Fathers and daughter

The passing of Pope John Paul II made any Catholic, or ex-Catholic, mull over his influence for the past 30 years even if he existed only in the far margins of mind.

Born to Italian immigrants, what choice did I have but to be raised Roman Catholic? Before sleep I'd stare up at a crucifix until, at the age of 11, 12 maybe, I removed the anguished Jesus so that a smiling John, Paul, George & Ringo could claim the walls of my room. Braced with newly seized preteen cool, I remember thinking no man, even if nailed to a cross, was going to dictate how I lived - probably the reason my father spent a reasonable portion of time chasing me through the yard, sliding his belt backward through each loop.

I know his form of discipline may sound beastly today, especially when the rules of parenting have shifted so. Though he rarely struck me, the fear he instilled was likely the only reason I was never in any serious trouble: too scared of the consequences at home. But, at 15, under a canopy of grapevines, I faced a fear more palpable than one of a God I couldn't see. Struggling against my father's anger equaling my own, I grabbed the strap from his hands. Imagine how that went over.

A stubborn man and a headstrong girl make for two tempers in full dress. I remember running, halting, turning dead-on to face him. How he stood before me breathless, the smoker he was. How fear filled me with will, and when I swung the belt, the world was terrifying and yet safely my own. And as my father walked away in stunned silence, absolute confidence grabbed me under the arms and picked me up until it seemed I was levitating. Though when my feet found earth again, I felt inexplicably sad and afraid, brute and will, after all, no match for vulnerability.

That confrontation occurred because of the pope. More succinctly, because of something I'd said earlier about the pope, one of those statements kids make in order to throw their weight around even if that weight amounts to 90 pounds of insecurity. "I don't care what the pope says, I'm never getting married and I'm never having kids and I'll sleep with whoever I want!" Without the resources to know how to gently prod my mother's awareness, I acted as if I had the right to become it, to which she'd react with one of her looks, a way of expressing disappointment with just her eyes. And then she yelled for my father.

My mother, like many who made it through a world war, can't stand too much present-day reality, preferring to focus on possibilities ahead, as if staring into a bright light that eclipses everything off center. Though the Vietnam War raged and the sexual revolution was adamant, our household sort of sleepwalked through all of that. I can't remember one engaging conversation about Vietnam or the changing social fabric all around us. My father staunchly watched the evening news at the dinner table, updated nightly with a body count, yet no conversation of war ensued. He spoke of war's hardships only with other family who'd escaped Italy especially after a shared bottle of vino lubed their memories. Wanting to spare his children, I suppose, he never discussed his wartorn past at home.

But instead of feeling spared, we felt outside of him as he forged his way into Middle American society with a vengeance. As a good Catholic he sired three children in six years, a number that would have doubled or even tripled had my mother not suffered complications that dictated I was to be her last child.

As for my mother's say in child rearing? Even though she admits two babies were quite enough, she would not have disobeyed a pope who, much like her father, her husband and priest, pretty much dictated her choices. She still finds it troublesome to make a decision without a man's say, sort of longing for the days when men were men and women were, other than in the most traditional sense of the word, ineffective. A seed of independence never took root in my mother's consciousness. Which couldn't be more unlike the experience of her daughters raised on American soil. In the '70s!

To this day, my mother and I can't discuss the pope without a verbal head-banging. Last try, I didn't help any by saying that, to me, every pope looks sort of the same, an out-of-touch white man in red robes. A man I stopped paying attention to, not purposely or consciously, for the desertion seemed more natural than something decided. More like spontaneously in response to the fact that none of the church's leaders were of my gender, other than Mary, who supposedly gave birth while still a virgin. Yeah, right, like a girl can wrap herself around that and wear it as truth.

Still, I liked Pope John Paul II. I trusted his eyes. And knowing he condemned abortion for the same reasons he denounced capital punishment, because he believed life was sacred, not to be dispensed with by human intention, made it easier for me to identify with him - unlike politicians who oppose a woman's right to choose under the same pretense and then, in the same breath, wage war.

So, weeks back I mustered up the courage to call my mother to talk about the passing of John Paul II. I warned myself not to pooh-pooh any of its affect on her, nor the church's for she hates that I've left it, that I mistrust its intentions, that I live in a West Coast city she's never seen leading a life she calls spiritually iffy. But then, I'd have to agree with her there. Some days I am brilliantly sure of what I believe in terms of a divine path. Other days, holy cow, I don't have a clue.

Sanelli's latest book is "Craving Water." Her previous book, "The Immigrant's Table," is a collection of poems about being first-generation American born to immigrants from Italy.

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