The result is an autobiography in 10 essays that is sublimely refreshing in its love and generosity. Merullo's prose, as he outlines the worlds he cherishes, has a luminous subtlety that brings alive rich layers of feeling in an immediate, intelligible manner. His eye stays intently trained on how we guide ourselves through life.
Sentimentality is cheap. Real emotion is difficult to render. Memoirists walk a tightrope between sentimentality and simple feeling. "The only way a writer can convey anything of any worth is to be as honest as he or she knows how to be," Merullo writes. What gives Revere Beach Elegy its vitality and "worth" is the author's taut prose and his fearlessness to run across that tightrope. In the universal story of a father and a son - old and new, functionary and artist - there are often questions about truth and emotional authenticity. But Merullo, a writer still on his journey, has written something as real as any individual's reality. "The point of all that striving and suffering - if it has a point - is a matter of individual opinion," he writes. "Each of us forms an explanation for the existence of failure and pain in our lives, and every explanation is a mini-religion all its own.
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What a Father Leaves
On a June day when the world was at war, my father came into this life in a simple wooden house on Tapley Avenue, in Revere, Massachusetts. He died, without providing any advance notice, in a slightly fancier home on Essex Street. A little more than sixty-six years separated that birth and that death, a little more than a mile separated those two houses. Though he was an ordinary man in many respects, he knew extraordinary sorrow at an early age, and, later, extraordinary triumph, and among the tempers and memories he bequeathed me was the conviction that it is possible to find a solid bottom beneath those tidal sweeps of good and bad fortune.
His childhood was typical of the childhood of millions of first-generation European immigrants in the first quarter of this century; he was a small piece of a large family that was caught between the strictures of the old world and the promises and possibilities of the new. His parentsGiuseppe Merullo, a tailor, and Eleonora DeMarco Merullo, a housewifehad come to America from poor hilltop villages in southern Italy, settled briefly in Boston's North End, then married and moved a few miles north to the city of Reverethe countryside thenwhere they bought a house and began to fill it with children. My father was born in 1916, after Philomena and Carmen, and before Gloria, Violet, Anthony, Joseph, and Robert, but no tangible proof of his existence has come down to me from those years, no snapshots of him as a boy, no school papers or early artwork, only scraps of anecdote passed along by his brothers andsisters, who remain close to each other and to me.
His family was, by turns, relatively wealthy and relatively poor. GiuseppeJoe, as he came to be calledowned his own tailor shop and lost it in a fire, owned one of the first automobiles in the neighborhood and lost it to medical bills after a fall, owned the house on Tapley Avenue, lost it in the Depression, then bought it back again in 1938. At one point in the 1930s, Eleonora had to sell her wedding ring to buy food, and the nearest tailoring work Joe could find was in Rockland, Maine, a twelve-hour drive to the north, in a car with no heater.
The streets were dirt, street lamps shone beneath crimped metal hats the color of poorly cared-for teeth. The Merullo children slept two to a bed, kept warm in winter by bricks that were heated in the coal stove, then wrapped in a towel and placed beneath the blankets at their feet. The family put up their own vegetables and made their own wine and root beer. The boys tilled the garden, shoveled snow, smoked cigarette butts they found on the sidewalk; and the girls listened to opera with their father on Sunday afternoons, cared for the babies, learned to cook at their mother's shoulder, were courted by boys from similar families on chaperoned outings.
The Revere of those days consisted of clusters of plain wooden houses set among rolling fields, its politics controlled by men of English and then Irish descent, its underworld run mainly by Jews, its three-mile crescent shoreline (America's first public beach) fronted by amusement rides, food stands, and dance halls that drew tourists from as far away as the West Coast, its social life revolving around a synagogue and a dozen churches, men's clubs, the Revere Theater on Broadway. Six square miles of salt marsh and low hills a stone's throw from the metropolis, home to Italians, Poles, Russians, French Canadians, Irish, English, Jews, Scots, Germans, and a handful of blacks, the city wasunfortunately and perhaps unfairlyknown primarily for political scandal, underworld dens, and racetracks. In fact, though, it was not much different from places like Brooklyn, Jersey City, and South Philadelphia: a certain rough humility, an emphasis on family loyalty and the vibrant, sometimes violent, life of the street, a brew of American ambition and European tradition that would, in future generations, bubble over into something more sedate and suburban, leaving room for different immigrants, new dramas.
