I broke my father. It is a horrible thing to see your father broken. It is worse to be the cause of it. I broke him under the weight of my stuff. All the stupidly inconsequential stuff we had crammed into our apartment back when we lived in Zelienople, Pennsylvania under perpetual gun metal grey skies that were always cloudy with a chance of heavy snow. My father was pretty much invincible until I broke him that day.
We had played backyard basketball and football together. Wrestled relentlessly on the floor of the den. He had a racquetball serve that made younger men weep. The ball bounced off every corner and died just after tapping the front wall. You would race around the court with the certainty of youth, bringing the pain during your service game. But when he served, you looked foolish no matter how fast you were.
My father never complained about something being too heavy. When something was heavy, he lifted it without effort. I would clap inwardly. That’s my dad, I would think. No burden is too heavy. No weight is too weighty. Until that day in Zelienople when we were tugging and pulling couches and bookshelves along. It was a do-it-yourself move in the grand tradition of young couples with a new baby and no money to spare. We are past the point of any do-it-yourself moves today, but back then we were young and strong and thrifty. It was a hot day for Pennsylvania. My father was sweating a bit. He needed to sit down for a minute. That was unusual. I kept throwing things in the truck while he sat down for a minute.
We took turns driving the giant moving van we had rented. I could tell I had nearly killed him with this move. Other moves may have forced him to sweat a bit, but this one wore him out to the bone. It scared me. My father could walk through walls. But he was tired. He was getting old. My wife had just given birth to our son Avery a few months ago. He was already a grandfather through my sister’s pretty little daughter Carrie. But he had never seemed fragile and old in the way that grandfathers can until that moment. My sister later said that he wasn’t quite right until about three weeks later. I felt horrible about it. I had to mentally reshuffle my image of him. He could be worn out and broken down. He was someone I needed to stop exploiting and start protecting. This was a new way to think of him entirely.
I’ve seen people carrying a lot of heavy things since that day I broke my father. I saw two movers trying to move our impossibly heavy oak desk up a flight of stairs in Carolina Beach. The men were as big and tall as oak trees. Too big to fail, like banks on Wall Street. Yet, they struggled and grunted to move the desk. They had gotten it all the way up the stairs without damaging any walls and were trying to put it in the bedroom. They turned it every way it could be turned. Then one of them said, “This just won’t fit.” They had to sit down on the steps for a minute. The notion that they would be toting that crazy heavy desk back down the stairs took a little out of them. They weren’t broken entirely. They were simply busted for the moment.
The South carries its many burdens with grace. The burden of slavery. The burden of defeat. The burden of past racism and injustice. Most of the time. When the Ku Klux Klan gathered in the parking lot of a church not far from my high school back in North Carolina in the early 1980s, I thought surely that can’t be right. All that crazy business of hating must have died out long ago. Why weren’t they told? It was time to move on and let go. How could they not get that memo? It was only much later that I realized they were small in number, a tiny fraction of hate living like a tick on a larger body. They sucked on old wounds and made a big theatrical show of their hate. They thrived on attention. Most of it bad.
Once in Pittsburgh, I covered a Klan rally for the newspaper. Again, I thought, surely all that hate business is dead by now. But it wasn’t. The protesters greatly outnumbered the handful of Klansmen who gathered on the steps of some building. They were using a bullhorn to broadcast their hate, but the crowd was shouting back to the extent that little of the nonsense could actually be heard. Should none of us have come here to hear all that hate? I thought. Would their showy little spectacle have died in silence if no one had appeared? I wondered.
One day when I was living in Asheville in my twenties, my Great Uncle Frank asked me to go for a ride with him. I jumped in the car, happy as a tick to go anywhere with my uncle Frank. We were going to a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting. I just didn’t know it until we were there. Several things had to be brought in for the meeting. Can you get that? my uncle asked. I pondered. I wanted to be helpful. But he was pointing at the flag. And not the U.S. flag. What does it mean to carry the Confederate flag? I thought. Who are you if you carry it? What have you committed to without knowing it? You were just going for a ride to nowhere in particular, and now you are a soldier in an army of ghosts and old men fighting a war that was lost and cannot be won.
I decided to put all that aside and help my uncle Frank bring in stuff for his meeting. I carried it carefully in. There was no hate in my heart for anyone. The meeting was actually quite boring. Hate was not on the agenda that day. And probably had never been. This was more about heritage and lineage and keeping track of ancestors who served bravely in a Lost Cause. I had a lot to learn about the South and being southern I decided. I was a student in my native land trying to understand what it meant to be a son of the South. I still don’t know it all or even half of it.
My studies continue from afar. Learning what it means to be a southerner while living in New York City. Looking for sweet tea and barbecue where I can find it. Carrying heavy things and being proud and clear of purpose the way any son of the South should be no matter where he goes.
I look for signs. I read the papers. I walk the streets endlessly and see new wonders daily. I try to connect with old friends still living in the South and turn their lives over in my mind like a leaf, thinking only warm thoughts of them and the South. Trying to fit that all together with my new life in the North like an oddly shaped puzzle with a few missing pieces.
One day it will all come clear in a flash. I do believe.