Taking a Long Road Home
Eugene C. Bianchi
Se tu segui tua stella,
non puoi fallire a glorioso porto.
If you follow your star,
you cannot miss the splendid harbor.
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno 15:55-56
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments .................................................................................... iii
Introduction ............................................................................................. iv
Wine-Making in a Dirt Floor Basement ....................................................... 1
Grape Picking Between Heaven and Earth ................................................ 16
New Enthusiasm and Lingering Doubts .................................................... 30
Torn Between Work and Love ................................................................. 45
New Hopes and Dark Night ..................................................................... 59
Old Patterns and Hard Learning ............................................................... 72
Coming Down to More Rough Landings .................................................. 89
Things Fall Apart and Come Together .................................................... 109
Staying Open to Inner Voices ................................................................ 131
Listening to the Cicadas ......................................................................... 154
I owe a debt of gratitude to many, starting with the Heilbrun Fellowship program at Emory University. The Heilbrun funds retired professors who are completing research and writing in their areas of interest.
Thank you John Loudon for your careful editing and candid suggestions; Robert R. Rahl for your technical and substantive work in shaping this memoir; and to my wife, Peggy Herrman. Peggy encouraged me all along the way. She provided both professional criticism and good judgment about sensitive issues.
Finally, I am thankful to everyone who in overt and subtle ways contributed to my growth in knowledge and a little wisdom. Many people appear in this memoir. It’s has been a pleasure to recall their faces and voices. There is also a much wider assembly of those who deserve my thanks for being part of my life in usually unseen ways. This is the thrust of a Lakota prayer of gratitude “for all my relations,” that is, all those who are part of me:
I pray for all my relations….
All those who walk, crawl, fly and swim,
Seen and unseen,
To the good spirits that exist in every part of Creation.
“It’s odd that after thousands of years of great spiritual example and literature we have to remind ourselves that spirituality is to be found in everyday life.”
Not long ago, the Provost of Emory University, where I taught for four decades, asked me what I planned to do after retirement. I told him I had only one open slot on my resume, to become a saint. This was something of a conversation stopper. After moments of silence and a puzzled look, he said: “You mean a canonized saint as in the Catholic Church?” I said no, that I had a different view of sanctity than the canonizing process. I was referring to a less heroic notion of holiness. I meant something simpler: to move beyond or beneath religious institutions and their teachings.
I wanted to reconnect with a natural or primordial way of living spirit in the ups and downs of everyday life. My path has been a lifelong search for home, a true way for body/spirit here and now. Some may see this as just secular living. I’ve come to view daily existence as the main arena of spiritual life. Other aspects of traditional religion can be helpful but are secondary. To get to this gut-level, down-home spirit in the quotidian, I’ve had to let go of heady theories and false estimates of myself to learn from hard times. Without becoming a Pollyanna, I seek to discover divinity in persons and nature. How might we re-imagine life, secular and spiritual, intimately linked to one another?
In this memoir I try to explain myself to myself. I invite readers to look over my shoulder as I select events over seven decades. My bag of mixed motives for this venture surely includes a quotient of ego and another of self-deception. Yet that’s all part of being human. If we had to exclude every trace of self-interest, we’d never write anything personal. And I dare to hope that you may resonate with some of my experiences.
I’ve been involved with religion as a Jesuit priest and later as a university professor. I want to trace changes in my personal grasp of it. I continue to be interested in specific spiritual traditions, especially their contemplative sides. As a teacher and writer, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on church reform. My outlook has become increasingly ecumenical. While the contemplative path is paramount for me, religious institutions remain important, because they influence the world for good or ill.
I hope my tale will strike some sparks with the ever-increasing number of “in-between” people who have one foot, however tentatively, in a tradition and the other searching for new spiritual paths. Being in-between will surely expand in a cybernetic age. Science and technology are moving too fast for it to be otherwise.
My approach to the spiritual did not come as a sudden vision. It fell together gradually, a piece here, a stone there. It dawned on me in quiet ways through a lifetime of study, but especially during times of emotional turmoil. It’s a story of discovery that extends from a childhood with Italian immigrants to the Jesuits to being a leading advocate for married priests to finding the spiritual in the everyday. It’s a circuitous journey that may resonate with others whose lives and longings parallel mine in some way.
Since I write as an elder, I will be interpreting things from a distance. But approximations to how it was in Oakland , California in the forties or in the Jesuit order are good enough. I may have a better chance to see the wider pattern from a longer vista. I’ve also had the good fortune of keeping written journals from the late fifties to bring back specific memories.
My vocation as a teacher is another reason for writing this memoir. I’ve always said to students that they didn’t have to accept my viewpoints. I hope the book will stimulate reflection in readers who feel kinship and in those who don’t.
Wine-Making in a Dirt Floor Basement
“Life must be lived forwards
but can only be understood backwards.”
