"My Father Was White but Not Quite"
I was born during a lunar eclipse in the fall of 1940. My father enlisted in the Army when Germany declared war on America. Soon after my mother and sister and I took an overnight train from Buffalo to Boston, and moved into an apartment on Craigie Street in Cambridge. The building was within easy walking distance of Harvard Square where our mother worked; it was made up of two large brick buildings, a weedy lot behind, and a tarmac road between. There was a small restaurant called La Cantina smelling of hot rolls in a basement space. My sister Susan and I shared a room with many windows in the back of the railroad flat. She was three and a half years older than me, which would have made her six at the time. The day of my birth must have been a dark day for her, but being oblivious to that, I idolized her and happily did her bidding. We settled ourselves into the classic order determined by the superiority of the first born.
Cambridge was a man’s world, even with many men away in the war. This fact and the omnipresent news of the battles abroad intensified the way we lived with our mother. The atmosphere was permeated with potential: every moment erupted with a hope followed by a failed hope. As if clouds were trying to form into a legible text and could not. The way we lived was in a contained routine within a natural world of great beauty, a world of literature too, and of news from abroad. On Craigie Street there was an Episcopal convent, another apartment building, and residential houses made of wood. Every morning I went to a little daycare called, oddly, Miss Scattergood’s. My sister pulled me there by the hand and then she marched on to her school, Buckingham. Later I would learn that many of our playmates were children of émigré academics, sons and daughters of linguists, historians, and scientists who had fled Germany and Eastern Europe. Every Sunday our mother dutifully transported us by subway to 16 Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill to have midday lunch with our grandfather, for whom our father was named. Our grandfather lived in a townhouse with an Irish maid who was named Mary like our Irish mother. Mary Lawrence was tucked in a bedroom behind the kitchen downstairs. Our grandfather was a heavy-set man with a watch chain and vest, a white moustache as coarse as his hair, a stammer, and the good nature ascribed to those with few doubts. He blew pipe rings and played a recorder. His mouth was the center of focus for me.
His apartment, an elegant floor-through, did not let much sun in, so only yellow lamplight spread over the tables and chairs and objects brought over from China generations before. A Steinway sat near one window and there he played and sang Gilbert and Sullivan songs and favorite hymns. On those visits my sister and I were not allowed to wear dungarees or sneakers, but had to dress up, and in the cooler weather we wore matching coats and hats, navy blue with naval insignia, and were asked to march up and down saluting and singing the “Marines’ Hymn” for the pleasure of our grandfather and mother. Every Sunday we had the same lunch: chicken consommé, chicken and rice, and vanilla ice cream with pie for dessert. I was terrified of making a mistake or breaking something. Water jiggled in a crystal finger bowl beside each plate and behind us stood a tall ivory pagoda under glass, just waiting to be smashed.
I have no memory of my sister’s or mother’s faces during those occasions but only of the bachelor atmosphere. My grandfather was long a widower, portly, very white, mild of manner, and had a stutter that riveted me because it was as if his voice wanted to turn into a musical instrument (or song) that would take his words to another level; the fact that he dared to let his voice utter odd sounds was wonderful in the suppressed Bostonian world he inhabited. He and our mother spoke about mutual friends, family, and of course developments in the war. A bakery smell of books lingered around the shelves; some of them were for children, but they were not the ordinary American fare. These were Victorian storybooks, including pictures of curly-haired children in pinafores, stone walls, golliwogs, leaping figures with scissors following them to cut off their thumbs, and gardens containing pale but specific flowers. Our mother had these books from her own youth in Dublin, and she spoke of the same songs, poems, and novels as our grandfather did. I knew as a child that she was foreign. The reality is, they were turn-of-the-century, and the aura of this time was so strong it affected everything I did and thought about later.
When I am back in Boston in 2000 a soft snow is falling diagonally. There is no wind. The trees are creamy and drooping. Even the birds are hidden away, waiting for these lazy snowdrops to stop though I hear a few chirps as if sparrows were entombed in brick. Boston contains in its physical structures the traces of its nineteenth-century inhabitants until after the war. Even into the fifties these words about a cemetery by Henry James would apply as a metaphor for Boston:
If, while the air is thickened by this frosty drizzle, the calendar should happen to indicate that the blessed vernal season is already six weeks old, it will be admitted that no depressing influence is absent from the scene.Boston in my childhood had the feel of a graveyard. Epigrammatic, grim, entrenched, with avenues cut straight around the circular gardens. The river was still, except when the Harvard crew broke its surface. Compared to New York City, Boston was like a used, dropped newspaper that no one wanted to stoop to pick up. Montreal danced by comparison. Boston was not introspective but conservative, repeating Fridays at Symphony and teas at the Athenaeum in a way that only outsiders would find interestingly historic. It was the arrival of the Kennedys on the political scene that took the place apart and ended that long trance. The Irish, who had provided the basic workforce for the city, were the ones who took over and brought it back to life.
