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The Truth

May 24, 2011

Toni Bernette is in for it. Boy oh boy is she in for it. The look on Sofia’s face when Oliver Thomas explains that he may say one thing to one person and another to someone else but that in the end he’ll achieve his goal is subtle, but intelligent. She is clearly realizing that truth can be a very flexible thing in the hands of adults, while she at age 16 is an idealistic purist. Weren’t we all? At some point, weren’t we all? While everyone was noticing her ferocious “that’s the truth” line to her mother, I was more interested in her realization that adults have agendas.

In January 1966, a snow storm hit Chicago. The worst storm Chicago had seen in 20 years. That’s what the adults said, anyway. My dad was supposed to pick my sisters and I up from school one day. He didn’t arrive, so I walked them home, with them whining the whole way about the frigid conditions. Nevertheless, I was the oldest, they were in my charge. After waiting for Dad, I made the executive decision to walk rather than turn into a popsicle on the steps of Our Lady of Peace school. Once home the phone rang. It was Mama asking to talk to Dad. I told her I didn’t know where he was. She called again every 15 minutes for over an hour, telling me what snacks we could have and to tell him to call her the minute he got in. An hour after that she walked in the back door, white as a sheet, told me to take the girls upstairs and stay there. She went to the phone telling me there’d been an accident. She was an adult. She was my Mama.

Within an hour the house was crawling with very large men in fedoras and black top coats, along with the local priest. Upstairs there was a tiny room with a fan in the window for venting that looked out onto the garage. I took a look through the fan blades. The ambulance was there. My Dad was on the gurney being wheeled out and pushed into the back of the vehicle. Shortly a close male family friend came up the stairs in tears, sat us girls down and told us our Dad had had an accident and was with the angels now. I was 12. He was an adult, I figured he had more facts that I did.

What followed was the flurry of a funeral, a move out of the house to another state, the memory of how his skin felt in the casket and fleeting weird thoughts about why did he have lipstick on and a rosary in his hands when he wasn’t a big church kinda guy? His body was returned to Kansas City with us and buried in a non-Catholic cemetery. Once settled it was a new school, new living arrangement, lots of furtive phone calls from my Mama to various aunts, always whispered and clearly serious. It was vaguely sad looks directed at us by cousins at birthday parties. It was a nagging feeling that I wasn’t being told the truth and further, my Dad had told me from the time I was knee high never to be in a garage with a car running and the door closed. He knew better. No answers were forthcoming. My Dad became the elephant in the living room: rarely mentioned by anyone, most of his paintings gone, no pictures on the mantle. The priests and nuns at the new school seemed overly solicitous, treating me as though I’d just gotten over a bad fever. There was a sense of “apartness” that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Finally I screwed up my courage and asked Mama flat out if Daddy had killed himself. It was, in retrospect, probably a bit cruel of me. The cruelty of youth demanding truth. After all, my Mama knew I idolized him. She was protecting me from her point of view. A maternal adult’s point of view. To her credit she told me the truth. She dealt with my anger over having been lied to, at least in my opinion. She told me he’d left a note. I demanded to know what was in it. It was a vague note that explained nothing and I still know all the words in it. Then came the crucial, at least to me, question: WHY? The answer was a vague “he wasn’t in his right mind that day,” which to me was a non-answer. I raged. At her. For lying. I asked if my sisters knew. She said no and that I wasn’t to tell them. I self-righteously told her that I wouldn’t volunteer the information but if they ever asked me I wasn’t going to lie. I sent for the death certificate and kept it for years expecting that some day they’d ask me (they did, eventually, both in the same week independent of each other but by then they were in their 20’s. As it turned out, one of our cousins had said something vague which only pushed their own quiet speculation into a need to know.) Her tears, her “I’m sorry, honey’s,” and her “I was trying to protect you” fell on a youthful purist’s angry, cold façade. I felt like an idiot. Everyone knew but US. I hated that feeling. Remarkably it was years before I aimed my anger at my Dad. It stayed aimed at my Mama for a decade.

