(explaining our family background to my son)
I said I know I lot more about Mom’s side and that’s because she loved her family and became a curator of warm memories. (BTW, Mom actually wrote a full autobiography, I’ll be happy to share it with you if you ever want.) Dad disliked his family and lacked curiosity about them overall.
My Dad was Richard Bruce Miller. He was born in New York in 1925 and died in Florida in 2005.
The two branches of the river that flow through Dad to me and to you, are the Eckermanns and the Muellers. The other two lines joining with them in the previous generation Were Berman and Vanderbeck. Supposedly we are part Jewish on the Berman side. I hope so. Vanderbeck was Dutch and apparently ran an ocean crossing steamboat company. Here they depart our story.
Your two great grandparents from this side were Joseph R. Mueller (soon after known as Joe Miller) and Dorothy (Dot) Eckermann.
Oddly enough, you may want to take a minute to read up on the German author/philosopher/human dynamo, Goethe (pronounced like ger-teh)
Because our most famous ancestor is (dipping into the wiki here) Johann Peter Eckermann (21 September 1792 – 3 December 1854), German poet and author, is best known for his work Conversations with Goethe, the fruit of his association with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe during the last years of Goethe’s life.
Eckermann was born at Winsen (Luhe) in Harburg, of humble parentage, and was brought up in penury and privation.
After serving as a volunteer in the War of Liberation (1813–1814), he obtained a secretarial appointment under the war department at Hanover. In 1817, although twenty-five years of age, he was enabled to attend the gymnasium of Hanover and afterwards the University of Göttingen, which, however, after one year’s residence as a student of law, he left in 1822.
His acquaintance with Goethe began in the following year, when Eckermann sent to Goethe the manuscript of Beiträge zur Poesie (1823). Soon afterwards he went to Weimar, where he supported himself as a private tutor. For several years he also instructed the son of the grand duke. In 1830 he traveled in Italy with Goethe’s son. In 1838 he was given the title of grand-ducal councilor and appointed librarian to the grand-duchess.
Eckermann is chiefly remembered for his important contributions to the knowledge of the great poet contained in his Conversations with Goethe (1836–1848). To Eckermann Goethe entrusted the publication of his Nachgelassene Schriften (posthumous works) (1832–1833). He was also joint-editor with Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer (1774–1845) of the complete edition of Goethe’s works in 40 vols (1839–1840). He died at Weimar on 3 December 1854.
Eckermann’s Gespräche mit Goethe (vols: i. and ii. 1836; vol. iii. 1848; 7th ed., Leipzig, 1899; best edition by Ludwig Geiger, Leipzig, 1902) have been translated into almost all the European languages, (English translations by Margaret Fuller, Boston, 1839, and John Oxenford, London, 1850).
Besides this work and the Beiträge zur Poesie, Eckermann published a volume of poems (Gedichte, 1838. See J. P. Eckermanns Nachlaß edited by Friedrich Tewes, vol. i. (1905), and an article by RM Meyer in the Goethe-Jahrbuch, xvii. (1896)).
I only feel confident of a few facts, but here is the general picture. The Muellers got here around the time of the American civil war, in the 1860s. The patriarch of that clan (he would be your great-great-grandfather) was Michael Nicholas Mueller, who was supposedly a complete bastard. My dad told me that he was a tough and mean weirdo who would do things like hiring a taxi to drive him across town then tell the driver the only way to get the fare was a fistfight for it. Dad was big on telling horror stories about his older relatives and no doubt there was a fair amount of the “I am punishing you for your own good” childrearing ethic here. My Aunt Carol, hearing me repeat a couple of Dad’s horror stories said: “Oh that’s ridiculous! “. It’s hard for anyone to tell their story without getting pretty damn subjective.
As I understand it, the Eckermanns got here in more like the 1880s. Dot Eckermann was brilliant, witty and sharp. She came from money and was stylish and sophisticated in a way that stood out like day and night on the rare occasions that she was seen in the same room as Grandma Lundstrom. Grandma Dot as we called her was like a loud and funny grand duchess. She was cinematic, even a bit intimidating. I suppose she cared about us but I never felt for a minute that she had any interest in me. I must be at least a little wrong about this because we did do things together at times…it’s all coming back to me literally this instant as a complete surprise. She took me to Broadway shows. This is just what you do with your four to five-year-old grandson, take him to Broadway musicals about adults in love, then out to Schrafft’s for a dish of chocolate ice cream. I remember she wore a lot of perfume and smoked using a pearl cigarette holder.
Dad hated her guts. I know he experienced some real mistreatments at her hands but I’ve always had the feeling that there was something in him that despised her for the crime of not really getting him, somehow. I find it easy to believe that there wasn’t much generosity of spirit or love in that house. He kept his hatred alive for 80 years and never really explained it to me. If the way she treated me had come from a mother, rather than Grandmother, I might have hated her too, for her adoration of glittering adults and brief toleration of children.
Jim Miller (they dropped Mueller during WWI) was a self-involved asshole. The sort of man who feels jealous of the attention paid to his own children instead of him. He was good looking and smart and childish and selfish. He was a stockbroker in the 1920s and made a legit fortune. This was partly how he got Dot to marry him.
