Joanna Clapps Herman


My father’s bones are a version of him. The structuring ground inside, a
connecting architecture. Lightweight, strong, dense, his bones protected his heart, his
lungs, held up his belly and all the rest. Bones bind and support, connect us to ourselves.
They allow us to move, go forward, to change. My father’s bones grew under the
crushing weight of a terrible early life: innumerable blows from his father’s large
blacksmith hands, the loss of his mother to insanity, and two brothers dying of early and
tragic deaths, but somehow from those weighted burdens, came an architecture that
made a man, that held a good life. This was the scaffolding for this tall, sturdy, agile man.

His bones, flesh and blood allowed him to climb up high away onto rocks, trees,
towers, telephone poles and onto the high iron he worked all of his long work life. His
bones were as sturdy as the iron his family worked as blacksmiths at least for centuries,
in the deep south of Italy. The Claps men worked that abundant substance, iron, which
comes from Gaia, mother earth. Iron ore lies deep in the planet’s core and also makes up
much of its crust. Iron is the result of fusion in high-mass stars, the last element
to be produced before collapse of a supernova.

So iron is deep down in the earth. It’s on the surface and it’s made from the
bursting stars. It’s one of the most pervasive substances that the earth is made of. My
father’s bones were similar stuff, structural, strong and malleable and from the fated
universe. They allowed him to climb up and away from the grinding miseries in which he
had grown.

My father was also man of the flesh. When he was young he was lean, muscular,
even sculptural, in his beauty. This was the result of a time and place where fruit was an
occasion, where hard physical work was daily life and where using the body to play often
and extremely was as natural as using the body to do brutal work 12 hours a day. It came
from the daily business of iron work: from picking up long, large, heavy pieces of metal;
from carrying them into place, from affixing them into the planes and corners where they
were essential elements of the buildings he was helping to raise. As he lifted and carried,
held and welded, an exchange of sorts took place: a dialogue between structures, his own
and the buildings he worked on. Doing construction built the strength he used to
construct more buildings–this conversation built over time.

To walk across I-beams 10 or 20 stories off the ground you have to have muscles
that are so sure, so agile it’s not possible that they won’t carry you across this very
narrow piece of metal with casual grace. A confidence comes from that kind of physical
strength and balance that has nothing to do with thought or decision. As the rest of us
walk down the street without thinking about it, a special few lift heavy things with self-
assurance, move them at will, climb heights, walk easily across dangerous spaces. My
father was one of those creatures, moving with the pleasure that a strong body gives,
easily, playfully, unselfconsciously, not a cause for arrogance or pride, but a locus of
pleasure because your body always does what you want it to as if it is part of your
character or nature, seemingly what the fates wrote for you, although it’s actually a long
slow fabrication of culture, food, attitude and expectation created in blood and bone.

He loved heights. My father was called to heights often and early– his body
pulling him inexorably up their commanding dimensions. Rocks, roofs, quarries and trees
ported him first, as a boy toward the sky, up telephone poles hauling him along close to
heady high voltage wires. Later high on the iron and over time up every tower, turret or
steep stairs he came upon. He was as if compelled to go up higher than his earthly
confining boundaries.

“”When we were kids, we loved nothing better than to dive from the highest rock
down into the quarry to swim. We’d do anything, anything at all to impress each other,
climb up onto a roof and jump off, climb to the top of a tree faster than
the other guy and of course we’d climb up the telephone polls. Up we’d go vying for who
got to be the first one up there. Naturally there are live wires up there, the currents are
bad. But we didn’t think –we just had to, had to, had to get to the top of the pole and I
can remember vividly Charlie saying I’m not going up there. And me –now here, he’s my
best, best friend– thinking how jerky can you be? It just could not, would not be

“”It is just natural for young boys to be drawn to these things. We thought he was
embarrassing. It was so wrong from the way we looked at things, from, I should say, our
limited and foolish way of looking at things. Actually he was right. Those wires could
kill you instantly but in our youth, in our reckless high spirits, we had no use for that kind
of thinking. Nothing needs must do but we have to get up that pole. We simply weren’t
afraid. Oh, those glorious days.”

Later, just as he finally began to escape his father’s crushing reach, he came upon
my mother. She helped him find another height, another way out of the primordial
harshness that he was raised in.

On my parent’s first date my father drove out to the Hanging Hills of Connecticut.
“I had no idea where he was taking me,” she loved to say later when she told this story.
They climbed the long curving path through the thick woods, past the forest streams and
flowers that would bring them up to the look out tower on the top of the hill.