A kid with that kind of anger is a loose cannon. Often self-destructive (I’ll spare you my litany-length tale of self-administered woe), self-blaming (if only I’d gone in the back door like I was supposed to I would have passed the garage and heard the car and could have saved him), self-loathing (if only I’d been a better girl maybe he wouldn’t have done that-why didn’t I just keep my damn bangs out of my face since I knew he hated it when they were too long and if that A- in 6th grade English had only been a straight A it wouldn’t have happened.) And why didn’t I notice something was wrong so I could have helped him?

Because I was a kid. I was a kid. I was a kid. I was not an adult. I look at my 11 year old grandson, an exceedingly bright and sensitive young man, and realize that I was barely a year older than he is now. My truth was that my Dad was a hero and the most brilliant guy on the planet who read to me, made me laugh, taught me things, let me put barrettes in his hair when he watched football, he was an avid Green Bay fan. He couldn’t bear the smell of lamb cooking and seemingly only knew how to cook canned corned beef hash. He loved cars and boats and poker. He worked. A lot. He traveled a lot. When he arrived home, it was as if God had deigned to open our door and plant his suitcase there. He loved Pecan Sandies and actually said he didn’t do dishes because that was “squaw work”—grinning to see if I’d take the bait. He was so handsome I figured I should probably become a nun as no man could ever be as handsome and smart and funny as he. Standard 12 year old Daddy-worship fare. Did I really expect that he’d sit me down and say, “Honey, I’m really having some problems. Let me talk to you about them and perhaps in your great wisdom you can help me?” Oh c’mon.

It was my Mama who bore the brunt of my grief and anger and sense of betrayal. It was her fault that she hadn’t noticed a problem. It was her fault that she lied. It was her fault that I would never trust an adult again. God dammit, it was ALL HER FAULT.

Sofia’s gonna nail Toni to the wall, and that right soon. You were too busy working to notice, Mom. Why did you lie to me, Mom. Why does everyone else seem to know but ME, Mom. Dad was too smart to just fall of the damn ferry, MOM. Everything I’m feeling and dealing with is your fault, Mom. FUCK YOU, MOM. I don’t have to listen to you, Mom, what are you gonna do about it? If you really loved me you wouldn’t have let any of this happen, Mom. And furthermore I’m a confused 16 year old on a good day, but add this to the mix and I’m pissed. At you. Mom.

She won’t get around to being mad at her Dad for a while and that will bring its own issues.

Or maybe she’ll be smarter than I was, she is after all four years older than I was. Maybe she’ll do something positive with all of this like organize counseling for other kids or work a Suicide Prevention line or give motivational talks at schools around town about how to turn a negative into a positive.

Probably not. And unfortunately it’ll be years before she has any empathy for her mother’s pain and loss and grief. It’ll be years before she realizes how incredibly strong her mother is to have tried to protect her while dealing with the day to day crap that comes with the loss of a partner (i.e. Creigh’s benefits are only about half of his teaching salary and she needs some paying clients). It’ll be years before she knows how terrified Toni is by her daughter’s emotional shut down. It will, sadly, be years before she realizes that right now her mother needs HER.

That’s the real truth, but it’s not Sofia’s truth. Not yet.

  1. May 24, 2011 3:02 pm

    We can’t choose our families, but can our friends. Glad you’re mine.

    It took me years to realize that that I could take certain liberties with my parents’ sanity is, too, their love for me and mine for them. God knows my mom is not the easiest person to get along with (and in so many ways turned into Toni when my dad was being held hostage in Kuwait in 1990), but what the hell else is a woman to do with a teenaged kid when multiple disasters strike? She isn’t perfect, has her own grief to deal with and being a parent doesn’t come easily to everyone or with a manual.

    Watching my mom lose composure for the first and last time in her life was what slapped me out of my (understandable) self-righteousness and into thinking of someone else’s grief besides mine. If Toni breaks down and reaches out for Sofia’s help, we may see hope.

  2. May 24, 2011 3:08 pm

    It will be interesting when Toni’s backstory is revealed, as perhaps that will illuminate some of the reasons she seems so isolated in a city where she was born and grew up, a city where families are in such close touch. Even Davis, for all his ranting about his bigoted and dysfunctinal family, is close to his family.

    Is it possible that Toni grew up in bad old days of the Irish Channel?

    Love, C.

  3. May 24, 2011 3:59 pm

    Damn, girl.

    If there’s anything I’ve learned the last few years, it’s that kids are way better at figuring shit out than we give them credit for. The good and the bad.

