Cut to the Chase
My parents battled through an acrimonious divorce right at the end of the war that supposedly made their generation the Greatest. They were almost central-castingly perfect opposites: Don Reynolds was short and fat, and at first meeting seemed like a hick from the dustbowls of Oklahoma and Texas; Edith Remick was a tall, dark-haired beauty, a refined and privately schooled graduate of Smith who had been brought up in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was given to upper-middle-class maladies like mild depression, frequently saw doctors for no apparent reason, and spent an inordinate amount of time resting at home. He was a whirlwind, she a lovely and fragile icicle. In the late thirties, he briefly owned part of a Quincy newspaper. One of his biggest advertisers was an upscale department store specializing in men’s clothing, named Remick’s. They met at a company picnic, and he swept her off her feet. She’d never seen anyone like him: such energy, such surprising smarts, such wild visions of the future. And such a sexual drive. I don’t know whether he loosed her panties the very first night or was forced to wait till marriage–but I would bet the ranch, if I had one, that it was on his mind, raging, from the moment they met and every moment thereafter. He told her–and her family–that he intended to live in Quincy for the rest of their lives together. Within a month of their marriage, he sold his interest in the Quincy newspaper and announced that they were moving to Texas. He didn’t ask her and hadn’t forewarned her or anyone in the family; he just announced it, and off they went. Men could get away with things like that then. He then proceeded to hit the road in search of additional businesses. My sister, Nancy, was born in San Antonio in 1938, and the three of them moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he established the Southwestern Publishing Company, a solely-owned enterprise that operated half a dozen small newspapers. I was born in February 1942, barely two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Dad was drafted shortly after that. He grumbled about the army but finagled his way to Europe, where all the glamour was.
He returned home from adventures in London, France, and Australia, restless to continue his empire-building. Despite a wound received while being flown somewhere for Stars and Stripes
(the military newspaper), he’d had a great time during the war, traveling everywhere and hobnobbing with bigs. As he was fond of saying, “It was a hell of a war, but better than no war at all!” After about five minutes of peacetime America, he looked at the open landscape and concluded he’d outgrown Mother, and definitely had outgrown children. He hit the road for good in pursuit of new ventures, thinking Mother was living with my sister and me back in Texas because that’s where he’d last left us and that’s where her letters were postmarked. Once Mother decided on a divorce–an iconoclastic choice in those days, unless you were a Hollywood star–all Dad had to do to protect his rapidly increasing wealth was stay out of Texas so he wouldn’t be served with divorce papers.
Or so he thought. But Mother snuck us into Arkansas, where his headquarters was located. To establish residence, we hid out for six dusty months in Blytheville because she might have been recognized in Little Rock or Fort Smith. I remember surviving a tornado, watching Mother alone at an outdoor ironing board, and seeing a dog kill a rabbit. Nothing else.
With the help of a very determined lawyer named Fred Schlater, Mother found out Dad was driving into Arkansas late one night and hired a midnight paper-server to surprise Dad with divorce documents right there on the highway.
Angry? I was only three or four and didn’t see the ambush, but he must have stomped around the countryside kicking up dust and biting dogs for weeks. He was so furious about the trap she’d laid–cop cars! Middle of the night! Those lying postmarks–that he wouldn’t talk to her, except in a court room, for eleven years! Her treachery filled him with such righteous indignation that he felt he didn’t have to see us more than fifteen minutes a year on moral grounds.
He stayed in the Southwest and frequently saw his son by his second marriage, Don Junior (Mother was his third of four wives), while Mother reared Nancy and me in New York. I do remember that once he began rolling in dough, he exaggerated his childhood poverty so as to make his substantial, self-made adult wealth all the more mythic.
The world operated by one set of values, and Dad lived by another, which changed whenever he wanted it to. And he bragged about that set! He believed in his right to complete self-expression regardless of whom it hurt; and he had the vision of an artist. He’s one of the reasons I’ve thought artists are natural Republicans–they have vision and, like the best entrepreneurs, will do anything they must to realize it. Dad benefited thousands of people by employing them and gave everyone good benefits and low-cost loans for education. He was the only stockholder of his company, which meant he had to answer to no one.
I envied his fearlessness, his creativity, and his lack of concern for what others thought of him. I was tugged–yanked–between two radical extremes: on the one hand, a father who lived like a circus acrobat, balancing upside down on one finger atop a unicycle that he pedaled along a tightrope several thousand feet in the air; and on the other, a terrified, cautious, and passive mother who cared excessively what others thought. Envied him, simulated her. Saw no faults in him and in her nothing but. Perhaps it was because I was surrounded by her family and can remember seeing his only once.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wrestling with Gravy by Jonathan Reynolds. Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.