Peggy and York Mitchell, with sons York Jr. and Duke, c. 1940. My father had the meaty good looks that are no longer in fashion, the kind that helped make young Ernest Hemingway famous and Clark Gable a matinee idol.
My mother parked the truck on my foot three hours after my father told me that he loved me. It was March 1965, I was 20 years old, and that was the first time my father ever said anything like that to me. The half-ton pickup truck parked on my foot was also a first.
Peggy Mitchell, 1995: "I wish I'd had more children."
Tom Brokaw titled his 1998 book The Greatest Generation. They were citizens, the NBC news anchor writes, "who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America - men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today. My parents belong to the Greatest Generation, and my father is one of the 67,960 World War II veterans currently residing in San Diego County. Brokaw reflects on how people like my parents married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinct generation, the Baby Boomers, while "always staying true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith." Brokaw accurately locates my parents and me in our respective generations, but his eulogy to a passing epoch does little to explain what happened on that long-ago spring afternoon. It is physician-poet William Carlos Williams who gets it right. "The pure products of America go crazy," he writes, and yes, on that afternoon in March, 36 years ago, driven to a point of desperation, my parents and I, each ill our own way, were indeed mad.
York Sr. and Peggy, 1998. A marriage that lasts more than 30 years and sends into the world a number of children cannot be said to be a failure.
York Mitchell is my father. The word carries Victorian associations of formality and patriarchy; "Father" is an ancient oak tree offering shelter against an uncertain world. For me, "mother" is a word with more active associations. It is the wind passing among the oak's deciduous leaves, a river of green air that combs life through that tree's stolid presence. A father is only a little less special than mom. (Our first word, after all, is usually a cry meant for her.) Peggy Mitchell is my mother. My brothers and I have always called her "Murr," a child's slurring of "mother" that is pronounced like "purr." l called her "Murr" that evening in March in front of the Greyhound bus depot.
Peggy and Duke, 2000. York presented Duke with a Padres cap and promised to return to celebrate his next birthday in October. We hugged him good-bye.
It was not quite seven, the sun was descending beyond Broadway on the further edge of the blue bay, and she was double-parked. Anxious about the traffic, she'd left the truck running while I buzzed her cheek, jumped out, and pulled my suitcase from the back. Standing near the front of the truck, I said something that she, her foot on the gas and prepared to leave, did not hear. "What?" she asked, looking at me through windshield.
She yanked up on the hand brake to halt the truck's slight forward movement.
Whatever I'd just said was forgotten. The wide gyre of thoughts was instantly reduced to just one ridiculous image that surely would have been funny if it were not that the half-on truck was on my foot.
"Murr," I said, framing my words carefully, "the truck is on my foot." Comprehension did come to her at once.
"What?" she said again.
"Murr&mdash!" my voice wrenched tighter, the volume upped so that I was close to yelling, "the truck is on my foot!"
The mocha brown 1962 Corvair truck-was snub-nosed with an automatic transmission and motor in the rear. It featured two panels, one at the back and another that dropped open on the passenger side. At the time, the advertising campaign made much of this second panel. Television ads featured an elephant climbing into the bed where, as I recall, it trumpeted. It felt like the truck was holding an elephant now.
She got the message. With panic breaking apart her features in chunks like a sugar cube dissolving in hot water, said, "What do I do?" Her voice was low, the tone almost conversational, but her gaze was bright and unfocused like a drunk's, and her mouth was an anxious smear.
"Drive forward," I said. "Take your foot off the brake and drive forward."
"Okay," she said. "Okay." Popping the hand brake and gripping the steering wheel, she leaned forward and pressed her chest against the wheel as if this gesture might help to propel the truck. Then she laid her foot lightly on the gas. The engine gently revved, and there was a slow forward motion - no more than a couple of inches - and the truck made a slight but noticeable dip as it rolled off my foot and onto blacktop. She groaned, "Is it off?"
I wiggled my toes inside my sneaker. The toes worked fine, and from what I could see, at that darkening hour my sneaker showed only a faint smudge of the tire tread. (At the age of 20, I was almost as worried about my white sneakers as I was about crushed bones.)
"It's okay," I said. Switching my suitcase from one hand to the other, I stepped onto the sidewalk. "See, I can walk. It's fine." I had reached the door to the bus terminal with its logo of a lean silhouetted greyhound when she came to her senses. "Go to a doctor!" She was leaning across the seat and calling through the passenger window. "As soon as you get to school, go to the doctor! Do you hear me?"
I yelled back a promise and then, waving, disappeared into the terminal where I gave in to the urge to limp. Standing in line to board the 12-hour nondirect bus to San Francisco, with a stop in Oakland, my foot was hot.and my toes felt splayed and flattened out like cookie dough. Stopping to one knee I slipped off the shoe and inspected the sock for blood. There was none. The foot showed no Swelling or discoloration, so I decided to forget about it. After all, mind is said to triumph over matte (however discomforted), and in my case it was easy because I had something important to mull over. My father had said he loved me. More than 36 years after the events of that day, it is this announcement that leaves me slightly breathless and hurts in a way my foot never did.
What child understands his parents? I liked to watch mine dressed up and leaving for parties. I knew they made a handsome couple. Both had shapely hands and wide, bright smiles; my father's hair was inky black then and my mother's complexion, now much paler, was more the color called butterscotch. I took in, intoxicated, the, different and specific smells they left on their respective pillows. My knowledge of my parents was sensual, as objects.onto which my attention sometimes lighted. This was also the way I knew myself, as, a material body down upon which I gazed, as a face I met in mirrors, as a voice that did not sound like my own on tape recordings. In other words, acquaintance with my parents and myself being a sensual thing of sight, sound, and smell, it can be said that I hardly knew us at all. Only later was I able to appreciate mood and motivation, how individual personality and cultural convention, and perhaps even something like biological predisposition, combined to make my parents and me what we were. My father was, I think, unusual in that he did not swear or drink or gamble. He liked to maintain control. If I now understand that my father loved me in a way that was actually quite tender and that he had deep affections, I know also that he learned well how to hide &mdash if not deny &mdash his feelings.
My mother was better at the yin-yang of emotional relationships. An outgoing woman, she expressed naturally the softer sentiments of affection and caring. As an African-American wife and mother, she found resources needed to support her man and keep her family safe and intact. I cannot remember my mother ever saying that she loved me, but (unlike with my father) I knew that she did. I'd made for her a necklace of navy beans that I'd softened with boiling, strung together with needle and thread, then dipped into red paint and left in the sun to dry. The next morning, Mother's Day, she wore my necklace to church. The day was bright and hot and the enamel paint ran, ruining the blouse and staining red her flesh, but she spoke only of how beautiful people said her necklace was. It was my mother who nursed me through a case of the mumps. When the swelling descended from my throat to my chest, Dr. Jackson, the family physician, worried that if the swelling continued to descend I might be rendered sterile. I was too young to understand the word, but when he left, Murr looked at me with a fierceness that tore through the fog of my fever. "The doctor says you must get well," she said. "The swelling must stop." I remember how odd this order felt, my mother talking to me but throwing her voice like a ventriloquist into my future. Perhaps it was from there that the healing came, for the next day the swelling had stopped and the fever was broken. That was my mother. She knew me before I knew myself and spoke to a future for which I as yet had no name. She was down on her hands and knees, altogether engaged with me in the mess of my life. She was strict and beat me, and when I got too big for that, she'd ground me; yet when my father tried to teach me how to drive and we both were absolutely nuts after just ten minutes, she got in, the car, spoke soothingly, and easily put me through maneuvers so that I got my license in time for the senior prom. She was stricter than my father, but she was also farseeing and chose to support me when I wanted to go away to college. She made mistakes but said the important thing between people was to always be able to talk, "just talk about it," she said. She was an exceptional woman who cooked and cleaned and shopped and bathed and watched over the sick, yet I regarded both her tasks and her concerns for me as unexceptional, as just what a mother always did. My thoughts reflect the assumptions of a society in which it is the good opinion of the man &mdash the male gaze &mdash that counts.
My mother was a jazz fan. Her mother, Florence Hawkins, sang onstage (her signature piece was "My Man Bill"), and her showgirl aunt, Caroline Snowden, was a name star in the earliest moments of black cinema. Murr never performed onstage, but she had an excellent ear and distinct tastes, and like so much else in her life, she domesticated her musical gifts to fit circumstances. For example on Saturdays the day we cut the lawns at the apartments and worked around the house, my father liked to wake my brothers and me by yelling out a hearty" All right! Hit the deck!" This kind of wake-up call was like being drenched in cold water,and we left our beds with an attitude. My mother played it differently. When she got up, and on her way into the kitchen to make our breakfast, she'd set a long-play 33 on the stereo set. It might be Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal on the piano, perhaps Stuff Smith with his fiddle, Andre Previn or Cal Tjader; she even had Dave Brubeck playing his now-classic "Take Five." Ten or fifteen minutes of cool jazz as a backdrop to the sounds of a newly forming day, and by the time she came into our rooms to quietly announce that it was time to get up, we were ready.
