When I was 18 years old, I brought my black boyfriend home to meet my father. My father, a first-generation Italian-American, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, was racist. I had no idea. It never occurred to me that my father, who had never mentioned race in any capacity, would have a problem with his daughter dating a black man.
I walked my boyfriend into the back of my father’s store, only nervous because I was about to introduce my dad to a boy for the first time. My boyfriend had a smile that would light up a room and a charm that was irresistible. He was funny, respectful and likable; I was positive my father would take to him. I led him into my father’s office and said, “Hi Dad. This is Teddy.” Teddy reached out to shake my father’s hand. My father turned around and walked out of his office.
He called me that night to express his “disappointment” in me, and then he didn’t speak to me again for almost two years.
I never forgave my father for that and our relationship was never the same. It wasn’t something we could ever work through because my father had an interesting habit of pretending things that he couldn’t justify or explain never happened. He eventually denied that he had ever had a problem with Teddy’s race. When we finally started speaking again, if I ever tried to bring it up, he just looked at me with a blank stare for a few seconds and changed the subject. I am certain that until the day he died he never saw a racist when he looked in the mirror.
My father turning his back on us in his office that day was a pivotal point in my life. It was the first time I felt real shame – deep in the pit of my stomach. I thought, “I come from this.” I felt responsible for it. I didn’t know how to explain what happened so I never tried. I buried it deeply and revisited it from time to time, anecdotally, if I ever had to explain my strained relationship with my father to anyone.
My father died five years ago. We never did bridge the gap that caused in our relationship. He never met my husband – the father of my two children. I sometimes wonder if he would have accepted him. Our son was made in my father’s image. He has the same skin tone (my father was very dark-featured Sicilian), the same hairline, and the same furrowed brow. With his long legs, and baby belly, he even has my father’s stance. Some day, I’d like to tell my son stories about the grandfather he resembles so much. Do I leave out the one that will certainly put a chasm between him and his dead ancestor?