I started watching another HBO series — “My Brilliant Friend.” It’s set in Napoli, Italy in the 50s. Being 99% Italian (1% Dark Chocolate M&M) myself, I recognized my family in the scenes. My elderly aunts cooking and fanning themselves while wearing mumus, occasionally yelling at their lazy husbands. The younger women exhausted by raising litters of children.
But, the thing that struck me most was the anger, especially from the males. Maybe this was an ethnic thing. Italians were quite passionate and expressive. The outbursts of rage I remember were regular and frightening. Maybe I was scared into being a nice guy.
My father had an explosive temper. He would go from zero to psycho in no time at all. I never saw him physically abuse my mother, but we children took our beatings. They subsided over time. Maybe Pop mellowed or lost interest.
Even my dear mother had a temper. Getting to know her from my perspective as an adult helped me understand why. She was born with a role to play — work, help her parents, meet a good boy with a job, get married, have lots of children, care for the family, and allow my father his indiscretions without question.
A traumatic experience I recall was after I had painted jerseys on miniature players from my electric football game — a far cry from Madden. It was tedious. The paintbrush was only a few hairs wide. The players were less than an inch tall. I painted them silver and black and left them out to dry in the basement.
Pop came home after another 12-hour day at the foundry and a glass of post-work Seagram’s. He was in a mood. When he saw the little plastic figurines on the washer and dryer, he lost it and swept them onto the floor, crushing many of them. He screamed at me as I wailed. Mom came downstairs to defend me (and to keep Pop from beating me senseless). Pop was having none of it. His face was bright red and spit flew from his mouth as he swore in Italian. Mom and I cried, and she yelled back at him, “I wish you were dead.” She said it in English.
I thought for sure he’d hurt her right then — maybe kill her. Instead, he went silent. He pulled his notepad and pencil from his pocket. (He was also a sports bookie. That’s where he kept his tabs.) He wrote the date and Mom’s quote on a page, folded it into fourths, put it in his wallet, and left. When he died 40 years later, I’m sure that note was in his wallet. Italians hold on far too long.
There’s a scene in the “My Brilliant Friend” series when a young girl’s father loses his temper and throws her through a window, breaking her arm. I had to pause it. Her fall hurt me. As far-fetched as that is now, it was reality a short 50 years ago. Nobody would question it then.
How? How was it OK? How could anger be so uncontrollable that it would drive a big, strong, adult man to injure a defenseless child? Or a wife? Emotional torture was painful, but this was a horrible possibility we lived with many years ago. One misstep could get us injured.
I look back on it now and shake my head. How did my mother, aunts, and grandmothers make it through all of that without losing every ounce of delicacy? How could they not be hardened? How could they care and nurture in the middle of such ugliness?
I’m overly emotional. I can lose my temper. Sure. I’m not completely numb. But, I will not scream or raise a hand to a woman or child … or pet, even. I’ve seen and felt the pain. Either it would become me or teach me.