But mothers generally get short shrift. Burdened with unrealistic expectations, even in a pro-feminist age, they are held responsible for their children's happiness and for the social and emotional well-being of their family. Mothers are idealized like the Virgin Mary and bashed like the Philip Roth character in Portnoy's Complaint. According to Freud, when we reflect on our mothers we are reduced to primary process thinking &mdash the thinking of young children. I admit to being baffled when I imagine my mother as a 16-year-old, the age at which she met my father (and only a little older when she married him). It is easier to think of him as a man (he was 21 years old and had already served years in the service), but she was just a girl at a time in which it was not unusual for a young woman to go directly from her father's house to her husband's, from daughter to wife and mother without a break. This was the rapid transit of many young women of the Greatest Generation.
She never finished high school. She, was a housewife and mother Gobs outside the house for black women were mostly confined to domestic work), kept busy because when my father was on leave, she said, "he had only to look at me and I got pregnant." Certainly, time and again, he'd sail away on the USS
Prairie after a six-week leave and she'd make an appointment at the Obstetrics Department of the Navy Hospital.
At the time, birth control was a hit-and-miss affair, and twice, after an exchange of letters with my father, she went for an abortion in Tijuana, The first time she went alone; later, when my grandfather learned that she meant to go a second time, he went with her.
Not an homes have stars, but in ours that role went to my father. He had the meaty good looks that are no longer in fashion, the kind that helped make young Ernest Hemingway famous and Clark Gable a matinee idol. His natural aura of reserve and mystery was heightened for me by the fact that for most of my childhood he was away at sea. My mother didn't think of herself as good-looking, though she had a nice figure and liked to say she had plenty of personality; Her children knew her to be fun and inventive and, When needed, to show an iron Will. But then in 1959 my father retired and brought to a close more than a quarter century of military service. Up until that time my parents had spent months separated from each other. After more than 20 years of marriage, and five sops, the man who came home to live with us full time was a stranger to the woman, just as she was to him.
Ann Richards, treasurer of Texas, was keynote speaker at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Noting the fact that in 160 years only two women had made the keynote address, she compared the situation of women to thepartnering role played by Ginger Rogers: "After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." Coming years after the women's movement was generally recognized, her remarks, however wittily expressed, were defensive. The right to parity had to be explained. At about this same time, long after my parents separated, my mother offered a rare moment of pessimism. "It's still'a man's world, isn't it?" she said, shaking her head.
It was 3:30 on that March afternoon, and my father was sitting on the bed dressed for his night job in his custodian uniform, a tan short-sleeved shirt and khaki trousers. He was holding the papers I'd brought for him to sign. His lunch was packed and his was on the table, the pungent odors of fried liver onions hanging in the y mother was there, standing wedged in between bed and the wall where mustard-colored sunlight at a diagonal across her. The bedroom was a and cramped affair in an apartment on 20th Street air was thick with spring and charged. Later, on the Greyhound bus heading north, my foot no longer throbbing, I reflected on the scene. Parents, we are told, must be prepared for the time when their children leave the nest. The transition sounds benign enough, but the fact is that the move into independence can be a most violent act that blows the kid out into the world, into a new day, and into his own historical time. As this happends, the parents are put on notice that their moment in the sun has passed.
Though it was 1965, what we know of "the '60s" was not to hit San Diego for another seven years or so.
Midcentury culture, complacent and forward-looking, remained more or less unquestioned here. Hard work and some luck had secured for my parents and their children a middle-class life. Unfortunately, the values underpinning that menseendeavor required that my parents despise, even squelch, some of the best parts of themselves. There was, of course, nothing wrong with my father smoking a pipe or my mother wanting a Chevrolet station wagon, that she wore a Vogue-pattern Chanel suit to my brother's wedding or that we did not eat watermelon on the front porch. The Ozzie and
Harriet lifestyle that much of the nation embraced often masked a despair that few were willing to speak of (The Greatest Generation were the original performance artists.) I did not know then that all social mobility, whether up or down, comes with a price.
"I love you," my father said, and added, "and I don't want you to go."
So many years later I can still recall how those ten words sent a sweet pulse flooding through my body at the same time my skin went hot and prickly all over from an embarrassment so keen it scalded. I knew how much this declaration had cost my father. It was Easter break, and I was home from the University of California at Berkeley where I was in my junior year. I had brought papers for my parents to sign approving my plan to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Because any exchange between my father and me went better when my mother acted as go-between, I asked her to show him the papers and smooth the way.
"He's going to be upset," she warned, glancing at the papers before folding and depositing them in the deep pocket of her cotton housedress.
I was afraid of my father. This may be hard to explain given that between my parents he was the softer touch and that he was by nature the more accommodating. However, his agreeableness stemmed from a disinclination to undergo prolonged confrontation and stress, the meat and potatoes of child rearing. While he lacked the cussedness as well as the patience required to go one-on-one with kids, the color spectrum of his feelings was much narrower than my mother's. He was gentle and could be generous, yet unlike my mother, he kept you guessing as to where he really stood. His silences were never sullen, but they seemed to me vaguely censorious. Slow talking, with keen powers of concentration, he was as cautious as a cat His undoing was the spoken word. The deliberate pacing, flattened inflections, and simple architecture of his sentences, like his thoughts, had been planted, taken root, and bloomed on the farm in which he was raised in Jefferson County, six miles outside of Birmingham, Alabama. "There's more than one way to skin a cat," he liked to say, "and you can catch more with sugar than with salt." Fortunately, most social discourse turns on ritual banality, a trading back and forth of received opinions and truisms, the conversational equivalent of treading water. Most of us, most of the time, are not required to speak with feeling or to say much that matters. My father generally got along fine.
Nothing more was said of those papers after I gave them to my mother, and tension (all the more distressing for being unspoken) grew as days passed and my Easter break wound down. Finally it was after three in the afternoon of my last day home. That evening Murr was driving me to the bus depot and I was heading back north. Putting his dinner on the table, she announced, "Your father wants to see you."
I entered the inner sanctum of their bedroom reminding myself that all that I wanted was to join the Peace Corps, and what was wrong with that? Among my friends, the recently formed volunteer program was big news. The campus coordinator described would-be volunteers as elite ambassadors addressing an ideal of world brotherhood, young men and women supporting members of the Third World in their struggle for self-reliance. I could not imagine how my father might seriously oppose it. The Peace Corps even carried the imprimatur of that Camelot-time, of John F. Kennedy, the recently slain president. With my mother's support, I was sure it was a done deal. Still I was on pins and needles.
"Close the door," he said from his place on the bed. My heart leaped to my throat Knowing that his meal was on the table and going cold, that he liked to leave for his job promptly at 4:00, I'd figured our meeting would not take long. Now I wondered what was about to be said that should not be overheard by my youngest brothers, then 11 and 10. (Shawn and Andre, meanwhile, had hopped on their bikes and were far out of sight and well beyond hearing.) I was about to close the door when my mother slipped into the room a and took her place between the bed and the wall. I closed the door and turned back to face the music.
I'd prepared myself for being grilled on the Peace Corps. I'd be reminded of my horror of inconvenience, of roughing it. So what? I'd changed! And besides, even if I hadn't, I was just three months shy of my 21st birthday, of being a man, officially speaking, and while patience was never my strong point, I looked at the papers in my father's hands and knew I needed only to bide my time. In the end, if he refused to sign them, in 90 days I'd do it myself.
He laid the papers out on the bed. "What is this about?"
"The papers? They're for the Peace Corps. I want to be a volunteer, and they'll pay me, at least at the end they will. It's kind of complicated ... "
He cut me short. "Yes, I understand," he said, and said nothing more.
For the reticent, silence is an opportunity to return to their quiet center, to root themselves. As for me, the top of my head was flying off. If only I could have turned to my mother and pleaded, "Say something! Say anything!" but the strength of our alliance came from its being unspoken: we were a secret team. Which made her silence all the more devastating, for it meant (or so I read it) that having presented him with the papers, having supposedly gone to bat for me, having in effect done all that she could do, finally even she was defeated. Five hundred miles away the Oakland Black Panthers, sporting black leather, berets cocked to the side, and firearms, were putting forth the proposition that if you were not part of the solution you were part of the problem. I was young and as dumb as a shoe &mdash in other words, a perfect candidate for this kind of either-or formula. The way I looked at it then, in her failure to grease the wheels, to use a metaphor, my mother had become like my father, a cog in them. Well, so be it, I told myself. What did it matter if it was two against one?
Still nobody spoke.
"Sure, I love my parents." That would have been my answer if you'd asked me at the time. But I did not love the fact that they were standing as a barrier between me and what I wanted to do with my life. Who can love that? I have never hated my parents, but at the moment I despised them (a rather crueler sentiment). Could not they see, my own parents, that they were trying to kill what was big in me, what was meant for great things? (The Peace Corps was just the beginning of what I was certain was destined to be an incredible life.) Silently, I vowed that they would not destroy what was best in me.
I would not let them. Did I hate my parents? No, they hated me. "
"I love you," my father said then, "and I don't want you to go."
My ears rang. My cheeks burned. I was a windless kite spiraling to earth. Stunned, mumbling something, I gathered up my papers and left the room.
Later I stuck those official documents from Washington in between the seats at the back near the toilet of the Greyhound bus, and when friends later asked about my plans for the Peace Corps, I made a sour face to hide my fierce joy and said, "My father doesn't want me to go."