He lost that fortune in the great depression and eventually lost Dot as well. He died of tuberculosis before I was born. He seems to have been the kind of person crippled by their own emotional selfishness and never waking up to anything better. I am certain Dad had ADHD and lots of the comorbidities that make it so special. I believe his father did as well, ADHD people come in all flavors but we edge the spectrum with our lack of innate emotional intelligence. WE come by that only with hard fucking work and often with loss as the teacher. You should remember that. We typically turn out nice and kind but only after sucking up some terrible pain for not knowing enough to treat the people we love beautifully.
I would so love for you to be the one who learns that lesson without burning your heart to the ground to learn it.
World War II and Poetry
Dad was a poet. I have tons of his poems on the old thin typing paper he wrote them on. One sample scan is shown here. He was considered a big talent. While serving overseas on the USS Providence (above) he wrote the poem Foxhole Elegy. It was printed in Stars and Stripes and for whatever reason, people thought it was amazing. Carl Sandburg wrote him a note of appreciation. Dad was brilliant, witty as fuck and with a barely suppressed raging temper. Anger was never far away, neither was self-medication.
They Meet at Last (plot twist)
Two beautiful sexy people meet, fall in love, get married, have kids and then…
He sinks into alcoholic chaos and depression over not getting to be gay anymore. He wrote that when my brother was a baby. That intense black and white of a fifties cocktail party features my tiny brother at the center of all the smoking and drinking fun. My Mom is pregnant with me in that picture.
I learned this for the first time in like 2009 while reading a huge stack of unread poems. In retrospect, many of them seem to be all but screaming what his real struggle was. I spotted the last picture just a couple of years ago, at our house on Fire Island it’s him and I’m almost certain, the guy he was writing about in the poem.
There’s a lot more to say about it, but I need to stop doing this for a while.
(I wrote this the morning after Dad died, in 2005)
Some things I want you to Know about My Dad:
His Name was Richard Bruce Miller. He Died Last Night at 2 am. He was Eighty years old.
- Five years ago he told a young man in a 7/11 who rolled his eyes at Dad’s old man disorganization: “I may be an old fart, but I never had to work in a 7/11”
- He reminded me of George C. Scott – if Scott was funny. He reminded me Of Rodney Dangerfield – if Dangerfield was a little menacing
- He was deeply loyal. He had a sense of humor that stayed sharp even in the deepest confusions of his declining months. He was easily irritated by stuff but later in life, he didn’t let it get to him anymore. There was a certain “what the hell…” shrug that came to take the place of getting mad.
- He often put his foot in his mouth but always felt bad about it later.
- He grew up in a family where unkindness was the rule and he did his best to undo that rule with us.
He was born into a wealthy family. An early memory was sitting in a limousine with his sisters Joan and Carol.
Then they lost everything in 1929 and the family struggled to retain their privilege, growing vicious in the process.
- He remembered his Mom putting him out on the front porch when he was 4 years old with a packed suitcase and saying he couldn’t live there anymore. He remembered standing there thinking about what neighbors might let him live with them.
- He remembered his parents pointing knives at each other.
- He was very sensitive and shy. He was afraid of emotion. He was very slow to trust.
He hated his Mom and never forgave her for her meanness to him.
- He used to get beaten up on the way home from school until he decided he had had enough and turned and fought and fought them all the time till they gave up. He also started to learn that he could use his humor to shake tension.
- He was a serious athlete when he was young. His nickname was “Whitey” for his bleached blond hair.
The New York Yankees auditioned him for a pitcher.
- His mind was quick and logical. He loved to read. He was good at math. His handwriting was atrocious.
- He was a Lieutenant in the Navy in World War II. He wanted to be a fighter pilot but he was “color weak” he studied the color charts to try to fake his way in but he didn’t succeed. In the war, he never hurt anyone: The closest he came was unsnapping his pistol while in command of a small contingent of military police during a riot in Rome over black market cigarettes.
The closest he came to getting killed was when a ship in his convoy misinterpreted navigation signals and nearly hit them amidships.
- He went to Yale. His parents wanted him to study electrical engineering but he wanted to be a writer.
- He wrote nationally played TV ads working on Madison Avenue in such advertising institutions as BBD&O. A number of his ads won awards and one became a silly pop-culture catchphrase for a while: “Please Mother, I’d rather do it myself!”
- He was a rock-ribbed old fashioned Liberal. He spent a night in jail early in the civil rights struggle for participating in a non-violent sit-in with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).
- Over his life, he was married to two beautiful, smart women who loved him.
Each time for 27 years.
- After years of bitterness and alcoholism, he had a dark night of the soul where has sat with a gun in his hand all night trying to end it all in a motel room in the deep south. And at last, he realized he wanted to live.
- And step by step, he followed the subtle signals toward happiness and began to let himself fall in love with life. He let the beauty of the world penetrate and he was never exactly the same afterward.
- I will never forget him looking at the little ducks in a pond in Montgomery, Alabama with a tender, amused smile that almost didn’t dare to believe it’s own happiness.
- He and Joyce (His second wife) were one of the truest love stories in a marriage I have ever seen. Their love for each other was profound and silly and tender. He never stopped being grateful that he found her and had her for his own and she appreciated all the good things about him that not everyone could see.