Dressed in my salt and pepper, uniform corduroy pants, I came home from third grade at Sacred Heart School in Oakland to witness the inter-family wine-making event. A block away I could see the stained wooden grape boxes from my cousin’s place in the country piled empty along the sidewalk. My heart leapt at the sight. I ran with my book bag swung over my navy cardigan sweater. Sister Claudine would not have approved my hanging around with Italian immigrant forebears sipping last year’s Dago Red from stubby, chiseled glasses in the dirt floor basement of my grandfather’s house. But I was now beyond the border of rules.
The old men were bragging about last year’s vintage as their rubber boots stomped the fresh grapes in large wood tubs. Then they poured the dark brew into a manually operated crusher. The pungent smell is still vivid. The old guys outdid each other with stories in “Genovese” dialect, some from the old country, others from their experiences in America. The place reeked of crushed grapes, the latter used by a few brave souls to produce grappa, a distilled liquor made from remains of the winepress. My uncle John’s amateur radio system strung with thrown-away speakers crisscrossed the basement, supplying background music from hit tunes of the twenties and thirties. But the music was poor competition for the voices urging on the two men who turned the screw of the crusher round and round like figures from a Bruegel painting of harvest time.
No one begins life with a clean slate, a tabula rasa. Only later, of course, did I realize how immersed I was in an ethnic Italian-American culture. Even they were not generic Italians, but paisani, neighbors, from the countryside in Liguria and Tuscany with their specific habits. On that wine-making day, I would never have thought that someday I would come back to this basement to find clues for authentic living. As an eight-year-old altar boy, I assigned religion and God to the Holy Name nuns who taught me. They were mostly Irish women who bespoke discipline in their long black robes and starched white coifs that hid their hair and foreheads. I took it for granted that someone so specially attired was also special to God. For me the spiritual realm was connected with convent corridors that I waxed and the dark high wainscoting topped by somber portraits of mothers superior long gone.
Religion had to do with the priest house and serving Mass in black cassock and white surplice, carrying wine and water for the great ritual, ringing the little bell for the Sanctus and the consecration of the host, as well as the Latin prayers: Introibo adaltare Dei… (I will go in to the altar of God…). It had to do with the sacristy where priests put on liturgical garments. It had to do especially with the confessional with its heavy drapery and sliding door and recitation of sins and dark pews on Saturday afternoon where we said our three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys in reparation for the week’s sins. Such formal confession was a prerequisite for receiving communion on Sunday.
These aspects of a Catholic childhood enfolded the context of my early life, but they were not its deepest roots. That dirt basement and the key players around it on 42 nd Street in Oakland, California really formed me. Gertrude Stein spoke of Oakland as a place with “no there there,” but for me it had great on-the-ground salience or “thereness.” My maternal grandparents lived right across the street from us. Luigia Mangini, my Nonna, an intellectual of sorts, stretched her limited formal education to read the Italian newspaper every day with her Woolworth reading glasses. In her big wedding picture, she was strong and quite good looking, wearing a wool sepia dress sitting next to Nonno, my grandfather, in dark serge with a heavy mustache. Of course, that’s a later judgment of her looks. In childhood I was more interested in her cooking and banter as she held forth on everything. I provided an audience for her. Nonna was opinionated. She hated Roosevelt for opposing Mussolini and getting us into World War II, but she gradually developed more tolerance toward Eisenhower whose name she pronounced “Ou-zenhourah.” At her heavy, wooden kitchen table, where family life took place near a wood-burning stove, I learned by a kind of osmosis that reading was important. Of course, she never lectured on the value of reading. That came indirectly through the feel and smell of pasta dough that she would powder and roll and toss and roll again.
That table was important because there I watched her make from scratch the world’s best ravioli which I looked forward to eating with the abandon of youth. The smell of her mushroom sauce simmering in that small kitchen is still with me. Nonna’s house was also a main comfort zone when the Sturm und Drang of my own home across the street became overwhelming. Nonna went to church, but expressed independent judgment about clerical foibles. She voiced a more benign judgment, for example, of my second grade teacher, Sister Anne Marie, who ran off with a mechanic, a scandal of cosmic proportions in 1938. “The poor thing was unhappy in that dark building,” she would say in Genovese. I remember holding my grandmother’s hand on the way to semi-annual Italian missions (intense preaching events with loud off-key congregational singing of Noi vogliam Dio, ch'è nostro Padre “We want God who is our Father”) at nearby churches. On the way home we would collect mushrooms in empty lots and gather eucalyptus pods whose scent was thought to ward off bedroom varmints. I remember her, pitchfork in hand, turning the soil to plant vegetables. And I see her in a long brown overcoat with fur collar holding a large purse with both hands in front of her. As an altar boy, I saw this classic country immigrant stance replicated many times.
