My Father’s Lessons

My father, the classroom professional, instructed us in manners, in American presidents, in Southern secession (after he, the boy from Pittsburgh, learned it himself). He also tried to teach us an ancient, musical, time-keeping method which I pull from memory as solfeggio. Did I know what the Italian word meant? No. But even as I say it, he appears beside me, a hand with an imaginary baton creating an image in the air as he counts, and I play a simple tune on the piano. Immediately, the time-keeping morphs into a Saturday morning rhyme dragged across the sea from Sicily: “Uno, due, tre, cantare, suono, suono, suono something something, then the swift ecco si, ecco no, and a boom, boom, boom of either church bells tolling or a cane beating an unfortunate back. These little fragments are all I have unless by some rare chance I find someone on the outskirts of Palermo whose father also sang the ditty, and thus can put it in context. Knowing as I do that the Catholic Church held peasant Sicily in its grip (the other fist was the Mafia’s), I suspect the ditty of having two meanings, which not even my father, born in the United States, could probably decode.

Escape: his grandfather fled Trabia, so I’ve heard, because his small Protestant church had been defaced and the Bibles burned. Once in New York with wife and infant son, this ancestor of mine acquired the makings of an English-speaking Protestant minister and moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to serve an immigrant Italian community. Escape was in my father’s blood. He married my mother, the Nordic from North Dakota, in part, he confessed to her, because he wanted to become “a real American.” By then, his family had acquired education and solvency. The original Sicilian immigrant/minister had become recognized by Scranton as a pillar of the community, mistaken by some as the U.S. president Grover Cleveland.

My parents’ move to South Carolina could also be construed as an escape, chasing a job after World War II. At The Citadel my father was hired to teach veterans returning to college on the G.I. bill. This move gave my mother a reprieve. Once, she confessed that she’d threatened to leave my father if he insisted that they move in with his parents. She couldn’t compete with his mother/aunts/cousins for his affections. With her youthful shyness, she’d have been swallowed up by that soft yet stern, raucous yet reverent Italian family.

Once in South Carolina, my father was stuck–in more ways than one. He could never manage to leave, though half-heartedly he tried a few times to find teaching jobs elsewhere. But the South, Southern history, and soon racial indignation held him in its grip. Here’s the lesson toward which I’ve been tending. Not to portray it as the most important or only lesson I acquired from him, but as the one I found the least easy to decipher as a girl. As racial discord heated up during the 1950s and 60s, my father “lost it,” as we’d say today. He became a louder and more fanatical racist than any other Southern father I encountered, defending white supremacy and ranting and raving against blacks and Northern white agitators whom he was sure were swarming across the Mason-Dixon line to murder us in our beds.

As I watched him fulminate, as he dragged me, the teenager, into his net of conspiracy, threatening that a black boy would come to our door, intending to date me, I fought, argued, stormed away, returned to have it out with him. But eventually, his unstoppable fury silenced me. No matter how logically or rationally I argued–“But Daddy, we don’t know any Negroes,” as we were taught then to call the black people whose lives paralleled ours but rarely touched. “No Negro boy even speaks to me.” Our schools. our neighborhoods were segregated. I didn’t even know where black teens went to school.

As my silence descended like a protective cloak, I began to observe him, to catch how even a small bit of news or daily encounter could set him off. Yes, indeed, there was racial strife elsewhere in the South–Little Rock, Montgomery, Birmingham, Jackson. But in Charleston, South Carolina, all was quiet until the late 1960s. Very late for agitation, for marching for civil rights. By then I was living in Minnesota. And what my father had taught me, entirely inadvertently on his part, had become woven into the physical remove I’d acquired. I looked back at his fury, at the few actual events that roused him to such irrational threats, and remembered his much earlier discomfort dressing in the mornings when we first moved to Charleston, when he had to don the tight-fitting military uniform for teaching at The Citadel.

He was not cut out to be a soldier, had none of the true physical hardiness or discipline necessary to restrain his individual impulses to a larger order. Nor was he comfortable in the South. It was obvious from the beginning that he did not fit in–his dark curls, his passionate gestures, his voice with its extremes of emotion and sprinkling of Italian phrases. (He soon suppressed those.) THough The Citadel had hired him to teach soldiers who returned from the Italian campaign, who’d encountered the people of Italy, who grasped European civilization first hand, these students soon graduated and my father was directed to teach American and Southern history. He could certainly grasp its fundamentals, but only by becoming a furious advocate of the racial divide which had ruled the South for centuries could he hope to convince himself (and possibly others) that he, himself, was not one of those “outside agitators” he so feared.

As I watched his vulnerability turn ugly, bare its fangs at those less fortunate, at the bottom of stratified Southern society, I learned to suspect all exaggerated proclamations and promises. I glimpsed that his hatred had a cause which I did not need to espouse. And that beneath or around its fiery breath, its exaggerated demands and threats, lay a personal situation. Beliefs and fears did not arrive from nothing. Especially if they contradicted daily reality, they were driven by something vulnerable and suspect. Something that the driver either did not fully understand or sought to mask, throwing fear like a smoke screen over desires or intentions that were often selfish or self-serving, not particularly laudable or rational, yet often closely linked to the extreme politics he or she was advocating.

From time to time, I hear such extremism today–take the Tea-Party Republicans. These evidently middle-class white Americans seem goaded by fear of a government that will take some of their money and use it for those less fortunate. They want to remove all power from the center and clutch it to themselves. Apparently they want fewer services, lower or nonexistent taxes, or what I might call “home rule.” Beneath or around this astonishing self-centeredness, lies their suburban existence, on the edge of the city; here in Minnesota on the edge of farm land (which the suburbs have until quite recently been gobbling up). Is this so different from my father’s inordinate fear of a wave of Northern agitators flowing South? What privilege are these Tea-Partyites protecting which they dare not reveal even to themselves? What vulnerability are they seeking to mask by throwing the blame on others?

Answering those questions may be beyond me, but I am alert to my suspicions, not only of the impracticability of their platforms, but of their moral and ethical limitations. It seems as simple to me now as it did as a teenager subjected to my father’s tirades: I ask, Do you even know those you fear? Is there any evidence that these “others,” rather than your own faults or limitations, are the cause of your troubles?

2 Responses

  1. Katie Loher

    I enjoyed this blog about your dad. It appears the lessons he taught you were to be decifered.

  2. Denise Warfield

    This is such a delightful story. You do possess the qualities of the charming southern bell: the charming smile, the polite soft chuckle. How wonderful then that you analyzed your father’s values and found them wanting. I believe we do have an innate sense of right an wrong and that if we are not traumatized or
    taught incorrectly these innate values surface. Thank you for this writing.


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