With only 15 months between my brother, Dr. Richard French Edlich and I, we grew up more like twins. More than a year ago, his son, also named Richard, asked me to start writing down memories of my growing up. I have been pretty much preoccupied with my book for the last two years and have not had the time to give his request much consideration – that, and the fact that so many of my memories of growing up were ones that I would just as well forget. Nevertheless, this particular blog was written because he requested it.
Unlike many families, including the family of my first wife, Janet Sutton, the mother of four of my five children, my family had embraced the nuclear family model of father, mother and immediate children as what family was all about. We were really all that mattered. This was truer of my dad than mother. Suffice it to say that there were no annual family reunions for those in the family of Theodore Julius Edlich, Jr., other than when the five of us gathered around the table for dinner.
My recollections of Dad’s side of the family are scant. His father, Theodore J. Edlich, Sr. was the son of German immigrants. My grandfather was an enterprising young man. As a child in his early teens, he made a shoe shine kit and shined shoes in lower Manhattan. He then realized he could make more money by making shoe shine boxes and selling or renting them to others. He was to fall head over heels in love with a woman of Swedish decent of a higher socio-economic class. When he graduated as a Pharmacist, it still was not good enough for her. To meet her standards, he then went on to earn a medical degree as a member of the second graduating class of Cornell University Medical School.
Grandad practiced medicine on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He and his family, a wife, son and daughter, lived in a three-floor brownstone building on the east side of Manhattan. His medical office was on the first floor, the second floor was reserved for his family, and the upper floor became the residence of his daughter, Marguerite, and her husband, Harold Volmer. The Volmers had two sons, Harold and Bobby. I recall as a very young boy going there to celebrate Thanksgiving.
I do not have much recollection of Grandad Edlich. In my earlier years, he was gone during our family get-togethers. I assume that he was out making house calls. What I learned about him was from my father’s telling. Grandad Edlich had made quite a lot of money prior to the depression of the thirties. The figure of half a million dollars comes to mind – which, at that time, was a small fortune. He was also, according to rumor, quite a dandy with an eye for the ladies. Most of his fortune was in stock, and the collapse of the economy during the Great Depression left him with little, although some of the stock that he hung on to recovered years later. He would leave my brothers and I some money to pay a portion of our college expenses. His profession as a doctor saw his family through during the worst of times.
My recollections of my grandmother are spotty. I remember her being a rather large, cultured woman. She did teach me at a young age to drink tea with cream and sugar. She also enjoyed playing the piano. One of the obligatory ceremonies when we went to their house was that she would play the piano while my brother and I and our two cousins dressed up with paper soldier hats and marched around the apartment to the melodies of great composers. It was a rather bizarre sight that seemed to please her greatly.
The last time we visited, young Harold and I got into a knock-down, drag-out fight. I am not sure who started it, although it could well have been me. I had a bad temper as a kid. I remember the adults bounding up the stairs to find out what the screaming was about, then our visit was over.
Years later, my grandparents would move to Manhasset, Long Island with Marguerite, Harold Volmer, Sr. and the two boys. Harold became the Manager of a local A&P and supported his family.
I do not have much recollection of my grandfather until after my grandmother’s death. We children did not attend the funeral. Grandad would move to New York City where my Dad put him up in a hotel apartment a few blocks from where we lived at Number One Fifth Avenue. I remember visiting him there. He was a lonely man, 80 years of age, who just sat in front of a TV. All the life had vanished from his face and personality. The only time he seemed very important to my parents was when he and his caregiver decided to get married. Then my parents sprang into action. The caregiver was fired and he returned to the companionship of his TV. He and I never had a conversation. When he died the children did not attend his funeral either.
Harold was a regular guy. When we visited in Manhasset, we would bring our baseball mitts and he would hit fly balls for us to field. Since this was something my dad would never consider worth his time, the experience stood out and I looked forward to our occasional visit. Marguerite was a lovely woman, a very caring person. It was clear that she and my dad cared for each other, although I got the sense that he considered Harold, her husband, socially beneath him. Marguerite referred to my dad as the “little prince” of the family – A role I think he never quite got over.
Young Harold was a brilliant student. There was some talk of his becoming a writer, but instead he joined the army and served in the intelligence corps. He never returned home, and Marguerite would never hear from him again. He may have joined the CIA and been killed overseas. Perhaps, he broke with the very conservative opinions of his dad about life. I have wondered what happened to him. I wonder if he discovered that he was gay and never looked back. Like everyone else, I have no answers. Just questions! Bobby would graduate with an MSW and pursue a lifelong career as a substance abuse therapist. He was very close to his mother and looked after her. I liked him.
