For many years, I’ve attempted to reconcile my admiration of the devout with the way the Catholic Church worked in my childhood house. Granted, to lay it all out here would be a chore that wouldn’t be much fun reading. But I start by saying, my dad’s a saint. It took me a long time to realize it, but saddled with the hardships of Job, he somehow provided and proved that persistence, if nothing else, can sustain a human being and provide more lessons than any large bank account.
From his parents, my father inherited the pursuit of security that was the fiber of which he was made. Regardless of how miserable he became, how unhappy he was, or how much he longed to wander in the light of day, he sat at the same desk in a windowless room, repairing cash registers for thirty-five years.
At his fluorescent-lit bench in the basement of the National Cash Register Company, he explored the physics of movement, tension and compression, and engineering. He was no engineer and feared and resented those who went to lengths to know more than he. He cultivated and prized the one great gift he received from his father, the ability to stick with something long after it held neither his interest nor his attention. He bought the house he believed he was supposed to. He raised his kids in the faith of his ancestors, as he believed was ordained. And he loved a past that never existed.
He can be forgiven, I think. In the early 1960s, America was still, except for a few hiccups, on the greatest economic upswing in its history. Few white, middle-class people with high school educations saw the limits of American ingenuity as expressed by their ability to consume. Job security, a pension, and paid vacation made the definition of a good job, and one was a fool to throw one away for the freedoms, vicissitudes, and degradations of vagabondism.
Thus, the fear he gained early in his working years made the prospect of losing his “good” job the greatest ill he could imagine. He came to believe that without his job, he would lose his dignity as a man. Without college or the will and thirst for expansion of the mind, he pinned himself to routine and miserable work in a workplace out of his control. He came to hate “the company” and resent the suited-but-faceless figures that ran it. He did not like repairing cash registers and company machines in “the field,” where he had to deal with customers face to face.
But he would not, or could not, given the rigidity of his mind and moral values, do what he needed to do to get out of what had become a very lonely position. As a result, he bathed himself in an imagined past where humble people did important things and knew important people. He piggybacked on the stories he had heard from his parents and relatives, embellishing further the connections with history, money, and famous people.
At the same time, he openly disdained people and institutions that threatened the notions he had received from the Catholic Church and his own nostalgic sense that he had missed living in a world had seen better, more moral times. Where his mother had gained solidity and comfort from her religion, my father found only pain. His soul and its fate occupied his every waking moment. Mother Church was supreme and anything or anyone that questioned its power and knowledge of God’s truth was evil.
As a young man, he feared women who brought forth his inner longing for tender touch. He puzzled at the complicated feelings associated with sex and relegated that realm of human experience to simpler, more easily understandable terms. Fornication was the evil that others perpetrated, and he despised those who indulged primal impulses. They were only some of the sinners that populated his fragile world. Others were communists, feminists, civil right activists, sexual liberationists. People who questioned their country or engaged in profligate sex—and to him the unpatriotic were often fornicators and adulterers and vice versa—upset the social and moral balance he wanted and needed.
Thus, unable to control the way American life was careening around him, he sought comfort in an eternal Church that existed nowhere but in his mind. He attended church on Sunday at the most conservative parish he could find. He sent his kids to that church’s school. In doing so, he expected that his children would inherit the same notions of good and evil, right and wrong, and perspective and outlook that he possessed.
My father could not and did not want to absorb the changing social norms and technologies of the 1960s and 1970s. He hated even more deeply the acceptance and adaptation to them that he saw all around him. The reactionary politics of Goldwater and the John Birch Society gave him quarter against the strange and newly visible facets of social freedom. Hippies, war protests, sex in movies, and gun control fed his obsessive belief that American morals and culture in some indeterminate and mythical time past—“in the olden days,” he would say—were as perfect as Plato’s forms. He became convinced that the ill-defined “left wing” and its government would come to take his guns, spoil his children’s morals, and sap the strength of the Republic.
Communism was the greatest threat to the American Way of Life. Many times, I remember, he came home from work and devolved into evening-long rants about moral contagion and left-wing conspiracy. He screamed about un-American war protesters, communist infiltration, and creeping socialism.
In this dangerous and evil world, he had no interest in understanding why things worked and fit together the way they did. “I don’t know where people get these ideas,” he said. “The solution to every problem we have is faith in the Catholic Church and daily Rosary.” The fact was that he wasn’t interested in where people got their ideas, and later, he never asked why I gave up the faith, became a socialist, and wrote for independent newspapers. I can only think that the same fear that confined him to the repair bench also left him outside a changing world. Isolation in this self-made cocoon where he could escape the more divine and difficult convolutions of human relationships.
And I inherited that same fear of human beings. It took me a damn long time to get out of that bucket, to crawl through the imagined evils of the universe and find the divine light of understanding and love.
It’s funny to me now, but it took another damn long time to find that same kind of understanding and love for a man, who, like Lear, had beneath all the fear and anger intentions as good and pure as that of any unspoiled child.