My dad was quick with the labels: "Little Hitler," for an authoritative male; "Jew," for anyone with a name he thought sounded Jewish or whose features struck him as Semitic, or, of course, "nigger," when an adult black male was anything but self-effacing.
Politically the old man, a lawyer, was liberal. Always said he voted for Democrats. We endured with stoic indignation the eggs and rotten tomatoes splattered against our dining room window at night in fall 1952 when the large campaign poster of Adlai Stevenson on the opposite wall was illuminated and clearly visible from the street.
I was 10 then. Pretty sure my father switched to Nixon after the Kennedy years as he would rail at war protesters acting up on his TV screen, barking, "Assholes! They should line them up and machinegun them." I think he shouted the latter just to get my goat. We usually ended any visit of mine from college not speaking to each other after about 10 minutes of polite perfunctory greetings. Once, over some bullshit troglodytian remarks he'd made while we both were drinking, a shoving match broke out in the kitchen. No one was hurt, although it scared hell out of my mother.
Good thing I was bumming around Europe when the Kent and Jackson shootings took place or we might have gone to bare knuckles. One of the last exchanges of words I had with him in person before dementia mellowed him was in a restaurant. I was home for the holidays. We - including my mother, sister and her husband - were enjoying a relaxed dinner. Suddenly out of any imaginable context my dad said something about "niggers." His eyes had gone piggish and he'd fixed them on me, his mouth twisted into a challenging sneer.
I have no recollection of what point he might have been trying to make. I know for certain his only motive was to get my goat, which he did. I remember saying loudly, so that anyone seated nearby could hear and understand what I was saying, that what he'd just said was the kind of thing ignorant, racist people say and that it embarrassed me to be seen in their company. I half-expected him to get up and leave. Instead, after a momentary stunned silence, he pretended not to have heard me and then continued talking with exaggerated civility to everyone else as if I weren't present.
I've been struggling since his death in 2000 at age 89 to understand him beyond the obvious dysfunction of our relationship.
The discovery lifted a great burden from me, knowing that what I'd grown up worrying were character deficiencies might more likely be biological.
My quirky personality is tortured by the need to perform extemporaneously in unfamiliar settings. Too many unprioritized options crowd me nearly to panic and elicit rote responses or, if I detect a deliberate intrusion on my dignity or a hostile affront, an instantaneous rage rears up, destroying any pretense I might have of projecting poise. I've learned to accommodate these reactions and to compensate in socially acceptable ways.
This enlightenment was never available to my dad, as ADD wasn't widely understood, if even known, by his generation. His compensation for fearing the deep glimpse into himself, was to deny the dread and, as psychologists would put it, transfer his shortcomings onto others. Spotting signs of one of his unacknowledged weakneses in someone else and testifying to his recognition buffered him from having to examine his own dark miasma.
He saw plenty of these signs in his son. His son now understands. Too late.