When I was a little girl, nothing was as exciting as spending the night at Nana and Papa’s house. With a swimming pool shaped like a whale and the promise of Papa making his signature silver dollar pancakes in the morning, nothing could be. At night, I’d get into Nana and Papa’s bed and sleep between them. Every time, without fail, Papa snored. He didn’t just snore, he snored loud. Very loud. In the morning, Nana would complain. But I decided that I would teach myself to love snoring – to be soothed by it.
And I succeeded. Not only do I not mind the sound of snoring now, but whoever is next to me in bed has never snored as loud as Papa. This is just one of the many ways he’s influenced my life.
Looking back, this seems like such a perfect metaphor for love: to find comfort in someone else’s flaws. It’s something I couldn’t stop thinking about last week, as I sat by the bed he knew he would never get out of again. And it’s something I wish he could have done for himself.
Because there was Jerry Barton the man and Jerry Barton the legend. He was the boy who graduated high school barely knowing how to read, who went on to study at Oxford and make the Dean’s List at The University of Oklahoma. He was the man who the government stole hundreds of millions of dollars from, vindicated through a judicial victory but somehow not bitter about losing his fortune. He built his company back up in the 2000s, only to lose it again in the Recession. But I never, not even in the days before his death, heard him say he had a bad day. Ever.
Many people primarily saw my grandfather as a worker. He was a man who merged his family with his business, until the two often seemed interchangeable. When I was a child, he told me that Christmas was his least favorite day of the year because no one else went into the office. I was incredulous. He started selling popcorn in his parents’ movie theaters at the age of five and never stopped working. He made and lost millions. But he never ran out of ideas for new ventures. He pretty much always wore oak tree emblazoned clothing (as you can see from these photographs). When he called my mom on the phone, business wasn’t the only thing they would talk about, but it was almost always the first thing he wanted to discuss.
One of his favorite quotes was “work is love made visible.” And this wasn’t just apparent in the way he worked. It was equally apparent in the way he loved. He showed his love through work. Through decades of bringing croissants and the New York Times to our house every Sunday. Through always offering his “weak mind and strong back” when we were packing up the car for college or moving apartments. Through remembering my favorite desert even though he “didn’t like sweet food, just sweet people.”
When he first saw my mother after giving birth to my sister, Sarah, he asked if he could get her anything. No doubt, he meant something like a glass of water. But when she replied, “twenty pounds of sand” he didn’t say no or even ask why. He just delivered the sand to our house the following afternoon. (It was for a sandbox my mom decided I absolutely needed before the new baby came home.) This has become both family lore and a benchmark for a very special kind of love.
His made his love for his family and friends visible through the work he did for us.
So, it’s easy to think of Papa as a worker, but for me he held another primary identity: storyteller.
His stories were endless and expertly crafted. His mother asking him to clean the chicken coup and his decision to burn it down instead. His parents deciding to go into the movie theater business on their wedding night. His decision to drop out of kindergarten after the teacher asked him to draw a banana. A meeting with Winston Churchill at the age of nineteen. His revenge on the “fraternity crowd” at college, by setting up a panty raid and then not showing up so he wouldn’t get in trouble.
A business meeting somehow rendered hilarious.
An accidental bet for five thousand dollars, which he won.
The first time he ate an artichoke and the night he got so cold he zipped himself inside his suitcase for warmth.
These were just a fraction of his stories. And they were beautiful. Meaningful. Often hilarious.
But these stories – along with the narrative he created about himself – must have left some things out. He had to be more, and less, than the legend he helped to mold. I know he felt deep pain through rare glimpses he let slip in conversations.
When my grandfather started first grade, he had a speech impediment so severe that no one could understand him. Family lore states, that after being teased the first day of school, Great Grandmother B told him that he attended a special school for the hearing impaired. She told him not to mind when people couldn’t understand him or bullied him, because he was so lucky not to be deaf like the other students.
I’ve heard this story throughout my life. But it must be leaving something out. He must have found out at some point. He got D’s throughout his grade school career, just so teachers could pass him on to the next grade. He sat in the back of the classroom and never engaged with anyone. He was the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, and I can’t imagine the pain of everyone around him thinking he was stupid.
But that part never made it into his stories.
The principal of his school realized their mistake after he won a grade-wide knowledge bee. The next fall when he started high school, his middle school principal went with him from class to class telling each teacher This is Jerry Barton. He can’t talk plain. He’s not good at reading or writing, but he will be the smartest child in your class so make sure he sits in the front row. Papa often credited this woman with changing his entire life and took her out to lunch when at nineteen he received a scholarship to study for a semester at Oxford University in England.
He made his way through college by his wits, by taking speech lessons and going to a reading clinic for adults, and perhaps mostly by relying on the help of his friends. He met my grandmother, Jo Clough, when they were seated alphabetically in an economics class their second year. She joined his merry band of academics, and his group began studying at her parents’ house. It was over a year until they began “going together.”
When he applied to law school, he encouraged Nana to do the same – making her one of the first women to go through the University’s program. They were the first husband-wife moot court team. He was always proud of my nana’s professional and academic accomplishments, including her ranking far above him in their graduating class.
After graduating, he moved to Washington DC where he worked in the Pentagon and once argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. He travelled all over the world, for business and with my nana. He had three children, who he made breakfast for in the morning and played with after work in the pool, despite later asserting he didn’t really like swimming.
I could keep going into the many twists and turns of his career and his lifelong support of the Democratic Party. I could go on listing his accomplishments. They are many. His mistakes were probably many too. Some I could list; others he kept private.
Papa was a flawed man, like all men. But like Gatsby or Atticus Finch or so many of my favorite literary characters, he also seemed like more than a man. He lived an amazing life. But part of me also wishes he could have shared the burden of his mistakes and his pain with more people. I can’t imagine any of us would have loved him less for it.
Papa was the first person in my life who thought I was smart. I didn’t learn to read until I was ten, but Papa always maintained that we were similar and I would show everyone how smart I was one day. Later, he made it his mission to build up my self esteem. In high school, he told me “One hundred percent of people who don’t try don’t succeed” and “let the world prove you wrong” and “never make a decision out of fear.” And I think I’ve made all of my best decisions – the ones I’m most proud of — with these words in mind.
Papa loved his family. He loved his friends. He loved his work making beautiful golf courses. He loved good wine, meeting new people, reciting quotations, and pretty views.
He loved me. And I loved him.
And that’s the part of the story that matters the most to me. More than the legend. More than the mistakes. More than the truths that I may never know. It changed my life to have Jerry Barton as a grandfather, and I’m sure I will keep telling his stories for the rest of my life.