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Searching For Daddy

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As I mentioned in my last piece about my beloved father Jim Davey, I've spent much of my life searching for an understanding of just who he was. Having died in 1951 at the age of 64, when I was just eight years old, my father never knew me as an adult. Nor as an obnoxious teenager who goes through the process of differentiating from her parents. Therefore he remains my idealized parent who, in recurring dreams throughout my life, isn't really dead and is coming home.

As a psychoanalyst and writer, I've always been particularly interested in the trauma of early loss of a parent. I've learned that death is not the only way to lose a loved one. Divorce, alcoholism, mental illness, emotional detachment, and abuse in its various forms can also feel like a version of death. Having been in analysis myself for many years, I try to impart what I've learned about the effects of my father's death on my development, and how I might offer insight to others who've been left with a giant hole in their heart.

My mother also lost her father when she was only 3 years old, retaining only one vague memory of him chasing her around the dining room table. How sad it is to only have one memory. Always having been a healthy, vibrant man, my mother's father died of the swine flu in 1918, a horrendous epidemic that killed over 50 million people worldwide, when he was only 30 years old. To help compensate for this lack of a father, my mother married my father who was almost 30 years older than she, thus having a husband and father-figure in one person. It worked beautifully for her, except that they were only together for 13 years. However, she always said "I wouldn't trade those 13 years with him for a lifetime with anyone else." She never married again, saying that no other man ever seemed so exciting.

To cope with my own loss of this special man, I've continued my mother's project of chronicling everything she could find about my father's life. In 15 incredible scrapbooks that took her fifty years to compile, my mother documented through amazing photographs, newspaper clippings, and personal stories, the lives of my family - and especially that of my father - so that their memory will never die. This, of course, works for me because he was a good parent, and there's nothing I have a need to forget. I understand that for some people this isn't the case. For them, certain memories just bring pain.

As a result of my mother's devotion and diligence to accurate family history, I have a clear idea about my father's life after he married his first wife, Mary Binney Davey, at the age of 29. Individual stories about him as a child and young adult have been more difficult to find. I long to know more, but anyone who knew him when he was young has long since died.

The family stories are full of triumph and tragedy. My grandfather, John Davey, and grandmother struggled to raise their seven children, two of whom died in childhood. They were very poor, due to the fact that my grandfather farmed the land, and the crops were often destroyed by the harsh Ohio weather. John Davey was diligently and scientifically developing his theories about tree surgery, but at that time, nobody was interested in this new science.

The family often was not only hungry, but cold. My Uncle Martin Davey tells a pitiful story in his unpublished autobiography about how he and his little brother Jim (my father) were sobbing to their mother because their little hands were freezing and they had no mittens. How terrible she must have felt. What they did have, however, was a home full of riches in terms of love and intellectual stimulation. In fact, eventually John Davey became world famous for his work with the environment. Moreover, each of the siblings themselves became well known for their original endeavors.

So how, I've always wondered, did my father's personality develop over the years? What was he like as a child? How did he develop the sunny, optimistic, expansive personality for which he was known? How did he go from such a poverty- stricken childhood to become a creative entrepreneur, as well as a man who traveled the world long before it was in vogue? Also, having lived in a world of high society, how did he retain the values of his humble origins, holding fast to the sense of what was really important to him?

Also, although my father looked like a total "dude", he was, according to my mother, a man of his time who was shy and respectful of women. He never sought fame for himself, and didn't care when others took the credit for his achievements. My mother, who adored him, was always perplexed as to why my father "never thought he was anybody particularly special." To be honest, I've always wondered how this charismatic man did not become a narcissist! Thus, as a psychoanalyst, I look for clues.

Several years ago my brother, knowing I would be thrilled, sent me a large carton of books containing my father's high school books. With great excitement, I opened the box, gingerly lifted out the very old volumes, and arranged them around me on the floor. Beside me I had placed a large magnifying glass. I hoped that, like most young people, my father had defaced his books. Since I've always considered drawings and doodles that people create to be both very interesting and revealing, I was eager to begin my investigation.

The first book I picked up was an Elementary English Composition book in which my father had written the date Sept./'01, along with various styles of signatures of his name, Jas. Davey. He was 14 years old.

The book, which still had its cover intact, seemed to open itself to the middle. What was inside made my heart stop. There, perfectly preserved with its bright green color (with a little touch of purple) was a magnificent four-leaf clover with its sturdy-looking stem intact. I stared at it in amazement, until suddenly I realized that it was disintegrating into powder, right before my eyes. It only took minutes. I reached for the stem, thinking that perhaps it would stay together, only to see its form disappear as well. It, too, had crumbled into dust. It broke my heart, but I soothed myself by thinking I had been able to touch something that my father had last touched over a hundred years ago. This feeling gave me a deep sense of connection.

It took me awhile to recover from this emotional moment, but soon I was roaring with laughter as I began looking through the other books. Sure enough, all throughout these very old texts, he had drawn funny caricatures of people, some known (like Lincoln) and some unknown, but probably his friends. Throughout, he signed his name, like "Sunny Jim," or the "Reverend Jas.Davey." He penned supposedly serious phrases: "Love has the power to soothe the savage, to melt the heart, and split a cabbage- Shakespere." (Okay, maybe spelling wasn't his strong suit.) And in a huge Webster's Dictionary published in 1861, signed by his grandfather Harmon Reeves, and given to him on his fourteenth birthday by his mother, my father wrote his name across the forehead of N. Webster, and underneath his picture playfully wrote, "This is the famous Jas. Davey." I spent a whole day exploring this period of my father's life. In many ways, I had a lovely visit with him.

