Authors: Mark Falanga
The way that you can tell that your father has had a massive stroke, a five-way bypass, a broken leg, and some other stuff that you can't quite remember is that when he comes to your house to visit, things happen to him that never happened to him before all that. During their visit, your father is sporting hearing aids, which he has never worn before. Growing up, your father frequently responded with “What?” to many things that were said, and when he watched TV it was always too loud for you and the rest of your family, so you all left the room. You, your sister, and your mother would tell your father that he should have his hearing checked and get a hearing aid. To which he would respond, “What?” When he finally understood what you were talking about, he would shake his head no, indicating that there were no deficiencies with his hearing. Finally, at seventy-five, he has heeded this advice, mostly coming from your mother, who at this point, day in and day out, was having to yell everything to him just so he could hear her.
The hearing aids that your father purchased are the high-tech ones, the ones with $100 batteries that need to be changed every two months. Your frugal father keeps his hearing aids turned down low in order to preserve the life of his batteries and thereby save energy and money. The downside is that when they are turned down so low he cannot hear, but the upside is that by doing this he extends the life of his batteries for another half a month. So, rather than hearing things clearly for two months before the batteries need to be changed, he chooses
to hear things for two and a half months, and he saves $120 a year on batteries.
These hearing aids make a high-pitched sound when they are not adjusted correctly, which is most of the time. The sound is annoying and can be heard by everyone except your father, because he has his hearing aids turned down so low. It is the sound that you imagine a dog whistle would make, if you could hear such a thing. When this happens, you and everyone else calls your father's attention to it, but he fails to be convinced that there is anything wrong. He will not even acknowledge that this annoying sound is originating from him; he is convinced that it is coming from your suburban home.
Your father has a bit of a hard time with technology. He grew up in a world where most things that required controlling were controlled manually, not electronically. Video players and computers are confusing to him. So are house alarms. When you bought your house, you inherited a house alarm, and you try
to activate it when your parents visit. And, just in case you do, you change the access code to 1111 while they are in town so that everyone can remember and use it, if necessary. You give everyone instructions about how to open the door and then walk to the keypad and enter 1111 to deactivate the alarm. You demonstrate this to everyone, even though you know there will be no circumstance when the alarm is set and no occasion when either of your parents will be entering the house alone.
Your alarm system is tied in to the police department, and, while it has never been tested, you assume that when the alarm goes off the police will show up. You are not quite sure how this connection works, but you do understand that you pay $48.32 per month for it. One Saturday, your father decides to go for a walk. He wants to go alone, to challenge himself to see if he can find his way back home easily, like he would be able to before having a stroke, a heart attack, and a compound fracture in his leg. He will not be gone long, he says. He takes the key and heads out for some fresh air in your new suburb, which he is visiting for the first time. While he is out, your wife and mother take your son and daughter for a walk to the park, which is close by. You are home waiting for your father and decide to run to the hardware store for some sandpaper for your son's pinewood-derby car. Without thinking, you set the alarm, like you do each time you leave the house. The house is empty.
Your father is the first to return from his outing. He unexpectedly beats you home. He unlocks the door and opens it. There is a high-pitched sound that fills the house, which sounds like his hearing aids when they are not adjusted correctly, which he does not hear because his hearing aids are turned down to their lowest setting to conserve money and energy. The alarm tone that he does not hear means that he has sixty seconds to enter the code, 1111, into the keypad, but he does not realize this because he cannot hear the high-pitched alarm tone. If the code is not entered within sixty seconds, the alarm will sound and the police will be notified; that's what the former owner told you, anyway.
Your father goes into the living room, sits down, and gets himself comfortable with the newspaper. Within five minutes, there are two police cars parked outside your house and the doorbell is ringing, the doorbell that your father cannot hear because he is saving money on his hearing-aid batteries. The police are knocking and ringing and their expressions are getting more serious as there continues to be no response. At that point, you pull up to your house with the sandpaper you purchased from the hardware store and see two police cars parked outside. One policeman is standing at your front door with his gun drawn and the other is crouched and trying to see into your living-room window.
You run to the front porch and ask the policeman what is wrong. The policeman tells you that the alarm has been triggered. He tells you that they are accustomed to false alarmsâ“It happens all the time,” he saysâbut usually people come to the door when that happens. You tell the two policemen to hold on, and you enter the house, because you think that your father may have something to do with the activated alarm. Inside the house, the alarm is sounding, a sound that you have never heard before. It is audible from the living room, where your father is sitting on the couch, reading the paper, like nothing is going on. He is really conserving his batteries now. You deactivate the alarm, go back outside, and tell the police that your father activated the alarm because he did not enter the code, and that he did not hear the alarm or the doorbell because he was saving money on his hearing-aid batteries. You thank the two officers for coming out and give each a doughnut, for which they are very appreciative.
You go back inside and your father looks up at you and says, “Is everything OK, my boy? I made it back to the house. Your neighbors look very nice.”
You live in a quaint and safe suburb with brick streets that seems as though it is 98.3 percent white and 1.7 percent Asian American. So 1.7 percent of the kids in your suburb will get better SAT scores than the other 98.3 percent. The only people of color that you have ever seen in your suburb are William Jones and the Jesse White Tumblers.
William Jones is a guy whom you brought into your suburb one Saturday morning for a kids' sports camp that you organize. Every Saturday morning in the summer, you meet fifteen to twenty kids, who are your kids' friends, along with their dads, who are your friends, and you play a sport. This Saturday, the kids will play football and you have invited William Jones to be the guest coach. You invited William because during your informational interview with him at work, as he was exploring different career options, you found out that he plays football for a college football team and he has a shot at the pros. You think that he is more qualified to teach your kids about football than anyone you know.
