|My father, Kenneth Gagnon (front center), with his family around 1926|
A dear friend once told me that her parents thought I had no
ambition. But that wasn’t quite the
case; it is more complicated than that.
The real issue, summed up in my long-lost father’s worn letters to my
mom (kept secret until I finally got to read them at 23 years old) written soon
after their separation around 1954, was that “I couldn’t imagine making money
off other people’s misery.” My mother
(Gaetana Ruth Amelia DiCapua), the product of a social climbing Italian
immigrant family, had asked him in a previous letter why he didn’t become a
lawyer like her Uncle Arthur instead of wanting to be a farmer. In my mother’s world my dad had no
ambition. Something had to be wrong
with him for sure – he didn’t seem to grasp the essence of the American dream.
My mother married my French-Canadian father (Kenneth Gagnon)
who was a chicken and turkey farmer in Maryland and had no electricity. His first 14 years were spent living in
upstate New York near the Canadian border, the family moving to Maryland around
1930 when Western Union offered his father a job in the Washington DC
area. My mother’s sister remembered my
dad as a shy person who quietly read books when the family got together. She called him a genius and a nice
person. He appeared to be a back to
nature guy way ahead of his time. He
put electricity into the farm, bought a TV for his new bride, but mom grew
bored with the country life and eventually got him to sell his beloved small
farm. He was never the same after
that. They moved to Florida to start a
When I was about two years old dad came home one day saying
he wanted to go to Georgia to pick peaches. Mom threw him out and we really
never saw him again. (My oldest sister
remembers him coming by one time but mom called the police and had him chased
away. He wrote on the side of our house
with charcoal “I love you kids” and was gone for good.) In another of his letters, that my mother
kept secret all those years, he wrote, “By now you’ve probably taught the kids to
hate me.” He knew my mother well, but
underestimated the deep feelings we had developed for him in our short time
My cousin Bob Jr. said dad moved in with them for a while
after the divorce, and cried a lot. Uncle Bobby was dad’s younger brother, and
one day came home to find the keys to dad’s car on the table with a note. "Bobby you take the car” my dad wrote to his
brother; “I’m going away for a while.” A good long while it turned out to be. Uncle Bobby only heard from his big brother
once more, around 1961, when he got a postcard from Paris that said, “I’m
traveling around Europe.”
By then mother (with her three young children) had met and
married an Air Force enlisted man from Rumford (a town in western Maine’s
logging country). He grew up in that
paper mill culture where his father worked.
He was wild and rebellious and the story was that Wesley, who was very
bright and talented but also a hard drinker, got in trouble with the law at an
early age and was given a choice of either the military or jail. He picked the military.
In 1961, the Air Force moved us all to Leicester, England,
at the same time dad was “traveling around Europe.” Throughout my younger years I often had the feeling my vanquished
father was watching me from the shadows.
Once in the mid-60’s while living in Wiesbaden, Germany I stopped dead
while playing basketball on the school’s outdoor court, convinced that I “felt”
his presence nearby.
My mother and stepfather used to argue about money all the
time. Wes took in my mom’s first three
kids and they had three more together – the large combined family barely
getting by on an enlisted man’s pay.
Like a true Mainer, Wes could fix anything and worked many nights
repairing people’s cars to bring in extra cash. But even with that
extraordinary effort mom still hounded him about money. I began having horrible nightmares where an
evil little man came to me demanding “money, money, money” or else he would
kill me. I woke up crying and would go
downstairs and sit between the feuding couple and tell them about my
dream. For the moment they’d stop their
money-wars and my peacemaking task
would be over for the night. But their
fights continued, and so did my bad dreams.
So I don’t think I ever lacked ambition, I just didn’t have
the killer instinct that is often seen as a positive trait in our overly
competitive dog-eat-dog American culture.
I didn’t want to “make money off other people’s misery” – or put another
way I didn’t “want to be miserable making money”. I am now convinced that my dad, in those first two years of my
life, had a profound spiritual impact on me.
In 1984 while living in Orlando I had a dream one
night. There was a knock on the door
and when I opened it a man stood there with a book in his hand. “Are you Bruce Gagnon,” he asked? Yes I replied. “Your father just died,” he told me. “He wanted you to have this book.”
Two weeks later, in the real world, the phone rang. When I answered it a woman on the other end
asked me a familiar question, “Are you Bruce Gagnon?” “Yes” I replied. “Your
father died two weeks ago. I was
married to him the last eight years of his life. You should come to Tucson to pick up his things.”
My two older sisters and I went to Tucson and began to learn
about our mystery man father. He met
his wife at a senior citizen dance and was the citywide shuffleboard
champion. She gave me his
trophies. He had lived in Latin America
for some time. He told his wife about
his three kids but made excuses for having no contact with them. She said I looked like dad, walked like him,
laughed like him, and more.
When my son Julian was still a baby, during pre-language
time, I showed him a brick wall in an alley teeming with bug life. In that moment I realized that we were
communicating on a level beyond language.
He understood everything I was saying to him. I figure that my father and I had experienced the same kind of
connection – a spiritual bond.
I obviously rejected the traditional route with my
life. After being treated like an
expendable number, and feeling like a prisoner while serving in the Air Force
during the Vietnam War, I was looking for meaning beyond dollar signs and other
such status symbols like cars, expensive houses, and fancy job titles.
All my life I’ve been striving for something that seemed
more real to me. I remember that one of
my sisters once said to me, “I hope you find what you are looking for.” Upon reflection I have to say that I
have. It’s a peace of mind. I found a life where I am a free agent –
free to think for myself, and most importantly free to speak and act, as I feel
compelled by my conscience. No amount
of money could every replace that kind of freedom.
In many ways I have to thank my dad for that gift.