so the story goes, she relented, provided that Leith would enter the ground services instead. He served in England and in Italy, primarily, and was shipped back home in 1945. He would never talk much about the war, and although I would by no means call him haunted by it, it was something that I think he would have preferred to forget, had it been possible.
By the time I knew him, his rowdy youth was behind him for the most part. He settled in New Brunswick and worked for the Canadian Fisheries department in an obscure fishing village in the north of the province. It promised to be a dead end, as indeed did most jobs in the Maritimes in those days, so in the mid-fifties he moved his young family (which by that time included myself and my infant brother Thane) to Pennsylvania, and took a position as a chemist with American Sugar corporation. We lived up and down the eastern seaboard, as he was called upon to assist in the opening of new sugar processing plants from Boston to Florida. Just before the dawning of the 1960s, another member joined the family, a girl this time, my sister Laurie. Not terribly long thereafter, Leith got sick. At first, it didn’t seem too serious, but he was later diagnosed with cancer, and it took him out in horrible fashion. At the time of his death, he had been fighting the good fight for close to three years, and it had taken its toll in no uncertain terms; he carried perhaps 125 pounds on his formerly husky 6’2” frame. He was buried in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I was thirteen at the time; Thane and Laurie were nine and six, respectively.
A couple of years went by, and my mom met Jack Pennock, the son of an elderly couple who lived down the street from us in suburban Philadelphia. The family had been Pennsylvanians at least since Revolutionary War times, and the original Pennock property had been deeded to them by none other than William Penn. Jack was annoyingly handsome, in the manner of a fifties’ movie star, like William Holden or Gary Cooper. At the time, we couldn’t imagine what he would have seen in my mom, a mid-forties working mother of three unruly kids, but love doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the direct participants, I guess, and after a whirlwind romance, they were married in the garden of my aunt’s old stone home in nearby Penn Valley. Jack lived in Southern California at the time, and we were uprooted once again; we were not entirely happy about this, mind you, but California had its attractions, and Jack seemed a likable enough fellow. And he drove a hot rod Mustang, one of the first to roll off the assembly line, which was pretty cool, in my estimation. Jack and my mother remained married until her death in the early 1990s. He soldiered on for another dozen years, finally succumbing to complications following an operation. His back had been giving him excruciating pain in his last few years, and he elected to have surgery which, in his words, “will fix me or kill me, and either is better than this.” I hope I have that courage should I ever be faced with a similar decision. In the years between my mother’s death and Jack’s we became quite close, often travelling together to Prince Edward Island to survey the inevitable winter damage to the family homestead, which he had designed and built some fifteen years before. We talked about books and movies we admired, WWII, family history and anything else that struck our fancy during the long drives through the Maine wilderness. Shortly before he died, I bought the PEI house. I spend summers there nowadays, and a day rarely goes by without some reminder of him.
Whether through heredity or environment, I have my two fathers to thank for my literary bent, my somewhat warped sense of humor, and for my sense of family, which reaches well beyond the ties of shared DNA.
Sleep ye well, my fathers, and Happy Father’s Day!