My mother was moody; my father was not. Therein lies my emotional education. Who was right? My father was the great stone face at the table, an unflappable, exquisitely tuned bureaucrat whose blood ran cold almost all the time. He descended from a long line of Norwegian men bred of ice and long dark winters; their fortitude to withstand the cruelest hands nature could deal to such hard-working men meant they grew up with bodies made of iron bones and steel-plated chests. Nothing could reach into the quick of such secretive, self-reliant, driven men. They were the “silent types,” and would weather almost any kind of storm.
I never saw my father actually lose it, even when he had been black-balled for an important promotion in his career at the State Department. He came home and took a few deep tugs on his martini, set his powerful, jowly cheeks into a lump of granite, and said nothing. My mother fretted in the kitchen. I was there; I held her hand. She was crumbling inside, and her eyes were like two marbles that had rolled into a puddle of motor oil. She couldn’t bring herself to get supper started, although in the Old Testament rules of our house, supper was the first thing you did in your womanly obedience to the tables of Moses. So she began to squeeze tomato pulp and to get the meatballs sizzling in the skillet.
My mother was a fragile cork in the sea of her almost continuous emotional storms. She could barely keep herself afloat with all the snarling waves breaking over her head. I have her temperament, and I knew when the troughs of the waves were so deep, night lay at the bottom of a canyon of seawater, ready to swallow her up for good. I can feel the vertigo in my stomach even now as I think about her. She had no sea legs to steady her.
But that’s the end of my saltwater metaphors. Better to situate my mother in the linoleum chill of her dark kitchen as my father sat on the couch ten feet away, with a swing door separating them from each other’s strange, polarized sensibilities. My mother came from Sicilian farming people; her mother emigrated from a village outside Agrigento and landed in New York, took the train to New Orleans, and settled down in the French Quarter with her husband, from the same village. They eked out a meager life from his work as a cabinet maker, while my grandmother sweated over the pots and pans at the end of the wooden house, feeding a brood of eight children and an often saturnine husband who came home with arms and hands covered in a kind of sandpaper of sweat-infused mahogany dust. He once stood before a Sunday feast of turkey, crabs, pasta, heaps of homemade bread and muttered this grace, “Tuttle la vende merde,” or, “It all turns to shit.” It was a bit of dry humor, but the laugh that went around the table was accompanied by sympathetic glances at the exhausted women who had produced it.
That was the house where my mother’s character was shaped by the wails of her older sisters, the bitter disappointments of her brothers, each of whom fell short of his dreams. The meals were salvation to all of them, and the kitchen was a sort of temple of what held them together, gave them hope. But Italians were treated like African-Americans, and were scorned for their mutual heritage of Africa. The Quarter was a dumping ground for unwanted immigrants from suspect origins. Italian children were sent to the “colored schools” in the city, and were routinely rejected by employers who reserved their openings for whites from uptown. But life wasn’t all bad; the house was moored like a boat to the edge of Bourbon Street, and everyone would put on glad rags and go into the dance halls, the speak easies, and have a decent time on a spare dollar or two. My mother was a good dancer, she told me. Her blood was hot and she danced herself into a wild ecstasy before the night was done. Her brother played saxophone and drums, and was once part of Louie Prima’s band.
To eat well, to dance until you dropped, that was the way you handled the life you were given. The rest of the time you braced yourself for the next disaster, the looming specter of disappointment. When she reached the tenth grade, her father showed up at her classroom and gestured for her to follow him out of the building. She was through learning, he informed her. It was time for her to work in those cavernous offices on Canal Street. She learned typing and short hand and worked for a lawyer, who knew she couldn’t find other work as a dark-haired woman of Italian descent. She emptied her pay envelope on the table each Friday and her mother separated a few quarters for her pocket money and kept the rest. It would pay off the butcher and the green grocer. She cried herself to sleep many nights; she heard the terrible muffled voices of her parents arguing over their debts. Her poor father had no business sense; he had to work for others who took advantage of him.
