Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

I read in the paper yesterday that the CEO of Duke Energy made $8.8 million this past year. Duke Energy is applying to increase utility bills in a state that has ten percent unemployment, with many people cycling off the unemployment rolls when they’ve exhausted extensions and have become the chronically unemployed. The Duke Energy’s CEO’s salary is miniscule in comparison to the salary and perks of some of the CEOs at the major financial institutions and fortune 500 companies where the going rate is in the tens of millions.
Alabama is trying to legislate immigrant laws similar to Arizona, a throwback to the slavery days where free people of color navigated through the country carrying their freedom papers. Now anyone who looks like an illegal alien, that will mean anyone with Hispanic heritage, has to produce proof of legal immigration.
Conservatives are pushing to raise college tuition costs and slice financial aid, effectively creating an elite environment where only the wealthy can afford college. Public schools budgets are being slashed and the voucher and privatized schools supporters are pushing their way to the forefront again.
Obama’s health care reform bill has been stagnated by the details, taken to court and deemed unconstitutional, and in the meantime, people are cut off from preventative health care. They can’t afford to be healthy or take care of health issues before they become catastrophic.
All these movements are creating an ever-growing underclass in America, and the conservatives and religious right support these movements, even as our collective quality of life deteriorates, our salaries stagnate and our houses lose value. The 99% are trying to organize and protest, but is it too little, too late?
I’d like to ask the religious conservatives, those people who are more interested in legislating morality than in the equality of our humanity, what would Jesus do? Would he step on the downtrodden because they are not worthy? Would he increase pain and suffering when there is already enough in this life? Would he deny the lowliest human being comfort and compassion? Would he judge certain people more worthy than others? Would he give a hand up to heterosexuals but not homosexuals, or Christians but not Jews or Muslims, or people with white skin and not brown skin, or those who are wealthy not poor? Tell me the answers, because I need to know how Jesus would act in the world you are creating: one in which children go hungry because they have chosen to be poor or they are homeless because they aren’t worthy of shelter; where the poor would stay poor because they aren’t worthy of education and improvement of their circumstances; where people who are different from a very narrow definition of who is worthy would suffer their fallacies; where people are told that if they work hard they will be part of the one percent, but it’s a lie. Would Jesus lie?
I think not a single child should go hungry, without shelter, without the education to reach his potential. Every American should be free of worry about access to proper healthcare. Every American should have a job that pays a living wage, a wage where a family can afford a safe place to live, food, clothing, an education and transportation. And if a person is unable to work due to physical, emotional or mental challenges, he will be provided a living benefit so that he does not live in poverty. Why would Jesus deny anyone that? He wouldn’t.
Stop lying. Stop using Jesus’ name to spread your brand of hatred and your vision of a world of haves and have-nots. And guess what? In my vision of the world, you are just as worthy as the homosexual couple who wants to marry, the atheist who believes there is no after life, the Muslim who prays to Allah several times daily, the young woman who wants to go to college and become a lawyer, the child who aspires to be an artist, the terminally ill patient who wants to spend her last days pain-free and with the people she loves, or the man who was born a woman and wants to make his outside match his inside. You will receive the same compassion they do, no matter your ethnic heritage, the color of your skin or your gender. You will be worthy of all that humans are worthy of, and you will not be judged.

(Excerpt from Chapter 2, Bloody Mick, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Ma was always ready to tell a good story when I was growing up, about her childhood or her days before and just after marrying Dad. Her words slipped easily into bawdiness and sailor’s curses, her humor biting, tart. 
Her stories were often served as dessert with hot tea – coffee for the men – after a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs or her favorite boiled dinner of ham and cabbage –mashed, fried in butter, and served over toast the following day for breakfast.
“Bloody this and bloody that” they always seemed to go, her cigarette slicing the air for emphasis and her face emotionless except for her gray eyes, crinkled ever so slightly with wry cunning. Ma’s stories made me laugh, and they still play like scenes from an old movie in my head. Perhaps I saw in Ronald a bit of Ma’s storytelling prowess.
