Dad

They look at me askance.
I would have thought it was “a skance”.
But that is why they look at me so.

I rarely heard fancy words at home.
Once I heard “pluralism” at the dinner table though.
Because my father read Hans Kung.

I only heard big words from theology books.
That’s all my father ever read.
He taught himself to read Teilhard de Chardin autodidactically

My father told me he was thrown out of school in the third grade.
For climbing a flag pole in Mississippi.
He left home at thirteen and got through the Great Depression working at hotels in Kansas City.

He joined the 82nd Airborne, parachuting into World War II.
Broke his collar bone on the drop into Normandy and fought on.
Only late in life, near death, would he finally talk about the horror of the war.

Overseas he met an English girl from Derby.
After the War he took her to a cabin in the wilds of the Uvas.
Wolves howled and she demanded to move to the city.

Before the War he had started a taxi company in San Jose.
He returned to take it back from thugs.
Battling them with machine guns in the yard.

He was the first in town to hire African-Americans,
And he refused service ever again to anyone who wouldn’t ride with them.
One day an African driver (not an African-American) who had not been driving long drove his cab into a plate glass window.

The store called to complain about the driver and the broken window.
They never got a cab again.
Dad had principles without nuances.

He wanted to choose a religion.
Pamphlets over-filled a drawer at home.
Like many uneducated people, he believed reading was a doorway to truth.

A Jesuit named Father Ring passed by the cab company each morning on his way to Church.
Each day Dad doffed his hat and said, “Good day, Father”.
Father Ring converted him to Catholicism and made his War Bride a bride again.

Dad petitioned Rome to annul a former marriage that had ended in divorce,
So he could marry Mom for “real” in the Catholic Church.
My identical twin brother and I, little boys dressed all in white, walked down the aisle throwing petals on the ground.

He developed a deep fondness for the Little St. Teresa and the Big one too.
Old as he was, he was an altar boy early each morning at Mass where the Carmelite nuns chanted, hidden behind a wall.
They could not venture out and spoke to visitors only from behind a wooden turnstile.

When my brother and I made our First Communion, we saw the nuns sitting in a bare room with cold iron bars.
They removed their veils so we could see their faces.
This was something they could do only for innocents making their First Communion.

I remember them still.
Frozen in time and place even then.
Old and young, virgins and innocents, they laughed and looked happy and well.

Dad thought we had looked on the faces of angels.
He would never see any of these women, women who he served for a lifetime,
Until he was on his death bed and they came to wish him well on his way to see the face of God.

When Dad died, Mom still went to the Carmelite Monastery for Mass.
One day in the courtyard she went off to watch a squirrel play in a tree.
Surprised I ran up to her and she gasped at the attention I had brought on her from others.

My mother hated public attention.
She could not stand to stand out.
When her life was drawing to a close, people stared at her in public while she fought the ill effects of an aneurism.

Like my mother, I have always hated people looking at me.
But when I ventured out,
They looked at me askance.

One day, Dad decided we would all go to Spain to trace the history of the Carmelites.
And a very long history it was.
Some said it started even before Christ, in the Holy Land on Mt. Carmel.

We visited my elderly grandmother in England first.
And my mother’s many brothers and sisters.
I had never seen my English Grandmother; in fact she is the only Grandparent I ever saw.

My brother and I showed up in cowboy hats and boots, sporting toy rifles.
We guarded the front door of the old red brick house.
And watched horse drawn carts deliver bottles of milk.

Grandma’s house had no refrigerator and no heat save from the kitchen stove.
She walked to town several miles each morning to buy the food for the day.
A small gray lady ambling with her bags to town, she lived a long long time.

Dad wanted to surprise Grandma with her first spaghetti dinner.
He went all over Derby looking for what turned out to be in England rare ingredients.
Grandma said it looked like worms and wouldn’t eat it.

For reasons I do not know, my Anglican relatives ate fish on Friday just like us Catholics.
They did not know why either.
And denied there was any Irish in their line despite suspicions about their name.

At night the house was frigid.
After a late supper of fish and chips wrapped in old newspaper, we ran upstairs as fast as we could from the warm kitchen through the icy house to bed.
God be praised, Grandma had placed a hot-water bottle under the stone cold bed clothes.

Derby was a village then.
Old red brick houses and horse-drawn carts on cobbled roads.
Grandma had an outhouse and no indoor plumbing.