John Mangini, my uncle, who never left home (except for a stint in the army during the “good war”), contributed more to me than I ever realized in youth. In addition to his tinkering with old radio parts and stringing speakers around the property and messing with old cars, he was a professional house painter. He was tall and well built with straight hair that he kept dyed dark all his life. The color depended on which drug store product he was using at the time. Italians have the strangest nicknames. Some people referred to him as John or Gianni, but for the most part, he was “Cooka.” The provenance of that one remains a mystery. But he, too, was a master of nicknames. When I would flee the familial turmoil at home for the saner clime across the street, he would ask me what “ Lucca” or “Il Re diLucca” (the king of Lucca) or “GinoBianchiGino” was up to in the zone of fury. And he had his secret nicknames, known only to his special initiates, such as “Gambing” (“stick legs” with accent on “bing”) for a friend’s wife on the block. Cooka was complex and simple at once. Never an academic performer, he didn’t finish high school. Most everybody liked him, but people would speak to him as though talking to a child or a simpleton with that special inflection in their voices. He was generous to a fault, sending money from his meager resources to questionable religious charities, a habit I could not talk him out of, even in my heady Jesuit days.
Cooka built his own chapel in the chicken house that had been part of our Victory Garden during the war. His shrine consisted of holy pictures, rosaries and other religious memorabilia placed in wooden niches. Cooka had recurrent nervous breakdowns, the biggest happening in 1943 at Camp Carson in Colorado. It eventually got him discharged from the army. I recall the day in 1942 when the family walked him to the nearby Santa Fe station to return to Camp Carson, while Carling, one of the elder wine-makers, was showing him how to crouch behind boulders to avoid bullets. Hardly the remedy for his nervousness.
As a younger man, he was racked with scruples, a condition exacerbated by the sin-guilt mentality he encountered at our parish church. After painting a hall for the Italian Catholic Federation, for example, he would crucify himself with worries about leaving lights on because this might cause a fire. His “Chapel of the Gallinah” (Genoese version of “Chapel of the Chicken House”), as I called it, seemed to serve as his place of worship when he no longer went to Mass. Cooka had an explosive side, ranting on about those sons-of-a-bitch priests and nuns who, he thought, scared him into scruples as a child. Like Dante talking with Virgil, he would assign special torments and places in hell to these religious professionals. Such tirades, often with a touch of humor, usually took place around the old well, dug by my grandfather. We would sit on an equally ancient bench behind the iron pump handle, as we looked out on fava beans, onions, potatoes and apricot trees. Of course, he would recognize one or other kindly priest or nun who attempted to assuage his scruples. Father Varni was okay. In a quiet voice, this priest would say, “John, don’t worry about those things. They’re not sins.” Cooka replaced visits to church with private devotions at some Native American burial grounds along the bay. He felt strongly about honoring these bones. Stray cats became part of his community. He couldn’t deny them the benevolence of food and some shelter, despite the hygienic mess that two dozen felines made.
I was unconsciously learning a lot just being with my uncle. Without explicit language, he was teaching me about the brokenness of life. It was a slow immersion in the limits of our desires and of life in general. I was letting Cooka’s pain and sadness seep into me over time. He was helping me grow into the lacrimae rerum, the tears of existence. I didn’t realize it then, but I, as the son he never had, was receiving Cooka’s tenderness despite his dirty overalls and unshaven face. I was giving him a chance to be fatherly. He developed a term of endearment for me, “Putiti,” when I came into view. He would often turn “Putiti” into a chant of repetition. I don’t know how he conjured up “Putiti,” but it might have been from sounds I made as a toddler. He called my brother, George, “Tofoleti.” This derived from a childhood incident concerning slippers (pantofola).
When he had some money, he would buy me gifts such as my first electric train. This was during the Depression. He first walked me to the nearby hardware store to see if I liked it. He was proud of his work as a house painter and would regale me with stories about the elegant homes he painted in Oakland and Berkeley. He was particularly proud of his abilities with gum finish, a glossy protective coating on woodwork. In the late forties, I accompanied him to Fresno in a Santa Fe (he pronounced “Fee”) steam-driven train to an Italian Catholic Federation meeting where he proudly played the clarinet in a marching band. In his better moods, he would bang out John Philip Souza on his harmonica with great gusto.
Another poignant phase of Cooka’s life was his longing for a woman. Yet his neurotic, depression-oriented personality and his child-like simplicity kept him tied to his parents. His tastes in women were certainly integrated long before that would have been common in a working class area that saw substantial white flight after the World War II. His pin-ups were frequently attractive African American women. When I pointed out his spirit of “integration,” it wasn’t hard to detect his frustrated desire. It may be that out of his pain around scruples and loneliness, he was able to develop an amazing kindness of spirit toward me and my younger brother. Cooka might be fulminating against those no-good Italians who abandoned the neighborhood, his right fist pounding into his left hand, but I could always detect a note of humor in the recitation. He would sentence the runaways to hanging and end the soliloquy with a loud “pong!” as the trap door sprung. However crazy Barba (dialect term for uncle) Gianni might have been, his nephews felt at ease around him, enjoyed being with him, sensing that they had his unconditional acceptance.