The Jesse White Tumblers are a group of African American kids, of all ages, who live in the projects in the city. They are world-class tumblersâfliers, you should really say. The team was started in 1959 by the current Illinois Secretary of State, Jesse White, who is also African American. The Jesse White Tumblers are so amazing that they perform all over the world. They are welcomed into your suburb one day a year, every Fourth of July, when they fly for your entire suburb.
Other than that, you see only white people like you 98.3 percent of the time, and 1.7 percent of the time, like when you go to the library, you see an occasional Asian American.
However, your suburb, before you moved into it, had chosen for itselfâcuriouslyâthe slogan, “Unity Through Diversity.” The emblem for your suburb's slogan, which you see affixed to many windshields, bumpers, and living-room windows, is a group of multiracial kids holding hands in a circle. The ethnicity shown in your suburb's emblem is more diverse than you have ever observed in your suburb since moving in.
You live by your suburb's slogan, but you are curious as to why your community selected this motto, over all others, to represent itself, given the homogeneity you observe. You conclude that it is easier to embrace “Unity Through Diversity” when there is none.
You are Catholic and your wife is Jewish. You barely discussed this with your wife before you got married, and it has never really been a topic of conversation since. You got married and it was not an issue. It is not an issue with your parents, who describe Judaism as one of the world's greatest religions.
Your wife's mother passes away sooner than she should have, and that is unfortunate. After that, your wife brings up the topic of having kids, which you have not really contemplated. You think that you are whole and that your life is good. You love your wife and you do what you can to make her happy. If she wants kids, then so do you. “Whatever will make you happy,” you tell her.
So you get over that hurdle but then there is another. Your wife, all of a sudden, brings up the issue of religion, which has never been brought up before, except for maybe the time when you were dating and one day, sitting in her mother's kitchen, you asked her what happens to Jewish people when they die. She stammered and stuttered. It was the first time since you had met her that her quick wit and rapid-fire responses let her down. She did not know, and you thought that this was funny, because in your religion, the basic premise is that if you are bad you go to Hell, if you are good you go to Heaven, and if you are only OK you go to a holding tank called Purgatory. You think that, if nothing else, religion is intended to give you an understanding of the unknown, with the biggest unknown being death. You think that offering some vision of what happens when you die is the most fundamental premise of any religion, and about that, your wife had absolutely no clue.
You are clear about who you are and the religion that has given you your backbone. Your grandfather came to America from Italy. He met your Italian grandmother, whose family also immigrated from Italy. Your great-grandfather grew up and lived in a small town in Italy called Masse Lubrense and he built the town's only church, a spectacular church with a beautiful courtyard. You have twenty-five relatives in Italy and their heritage is rock solid. You know that your grandfather left his entire family to come to America to make a better life for his family. He learned a style of English that as a kid you never really understood, and he demanded that his children speak English because they were Americans now. In fact, your grandfather never even talked about being Italian until you were in high school or college and started to realize what was going on. You know that he worked fourteen- to sixteen-hour days in his own butcher shop to provide a better life for his kids and grandkids and that he instilled a work ethic that plagues you all, even today, with a need to be productive all the time.
You know that what gave him the courage and strength to do all this was his Catholic faith. You know your family's roots and you have no interest in abandoning them.
When your grandmother meets your wife-to-be for the first time, she asks, “So where is your family from?” You all know that when your grandmother asks this question what she means is what is your ethnicity. Your wife first answers, Olympia Fields, Illinois, a suburb, which was meaningless to your grandmother, who believed that even Suffolk County, Long Island, was on another planet in the universe relative to her epicenter, Astoria, Queens, New York, where she lived. Your wife, who was your girlfriend at the time, soon realizes what your grandmother is asking, and after hesitating a moment, says that she is German. You all accept this and move on.
Ten years later you are in a room where someone else asks your wife that same question your grandmother posed ten years earlier, and your wife answers, “Russian.” You are puzzled, because for the last decade you thought that she was German. You challenge her and she admits to you that she really does not know where she is from.
Rewind to when you were discussing kids and for the first time in the nine years since you have known your wife, religion becomes important to her. Not so much your religion, but the religion of the kids that your wife has been talking about having. She identifies Catholic and Jewish clergymen to assist in bringing clarity to this issue. The only problem is that after talking with the first religious professional, you understand that, in this instance, there is no compromise religion. She schedules one meeting after another, and to you this is a complete waste of time. To her, this is helping to clarify what has now surfaced as the most important issue in her life to resolve. You are puzzled as to why this has become such an urgent issue to your wife, who has never really focused on religious matters before.
Your wife's lack of understanding as to whether she is German or Russian or something else entirely, let alone her uncertainty as to what happens when you die, has made it difficult for you to understand your wife's passion to impart a religious heritage that she seems to know little about or have little connection with in any significant way to your children. You are puzzled why this Jewish legacy is so important to your wife, but you do not probe in order to avoid conflict.
She lobbies with passion and wears you down to the point where you give in. You believe that a unified family is more important than anything and that nothing is significant enough to get in the way of that.
You agree that your children will be Jewish, and realize that you will always feel somewhat regretful that a part of your religious heritage that you know your grandfather worked so hard for and sacrificed so much for will be lost on your children. The deal you cut, though, includes celebrating all Catholic holidays, which to your delight have become your kids' favorites.