Today Peggy Mitchell, 79, resides at a live-in facility in Oceanside. There her medicine is dispensed three times a day, her room is cleaned, her laundry is done, and her visitors are asked to sign in at the front desk. She enjoys going out, walking around a shopping center or moving through a department store. She still enjoys movies, though she does not know the young actors and thinks films are not made as well as they once were. Because most of her meals are taken at the facility, a treat is to have lunch at a restaurant.She has little sense of how much fun it once was to hang around with her, how she used to give parties that her friends talked about for weeks afterward. No longer does she remember that she fried catfish so that the outside was crispy and the soft meat inside was flaky and fell away from tiny pale bones. On special Sundays she made chicken and dumplings &mdash the drumstick meat tender,
the dumplings so light and smooth they were like dessert. At the end of the meal, she served homemade ice cream that she scooped onto thick portions of golden peach cobbler, the syrup running glistening onto the plate.
"Really?" she will say, smiling, "I don't remember."
At my last birthday she wrote down my name with a note to call me, then forgot to whom the name belonged. Unlike in the Corvair-truck commercial, there was no elephant standing on the truck bed the evening my mother drove over my foot, and today there is no creature standing in place where recollection now seeps and is lost. My father is 86, and while his memory loss is not so extreme, if I were to ask him, he would not recall that afternoon or why he was so determined to keep me from joining the Peace Corps. However, I think I know why.
I was a dangerous kid, both to myself and to others. I crashed bikes and broke furniture, I cut myself and stubbed toes. I caught myself in zippers, bit my tongue, and later sliced it through the middle when I chomped down on a jawbreaker that broke into two pieces, one with a razor-sharp edge that impaled me. I nearly destroyed the kitchen heating aerosol cans of spray paint and blew off the yellow-and-green metal awning over the patio when I collected dead fronds from our banana tree, doused them with gasoline, and threw on a match. When I was 14 and in an agony of uncertain sexuality, I asked to go into therapy and my mother arranged it. Three years later, as a high school senior, I dropped into a depression that at the time had no name. Somehow I discovered that I felt better by staring into the oven. Late at night when everyone was asleep, or in the early morning before anyone was awake, I'd slip into the kitchen, pull up a chair in front of the Hotpoint, open the oven door, and stare into its dark interior. That hole was nearly a living thing, for its breath was always a little warm. It was a thing of feeling and emotion, capable of getting blazing hot and then turning so cool that I could lay my bare hand against its interior. It would not hurt me. Its blackness was an aspect of infinitude, and so it seemed almost to have a soul; and the gas gauge that regulated the heat and was a benign force for good, for cooking, could also be used as a tool for death. As a teenager, suicide seemed to me a gentle, sweet thing, morning sleep that extends and extends, forever, and from which no one ever wakes you. Staring into the oven, I found all this exceedingly comforting. Then one morning my mother rose early and came upon me in the kitchen. She quickly retreated, and not long after my father called me into their bedroom.
"Is anything the matter?" He set aside the newspaper.
George Leonard, author and cultural critic, says "suicide" was one of three taboo words before the '60s. No one used it. (The other two words were "cancer" and "homosexual." My mother was later to bring personal meaning to the first word. I would bring the same to the second.) My father may thus have put aside his newspaper, but not his inhibitions. He could not have used the word "suicide." Nor could I.
"No, nothing is wrong. I believed I was saying the truth when, in fact, it was lack of vocabulary, no word to describe my unhappy feelings.
"Then stay away from the stove." He picked up his newspaper and went back to the sports page.
I was not an easy child to raise, but the times were easier ones in which to raise difficult children. Under my parents' roof and the strictures set in the San Diego of the time, there was only so much trouble I could get into.
Teenagers fought less with their parents, mostly because there was less to fight about &mdash designer clothes and R-rated movies didn't exist. Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia of the consensus about proper behavior. "Grown-ups agreed about rules and enforced them. Teenagers weren't exposed to an alternative value system and they rebelled in milder ways &mdash with ducktails, tight skirts, and rock and roll. Adults joked about how much trouble teenagers were, but most parents were proud of their children. They didn't have the strained faces and the anxious conversations that parents of teenagers have in the 1990s." But once away from home, at college, I memorized incendiary bits from Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. I bought in to Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, joined the Sexual Freedom League, and took LSD in the form of high-quality blotter acid. Returning home to sleepy San Diego, eager to show off, I spouted communist theories and supported socialist values I'd read about; I spoke of incest taboos and the Oedipus complex, talked about the free love I' d never experienced, and extolled the merits of hallucinogens. Mypoor parents can only have awaited my visits with the tion, "What next?
On that March afternoon 36 years ago"What next?" had materialized before them &mdash a vision in a golden-orange-and-black African dashiki, hair viciously teased into a thick, wiry 'fro gleaming like a helmet because of the Afro Sheen, hair that encircled a scowling head like a storm cloud. Throughout my vacation, to my secret delight, my parents were recognizably aghast. After all, had they not raised their children to be polite, hardworking members of society? Wasn't kinky hair a vestige of African ancestry and, as such, a shameful thing, to be sheared down to an inch of its ugly life? Had I forgotten that it was impolite as well as perhaps dangerous for me, a young black man, to make a spectacle of myself? Who had taken their nice Negro son and replaced him with this self-dramatizing Watusi warrior?
It is hard to imagine today the electrifying impact someone who looked like me had back then. The toothsome kid who had won the Christian Fellowship Award from Our Lady of Angels, who had grown into the clean-cut graduate of Saint Augustine High School on Nutmeg Street, that guy had been spirited away and in his place was a hairy and angry young man who demanded to be called black &mdash a term whites were scared to use and blacks were affronted by. After all, "black" was something no one wanted to be. Today some of this may be ascribed to a youthful idealism abetted by fashion, but when I announced that I needed my parents' signature to depart for two years in West Africa, they took seriously that their son &mdash already lost to them in spirit &mdash was now about to disappear in fact. To lose me to "Mother Africa" was to lose me twice &mdash and this time perhaps for good.
- Them that's got shall have
- Them that's not shall lose
- So the Bible said
- And it still is news
Nothing more eloquently speaks of my parents' epoch and the forces that ruled their dreams and staggered their waking hours than Billie Holiday's rendition of "God Bless the Child." By the time my father came home to stay, my mother had stopped collecting vocalists, but Lady Day's voice still held in our home, tainting the air and faint like an echo.
- Mama may have, Papa may have
- But God bless the child
- That's got his own
- That's got his own.
That was my parents' dream, what they had wagered their lives on to achieve, and had. They had their own. Contrarily, while my childhood had many advantages, my dreams were rage-filled; and if my antagonism seemed disproportionate to the little suffering I'd actually experienced, it was a fair reckoning of what a sensitive kid felt in the face of the grief and injustice he saw around him. My fury was profound. My father may have told me that he loved me, but it is likely that it was my mother who put him up to it. "Tell him what you feel"; and knowing he needed help there, she may have given him his lines: "Tell him you don't want him to go, tell him that you love him."
Thirty-six years ago this would have sounded odd. People, it must be remembered, were not always under orders orders to tell each other how they felt. Not so long ago, such discussions (except under rare circumstances and among the most intimate of relations) were considered rude. One was expected to know how others felt, with rules of discourse that effectively helped to meet those expectations. A principle of distinction guided these rules. For example, children addressed adults by their last names, adults called children by their first. Nuns dressed in habits, men wore fedoras, and women slipped on white gloves to go shopping. College was not so much a job requirement as a rite of passage, and retirement brought rest and honor in the community instead of paunchy, gray-haired men and women roaming the countryside in RV s plastered with stickers announcing, "I'm spending my children's inheritance." Today whether dressed in Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, or Kmart, casual dress is the rule, even in the workplace where the boxboy and the boss are called by their first names. Not so long ago the young were criticized for wanting to grow up too quickly; by contrast, today it seems that everyone wants to grow down to somewhere between the ages of 16 and 28. Moisturizers, hair dyes, cosmetic surgery, StairMaster, and liposuction promise to extend the halcyon days of youth into our golden years.
Yet was it so much better half a century ago?
A book published in 1897 that influenced child-rearing practices throughout much of the last century was Diseases of Infancy and Childhood by Dr. Emmett Holt. In it, the Victorian pediatrician admonished mothers to set the rules early and not indulge their babies. "Some children cry to be held, some to be carried, some to be rocked, some for a light in the nursery, some for a rubber nipple or some other thing to suck. The extent to which this kind of crying may be indulged in; even by very young infants, is surprising, and it explains much of the crying of early childhood. The fact that the cry ceases immediately when the child gets what it wants is diagnostic of the cry from habit. The only successful treatment of such cases is to allow the. child to 'cry it out' once or twice and then the habit is broken." Holt writes that on admission to the hospital very young infants almost invariably cry a great deal for the first two days. But in London's Babies' Hospital, where he worked, "as it is against the rules to take such children from their cribs and hold them to quiet their crying, they soon cease the habit and give no further trouble. Mothers were forbidden to quiet the infants by taking them up, and after two or three days' discipline the crying ceased and peace and order were again restored."