The sun filtered through the verdant woods. “That was the first time he held my
hand. I wasn’t use to that, with a fella. I was so shy. He was so handsome and strong. I
just went along with him.” The incredulous excitement of this first touch stayed with my
mother’s voice all her life. When they reached the lookout tower they began their climb
up the stairs inside. Young lean limbs used to hard work would make light of such ascent.
Did they slip lightly up holding hands one in front of the other, suspecting, hoping what
waited for them up there?

Maybe there weren’t even imaginings, so laden with the anticipation would they
have been as they ascended toward their first kiss waiting for them up above the audience
of the soft cascading Connecticut hills? Up there that first leaning in, her heart caught
and ready, his large hands around her tiny waist drawing her to him, his heart pounding
too awaited their arrival. Each rise up the steps brought them away from the ancient rules
of constraint, the rules of their people that young men and women must be kept distinctly
separate and supervised precisely because their bodies would be pulled to each other in
this place apart? They would be. And were. Their people were right.

All the boundaries of the world they both came from were so tight and
confining. How did they expect the young ever to come together to create the most
essential of fabrications, a family, from within these tight boundaries?

“”That was my first kiss. Oh we went there many times after that. That was our
place. I knew I loved him right away. I was just head over heels in love with him.”

If he preferred to be off the earth, above it, away from it, in another place, not
planted but rising over it perhaps that was because up was the only path he found out of
the encaging ground below.

This was the housing our handsome, dark haired father’s large and wild spirit
inhabited when my sister and I were children. The flesh, bone and spirit that held and
carried us, my sister and me. At the end of a long summer night playing with our cousins
up at the farm, he’d pick up the two dead weights of his sleeping children out of the back of
the car, as if we were two small brown paper bags of groceries, one in each arm, and
climb the stairs to our attic rent on the top floor of the Pagano’s house. He’d deposit us in
our bed, brushing back sweaty bangs from our foreheads, pulling the cotton covers up
and around and then bending down and kissing our soft skin with the pleasure of one who
has escaped.

Heights were passed on to us as pleasure so early that this passion was no more
visible than the air. As he climbed we climbed too, up monkey bars, up the trees to the
highest limbs, up the long New England hills on bicycles, up to the highest diving boards
where he taught us to take a three step run out to the tip of the board, bounce down hard
with all our force to spring high into the air, hang there light, gravity suspended with just
enough time to bring the body into the tight shape it must be, legs straight, toes pointed,
hands touching the toes, then out into a long straight point to knife deep into the water.

Up all the steps of the Statue of Liberty, up any and all towers he could find, up
clock towers, the Empire State Building (where you walk the last floors to get to the
viewing deck) up onto bridges to walk high over waters to see their views. Up.

One day the Statue of Liberty.

After the long climb up the dark stone stairwell there was a shock of blinding
sunlight, then disorientation. It was uncanny, unnerving being up there. There was no
feeling of standing in her torch—only one of being on a round veranda, a bizarre
topography. Her face was too close, her nose was too big; it wasn’t the face that we’d
seen from afar so many times.

We’d arrived on another plane, a plane of the opposite of the normal view from
above—where you look down and see things tiny and miniaturizing and therefore
belonging to you, briefly being ordained a god on high. Instead we were too close to the
thing we’d come to see, things were too big, to hold their shape and meaning. But what I
did know that day, standing next to my father was that he was handing over his great
passion going as high as possible, to be above, looking out, up here at the edge of
celestial life

His father, my Grandpa Clapps, was the opposite; his life was lived low, close to
the ground, embedded in the earthly core of iron and flesh, iron for work and flesh for
women and bed. The one elevation he sought each night was the enormous amount of
wine he made and drank every night. He gathered with his friends to drink, sing and play
cards at the kitchen table where he held court in his kitchen. He was a man without a
wife. His wife, my grandmother, had come undone and was off in a locked facility—
contained and away. But that voluminous drinking pushed him up above the earth in
pleasure for short hours before it turned into drunken forgetting where the wine sank him
down him into a stupor.

The single elevating gioia that my grandfather and my father shared was that they
both loved to sing. Each and both loved to breathe deep of the air around them sending it
deep into their earthly cores, where it gathered force and readied to climb. Supported
from those large centers their big breaths rose up, into throat and mouth, shaped there by
tongue and glottis, twisting, turning and holding; then sending out, sound and voice, on
the breath, on the tongue, of the mouth, of the lips, this thing of music, this thing of love.
Singing gave elevation, gave them ascension, gave them calm, and imbued their days and
nights with joy and consolation, comfort and ecstasy every day; the single element of
ascent that father and son shared. Only this single of sameness. The rest was difference.

