I was home trained. I was trained to say "Yea, Ma'am" and "Yes, Sir." I was trained to open the door for women and pull their chair out to seat them. I was also trained to smash my fist into someone's mouth if they said something I didn't like. I was trained to drink until you woke up some place you could never imagine. Most of all, though, I was trained to keep my own mouth shut. In my family, we didn't talk. Our family had its own omerta. Shut yo' mouf. If you didn't, you would be pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and slammed against a wall. If you didn't, you would have a cheap, 5 cent cigar smashed in your face.
So it was a surprise when my father and I met in one of those pleasant luncheon establishments for the well-heeled in Nashville. I hadn't spoken to him in 17 years, but my young daughters were curious about my father. Their grandfather on their mother's side had recently passed, and so naturally, they wondered about their other grandfather. They had never visited him, and he was never spoken about. Their interest seemed as good a reason as any to reconnect. It so happened that I was flying down to Nashville to do some writing for Vanderbilt. I figured that I might as well get in touch since he lived not far away in Memphis. Nashville seemed like a good neutral site.
My dad and his new, fourth wife drove up from Memphis. We met in the parking lot and entered the restaurant together. The place was recommended by the dean at Vanderbilt who has brought me down from Vermont where I now live. It was one of those places with handcrafted sandwiches and bubbling quiche, appointed with large drooping ferns and slow-moving ceiling fans. Somehow, I expected a peacock to come strolling between the tables like some long forgotten plantation house.
The only people of color were the kitchen help and busboys. The waiters, the waitresses, the bartenders, the hostesses were all white.
This was just the way the New South was, I guessed. Though I couldn't really complain since I was coming from Vermont, the second whitest state in America.
As we settled into our seats and ordered sweet tea, my father looked at me with the same feeling of desperation that I had given him as a child and young man. He was Odysseus to my Telemachus. He had achieved heroic heights while I had struggled with my own inadequacy. Back then, I was so desperate for his gaze and never seemed to receive it. Now, I could see that, as he neared 80, he was hungry for mine. The power had shifted. And perhaps, much like him back in the day, I could care less for his gaze. The seventeen years had disabused me of that weakness.
In a kind opening gambit, my dad started the conversation with a bomb. It's like he had tossed one of those round cartoon bombs with the fuse sticking out of the top and burning onto the table, just he way anarchists did at the turn of the 20th century.
"Dad was murdered," he said quietly, while his wife smiled benignly beside him as if he had just commented on the weather. Beth was wearing black slacks and pumps, a gold brocade jacket, red lipstick and a high, blonde bouffant, the standard attire for a well-off lady of the South. She was home trained to take any detail, any information with grace and aplomb, even a bomb.
When dad said, "Dad was murdered," I at first thought, no, he isn't. He's sitting right here in front of me. I thought this was a sign of early dementia. Then, I got it. He meant his dad, my grandfather. Joe Oscar Hill.
This was the first I had ever heard of this.
Thirty-eight years after his death in 1969. Dad had broken the family's code of silence. The omerta. It could have been the peels of church bells sounding at noon the way this news struck me.