Mom bought every Elvis 45 available at the local record shop. Dad rarely bought records, but, when he did, he purchased Perry Como exclusively. I think Mom liked the raucous energy of Elvis’s straight-up rock ‘n roll, and the sentimental sadness or the fervent affirmations of the ballads. I think she liked Elvis’s gyrating hips, those howitzer blasts against the fortress of 1950s conformity. I’m pretty sure she liked that Elvis bought a pink (mom’s favorite color) Cadillac for his mother, and that he wasn’t shy about his affection for her. I’d guess she liked that he was “nice boy,” born into poverty and obscurity and an ethos of Southern prejudice, and became wealthy, famous, and, by bringing black music into the mainstream, a force for racial integration. I’d conjecture she liked playing Elvis records while she went about her daily homemaking tasks.
I’m forced to qualify all these statements. Mom never explained her Elvis affinity. Dad was different. He liked Perry Como, and he gave reasons, and, later, when I quite loitering in the foyer of maturity and actually passed through its main room door, I saw reasons beneath the reasons.
Dad liked Perry Como because he projected an unruffled personality, and his music was soothing—“he’s smooooth,” Dad said. Dad liked smooth. Perry Como’s hips did not gyrate. Dad liked that Perry Como was Italian—“you know, his real first name is Pierno,” Dad informed me--; was born poor of immigrant parents from Italy—as Dad had been--;worked as a barber and later ran his own barbershop; gained local recognition performing at wedding receptions and the like—as Dad’s dad, a shoemaker by trade, had--; and went on to become the most popular and successful singer of his generation. Dad liked success stories, especially ones that in some way mirrored his own rise from scrawny Depression-era kid to secure middle class status. Dad knew that Perry Como’s imperturbable, cardigan-sweatered cool masked a competitive nature, and Dad liked competition. Dad also liked romantic ballads, though he would never admit it. He was a stealth romantic.
Dad did not like Elvis—too androgynous, too much grease in his hair, too unconventional—and could not understand why Mom did. “What’s the fascination with that Presley guy,” Dad once asked her. “I like him,” Mom said. Dad wanted a reason, though: “Well, yeah, but why?” “Because he’s Elvis,” Mom said, and that was that. Dad never asked again. Unlike Dad, a systems analyst, Mom felt no compulsion to provide reasons for something she considered blindingly obvious . She thought or believed or felt something, and accepted it as perfectly legitimate, an experience that did not require explanation but that was nonetheless adequate to any query.
I came home from school one day to find the living room furniture rearranged. “Why’d you change the furniture,” I asked. “Oh, I just thought it was time,” she said. “But why,” I persisted. “It needed to be rearranged,” she replied, in a how-can-you-be-so-dense tone. Once, after a particularly lengthy and intense session of pestering of my younger brother Dennis, Mom intervened and told me in no uncertain terms to stop. “Why should I,” I smartalecked. I expected she’d say “because I’ll give you a smack if you don’t,” or “because if you don’t stop you won’t be allowed to watch The Mickey Mouse Club,” or “because if you don’t I’ll tell your father.” Instead, she said, “Because he’s your brother.” And she emphasized that last word.
It was only later, much later, that I understood what she meant, understood the sheer power of that word, its complexities, understood that its meaning lay in its connotations and implications, that it contained within it a self-evident sovereignty of meaning, that it carried a blood-deep, biology-deep cargo of empathy, of sympathetic imagination, of simple kindness, of the best of all rules, the Golden Rule. For Mom such things needed no logical analysis, no dictionaried explanation. Mom liked Elvis because he was Elvis; she rearranged furniture because it needed it; my brother deserved attentive care and kindness because he was my brother. For her that was enough. Sometimes things, or the idea of things, capture us, and we need to accept being taken. That was her lesson for me. Mom’s replies demanded imagination, and I learned never to mistake a deficiency of imagination on my part with a lack of meaning in her way of knowing.
Dad’s lesson was the necessity of strong claims supported by reasons, a lesson forged over two millennia ago in the Greek agorae, those public assembly places where citizens debated issues of community significance, a lesson that today goes by the name of public discourse, of truth-seeking, reasoned disputation, a lesson that today we seem to have forgotten. “Always give reasons, Jerry,” Dad told me more than once; “people will respect you. They’ll consider you a person who can be trusted.” He was right, of course, and there have been many occasions when I have put his counsel to good use, though I often find myself given more to Mom’s lesson. There is an uncurtained honesty in a simple statement of this-is-what-it-is-to-me that carries its own credibility, as much, perhaps, as a statement of this-is why-it-is-to-me.
Once, I eavesdropped on a conversation between Dad and his brother Carmen about a mutual acquaintance. “He’s an asshole,” Dad declared. “How come,” Carmen asked. “He just is,” Dad said. I smiled. Dad, it would seem, was no more immune to Mom’s lesson than I was. Though, like his Perry Como-ed romanticism, he’d never admit it.