It was in that hothouse of hope and defeat that the seed of my father's life sprouted. I know that he was a good, perhaps even a brilliant student, that as a young boy he cared so much about his clothes that he would take out his handkerchief and spread it carefully beneath him before sitting down on a neighbor's concrete wall, that he was baptized Orlando and went to school Roland, that he spoke Italian before speaking English but carried no trace of accent into adulthood. Those are the few puzzle pieces that survive. The remainder of his first eighteen years is a wash of American history almost identical to the history of twenty million other Orlandos, Patricks, and Sauls.
My father belonged to the generation of Americans we are now in the process of forgetting, a generation that had the misfortune to make the leap from high school into adulthood with the chasm of a world Depression yawning beneath their boots. In 1934, he graduated from Revere High School with honors, but there was no tradition of college in his family (his older brother and sister had dropped out of high school to help bolster the family income), no money for tuition, no clearly marked route along which his ambition might travel.
In the farms that spread across western Revere then, he found work with a produce company called Suffolk Farms, picking carrots and cucumbers for twelve dollars a week. Over the course of the next few years, he moved up to a public relations position, studied civil engineering in night school, and when he'd earned his certificate, left Suffolk Farms for a job on a surveying crew. "On hot days," he would tell me forty years later, "I couldn't stand to be out there in my clean clothes while the other guys were sweating with their picks and shovels. Some days I took off my shirt and climbed down in the ditches with them and helped them out for a few hours."
That remark speaks volumes about him, about the confusion of longing for better and loyalty to his roots that runs like a refrain through his life. Even after he'd abandoned pick and shovel and surveyor's transit and climbed up into the high, fragile branches of Massachusetts State Government, he could not bring himself to leave Revere. He still met his childhood friends at Wonderland Dog Track one or two nights a week for an evening of modest losing, still seemed to feel as comfortable lunching with judges and senators at Dini's in Boston as he did with city workers, plumbers, and bookmakers at Louie's corner coffee shop a few blocks from where he'd been born.
The remark speaks to something else, as well. My father was a gregarious man, and caredsometimes to a faultwhat impression he made in society. Like many Italian-American men, many men of all ethnic groups and races, he was shadowed by a societal definition of masculinity that has more to do with being brawny and tough than with any of the finer attributes. He worried that his arms and hands did not look strong enough, he worried about how he had dealt with and would deal with pain. Surrounded by war veterans, star athletes, and street fighters, he was pricked by a nagging devil of doubt because he was none of those things.
I am taking liberties here. He never said any of this to me. Such tender introspection would have been as alien to him as corned beef to his mother's kitchen. And yet, I have a storehouse of small clues that stand in for his words. I see the footprints of that same devil on the carpet of my own home. I see the strength to be taken from traditional masculine stereotypes, as well as the wreckage they wreak in me, in brothers and cousins, in friends' marriages. Once in a while, in the midst of a discussion of the roles women have been made to play in our society, I hear an echo of my Father's voice: "Sometimes on hot days"
In 1940, he married, and began working as a draftsman for a Boston firm called Stone and Webster, his first real office job. The work consisted of designing power stations and submarine periscopes, and he liked it well enough. The Following December, when America was pulled into the war, he tried three times to enlist, but was turned down because of a punctured eardrum, forced to watch as the world convulsed and bled and the men of his generation went off to face their appointed sufferings.
For someone who felt embarrassed about working in a shirt and shoes next to bare-chested men with shovels, the idea of being left behind while neighbors went to war must have been next to unbearable for him. But, other than to state the facts of his casethe punctured eardrum, the three rejectionshe did not speak to me about it.
