Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Importance of Remembering by Ronald Wendling

I surprised myself when I spontaneously began my memoir (UnsuitableTreasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past) with a chapter on the family business my father worked for.  I wondered if economics could have held that high a priority in my life story? As I wrote, I discovered that it did. My dad’s submissiveness to his sister, who was also his boss, damaged his independence as a man and largely set the terms of his relationship to my mother. Starting the memoir with my family’s economic situation helped me understand why I developed the way I did.
My situation was in some ways similar to Jennifer Baszile’s in her 2009 memoir, The Black Girl Next Door. Jennifer’s father rose from the deprived circumstances of a young black man in rural Louisiana to become the successful owner of a Los Angeles aluminum and metal parts distributor. Raising his two daughters in the affluent white suburb of Palos Verdes, he and his wife presented themselves to the local press as leaving poverty, indignity and failure behind and advancing with determination, hard work and the aid of affirmative action to becoming black participants in the American Dream.
This family portrait left out some important realities, however. Understandably, Jennifer’s parents lived with the fear that all they had escaped could one day return to them, and that fear was often reinforced. The recession of 1986 threatened Mr. Baszile’s business, for example, and under that pressure his family life showed signs of unraveling. There was also the outright indignity of a message on the doorstep saying “Niggers Go Home” and the subtler humiliation of people crediting the family’s advancement to their color, not their merit.
Stresses arose from inside as well as outside the family when the apparently long gone relation of master to slave returned to the Basziles as patriarchy. Caught between his black identity and the demands of success in a white world, Jennifer’s father extended his control over his employees to the three women in his family. For all the good he had done them, economic and otherwise, his very benevolence kept them submissive to his will, and The Black Girl Next Door is essentially the story of Jennifer’s emancipation from this covert form of slavery.
There is much to be said in support of pursuing the American Dream.  From nineteenth-century treks westward in search of gold or its equivalent in prosperity to the contemporary passion for innovative technology, dreams of pulling up stakes and starting anew have been a source of satisfaction for millions. Those dreamers may easily forget, however, that the past stays with us as surely as our genes.
Not surprisingly Jennifer Baszile’s primary interest is history—especially that of the individual, as in memoir. The Black Girl Next Door gains its impact from the history of American black/white relations that stands in the background of her narrative: from slavery and emancipation to the periods of strict segregation, a measure of integration, and the beginnings of the current era of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray.
My own youth dates from a little more than a generation before Jennifer’s, but the effects of our fathers’ jobs on our families have notable similarities. As a white male of Western European origin, I experienced nothing like the damage done to her and her family by the mere fact of their color. But both of us paid a high price for our parents’ pursuit of the American Dream. My family advanced through three neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York, each pricier than the last, and wound up in the affluent suburb of Amherst. There my father built us an expensive nineteen fifties ranch house on the strength of the sales commissions he earned from a heating and air conditioning business founded by his sister and brother-in-law.
Dad had a long history of excessive drinking, and by the time I was born he was seriously enough addicted to abuse his family in the ways I describe early in my memoir. With the magical thinking characteristic of a child, I often wondered if I was to blame for his rages and if our family would be better off without me. But there was to be a brighter side to this story. His drinking aside, Dad was also a first-class salesman who made it to work in the morning, sometimes just barely. So the family business, with that strong a financial incentive for tolerating his delinquencies, made no serious effort to stop them. Not until he was almost forty did two former drinking buddies from Alcoholics Anonymous intervene. They saw dad through a long, painful process of recovery that restored him to me, but the drinking and smoking he had mercilessly inflicted on his body caught up with him, and six years later he died of cancer of the esophagus.
So I was right to start my memoir with the family business. It funded my attendance at a Jesuithigh school, where I found models of male behavior strong enough to influence me to study for the Catholic priesthood in the Jesuit order. But the longer I stayed with the Jesuits, the more I began to remember my by now deceased father. And the more the memory of him grew in me, the greater my realization that with the help of the spiritual and educational training I was receiving, I had become strong enough to live on my own. The Jesuits, who liked Latin, had a saying that they were selecti quidem, roughly translatable as “especially chosen.” True as that may have been, I discovered that I no longer wanted to be part of any select group not of my own unencumbered choosing. I wanted a wife, children and a secular career—an ordinary sort of life. And why, I thought, shouldn’t I have one? I had a father who in breaking a ruinous habit, and doing it for his family’s sake, had shown himself morally stronger than all those who had him permanently classified as an unreliable drunk.  In short, I was proud of him. So I gave up a dream of achievement that had been founded on forgetting and settled down to a life based on remembering. In short, I tried to emancipate myself not from anything so oppressive as institutionalized slavery or patriarchy, but from a kind of life I found out I had only half chosen.



Nancy Jacoby said...

What a wonderfully moving post. Families are such complex structures, and even though our childhood years are frozen in time, they remain alive in us, and we see them from different perspectives with each passing decade. They almost change, in a sense, as we better understand our parents' actions, sacrifices, and struggles through working our own way through the ages they were in our first decade or so of knowing them. It's a funny thing. I loved the line where you said you were proud of your father, and I'm glad you were able to reach that place in your recollection of him and his life and move forward in a life of your choosing.

Carolyn Niethammer said...

This is a very powerful article. Both my parents are gone now and I wonder why I never asked them about the choices they made. Perhaps because the question wouldn't have fully made sense to them -- you just did one thing after the other and ended up where you did. My parents made choices that led them from a very comfortable middle-class life to one of struggle. We never missed any meals but they were meals of economy. For some, the ability and choice to do some reflection on life is a result of higher education and what we learn in literature class about reflecting on characters' motivations; for others it comes naturally.