As Frederick Douglass said, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
The servant class, the Irish maids, cops, firemen, laborers, soldiers, all Catholics, did as they would do in Northern Ireland after the sixties: they went to school and became professional. The other ethnic minorities in Boston fought among themselves, crowded together, or left the city. WASPS hung on, but the central division among them, between Republicans and Democrats, weakened their hold. As usual, African Americans had the hardest time in Boston, supposedly a city of integration, abolition, and liberty, and almost all the brightest of them left for New York, or left the country. In our end of town hardly any women had a job.
Day and night our mother was out at work a lot. We had many babysitters. One had a hunchback and said her brother ran over her back on his tricycle when she was a baby. Another had a brother who raised odorless skunks on Cape Cod. And there was one who smacked my butt with the bristles of a hair bush and whom I prayed would die, which she did almost immediately. My sister and I loved having our lively young mother at home, with the radio on, playing either the news or music that gave her pleasure and made her stride around with a glass of something strong for a partner. Friends often came over. Our Sunday trips to see our grandfather were special because we were all out in the world together. My sister and I would huddle in the bedroom off the kitchen with Mary Lawrence, reading the Sunday comics on her bed or hearing her stories about Ireland and seeing her postcards from home that showed lambs and shamrocks. The presence of our missing father trailed us everywhere. After lunch, the three of us would walk back down Beacon Hill along Charles Street to the iron staircase going up to the elevated subway stop. Our father was the only reason we were anywhere then; and he was nowhere. From the bridge we viewed the gray fortress of the city jail and the river flowing out to the harbor. Beacon Hill was a brick hump topped with the gold dome. When the snow came, the blood-red brick of the city grew white and the ice on the river was a stiff winding sheet that led out to the Atlantic and across to Ireland. The sky was dramatic and emotional at every hour of the day. The war contributed to every shadow and drop; consciousness of its force was made up only of objects and loose parts, of animate and inanimate, of constant motion, wind, rain, hope, dread, and expectation.
That war was like an immense umbrella held high in the air and shadowing our every move. (Even now I can feel its shade, even if only a corner is left.) In our railroad apartment during that time the orange lightbulbs at the back of the radio burned day and night. Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt roared through the static behind its rough-textured cover. American broadcasters’ voices reported catastrophe. Music tinkled during ads and music via singers, operas, symphonies played in our small living room. I confused Roosevelt with my father, because without form they seemed to be one man.
At that time I had only one memory of my father from the top of the stairs in Buffalo. He was in a uniform and he was saying a hesitant goodbye. Otherwise there were few photographs. He had left his job as dean of a new law school at Buffalo and had left behind his work on the letters and life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He was thirty-seven. He had been to Europe only once before, as far as Ireland, where he had met his in-laws and where he vowed never to return. He was known to have a dread of travel yet he was gone longer than most fathers.
Every evening I was put to bed earlier than my sister and in summer it was often still bright, daytime, only around five or six. There I became hypersensitive to sound, smell, image, experiencing a kind of synesthesia that held all the parts of my immediate environment together as one. The natural world was like a second skin or garment made of air and gold. Next door and out my window was an Episcopal convent, containing a few old women and a staircase with an electric chair they let me ride when I came inside.
It was through my window facing onto their house that the sun fell around the walls as a living presence that I called (secretly) God. Whether it was cold, yellow, white, warm, orange, or a spread of violet, that light was my surrounding other. I now suppose it was equivalent to the geistige that the philosopher Edith Stein describes as being always present to consciousness; it refused to go away, and it refused to be located. I sensed it as light with an intention infusing it, a presence that had no attributes, not even love. I breathed it and it made images emerge from inside of me to meet the ones on the outside. Its attachment to me came because of my being young and, from what I could tell, it would disappear with age.
Since my relationship to others was being formed at the same time, I held myself a little apart from those who might drain this secret out of me. In these days and months of waiting for my father, I kept my anticipation to myself, it was so intense. From then on I preferred aloneness and expectation to anything else. Outside my bedroom door my mother and sister shared their passions for theater, literature, and history. This would always be the arrangement. They would be madly discussing books, because neither one was ever without one, and each shouted opinions of the utmost intensity back and forth. I was often mute in the background, sucking my thumb and day-dreaming. In this posture I was conscious of being coherent inside my skin, but it would take a while before I found out that I could test this coherence to see if it could survive changes in time and space—by moving great distances.