Dad, on the other hand, was quiet until his temper exploded, never revealing much, but he worked with his hands: scraping old paint; patching holes; applying new paint with brushes and a roller, fashioning a hat out of newspaper; tinkering under the hood of his car; fixing leaky faucets; mowing the lawn and planting marigolds and petunias; dropping two or three dollars into the collection plate during Mass each Sunday, even when the mortgage was due and we would eat hotdogs, hash and Spam for the week; holding the newspaper up in front of him in both hands to read, or folded in quarters to do the crossword; helping his best friend Harold to renovate the old house Harold inherited out in Middleburg. “Mashooze,” Dad used to say, his hands clasped behind his back when he walked.
“What about your shoes?” I asked him almost every time.
“Mashooze escalappa,” he answered, rocking back on his heels. I never knew if it was an Italian phrase he recalled from childhood or something he made up because he liked the sound of it. I liked the sound of it, too, and the constancy.
Dad, born Francesco Liuzzi, was the second of seven children for Maria Mancini and Rocco Liuzzi.  Rocco arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 and returned to Montemurro, Potenza, Italy in 1909 to bring back Maria and settle in Albany.
Ma said Dad never had a childhood, and I believed her, even when Dad and his siblings argued about how things were when they were little, voices getting louder to drown out the others; even after Aunt Josephine had an old black and white photograph duplicated for everyone – a photo taken before she was born: Grandpa in a dark suit standing behind my seated grandmother in a full length printed skirt, a blouse with a watch pendant pinned over her left breast. He looks defeated; she looks like the Queen of Hearts from the Disney Alice in Wonderland cartoon, her bottom lip drawn in as she bites down on the right side of it. They both stare stoically at the camera; the children – four boys (Rocco also not born yet), hair plastered in olive oil to tame it into a side part, and one girl with a large, white bow in her hair, who would die of pneumonia soon after the photo was taken – all stand solemnly, dark eyes brooding at the camera.
As a child Dad sold newspapers on the downtown corner of Clinton Avenue and Broadway. Each week he turned his earnings over to his mother, but not before he stashed a nickel in his sock to spend at the theater. On a cold day in 1919 while out hawking papers with just a sweater on and no hat or gloves, Dad, seven years old, heard someone behind him.
“Hey, boy, aren’t you cold?”
He turned to see a tall, slender, colored man, early twenties, with a wool scarf wrapped around his neck.
“Yeah, I’m cold.”
“Well, follow me, boy.” The man led him to the kitchen entrance of the Grand Hotel on Broadway. He worked as a short order cook there. He pointed to a chair in the corner and left him. Dad looked around and wondered if he should leave, then the man returned with a cup of hot cocoa.
“Drink this and warm your bones.”
Dad, his eyes intense and dark, his hair shiny from the olive oil, looked up at the man with the kind smile, took the cup from him, and sipped the warm, sweet liquid. Dad and Harold would become friends after that day, the relationship lasting fifty-two years.
Dad attended St. Anthony’s Catholic School. The Italian-Americans called it “St. Ant’nees.” He dropped out after eighth grade. “My mother wouldn’t let me wear long pants, so I dropped out of school and got a job,” he often told us. As soon as he got a license, he secured a union job driving a truck for Hamilton News.
World War II came along after Dad had worked quite a few years. Dad became an older draftee. He legally changed his name from Francesco to Francis after he got drafted. He was stationed at the American base outside Sydney in Ryde, New South Wales, Australia. A Staff Sergeant, Tech 5, he “drove truck.” Dressed in army khakis in Australia, Dad was short of stature, but he had a full head of thick dark brown, almost black, hair, alluring deep brown eyes, and olive toned skin. He spotted my buxom Irish mother standing outside after a church meeting one evening.
“Hey,” Dad said as he swaggered over to her, “I thought they pulled in the sidewalks for little girls like you at this time of night.”
Ma ran away from him, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she always said with a wink, she noticed how short he was and let him catch her.
Ma found his exotic look exciting but was even more excited by his last name – Liuzzi. Just a few months before, an American soldier, Edward Leonski, had been arrested for murdering three “sheilas” –Aussie women – in Melbourne. My mother loved the stir she created by dating an American with a similar name. I felt that same stir when Ronald and I started dating.