The tough lessons found in Holt's book were widely ascribed to by the time my mother became a parent Dr. Benjamin Speck's gentler guide to child care was first made public in 1946, two years after I was born; but even if my mother had known of those principles, she'd have ignored them. A free thinker
in many ways, when it came to child rearing, she took pride in being of the old school. Accordingly, my brothers and I were forced to "cry it out." As newborns we'd be fed when we demanded it and picked up when we cried, but then one fateful day when we were old enough to stand on our own and hold onto the wooden slats of our cribs, we'd cry out for our mother, then squall our lungs raw; our faces contorted in rage, then despair; and still she would not come. We wanted out of the crib, to be picked up, to be held and made to feel safe, and in the end when the person who had the power to make all this happen refused to come, we would finally collapse, exhausted, into anxious, angry sleep. This happened once or twice, then our young wills were broken at the same time we'd have learned one of the essential governing rules of the universe: Do not expect to get what you want.
A father's job was to make sure his family had a roof over its head and food on the table; a mother kept her home clean and cooked the meals. The children's job was to be seen and not heard. Respecting the rules was the name of the game; overcoming frustration with patience and diligent attention was how the game was played. Instead of "love," terms like "respect," "obedience," and "responsibility" got most of the airplay. Codes change, of course, and now we allow that what we say not only reminds us of what we feel but helps create the feeling itself. Our remarks are deemed as important for us to say as for others to hear. By failing to name our feelings, so we currently hold, do we not lose the feeling itself? As I stop saying "I love you," do I actually and in fact begin to love you less, and do I generally become a less loving person?
When my Father left his home, joining the migration of Southern blacks into the country's Northern urban centers, the dreadful image of a body hanging from a tree cast its long shadow over that exodus, a fearful banshee that hurried that race of men and women forward. Between 1882 (when reliable statistics were available) and the spring afternoon in 1965 when my father told me that he loved me, there were 4742 American men, women, and children who had been lynched in this country. The greatest number of these &mdash 3446 &mdash were black. Most of these torture-murders occurred in the South; with Mississippi (539 deaths) first, followed by Georgia (492) and Louisiana (335). My father's state of Alabama ranked fourth with 299 deatlhs. While these numbers are a reminder of the recent reality of black life, according to the NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950, the statistics are not comprehensive because they represent only recorded lynchings, "and one can merely guess how widespread the phenomenon actually was." As opposition mounted in the 19205 and 1930s, the number of reported lynchings declined, but more subtle forms of brutality evolved with lynchers continuing to terrorize and murder black people, "but now select committees might be assigned to abduct, torture, and kill victims without public fanfare. Further masking the realities behind the data was the phenomenon of 'legal lynchings,' whereby officials consented in advance to a sham court trial followed promptly by the prisoner's execution."
- Southern trees hear a strange fruit,
- Blood on the leaves and
- blood at the root,
- Black body swinging in the
- Southern breeze,
- Strange fruit hanging from
- the poplar trees.
- Pastbral scene of the gal lant South,
- The bulging eyes and the
- twisted mouth,
- Scent of magnolia sweet
- and fresh,
- And the sudden smell of
- burning flesh!
"Strange Fruit," written by Lewis Allan, a white man, became in 1939 one of Billie Holiday's signature songs.
According to Tom Brokaw, 1.2 million blacks were in uniform during World War II, "almost 10 percent of America's black population at the time. On posts, the white troops got into brand-new barracks with
central heating while the black troops were stuck in World War I barracks heated by coal stoves." In the military, blacks were mostly confined to the service areas as ship's stewards, members of the quartermaster corps, .or drivers for transportation outfits. Brokaw reminds the reader of one of the curiosities of World War II: German and Italian prisoners were often shipped to remote places in the American West to await the end of the War, with more comforts than they would have had at home. German POWs were allowed to go to the PX when blacks were not. One black ex-serviceman recalled a white officer saying, "If you boys don't behave we'll have those Germans guard you."
"Things are a thousand times better," my father says today and leaves it at that. In the Navy he rose through the ranks to become a chief petty officer, then retired and started over, working for the county as a custodian. By the time he'd served 20 years there, he was a supervisor. Methodical and hardworking, goaded on by the memory of the economic uncertainty of his childhood, he had a mulish drive not just to survive but to do well. It was not easy. He is living proof of Darwin's postulate that what is not useful for evolutionary survival drops away. Like so many of his generation, he was endowed with a passion for economic security. All the rest was sheared clean away, like a torpedo with its lines honed all the better, aerodynamically speaking, to hit its target. York Mitchell's maturity matched the time and the cultural consciousness that divvied up things so that women got all the feelings and men got all the brains. Under midcentury patriarchy, a man lost favor to the degree he failed to provide for his family. The apartment in which my parents were staying, for example, and in which I had my extraordinary moment that March afternoon, was one of several they owned. They'd moved there after having sold their home on Keeler Avenue, near National City; and while awaiting the completion of the La Mesa house they were having built.
In 1965, changing a diaper or caring for a sick child at night was the woman's job. Roles were clearly defined and discussion about them was thought unnecessary.
Men were not expected to understand why women wanted to talk, or what they had to talk about. "Complain! Complain! Complain!" railed the TV comedian Jackie Gleason on" The Honeymooners. He was speaking for the men of his age. "One of these days, Alice," he promised, making a fist, "pow! Right in the kisser."
His home might be his castle, but my father's real life was meant to happen, and matter, elsewhere, beyond the moat. In the South he'd learned that a black man does not make himself noticed. Day in and day out, he went about his business, saved for a rainy day, and made no waves. As with many men, for my father the playing and watching and talking of sports was the means and often extent of his personal man-to-man connection. Women were another matter; He was a charmer. They liked him and he liked them.
Children ordain their parents with the power of myths. For me, my mother was the sun, bright and expansive, warm and demanding; life seemed to thrive in her presence. I knew my mother's heartbeat from the inside out. Her rhythms were once my whole world. As for my father, he was the moon &mdash mysterious and distant.
I love you and I don't want you to go.
In the end there was a depth of sentiment in that statement so much more vast than the words themselves that if we'd had a name to call it, we would not have dared to use it, for lurking just beyond that apartment's stucco walls lay a world that despised us and, worse, had successfully lured us into despising ourselves. Uttered in the face of the reality of white racism and self-fulfilling prophecies for which self-hatred is the key, his words rubbed out the distinction between father and son. He was one black man speaking to another, a brother to a brother.
How odd, then, that it should be my plans to go to Africa that sent my parents scrambling for the language of that homeland, which is to say a way of speaking of roots, a language of beginnings. As American citizens, they had been taught to fear and abjure their history, to view Africa as backward and bestial, a dusty landscape where cannibals cooked in big-bellied pots and gibbering pygmies scrambled for cover in the underbrush. It was different for me: Africa was a promise. I wanted to go there to teach English, but I expected that I'd also be learning a language I'd never spoken here, the language of truly belonging. Ditching my plans for the Peace Corps, I returned to Berkeley and threw myself into demonstrations against the War in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, my parents moved into their trophy home.
Located on a private road not far from Grossmont High School, the two-story ranch -style structure was cut into the side of a La Mesa hill, its walls a honey blond color toned to match the massive boulders among which it had been set. Inside, my mother hung expressionist art by California artists. She had drapes made with a wide natural weave that left the windows, and the view beyond, as a focal point. A chandelier of royal blue Ventian glass was hung from the cathedral ceiling over the staircase. Outside, at the foot of the driveway, she planted a purple-flowering jacaranda tree with a great umbrella of filigreed
leaves. My father took care of the rest, bathing the three-acre site in rosebushes, birds-of-paradise, ice plant, and fern. Close to the house, he planted orange, pear, and avocado trees and dug himself a garden. The flowers quickly bloomed, the trees bore fruit, and the garden produced masses of tomatoes, greens, and squash.
This was the third house my parents owned. Their first home, on L Street, had been a one-bedroom Craftsman jewel with built-ins made of teak that gave the house, especially during the heat of summer, a deliciously sweet fragrance. They bought it in the late 1930s for $2000. By the time the youngest, Andre,
was born, the family had moved to Keeler Avenue. It was from this three-bedroom, one-bath house that my older brother York left for a career in the Army and I took a Greyhound bus off to college. With two of their children gone, my mother went looking for a new place to live. This last home would be known as "the new house," and "the big house," and later, after my mother left it, just "Dad's house." The completed structure would have three bedrooms, two baths, a living room and dining room, kitchen, game room with a pool table, and den. My father, living alone in his San Simeon, would add a TV room where he would spend most of his time viewing sports events on a set the size of a wall.
"Your father and I were good business partners," Murr liked to say. It was she who first saw there was money to be made in San Diego, quite literally in the land itself. She quickly grew to love everything to do with the real estate market - from first locating a site to watching the concrete poured for the foundation, the door frames set, and the brass knocker screwed into place. She was expert in reading architectural blueprints and said during a reflective mood, before she was about to undergo her first surgery for cancer, that if she could have been anything, she'd have liked to have been an architect.