Antonio “Tony” Mangini, my maternal grandfather, Nonno, was already an older person when I was a child. He was relatively short and wiry with a handlebar mustache and a mellow personality. Nonno didn’t say much, even in the hurly-burly of wine making, although his English was somewhat better than Nonna’s which was virtually non-existent. She could live surrounded by paisani who spoke either dialect or regular Italian. I remember three tableaus of Nonno. The first is that of my grandfather on an old bicycle (he eventually traded up by using my discarded bike) riding down to Emeryville and returning up 42 nd Street, walking the bike with a large load of long thin oak castoff strips from a lumber mill poised precariously – so it seemed to me – over the handle bars and the seat. The bundle was always tied with old strips of cloth from discarded clothing. He came to the area in 1895 taking a job picking strawberries near Half Moon Bay. Nonno saved money and started a horse-drawn garbage business with a paisano in Oakland in the first decade of the last century. He was tying up the horses one day when he spotted my grandmother in a relative’s yard. Nonna said that he leapt over the fence to present himself. I may have inherited some of his venturing spirit in a number of life decisions.
A second picture of my grandfather is of him sitting in the doorway of his dirt basement, using natural light to guide his hatchet into the kindling wood he had carted home. He seemed to always wear the same outfit: black denim pants hitched up by thick suspenders over a long sleeve, faded blue work shirt. I would appear on Saturdays to beg a dime for a movie. He would sink the hatchet in the chopping block and dig into a front pocket for a deep leather purse with silver fastener. Cooka, who stood over six feet, used to criticize the old man for not digging a deeper opening to the basement, especially after my uncle banged his head on the low top. That gave rise to a commentary on his parents’ frugal ways, “not wanting to spend another God-damn nickel on things.” Yet it was precisely this frugality that allowed Nonno to save enough to build not only his own house, but also our house and a four unit apartment adjacent to it. One had to have “cashy” in those days. It wasn’t easy for an immigrant, who started his own garbage business with horse and wagon, to persuade bankers to make loans. But I could also sympathize with Cooka when I, too, bumped my head on the low opening.
The third tableau of Nonno is especially memorable since I would become a priest and teacher of religion. After retiring at age sixty, he spent the next thirty years as a vegetable grower to our neighborhood. In friends’ empty lots, he cultivated row on row of beans, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, Swiss chard and all manner of other ingredients that went into Mediterranean cooking. Walking to school, I could see him going meticulously from plant to plant holding a long pole with a watering can at the far end. When he could, he pumped the water from a well into a large container and scooped it into manageable buckets that he toted to the end of rows where he had dug irrigation ditches. He sold the produce informally for very little, or he would give it away. During the Depression, his vegetables kept food on our table when my father was out of work for years. Nonno’s last regular job was in a linoleum factory where the fumes made him sick. He retired in 1930, the year of my birth. Getting outdoors was healing for him and it brought him back to his roots in the earth of Fontanarossa, a small mountain town outside of Genoa. I made a pilgrimage there years later to scout out the humble ruins of what was called “u bosco,” the grove, where he was born in 1870, the year of Italy’s unification. I stood by the grave of his own grandfather and looked up toward the terraced produce gardens and fruit trees. Closeness to the soil and its fruitfulness were his real religion.
Of course, as a somewhat pious young boy, I didn’t understand this. One day on my way home from school, a walk of only three blocks, I stopped off at one of his lots. He was taking a break, sitting by the hand pump and chewing some kind of foul-smelling Italian tobacco that produced ghastly brown spit and turned teeth maroon. I asked him why he didn’t go to church, except on Christmas or Easter. I must have been worried about the salvation of his soul, since the nuns and priests insisted on us attending Sunday mass under pain of mortal sin for which we could go to hell forever. And I remembered vividly how Monsignor Sampson at high Mass on Christmas, striding to the communion rail, his huge gray-topped head and deep-set eyes trembling, would berate men like my grandfather standing in their one good suit of clothes at the rear of the church. Why, he thundered, did they come to church so rarely? Didn’t they realize that the Baby Jesus came down for them? How could they reject him by not going to Mass? He insisted that they come every Sunday. Perhaps, I thought, these contadini with limited education just didn’t understand the Monsignor’s English with an Irish brogue. Back at the lot, Nonno spat, chuckled and looked up at me. “Jewjing,” (that’s how he pronounced “ Eugene”), he said, “sono cattolico e religioso ma non sono fanatico.” (I’m Catholic and religious, but I’m not a fanatic.)
