There’s a code of silence I learned as a child sometime around the age of twelve, one which my father told me to keep to myself “at all cost.” It’s a code that comes from his side of my family, but not my mother’s. My mother was Scandinavian. My father is one-hundred percent English. He has retained the old Puritan ethic.
Certain ideals and values have been passed down, but only to one child. Most of these ideals can be summarized with a phrase, or even a word.
— My father, not his older sister, was that one child.
— I was that one child, not my sister.
— Now, his grandson is that one child, but not his two siblings.
I honestly have no idea why it’s done this way, why only one child wears the Puritan mantle and not the rest.
So, what Puritan omertà did I break?
First, there is a Puritan phrase that has to do with how a man relates to his family. It can be summed in one word — “covering.” As a man “covers” his family; the one child who has been given his heritage — me — must obey him. This is not something I debate, but something I just do. When I was a child, I rebelled against this, but not now. It has become a tenet of my Christian faith, a deeply held belief.
Because I am a Christian, I believe that God honors my obedience to my father because He commands such obedience in the Fifth Commandment. I must honour my father (my mother is dead). If I don’t, I sin. So, it is one of my deeply held religious beliefs that I must honour him, which means obey him — in turn, he covers me, which means he protects and is responsible for me.
As my father’s ability to “cover” wanes with advancing age, his responsibility is being passed on to my son. My son will be my next cover. Unless I marry — I have not met any man who comes close to being a viable candidate so I’m not expecting to marry — my son will cover me and, in turn, I will respect and obey him.
That’s one of the omertà of my family, my extended family, that is, the family that stretches back generations to Pennsylvania Quakers, New England Congregationalists and Virginia’s Anglicans, to Princeton (grandfather, great uncles, great-grandfathers, etc.) and Yale (me) and Harvard (great-great grandfather). I’ve been thinking recently about how I was raised and all the secrets told only to me. Our family was divided — my sister was raised by my mother and I was half-heartedly raised by my father. Unlike most contemporary Puritans, my father’s idea of child-rearing was to impart codes of ethics and social behaviours without imparting the faith that made them possible. And rational.
I had to find that faith for myself. I thought my way into Christianity.
A second omertà is the idea that all human relations are essentially hierarchical. The egalitarianism that defines contemporary, secular gender relations, for example, is a farce — to us. Fundamentally, we believe all relationships have an over-and-under, a person who dominates and one who submits. We consider this the immutable, natural state of humankind. The idea of covering, above, fits under this.
A third omertà is the phrase “the multiplicity of generousity.” It’s a phrase father has whispered to me for years, one that he claims “always works.” In Christian terms, it’s the idea that when we give God both notices and “rewards us” perhaps here on earth, perhaps in heaven. No good deed goes unnoticed by God.
There’s also a secularized version of this belief, one imparted to my father by his father and grandfather, that when a person is generous, such generousity “pays off.” My father, recently, gave me a couple examples of how he had given either money or advice and then received, in turn, help in other ways. Someone stood by him, someone supported him, someone opened his rolodex and offered him a contact … though no money was exchanged. Right now, that someone is me. I support him freely.
I am tired, admittedly, but still have promised him — and will keep this promise, God willing — that I will be with him when he dies.
I have promised him that he will NEVER be institutionalized, that I will devote my life to making certain that the end of his life is as good as it can be. I have told him that I want him to die either in my arms or peacefully in bed. My biggest fear is that he falls or gets sick and must be hospitalized. No one goes to a hospital at his age and survives the horror of that experience. Hospitals are government-run death traps. For this reason I watch my father like a hawk making certain he doesn’t teeter or turn fast. Again, my goal is to have him die at home, in my arms, with Kyle next to him as well.
So, the code of omertà that I was forced to tell someone tonight has been abridged in these three ways. It has been broken. Revealed. I’m very uncomfortable with this but it is what it is. I’m sure the woman to whom I spoke didn’t understand what I was saying for no one seems to understand our social background, faith, intense loyalty and generousity toward each other. Our class is foreign to American culture today.
The old, American upper class, one defined by these values and ideals, phases and words, has been secretly mine for many years. My son has taken this identity, too. My father is quite proud that his grandson, whom he essentially raised as a son, has eagerly adopted the code. When my son has children, he’ll choose one to pass on these values and beliefs, faith in God, and identity with a particular social class that lives and breathes like his Puritan forebears.