We only saw my paternal grandfather a few days a year, mostly on Christmas and Easter for a painful hour or so of silence at his home, punctuated by the ticking of the grandfather and mantle clocks. When the grandfather clock struck the hour, I was relieved by the way it cut through the tension in the room.
Dad began each conversation with his father the same way, “How are you, Pop?
My grandfather responded each time in the same way as he paced the floor in shoes two sizes too large, which caused him to slide his feet across the carpet.
“Uh, I feel like a bum.”
I wondered if they were the only English words he knew, though he had lived in the US for over fifty years by that time. Dad spoke a funny broken Italian with English words liberally thrown in to communicate with him. I didn’t understand most of what was said.
Ma would sit uncomfortably on the edge of the sofa, her purse in her lap, and her ankles crossed. I think she must have been poised for a hasty exit. Named by my paternal relatives as an outsider and a foreigner, she was not welcomed by my grandfather.
Aunt Josephine would place a dining chair in the arch between the living and dining rooms, where she would sit primly, her apron the symbol of her familial role as caretaker. She took care of her father, then three of her brothers over the course of her life. Her resentment was a fine mist on her skin.
We children were to be seen and not heard. I was a shy child but rambunctious, too, and sitting silently with my hands in my lap did not sit well with me. I hated the smell of the place, too, like the whole house was preserved in mothballs.
My grandfather died when I was around eight. I remember the phone call and my parents getting ready for the funeral a few days later. Ma would not let us attend. She did not want us to be exposed to a funeral, or grief, or death. Maybe she recalled attending her own father’s funeral when she was but four. Maybe we weren’t invited.
I remember not feeling anything except a tug of sadness for my dad.
For Aunt Josephine it was a brief time of freedom to do some of the things she wanted to accomplish in life before she had to take on the care of her brothers. One of those things was to travel. She started going on vacations with another single woman named Judy. One year, well into her seventies, she traveled to the Liuzzi family’s home country of Italy and visited with cousins.
Aunt Josephine didn’t speak to me for years after I brought Ronald home to my father’s funeral (for new readers, I am white and my husband Ronald is black). There would be no sitting on the edge of the sofa for him, waiting to make his hasty exit. As soon as he felt the discomfort of not being welcome, he took a brief nap, and got right back on the road to Syracuse. My father’s funeral was my first, and I can only say that Ma’s idea of protecting me from death and grief had failed.
Aunt Josephine started talking to me again shortly after the birth of our twins. Perhaps her drive to Syracuse when they were five months old was to verify that they had indeed not been born as one white and one black baby, like the twins she had read about in her weekly tabloid.
After that we stayed in contact. She carried on the tradition my grandfather had begun with a little twist. Every time I called her and asked her what was going on, she’d respond, “Uh, nuthin’.”
My daughter Cara carries on this same tradition. When she calls, I’ll ask, “What’s up?”
That same malaise crawled on me. I feel like a bum. I’m too tired and too useless to do anything about it because this world is exhausting sometimes. I feel silent and invisible. It’s not the big things, the death of so and so, the surgery, the illness a close relative suffers from, or the lack of funds to do the desperately needed repair. It is the lack of humanity, the murders perpetrated on the innocent, the endless erring on the side of selfishness and greed rather than on the side of the greater good. Blindness and denial cloud the obvious. I feel that same discomfort I felt at my grandfather’s house – not being welcome and not wanting to be there anyway.
As individuals we can hope to make change for the positive, but at the end, the machine of mankind easily erases the path of one.
We’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Each week I have to steel myself emotionally to hear much of what I already know. Each week finds me weeping anyway. I am too sensitive not to be moved by the images of injustice and hatred.
Ronald feels angry, validated, and hopeless. That makes me weep, too.
I feel like I don’t belong here in America, because I don’t want to belong to a society that raves about living in a post-racial world when racism is kicking and slapping minorities every day while making the divide larger and more impassable. It’s not good enough that a few have escaped the institutional and systemic racism that is woven into the fabric of our society. It’s not good enough that some people feel they aren’t racist and therefore are not part of the problem. It’s not good enough when white people and some black people say that bringing up racism is what perpetuates it because they are in denial on every single level and don’t care to be educated otherwise.
I’ve cried watching each episode of African-Americans, but none more than the episodes that focused on my lifetime – the awful events that shaped those of us growing up in the mid-twentieth century. The fire hosings, the lynchings, the inequality of our criminal justice system, and, later, the return of Jim Crow after Katrina and the election of our first mixed race president. I am ashamed, and I don’t want to live in a country like this. Not a single person should be accepting of this divisive state in which the value of lives is measured by the color of one’s skin and gender.
I felt the surge of the movements for civil rights, black power, and women’s rights, just as I came of age. Now, in mid-life, I see how all those advances have been engineered out of existence. We cannot be silent. We have to fight. We cannot sit idly by. We are as guilty of doing nothing as if we were the ones, like George Zimmerman, wielding the guns that slay black men and black children every single day or the cops that use profiling and the justice system that uses stiffer sentences to incarcerate black men.
I worry about the new generations and their acceptance of what is; how they are in denial in more ways than one; how they don’t think the erasure of equality (before we truly reached the final goal of a post-racial and post-sexist society) affects them and their wellbeing. But it does in wages that do not equal a living wage; in the removal of benefits including pensions and healthcare; in the closed avenue to upward mobility; and in the expanding definition of what constitutes poverty and who is ensnared by it.
African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross ought to be mandatory viewing for all school children, at every college, in every workplace as part of diversity training, in every religious institution that purports to teach that one should love one’s neighbor as you love yourself. Every parent should be required to watch it and learn to understand what white power and privilege mean to this country in which its very history and success are built on the backs of those considered less than.
Maybe then I can uncross my feet, relax a little, enjoy the conversation, and feel welcome to be part of this country, along with all the others who have been disenfranchised due to their race and/or gender. Right now, when asked what are we doing to fight for equality, I have a single answer, “Uh, nuthin’.”
I was eleven when this historic show of black power was broadcast across the world. I still feel it's impact and sadness that our new generations seem to have no sense of its importance.