The drama of New England weather was enough for me in those years. I pulled back my curtains or drew up the shades in the morning and the theater of the sky was in progress. Clouds of many shapes and colors raced or rolled overhead until night fell. There might have been snow in the night, or rain that formed shiny and darkened circles in the potholes and curbs. In spring and summer, honeysuckle, violets, lily of the valley, wisteria, lilacs, tulips, and daffodils bloomed in gardens up and down the streets. In fall, elderberry bushes were bright red and yellow leaves sank or slid underfoot. In winter the arms of the trees crackled inside ice sleeves or sank low to the ground. Birds raced off to the sanctuary of Mount Auburn cemetery.
Our mother walked home, blithely alone, at midnight from her work in the Idler Theater at Radcliffe where she directed plays. Many evenings she would have friends home and they would sit close to the hot body of the radio. When the blackouts occurred in Cambridge—practice air raids accompanied by sirens—the radio played on. We heard the recurrent names: Afrikakorps, Rommel, Ribbentrop, Molotov, Brenner Pass, Dieppe, Vichy, Mussolini. When Hitler spoke, it sounded as if the radio were breaking into static to meet his rasping voice. Didn’t evil know it was evil? I wondered. An old man played a hurdy-gurdy on the streets of Cambridge all through the war. Flowers garlanded his organ. A legless beggar sat outside Woolworths in all weather, protected by a striped awning, his board-on-wheels parked beside him and a hat for falling small change. As I began to see injustice close up, I was filled with a desire to understand what made people who had suffered for nothing want to go on living.
I look and see what has come to look back at me: a sizzle of frostPerhaps the self (like smoke) is spun from infinity with everything else and a growing awareness of its pending annihilation. The self opens up to its condition in stages and often because of an accompanying realization of adult hypocrisy. Childhood is the stage where a person either submits to or resists life as another adult. Why go on to become that?
links form between the tracks and winter clouds are furry.
They shield the fields the way fresh water shields a fish.
A chill burns color from all things
While wool whirls from factory spires,
Spouts and tunnels in the air and silk ropes.
“The order of the signs”—these are called.
Martin Luther, in John Osborne’s play, said, “I lost the body of a child, a child’s body, the eyes of a child . . . and I was afraid, and I went back to find it. . . . and I can’t find it!”
Maybe the day the self submits to its own becoming, it ties itself up into a lunglike organ where it thrashes around till the last day. All this occurs at a moment in calendar time. After that, the self is carried through libraries, museums, city parks, churches, movie theaters, dark streets, blazing sun, beds, and across oceans.
Somewhere the scholar Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “the self has no relations, cannot enter into any, remains ever itself. Thus it is conscious of being eternal; its immortality amounts to an inability to die.”
But the self that I mean can choose many ways to extend its transit through the world, and even to escape it by suicide rather than to crawl along through ordinary time. The wonderful thing is that it can also overcome these choices and stay with childhood! The child poised on the threshold of a door in a desert is also the ghost going the other way; they are one action immortalized by a single position towards the world: not there.
In one of her notebooks a young French woman (Simone Weil) wrote, “One must believe in the reality of Time. Otherwise one is just dreaming. For years I have recognized this flaw in myself, the importance that it represents, and yet I have done nothing to get rid of it. What excuse could I be able to offer? Hasn’t it increased in me since the age of ten?”
To resist the reality of time is to resist leaving childhood behind. She called this resistance a flaw in herself, but is it? The self is not the soul, and it is the soul (coherence) that lives for nine years on earth in a potential state of liberty and harmony. Its openness to metamorphosis is usually sealed up during those early years until the self replaces the soul as the fist of survival.
I wanted to leave everywhere from about the age of nine. This involved delinquency at school and withdrawal from the home scene. I didn’t like grown-ups with the exception of my father and felt uncomfortable with what was given to me as a birthright and what later came to be understood (by me and my culture) as meaning: White.
White meant adult, condescending, cold, pale, driven, individualist, judging, and theoretical. White meant distant, detached, ironic, skeptical, ambitious, Protestant.
My father was white but not quite. In 1952 Senator William E. Jenner of Indiana (and head of the Communist-hunting Jenner Committee) called three Harvard professors “Pink Boys and Campus Theorists.” “Why they hate America so much, I don’t know,” said Jenner and named Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Francis Lee Higgenson, and Mark DeWolfe Howe as the three pink boys. Soon after this a faculty member in the Harvard Medical School refused to testify about alleged Communist activities before the Senate’s Jenner Committee. Dr. Helen Deane Markham and her husband were named as members of the Communist Party in 1947. She denied this and my father became involved in her legal defense. Meantime Harvard fired her, then (embarrassed) reappointed her—but only for the last few months of her term, when they made her leave permanently. Two other Harvard professors whom my father also defended legally—Wendell H. Furry (physics) and Leon J. Kamin, then a research assistant in social relations—refused to name names to McCarthy but boldly gave him the dates of their own involvement in the Party.