I do not remember when they cut off her breast, but I know it was not long afterward that the doctors decided to remove the other. Today, according to recent statistics, one woman in eight is diagnosed with breast cancer. Every 3 minutes a woman is diagnosed; every 12 minutes a woman dies. Such statistics were unavailable when my mother underwent surgery. The words ''breast'' and "cancer" were generally left unspoken, the prognosis was widely regarded as poor. Under that blanket of silence and uncertainty, we were forced to imagine my mother as a dead woman.
The first operation was brutal, and the second one was worse. They merge in my memory as one gruesome event. To make sure, they'd got everything - especially the second time - the surgical team cut deep into my mother's side and into the muscle of her arm. She could not speak when I went to visit her, barely grunt. A machine had been set up at her bed, with plastic tubes stuck deep in her side, draining fluid. Her lips were parched, her complexion was a pasty yellow, her eyes had no light. Dad lifted a glass with a straw to her lips and "she took in a little water. Her uncombed hair stood up against the back of her head, a black slander laid against the white pillow. The top of her hospital gown lay flat like a napkin, a desecration that covered her ravaged chest.
Besides her breasts, over the next years, Murr lost a vocal cord and her thyroid gland. She underwent so many minor surgeries and painful, intrusive examinations that I lost count. My father was gifted with good health while my mother's medical record grew as thick as several telephone directories. More than once we wondered if we might lose her, and that was when memory most keenly played back scenes of the past, of the shy girl raised (as were all well-raised girls) to be retiring and to defer to a man. But
functioning for so many years as a single parent with sons to raise,she allowed that part of herself to show that was willful and curious, the part that delighted in adventure. In 1952, for example, after my father purchased a new Buick Roadmaster, then returned to sea leaving her a set of keys delivered with the injunction that he expected to see the car parked where he'd left it when he returned, to hear her 'tell it, she looked at that car in front of the house, and she looked at it.
"I stared at that automobile so long until finally I couldn't stand it anymore."
She was about to disobey orders.
"We're going to the movies!" she announced one Saturday evening.
Clutching the keys, she got behind the wheel. York, the oldest, got to ride shotgun. I piled in the back with five-year-old Marcus.
"Sit back and lock the doors."
We jammed down the plastic knob then waited, no one uttering a peep as she found the right key, inserted it, and turned on the ignition. The straight-eight motor turned over, a sleeping giant come to life, and then the thing moved, slowly drifting away from the safety of the curb. Murr made a careful left onto 19th Street and another cautious left onto Imperial Avenue heading east. It was getting dark.
"You need your lights," York said. While the car was parked in front of the house, he'd sat in front seat for hours, twisting the indolent wheel and feeling the tires turn a little one way and then another. In the course of his virtual driving experience, he'd memorized the dashboard and its near-magical designations of lights, fuel, mileage.
"Where are they?" She looked down, then looked back up, gripping the wheel." Over there!" He pointed to her left. She found the knob and pulled out and two tunnels of light streamed forth: We were on our way.
We arrived without incident in front of the movie theater. Murr was short and the car's deep seats made it. difficult to see well over their tops as she tried to back into a spot "Go back more!" York said. He and I did our part in helping her maneuver dose to the curb. "No, you're still. too far away!" we warned. Having had no lessons in parallel parking and in a car without power steering, Murr used both hands, pulling sharply down on the steering wheel. It was barely moving. York joined her, then I leaned over the front seat; over her right shoulder, and tugged down on the wheel too. Laughing, she paused once or twice to catch her breath. Finally we heard the squeal of the whitewall rubber bruising against the curb.
The lights behind the refreshment stand twinkled. The smell of popcorn and roasted peanuts warmed in their shells was intoxicating. We had no money for refreshments and didn't at all mind: being here was enough. Just beyond the heavy drapes that separated the foyer from the theater, the floor suddenly canted and our feet sank into the dark carpet. We'd never seen anything as black as the inside of the theater, nothing as huge as the figures moving on the screen. "Here!" she hissed, holding onto Marcus. I grabbed at her, so did York. Later Murr went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles and brought home the booklet to study in order to get her license, but at the moment her thoughts, like ours, were held to the magic occurring on the screen. That theater has long since gone from Imperial Avenue. It was called the Victory.
Under conditions amplified by race and gender, my mother grew up with only one option (which is to say no option at all): Get Married. Accordingly, Margaret fell Hawkins did what was expected, and managed things better, perhaps, than was expected. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir puts forth the argument that it is n adolescence that girls realize that men have the power and that the young woman's only power comes from consenting to become submissive, adored objects. According to Beauvoir, women do not suffer from the penis envy Freud postulated, but from power envy. "Girls stop being and start seeming." Girls become "female impersonators" who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Vibrant, confident girls become shy, doubting young women. Girls stop thinking, "Who am I? What do I want?" and start thinking, "What must I do to please others?" The gap between
girls' true selves and cultural prescriptions for what is properly female creates enormous problems. As a young girl in The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner writes, "The world tells us what we are to be and shapes us by the ends it sets before us. To men it says, work. To us, it says seem.
The less a woman has in her head the lighter she is for carrying." This "indoctrination into the code of goodness," argue the authors of Too Good for Her Own Good, is essentially unchanged since the '50s. The rules remain the same for women: be attractive, be a lady, be unselfish and of service, make relationships work, and be competent without complaint. ln a 1957 letter to his girlfriend, author Jack Kerouac (whose novel On the Road was to sound the clarion call for what in a decade would grow into the counterculture) elaborated on the minor characters women were limited to playing in contemporary American life. Women live only circumscribed lives, he wrote, denied the possibility of adventure, "they have only misadventures, like abortion."
Just as on the Greyhound bus heading north, on along journey there comes a point at which one feels as if one is floating. Space and time, which change on a journey (and are our measure of it), alter their character. On a long journey it is the mundane that is the reminding mirror and to which we turn, while the most glorious vistas come to lose their power to enthrall Ho-hum, we yawn and snap a Kodak moment. On a long journey, time no longer ticks away in small regular units, but for long periods doesn't seem to move at all; because we are in a floating mode. Then something happens (nothing in itself perhaps that is especially spectacular) and suddenly time falls away like great cleaved mountains of ice that crash in a thundering heap into freezing water where slowly, as brittle as glass and as sturdy as steel, these jagged clefts trundle slowly toward the sea, themselves already the sea, A life is lived like that, and so is a marriage. "The sea in its surrendering finds its continuing," wrote Marianne Moore, articulating at once the contemporaneous event of movement and sustained flotation.
My mother left my father in 1973 while he was away at work. With the help of her oldest girlfriend, Rebecca James, she threw some things into suitcases and fled down the hill, making a sharp left under the tree she'd planted, the jacaranda where its flowers were falling. She wanted to sell the house that was meant to serve as a symbol of achievement, that emptying place which became for her more a sepulcher where her dying marriage had finally been laid to rest. But Shawn and Andre, the two youngest children, were still living at home, and my father argued he and Murr should keep the house for the children's sake. When she got into her car and hurtled down the hill, my mother was fleeing not just a marriage but the "ever after" fable America had put forth to its Greatest Generation. Elizabeth Hardwick writes in her essay "Seduction and Betrayal" that her betrayed heroine "is 'never under the illusion that love or sex confers rights upon human beings ... however, the truth hits her sharply like vision or revelation when the time comes. Affections are hot things and persons never can become possessions, matters of ownership."
My mother had a dream about growing old with father. Whenever she saw an elderly couple sitting in a restaurant, smiling and talking together, or perhaps walking down the street holding hands, she would gaze in wonder after them. "Isn't that nice," she'd whisper and, against all evidence to the contrary, imagine that her life with my father would one day be the same. She wanted a friend she could talk to, and she thought if she waited long enough, my father would become what he, in fact, was not made to be.
My father's youth was haunted by the specter of lynched, mutilated bodies like in the Billie Holiday song; my mother's life, however, was informed by sentiments of a different kind. In 1921, they eat she was born, Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along opened on Broadway. The musical became a hit, conferring not only legitimacy upon black entertainment but helping as well to usher in the Harlem Renaissance. Yet one song nearly succeeded in shutting down the entire production. The song "Love Will Find a Way" was a love duet that the actors sang straight. Until then, according to critics speaking on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, blacks were not allowed to sing of love without hardening the edges with irony or cutting out its integrity with soapy and obvious sentimentality. Less than 80 years ago, black entertainers (as reflections of black folks, generally) were forced into dehumanized minstrel postures, grotesque contortions in which they were denied the expression of tender regard. The effects of this prohibition may be seen today in familial relations in the black community as evidenced by hip-hop and rap music. Replete with misogynist sentiments and angry sexual encounters, in these popular musical genres, women are routinely referred to as" 'ho's,"to be used and discarded the way the men are.
This music &mdash in which " 'ho" rhymes with "dough" &mdash tops the pop charts and is perfect for our cynical age. But my mother fell in love with my father at a more benign time. She had to learn that love does not always find a way.
"Your father is a Taurus and I'm an Aries," Murr said, when she-looked to astrology for an answer for why her marriage was going bad. "Taurus and Aries are an impossible match."' My father went about his business, guided by a numb resolve for which men are famous, while my mother, stuck with relational urges, understood that she was unhappy, struggled to understand why, and thought such knowledge would itself make a difference.
