My father, Harold Melvin Wernick, was born in 1917 and lived through two wars, as well as the great depression. A tall and sporty man with a shark grin and a mischievous twinkle in his baby blues, he was single into his forties and had a treasure chest filled with photographs telling tales of his bachelor life. From skiing in Switzerland with one gorgeous woman, and sailing in the Netherlands with another, he was quite the eligible playboy. But romancing multiple women at a time came to a dead stop when he met our mother, Nicolette Atlas.
At the age of nineteen, Nicolette, nicknamed Nicky, had just flown from her life in England to work for a division of Brevitt Shoes in the Empire State Building in New York City. A huge departure from the elegant American women that Harold had been showering with affection, Nicky was different from the others. There were no pretensions with this one. Very young and naive from her sequestered childhood, and deeply homesick for Gerta who was still back in England, she was his biggest challenge. For Nicky, Harold, with his American charm, adoration, grace and adventurous spirit, was unlike anybody she had ever encountered before and he awakened her to a luxurious and vital world of adventure and travel, but he was not the only man after her affections and he had to work hard on Arthur and Gerta to win her over.
Gerta, who was also a strong and positive force in my mother’s life, when she was well, was the one who convinced Nicky that marrying Harold was the right path to take. Not only did he have beautiful long black silky eyelashes which would make for beautiful children, and grandchildren (which of course was most important), he was a strong, funny and confident man. He was also the antithesis of my mother; grounded, solid, straightforward and charging through life with a purpose. On a rainy day in June they wed and my mother wept, begging to spend the first two days of their honeymoon with Gerta. My father, love-struck and confused by her behavior, consented.
Then we came, the three daughters, and it didn’t take Harold long to recognize that he was deeply in over his head with a young wife half his age and three baby girls that his traditional upbringing would never allow him to relate to.
My sisters and I as well as our mother, consistently pushed him over his threshold with our rambunctiousness tomboy behaviors, always finding the noisiest activity to engage with, from singing from the album Jesus Christ Superstar at the top of our lungs, to parading through the house as a marching band, smashing together the largest and noisiest pots and pans, or wrestling and tumbling throughout the house, and throughout the upscale resorts of Europe that we visited in our travels.
My mother never wanted to leave her daughters behind at camp and so summers were spent traveling all together on luxurious vacations planned by our father. We stayed at the “poshest” (Harold’s favorite expression) resorts in Europe; The Waldhaus in Sils-Maria in Switzerland, Marbella, Capri, St. Tropez, Zermatt, Barcelona, Ramatouelle, we lived the lives of princesses in an enchanted, but also often tempestuous world.
I believe now that Harold felt like an outsider in a young female world, and it would sometimes get the best of him, tipping him over the edge when we least expected it from something innocent that we were doing like wrestling a bit too much and spilling our Tortellini Soup, or not finishing our Strawberry Shortcake. The female harmony would be broken by his unleashing his temper upon us, standing up and waving his arms as he shouted at the ridiculousness of our behavior, usually embarrassing us to tears as the patrons of the upscale restaurants stared in pity and disbelief. But every fairy-tale has its dark side, or it wouldn’t be a fairy-tale.
As teens, we didn’t tolerate his turbulent intrusions, and were either adding fuel to his fire by shouting back, or escaping from his tirades with our friends, and our pints of blackberry brandy, into our coveted woods to drink away the pain and seek comfort from the bottle … and our male friends who were there to support us.
With time came the understanding that our father’s frustrations lay not only with us but also with our mother who lived for her children, and her friends. At times, we pitied him for living on his own island amidst a sea of women. At other times, he reeled those of us of whom he had pushed away back in by making us laugh until we cried with his charm and witty humor. If only my mother had slipped him that little blue pill earlier on in life, he would have been better equipped to make light of the frustrations that he endured being a father of three girls and a husband to a wife who forever remained an enigma to him.
Oblivious to the fact that we all shut his noise out as best we could by escaping to other worlds, or leaving the house, he’d lecture us for not being serious about life. “Life is not about having fun,” he’d bellow animatedly with his hands. This advice coming from a man who did not settle down until his forties, was very hard to take seriously. If life wasn’t all about fun than why did he marry a women twenty-one years his junior?