When she met my father, she smelled success. He was ambitious even if he was penniless. He would find work in the federal prisons, and work his way up through the Civil Service, and enter the Foreign Service. He was blond-haired, with penetrating blue eyes, a long thin nose, features that allowed him to survive the vicious white male enclaves of the State Department, where a Princeton degree was minimal credentials. He only had a diploma from the University of Illinois, about as good as having an Oxford diploma, from Oxford, New Mexico, that is. He kept his own counsel, and never showed his emotions. He knew who his enemies were, and they were legion and had beautiful manners.
I grew up between these legs of Hercules, the one standing for vulnerability and a capacity to suffer openly and to seek refuge in one’s tears and tantrums; and the other, stoic, unyielding, determined to the point of frigidity, willing to compromise and even betray friends to survive the rigors of government in an age of suspicion and intrigue. It was the era of the Cold War, the Atomic Age, with the seat of power run by J. Edgar Hoover, Allen Dulles, Joseph McCarthy. Everyone shuffled along in those long gray corridors fearful something would go wrong. And often did.
I couldn’t help but notice that a willingness to suffer meant weakness. My mother had a sharp tongue, and was so crippled by the savagery of her moods, she would end up whimpering helplessly at the dinner table. My father would shovel in his food like some fabulous golem, a man of mechanical parts with a deadly clarity in how to conduct himself. He was the product of a nation that had become a world power through its military killing machines; the imperium he was a functionary in moved relentlessly through the world knocking off elected officials, setting up puppet governments, bribing tyrants and dictators to wrest from them all the oil its vast industrial system demanded. You went along with it, ignoring one’s moral outrage at such abuses of power. You didn’t add up the ways in which the U.S. was sowing dragon’s teeth everywhere you went with your vast armies, to force weak nations to give up their treasure. You were a white-collar goon to it all, and you needed to suppress your revulsion. It was only when a dentist put his mirror into his mouth that my father would throw up, and would have to be sedated to keep from vomiting. He couldn’t keep down his food when someone touched the organ that might betray him. So long as he had a tie on, an expensive suit and black shoes, a brief case of relentlessly obscure files and briefing papers, he was able to hold everything in.
My mother wept for both of them. And her tears were like the blood around her heart; if she cried, she grew weak, powerless. She gave everything away, she caved. She couldn’t conceal her rage at what the government was doing in the hidden theater of its imperial malfeasance. My father would listen to her rants and tirades as he fed himself from the greasy platters arrayed before him. But in keeping his silence, in turning his stone face to the right and left by a few degrees, he resembled some giant gray mortar bolted to the deck of an American destroyer. And in being inaccessible, he concentrated real power and prestige. He was a strong man, an appendage of a rogue state out to grab all it could from the vulnerable horse-and-buggy countries that had not yet entered into the 20th century.
He died as he had lived, stalwart, unbending, used up from the inside out. He was a powerful corpse in his last nursing-home bed, someone you touched gingerly for fear he might still have some tiny bolt of kinetic meanness in him. And he was wrong, so immersed in error and miscalculation in his service to a power without conscience that he hardly even knew he had been made into a jester at the court of Foggy Bottom. He had no wisdom, or moral sense left in him. And my mother, soft, round, with legs scrimshawed with varicose veins and arteries full of plaque, turned out to be right – to be the moral compass in our house. Her rage was eloquent and deeply excavated. She understood what he had become with his fat paychecks and his expensive tastes. He joined the ranks of all those who served their empires, and was no better than an enforcer in the decayed last decades of the Ottoman Empire, or the murderous final days of the Russian empire, with its vicious czars shooting down farmers who stood outside the gates, half-starved, broken, landless, feebly complaining of the injustice wrought upon them.
To observe my father eating was to feel the malicious magnitude of human nature and its willingness to serve despots. To sit with my mother at the table on a Saturday afternoon, with the sun slanting through the curtains and spreading a thin gold veneer on the carpet, was to join the company of the prophets and seers, the Tarot readers and mystics that have always observed power from below, where the horizon was the leather boots of tyranny. But you could discern the truth, and in time, after sloughing off my father’s influence, I knew that weeping and hand-wringing and vulnerability were the inlets of truth.