Written by
Madge Woods
September 2011
Written by
Madge Woods
September 2011

He who dies with the most toys win

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “HE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS.” It made me think of my father… he was a man who LOVED his toys. One of his favorite toys was a bright red Ferrari he bought during a midlife crises that seemed to last most of his adult life. I can still see him sitting in that car with a huge smile on his face. He took such delight in his possessions and his playthings. Besides the numerous sports cars (there are too many to name) his toy collection consisted of race horses, art, fine wine… and other women. (More on that later.)

Perhaps his gift for lavish spending came from the fact that he was a self-made man from humble roots who worked hard to make his way in the world, starting out as a double for child actors in the 1930’s then working as a door to door salesman for Fuller Brush (the youngest ever)… all before the age of 18. He started his own business next and sold it when he was 39. He was given a shit load of money and a covenant not to compete. So he invested in real estate and that was really all you had to do in the late 50’s. He was young and very rich for those times.

From my earliest memories my father was a risk taker and a gambler. He spent many weekends in Las Vegas until he was eventually banned from the entire city…. by my mother. It’s not that he was throwing money away, he was actually a pretty skilled gambler. (If there is such a thing.) During one family vacation to Monte Carlo he won $10,000 in lire at the craps table. My sister and I rolled around on a hotel bed in a pile of his winnings. For days my father was on top of the world as we walked into banks to cash the money into American dollars. My Mom was so pissed that we spent any of our trip inside casinos and banks, but to my dad it was the best vacation ever. For some reason gambling was in my father’s DNA.

When we weren’t traveling my father spent a great deal of time on the phone with his bookie, placing bets on whatever sporting event was happening that week. Until one day when the FBI showed up at his office and he spilled his guts quicker than a jack rabbit… he had a family to protect. My father also owned race horses for a time (a rich man's folly he once told me.) One year the whole family went to the Kentucky Derby to watch one of our horses compete… it came in 4th. My father was so happy to share that experience with us all, to give us a taste of that rush and excitement he loved so much. It was an amazing trip that’s become one of many amazing memories.

When my dad was aging and not in good health my sister and I started taking over his businesses and watching out for him like any good daughters would do. We divided the tasks and I took accounting and bill paying and managing the staff and my sister took the emotional component. It was during this time that I started to piece together the parts of his life that he had kept hidden from us. Cashed IRS refunds that he said he never got and when I checked with the IRS the check had been cashed. He also once got a charge from a hotel and when I called to inquire they told me he was a regular guest and that they loved him and when casually asking my Mom if she ever stayed there it was a big fat NO. I told the hotel my Dad was losing his faculties (which was true) and not to make anymore reservations when he called. Also, I found out he had helped one of his "women friends" with money for a down payment on a house. He also took me and my sister out to lunch with some of these women at different ages of our lives so we could meet them. It was always on the guise of a deal in the making and he wanted us in on it. There were no deals as I became more familiar with his checking accounts. It purely was this weird interplay and to this day I still don't get it. He had one friend that helped me solve these mysteries and told us many more stories. It seemed his driver was his compatriot in all his rendezvous. I fired his ass and replaced him with someone who I trusted more. I also started asking questions of my dad about money transactions and since I now had control of all his accounts the money trail was no longer available to him. I always knew he was a risk taker, but I hadn’t realized that those risks went beyond fast cars, casinos and bookies… he was a womanizer who had no boundaries. I was in therapy at the time exploring some of my own issues and I would discuss some of them with my sister looking for childhood answers and soon realized that my dad’s boundaries were so out of whack. As I explored with friends and former neighbors they told me stories that confirmed that he had even hit on some of my more attractive friends using the guise that he was trying to set up a friend when it was really him wanting the set up.I would like to say this was a total shock to me, but looking back I had my suspicions even as a teenager that he had roving eyes for my friends' Mom's and wives of his friends. For some reason I chose not to question the times he would disappear for hours to help a young female neighbor with her "plumbing problem". Or when he would take a weekend long fishing trip with “the guys“, in a two seater sports car with no trunk space for fishing gear.

My father was not a really religious man but he definitely wanted to end up in heaven so he felt if he vomited up every wrong he had done it would cleanse him enough to get in the pearly gates. He started confessing his sins, but not to a therapist or friend or rabbi even, like any normal person would do, instead he spilled his guts to me and my sister. My mother was not privy to the sharing of the infidelity tales. My dad wanted to make sure I never said anything to our Mom as he was sure she would finally leave him. I felt my Mom had chosen her path and knew a lot of what went on so I never told her anything of our investigations or what we uncovered. She never did leave him and today is so weak and without memory she just misses him and their life together.

We’re all a product of our parents in some way and looking back it’s easy to see where my father’s actions affected the choices I made in my own life. I ended up married at the young age of 19 to someone who was totally different than my Dad or so I thought I was young and really had no real facts at that time. I thought my ex husband would never embarrass me as my Dad had over the years when he talked to women everywhere we went and was flirty with elevator operators and waitresses and saleswomen. I also thought in some way he could support me and be a real equal partner. It didn’t quite turn out that way as he was so young too and his career path didn’t ever materialize and he left me wanting a partner. I was a control freak as my dad was and I took over everything in the marriage and after 20 years I finally realized that I wanted someone who was capable of taking care of me for at least some of the time. I really wanted someone who enjoyed life, was adventurous and somewhat of a risk taker but in the good ways that helped my father prosper and become a great provider. That was never to be, so there was no other option but to become free.

As a little girl my dad was my hero and it was easy to buy into the myth that surrounded him, the stories of his life made him a legend amongst extended family and friends. All these years later, whether I wanted to or not I’ve seen beyond that myth and I’ve seen the man who was my father. I have no choice but to take the good with the bad. That lust for risk and adventure that made his eyes sparkle and took us around the world on amazing trips was the same engine that drove him to gamble and run around with other women. I don’t know if one would exist without the other, so I embrace them both.

I often wonder what that red Ferrari would have said if it could have talked. I realized my Mom went along because she was a 50's wife who believed in FOR BETTER OR WORSE and in many unique ways she loved the adventures that their life held
So maybe "the man who dies with the most toys, does win" But on the flip side, the man who spends his life in pursuit of those toys really loses his identity. The toys become bigger than life and eventually take over the life. My dad died 8 years ago and as I looked over some of the toys he left me, like old collections of antique Chinese Netsukes or the handmade wooden grandfather clock in my family room, I feel sad that he thought he needed them to prove to himself through his possessions that he was a good father, a great provider and a terrific person. His legacy to me was his charity, his joy of life, his family loyalty (which despite the other women) was never in question. He was willing to help anyone with his time, money or energy. He taught me to be generous and giving and to look out for the underprivileged/underdog and to volunteer and help out and that has continued to be my mantra to this day. I’m happy to have inherited those values from him and I do my best to keep my toys to a minimum.

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