"People are living longer," suggested Margaret Mead, the anthropologist. Asked why increasing numbers of marriages were failing, Mead, herself a multiple divorcee, said the answer lay not in a lapsed morality or the rise of feminism, but rather ill the extended life span. A century before, Mead said, people could expect to lose their mates several times over &mdash wives to disease and childbirth, husbands to war and the dangerous conditions of their employment. Mead theorized in 1970 that Americans, with their extended life spans and enhanced expectations about the quality of their lives, were no longer so willing to compromise or to set aside their dreams. Marriage, as an institution, was no longer keeping pace with the change contemporary life.
While Mead helped set the climate in which stigma is no longer automatically attached to divorce, an actual marriage on the rocks is not a pretty sight. My father withdrew further into himself while my mother struggled. Sometimes in the morning, with my father gone and my younger brothers on their way to school, she'd jump in the car and head up 101, reaching L.A. sometime before 11:00. There she would drive around window shopping for a couple of hours, grab a sandwich and head back to San Diego where she'd pop something into the oven and have it on the table before my father or brothers returned.
"I loved doing that, " she said, laughing. But this game of hers failed to address the reality of a marriage going bad. They'd tried counseling and trial separations, and when they got back together, always after a while "the walls would start pressing in." When this happened, she'd drive up 101 until she found a motel, pay for a day's stay, then slip into the room, draw the drapes, lie on the bed, and look up at the ceiling.
My father was not as unhappy. He found ways to take his mind off things. He smoked his pipe, puttered, and played golf two or three times a week. A game, usually 18 holes, takes a little more than four hours to complete. Often my father played 36 holes. He practiced putting on the front lawn and traveled to tournaments, where he often won. My mother's sense of isolation increased when she was made a golf widow. The shadow of racism, however, fell over the golf green as certainly as it fell nearly everywhere else in the United States. "Between 1934 and 1961," writes David Owen in a recent edition of the New Yorker dedicated to sports, , "the constitution of the Professional Golfers Association of America - the direct predecessor of the modern P.G.A. Tour - explicitly limited that organization's membership to 'Professional golfers of the Caucasian race.' The Caucasian-only clause was not some esoteric historical artifact; the rule merely formalized a policy that had always been allowed .... The P.G.A. methodically fought efforts by black players to overturn or circumvent the rule, and it didn't amend its constitution until it was forced to do so by the Attorney General of California, who threatened to ban tour events in that state and to encourage other Attorneys General to do the same. The pressure for change did not come from the white pros of that era; the vast majority of those men were happy with their world the way it was."
"We could only play at the municipal courses," my father says today. "None of the private golf courses like in Tijuana or Chula Vista would allow us. I'm still not sure blacks are welcome to play in La Jolla."
Unlike my father, my mother did not have something in which to lose herself until she started looking for the La Mesa home. A new home! At first she looked for a place near the ocean, Point Lorna and La Jolla, but my father was as leery about moving there as real estate agents were uncomfortable about representing them. At that time home owners and real estate agents kept blacks and other "undesirables" from moving into certain neighborhoods by maintaining gentlemen's agreements. (Murr later, briefly, worked undercover for the government, visiting real estate agents and taping their conversations for infractions of U.S. fair housing practices. ) Somehow Si Casady, owner/editor of the El Cajon Valley News, and his wife Virginia heard that my mother was looking to buy a home, Liberal Democrats active in support of civil rights, the Casadys offered to sell a three-acre site they owned near their own home. The land was bought, the big house was built and furnished, then the family moved in.
There is a joke about a young couple on their wedding day. The groom looks over at his bride and sees himself marvelously mirrored in her adoring gaze. We are sure to live happily ever after, he tells himself, if only my wife never changes. Meanwhile, the young bride, taking in her handsome husband, notices that he is not really looking at her, not truly seeing her, and she, too, makes a secret wish: We are sure to live happily ever after if he will only change. Years pass, and one day husband and wife happen to look up at each other at the same time. The man can find nothing in this woman, this stranger, who was once his young and adoring bride, she has changed so much, As for the woman, looking at her husband she notes that he hasn't changed at all! Marriage had become difficult for both my parents, but my mother took it harder. She had stuck it out for 34 years, held in place by girlhood dreams and an adult awareness of what financial burdens would follow if she left With her children: Perhaps in the end and more than anything, it was cancer that fired her decision to leave. In the course of the critical and successful five-year remission period; with no new signs of recurrent malignancy, she came to account her life as a gift, a precious thing returned to her and for which she was responsible. Now just over 50 years old, with cancer having radicalized her life, a new-found religious faith helped give direction to the changes she wished to make.
On April 17, 1971, at the Civic Theatre on B Street, Shawn Mitchell underwent a born-again conversion. He was 17 years old, and his commitment to "accept Jesus Christ as my saviour" would affect the entire family. Not long after moving into an apartment in the Grossmont area where she could be close to her younger sons, Murr also underwent a conversion, embraced the born-again movement, and in the spirit of a new convert, joined a pilgrimage-tour to Jerusalem. When Shawn and Andre, her youngest, still toddlers, she liked to bundle them into the backseat, drive downtown, and park where she had a view of Lindbergh Field. There she watched the jets roaring onto the runway, or kiting upward as they took off, their wings glinting with sunlight. She loved to imagine where the planes were heading, Now she, too, ordered a passport and packed her things. Her movie camera was faulty so she was not able to make a record of her trip; but this may have been just as well for the trip would remain always hers, alone.
Retuming to the United States from the Middle East, she searched for a while until she found a perfect two-bedroom apartment in Oceanside that she imagined never leaving. It was from here that she later moved into a residential center for those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Meanwhile, my father was doing well on his own. He cooked for himself and took care of the bills. He did not seem to mind rumbling around in that large house, its new boxy lines (following the addition) displacing the home's original play of horizontals with a sense of greater solidity. His home had become a fortress. Both my parents would pass out of middle age trailing behind them an intemperate affection for a single color. My mother fell in love with purple. "Anything purple, and in any shade," she crowed. She had her 1994 Toyota Camry custom-painted lavender. My father's chromatic revolution took him to blue. He chose a baby blue for the living room carpet. He bought a dark blue Toyota half-ton truck, and his new Buick Riviera was dark blue too. He had the honey-colored house painted sky blue.
He took care of himself, successfully monitoring his diabetes and facing a serious moment only once, when his prostate was removed. In his essay "Why Men Are Different," Andrew Sullivan writes that "higher levels of prostrate cancer among blacks, some researchers believe, may well be related to blacks' higher testosterone levels." While these higher levels are what help biologically determine sex, Sullivan finds something tragic about testosterone. "It can lead to a certain kind of male glory; it may lead to valor or boldness or impulsive romanticism. But it also presages a uniquely male kind of doom. The cockerel with the brightest comb is often the most attractive and the most testosteroned, but it is also the most vulnerable to parasites. It is as if it has sacrificed quantity of life for intensity of experience, and this trade-off is a deeply male one."
The argument (perhaps reductive) for the role played by testosterone is matched by the (perhaps equally reductive) argument for the role of menopause, into which my mother passed. Menopausal women are freed to once again serve as subjects of their own lives, according to Margaret Mead, who found that in cultures all over the world, postmenopausal women become more confident, self-directed, and energetic. In a word, such women regain preadolescent "authenticity."
Together, having achieved the American Dream, my parents separated but would never divorce (which says something of the bond they had forged over the course of almost 35 years together). Arguably, it was the best thing that could have happened to them. Freed from the daily grind of housekeeping, my mother traveled a little, formed new relationships separate from her life as a wife and mother, and was able, she said, "to close the door to my own home and enjoy the quiet." She sewed and went to movies, and more and more she became active in the church, New Venture Christian Fellowship in Oceanside, that her son, Shawn, founder and pastor, was leading to national prominence. Dad, no longer able to enjoy the option of sitting back at a safe emotional remove, was thrown into the heated cauldron of direct
experience. When my apartment in New York suffered minor damage from a fire, for example, he hopped on a flight and the next day was strolling through Greenwich Village in his shirtsleeves as if he were in La Mesa. And when l told him I was gay, he said, gently, "Yes, but you're also my son, and that's what's important." My parents saw one another on holidays and spoke sometimes on the telephone. Their shared business concerns, and their sense of responsibility to their children overrode an occasional antipathy.
"I wish I'd had more children."
It was Mother's Day, 2000, and my mother was nostalgic. Gone was the memory of the thousands of meals she'd cooked, the tons of clothes she'd washed, the sleepless nights she'd spent watching a fever go down, the teenage pranks she'd witnessed. Half a century before, when women did not have access to birth control, my mother had twice visited an abortionist in Tijuana. The room into which she had
been ushered, the operating table and the stirrups into which she'd fit, the pain and the bleeding afterward - and the unspoken threat of death through infection or hemorrhaging -now all this was forgotten.
"Yes, I wish I'd had more children," she said.
York was not my parents' first child. That boy was Duke, and he was born prematurely a little more than a year before York. Soon found to be developmentally disabled and suffering with cerebral palsy, the doctors urged my parents to make him a ward of the state. Their suggestion was a common one at the time. "Forget about him," they said, "go about your lives, have more children." Duke was duly housed in a facility in San Bernardino County while in San Diego my parents followed the physicians' advice. They went about their lives and had more children. They never spoke of Duke (at least not in front of us), but they also never forgot him. For decades this was their secret.
