The Pain of Memory

I do my best to avoid the real pain of memory so I’ll just put it plainly. There are areas that cause me the most discomfort. The abuse in my childhood, both within my family and the racism outside my family. Second, my decades long struggle to balance my needed belief in myself, which I still don’t always see as legitimate self pride as opposed to arrogance. I think the thing this really hits on is growing up without having my mom’s presence more fully in my childhood. And lastly, and tangentially related to the latter, my inability to fully embrace my shadow. I’m just going to talk about a part of that shadow here, my anger.

I’ve written about surviving being the only Black boy in my Catholic elementary school, about the daily fights, the taunts and name calling, how the adults (nuns and priests) aided and abetted the outrageous and racist behavior of my school mates. Let’s just say I came away from Saint Bridget’s school with a lot of anger, I’m not feeling the need to cover that ground any further here except to list it as a precondition to the gist of this essay.

But I do think that it’s necessary to mention that there were a small but significant number of white kids that were friendly towards me. Even more so, there are a few that I would say were my friends. It wasn’t all bleak. One of them is still in my life today, sixty plus years later.

I could keep going like this. Trying my best to deflect the dread I’ve felt all along about getting to the ‘real’ of this essay. Looking at my journal entries leading up to writing this there is a shit ton of ‘oblique’ language, gotta get past that shit.

*

Fuck it…

My father was an abusive asshole, and as much as it pains me to love him and his memory I’ve always carried my fury about having to live with him and without my mother’s love and intervention. He was physically and psychologically abusive. My sister and I survived our childhood together only after much suffering and scars. I don’t want to re-live a single moment of it but I can think of one that deserves mention.

I was fifteen and my dad was arguing with me in front of my friends and the neighborhood because I was playing baseball in dress clothes (neighborhood games were legendary and being picked meant I didn’t have time to go change). I gave my place to a kid sitting on the sideline and proceeded to leave the game and go up to our apartment and change and he kept on berating me and I told him he’d made his point and to stop yelling at me.

He hit me. Smacked me with his open hand across my face hard.

I guess he had forgotten that we were out on the street, in front of my boys and the entire neighborhood. There I was not his son; I was somebody who didn’t take any shit from anybody.

I laid a right cross to his jaw and dropped him hard on his ass. I remember thinking that I wanted to push my fist all the way to the back of his head. He was much taller and bigger than me but I had caught him totally off guard and he went down and was dazed for several moments. I stood over him and told him if he ever put his hands on my sister or me again this was going to happen to him. I remember seething with anger and not caring about whether or not he’d get up and try to hit me again.

I walked away and he followed me telling me that I had disrespected him as a father, blah, blah, blah…I was having none of it. I repeated what I said and told him to back the fuck off. We never spoke of it again.

But…

A few weeks later we got into another argument while I was cleaning the kitchen. I had a cast iron skillet in my hand and realized I wanted to brain him with it. I thought I’d let it drop from my hand. He got up from his chair and bear hugged me and told me to calm down. I thought I was calm…

My sister had run to the back bedrooms but came out after she heard us speaking in normal voices. I went to pick up the frying pan and noticed it had flattened on the edge away from the handle. She told me that I hadn’t dropped it, I’d thrown it down. I guess I intrinsically knew I’d have killed him if I’d held onto it. I guess he knew too. That’s why he bear hugged me.

I never had to hit another person in East Falls after that. At six feet, one hundred and seventy-five pounds I’d put a six-three, two hundred and twenty-five man down. I didn’t hit another person after that until three years later.

*

The fall after I graduated from high school I met a girl named Linda. She was beautiful, smart, outgoing, and sarcastic. Just my type. We had a typical, freshly legal, sexual romp in just about every location in Philadelphia. It was epic and we were definitely in love…no seriously, it wasn’t just the wild, uninhibited, fantastic sex being in love. We did all sorts of romantic shit together. Long walks, movies, dinners when my paycheck at the post office came in very handy. At 18 I was making serious, adult-type money working the truck terminal, parcel post, and primary section at the main post office while trying to act like a college student at Temple University. Trust me, being a student was the very LAST thing on my mind.

Anyway, the following spring I had an afternoon off and Linda came over and, sure enough, we started to break in every chair and other pieces of furniture with sex positions we were determined to invent or replicate.

And my dad walked in…

A few weeks later my Aunt Marion was having a party and she wanted to meet my girlfriend. When I told Linda she was invited she wanted to know if my dad was going to be there. Hearing that he was she said no way was she going…Not that I should have blamed her…but fucknuts immature as I was then I argued with her from the Neumann Center all the way to the Broad Street subway station. As passionately as we had been fucking we were now arguing, screaming at one another by the time we had passed through the turnstiles onto the train platform.

At one point she pushed me away from her and I slapped her.

Hard enough to knock her down…

I stood there as she wordlessly picked herself up, walked back over to where I was standing and she started to pummel me with her fists. I remember vaguely hearing her screaming at me as she punched me in my chest and stomach. It was strange because I couldn’t feel a thing, nothing seemed to be happening to my body that connected to the vision I had of her flailing away at me.

She stopped and looked up at me and threw her arms around me as I started to fall over.

Have you ever been in shock?

She dragged me over to a bench and sat me down. She was talking to me but I don’t remember what she might have been saying. After some hours, I remember crying and feeling like a piece of shit for what I had done. I told her to leave me, not just there on the bench, but to leave me because of what I had done. I doubt I could ever have felt lower. I never have since. But the wonder to me was how she stayed with me that day. Stayed with me even after I had put my hands on her.

