My mother was the dangerous one, the ever-primed font of rage, but my dad was the big, solid, warm one,. Little as I was, I knew I couldn’t tell him anything about my need for protection, but I still took comfort from his presence, though during weekdays his presence was scant . It was just a fact that his primary bond was to my mother, and anything that might rock that boat was not on his radar screen. I don’t recall ever having felt betrayed by him—until much later, when I began to understand the clockwork of abuse and alcoholism, and how denial plays a role in that.
In my mind he was the way things should be, and I loved him. He was a good story-teller, and I remember hearing him talk about past things, and my understanding of those stories was colored by my appreciation of him as a place of comfort.
My dad grew up in Illinois, mostly in Springfield, within the professional class— his father was a lawyer. It was a shock when I began revisiting memories of his stories and understood that he was a deep-dyed racist. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any concept of what that was.
But stories that I accepted as OK when they were told became gruesome in retrospect. He talked about the Chicago race riots and mentioned stringing blacks up on lamp-posts as just the way it was. He was a Chicago executive and owned land in northwest Indiana, and at some point he hired a black farm laborer. The man became unhappy with the state of his employment and wanted to leave. My dad threatened to take a knife and hamstring him.
It makes me shudder that he told this as a joke. I makes my blood run cold that I heard this as a funny story told by a warm, jovial man whom I loved.
Our first teaching job after Conrad’s PhD at Stanford was at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. After our first play production there we had a cast party, and many parents were present. One man heartily proclaimed, drink in hand, “Now we don’t treat our niggers that bad, do we?”
Racism runs deep in our culture and it blends into the woodwork until forcibly revealed. I am reasonably intelligent and perceptive, but it took a long time before I began to recognize it. I can’t demonize my father, I can only see who he was and where he came from.
If I were magically transplanted back to that time with the full understanding of what I know now, could I have confronted him? I doubt it. I was the vulnerable one, and he was my only bulwark. In how many homes has that story played out, letting the accepted darkness pass?
I have an absolute belief in the innate innocence of humans, born spotless and totally dependent on their upbringing. A brilliant renegade priest rejected the idea of original sin, and proclaimed original blessing. I’m with him.
But those of us who have imbibed toxins in our infant milk without knowing it, we have a lot to weed out. Pick up the damn hoe, already.
for the old mutt who lurches
after the stringy bristled old hippie
who suns in the square
a beast who resembles a pig
who warms his belly on brickwork
who rolls up his glassy eyes
to yellowing leaves
with no injunction but breathing the next
no urge but the protoplasmic command
to spend out the stretch of his days
godfather to fleas.
© Bishop & Fuller 2017