What McCarthy would do became a question of what Harvard would do, and then what my father and some of his friends would do. In this case, unlike the Markham one, Harvard did not dismiss the professors (called by McCarthy “Fifth Amendment Communists”), and various colleagues fussed that Furry and Kamin were being stubborn in their own defense and should just clear out. But Harvard resisted firing them, having been called by McCarthy “the Kremlin on the Charles.”
What I remember of all this is the door through which the FBI undercover agents came one night, and the way my father politely led them in and out of his bookish study. I remember the gaiety of the Poets’ Theatre rehearsing in the living room with my mother, and my small, upright father shuttling the men out the door. The hall was dark and heaped with coats. The smell of a dinner cooked and eaten still hung on the stairs that led up to our bedrooms. (Years later FBI agents would come into my own house in Jamaica Plain and sit on a sofa with walkie-talkies in their pockets, cross-examining me about members of my then family. It seemed inevitable that this would happen again.) Every night in his study, my father sat correcting student papers and preparing lectures. At work, he wrote his letters to several senators, repeating his position that McCarthy was a far greater danger to the country than the people he was accusing of being Communists. The contempt that McCarthy and his Senate committees had for law was a way of “overthrowing the government,” so what was democracy good for, if no one seemed to perceive this paradox and take action? I asked him questions and always got answers touched with ambiguity. But plot can only be understood retroactively, and by the time a story is understood, most of the questions that were important earlier have been folded over into bewilderment. Still, there was one question that stayed fresh to him throughout my father’s life. Which is more valuable to protect — liberty or equality? Are they, in fact, compatible?
The war and then the cold war were two major soul-forging events for him privately in that he applied his knowledge of law and the Constitution to difficult human dilemmas and in this way developed a perspective on the world similar to but not the same as that of his writing subject, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
His increasingly desolate view of existence as something without an ultimate cause or goal helped him in his work, since human nature showed no signs of improvement despite the warnings of the law or in the churches. He saw contradiction in power and depth in the poor and couldn’t stand religiosity. He even remarked that perhaps atheists needed the protection of the law more than religions did, given the attacks on Communists as atheists, the upsurge in religious fundamentalism, and casual dismissal of the First Amendment.
My father patiently tried to explain the Constitution and civil liberties to me and I became his sidekick in various campaign activities (local and presidential), and over the years we argued about certain national events, but usually I deferred to his erudition and sanity. I had thought that the great victory over McCarthyism meant that certain truths had been established: freedom of speech, freedom of association, and equal protection under the law. I thought that was the end of that problem. He disabused me of this notion in his next political action.
His involvement in the civil rights movement, the third great all-consuming interest of his life, after the war and McCarthy, galvanized all that he had learned through the first two. He might as well have put on his uniform and picked up his briefcase to enter a battlefield again. He taught and acted as a legal consultant, went south, and worked in the north on the busing issue. The spirit of the Constitution was, he believed, transparent. But race and religion were two recurrent dilemmas in the nation for a reason: they could be used to bring down the revolutionary nature of that spirit. Now I know that those who will restore the country’s heart and direction will be those who have benefited least from the years since 1968. My father worked for social justice and was eviscerated. I think when he died he had had enough. (Heart attacks can be a kind of suicide.) He just missed living to see the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy or watch how the separation of church and state, which was supposed to be a given, and the equality of black Americans with white ones, beginning with education, were both set way back. Luckily he wasn’t there when the Constitution was sold out and the Supreme Court became politicized to a degree never before imagined. The jails filled up and capital punishment increased. The Vietnam War ended but soon it was replaced with an even more profane, intentional war. He had supported my generation’s commitment to progress and would have been appalled at how it came to be seen as delusional. He died with the civil rights movement, and many of the causes that he worked for have been reversed or erased over the four decades following. For me his absence opened a door into a future as vertiginous as a long fall.
I see the snow has slowed now and random idle flakes fall, the way the words about them might (piece by piece) in a story by Hans Christian Andersen. The grave city of Boston is at a distance from where I sit. Still, it is home. My father is buried at Quincy graveyard. He died in 1967 after a meeting on school busing in Roxbury, and shoveling snow. It was the end of safety for me. After that there would be more assassinations and less grounded action except in Vietnam. And then the light would change and the orientation of energy and possibility would radically alter.