Not long ago I came across his whereabouts through a letter sent from a foster home in Ontario, California. Shortly afterward, I drove there and visited him. When I confided this to Murr a little later, she grinned with pleasure. Because no one was sure how my father would take the news, I didn't tell him of that visit nor of where we were going when York and his wife Thelma and Murr and I, strapped into their SUV, found ourselves carried along the flow of traffic moving north up I-5. Mother looked absently out upon the flashing scar of cars. Did she remember those hurried visits to Los Angeles, or the times when she checked into some anonymous motel off the freeway for the chance to collapse on the bed in the darkened room and stare up at the ceiling?
"No, I don't remember," she said, shaking her head.
For her 79th birthday, Murr had said she wanted to see her first born child. (She'd spoken of visiting him, but she clearly did not enjoy talking about him, and it was unclear how many times she'd seen him over the years.)
By the time I met Duke, he had trouble walking and was generally confined to a wheelchair. He bore the family resemblance of thick eyebrows and a well-shaped mouth, but his sunny, guileless smile and buoyant disposition were all his own; I pointed to myself. "Brother," l said. I pointed to him and said, "Brother."
"Brother," he repeated, voice was a raspy baritone that skittered around like jelly beans falling to the floor.
"'Mom' Knows Best," runs the headline under a picture on the cover of a Featues section of the Monday, September 8, 1997, issue of San Bernardino County Sun. In the photograph a black woman sits surrounded by six middle-aged men. Willa McElroy offers a pleased, almost bemused countenance. The men (African-American, Mexican, and white) range in age from 49 to 59. They are smiling, their gazes are youthfully fresh and uncensored and at odds with their gray and receding hairlines. The lead reads, "Willa McElroy, 87, cares for six active, middle-aged, developmentally disabled men she has raised since they were toddlers." Duke sits in a wheelchair on her right. He was her first child.
McElroy never had children of her own. "I loved children," she said in the interview. "I always wanted to do what my mother had done - care for children." In 1948 she read a newspaper story saying Pacific State Hospital (now Lanterman Developmental Center) in Pomona was looking for people willing to care for disabled children. She arranged her home in Ontario and, supplemented by the state, took in her first couple of boys. Within a year, she had six: one was blind, three were listed as nonverbal, the others were "mentally retarded," now referred to as "developmentally delayed." Over the years, McElroy took her charges on cruises and cross-country trips in a motorhome. She vacationed with them in Mexico and Hawaii. The Inland Regional Center was honoring McElroy with a plaque listing her near-50 years of service to the disabled. McElroy, who turned 88 in October 1997, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and no longer had a license to run a care facility. The center had planned to find new homes for the men but decided against breaking them up, McElroy, they said, really was their mom, and they "were
too much like family."
I'd first met Duke in Ontario at the McElroy house, a warren of rooms cluttered with the memorabilia of a large family. Now he'd been relocated to a care facility in nearby Corona. It was a private home on a quiet street, but it had a lonely institutional fell, with a long couch that was set in front of the TV and tables with legs that folded under.
"Mom dead!" barked Duke, seeing me and eagerly turning away from the TV.
McElroy had died in 1999 from complications that followed from her Alzheimer's disease. The state had then broken up her family so that Duke was now under the care of a staff of young and friendly Filipinos. They had set out ice cream for our visit.
"Brother," I said, pointing to myself. "Brother," he said, smiling.
Emotions ran like water across his face. His eyes lit up with pleasure. He'd recognized me.
York was standing behind me. He'd been about a year old when he was photographed with Duke, not long before Duke was institutionalized, York was now 60. "Brother." I pointed to York. "Brother," I repeated. Duke said, "Brother," and smiled. Thelma came close and said hello. Murr had hung back until now. I brought her close.
"Mom dead," he said, looking at her.
Murr bent close. She took his hand and looked at it briefly, tenderly.
"Mom. ..... dead," he repeated, his gaze dimming.
Of the six men whom Duke had grown up with, only Rodriguez Doroteo had been relocated with him. Doroteo now appeared from one of the bedrooms. A gentle, waiflike man, he does not speak and does not like to be touched. He stood protectively dose to Duke.
"Yes," Murr said to Duke.
She had met McElroy when she'd visited Duke. "I'm sorry," she said now.
We ate ice cream. The magnitude of the event - this meeting after so many years - had left all of us a little stunned and at a loss for words. York presented Duke with a Padres cap and promised to return to celebrate his next birthday in October. We hugged him good-bye. Duke looked sad as we stood to leave. It was only when we promised to return soon that he smiled. On the ride home, someone broke the silence saying how good Duke looked. We all agreed.
Tom Brokaw writes, "It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option. Newly married couples didn't have an opportunity to adjust slowly to the complexities of suddenly sharing a life .... They were separated, often for years. Husbands were living in an intensely male environment, trying to deal with the stresses and dangers of war, while young wives were left at home, staying with relatives or living alone in strange cities, working when they could or caring for a child conceived before the father shipped out and born while he was away."
Strains placed on these relationships were severe. Men fighting overseas received "Dear John" letters. Couples reunited after the war were sometimes forced to admit they did not know the person they'd agreed to spend the rest of their lives with. Often they simply bit the bullet and plowed into the prosperous postwar '50s aiming to make the best of things.
In Will Our Love Last? author Sam Hamburg explains how compatibility is essential to lasting love and that the marriage relationship ship is formed from three dimensions of compatibility. He lists these dimensions as the (1) practical (managing the practical decisions of daily life) (2) sexual (sharing sexual attraction, interests, etc.), and (3) wavelength (agreeing that "If my partner were of the same sex: as I am, that person would be one of my very best friends"). A marriage works, suggests Hamburg, according to the number of dimensions in which the partners are compatible The ideal marriage, of course, is one in which the partners are compatible on all three dimensions; and when partners are not compatible on any of the three dimensions, according to Hamburg, there is no way they can expect to enjoy a successful marriage.
"The largest number of American marriages are two-dimensional marriages of one combination or another," he writes. "These marriages can range from workable and OK to tempestuous but happy. Many of these marriages stay intact; many others don't."
My parents had a two-dimensional marriage in which the "wavelength component" was missing. They had married young and, in the course of raising a family, had worked together successfully as parents and business partners. Then their children grew up and they, middle-aged and installed in their home that was quickly growing too large for them, were forced to look at each other. A marriage that lasts more than 30 years and sends into the world a number of children cannot be said to be a failure. The fact that it did not last is simply another thing. Aside from questions of right or wrong, of blame or of fault, my parents ultimately took in the sad reality that they had grown into people who did not laugh at the same jokes, value experience in the same. ways, or hold to the same lifestyle visions that would take them into their old age. At the core of their dilemma was a problem to which the Baby Boomers were at that moment, addressing themselves, one that they'd witnessed int he world of their parents, Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation: the failure of parity. Carol Groneman, writing on the history of women's sexuality, would have us understand that the discussion of parity occurred with the dawning of the Enlightenment and its debates about the equality of all men Groneman argues that in the interests of preserving the status quo, the medical establishment and the legal establishment sought arguments that demonstrated women's unfitness for parity with men and did so by means of a conception of femininity that imprisoned 'the woman as the domestic angel whose only longings were for motherhood and submissive wifedom."
By the time she was admitted to the Alzheimer's care facility, my mother could no longer be counted on to take her medication (some of which was helping her successfully fight bone cancer). My father, meanwhile, not only took good care of himself, saw to the house, and maintained the property he and my mother still owned, but he was able to serve as a full-time caregiver for his youngest son, Andre, when he came home to fight kidney cancer. Dad cooked for him and washed his clothes; he went over to Andre's home and cut his lawn and collected his mail. As Andre got thinner and the cancer spread and his struggle to live showed more plainly on his drawn features, Dad tried to coax him with special delicacies full of butter and cream. He left the house only for his regular golf game each week and then rushed home to fix Andre's lunch and make sure he ate. When he was diagnosed, Andre was 42, exactly half my father's age. My father found the regimen wearying, and after five months, little was left of his great reserves of strength. But it was in that same fifth month, in October 1998, that Andre died.
More than 20 years before my mother had left the big house, returning to celebrate holidays with the family and briefly to care for my father when he underwent is prostate operation; now with Andre; her youngest child, she was back. "He's so cold," she said, pulling up the blanket as his body grew cool. She held his hand. "He's so cold," Dad led us in "Steal Away," an old spiritual whose complete words only he knew. We sang the chorus and wept as Andre stopped breathing.
Wrecked with grief, stunned that it was the youngest who had left first, we each set about repairing our lives. Dad had journeyed with Andre, going as far as he was able, over to the other side, "and so for him the road back from there was longer and more difficult. He said that at one point he contemplated suicide. As for me, I was so out of my mind that when a friend urged me to get a dog ("A dog will help you get over your pain," she said, "and teach you compassion"), I did as she suggested because I could not think of anything else to do.
Bodhi was a two-year-old female dachshund, known less formally as a wiener dog.