The bruise, the welt actually, stayed on her face for over a week. I remember feeling so ashamed that I tried to break up with her for weeks afterwards but she told me that would be me taking the easy way out. She wasn’t the typical abused woman. She never excused what I had done while at the same time understanding how unlike me that act was. She saw the look on my face and described it to me over those days and nights where I worked my way to whatever it was that unleashed that hit.

I found out many years later, while talking about it in therapy, that I had been so appalled by my own behavior that it put me in shock. I was completing the work I had been blessed to start with that young woman who stood up for herself, and me, in spite of how I had shown how ugly I was capable of acting.

I’ve never really talked about this until now. But I’ve always remembered the look on Linda’s face, how it transformed from the fury she felt at being so abused to the look of fear and concern at what my realization of my act had done to me.

Since that incident I’ve always wondered how a man could ever put his hands on a woman, then instantly after that thought I remember how quickly it can happen.

*

This is late, it’s incomplete, but for now, it’s done. There will be more about anger and shadow. And more importantly, there will be more about how my mother and I built a relationship after being apart for so long.

*

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”

Hafiz

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If I Were to Lie to You

If I were to lie to you I’d tell you that I was a quiet person. I’d say that nothing in politics bothered me and that I didn’t ever vote because they’re all charlatans, it just doesn’t matter because it’s all a game. I would say that I was highly disciplined and singular minded. I’m a peaceful individual and I’d say poetry is a waste of time, that disclosing intimate parts of a person accomplishes nothing, and that intellectual pursuits leads to massive frustration with no real guide to effective action.

I could go on but I’ve already promised to reveal myself here through these pieces, these essays are to reflect my personal story in the many facets of my being. That, plus the fact that I rarely have any effective censor between mind and mouth so I’ve learned that lying is way too much work.

Telling the truth means I never have to remember what I’ve said.

It does seem somewhat like self aggrandizement, or worse, self flagellation at times, to continue in this vein but I’ve committed to it and while I doubt that there’s enough material to last all year I do know that I have plenty to talk about in terms of what affects me and mine. Over the last four decades I have tried my best to follow Einstein’s admonishment to ‘widen my circle of compassion’. Admittedly I still have an ego-centric, pleasure seeking core. But I’ve done the hard work to live up to my mother’s praise to me shortly before she died, “Chuck, you are a good man.”

A good man.

Yesterday I had a nice long phone conversation with the college kid. Aside from my giving him some advice about his self confidence and listening to him talk about the beautiful coeds he’d like to talk to he told me that he thought I was ‘level headed’ and that he was exceedingly lucky to have my wife and me as his parents.

Level headed…

I’d have thought if I were to ever use that as a self descriptor I’d be lying my ass off. But given that my son is a scholar (he’s a Marquis Scholar at Lafayette College in Easton, PA) I guess I have to accept it. Even though I don’t feel level headed at the moment. I feel just as angry as I did when Richard Nixon was elected president back in 1968. In fact I feel just as angry as I did that whole damn year…maybe even a bit more.

And worse, along with my anger is my dismay. This has been a long fucking slog through racist and supremacist shit for me in my life time. Basically, forgive my harping on this theme, since the weeks in late summer and early fall in 1955 when it seemed every damn elder in my family made sure I saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s battered and disfigured body I have been dealing with white folks bullshit.

No. Fuck no. I am NOT level headed when it comes to that…

More so, after sixty-fucking years of being a person who truly fights for the rights and freedoms this country supposedly provides (members of American armed forces fight for America’s national interests, NOT for our rights and freedoms. Seriously, take that nationalistic bullshit and shove it somewhere!) I am appalled that the country I would bequeath to my children, grandchildren, and great grandchild still reeks of the negative crap that permeates the air in 2017.

I’d be lying to you if I said otherwise…I’m about to channel my inner Shaka-Fucking-Zulu up in here!

I’m a peaceful warrior at heart. My college kid once marveled that I treat everyone nice. He noted that I spoke with the same respect to ‘big shots’ and janitors, that I called every man sir and every woman ma’am. What he didn’t know was that I give every person a fair shot to prove themselves decent human beings or assholes..Yeah, I’m just that binary when it comes to people.

But experience has proven that each person is capable of the highest aspirations in their actions as well as the banal evil we see every day…which is one reason I do, at least outwardly, treat every person with respect. My issue now is that there are so many people…scores of millions of my countrymen and women, who voted for an openly unqualified, loud mouth, bigoted, xenophobic…oh hell, the list is endless.

By their actions I have now divided all people into, “He/she voted for Trump”, or This person didn’t vote for Trump”.

Today, a guy who acted like he owned the fucking aisle at the store where I grocery shop was instantly placed into the former category. As I waited for him to move his cart out of the way he glared at me with that early fifty-something, “I’m a white man, Master-Of-This-Aisle and the Known World, with his three thousand dollar suit and five hundred dollar shoes, I smiled and hit him with my “Hey, how are ya?” smile and said, “I’m in no hurry.” He continued to glare but after a moment the hard look in his face was undercut with a ‘What the fuck do I say to this huge man of color who’s being so sarcastically nice to me?

I reached over, moved his cart out of my way and wished him a nice day…didn’t give a flying fuck what he felt or thought after that. But I suppressed an urge to turn around and ask him who the hell he thought he was to glare at me like that.

I’ve become a damn stereotype…

Well, except in a way, I balanced my rage with calm, albeit sarcastic, action.

Fuck.

I guess the college kid is correct.

Level headed…

I ain’t lying.