- Historic Sites
Visions Of My Father
You can rise fast and far in America, but sometimes the cost of the journey is hard to tally
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Another man told me about the time my father came out of All Saints Church after going to confession. A Protestant called to him, “Did you tell Monsignor what you did to your sister?” In a flash the taunter was lying on the sidewalk with a thousand dollars’ worth of new bridgework demolished. My father had to leave town for several weeks while friends calmed down the victim’s family.
These were the memories conjured by that lean, bony face, the resolute mouth, which even in death wore a faint, defiant smile. That was the man I saw on the East Side Lexington IRT. I was sitting in the rear of the car, in the seat by the conductor’s compartment. Across the aisle sat my father—the tough, reckless man who had slugged scabs and obnoxious Protestants and gone to war without a qualm. If he was a real person—a stranger—the resemblance was uncanny.
I could not stop staring at him. He stared back. He was tieless, wearing a tan Windbreaker and cheap blue pants. He looked like a stevedore or a construction worker—someone who made a living with his brawn. He seemed annoyed by my stare. The big hands in his lap closed casually into fists. I saw how raw—and dangerous—he was.
My father had attempted to transform himself in the dentist’s chair. But that was an external change. Underneath were the memories of those freezing dawns on West Street, the curt dismissal of his baseball dreams by Monsignor Meehan, the humiliations of the salesman’s life. The lieutenant’s commission and my mother’s grammar and speech lessons had only camouflaged his rawness and anger.
I also saw how different we were. But for the first time I saw it without self-reproach. I had transformed myself in ways that were incomprehensible to him. Although he was a thoughtful man, he was not a reader. A long book daunted him. I remember his amazement when I asked for War and Peace as a sixteenth-birthday present.
My historian’s self saw my father as an interesting study in American freedom—and its limitations. He had come a long way from illiterate immigrant father. We were into a new sociohistorical drama these days. But his experience suggested how slowly, how painfully, people change.
My novelist’s self saw the several ways I had envisioned my father and a glimpse of the way he may have envisioned himself. I saw I no longer had to feel sorry for him. In his vision he had done okay. Nor did I have to feel guilty because I disliked him for a while. He was not particularly likable, some of the time. Nor did I have to feel ashamed because I never matched his physical courage. Becoming a writer took courage too.
It was the courage, the tough resolve to defy everyone and everything, even fate, that meant the most to me at that moment. I decided to turn down the job offer and remain a writer.
Again our eyes met across the rattling, swaying subway car. My rational historian’s self felt defensive, embarrassed. It insisted the man was not a hallucination, only an uncanny resemblance. There were plenty of secondgeneration Irish-Americans in New York. Why shouldn’t one of them look like my father?
I pulled a novel out of my briefcase and began to read it. The train jerked to a stop. When I looked up, the raw, dangerous man opposite me was gone. My novelist’s self felt disappointed. I wished I had had the nerve to call after him, “Hey, getcha Woild !”