How was I to know that holding her, and feeding her, and taking her for walks would save me? When Andre died, I felt a yawning emptiness so profound that if I'd been sitting in the old Victory Theatre and someone had yelled "Fire!" I could not have moved to save myself. I was drowning in a sea of grief and rage and dazed incomprehension when Bodhi sidled up to me at the National City kennel and sat, regarding me. I took her home, where she did nothing so miraculous as make the sea of my grief recede; instead, she followed her natural instincts which, with her keen sense of smell, were to sniff the air, point herself toward the unseen shore, and start paddling. I clung to her tail, and though she was a small creature she took my weight and in time she brought us to a place where the sea was less deep, no longer over my head. Then I found that I could stand and finally walk onto dry land. Imperceptibly, daily routine replaced my despair. Evenings, Bodhi climbed onto my lap and installed herself there. I turned on the TV and during an episode of The Simpsons, I heard myself laugh."
A few months' after I got Bodhi, my father was given a puppy, a black puffball no larger than the palm of his hand. He named him Floyd and whisked him off to the veterinarian whenever he seemed the least under the weather. He bought puppy toys and fed him various and choice dry and wet dog foods. Even before he was fully housebroken, Boyd was allowed to sleep in my father's bed. Just looking at the puppy, he seemed to glow. I can't remember when I'd seen him so happy, and that worried me.
"Dad, suppose something happens to Floyd?" I said, speaking by phone. "Suppose-he gets run over or someone takes him."
''What are you talking about?"
"I don't want anything to happen to him," I said. "I'm afraid of what it would do to you."
Over the years, my father's hair had turned white, and he'd taken to dragging his right leg a little. Sudden emotion infected his voice with an old man's tremolo. "But what can I do?" he asked.
"I just wanted you to know and to take special care of him," I said.
I did not want my father to suffer anymore. Our roles had been reversed with my job, now, I thought, to protect him. But I said none of this. Instead, that afternoon on the phone I went on to talk about politics. Bodhi was on my lap and while I petted her, we talked about her too: how she was eating and the veterinarian bills, how it cost more to clean her teeth than the dental technician charged to clean mine.
When my father and I talked on the phone, we usually spent only a minute or two, our conversation casual and kept to topics certain not to be controversial (the weather was always a safe bet). Now we were talking about one thing and another, our conversation ranging all over the place. At each new juncture, however, he'd preface his remarks with "Now I'm not sure how you feel about this ... " While he apologized in advance in case his views were at odds with mine, the calm-yielding weight of the dog in my lap somehow transferred itself to me, Whenever Dad signaled a place where he thought we would disagree, I found myself urging him to go on. "Don't worry," I said, "I want to hear what you have to say."
We did see a few things differently, but he was keeping himself apace of current events and his ideas were generous and, I thought, well thought out. He'd always been gentle and, I think, smart; now I heard the wisdom. I asked myself why had I not noticed before, and why did he fed the need to cushion his remarks, to cover himself? Had I become what he'd once long ago seemed to me, someone to fear?
The '60s had sent Baby Boomers out into the streets. We sat at counters for civil rights and burned draft cards and flags to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. Women burned bras, symbolic of their rejection of sexual inequality, filed suits, and won the right to reproductive choice. Gay men, routinely pilloried as "sissies," knocked out cops during the pitched battles following a police raid on the Stonewall Bar in New York City: Gay Pride was thus born. Our anthem' was "Question Authority," and somewhere in the midst of the heady experience of power that seemed to be ours, some of us got stuck at an awkward point in our development. The truth is that many of us did not, for a very long time, grow up. Unlike our parents, we had the leisure to explore, to try out new ways of being, to travel. Sex was freer and the incidence of unwanted pregnancies lower. My generation married later and became new parents at an age when members of the Greatest Generation were grandparents. Brokaw: "In the nineties, young men and women often talk of using their twenties to find themselves, to explore the options of life. Their grandparents at the same age found themselves in a hurry." Oddly enough, allowed to remain kids for so long, Baby Boomers let ourselves be overtaken by the underside of the adolescent mind, the one that cherishes obscure hurts. We became defined not by out passions but by our hatreds. (Certain trends in psychological counseling may have supported us in this.) The writer C.S. Lewis remarked that children are little rebels who must be made to lay down their arms. I was 55 years old, and on the telephone with my father, I knew myself to be still the rebel, the antiauthoritarian child of the '60s. Would I never lay down my arms?
Not long after visiting Duke, my mother found that the facility in which she was staying had been sold and that new cost-cutting measures meant fewer staff to clean rooms, to insure that residents took their medicine, or to cover the front desk. The quality of care diminished at the same time that the fees went up. One evening for dinner, Murr was served white bread soaked in gravy, with some peas on the side. The meals had not been good for a long time, but this was the straw, as they say, that broke the camel's back. She wanted to move and said it so often that we were forced to take her seriously. We found a facility, recently completed, and not far from where she was staying. Shawn toured it with her and found the building was nicely appointed, the residents' rooms were large, the full staff was friendly, the meals looked good - and the fees were a little less. But Murr was familiar with the other facility and had friends there. Would she be willing to go through that period of disruption, of uncertainty and discomfort that a move would entail? Years before, friends cautioned against leaving her husband and home and the security both offered, and she had rolled her Bette Davis eyes and said, "Money doesn't own me." Now when asked if she were willing to move, she rolled her eyes again and laughed and said, "Of course, why not?" To be admitted to the new facility, however, Murr had to undergo tests to measure how far her
Alzheimer's had advanced. Tests showed no changes in cognitive functioning since her first diagnosis seven years before.
"We conclude from this, " said the physician, "that her original diagnosis was incorrect loss of memory could be accounted for by age; she'd had dementia at the time, but this may have been due to mismanagement of her medication. The long and short of it was my mother did hot have Alzheimer's disease.
"Are you happy in your new place?"
"Oh, very!" She was delighted that a full-size refrigerator was installed in her room. She no longer cooked and had little need for it, but she loved having it there.
"What do you think I should do with it?"
"You can use it as a bookcase;" I said, and looked inside. On one shelf sat a single orange, so different from the refrigerators of my youth.
For years, Murr would bring home boxes and bags of food &mdash fresh vegetables and meats and loaves of bread and giant jars of mayonnaise and jelly. I did not ask if she remembered when she used to shop at the commissary near National City and what she used to buy, because I knew that she would say no.
I experience her loss of memory as somehow a betrayal of my own, and it hurts. "Just treat me right while I'm here," she used to say. "When I'm gone, I don't care what you do with the body."
"My mother was innocent," writes Martin Amis. "Then experience came, and she experienced it. And then she got her innocence back. I have always wondered how she did it."
My mother has also gotten her innocence back. Hers has come with the years, decades in which she has ingested powerful prescription drugs that have kept her t alive at the cost of depriving her of portions of her memory and numbing her affective life, her emotions. She laughs easily, and she cries, and she is easily made anxious, yet the spectrum of feeling itself has been narrowed. Like a piece of fine china wrapped in a protective layer of transparent bubble wrap, she appears at once more than, and less than, present.
At 86, York Mitchell has watched all but one of his Nayy friends and many of his golf buddies die. Tom Brokaw writes of the aging of the Greatest Generation: "The sad reality is that they're dying at an ever faster pace. They're in the mortality years now, in their seventies and eighties, and the Department of Veterans' Affairs estimates that about thirty-two thousand World War II vets die every month."
In the conversation with my father about Floyd, Dad announced that he did not want, to live past the time when he could take care of himself "I'll be ready to go then." I'd never before heard him speak this way. "Well, I better get off the phone," he said.
"Good-bye, Dad," I said. "It was good talking to you."
I eventually made it to Africa, though it was not the Ivory Coast and I went as a tourist, not as a Peace Corps volunteer; And I at last have mastered what I'd always expected to, the language of belonging. But I was mistaken to imagine that the grammar and vocabulary of belonging were to be found in Mother Africa. We belong to no place as much as we belong to a time.
When he ends a message he leaves on my answering machine. Dad says, "This is your father," and when we close a conversation on the phone, he says, "Thanks for calling." He remains an oddly formal man, uncomfortable in the expression of deep feeling. But on the phone that afternoon, he clearly said, ending the conversation, "I love you," and all of a sudden a single heartbeat separated this, his second declaration, from the first he'd made so many years before. I knew he was sitting in the kitchen, with Floyd playing at his feet. At his back, through the glass doors, the Laguna Mountains were standing, blue and sad, in the far distance. When visitors depart, he likes to step onto the deck as they descend the hill. When he waves from there, on the deck of his sky-colored house, if the sun is shining he looks blurred and already a part of that great overhead expanse.
He hung up right after he said I love you, before I could say, "I love you too, Dad, and I don't want you to go." With the years I have become more like him. I am my father's son. I didn't call him back.
At the bottom of the drive, a left takes you under the jacaranda tree that my mother planted. Through its scrim of lacy leaves and purple blooms, you can see my father gather up Floyd and disappear inside, closing the glass door behind him. This ritual of farewell is self-conscious bit of drama initiated, I think, so that one day we can use it to speak of him, a means of recall, one gesture that perhaps may hold him back from the oblivion of forgotten. Betrayal by lapsed memory is a more fearful undoing than death. Forgotten is never to have been. But he need not worry. Neither he nor my mother nor any of those of their time, the Greatest Generation, will be forgotten.
No one is.