Each of them inhaled and released his voice with the same pleasure. But they
rarely sang together. There are only short stretches when their voices join. We’d been
there for dinner where my grandfather has drunk an ordinary amount of wine with dinner.
We’ve been upstairs and visited with Uncle Paul and Aunt Dora too. While we were
visiting, my grandfather’s cronies arrived. They sat around the table, drank their wine and
they began to sing. Soon they’d play cards.

My father stood near his father at the head of the kitchen table where my
grandfather held court each night and joined his father in song for a few verses, one of the
old time drinking songs too, Non sono piu la sveglia. Their voices rose together in
unison but as soon as one or two songs were over, despite Grandpa’s urging to stay and
sing with them, my father insisted, “Okay, girls it’s time to go.” Did these lovely old
Italian songs signal that his father was about to descend into too much drink and who
knew what else? My father had witnessed too many of these nights. We kissed and left.

But song was the one element he took from his father into his own life. It was a
part of coming to consciousness every morning for my father. It wasn’t thought, it was a
part of being awake, alive, a part of being a living creature, calling into the air around
him, to the gods who were or were not present to all who knew or didn’t know him. His
legs swung over the side of the bed and as he pushed off into the day he might begin by
humming a little to himself which soon rose into melody and the words. He stood in front
of the bathroom sink lathering the soap, reaching for his double edged razor, twisting his
mouth up and to one side to shave in those tight corners around the mouth, spreading the
skin under his lip and going into the indentation of his dimpled chin, while the melodies
if not the words found their way through his turning and twisting lips continuing to
emerge from the side of his mouth. I’ll be loving you always, With a love that’s true,

He reached for his comb on top of the medicine chest, make a clear straight part,
then swept his hair carefully to one side. He might move into, Somewhere over the
He sang through each of these daily routines. He’d go back into the bedroom to
get dressed for work. By now he might be whistling. Back into the kitchen where he
drank his coffee.

He sang or whistled as he dressed, as he drove, as he loaded the iron onto his
truck and as he gathered up his tools, the metal of the tools and iron clanging banging
noises, his voice turning and rising through those sounds as he worked the iron. Up from
his belly resonating in his chest and mouth surrounding him with an air to walk in.

Later in the day when he got up from his afternoon nap he might begin with a few
whistled bars, blowing them into a string, gradually the whistling swept up into full lyric
whistling rendering, “They tried to tell us we’re too young, too young to really be in
love”. Music was as much a part of him as his heart beat, the pulse of his blood, the cells
in his marrow; music and song coursing through with his blood and along his bones.

On Saturday mornings as the light cracked my father often rose to deal with
whatever hadn’t gone well on the job during the week. I was an early riser too.
And I trailed my father wherever and whenever I could, so I’d sit at the kitchen table
while he put on his socks waiting for him to say, “Can you get dressed quick?” It must be
from one of those days that I remember this. He was loading the iron truck down at the
shop before we get on the road to the construction site. He was singing, If I loved you all
of that day
. He’s picked up a long twelve foot I-beam, hoisting it up onto his right
shoulder, where he shifted it into balance, then walked across the yard over to the truck.
The sheer brute strength of this act jolted me: Even then I knew this wasn’t what the
human body was made for. Yet I could see that it was for him. He walked one beam then
another over to the truck lifted them onto his truck. Had he traded in the burdens of
misery of his early life to carry these extraordinary weights instead? Was it all those I-
beams lifted that eventually tilted his body to one side, a list to the right, the slightly
lowered shoulder, a downward hint in his gait that was so distinctly his?

Later on in life my father thickened, accumulating the solidity of an ancient Greek
column, a man who could support weight, burdens. He was a man you could lean into. I
can lean into him and feel his profound sturdiness still. This was the simple comfort that
came to me after my father’s death. I can still feel his body’s weight and heft–its volume
and stability. This isn’t a calculation. It’s a sensation of him, of his presence in the world,
which lives inside my own body now. I know how much weight there is for me to lean
into. I can feel how much push it would take to move that body off center. More than I
have. This isn’t a matter of pounds; it’s a matter of knowing him. For all the
complications of having come from violence, madness, death and misery, he posited this
body against to hold as much misery from my sister and me as he could. I still find great
comfort in leaning into large column that his memory is for me when I am feeling my
own worries and miseries. I find the strength I need there.