My mother, Virginia Davison Bargerhuff, grew up in the little town of New Martinsville, West Virginia. Her Dad, French Bargerhuff, was a carpenter. Her mother, Ora, was a small woman of immense energy and strong opinions. Mom’s brother, Gene, said that she could feed a family for a year on nothing but hundred pound sacks of rice and beans. Mom was the oldest of four, all of whom would stretch their wings far beyond the little town of New Martinsville. Mom would travel to New York City where she would receive a nursing degree from Presbyterian Hospital and marry a doctor, my dad. Mother, according to her brother, would stay in constant contact with her siblings. She was the glue to hold them together in spite of the geographic distances between them.
Ivabelle, one of her sisters, would join the Waves and earn a degree in occupational therapy. She would go on to teach at Mills College. One of her colleagues was Timothy Leary before he became a leader in the LSD movement. Belle, another sister, would marry a dermatologist, Barney, who would become one of the leaders in Kaiser Parmanente, one of the first HMOs in the U.S. Later, Belle and Barney would move to Napa Valley and own a vineyard. Belle was later recognized as one of the connoisseurs of wine tasting and wine ratings in California.
Alice, the youngest sister, attended secretarial school, and would become the Secretary to the President of the National Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Alice was married for a short time to Charlie, who returned from Korea, having lost a leg and gained a serious alcohol addiction. Alice and Charlie would divorce and Alice would struggle with alcohol for a time.
Gene was the youngest child and the only boy. He was just 11 years older than I was. I remember visiting New Martinsville when he was in high school. He had little to do with my brother, Dick, and me. He was far more concerned with football practice. Gene would later serve in the military in Korea. The only touchy situation that he ever talked about was when he drove his jeep into a manure pit of human waste that was collected for use as fertilizer. He returned from Korea and attended Marshall University in West Virginia under the G.I Bill. Gene graduated and had a successful career at the head of a company that gained contracts to spray the foliage on the sides of railroad tracks so that they did not become a safety factor for the railroad companies. Gene married Betty, and when it appeared that Betty could not conceive, they adopted their son John. As soon as John was a member of the family, Betty was pregnant with Jeff. A few years later, Betty bore Gene another son. He was a darling boy with a very low voice and beautiful eye lashes. When he was around five years old, he climbed over the fence around their pool in Atlanta and drowned in the pool. I remember attending that funeral. It was a very sad affair. At Marshall College there is still a scholarship to help students in the name of Gene R. and Betty Bargerhuff. Of all men in my family, my Uncle Gene is the man I most admired. He was a man’s man. His favorite saying was, “When it’s too tough for everyone else, it’s just fine for me!” At the age of 65 he developed inoperable brain cancer. I attended that memorial service as well. Betty said that when Belle came to visit just before he died, he insisted in carrying Belle’s luggage up the stairs even though he was unsteady on his feet.
I loved Mom’s family. I would visit Belle and Barney between my junior and senior years in college while I attended a leadership program at Pacific School of Religion. They had a wonderful house high up on the hills of Berkley, California. From the room-length window of their living room, one could see the lights of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island and Alcatraz. We would spend the evening drinking from the best wines of their collection and smoking cigars. Barney and I would smoke the small flavored cigars while the beautiful Belle would smoke one of Winston Churchill’s mammoth stogies.
The best summer of our lives was spending a summer with Ora and French Bargerhuff, my grandparents. We ran with the neighborhood kids and created a baseball team that would compete without coaches with other neighborhood teams in pickup games. We would swim at the community pool every day, and Grandmother would see that we bathed in the basement washtubs. During our stay we were the proud owners of two puppies, Sport and Rookie, that followed us everywhere. We were crushed at the end of the summer when we were told that we could not bring them home with us.
I had a great deal of respect for my grandfather. He was a quiet and kind man. At six foot two with a lean, muscular build, he could do most anything. He was patient with us kids. When we rolled up some corn silk in a piece of paper, he was glad to oblige us with a light. Until, of course, Ora caught him in the act and blessed him out. There was no question that Ora ran the house. However, when pressed, French made it clear he had his limits. During our stay Ora went on and on about how the washing machine was not working correctly until French, without a word, fetched the largest crow bar from his truck with which to solve the problem once and for all. Ora quickly planted herself between French and the offending machine, assuring that things were not quite as bad as she had made out. He worked until in his eighties, when he fell off a roof that he was repairing. He lived to 88. Ora lived on to her late eighties as well.
There is no question that I grew up a child of privilege. My mother and dad were hard working parents concerned for the welfare of their children. My father sustained a medical practice for most of his adult life, and ran an office that included nurses and medical technicians who operated his laboratory for standard tests including blood work and x-rays. Each month he would hand write his own bills to patients and keep his own books. My brothers and I did not want for a thing. My mother took over his practice with the help of another doctor while he was in the Coast Guard during the second world war. After bouncing around the North Atlantic for a couple of years, he would be the senior medical officer on a transport ship bringing troops back from France. Our mother saw that we went to the best schools and had tutors to help us with college entrance exams. My dad was beloved by his patients to whom he was dedicated. Whatever drawbacks there were to being a member of that nuclear Edlich family, I am well aware of the advantages that we had that so many other children would die for.
