Episode 1: INTRODUCTION
Audio & Transcript
Jessica H: When I told my 26 year old daughter Elizabeth that I was doing a podcast that would tell the the real story of the Harper family, she said:
Elizabeth: Really? You're going to get a bunch of WASPs to talk about themselves?
Jessica H: I know, it sounds challenging but listen to what my 96 year old mother said when I asked her if she'd like to participate. So do you want to do a podcast?
Eleanor H: Oh if I ever knew what it was I'd love to do a podcast. I think it's such a funny name. Podcast.
Jessica H: (singing)
I'm Jessica Harper and this is Episode 1 of WINNETKA. Until just a few years ago I thought I knew our story. I knew that it started when my ancestors William White on my father's side and William Bradford on my mother's were bunk mates on the Mayflower and I knew that generations later in 1946 my parents were married and eventually settled their growing family in Winnetka, a Chicago suburb that was popular with many white Anglo-Saxon broad Protestants who were also descendants of hotshot pilgrims.
I also knew that my siblings and I grew up in Eisenhower's post-World War Two America and that our parents and their peers were called The Greatest Generation. The men burst out of the military to ride an economic boom. My father becoming an advertising giant in the Mad Men era. While mom like most women we knew stayed home and created a boom of her own popping out six children in eight years. I knew that life seemed good back then. Sure looks that way when you look at my family photo albums. There's that picture of Dad at the train station with his fedora and his briefcase work ethic on full display. There's mom at the stove singing while she mashes potatoes. And there we are all six kids in a row wearing striped t-shirts and waving American flags. But I also knew that there was much that those pictures didn't capture. In our WASPy town and in our own home the surface was glossy and scenic as ice on a lake. But there were times when that surface would crack, break apart and reveal a chilling darkness below. I knew all this but the thing I didn't know until decades later after we left Winnetka and childhood behind was just how deep that darkness went. My father's death in 2013 triggered a series of revelations that rewrote what I had thought was the story of the Harper family.
Old Marine: Paul Harper. United States Marine Corps. Departed.
Jessica H: Like an expert maître d' arranging an oversized dinner napkin, an old Marine folded an American flag into a snug triangle. He did this while another old Marine played taps on a trumpet. And while these actions drew tears from even the most hard hearted of the dozens of people present, my mother remained dry eyed as the flag was handed to her. I wondered about this. After all the occasion was the funeral of my father Paul Harper who had been a Marine himself in World War Two and also my mother's husband of 67 years. Maybe she was just shell shocked. Or maybe it was something else.
We were gathered at the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme Connecticut. The town mom and dad had made their home for 30 years or so. The church is all white wood with a proper steep on rigid pews. It was founded in 1665 so it goes way back but then so do the Harpers. In fact it's possible that an ancestor of ours may have knelt in the very same pew where my mother was sitting. Mom was flanked by 14 grandchildren, all millennials. The handful of great grandchildren had been left at home and Mom's children, the baby boomers, sat up on the dais taking turns eulogizing Dad.
Lindsay H: Hi I'm Lindsay. And today is Dad's 93rd birthday.
Diana H: My name is Diana Harper. Thank you so much for coming.
Jessica H: My name's Jessica. It was suggested that each of us talk about something that we were grateful to dad for.
Charlie H: My name is Charlie Harper, the favorite son.
Sam H: I'm Sam Harper, my brother Billy unfortunately could not be here today.
Jessica H: My twin brother Billy couldn't be there that day because his wife was having critical surgery back in Chicago. But as a tribute he sent along a piece of music from an opera that he had composed, an opera which intriguingly tells the story of a young man's fraught relationship with his father.
Jessica H: Billy is not only a composer but also a professor and a photographer. Sam is a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Charlie is a minister and an addiction counselor. Diana is an elder in a Christian community in Alaska. And Lindsay is a brilliant artist and illustrator. And then there's me, an actor for 40 years or so, even once upon a time a movie star. I don't think you'd know to look at us that among us are two recovering alcoholics and an ex coke head, that between us there are seven broken marriages and a couple of illegitimate children and we all have character traits that don't serve us well. Plus thanks to quirky Harper genetics three of us are going blind.
Lindsay H: On my 30th birthday Dad made me a cake. I did a little bit of casual research and I discovered that this was the only cake that Dad ever made in his lifetime.
Sam H: His humor was based on love of language and what I call a deep appreciation for the catastrophic. Last winter he barely survived a bout of pneumonia and he called me and said "Why Sam I was halfway to the cannery."
Diana H: My father left a trail of journals, articles, books, paintings, photographs and there was still more to know.
