Artifacts of a life surround me.
Here is a penmanship certificate from 1933 and a diploma from St. Mel’s High School dated 1937. Here also: an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army dated January 1946, a pipe tool for scraping ash from a briar bowl, a compass, and a rubber stamp that, when inked and pressed, will read “FINAL COPY — Set This —R. Brizzolara.” Also, a dozen or more photographs of my father. Here is one with Thomas Dewey, one with a .50-caliber machine gun, a few with Army buddies, one with a gangster, another with a professional baseball player, and several with my mother and my sister and me as an infant. Taken together, they are shards of a mirror, pieces of a puzzle weighted with varying degrees of relevance to a life I will not presume to sum up.
The items fill a standard office file box that also contains letters to and from my father: from editors, to friends, etc. They reveal my father’s love of language and that he was well liked. Loved, in fact. It is the other two cartons that interest me most. They contain his published material, written over three decades for Catholic magazines and newspapers as well as for the military presses in the 1940s.
Memories of my father always include one particular image, and that is of the family man after dinner, seated at the dining room table in whatever house we occupied at the time, leaning over a large, black typewriter — a Remington or an Underwood, I think — obscured by clouds of burning pipe tobacco. We were not to disturb Dad as he worked. The wreaths of lazy smoke demarcated a zone where family squabbles were off-limits, issues of bedwetting, menopause, sick dogs, or charges of sibling cruelty were banished beyond the cloud. His day at the insurance company or agency where he would compose inane ad copy and navigate the politics of a venal corporation was left outside of this cocoon. The muted machine-gun clacking of the typewriter signaled another article about politics or pornography, the rhythm method, violence on television or film, Padre Pio, or a comic misadventure with the kids at the company picnic. Occasionally he would allow me to stand next to him and study the completed pages.
“Ever since Eve touted Adam onto the apple, Man has been trying to peek around the corner of the future to avoid putting his foot into it again. Gun-shy since Eden, he has sought to outwit or at least anticipate The Big IF, that imponderable of the future that bodes either good or ill for him. With childlike faith he has spent fortunes in animal skins and hard cash, on gourd-rattling witch doctors, seers, soothsayers, owls, and oracles — everything and everyone who might have the answer.…”
I was nine years old at the time I read this coming off his typewriter, and while I had no idea what he was talking about, I knew it was about magic and was in itself a kind of magic. My father could string words together with interesting verbs, lace them with colorful images, and pin them to the page, which he then would exchange for school tuition and school uniforms for an increasing number of offspring.
Now and then these pages would offer an insight as to what was going on in the household:
“I laughed when my wife sat down at the table loaded with a health food dinner and announced: ‘This family should learn how to eat.’
“ ‘Who’s the tutor? Peter Rabbit?…’
“ ‘That’s not what I mean and you know it,’ she retorted.… ‘Did you know, for instance, that the white flour we buy for cooking and baking is so low in nutrition that insects avoid it? They’d starve.’
“As usual, I found myself pinioned on the horns of a typically female fabricated dilemma. If I let it be known that I was glad our flour bin was bug free I would be implicitly approving incipient malnutrition.…
“The grand architect for my family’s gustatorial reform is the author of a remarkable book entitled Please Your Pancreas — and Live! by Doctor Julius Cranby. According to Dr. Cranby the pancreas lies off the islands of Langerhans somewhere east of suet. Before the discovery of health foods and those little wayside health bars where vim, vigor and virility may be stored via coconut milk cocktails, gourmets and trenchermen were frequently shipwrecked on the shoals of indigestion because of storms that pounded down out of the pancreas and liver. The fat globules could not be broken down because of balky liver bile and unless you had you-know-whose little liver pills the results are flatulence, heartburn and a complete shambles of the large and small colon.…”
My puzzlement at the pretzel logic of women and my suspicion of authority (certainly of “experts”) has bypassed misogyny and nonconformity and landed me squarely in the country of the misanthrope, just outside of anarchy. We all try to do a little better than our parents, and I like to think that my inherited sense of the absurd would elicit that distinctive, tobacco-wracked laughter from my dad.
Bob Brizzolara wrote television and film reviews and was quoted at length, I recently discovered in my cartons of memories, by Time magazine in August 1957 as a “Catholic Film Critic.” In his piece on Hollywood’s treatment of the clergy, he postulates the casting of George Raft as St. Augustine in The Confessions. His articles for the Voice of Saint Jude, Ave Maria, the New World, and Catholic Home Messenger examined anti-Christian sensibilities in fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Communist threat, “Dear Abby” Van Buren, and physics teachers at De Paul University. My father, it seemed to me, knew everything, and everybody, read everything, and knew just how to phrase his conclusions with both authoritative skill and clay-footed puzzlement. He was my only writing teacher, and he taught me that didacticism was a sin, but if you’re going to do it, make damn sure you’re funny while you’re about it.
Robert Brizzolara died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip in Wisconsin in September 1968. He was 49 years and seven months old. In July of this year, I will be that age precisely. It is only now dawning on me, old-guy jokes aside, how very young that is.