When Mom was nearing death, sick of the modern world, she longed to return home to Derby.
To the Derby which she dreamed was there still.
We did not have the heart to tell her it was gone, transformed into an industrial slum.

Though Dad had fought the Fascists in the War, we went to the Fascist Franco’s Spain.
Franco was a Catholic who heard Mass each day.
For Dad, that meant he had a good soul.

The desk clerks at the hotel offered to pay my brother and me to talk to them in English.
They had learned British English and wanted to talk fast like us Americans.
Dad made us go down each night and talk for free.

The young bellhops knew no English and we knew no Spanish.
But they took us out each day to play with paper planes and such.
Language was no barrier for play.

We were surprised to see policemen stop all the cars and pedestrians to let us pass alone.
They asked us if they could take our picture in the middle of the road.
Finally, my Dad asked “Why?”

“We know who you are”, the policeman said.
My father said, “Who am I then?”
“You’re Eisenhower”.

The paper had said Eisenhower was visiting Spain.
Dad looked like Ike.
To this day there are pictures still on Spanish mantles of Eisenhower and his two fat twins.

As we walked the streets of Spain, Dad found the passing priests uncivil.
Each time he doffed his hat and said with a smile “Good day, Father”, they just walked by.
Not like the priests back home, not like dear old Father Ring.

One day, Dad had had it.
When an old priest walked silently by, Dad called out to him “What’s this?” “Why so rude? Why just walk by?”
The old priest stopped and said, “Who are you?” meaning “Who in the Hell are you?”

Dad said “I am Ernie Gee from San Jose California”.
The old priest just stopped and thought.
Then he said, “Do you know a Jesuit by the name of Harold Ring?”

The old priest and Father Ring had attended the same seminary together long ago in Rome.
They were old friends who had not seen each other ever since.
Dad said Father Ring had converted him.

The old priest and my father became fast friends.
They toured Spain together looking at churches and buying old statues.
The old priest sent a Christmas card each year thereafter.

Dad was searching for the true Carmelites.
The ones who went way back to the Saints Teresa and beyond.
But at convent after convent he heard tales of theological fine points.

Petty differences.
“Well, really, Mr. Gee we are not quite like that other house”.
It had been a forked and twisted path from old Mt. Carmel.

This was Old Europe and the Church after all.
For thousands of years Carmelites, both monks and nuns, had championed their own devotions.
Though they all reported to the Father General in Rome, there were nonetheless old and subtle differences.

Finally, Dad had had it (again).
Footsore and weary, he sought refuge in the sacristy of an old church.
Sitting on a bench he complained to us about “these Carmelites” in not so decent terms.

A monk came in tired too,
Unnoticed, he sat behind us.
Eventually he tapped my father on the shoulder.

He said, “I see you are unhappy with the Carmelites”.
“Who are you?” meaning “Who are you, for heaven’s sake?”
“I am Ernie Gee from San Jose, California”.

The monk said, “I am the Father General of the Carmelites,
I am here from Rome on a visit to Spain”.
They became fast friends and he sent a Christmas card each year thereafter.

We came home with lots and lots of slides.
My father, camera round his neck and family in tow, was what they then called “an Ugly American”.
Pushing across Old Europe with naïve faith and unabashed forwardness.

Little did we know how truly ugly Americans would later get,
When they were not fresh off the beaches of Normandy,
But policing the world in the name of “American Exceptionalism”.

Dad did not live all that long, he died at 52.
His people were Dust Bowl wanderers and they all died young.
An altar boy to the end, a series of heart attacks eventually felled him.

The Father General of the Carmelites in Rome cabled the nuns in California.
Make a habit and bury him as a Carmelite he said.
My brother and I, then in a monastery world ourselves, were allowed to attend his funeral where he lay in an open casket, in a monk’s habit, gone to join the long line of Carmelites where he belonged.

Finally, I ventured out, out to the modern world.
They looked at me askance.
And have ever since.

I would have thought it was “a skance”.
But that is why they look at me so.
I never heard fancy words at home.

Except that word “pluralism” which impressed me then even though I was quite young.
I lived in a closed world then and this magic word seemed to say there were plural worlds in one society.
E pluribus unum, out of many, one, many devotions beyond my own.

I have lived a long time in that pluralistic society.
Its elites seem to live in as closed worlds as I once did.
They look at me askance.

Like my mother, I want to go home, but I know it’s gone.
I can still hear, but barely, the chanting of the nuns,
And see my father kneeling at the altar of their song.

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~ by jpgee on November 17, 2012.

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