As fate would have it, his own sufferings found him soon enough: on March 26, 1942, his wife of thirteen months died in childbirth. Again, only small pieces of this woman's life have drifted down to me through the shifting seas of familial memory. In the few snapshots I have seen, she is a happy girlfriend and then a happy newlywed, thin, dark-haired, pretty. I know that she was waked in her wedding gown, that, in the weeks and months after her death, my father's suffering seemed bottomless. "We would just be sitting down to dinner," one of my uncles told me only a year ago, "and the phone would ring. It would be the caretaker at the cemetery in West Roxbury, where Vi was buried, asking us to send someone over there right away because Roland was sitting next to the grave, weeping, and the caretaker wanted to close up and go home."
But the sense of this grief has reached me only third-hand, and only years after my father's death. Though I often wish it had been otherwise, he did not talk about grief and tragedy with me and my brothers. Every once in a while, during some poignant pause in the busyness of his life, he would be alone with one of us and make a comment like: "Someday I'll tell you everything. Someday we'll sit down and I'll tell you things." But what these things were we had little idea, and the promised "someday" never arrived.
Perhaps in deference to his second wife, my mother, he never spoke about his first marriage in our presence. I learned of it by a chance remark. Playing in the backyard one summer afternoon, I was summoned to the fence by our elderly neighbor, Rafaelo Losco, who handed over an armful of greens for me to pass on to my grandmother. Rafaelo had another man with him, a visiting brother or friend, and the man was running his eyes over my face with such intensity I felt as though a blind person were fingering my eye sockets and lips. "What is your name?" he demanded.
"I've known your father forty years. I knew his wife when she was growing up. His first wife, I mean."
I only nodded, and turned away with my armful of escarole, but the words claimed a place in my memory. His first wife. I was old enough by thenseven or eightto know something about secrets, to sense that this piece of information had been kept out of my reach for a reason, and I did not mention it, not to my parents or grandparents or brothers or friends, for close to two decades.
It seems peculiar now, that in all the times I must have been alone with my father during those years, I never asked about his first wife, or even let him know that I knew of her existence. It seems strange that he and my mother, and their parents and brothers and sisters, conspired in such a silence when it would have been so much easier all around to tell the story, once, answer the questions, and be done with it.
But ours was a Catholic world in which marriage was supposed to last for all eternity, and this was the 1950s and 1960s, when the ethos of emotional confession had not yet broken the polished shell in which we lived. And I believe there was an element of superstition involved as well, remnant vapors of an ancient stew of belief and mystery: to speak of tragedy would be to invite it. The closest any relative ever came to raising the subject was when one of my father's sisters asked me, in private, what I thought happened when people who'd been married more than once died and went to heaven. Which spouse were they in heaven with, did I have an opinion? Had I heard anything about this at Sunday school?
Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the fact of my father's first marriage lay in the deep, undisturbed shadows of our family consciousness until the winter of 1978. In that year, I began knocking down, piece by piece and without spite, the edifice of expectations my parents had been erecting since my birth. I'd taken my college degrees a few years earlier, and, after a stint with USIA in the Soviet Union, I'd turned away from both an academic and a diplomatic career. With much fanfare, I joined the Peace Corps, went off to a primitive island in the Pacific, then quit after less than six months. Penniless, long-haired, hosting a menagerie of tropical bacteria, I returned to America and found work driving a cab in Boston, a job which seemed to crush the last of my parents' hope for me like crystal beneath a greasy work boot. In the space of eighteen months, I had gone from being a source of pride to a source of embarrassment, and in December I put the finishing touches on that swan dive into dishonor by announcing that I was moving in with my Protestant girlfriend.
As a boy, I'd seen a neighbor burst into tears at her daughter's engagement to il protestante, but it was 1978 now, and such "mixed" marriages no longer shocked Revere's papists. My parents had met Amanda before my Peace Corps venture, and approved of her from the start. The problem was not Amanda's religion or nationality (my mother, though Catholic, was of English ancestry, so that could hardly be an issue) or even the fact that we were having unblessed sex. The problem was that, by moving in together, we were openly confessing to this unblessed union, making it public, running up the flag of disgrazia for everyone in the family, in Revere, to see.
There were harsh words that night in the house on Essex Street, hurt feelings on both sides. My father, mother, and I shouted at each other across a widening chasm, tore at the sticky filaments that bound us, took turns pacing the kitchen, accusing. It had a different feeling than other arguments, the words were sharper, the consequences heavier. I was trying to embarrass them, smudge their good name. They were trying to meddle with my happiness. After that night, my mother did not speak to Amanda or me for several weeks.
My father was quicker to rebound. After we'd simmered for an hour in separate rooms, I said I was going to take the subway into Boston and spend the night with Amanda, but he offered to drive me, instead.
We left the house in silence, drove along Revere's dark streets, acting out our epic of stubbornness. It did not occur to me that he might have offered the ride out of anything other than his reflexive generosity, a trait I took almost completely for granted at that point. In our culture, stinginesswith money, time, or assistancewas second only to disloyalty on the tablet of cardinal sins: why wouldn't he offer to drive into Boston and back at ten o'clock on a Sunday night?
Somewhere in Chelsea he said: "I guess things don't stand still. I changed my mind on Vietnam. I guess I'll end up changing my mind on this."
I said nothing, determined to win, for once, as I had seen him win so many times. We were climbing the flat arc of the Mystic River Bridge, a cold darkness beyond the windshield, harsh words still echoing behind us.
"You know this will lead to marriage," he went on, and I told him that if this led to marriage, it would be fine with me. He gave one of his short, tight-lipped nods. "She's a nice girl, a family girl."
This high compliment changed the air between us, and it began to seem to me that something positive had come of our fight. We had somehow knocked a hole in the too-respectful shield I'd put up around him, in the notion of father-as-king that brings so much stability to Italian families even as it nourishes the seeds of inadequacy in some sons and grandiose imitation in others. The trick was to thrust aside that notion without trampling on the man behind it, and we had somehow managed that. So I ventured a step into uncharted territory.
"You were married before, weren't you, Pa?"
For a moment I turned my eyes away, touched, embarrassed, by the grief in his words, thirty-six years after the fact. It seemed to me then that, in two short sentences, I had an explanation for everything: his temper and frustrations, his fear that any telephone call might bring the worst imaginable news, his penchantalmost an obsessionfor attending wakes and soothing the bereaved, his armor and distance and pride and stoicism, his superb, sometimes dark, sense of humor, his faith that the universe was ordered beyond any human understanding.
I had a key to him, at last. In love myself, the idea of losing a beloved struck me in a deeper place than it would have on some other night.
I was watching him now across the front seat, but he would not look at me.
"What happened to the baby?"
"The baby died, too."
"And then what was your life like?"
"Bitter," he said. "Until I met your mother. Bitter."
With that word, we buried the subject and never raised it again. In time, relatives would help me fill in some of the details: After Vi's death, my father withdrew almost totally from the social whirl on which he'd thrived. For years and years he did not date. His easygoing personality hardened a bit. He sought solace in his church, his brothers and sisters, a small group of family friends. His parents sold the house on Tapley Avenue (he and Vi had lived in the downstairs apartment) and moved a mile west to Essex Street, and my father passed most of the 1940s that way, enveloped in a womb of sorrow, loneliness, and defeat, while around him the world was again at war.
Very, very gradually he emerged. With the assistance of my mother (a lovely physical therapist who spent two years at Walter Reed Hospital, rehabilitating men who'd lost arms and legs in the war, and then volunteered to work with polio victims at the height of the epidemicin short, a woman who'd had some experience bringing a bit of light into the lives of the wounded and lonely) his bitterness faded enough for him to want to make another try at building a family.
In 1949, he and my mother were engaged. He went into local politics and was elected to the city council, ran for state representative two years later and was narrowly defeated. On Veterans Day weekend in 1951, Roland Alfred Merullo and Eileen Frances Haydock were wed, and, after a brief honeymoon in Washington, D.C., they moved into the four-room apartment above my father's parents.
In 1952, my mother suffered a miscarriage in her fourth month of pregnancy. In 1953, she bore Roland, Jr., the first of three sons. In 1954, with my mother and me waiting in the car, my father, who had been out of work for the past several weeks, walked into the offices of the Volpe Construction Company in Malden, without an appointment, and asked the boss for a job. The boss, John Volpe, future Governor of Massachusetts, Secretary of Transportation in the Reagan administration, and Ambassador to Italy, gave him a job, not as an engineer but as a worker in the gubernatorial campaign of a man named Christian Herter.
There began an unlikely association that would radically change the course of my father's life. Herter was tall, lanky, and wealthy, and displayed in his speech, clothing, and posture all the entitlements and credentials of what would later come to be known as the White Anglo-Saxon Male Power Establishment. And my father was a big-chested, six-foot Italian who had never spent a week outside his neighborhood, who had not been to college, or to Europe, or even to Vermont, for that matter; a Republican in a nest of Democrats; white and male but entitled to nothing and wanting everything.
They became fast friends, and their friendship endured until Herter's death in 1964. A strong orator, very careful about his clothes and manners, my father was a natural on the campaign trail, a great asset in the predominantly Italian-American precincts north of Boston. When Herter was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1954, he chose as his personnel secretary a working-class Republican from a provincial neighborhood on Boston's tattered northern cuff.
In any government, but especially in one as patronage-fueled as the State Government of Massachusetts, personnel secretary is a position of vastly underestimated power. Acting by the rules on which he had been raised, my father found work for a long list of relatives and friends, filling the agencies of state with men and women he knew and trusted, or simply men and women who needed a boost in their lives, a steady paycheck, a safe niche they could ding to until retirement age. In so doing, he accumulated a huge bank account of favors, an account he would draw on unashamedly later in life, finding summer work for nieces and nephews and sons, interceding with judges, lawyers, cops, making a phone call here, pulling a string there, tweaking and twisting and cajoling and sometimes shoving the many-limbed beast of state power.
At some point in my early twenties, I turned my back on that side of him, refused and further assistance for myself, cast a harsh eye on what seemed to me then little more than nepotism. We used to argue about it from time to time. When I interviewed for my first government job in the USSR, he half-seriously offered to pull some strings for me in Washington. "You do that," I said, "and I'll refuse the job if I get it."
"You don't think other people will be doing that for their own?"
"I don't care," I said, and I didn't. But how easy it was for me, with my fancy education, to cast a righteous and condescending eye upon his string-pulling, the survival-by-connection ethos in which and by which the people of his time and place lived. And how clear it is to me now that solitary achievement is not the only measure of worth, that all of us are constantly engaged in a give-and-take of affection and advantage, doing favors and having favors done for us. But I was headstrong then, and full of myself, and, like many other twenty-four-year-olds, planning to remake the world according to my pure vision.
In 1956, Chris Herter went to Washington as Undersecretary of State (in 1958, when Dulles resigned, he advanced to the Secretary's job) in the Eisenhower administration, and offered to bring his personnel secretary along for the ride. But, for my father, Washington was too far from Revere, from his brothers, sisters, and parents, from the faces and corridors he knew. He respectfully declined the offer and seemed, in later years, untroubled by regret. In 1958, the Boston Globe printed a picture of Secretary Herter above a story suggesting he would be the party's nominee for president. My father is standing beside him, gearing up, perhaps, for another campaign, revving up old ambitions, ready to give Washington a shot this time. But Herter was already in a wheelchair by then, stricken with polio and about to cede his front-runner status to Richard Nixon. The rest, as they say, is history.
Before Herter left Massachusetts, he offered my father his choice of several high-level if low-paying jobs in the state bureaucracy, among them, head of the Metropolitan District Commission and Director of the Industrial Accident Board. My mother talked him out of the MDC job, a prestigious, but high-profile position that came under regular attack from one camp or another: press, politicians, populace; he settled in as Director of the IAB.
It was a good job, and another man would have been content there, with a corner office overlooking Boston Common, weekly trips to the western part of Massachusetts to inspect safety conditions at state-insured factories, S. S. Pierce food baskets at Christmas time from the managers of those factories, extended lunch hours during which he'd prowl downtown Boston's bargain clothing stores and buy suits and shirts for his friends and brothers, whether they'd asked him to or not.
Excerpted from REVERE BEACH ELEGY by Roland Merullo. Copyright © 2002 by Roland Merullo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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