    And what Maitri said about our friends.

  4. Anita permalink
    May 24, 2011 4:29 pm

    You’ve absolutely hit this one out of the park, Sam. Toni Bernette is certainly in for it. What a wealth of insight you’ve shared. I’m thinking back now to scenes of Sofia’s closeness to her dad and the ways he was depicted as the center of their world. Toni, for all her Sisyphean dedication, went almost unnoticed, they were the special ones, Sofia and her dad. Toni doesn’t know how to reach Sofia now and I tremble at the power of that daughter. I am ashamed of how long it took me to realize that not one of those things was ever my mother’s fault.

    I’ve got to stop trying to leap back and forth between our local history and this television story and just let this be David Simon and Co.’s creation. Just because Sofia goes to Lusher doesn’t mean she is going to OD, any more than busking in the Quarter meant Sonny was going to kill Annie.

    The stories of the women in Treme are extremely interesting to me and have been from the first. I am delighted to see genuine character development in the women. It’s hard for me to think of another television show in which there are at least three important female characters whose stories are not primarily about their romantic relationships.

  5. virgotex permalink*
    May 25, 2011 11:55 am

    Anita- you’ve heard of The Bechdel Rule?

    The rule is that movies/tv shows should have 1) at least two women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man.

  6. May 25, 2011 12:49 pm

    I supposed if you’re writing sci-fi…

  7. May 25, 2011 6:31 pm

    That straight up rang the bell.

  8. Niels permalink
    May 25, 2011 6:45 pm

    I thought the look she gave Oliver Thomas after his little insight might have hinted towards her recording some sort of blog again, bringing him, and thus Toni, into trouble.
    Anyhow Toni seems in for it I agree and I feel really sorry for her and Sofia.

  9. May 25, 2011 11:31 pm

    I have to admit that I had kind of assumed that Sofia knew already. I recall her asking Toni on at least one occasion whether she thought there was something wrong with Dad. I guess it’s easy to miss the things we’re not looking for…

  10. May 26, 2011 10:04 am

    Jim, she totally did. She was worried. But when we’re young, “something’s wrong with Dad” can mean a lot of things but we rarely extrapolate that to “and he’s gonna kill himself if we don’t do something.”

  11. CalliopeJane permalink
    May 26, 2011 10:25 am

    This is the comic that popularized that “test”:

    The pathetic thing is how few movies actually pass the test. And the vast majority of those that do are labeled “chick flicks.” I notice that movies with all the focus on men are still seen as being for general audiences, men and women are both supposed to be interested in that perspective. But if it features women, it’s just “for the girls,” supposedly men would never care about women’s inner thoughts, strengths & lives.

    So that is one thing I have been LOVING about Treme, the women (plural!) are strong and multi-dimensional and have their own lives & concerns apart from romantic relationships with men. Fantastic.

  12. virgotex permalink*
    May 26, 2011 10:48 am

    ray, don’t make me wanna mess you up

  13. May 26, 2011 1:25 pm

    Calliope, the same thing happens in the publishing world. Studies have been done showing that a man is less likely to buy a book written by a woman, regardless of the topic. Women will read Hemingway and Faulkner, but most men will never read Angelou or Morrison. It’s too bad.

  14. Anita permalink
    May 26, 2011 9:53 pm

    “Women will read Hemingway and Faulkner . . ” yes, but after a while, I really want to hear women’s voices. For too long, we were silenced although we always had something to contribute. We’re not living in George Eliot’s world today so Melissa Harris-Perry can take on Cornell West in the political discourse. I’m delighted to be here for that. Still, very few movies and tv shows meet the Bechdel test. (I’m delighted with this term. Thanks!)

  15. May 29, 2011 9:45 am

    Sofia will think Sonny’s an okay guy because it will be Davis who introduces her to him. One morning, Toni won’t be able to wake her. No more worries for Toni about paying for that most expensive liberal arts college on the East Coast.

    Dreading this.

  16. May 29, 2011 8:56 pm

    Oh, darlin’, I was about to leave a whole ‘nother comment ’til I ready yours. *shivers*

  17. May 29, 2011 9:09 pm

    Thank you, Sam. You have no idea how you’ve touched me.


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