COURAGE. WHAT IS IT? WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? ARE HERO’S BORN OR MADE? My father was my hero for all my growing up years, his feet got a little muddy at one point, but never enough to pull him from his elevated position in my heart, and fortunately, another man set me straight about the muddy feet. His obituary described him as “a sweet man.” That he was. I never met a person who didn’t like him, but it is easy to be liked, and more than liking those who knew my father admired and respected him as a man of rare integrity.
The various facts I know about him are probably as much myth as fact. But they are the story of his life as I know it. He was born on September 20, 1903 or 1899 in Salisbury, MD to a farming family. I think the farm may have been on Zion Bruce Road. At least that is where one of his sisters–my Aunt Nora lived when I was sent to spend the summer or part of the summer in her care. She had an old plow horse, and hitched a plow bridle to him, so I could ride bare-back up and down the rows of corn. No saddle and a bony withers, but I loved horses and as sore as my bottom got, riding him was the highlight of my vacation. I suspect I was about seven or eight.
That summer, I met some cousins, I never met again and embarrassed them terribly by sitting in the back of the bus. At the time, segregation was strong in southern Maryland, but totally alien to me and that fact that we had to sit separately instead of as group baffled me. I just didn’t get what segregation was all about.
As African Americans with the surname Gordy abounded there, it seems clear to me now that among the family many were slave-holders. Something my father would have been ashamed of. I know that because when my father and mother came to New York to meet David, my father took me aside and said:
“I’m ashamed that I need to ask this, but I need to be prepared. Is your young man of African descent.” That he confessed this as a weakness made me love him all the more. In his family prejudice was seen as a reasonable response to race and religion. When I said, “David is a Jew,” he seemed relieved and again apologized for his “weakness.”
My mother was not relieved. For a long time she tried to make believe Levine was really the French LaVine, and she posted pictures of Jesus as the Son of God in a number of rooms around her home. Something new once David entered my life. She was not prejudiced against Negroes as called by her. I think the main nurturing figures in my mother’s difficult childhood were likely the “Darkies” as my grandmother called the family servants.
My father was the first and only son; he had three older sisters. His father died when he was two; his mother when he was twelve. One legacy of his childhood was that while he didn’t care if either of my brothers went to college, he planned college for me. That plan wastransmitted by osmosis for it was simply a fact I accepted as did my mother and two brothers. My mother had wanted to go to art school, but her father would only pay of she went to law school. My father had completed a year at Temple University, but then had apparently run through the small inheritance he had received from his parents. I was the one to fulfill those unfinished dreams. In today’s overly psychological world that would be frowned upon, but it served me well.
Mom met Dad when was attending her father[s swearing-in as a judge. Judge John Martin Broomall III was part of the small town aristocracy that I called home during my growing up years. When my parents met she was 19 and he was 25, possibly older. He was engaged to a “red head’ and was working as a reporter for either the Chester Times or the Philadelphia Record. My mother’s story is that she knew from the minute she saw him, his name was John, they were going to marry and have three children: two boys named respectively John Hamilton Gordy and Thomas Larkin Gordy, then a daughter to be named Katherine Vaughan Gordy. She got her way, they married on April 19, 1929. My brother John was born November 27, 1930; my brother Tommy September 29, 1934 and I came along on March 21, 1937. The brothers were clearly my mother’s favorite, that was okay for my father adored his “Curly headed cowgirl” as he called me–I was bald until I was almost four, but what did that matter to me then or now.
The marriage was an elopement; I was told they married at Elkton, the newspaper announcement says Chestertown, Maryland. The wedding announcement spelled his name as John Gourdy, said he was 25 and was born in Accomac County, Virginia. The obituary also noted that Dad had published several short stories under the name of Basil Stevens and was writing a novel.
My brother John says our father claimed to be born in Virginia because he was ashamed of being a “Maryland dirt farmer,” and was probably 29, not 25. but most likely was also ashamed of his age and feeling he was robbing the cradle. But how he loved her. She loved him fiercely and loyally, but just a bit less than he loved her. Their hopes were high when they married, but they never were able to buy their own home and money was always tight.
Moreover, my father was not the stuff my mother-in-law expected to welcome into the family. She was not a particularly nice woman and I suspect she suffered from Bi-Polar Disorder. My father bore her snobbishness well and with grace. When she needed a home after several years of widowhood, our home was where she lived. Perhaps her dependence on him reinforced his belief I had to go to college.
He explained to me at one point, “A woman needs the protection of an education. She might need to support herself at some point, and cannot do as a man does; men can always get some sort of job.”
That was a particularly enlightened point of view for the times. Half of my high school classmates married upon completing their senior years. Those few who went off to college joked about getting their Mrs and not a BA. I attended 20 weddings my Senior Year of College and was the only “Old Maid” in my group of 25 friends who had roomed together all four years. As I was finally getting married many of my high school friends and a few college friends were getting divorced. Sending me to college caused great financial pressure on my family. I didn’t know then what pressure or what a difference a college education would mean to me. I am grateful and hope in the years of his life that followed my graduation from college and eventually in getting my Master’s Degree made him proud.
The Gordy line stretches back to a Moses Gordy. Our family story was that he was sailor shipwrecked off the coast of Maryland in the late 16oos. The Gordy Line eventually spread out across the United States. There are relatives upon relatives I don’t know.
For a few years, I did not think my father’s life was one of success. We were middle class, but poorer than many of my mother’s friends. A man I dated briefly in New York straightened me out. This was a man who was at least 15 years my senior. He courted me and wanted me to have his baby. He wanted a child, but not to get married. I am sure I would have lived quite well as he was wealthy. We only had a few dates before he told me what he wanted. We parted friends when I said “No thank you.”
I don’t remember his name, I do have a vague memory of what he looked like, and a very clear memory of what he said about my father.
We were dining at one of New York’s more elegant restaurants. I suspect it was the Plaza as I recollect there being horses and carriages stationed across the street. I had said some thing that my father had not been a successful man.
“Did you have enough food to eat?”
” Yes, always.”
“Did the rent get paid?”
“Did he love your mother?”
” Yes, with all his heart”
“Did he love you and your brothers?”
“Yes, and my brothers gave him grief, but the love kept going.”
“Did he beat your mother, your brothers,or you?”
“He took a belt to my brothers twice. He hated doing it, and was at my mother’s urging.”
“Did they hate him for it?” “No, they knew they deserved it.”
“Was he hard working?”
“Was he kind?”
“Yes, everyone who knew him loved him. ”
“Was he honest?”
“Sounds like a hero to me. You are young and more sheltered than you know. You have no idea how hard life is and how much courage it takes to stay honest and caring. Treasure your father, he was a bigger success than most I know with wealth.”
Now I know how hard life can be and how many life blows my father faced and met and moved beyond. Just has I never met any one who had could say anything nasty about him; I never heard him say anything nasty about another person.
He did say at one time: “I don’t have no time for anger or bitterness, life evens things out so, I let life take care of those who have hurt me. I have been luckier than most and am grateful for that. .”
Yes, my father was a hero, a man of courage. I am thankful that my wise friend passed briefly through my life and straightened me out. I am sad my children and grandchildren did not have the honor of knowing my father. My nephews and nieces were luckier and I know appreciated his presence in their lives. He was a wonderful a grandfather as a father.
The question of the day also asks where courage comes from. I think it is neither inborn, the result of parental training, or the general social enviorment. I think all three play a part. I also think all humans are born to try to do the right thing as best we can. Many of us fail, but my father did all that was expected of him and more. I am lucky to have been his daughter.