The one vivid memory I have of my grandmother, Nana, my father’s mother, was her sitting in a rocking chair smoking one cigarette after another while I sat on the floor of her darkened bedroom, the tall curtains drawn and the air filled with smoke.
It was the annual, or bi-annual ritual, this visit to the Alamo Heights home in San Antonio where my father, Jack, and his two brothers, Morley and Howard, were raised. I was ‘taken in’ to the bedroom, sat on the floor, the door was closed, and Nana began talking, a burning cigarette posed between her fingers and occasionally dipping to the ashtray on the small metal table beside her.
“Never expect justice in this world,” Nana told me, over and over again. On every visit, she would repeat that phrase, and after every visit, I would leave the room puzzling over what she meant. After all, I wasn’t even a teenager yet. The hard bruises of life were yet to appear on my flesh, and my heart was yet unbroken.
Nana’s words would come back to me countless times as I grew older, but it was a long, long time before I allowed them to take root in my basic attitude towards life or my expectations of the future. Looking back, I was clearly a very slow learner.
I reached 40 years of age still expecting people ‘to do the right thing,’ to return kindness for kindness, ‘to do unto others. . . .,’ and those kinds of things. I understood people made mistakes, could act selfishly and cruelly — certainly, I did. But what always caught me by surprised were deliberate, intentional acts of betrayal, dishonesty, and meanness. I was not programmed, as it were, to expect them, in spite of Nana’s attempts to prepare me.
When I try to remember the moment I lost what could be called my naiveté, it was my experience of being suddenly scorned by a group of nuns who ran a Catholic college where I had been asked to serve as a visiting professor. I had served several semesters there, very happily it seems for all concerned when I noticed the sisters were avoiding me and scowling at me when I attempted to speak to them. I was hurt.
When I asked friends on the faculty what had happened, the reason was explained, but it was an extremely petty matter that could have been cleared up with a few minutes of honest conversation. Instead, the final months of my teaching was a trial for all concerned. As a fairly recent convert to the Catholic faith, I was stunned that nuns would treat me that way after a long period of happy residence at their college.
Yes, it’s apparent how naive I was at the time, but other events would transpire to reinforce my newly-discovered appreciation of Nana’s wise advice. After all, I moved to Washington, DC and got involved in presidential politics. Enough said! It was there I found out, it’s not only politicians who break their promises, lie to your face, and attempt your ruin. What I experienced with the nuns was nothing compared to the Catholic bigshots I had to contend with in DC, both lay and religious.
If I had paid more attention to Shakespeare than Aristotle, I would have been better prepared for the “real world.” Or, perhaps, I should have paid just as much attention to Shakespeare as I did to Aristotle and St. Thomas. Throw in a better grounding in history, and I would have had the mix about right.
Something else occurred when I woke up to life’s ‘injustice,’ I came face to face with myself in a deeper way. That same naiveté had blinded me to what needed moral and spiritual attention within myself. Yes, I wasn’t as close to the Aristotelian mean as I had assumed — I had had my own bouts with larceny of sorts and needed to own up. That led me down a path of realizing I was no better than those nuns, or anyone else, who had spurned me.
So what is it that I want my son, Cyprian, to know in the 21st year of his life? I don’t want to scare him with a portentous description of life’s tragic vision, but I want him to be prepared for the evil that will be done to him and the evil he will do to others. When evil befalls him, I want him to accept it as part of life and to avoid falling into the blame game. When his choices hurt others, I want him to recognize it, own it, make amends, and pray for forgiveness.
In other words, I want him to be a man who views life realistically but not fatally. I don’t want him to focus on the wounds but on how to handle them and to heal them if possible. I want him to know there are bad men in the world, but he should not become one of them. Finally, I wish him a resilence in life’s trials that only love can bring.