At the same time, living with Ted and Virginia Edlich was very much like it must have been to live with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Clearly the two of these adults were not “soul mates.” It was more like the war of the roses. Every opportunity for a good evening out was sabotaged before it got off the ground. It was common place for things to descend to yelling, screaming, and violence. When Virginia got mad, anything was likely to go airborne, including plates, dishes, and chairs. Dad would then retreat to another hotel, and Mother would track him down and call incessantly, keeping him from any means of permanent escape.
Mother would have four major abdominal operations to free a strangled intestine. The post-surgery adhesions would create the need for more surgeries. During this time she became addicted to Demerol and then alcohol. She was never able to quit smoking, although my father quit overnight when evidence of the carcinogens in tobacco became well identified. On many occasions, our parents would sit us down and ask us to decide which parent we wanted to go with as a result of an impending divorce that never took place. Frankly, Dad thought that my mother would be so convincing on the stand that she would take him to the cleaners.
It was up to Dick and I to save each other’s lives. Fortunately, we had other outlets that kept us from being at home. When we were younger we were sent to camps in the Adirondacks where we learned to swim, hike, camp, practice archery, and play ball. Later, we spent summers at our country estate in Glen Cove where we played Little League ball and spent most summer days on our outboard runabout water skiing in the Long Island Sound without supervision.
While Mother was easily identified as the perpetrator of many of the outbursts that made life unpredictable at best and hell at other times, I think that Dad significantly contributed to the conflagrations. Her protestations that he was involved with other women were exaggerated but not unfounded. In addition, Dad was sure that he was the smartest person in the room. It was clear that while he was a doctor, Mother was merely nurse. If there was a young minister visiting families who happened to drop by or a life insurance agent, Dad wanted everyone to know he knew more than anyone else. He even suggested that the only persons who should be referred to as “doctors” are those in the medical profession, clearly unaware that the notion of doctor came out of the ecclesiastical ranks far before modern medicine. Dad belittled our interest in sports, claiming that we had our brains in our feet rather than our heads. There is no question in my mind that Mother was the smarter of the two at a time when women were clearly considered inferior. She could refinish a bedroom set in a week, make a dinner dress in five hours, and redecorate a room with old antiques that she would put to a new use. She was an incredible hostess and the life of the party of an eclectic group of folks that would gravitate around her.
Neither Dad nor Mom were affectionate people. I can never remember being hugged as a child. I have one picture that I cherish of my mother holding me up as a baby as I walked in the water by a lake. My parents never attended any of our athletic events other than one game in which Dick and I were chosen to play on the Glen Cove All Star baseball team. I made a sensational catch of a line drive over my head at shortstop, participated in a double play that retired the side, threw out a player at home plate and was only one of two players on our team to hit the ball out of the infield. Dad was little impressed. If I did well in school it was because I was an Edlich. It was in my genes. If I did poorly it was, of course, my fault. My brother, Dick, said that his whole purpose of applying for a Ford Foundation grant for early admission to Lafayette College and getting me to apply as well was to get us out of this toxic situation. The fact that both my brothers had to find another father figure in Psychiatrist Doctor Kaufman is a good indication that, despite all our advantages, this was a seriously dysfunctional family.
My brother, Dick, died a couple years ago. As I was looking through my books I found a 1991 book of chaired professors at the University of Virginia. On page 245 is a picture of my kid brother, Richard F. Edlich, distinguished professor of plastic surgery, student at Lafayette College at age 15, early entrant to NYU Medical School at 18, doctor of medicine at 22. Dick earned a degree in Surgery and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. He was a world authority in wound healing, the author of six text books and over 500 scientific articles, and had numerous medical inventions including “steri-strips” for wound closing without sutures. He created the burn center and the modern emergency department at the University of Virginia, the Pegasus flight system, and the regional emergency medical system for much of Virginia. Dick was the recipient of dozens of awards including an award for being one of the outstanding alumnae of the University of Minnesota Medical School, the Commonwealth’s Council of Higher Education Outstanding Faculty Award in 1989 and the Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest academic honor presented by the University of Virginia, in 1991. He achieved most of this while under attack from MS from his mid-forties until his death at 75. All that time, I never once heard my dad celebrate my brother’s accomplishments without a grudging remark. I knew Dad never had much respect for my work. When I showed him a clipping from the Roanoke Times about the work of Total Action for Progress, his snide remark was “Well, you’re quite a politician!” When I read the list of my brother’s undeniably incredible accomplishments, I could not contain myself. I broke down in tears.
In the end, Dick and I had saved each other’s lives. I am deeply proud and immensely fortunate to have had him as my brother and incredibly important lifetime ally!
Ted's book, Navigating the Nonprofit Rapids: Tactics of Running a Nonprofit Company, will be released in April 2016. Pre-order your copy at writelife.com/shop.