My Father

Despite my parents' conventionality, they taught me to place a positive value on nonconformity. The word different, around our supper table, could be used defensively, in praise, or as an expression of dubiety (as in, when my father one night added curry powder to the rice, my mother-- who hated rice anyway-- said "that's different"). Their constantly expressed attitude that it was a sign of strength to swim against the current proved essential for my surviving my parochial school experience, particularly from the fourth grade on. (And later it taught me to construct myself as a locally famous personality in the last two years of high school-- after having spent the first two years as a "weird," socially ostracised outcast.) Not only was I marked in the second grade by being obliged to swallow a teaspon of sticky liquid yellow prescription medicine from the hands of Mrs. Covington while the entire class-- straining at the leash to be led off to lunch-- watched, but something more mysterious-- which I only later, as an adult, identified as class-- marked me in the very small world of church and school, where I was never quite right, even when by some miracle I happened to be clothed in the style of my standard-setting classmates. I didn't have a clue to understanding this difference until, in my twenties, I discovered-- in theory-- the existence of class.

When in 1958 we moved into "town"-- i.e., into a suburban neighborhood-- I saw nothing but differences between my family and the neighbors. Both of my parents held jobs, which was bad enough, but my father worked at night, when most of the world slept. (Which meant, lucky for me, that he was there in the afternoon when I got home from school.) My mother did not cook or sew, and when she tried to do either of these things, we all suffered for it. My father was a wonderful cook. Like clockwork, he had supper on the table at five sharp, every night, when my mother was expected to pull into the driveway, home after a hard day's work keeping a company's books. The neighbors thought this "unnatural" arrangement was terrible, but given my father's stocky, powerful build, his reserved personality, his recent past as a truck driver and owner of an Indian motorcycle, and his macho position as a factory foreman, the neighbors' opprobrium could not impugn his "manhood." (My mother, naturally, and her supposed lack of womanliness, was the primary target of their outrage.) Hardly a suppertime went by that my parents didn't preach the gospel of noncomformity. This gospel didn't take with the brother who was eleven months my junior, but it rooted itself in fertile ground in me-- to my parents' later-- and openly rueful-- regret.

back to essay