When he said he was a Catholic, he claimed allegiance to his Italian culture, steeped in centuries of religious monuments, rituals and sensibilities. His use of the word “religious” pointed to an honest way of living, an ethical life style, that all religious traditions encourage. Perhaps my father, the notorious Natale Gino Bianchi, summed up this dimension in his own quaint way when I would ask him about confessing his sins to a priest. He would pause with a look of amazement on his pinkish, round face. Why did he need to go to confession? Then he would proclaim his oft repeated response: “I haven’t killed anybody. I haven’t robbed anyone. I haven’t done anything wrong.” (Of course, he was oblivious of his treatment of our mother.) As far as Nonno and Pa were concerned, they were living decent, ethical lives and saw no need to follow the confessional habits of women and children. If the latter wanted to recite peccadillos through the sliding door of the confessional, it was just the way of priest-ridden women and the kids they coerced into the discipline. If the practice kept wives in good humor and held the children in line, all the better. One could claim that the men were just lazy regarding religious duties. But when they saw themselves as not “fanatics,” they were saying something important. What counted were the hard daily realities of putting bread on the table and treating others decently in the process. It was the gritty theology of working class Italian men transferred to the new world. Involving themselves in many church rituals seemed fanatical. If God were to be found, it would have to be in the daily rounds.
Freudians sometimes refer to the interactions of parents and children as the family romance, surely an ironic term given the interplay between our common idea of romance and the dramatics of real families. And Tolstoy, hardly a paragon of familial success, said that all good families are good in the same way, while bad family relationships are bad in their own peculiar modes. As I think about the house at no. 933, 42 nd Street, I find both Freud and Tolstoy pertinent. The Bianchi household evidenced no perceptible romance between husband and wife, and it was a “bad” marital environment in its own peculiar ways. I place “bad” in quotes because a relationship between father, mother and two sons over decades is too complex to be characterized as simply bad. We have to look at positive aspects, too. But on the whole, our family interactions would never qualify for a Dr. Phil manual of the successful unit.
Yet out of this textbook case of wrong moves came two reasonably healthy sons, each carrying his own wounds from childhood in different ways. Without trying to answer the underlying problem of genetics and environment, we can agree on the mutual influence of nature and nurture. Even the experts haven’t figured out the intricacies of this interplay. Perhaps the best way to get a fix on my family milieu is to look at the older actors first and then the responses of my brother and me.
Natale Gino Bianchi, after forty-four months (that’s how he always started when telling war stories following ample wine and food) in the Italian field artillery during World War I, migrated by rapid stages to Oakland. In the retreat from Caporetto, made famous for English readers by Hemingway in A Farewell To Arms, my father said that he rode two horses to death trying to escape. He would point to a scar on his forehead where a bullet grazed him while he was sleeping against a tree. Like other immigrants, he had family relations in the Bay Area, mainly his older sister, Cesira. Gino was a terror to live with….not all the time, but most of the time. He was built like a small silo with a round face and ruddy complexion. When I later met his brother, Giorgio, in Italy, I recognized the body type.
My brother and I inherited the lankier physical shape of my mother’s family, although George’s disposition was closer to Gino’s. “You’re just like your father,” Ma used to say to George when he displeased her. It’s interesting how good and bad roles, repeatedly prescribed by parents, become durable markers of personality. We tend to live up to these given roles. Even later when George became a lawyer and president of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, my mother could not give up the habit of comparing her sons negatively to the good boys in the neighborhood. She was very short on any compliments to us, except when we were “very, very good.” She might say this only when we conformed to the ways of those she esteemed as paragons of goodness. In my mother’s convoluted mind, such negative sketching was a kind of humility, lest in the classical Greek sense, the gods strike us down for hubris. But it was also an extension of her own need to be a victim. Victims are not supposed to win or boast about winning.
Life with Gino in a frame, four room house, was frequently nerve-racking and sometimes hellish. He was a bundle of easily ignited fury. In later years, George and I engaged in what we called “shrinkology,” speculating about “the citizen’s” (George’s nickname for Gino who proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen) early formation in the rural village of Tofori outside of Lucca. Did his over-burdened (eleven children) mother have no time for him in the dawn to dusk work routine of tenant farmers? Did the long stint in World War I brutalize him? Did he just learn among peers that straightforward bullying worked? There was nothing indirect or passive-aggressive about Gino. He was pure in-your-face aggression. He didn’t sulk for hours or days building up a temper tantrum. Provocations brought immediate responses. At least we didn’t have to hold our breath in anticipation. I feared him in his bad moods, but also saw him as a pillar of security. He made a living for us and would defend us when necessary. When a grammar school boy and his brother jumped me on the way home from school, Gino lost no time knocking on that family’s door with tough talk.
