Relationships Are Complicated: Especially by conversion

My relationship with my father was complicated.

In death as in life.

Most of us have experienced challenging twists and turns in relationships. Today, I’m starting this three-part series, inviting you to think of your own family, to talk with your own friends about this—and to let me know what you think.

Dad, a navigator, returned from World War II having survived 32 bombing missions over Germany. He joined his father Walter in business, helping run Multi Color, the blueprint company started by his late mother Mollie (famed architect Albert Kahn’s sister).  In 1956, Walter and his second wife Stella were killed in a United Airlines mid-air plane collision over the Grand Canyon.

Dad struggled to run the company by himself. Business was tough. Dad didn’t feel supported by Judaism or Jewish businessmen.

When I was 15 and he was 40, Dad told Mom, me and my 12-year-old sister Anne that he was seeking a new religion. It was 1959. I gave Dad’s announcement little thought. I attended Kingswood School Cranbrook, a private girls school where classmates’ fathers ran giant car companies. I was a social outlier—invited to day students’ bigger parties, but not their more intimate gatherings. I was more concerned about the sluggish pace of my chest development and conjugating French verbs.

Dad’s conversion was vivid. While on a business trip in 1959, Dad stayed at a California motel. He picked up a Gideon’s Bible and literally saw Jesus. The vision inspired him to become Christian. Seriously Christian. I had expected Dad to choose something mild, like Unitarianism. I was unprepared for his dive into Catholicism.

Our Jewish circle was aghast. I pretended it was no big deal. Privately, I was mortified.

Dad and Mom fought often. His conversion widened the distance. They separated, got back together, separated again and finally divorced. Dad met and married Margaret, a Catholic school teacher. They attended Mass together, joined a prayer group. I’d see cross-emblazoned leaflets on the seat of his car. They gave me, as I said at the time, “the creeps.” But Dad was happy with his leaflets, Margaret and their Catholic life together.

At 69, Dad suffered metastasized colon cancer. During his painful last months, I visited him at the condo he and Margaret shared at Wabeek in Bloomfield Hills, MI. I was busy as the mom of young boys, wife of an entrepreneur and journalist. On one visit, I tried to distract Dad by telling him about my activities.

He said, “In the end, none of that really matters. What matters is your relationship with God.”

It would take a few more years and disappointments to help me see the truth of Dad’s words. At the time, I felt glad my father found such comfort but disappointed he didn’t care more about my achievements. Dad died soon after that visit. Radiation had burned a painful hole in his abdomen. I was relieved he wouldn’t suffer any longer.

Dad’s funeral was filled with Godsigns. But since son David insists brevity is the soul of blog posts, I’ll share the rest of the story in two further posts—coming September 8 and 15.

(Family relationships are fertile ground for Godsigns stories.  I’d love to hear yours.)

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2 thoughts on “Relationships Are Complicated: Especially by conversion

  1. mickey fine

    I know you know all of the above. I did find reading this most interesting. I remember vividly my Mom telling us about her brother. Her reaction was interesting if I remember it correctly. “If this makes him happy, so be it, his happiness comes first!! Your Dad was my favorite uncle so i have very positive memories of him. Your write so beautifully so I love reading whatever you have to offer. Love ya

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Thanks, Mickey. Family history and its lasting influence are fascinating. We all have stories. I love hearing and relating them.

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