Father’s Day is Sunday and I’ve been reflecting on my family history and the role of the men in my life. I hail from a matriarchal background, from both my paternal and maternal lineages. The families were headed by women, by default due to death and abandonment on my father’s side, and because of death on my mother’s. The women, my great grandmothers and grandmothers were loyal, hardworking and committed to their namesakes and either outlived or outlasted their male counterparts. Today, my mother carries on the tradition and is the head of my immediate family, she is the glue that holds us together and usually has the last word.
This however, is the story of three fathers, three men who are forever linked by genetics and history and who created a legacy our family inherited. On this Father’s Day holiday, I look back at the past through my eyes as a child and pass on the stories I heard sitting at my grandmothers’ and mother’s laps and the first-hand experiences growing up with these men, both in their shadows and by their sides.
When I look at these three men who were, or are fathers on my paternal side, I can see an evolution from my grandfather, Walter Lenzke, Sr. to my father, Richard (Dick), Sr. and finally my brother, Richard (Rick), Jr. Grandfather Walter, whose family emigrated from Germany, settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin like many others of his generation. That’s where he met and courted my grandmother, Violet Flanigan, the eldest daughter of Helen (Frietag) and Frank Flanigan.
Walter Lenzke, Sr., Grandfather
As family members shared the saga of my heritage, I learned that Grandpa Lenzke was a charming man and a womanizer. He was a bus driver for the City of Milwaukee and if you were a young, attractive woman passenger you didn’t want to go to the end of the line with him. In today’s vernacular he was promiscuous, unfaithful and “acted out” sexually. He also committed a crime, statutory rape, by having consensual sex with a 16-year-old minor.
Yes, Grandpa Lenzke couldn’t keep his family member in his pants. He was a sexual predator when viewed through today’s legal and moral lens. Back then, he impregnated three women at the same time, his first wife, my grandmother Violet, Lorraine, the second wife he was married to simultaneously and illegally, and the 16-year-old young woman. When my family history is charted there’s a note that says, it’s complicated, as extra branches are drawn and the lopsided family tree leans precariously.
Grandpa Lenzke was a bigamist and most likely a sex addict. My grandmother divorced him and as a devout Catholic woman was excommunicated from the church and couldn’t receive communion because of her divorce for many decades. She spent years seeking a dispensation from the Church so she could receive the Holy Sacrament. For me, at a young age, it ignited my cynicism and caused me to question the double standards of my religious upbringing and made my own spiritual journey more difficult.
The first memory of my Grandfather was at the age of five or six. My parents, Dick and Ethel, had moved into the first home they purchased and were raising their daughters, me and my sister Roz. Grandpa and his wife Lorraine, brought gifts for us kids, 18-inch expensive dolls about the same age as we were in identical outfits, except for the colors of their dresses. Ironically, Roz and I were dressed similarly, like twins, except for the colors we wore.
I imagine this visit was an effort to make amends and for Grandpa to reach out to my father, who for all practical purposes was completely abandoned during his childhood and virtually fatherless. I could tell from a very early age that my father mourned the loss of a man in his life as he grew up. Fortunately for Dad, he always spoke lovingly about his special relationship and bond with his mother and his mother’s father, his Grandfather, Frank. My father parented without a template of fatherhood to follow. He always strived to be the head of the family and a good father, but in practice did so imperfectly, though his intentions were always good and his heart in the right place.
The outcome of that visit, so many decades ago, caused further estrangement between my father and his father. After the Sunday dinner, my mother went into the kitchen to cleanup and wash dishes and Grandpa followed her “to help out.” Moments later, after loud and harsh words were exchanged, he was banished forever from my home and family. Grandpa Lenzke couldn’t resist making a sexual pass at my mother, further victimizing both my parents. We’ll come back to Grandpa Lenzke again later.
Richard (Dick) Lenzke, Sr., Father
My father married my mother after they learned she was pregnant with me. My parents were young, mom sixteen and dad eighteen. They loved each other. This was not simply a marriage arranged for the families to save face, yet matriarchs from both sides believed it was the right thing to do. The families came together, rallied support, and the new generation of our family was launched. Both my parents worked hard, holding down middle class, blue collar jobs. They sacrificed for their children and in the end raised five girls and one son. My father was a strict disciplinarian, holding us, especially the older kids to high standards of behavior and he always possessed high expectations for us academically and socially.
He instilled in us the belief that we could achieve anything we set out to do, if we worked hard enough and followed our own values, became independent thinkers and made our own decisions, rather than conforming to the pressures of our peers.
While my father could yell and scream at us, sometimes raging and shaming us, he could also comfort and play with us, shower affection and be tender when it counted. He calls each of his daughters “Toots,” an endearment we all cherish even today. His one and only son, Rick, finally came after three daughters. By the time Dad was ready to bond with and raise his son my brother had already been hijacked and spoiled by my mother. The first 10 years of Rick’s life, he would manage any conflict with his sisters by threatening, “I’m going to tell Mom!”
When I look back at my relationship with my father, I always knew I was loved and wanted, though I wasn’t always sure I was the daughter he expected me to become. I was stubborn, hard-headed, and opinionated like him, never afraid to say what I thought. When I turned sixteen and started asserting my independence and practiced becoming an adult, we would argue about the politics and culture of the times, clearing the living room whenever we read the newspaper or watched the news on television.
It was a tough transition being the eldest child and a challenge to break away from the family. In retrospect I believe in some ways he felt like I was abandoning him like his father before him. There was a period of détente between us until years later when I married.
As a young married adult my parents, husband and I spent a few years together as friends, going out, staying up late into the night drinking and talking into the early morning hours, suffering hangovers the next day. What we didn’t realize at the time was that our family history of and genetic predisposition to alcoholism, from both sides of our families, was taking its hold on us.
