Monday, March 16, 2009

 

My father’s life gives me a clue about how we got here

I am pleased to post below an essay my friend Jennifer Freeman wrote on the eve of Barack Obama's election. In it, she uses her father's life -- and her speculations about how he might have voted in the election if he were still alive -- as a lens on the changes so many Americans have gone through in the past 50 years. I find it a very hopeful reflection.

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I wish my father were alive to see Barack Obama’s candidacy. I would love to know how he felt about it. I’m pretty sure my father, the proud veteran of WWII, would be voting for Obama. That’s a surprise given who my father was; not surprising given who he became throughout his 84 years. I find it remarkable, and thrilling, that we are poised to elect an African-American president. My father’s life gives me a clue about how we got here. His evolution must mirror an evolution that has been taking place around the country for decades, in individuals and across generations, leading us to who and where we are today.

My father was always uncomfortable, at the very least, with people of other races and cultures. I was born 18 years after my father’s discharge from the Air Force where he was stationed in Italy and Egypt. My memories date no earlier than 1968 or so, but though 24 years had passed since his time in the war, I remember that Italians were still Wops to my dad, Egyptians were still A-Rabs. And yet his war stories reflected a subtle change in those 40’s era attitudes. He told a story of how none of the men in the unit at the base of Mt. Vesuvius believed the Italian geologists when they warned that it would erupt. My dad said they lost bombers and tanks that could have been saved if they’d heeded the warnings. I don’t even know if that story is true (Mt. Vesuvius did erupt in 1944, lava did pour over bombers, but I don’t know if it’s because the Italian warnings were ignored) but my father told the story with a note of disdain, or at least something a little smug, toward those who he said had refused to believe that “Wops” had any useful advice.

My Italian-American sister-in-law, whom my father adored, put to rest his waning anti-Italian bias. When he launched into yet another war story and my mother, two brothers and I rolled our eyes and cried for relief, Hank (nicknamed after her grandfather) was rapt and filled with questions. But when he referenced the I-talians (long-I), she’d always correct him “(short-I) talians, Frank, Italians.” He’d laugh and correct himself. She never let him get away with the mispronunciation or any slip back to Wop. She helped him overcome his anti-Catholic bias too, which had already taken quite a hit during the Kennedy era but was still there nonetheless.

During my childhood my father was uncomfortable with African-Americans too, and while I can’t recall anything specifically racist it seemed pretty clear that he was. Maybe it was the way he laughed with Archie Bunker instead of at him like the rest of us. Archie was beleaguered by a more liberal family, a changing neighborhood and changing times, just like my father. I recall how we berated him when he referred to Negros or colored people, until finally he corrected himself and learned to say “black.” He would often express his appreciation for black athletes or actors with an inadvertent tone of surprise or a qualifier -- “he’s good, for a colored guy.” We were merciless at those times, angrily demanding to know what he meant. He’d get flustered and say he didn’t really know, that he didn’t really mean anything. I guess we were part of changing him, but it seemed that the changes in his commentary were designed to avoid our abuse, not a reflection of any real change. I remember asking him how he’d react if I married someone black. We all baited my father like that, taunting him a bit, sneering at his prejudices. I felt bad for him in a way, saw how much he was a lonely island in his own home, yet felt righteous in my message and my style of delivery, however insensitive and ineffective, as only the youth can be righteous.

The Vietnam War also divided us. I remember vividly an argument between my mother and father when my mother declared that she’d encourage my brother to flee to Canada if the war was still going on when he became draft age. My father was furious and deeply wounded. His own sacrifice, his sense of honor and pride instilled during WWII could not reckon with my mother’s questions and the resentment she must have felt toward her country in 1970. Jeff was only 12 years old. It was an unnecessary argument, wound up in a hypothetical war 6 years in the future. But at that point it looked like Vietnam could go on that long, and in my mother’s eyes, there was no good reason why it should.

Another time I recall a discussion about busing, when Minneapolis like many cities was working to undo school segregation. We lived in a quiet, white suburb, watching it all from a safe distance. My mother said that that didn’t seem right, that they should include the suburbs in a busing plan. I don’t recall my father’s reaction, but I’m sure he was not gung-ho about busing his children over the line into North Minneapolis. Maybe he’d learned by then to keep his reactions to himself.

Over the years there were little signs that my father was changing with his family and the world around him, and that the changes were truly about him, not just a means to avoid our barrage of assaults. The first significant evidence was his shift from the Republican to Democratic party. He claimed it was Richard Nixon who did that. He felt deeply betrayed by Watergate. He said it helped him see that the Republican party was becoming a party interested only in helping the well-to-do. The Republicans my father was drawn to were frugal, small “c” conservatives who appealed to values rooted in his upbringing on Minnesota and Iowa farms. After Watergate, he began to appreciate the Democrats focus on “the little guy” like him. Throughout the rest of his life he became a loyal and tireless volunteer on many a democratic campaign.

By early 2000 it seemed that my father had changed quite a bit when it came to issues of race. I was suddenly struck by this when he and my mother moved into an assisted living facility. They introduced me to the aides who came to help clean up their apartment, take their medication and get ready for the day. Nearly all of these men and women were Haitian or African-American. I remember coming by for a visit and finding my father and one of his Haitian aides sharing pictures and stories of their grandchildren. He would have found this impossible 20 years before.

After my mother passed away my father became increasingly frail and began to need the help of his aides more and more. They were there all the many times he fell or the EMTs needed to be
called. During those days the suspicious, mistrustful manner of his younger days was nearly gone, given way to a man much more frail, a little nervous, but grateful for the kindness of these strangers who were his daily support.

The father I recall from 1968 – 1975 or so would have most certainly voted for John McCain, Watergate notwithstanding. He simply could not comfortably vote for a black man, even if he was a Democrat, even if my father had turned away from the Republican party to be in the party that stood up for the little guy. But the father with tender admiration and appreciation for his hard-working health aides, I’m certain he would be voting for Obama. It brings tears to my eyes to think that, and wish that he were here to see this day. I’m sure he’d be proud of his country right now.

by Jennifer Freeman

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