Dad picked up Ma, a stacked size twelve (Marilyn Monroe’s size, she told me more than once), in his truck and let her ride around with him while he was on his rounds. If any MP jeeps were spotted, he pushed Ma down into the well of the seat. She was giddy with the secrecy and scandal of it all.
Ma also believed that an American could save her from a life of poverty. Her father fought in World War I at Gallipoli with the other Aussies, many of whom were slain as they ran toward the enemy. In a photo taken by a war correspondent, my 6’4” grandfather Clary Elliott carries a wounded comrade over his left shoulder. He stands colossal on barren rock, a crooked grin on his face, and though the photograph is black and white, I can sense his angry red hair peeking from under the slouch hat crushed down at an angle on his head. This rough-hewn giant returned home to his wife and children. A few years later he died from mustard gas exposure-induced pneumonia when Ma was four, leaving her mother Peg-o to raise five children on her own.
Ma, the fourth of five children like me, was born with crooked feet and had to wear button top shoes for the first seven years of her life. Her hair was too dark to be blond and too light to be brunet, and her eyes were a dreary gray like autumn rain. Next to her sister Joan who had jet-black hair and azure blue eyes, Ma felt plain and dull. She made up for it by taking on dares from the local blokes like the time she bit the three-inch long, fat, white grub in half. She dropped out of school when she was fourteen so she could work in a cut glass factory to help out her mother who made money doing other people’s laundry and taking in boarders. Ma spent many of her work hours being chased around the factory by her lecherous boss.
“Bloody Mick,” she called him, telling him to “Keep your diddle in your trousers.”
She accepted Dad’s marriage proposal just before he shipped back to the states.
Then Dad returned to Australia in 1946 to marry Ma and find work there. The thought of growing up in Australia instead of America makes me wonder how our lives would have differed. But Dad had trouble finding good paying work in Australia, so when the union sent him a letter from the States telling him they had a position waiting for him at Hamilton News, he brought Ma home to Albany, NY. He was thirty-four and she was twenty-four. They stayed at Dad’s parents’ house and Ma studied and converted to Catholicism so they could exchange new vows in the Catholic Church while Dad searched for a home. Peggy was born before he found one.
Dad’s parents called Ma a foreigner, demanded her marriage license every time she entered the house, and only spoke Italian in her presence, not that they ever learned to speak much English. My grandmother said an Italian curse at Ma every time she spoke to her. She offered Ma one thousand dollars to annul the marriage. Ma refused and asked a new friend, Millie, who became my older siblings’ godmother, what the Italian curse meant. The translation was I hope you burst.
Ma never felt comfortable with the Liuzzis who were not very affectionate with one another but who silently demanded loyalty and shunned outsiders. Grandpa had been scammed as a young father. A gypsy woman told him to bury three thousand dollars wrapped in a rag in a designated spot. She promised the money would grow into a fortune. When my grandmother found out what Grandpa had done, she sent him back to dig up the money, but it was already gone, and so was any trust in strangers.
Ma stood at the edge of the parlor one day as my grandmother spoke rapidly and angrily at Dad. Ma never knew what the argument was about; Dad refused to talk about it later, but suddenly my grandmother pounced like a cat on a rodent and slapped Dad across the face. Ma boiled with anger as she watched Dad drop his eyes to the floor.
The next time my 4’10”grandmother looked up at my 5’7” mother, narrowed her eyes, and growled the curse at her, Ma stared down into her eyes and said in her Aussie accent, “And I hope you burst, too, all over your goddamned new carpet.” 
My grandmother passed away in 1952 at the age of sixty-nine after tripping on that carpet and falling to the floor dead. Her death certificate stated cause of death as brain aneurysm.
Ma remarried in the Catholic Church, but she did not step foot in it again except for each of our baptisms and, later, Dad’s funeral. Dad took care of getting us to church.
 “Christians on Sunday; heathens the rest of the week,” Ma said of her in-laws and my father, “My grandfather is spinning in his grave because I married a goddamn Catholic.”

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