In the sixties I didn’t take drugs or listen to the Rolling Stones. I drank cheap wine and listened to folk music and Motown. Like most everyone I knew, I was penniless, incompetent, and unable to decipher the signs of the adult world. The violence of wars around the world had seeped into the collective mind, causing a blur of reactions. But when my father died, it was as if the strange fears of childhood were at last being realized. It was the imagined loss coming to fruition twenty years later after that war was over and he had long since come home from it.
Violence, as it says in the Zohar, causes actual disturbance in the heavens as it does in the upper spheres of the human imagination. The despair of a father does the same. It is the same as the subtle social nihilism which is manifested as pragmatism. Nihilism will build the contraptions it lacked and butcher animals; it will persevere in generating myths and hierarchies; it will seduce children and torture for erotic delight. It will despise the kind of weakness that survives by changing form. As Nietzsche said, “Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys.”
Why did he talk so much to me about suicide? Was this prophetic? Suicide is “any action which is done with the idea in mind that it will lead to death.” It can be done as a matter of conscience, for honor’s sake, in a state of selfless devotion to a cause, in despair, and as a way to avoid doing something that harms others. But maybe the word is not despair in fact, but something closer to the word used by Baudelaire:
It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine.
The quest for a condition that exists in two separate states is what confuses people like me. The person looking for a fixed identity is often the same person looking for God (escape into emptiness). This split search can only be folded into one in the process of working on something—whether it is building, digging, accounting, painting, teaching—with a wholeheartedness that qualifies as complete attention. In such a state you find yourself depending on an unknown model to supply you with the focus to complete what you are doing. Your work is practical, but your relationship is always potential in the range of its errors and failures. You align yourself with some ethereal figure behind and ahead and above you; you call on it for help, realizing the vacillation and inadequacy of your acts, your words.
The formation of our relationship to the world (for some of us) is experienced as an unfolding; it imitates the material cycle of larva, pupa, cocoon. It begins as if at the egg, blind and bound, and in its infancy it discovers light and a trail. The light is everywhere but apportioned as if it were an extra endowment. The coming trail is often determined by the birth home where each parent glides in a dance of oppositions before the new creature who is entranced and confused.
The creature must shuck, melt, and bend those figures into malleable functions if it is to break out of its buglike condition and head for the light. If it can retain all its cycles as layers of knowing that can be accessed throughout its life and not crush or dry them up one by one, it will live in the green of the natural world. It will be what is called a free spirit. Otherwise, it will only survive as a self locked into the dense furniture of sense and tradition, like one blinded by fear.
Paradoxically, no matter how strong our parents are, we have to knock them off in order to carry the body of our childhood safely through the world. Our childhood’s body will be composed of those two. Which one is our legitimate parent, the one we claim we belong to, only our psyche knows. A person won’t have the answers until she has slipped out into the larger world, without either of them anywhere.
I fell in love with Liam Clancy when I was a teen and he was acting and singing for the Poets’ Theatre. He wrote a song for the Countess Cathleen which he sang in his mild but roaming Irish voice. He was three years older and poised for immense success in New York without having any foreknowledge of that. Women were already circling around him sensing his gift and his amiability. After-school hours we spent with his guitar and reciting poetry on the banks of the Charles River, trips to Greenwich Village, wanderings at night through the lilac-bent streets of Cambridge, endless talking and kissing on the front porch of my house. No other later romance would hold for me such mutual devotion, poetry, chastity, and tenderness. It all came back to me in one novel I wrote years later but now transformed into a steed of exaggerated recollection. Still, there is little as liberating as the discovery that you have the same memory of a single event as someone you loved years before.
“For a moment I felt I was in Dublin,” Liam wrote in his recent memoir, “It was the coloring you see so often there, with the lights reflected on the Liffey from the far bank . . . I crawled over and sat beside Fanny, and a lovely feeling of peace fell upon my soul. The heat, the light, the sky, the warmth of love, life felt beautiful. I lay back and Fan lay back with her head on my arm and we made pictures in the clouds.”
Here is a little poem by Priscian, the Irish monk who stayed in Switzerland in the ninth century:
A wall of forest looms above
and sweetly the blackbird sings;
all the birds make melody
over me and my books and things.
There sings to me the cuckoo
from bush-citadels in grey hood.
God’s doom! May the Lord protect me
writing well, under the great wood.
God’s doom! Fear is everywhere and suddenly erupts. There is no containing it, not even from a poem by a contented monk.
Fanny Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and prose. Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at Stanford University. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily...