My memoir, Under a Dark Eye, explores the forces of family, society and history – in particular, the Great Depression and World War II – that shaped the inner and outer lives of my parents.
Our Dunn family of four settled in Concord in 1948; my father, a veteran, after years of unemployment, in 1952 launched a mail-order business Duncraft, and my psychiatrist mother worked at the New Hampshire State Hospital. I wanted to know how my father became the damaged and damaging man my brother and I experienced as children.
Then I asked myself why my psychiatrist mother didn’t protect or “save” us from our father, and I embarked on exploring her life as well.
I assembled this memoir, in part a detective story, through research from censuses, newspapers, books, from my father’s war letters and journal, from memories, my poems, dreams, conversations and photographs. Ultimately I arrived at a compassionate vision of two individuals and their fateful marriage, and the legacies from each of them.
(Sharon Dunn will be at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on Sept. 13 at 5:30 p.m. to read from and discuss “Under a Dark Eye.”)
Years ago, summertime, I was house-sitting in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for a writer and her husband who had taken their young daughters to Spain for a month. I welcomed the family home in late evening and stayed one last night.
It was early, I was sipping coffee at the breakfast table, and the father and one of the two girls, she was about twelve, were talking in low tones at the kitchen sink. A window backlit them. They talked about ten minutes.
He listened to her closely, she was upset. Bending over, he answered her and he listened more. She cried, he said a few more words. Finally this father put an arm around his daughter, one hand behind her head, fingers woven through her dark hair, pressing her to his chest.
I was thirty years old and I did not know first hand that such a relation could exist between father and child. My heart clenched in longing. Soon the rest of the family made their entrances, ready for orange juice, toast, goodbyes. In a daze I loaded the car and headed out.
My father had died six years earlier. A tyrant at home, he seemed all-powerful because the lens of childhood magnifies. I never had a real conversation with him – and I was an adult when he died. I hated him for how he unceasingly disparaged my younger brother and disdained our mother all my childhood.
And I loved him – for his handsome face, his trim neatness in chinos and plaid shirts, for how good I felt when he approved of me – for my top grades, my subdued presence and continual effort to please him. Though I majored in English literature in college and landed my first job with a New York trade book publisher – on the way to my dream of being a book editor – I ended up working over 35 years with my brother in the business our father started in 1952 and ran alone until lung cancer overtook him in 1971.
During his life Duncraft was a one-man business that never made money; Mike and I grew it a hundredfold, built it into a stable local employer, profitable, with national sales and a national reputation. We credited our father as the founder of this success – this father who never had business success, and who had certainly never been a success as a father.
My father, as I knew him in the last third of his sixty-two years, had no friends. We lived on the grounds of the New Hampshire State Hospital in Concord, in a duplex brick house provided as part of my mother’s compensation as clinical director, the psychiatrist in charge of outpatient clinics for the entire state.
Most of the other husbands and fathers living in staff housing were psychiatrists, often with intellectual interests beyond their profession. In the immediate post World War II years the NHSH recruited physicians who were refugees from war-ravaged Europe – from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Ukraine, most fleeing the iron fist of the Soviet Union, many having suffering displacement or worse at the hands of the Nazis.
These doctors were multilingual, and they enjoyed ballet and opera in Boston with their families. My father had nothing in common with any of the physicians who were my mother’s colleagues.
Gilbert Dunn did not graduate from high school, was not a reader. How different it would have been for him socially, if he were, say, a lawyer with a practice in downtown Concord, or an engineer, or an architect or a teacher. He would have had a profession. Instead, his status was more or less the same as a housewife – and this was the late 1940’s, the early 1950’s, when it was men who worked, defined themselves by their work.
Our father spent those first four years in New Hampshire at home, in a basement workshop, trying to invent a product. He finally came upon an idea with promise – a bird feeding station that offered seed and water and clipped to a wooden windowsill for close-up viewing of backyard birds.
In 1952 he rented space seven miles away in a village called Penacook, where he worked alone, making his wooden bird feeders in his own small assembly line. He placed small advertisements in newspapers and magazines and began shipping orders. At least now he could say that he ran his own business.
But he knew that his one-man enterprise was struggling, that his wife’s salary financed it. Gil Dunn belonged to no clubs, no church. He fished alone. He went to work every morning, he came home every evening to read the newspaper, drink a highball, eat dinner, watch TV and go to bed.
Is it surprising our father ruled the household? His installation was partly because for so long he was the parent at home while our mother worked. My mother probably at first also thought that this man needed a place where he was “somebody.” However, he took over, in ways large and small, permanently so that the household pivoted around him and we obeyed his rules . . .
It was only when I myself was older than my father when he died, when I had retired after more than thirty years from the business my father started and ran for twenty years, that I could face the question of why my father was the irritable, critical, unhappy and negative man I knew.
Was working all those years and growing my father’s business my unconscious way of being close to him, even in death – when he could not be close to me in life, never listened to me, or dried my tears or held me to his chest with his large, freckled hands? And is my writing this a similar attempt at closeness? Perhaps.
But this is crucial: By the time I retired I had accomplished two unspoken missions. First, the success of the business redeemed our failed father, in my eyes, and, second, my brother was safe, ensconced in a work environment where he was thriving and appreciated.
Now I had the emotional energy, the drive, to investigate and reconstruct the life of this complex difficult man of whom I knew so very little and who had had such an impact on my entire life.
His genealogy, the times and events he lived through, his sorrows, his interests, even passions – these would shape a story, a fuller story of the life of Gilbert Dunn. I hoped finally to know my father.
(Sharon Dunn is author of two collections of poems, “Refugees in the Garden” and “My Brother and I.” For more than 35 years she was partner with her brother, Mike Dunn, in developing Duncraft into a national manufacturer and marketer of backyard bird specialties. “Under a Dark Eye” was published on May 5 by Texas Tech University Press.)