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.