How I Discovered (and Learned to Live With) My Father's Bigotry
My grandmother sat erect in the wing chair inherited from my aunt, her neatly-clad feet crossed at the ankles. The flickers from the screen made patterns on the convex lenses of her cataract glasses. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we'd just gotten home from church.
I don't remember what show the news bulletin interrupted. I remember the familiar room, the windows warm with September sun and the shock of the black-and-white horror spewing hate sharp as shrapnel into our lives from the innocuous box in the corner.
School photos flashed across the screen. Four girls. Their names. Their ages. Sunday school girls so like their mothers with their perky hats and white gloves and little purses. Without warning on a golden morning, they had been murdered in a racially-motivated church bombing, their lovely black skin suddenly burned, the flowers on their hats now funeral flowers. Four so abruptly dead because of hatred. If little girls were not safe in a house of worship, where were they safe? I'd just sung in the choir of our own white clapboard church. How was it different? I was still wearing my Sunday clothes, my patent leather shoes. Just like the dead girls. The immediacy was too personal, too horrifying. Sisters. I felt I had known them.
My grandmother said nothing, wearily shook her head from side to side as if she had long expected such atrocities. But my father, who believed wholeheartedly in God, country and family, who never swore and only drank when offered a snort on the most special occasions, who had never raised his voice to his womenfolk, my father sprang bolt upright in that cheap recliner. The leatherette squealed in protest as he yelled. "Good! Get rid of the bastards! Goddamnit!" He punched the arm of the chair in defiance. The coffee erupted like lava out of his cup. "That'll teach 'em!"
His bland face contorted in rage and contempt. I trembled for the dead girls. I grabbed my dog and buried my face in his furry neck, something tangible, safe, a trustworthy protector. For my father, in an instant, was no longer my father, but an alien wreck of a man. The bombing in Birmingham had shattered our house in Maine too.
This decent working man who taught me to use tools, who took a second job to buy me a Christmas doll, who chauffeured my friends and me to the movies when it was raining without hesitation as if he had nothing else to do, it was this man along with the paranoid bigot whom I ceased to love. I could not separate the two. Often after his mill shift was over, he would sit at the kitchen table with his head in his hands for long minutes when he thought he was alone.
He and I were polite and civil, and when I went off to college he patted me on the shoulder. I was his only child.
In later years, we never spoke of Malcolm or Martin or the slain marchers, for I had witnessed that seed of hatred within my own father, and I was helpless against it. We continued our mutual civility in the way WASPs do, never getting to the heart of any matter lest we release the hornet's nest. Cards and gifts were dutifully exchanged.
Into his 80s my father remained a big man sound of heart and body, but his mind eroded until the war veteran, the deer hunter, the tool maker became increasingly paranoid and ultimately lay drugged and restrained in a nursing-home bed, his finally clean fingers tracing frantic ghosts of words in the air.
On a February day, nearing the end, he struggled to reach me with his air words as his mouth gaped reflexively without sound. I read what he was spelling out. It was me who finally spoke to him. I told him that I knew he loved me and that I loved him. In his institutionalized haze, he seemed to listen. I took his hand and folded a Valentine in it.
There are acrid smells in the recesses of my brain where my father lives. But the smells of cordite and grief from an atrocity in the South on a day of horror are replaced in my memory now by gentler scents. Morning bacon, Old Spice, wet wool, fresh-cut fir branches and the aroma of graphite and stale-coffee breath when I lift the lid of his machinist chest where I now store my art supplies. Through the years, the pastel chalks have absorbed the machine oil odors and it is no longer his box with the many sliding drawers and the worn oak top. It is ours. And that is right.
That self-conscious pat of my father's hand on my shoulder before I left for school: What I would give now to feel that again. And just in remembering it, perhaps I do. Perhaps he is now here with me, protective in his way, even though we still don't understand each other and never will.
Around the Web
- What Drives Men Away and What Attracts Them - YourTango
- Bill Clinton: It's Still the Economy, Stupid - The Daily Beast
- Do You Want to Know When Your Friends Run Into Your Ex? - The Frisky
- Would You Marry Someone Who Didn't Have a Job? - The Gloss
- And the City That Has the Most Sex Is ... - The Stir, CafeMom
- 3 Easy Ways to Keep Your Makeup Sweat-Proof This Summer - BellaSugar