No Man's Land

Traversing the rough terrain between a father's expectations and a son's aspirations

Soon my sisters and I each had our own completely refinished room. In the corner of mine was a group picture of my father and his navy buddies, plus a certificate of his graduation from a martial arts academy, described by my grandfather as "a man-killing course." To get into the class, my grandfather once told me, potential recruits had to run and do a forward flip six feet in front of a concrete wall. When I asked my father about all this, he'd put me off with a wave of his hand and a cryptic, "Oh, that was a long time ago." Years later, when he was in his early forties and was being egged on by a childhood friend, I saw him do a running flip in the side yard.

When I was about nine, my father enrolled both of us in a Friday-night judo class. At the end of each session, the students engaged in matches. My dad, wearing the white belt of a beginner, rarely participated. But one time he agreed to square off against a brown belt, a man much bigger than my father, who stood a couple of inches below six feet and weighed 155 pounds. In my memory it was a legendary tussle: My father never tried to flip the man, but despite the increasingly vigorous efforts of his opponent, never let himself be thrown. Afterward in the locker room, the man clapped my father on the shoulder and asked him if he'd ever had any previous training. My father allowed that he'd "fooled around some" when he was younger. Then, as was the pattern on Friday nights, nearly all the fathers and sons finished off the night with a naked swim in the YMCA pool.

One evening around then, my father announced that he was going to show me some things "so you can take care of yourself when you have to." Within an hour I'd learned how to incapacitate someone by grabbing and twisting his hand, driving my elbow into his nose, or squeezing sensitive pressure points in the back of his neck. ("One thing," my dad emphasized. "You never, never, hit a girl.") Months later, when an impromptu wrestling match with a much bigger teammate from Little League suddenly turned into a brawl, I remembered what I'd been shown. Using a judo pin move, I slid my knee beneath my opponent's shoulder on the ground, wrapped him in a headlock, and nestled my head down tight against his. Frightened by his angry vows to "beat the shit" out of me, I began squeezing the back of his neck until I heard him begin to howl, and then cry. Much to my relief, he finally yelled, "Okay! Okay!" I let him up and began to walk away, only to have him spin me around and land a haymaker on my nose.

Arriving home sobbing and covered in blood, I told my father what had happened. He leaned down, his face inches from mine, and spoke with a passion that further unnerved me. "The lesson here is, never, ever let someone up until you're good and ready and you're sure he can't hurt you any more." Right then I knew that I lacked my father's killer instinct. Although I have never run from a fight, they have always terrified me and left me emotionally rattled for weeks afterward.

 

By sweating and scrapping to ensure that his children would live more comfortably than he had, my father buffered me from experiences that might have hardened my character. It wasn't easy: A few years after moving to Norfolk, he decided it would be better to sell his repair business and sell lawn mowers and snow blowers to small dealers throughout rural New England instead. When his first employer went out of business, he signed on with a friend who owned a construction company to make ends meet. I remember one afternoon when he came home for lunch caked in dirt and sweat from head to toe, ate a sandwich at my grandparents' kitchen table, and then, without a word, drove off to finish out the day.

Things got worse. My mother entered the hospital for three weeks, beset by gallstones and an ulcer. While she was there, I awoke one morning to a commotion in my grandparents' living room. My grandfather, his face porcelain and blue, was hunched forward, a thin trail of mucus hanging from his lips, his left side numb. It was a heart attack. "It's all right, Sonny, it's okay, Paulie, there's nothing you can do," he wheezed to my father, who stood with him until the ambulance arrived. Two things remain with me from the day my grandfather died: the look of abject helplessness on my father's face, and the word Sonny--the same term of endearment my father often used with me.

Parenthood is about perseverance, the heroism of daily reliability. My father found another sales job and later turned down a better opportunity when the family voiced its opposition to a move to Wisconsin. He and my mother surrounded us with a marvelous menagerie: a horse for my older sister, pigs (that we eventually ate) for my younger sister and me, sheep, a passel of dogs and cats, a talking myna bird that dominated a corner of the kitchen with his chatter.

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