The chief catalyst for his explosions around dinner time (and we always ate well, thanks in part to Nonno’s vegetable gardens) was the volatile mixture of my mother’s highly-developed victimhood and Gino’s well-honed talent for victimizing. I remember so many episodes in which subtle and overt exchanges lit the fuse. He would come home from work as a welder in federal navy yards carrying his black metal lunch pail. After washing his face, he would emerge into the kitchen area. The radio on top of the refrigerator declared the nightly news. Gino was a news junkie, something I carried on. My mother, Katie or “ Chieti” in more ethnic circles, had prepared dinner and was ironing clothes on a pull-down ironing board. I was seated at the swirled green Formica table with silver, pipe-like legs, an art deco standard of the thirties and forties. I was very hungry after playing in the school yard, and the smell of an Italian fish or meat stew was killing me. But I could sense a major blow-up about to happen.
Katie would recite some incident of the day as she pressed down on the ironing board: she met Gloria Perucchi at the grocery store and learned that her family was moving to a “high-tone” district in the hills, or that Mr. Backus, the old bachelor down the street, spoke so kindly to her, never raising his voice when she retrieved the ball I had thrown into his yard. Backus was such a dear elder to her, a true saint. I could see the smoke curling up from Gino’s ears. If that didn’t ignite the fuse, ma would go on to say that Margie was on the verge of a nervous breakdown because Mill was so insensitive to her, or that Cooka was drinking too much and yelling at her because she told him he looked like a bum in his unwashed overalls, or that Jack Bozzini was so nice to his wife when she wanted to go to church or play cards during the day with Maria Ferretti. Whatever it was, she knew just how to pull the trigger. Her verbal moves were low-keyed, but the undertone was that of the martyr entering the Coliseum. I think he picked up on that tone, even more than the content of the incidents, although they, too, were freighted with tempting morsels. He heard the sound that had a self-pitying ring about it. Gino was an unconscious Nietzschean in his dislike of pity and especially self-pity. One of his favorite summary lines about Katie was: “You muddah want pity, pity, pity (pronounced “peetee”)”
But with that lead-in, the Übermensch was off to the races. As his voice escalated in Italian and broken English, Katie would break in with “O, Gino, don’t get mad, don’t get mad.” Of course, these pleas would only make him madder. Weekends were the worse times because Gino would pull whiskey from the cooler in the pantry. In that oversimplified distinction between sleepy drunks and mean drunks, he was clearly the latter. The bottle accentuated his demons. In part, he may have been disappointed by having to take charity, as it were, from his in-laws when he was out of work in the 1930s. When his job in the Vallejo navy yard was secure after the war, he wanted to move there to strike out on his own. But Katie didn’t want to leave her familiar environment and prevailed on him not to buy a house in Vallejo. How much did he resent her for keeping him tied to her parents? In the trade-offs of life, I probably benefited greatly by not moving to Vallejo.
My reactions to the kitchen incidents were to eat and run. Although I felt the misery of it, which probably contributed to nervous anxiety throughout my life, my basic response mechanism was avoidance. Sometimes I could not get out of harm’s way when I had done some misdeed that summoned Gino’s anger. Although he didn't hit us often, it was very scary when he did. Usually he would resort to loud threats, but when I think back on it, I don’t recall him putting us down psychologically. With him it was direct force. He didn’t have the verbal ability to critique us with the mental indirections of my mother. At any rate, my avoidance techniques tended to be of two kinds: mental and physical. During a kitchen confrontation, I would pull away emotionally and stay quiet, or I would try to change the subject which usually was as successful as stopping a gale by raising my hand.
I wonder how much this emotional avoidance negatively affected my later life. It was a pretty good survival technique in childhood, but the pattern was not good for listening to the feelings of others, especially my future wives. This is most likely also connected to what psychologists call “perseveration” (a lack of attention to the conversation at hand) that others notice in me. On the contrary, George, who spent more time than I did at home (I escaped into the Jesuits after high school) had inherited much of Gino’s disposition. He would confront him, even if it meant being chased around the kitchen table. George, though psychologically quite subtle, has always been more direct and emotionally vulnerable than I. In him, Gino would meet Gino. George and I have speculated on how Gino would have done with a wife who stood up for herself. Such are the imponderable what-ifs that present themselves, but offer no real answers.
My second mode of avoidance was to just get away from the family romance. When things got hot, I could walk across the street to my grandparents’ house. The blessings of extended kinship brought calming acceptance. Barba Gianni would get me laughing with his antics. Or I could regroup with other kids. There was the peaceful house of Ted Cantino who became a physician or the interesting house of Robert Moran who owned armies of toy soldiers, and where later I heard Churchill give his Iron Curtain speech. And then there was always the school playground at Sacred Heart for a game of stick ball. I was becoming a master of avoidance.