My Uncle Mart wrote that anybody who tried to understand my father could get along with him. However, his high school principal was a rather obtuse individual, who had quite a bit of trouble with a number of the students. My father was one of them. According to my uncle, Jim helped to make his life miserable, with the result that he was dismissed from school with a degree of finality that was all too real. So my father had to finish high school in nearby Ravenna, Ohio. Luckily, the Ravenna high school principal was a wise and understanding man, William J. Dodge. Uncle Mart writes,"very promptly he had Jim under complete control, and Jim has been his devoted friend ever since."

As is obvious, my father was not a student of formal education. He always joked that he'd had two years of college, when in fact he went to Massachusetts Agricultural College in the fall of 1907, and the spring of 1908. So, to him, he could say he went to school in 1907 and 1908 - two years! His favorite saying was "the best education is travel," and his travels were truly astonishing. Here, indeed, was where I got my passion for traveling and exploring the world, and Pan Am allowed me the fulfillment of that desire. Joining Pan Am aided me in my search for knowing my father: I could see the whole world as he did, and feel deeply identified with him.

In my family albums, we have a photograph of my 20-year-old father on his motorcycle in 1907, along with a letter he wrote from Amherst, Massachusetts. He was joking about having only 20 cents in his pocket, and what he was thinking about spending it on. Frankly, in the very early days of the Davey Tree Expert Company, this was probably true. My brother has written a note on the letter to my sister's boys: "When your grandfather Jim wrote this, he had 20 cents. Ten years later, after selling a lot of tree work, and being known as 'The Boy Wonder of Wall Street,' he retired as a millionaire at age 30." One must keep in mind that the Davey boys were all put to work - and hard work--at the age of six, and my father had big dreams about having a joyful life.

My grandfather's first book "The Tree Doctor" was published in 1901. While it laid the foundation for the Davey Tree Expert Company, he'd already perfected most of the new science by 1880. Davey Tree trucks today proudly, and accurately, advertise "since 1880. " My father joined the company in 1904, heading up its Northeast division. By 1907, the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery in Kent had begun. The educational facet was extremely thorough and intensive, but the physical training was also important. Climbing spurs were forbidden by John Davey because of the damage to tree trunks. So the men frequently had to shinny up trees eighty feet and higher. Then, moored only by safety tethers, they'd climb out onto limbs, saws and other gear in hand, to do their work. Thus developed a strong esprit de corps among tree men.

One night my father and other young tree surgeons were in Pittsburgh, where they went out with some of the local young women. The girls had never heard of tree surgery. When one of them asked, "What do you do, skin trees?" my father replied "Yes, we're tree skinners!" From that day on, Davey men referred to themselves as "tree skinners." Among his many talents, my father had a way of coining words and phrases that stuck.

As a child I always looked forward to my father's nightly bedtime stories, which were all based on his incredibly varied life experiences. My brother, sister, and I would listen breathlessly to every word, even when we knew the stories by heart. I would go to sleep with visions of foreign lands dancing in my head, longing to see them someday too.

Sometimes the stories were about snakes that my father had encountered around the world, despite my mother's protestations that we'd be scared. We loved it! My Uncle Mart tells this familiar story about the time when my father was way up in a tall tree that had a decayed and hollow top. He was busily and happily sawing away at this stub when suddenly a large snake came crawling out, pointing its ugly head directly at him. Instinct caused my father to make a dive for the nearest big limb, and by lucky chance he caught hold. Then he just held on, waiting with all the patience he could muster until the snake disappeared down the trunk.

My Uncle Mart also writes that my father was the best salesman the Tree Company ever had. He describes him as a hard and industrious worker whose natural aptitude for selling was due to his imagination, energy, enthusiasm, and perseverance. In addition, he put great value on family loyalty, while caring very little for money. He was never especially extravagant, viewing money as important only when he needed it. For example, it was impossible for my uncle, the President of the Tree Company, to get my father to make out an expense account, even though he worked for a small salary. So at the end of every year, Uncle Mart had to estimate what his expenses had been and give him credit.

We have a lot of photographs from this period of my father's life, but unfortunately I don't know who the people are or why they were important to him. I would have so many questions to ask him! He was extremely adventurous, and traveled a lot for the Davey Tree Company. Always a compelling storyteller, my father would be able to make each photograph and its people - as well as the adventure behind it - come alive. Wherever he went, people gathered around him to hear his stories. Yet he was a man who was always more interested in what everybody else had to say.

I'm sad to say that I don't know the story of how my father did so well on Wall Street. The truth is, I can't even imagine it, knowing that he was never interested in dynastic wealth and all that comes with it. He must have gotten lucky, as he often did, but acquiring riches wasn't something that he continued to pursue. We always heard that he made a million dollars before he was 30, and retired. He would say that with a great big grin, probably because it didn't mean that much to him. More important was to work very hard at having an unimaginably interesting life.

By this time, the Davey Tree Expert Company had become quite well known, beginning with its work on the country's most famous mansions, including the Flaglers, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, George Eastman, and many more. These people invariably became friends of my grandfather, inviting him into their homes to give talks about trees. However, no doubt the Washington Elm on the grounds of the White House was the Davey Company's most famous patient of the day.

In addition to the source of his early wealth, I also have no idea how my father met his first wife, Mary Binney. She was the daughter of Edwin Binney, who invented crayons (Binney and Smith Crayola Company). At the time, my father had an office in Manhattan, and Mary was from Old Greenwich, Connecticut. I've always imagined that they met in New York, but who knows? Mary's family was extremely successful, she herself was young and beautiful, and my father was a handsome young millionaire, so its not surprising that someone would introduce them - but who?

What follows will be the stories I do know about - ones that I heard at my father's knee--and that I treasure as my heritage.

To be continued....