There came a time when I realized that though I loved my husband Frank, I was becoming more affectionately and sexually attracted to women. After a period of time and a couple of affairs, one with Frank’s blessing, we separated and I came out to my family as a lesbian. In some ways it was going to be the first true test of my parents’ love for me and to their credit they immediately accepted both me and my partners and later the children I helped raise. I could not have asked for more love and acceptance from them.
One memory I have of my father from that time was a conversation we had as he tried to understand what it meant to be father of a lesbian daughter. I told him he could ask me any questions, any time and one day he did. He asked, referencing his experience of homosexuals of his generation, “Are you the boy, or the girl?” I tried to explain androgyny from a feminist and egalitarian perspective, but he still wasn’t satisfied. I was intuitive enough to understand that he didn’t want to lose his little girl, his daughter, so I answered, “If I had to choose, I’d be the girl.” He was happy.
Grandpa Lenzke and His Son Meet Again
Around 1979 as I was approaching 30 and my father was nearly 50 years old, I heard him become sentimental, longing to see his father again before he wouldn’t get a chance. Grandpa Lenzke, though he never earned the title, was in his early 70s and living in Shawano, Wisconsin in a trailer home near the Menominee Indian Reservation. I proposed that we take a road trip together, just father and daughter and show up unannounced on his father’s doorstep. Dad said yes, and we hit the road.
Since this predated Google and the internet we stopped at the Shawano County Sheriff’s Department and told the deputy we were looking to reunite father and son and asked for directions to Walter Lenzke’s residence. We followed the directions and arrived at an enclave of three white buildings nestled in evergreens, aspens and birch, a garage at the entrance of the property, a small workshop with a wood burning stove and a trailer home with screen porch that abutted the reservation.
Dad knocked on the door and we waited for what seemed like a long time before the door opened. Standing in the threshold was a towering, barrel-chested man dressed in bib overalls, flannel shirt and baseball cap who looked down at my father who in that moment seemed smaller than I had ever seen him before. There was a long silence as my father looked up seeking recognition. There was none. Then, just as quick as a blink of an eye, a broad smile grew on my grandfather’s face as he opened his arms to embrace, exclaiming, “Dickie Boy!” in a bellowing voice.
We were invited to stay the night and we talked non-stop. I heard stories about two of my father’s many uncles, one a police officer and the other a detective. The officer had been on the task force that tracked John Dillinger to Chicago after he robbed a bank month’s earlier in Racine, Wisconsin. My great uncle was hailed a hero but was killed in suspicious circumstances when he was shot on the target range by his brother. Lorraine, my grandfather’s second wife was hospitable and quiet for the most part, but talked a little about her years working for Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee and my father’s half sibling, Ron.
Mostly I watched my father be a son. Sadness and loss for all of the years they were estranged coexisted with his joy as he sat in the presence of his father.
My grandfather was suffering from a heart condition, but like the other beer drinkers in my family, when his doctor told him he must limit himself to one beer and a single shot of brandy each day, my grandfather laughed as he said, “That’s not fun so I save them up for the weekend and have seven shots of brandy with my seven beers!”
True to form as we said goodnight my grandfather made a half-hearted pass at me, an inappropriate flirtation. I told him I was a lesbian and he better not ever try that again. I smiled broadly with the smile I inherited from my father who inherited his from the man standing in shock in front of me.
Richard (Rick) Lenzke, Jr., Brother
One of my favorite stories about my brother showcases his sense of humor. When still a teen and living at home, a caller asked for Dick. My brother always answered to the name Rick, but that particular day felt a little playful. He asked the caller whether he was calling for big or little Dick, referring to the fact that they were Richard Senior and Junior. When the caller said big Dick, my brother answered, much to the delight of family members, “You’re talking to him!”
Yes, my brother always had a bit of swagger and is as charming as his grandfather once was. Rick always wears a broad Lenzke smile except when he’s anxious and biting his lips. My brother is a good man, a good brother, son, husband, and father. Though he’s not perfect and because his birth sign is Gemini, we attribute his dark moods to his astrological influence.
As his sisters, we all take credit for Rick’s nurturing nature and ability to understand and live with women, though Rick is a man’s man, hardworking, often quiet, a “let’s get it done” kind of a guy. He plays as hard as he works. He’s fiercely competitive at any game and winning is everything. Like the rest of the Lenzke’s he’s stubborn and bull-headed, a right-fighter, but loyal until you cross him. Rick is good with money and has a knack for finding the best bargain.
Evidence of Rick’s nurturing nature is the fact that his children were as likely to go to him as they were their mother Nancy when they skinned a knee or had their feelings hurt. Both he and Nancy are fully-involved parents who support their children physically, emotionally and financially. Their home is where their kids’ friends would hang out, and the family continues to vacation and play together.
When we were estranged after a failed family intervention it was Rick who acted as the father figure to his younger sisters, helping them purchase homes and giving them advice. He’s the go to guy for my parents along with his wife Nancy and sister, Kelly, helping with house projects, grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions and shuttling them to doctor appointments. For years Rick and Nancy hosted family Christmas holidays, summer family reunions and our parents’ wedding anniversaries.
Recently Rick and Nancy opened their home again to take in Nancy’s parents when her father was dying. Nancy told me, “Your brother is a good man.” Yes, three generations later with the help of the family matriarchy we’re finally getting it right. I look forward to watching the next generation of sons as they become fathers. My nephew John, my sister Roz’s son, is a good example of fatherhood, he’s loving, engaged, and attentive, involved in the lives of his children.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad, Rick, and John (and my sisters’ husbands too, Bill and Ron)!