But there was an upbeat side to the drama. Beyond all the craziness, and there was too much of it, Katie and Gino, both considerably flawed, were good enough parents. In the traditional division of labor between husband and wife, my mother elicited one of her few positive statements about Gino: “Your father is a good provider.” Since marriage was largely about survival, especially during the Depression, such a compliment was notable. Religion, social convention and limited finances conspired to keep unhappy marriages together. So Katie, who subtly played into Gino’s raging, would never leave him, however threatening his anger. Such was the mutual compact of the family romance in many households. Yet from a child’s perspective this less than perfect scene had its merits. It provided a stable base from which I could maneuver to deal with the madness. There was security and food on the table. There was predictability and a refuge across the street. I always felt an abiding love from my mother despite her annoying traits of self-pitying manipulation. I’m sure I got lots of that benevolence from her long before I could remember it.
Gino was not always a raging bull. I remember him taking me by the hand for walks in the neighborhood. On one of these, I could hear radios from open windows blaring Joe Louis’ knockout of Max Schmeling in 1936. I recall family outings in Mosswood Park where partial truces were honored on a Sunday afternoon. Gino’s weekend bingeing was confined to Friday and Saturday nights. Remember, he was a good provider and had to go to work early on Monday. Occasionally, he would take me to a downtown movie theatre and buy me ice cream on the long walk back. He taught us by example the values of hard work, sacrifice, delayed gratification and simple common sense. His frequently-voiced comment, “Dey don know what dey want,” stands over against the later utopian aspirations of the hippie generation. Gino didn’t learned to drive, so we never had a car. In his own way, he was proud of both sons, although he was not able to express affection.
Katie, despite her neuroses, was the main source of our stability. She provided a trustworthy ambience of mostly unconditional love. This was her true center beyond the histrionics. No doubt, her poor relations with Gino made her concentrate on George and me for emotional support. But even in a good marital relationship, her grounding presence to us would not have altered. Kids pick up on that trustworthy presence gathering them in without overwhelming them. They know they are loved without having to be constantly assured of it. This presence gave me a sense of stability. I never doubted that when I left for school with my mother talking about neighborhood news to my grandmother by the window in the kitchen, I would find her at home when I came back for lunch where she would spoil me with lamb chops and steamed fresh peas from my grandfather's garden. Another enduring trait was Katie’s care for the less fortunate in our neighborhood. She would dispense food and good advice to single moms and frail shut-ins. More than this, they knew she cared about them.
While the world of 42 nd Street provided my main understanding of what it meant to be human, Catholic school and parish inserted me into formal religion. As a kid, this consisted of church rituals directed by the nuns and priests. Then there was secular life as a realm apart. Everyone accepted this divide. Church professionals even promoted it. They set the rules for being favored in the eyes of God and worthy of heavenly rewards. Some of these codes tied in with being a good Americans, but many of them had a special Catholic flavor. This was especially true about sex. From my first awakening to a girl named Rosemary in the sixth grade under the no-nonsense gaze of Sister Brendan, I was into a long struggle with dirty thoughts. Rosemary was very smart and she also had well-developed breasts for a pre-pubescent. It made me wonder about the well-covered but ample breasts of Sr. Brendan, who would have killed me if she had an inkling of my reveries.
Religious devotions dominated the Catholicism of the thirties and forties. Mass was a devout practice for most lay people who said the rosary while the priest with back turned to the congregation followed the Latin rite. Yet I remember a feeling of awe (when I wasn’t too sleepy) while serving Mass with the priest genuflecting and raising the host. Other devotions were novenas, First Fridays and expositions of the Blessed Sacrament. These rites, together with slightly off-key singing by the choir, instilled in me an emotional sensitivity for the sacred. I still recall the affective impact of the three hours service on Good Friday with the stations of the cross combined with preaching about the seven last words of Christ. Now I would have to be chained to a pew to undergo the bad sermons and the lugubrious motions of Good Friday. My view of these practices has greatly changed over the years. But as a child I was unconsciously learning at an emotional level a sense of reverence for the transcendent.
The unbridgeable roles of priest and laity underscored the Catholicism of my youth. These differences mirrored the division between religion and life. The grace gained from the sacraments was supposed to help one in everyday life, but there was little sense that ordinary living itself was full of openings to grace. Religion was also separated from nature. Catholic theology held that grace built on nature. But priests presented earthly life as a vale of tears that we would escape in heaven. Nature, beautiful as it was, formed a backdrop and a set of metaphors for the really important thing: the salvation of individual souls in the afterlife. In this scheme, church rules gained great importance. Mortal sin, the road to hell, could result from breaching church mandates, such as missing Mass on Sunday, eating meat on Friday, not confessing to a priest once a year and receiving communion, not marrying in the Church and not raising one’s children as Catholics. The hierarchy claimed that people needed direction for their own spiritual benefit. Critics might counter that a religion of clerical rules was a convenient way of enhancing control. Yet I was oblivious of such critiques at Sacred Heart Parish.
