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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nothing lasts forever

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I've got to hand it to my father. He used to tell me that when he was a child growing up in the tiny hamlet of Cherry Grove, just north of Cincinnati, Ohio, his fun-loving Uncle Aden used to warn him that every time he walked to the local grade school, he'd have to pass the little wooden Catholic church, the home of Father O'Brien -- the Devil incarnate! He warned my Dad to run as fast as he could past that church, because if he dawdled, Father O'Brien would surely rush out, catch him by the throat, and he knew what that meant . . .!

How could such an otherwise kindly man's insensitive calumny against another human being not leave a psychological scar on an impressionable tyke. I can imagine, with a few exceptions, scads of such youngsters being traumatized against a host of other nationalities, religions, colors. And they'd grow to maturity with those same prejudices held close to their hearts.

I say I've got to hand it to my father, because I ended up marrying a Catholic girl. When he found out, he was working in Chicago, while I was home in New York. He wrote me a long and loving letter in which he warned me that if I married a Catholic, my wife and I, and all the children we brought into the world, would be slaves to the Pope in Rome. As an example of what suffering that bondage could bring, he pointed to the Bellamy family next door: since Mr. Dick Bellamy, a grandson of the Boston brahmin Edward Bellamy, of "Looking Backward: 2000--1887" fame, had married a Catholic, he'd had to forego birth-control, as a result of which he and Sally Bellamy had produced five children, at a time when he, in the notably unstable advertising business, was chronically unemployed. Was that fair to anyone?

The tone of my father's letter was anything but hysterical or hateful. It was, rather, measured and calm. He was, after all, a lawyer . . . and a damn good one at that. Still, for a person who in youngest childhood had suffered the almost-daily warning about the local Catholic priest and what he would do to you, I figured he'd grown a lot since then. Had his deepest feelings changed, or had he simply developed a way to disguise and detoxify those feelings so as not to alienate his son from him? I didn't know then, and I don't know now, some 15 years after his death.

I do know that in the decade left to him, after my family moved to Missouri, and he drove down from Chicago to visit us, he came to look on my sweet Catholic wife as the person who brought a warring, disconsolate son and his frustrated father together, as they'd not been together for a long time. When Ginny and my father were sitting together at the dining room table talking about disciplining young children, her Catholicism -- before knowing her, her foremost characteristic, in my father's mind -- fast dwindled to insignificance. Only when you try to know a stranger does her essential common humanity show through.

My father's older sister Vera, an ardent church-goer, had lived all her life next door to the Cherry Grove United Methodist Church, which her younger brother had helped build, in an era, I gather, before only union workers could be used and when voluntary child labor was still smiled upon. Among her southern Ohio friends she never let slip a derogatory word about others' religion, because, naturally, all her friends and acquaintances were United Methodists.

I recall vividly, however, the spring afternoon when the two of us and my Aunt Elda traveled from Larchmont into the city, walked to Greenwich Village and got tickets for The Three Penny Opera. Sitting in the audience waiting for the curtain to go up by scanning the programs we'd been given, my Aunt Vera stopped at a particular page and called attention to the name Mark Blitzstein (who I later learned was a close friend of Leonard Bernstein, and who composed a bracing, experimental wartime opera called "The Airborne Symphony.")

"Oh," she said, with an ugly sneer disfiguring her lips, "I wonder what religion he is." By way of response, I just shut my mouth and continued reading my program.

Many years later, when both she and my Aunt Elda drove to New York to attend my wedding, Vera gave the bride a small package wrapped in tissue paper. When Ginny unwrapped it, it proved to be a small reproduction of the rose window of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

People stay prejudiced against others of a different skin color, different religion, or different nationality because their separation lets walls be built up. My Cherry Grove-raised father had moved to the city, that melting pot that had forced him to congregate, at least to some modest extent, with all those others against whom his Uncle Aden had warned him. That's why he'd learned how to co-exist, though never comfortably, with that gigantic human stew that Walt Whitman had trumpeted called Manhattan. My Aunt Vera, on the other hand, while at least in many respects Christian, had let her abiding physical and emotional distance from others box her into her own brand of Christianity. And she was, I think, all the less Christian for it.

Some commentator -- it doesn't matter which -- wrote recently that the inter-racial friction that's been a part of America's history for so long will probably never completely disappear. I can accept that judgment. But only just. Because to say so is, I believe, to sell us short. America has always been an on-going social experiment, and the result isn't in yet, even after all these many years.

In many ways, Christianity has been the most divisive and destructive force in human history, used by blind "true believers" to bludgeon all "others." (See the Crusades of the Middle Ages.) But, given enough time and a few good examples, I think we all tend toward the good. It took our American predecessors until 1920 to grant women the right to vote. And we've just now voted for a black man -- who our Founding Fathers didn't even consider fully human -- to lead us toward the hazardous future.

The 18th-century American Quaker John Woolman, who the editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature calls "a model of unqualified integrity, decency, and forthrightness," wrote in his "Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes": "To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favors are peculiar to one nation and exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding. For as God's love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced it begets a likeness of itself and the heart is enlarged toward all men."

As the world shrinks and people of all races and religions are shoved together, tolerance grows, if only because there's no other way to survive. And tolerance isn't a bad way to begin.