STIFLING PURITANS — Burk’s response to Father and Son

[NOTE — Burk sent the following to me via email and I am posting it here for him, Ron]

I hesitate to follow the eloquent childhood descriptions of my eminent book club associates. But fools rush in …….

My life owes its existence to the flu panpedemic in 1918. My mother’s first husband, Augustus Frederick Frick (Gus), was in the Army during WW 1 when he was struck down by the flu. When he died my mother was left with a young daughter and son and was living in a house in Caldwell, New Jersey owned by my grandfather; just up the hill from the birthplace of Grover Cleveland I do not know the timing but a few years later my dad, who had known my mother from their days in Brooklyn, and was a best friend of my mother’s oldest brother appeared on the scene. My dad, then a salesman for lace merchants in New York City (NYC) , had remained a bachelor into his late thirties. He, as the youngest of five brothers, had stayed home to take care of his parents till they died. Evidently, that kind of sacrifice was not uncommon back then. I think my dad may have been about forty when he married my mother and in 1925 I was born in Montclair, New Jersey where they had purchased a home. My sister was about 10 at the time and my brother was 8. Montclair is a commuter suburb about 18 miles west of NYC served then by the Erie and Lackawanna railroads. I was to be the only child of that marriage.

To place my life in the context of Father and Son I need to return to my parents roots in Brooklyn. Back in the late eighteen hundreds Brooklyn was a separate city not part of NYC and a very fashionable suburb. In 1898 it became one of the boroughs of NYC. My parents grew up in a very Puritan environment where they attended a Baptist church three times on a Sunday – morning, afternoon and night. On my mother’s side my grandfather was a printer in Manhattan and my dad’s father was in the ice business in Brooklyn with a partner named Frank Burk. My father was named Frank Burk Ketcham after that iceman partner and I became Frank Burk Ketcham Jr. What I never knew until after my parents death was that Frank Burk was a scoundrel who had absconded with the business revenues. It was one thing to have named my father after the guy before knowing he was bad news. But why my Puritan parents hung the name of a known ice man scoundrel on me defies understanding. That Puritan upbringing in Brooklyn meant no spirts ever, no smoking, no swearing and no fun and games on Sunday.

When my parents settled down in Montclair they became members of a Congregational Church which is a Protestant faith without strong dogma. But that Puritan upbringing of theirs dominated their lives and the lives of my half-siblings and me until we flew the coop. There never was a drop of spirts in the house till my dad was told by a doctor to have a daily glass of sherry late in his life. Sundays were miserable days with Sunday School followed by attendance at church in the morning and no fun or games the rest of the day. I never was interested in religion or the Bible teachings. But my brother and sister went on to become pillars of the Protestant churches they attended till their dying days. Sin was not thrust at us as Ron Powers has described but there was this stifling Puritanism that was ever hanging over my head. As Helen, my wife-to-be, once mentioned after meeting my parents for the first time, “It’s as if it’s a sin to live.” It’s a wonder she married me!

I too am a child of the depression. Shortly after my mother and dad married the lace business was in fast decline as far as women’s fashions were concerned and dad switched to selling life insurance for New York Life in NYC. His timing could not have been worse as when the depression hit in 1930 most people were more concerned with survival than buying life insurance. Times were tough and when I was about ten our home was taken over by the bank and we had to move to rental units over a store and elsewhere in Montclair. I think we moved about once a year until I graduated from high school and joined the Navy in 1943. A later in life very wealthy friend named Helen Roosevelt once asked me why we moved so often. I was not privy to that information but suppose it was an inability to pay the rent. It was obvious that times were hard as my mother brought in money sewing children’s dresses for rich families (including Bugsy Zwillman of Mafia fame) and making wedding veils. When I made money shoveling snow, cutting grass or caddying I turned over my earnings to mother. Presumably, my dad sold an insurance policy once in a while. I could overhear long heated arguments mostly about money. My brother and sister were lucky to escape most of that as they were off in college. Because of a scholarship program in New Jersey for the children of deceased WW 1 veterans they were able to get a college education with scholarships and on campus jobs. Many years later my sister told me that my parents were thinking of splitting but that never happened.

As it turned out I was the son of the wrong husband. My brother was the shining light in my mother’s eyes. Bob, as he was called must have been the reincarnation of Gus, his deceased dad. I was the son of the failure to provide for the family and was not expected to excel in any way. That combination of Puritanism, near poverty and low expectations was not a great fertilizer for growth. My dad seemed to bend over backward to be a fair father to all three of us children. My most favorable memories of my dad were the occasional Saturday trips to NYC to visit places like The Museum of Natural History followed by a meal at the Automat. Looking back it is apparent that my mother was the dominant member of the family. She only had an 8th grade education and my dad had graduated from a commercial high school in Brooklyn.

I do not look back on my childhood with any pleasure and this is the first and probably the last time I intend to write about it.

Finally, after finishing college courtesy of the US Navy and the GI Bill, I married Helen and escaped that stifling environment. Helen came from the other side of the tracks in Montclair and grew up in an entirely different environment. Her dad was a graduate of Cornell and Cornell Law School and her mother, as had Helen, graduated from Wellesley College. My Puritan parents probably thought the worst when I was courting Helen. After college Helen attended dramatic school in NYC and was in summer stock in the Catskills and had been on stage with Mae West in Diamond Lil. But Helen was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Burk Ketcham


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2013 Selections, Father and Son and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to STIFLING PURITANS — Burk’s response to Father and Son

  1. powersron says:

    Wonderful essay, Burk. You make your family come alive with your tender descriptions, especially of your mother and father. We, too, are the beneficiaries of your arrival in this world.

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