Most sins for a growing boy revolved around sex. Here the physical and the spiritual were at war. We were told that everything having to do with sex was serious business. Missteps in this domain could land one in hell. I recall trying to not to look at sexy advertisements of women on bill boards and movie marquees during streetcar rides to high school in San Francisco. I probably had it pretty bad, as they say, but some were even more frightened by scruples about sex. It took me years to develop a sane mentality about masturbation and sexual thoughts. Later as a young Jesuit high school teacher, I remember walking out in disgust as Father Newport, famous for his ability to frighten students during school retreats, was graphically measuring how far boys could go in kissing and touching. He always concluded with the grim example of the boy who went too far and was plunged into hell after a car wreck on the way home from a dance. This was in the fifties, but by then I could see the absurdity of these still prevalent teachings.
Some of the lessons learned in the closed ranks of ethnic Catholicism gave me a religious starting point. Yet in our Catholic defensiveness, we overstated our importance in the eyes of God. I remember thinking it a sin to go into a Protestant church or participate in their services. After all, they had left the true Church to follow heretical ways. Ours was the right way and all other creeds were erroneous, leading us away from God. What would later be called ecumenism was then presented as indifference. God was a Catholic who looked sternly on his children associating with those of other creeds. The Church discouraged mixed marriages and obliged the faithful to raise their children as Catholics. In high school we heard lectures about the pitfalls of attending non-Catholic colleges.
So much in our lives is an accident of timing and place. Some claim a divine master plan working itself out, but I have come to see these events as adapting to life’s contingencies. Aldo Bozzini, a year ahead of me at Sacred Heart grammar school, was awarded a scholarship to the Jesuit high school in San Francisco, St. Ignatius. This was an unusual destination for Oakland boys who gravitated to high schools on the East Bay side. It was a long daily journey in the orange trains across the Bay Bridge and then by streetcar to SI. I emulated Aldo, a bright personality who would become an actor and director of plays with various day jobs to support him. Little did I know then that he was also gay and would spend much of his life in a stable partnership. Homosexuality was as foreign to us as the man in the moon. I doubt we even knew the word. I wonder if his pious mother ever knew. Yet Aldo had star power, and he could lead me to a more elevated and enchanted world.
SI introduced me to the Jesuits with whom I would spend twenty years after high school. It was a financial stretch for my parents to pay the tuition, but they believed that education was valuable. After my first year, Fr. Alexander Cody, a portly, venerable man with wispy white hair and somewhat effeminate manners, came to the rescue with a scholarship to keep me at SI. Cody was a born recruiter, a talent scout for the Society of Jesus, who could spot a prospect a long way off. In 1948 he would shepherd four of us into the Order in a big black sedan that crept down the pre-freeway Bayshore to the Los Gatos Novitiate. The other three entrants are still Jesuits. Jim Torrens, a life-long friend whom I met in frosh year, would spend many formative years with me. Our temperaments were quite different, and our spiritual paths verged away from one another. I think of him as a sterling sixteenth century man who might be transported back to live with Ignatius in the Roman professed house along side the Gesù church without a hitch. He would be trudging the muddy streets of Rome working with prostitutes and orphans. But Jim could never let himself think that Jesus might have been a non-divine, great spiritual Jewish master or that all theology is metaphor. This is baffling because Jim is a poet and where else would we meet so many metaphors. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The boys high school was a positive experience for me. Young Jesuit teachers lifted me out of the narrow confines of my Oakland milieu, and introduced me to a wider world of learning. In the waning days of classical liberal arts education, we dabbled in enough Latin and Greek to give us a feel for the literature. Later we might dazzle people at cocktail parties with one-liners from Cicero, Virgil and Homer. We had some impressive lay teachers, but my teenage bonding was to a few “scholastics” (Jesuit seminarians). They exuded vitality, knowledge as well as a dedicated life. Nothing in Oakland could match them. They became models to emulate.
I didn’t give much thought to their celibate status. Most of us had little contact with girls. I had no sisters, and the few dances and proms were largely perfunctory meetings. As a good student and editor of the school newspaper, I was ripe for picking as a future Jesuit. Their life style enticed me as a world of learning, camaraderie and good works. The widespread respect for the priesthood among Catholics at mid-century gave clerical life a special aura of respectability. I decided to enter the Order after high school, swept along by a wave of mixed motives. I could serve God, escape the frustrations of family life, and follow the enchanted Jesuit calling. This adventure attracted large novice classes of military veterans and wet-behind-the-ears high school grads in the years following World War II.
The road to the Los Gatos Novitiate led me farther away from Nonno’s wine-making basement. In many ways, it had to be. I wasn’t ready to recognize spirit in the world. I was immature and the Catholicism I knew enfolded me. I would have to soar like Icarus to gain a wider view. My religiously constructed wings would melt along the way. Yet this was the paradox of sol invictus, the unconquered sun, that draws us to climb and then drops us back to earth. Spiritual traditions point to this rhythm. Mystics like Buddha and Jesus experienced it.
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