Charlie H: My mother's middle name is Stores and my father's middle name is Church and it is said together they make a town. I don't know about that but for all of us they've made a wonderful life. Thank you Dad for bringing so much color into our lives.
Lindsay H: Dad. Happy birthday.
Charlie H: Let us join together in the spirit of prayer.
Jessica H: I had struggled to come up with a eulogy for my father that was both honest and positive, things that are often said on such occasions like I was daddy's little girl or his kindness and generosity knew no bounds or he was my knight in shining armor. None of those were remotely suitable and besides he would have snorted and such sentimentality. Finally I spoke about the first time Dad took me to an art museum. It was a benign enough story. I polished it up some, putting a little shine on it as one tends to do at funerals as I figured other speakers would do and they did. Together we presented a picture of a man who was admired and beloved and he was. But I knew as we all did that the truth was much more complicated. And as I sat and listened to my family tell their variations on familiar anecdotes sprinkled with kind words and hyperbole darker versions of some of those stories popped in my memory.
This was especially true when my niece Siobhan described a game that dad used to play with me and my siblings and later with her when we were little enough to sit on his shoulders. Siobhan put a spin on it that was strikingly different from what others of us remember.
Siobhan: Some of us call it the octopus hole. He calls me to the edge of the pool with "Sit on my shoulders." Climbing there I hold onto his outstretched hands and we wade in. "We gotta be careful", he says, "there might be an octopus down there. Hold on. You never know when they'll come out. Don't look down. Step, step, step."
Jessica H: Dad's shoulders were broad and strong providing a solid seat for a five or six year old. I'd hold on tight as I could my little hands wrapped desperately around his head. He'd walk slowly into the water just like Siobhan said, step step. But he played this game with Siobhan in a wussy shallow swimming pool the bottom of which was clearly visible while in our day we were death marching into Lake Michigan all green and murky. For all we knew there was some creature lurking beneath.
Siobhan: You never know what might be lurking, what might be there to snatch us, to pull us to the bottom, step step step.
Jessica H: So we'd wade out to where the water was over our heads, up to Dad's chin say, and then suddenly he'd exclaim "There he is" or "Thar she blows" or just "Daah." And as I frantically held my breath he'd take both of his down way down under to meet our fate at the hands or the tentacles of that damned octopus.
Siobhan: And down we'd go plunging into a hole that has opened up at the bottom of the pool. I'd hold my breath just in time and we'd both come up spluttering and laughing. The danger isn't real. I am safe.
Jessica H: Dad would keep us underwater for ages and then he'd pop up and I'd be so relieved not to have been eaten by an octopus or squid or some other amphibious killer. But mostly I was relieved that this awful game was over and I could run back to the beach and curl up in the warm sand next to my cozy mother.
Siobhan: And of course I want to do it again and again.
Jessica H: And of course I never ever wanted to do it again and I wasn't the only one.
Charlie H: Sometimes he would hold me too long under the water and I would be frightened and come up screaming and grafting for breath. Once when I came up I came up screaming and crying and he looked at me with a look of disgust and he picked me up and threw me hard toward the shore. I remember feeling that shame and a lot of hurt but also that I had disappointed him in some significant way. The truth was I didn't know whether or not he would ever let me up for air. There seemed to be a strain to him holding me under the water that was disproportionate to my struggle and so underneath I was overcome with fear.
Jessica H: So a game that was delightful to my niece was a nightmare for my brother and to me it was emblematic of what it was like growing up with my father. One misstep and you could be pulled down under to a place that was cold and scary, perhaps even unsafe. But we Harpers often recall our common experiences differently. Memory is tricky after all, it can morph over time, we can forget details or we cherry pick them and events get re-imagined. So as I recount our history here my take on it may not align with others but I am bound in my narrative by a piece of that history that my brother Sam discovered only after Dad's funeral and that none of us can change, misremember, mitigate or deny but I wish to hell we could.
Sam H: A few years before he died my father took me into his office and showed me a little pewter cup where he kept a key that opened a file cabinet in his office that he always kept locked. And he said to me "Everything you need to know is in that file cabinet." A few days after he died I returned to his office and I went to the shelf and I pulled that pewter cup down and I pulled the key out and it was odd. It really felt like the office was holding its breath until I opened that file cabinet. That sent a real chill down my spine. So then I opened the drawer and there was a green folder that said family history. And in that thin file was something that was completely startling, something totally unexpected. Information about our family that I just had no idea even existed.
Jessica H: And I'll tell you much more about that in upcoming episodes of WINNETKA.