When he died it was ten weeks from diagnosis to burial. His strength hid all the
sickness he harbored until it was far too late to treat him. He was 80 then. But he still had
“the pulse of a 30 year old,” the doctors said admiringly at the beginning. But he was
weeks from death, the cancer was everywhere inside. We just didn’t know it yet. His
strength had disguised this fact even from them.

While we waited to be told this treatment or that treatment could be tried each of
his grandchildren went to visit him. Each time he took them to climb the tower where he
first kissed their grandmother. The first few times he climbed with us up to the top to
view where a piece of their lives had come from. By the last two visits he couldn’t climb
it so he drove us and we climbed up without him. We were still sure we could find a way.

There had been so many heights in his life, so many trees and rocks, diving boards towers and stairs and high iron scaffolds along his path and he had one more height to climb. The last day was one of torturing pain. That day he woke with such pain that as the day progressed he asked my sister to find a drug dealer, anyone, to buy something, anything, heroin to help stop the pain. It was the 4th of July weekend –a holiday—a time notorious for danger in hospitals. The nurse continued to dismiss his request for stronger pain medication. “You’re just post-operative. You have to expect some pain,” she said in ill-disguised condescension.

That morning my mother was shaving him—probably for the only time in their
long years together when his nurse came in again, “What are you doing?” this officious
nurse asked furious at this indulgences. She grabbed the razor from my mother’s hand
and handed it to my father. “He can shave himself?” He shaved himself sitting up in bed,
singing a Willie Nelson song he sang often a in those last weeks, I’d like to leave it all
behind and go and find some place that’s known to God alone, just a spot we could call
our own.

When his medical records arrived after his death there was one clear, impossibly
beautiful image of my father, a full-body X-ray—all his bones stretched long for us to
see. The length is there, the heft, the strength too. There was such a shock of recognition.
These were our father’s bones. The list is there too–the slightly downward tilt of the
right shoulder, showing all the heavy iron lifted over the long years of work, all I
beams lifted, carried into place, all of the weight and wear that impacted his body, had
impressed deep into his bones.

It was that tilt that made my sister and I weep when we saw our father’s bones
laid bare. Here was the frame, the understructure, his very architecture, the deepest
delineation, a profound depiction of him. His bones laid long.

Within that sturdy frame, all his life, big storms blew the wild winds of his big,
untamed spirit that sometimes had as little control of itself as the flesh had ease and
knowledge. The misery of those early years were deep inside him, although he tried to
hold them only there—they’d force their way out sometimes and the storms would blow
and we all knew where they came from. But the storms were spent now and the bones are
quiet when he lay stretched for this final X-ray. He wouldn’t get up to sing again.

After he died in rare moments for mere seconds I have allowed myself peer into
the ground and image his bones peeling back into just themselves as they rest in the Gaia-
-that strong scaffolding taken down, not having to climb or build or hold or carry finally,
but in deep repose in the solid earth. My own grief for my father lies down there next to
his bones.

Here to end this song of praise is an early memory of lightness, heights and my

One luminous night of the first snowstorm he insists that we all bundle up and
out while the rest of the city is stilled and hidden so that he can pull my mother, my sister
and me on the back of our sled up the center of deserted streets, running and laughing out
of the powerful center of his charmed vitality. The snow feathers against our faces as he
runs up Grove Street through the enchantment that has been conjured that he has
somehow also conjured. His body is a wild horse of an engine, each thigh raising high to
the gallop, each stroke of a leg lightly grabbing the snowy ground and pushing it behind
him, his thick-soled work shoes churning down in through the thick white blanket to find
the crunch of ground below pulling us up the hill out of reality into this astonishing night.
Mid-gallop, mid-flight, lengths from the top of the street, he flings a look over his
shoulder throwing back to us the ecstatic light this labor creates in him. A rupture of light
escapes, cracking through him from the aboriginal core, flinging phosphorescence out
over the quiescent night. Chains on cars on tires clanking slowing through the snow three
streets away are not in the same universe with us. He can carry his girls through the
snowy night, up steep hills in a world that belongs only to him, only to us. We three, his
girls, ride on wooden slats. There at the other end of the rope he pulls his weighted
cargo, the clay to his fire, just barely, holding him down to earth.

Joanna Clapps Herman, memoir, The Anarchist Bastard (SUNY Press) begins, “I often say that I was born in 1944 but raised in the 15th Century because although I was born in Waterbury, CT, in a New England factory town, in post-WWII, I grew up in a large southern Italian family where the rules were absolute, and customs antiquated.” She has co-edited two anthologies Wild Dreams and Our Roots Are Deep with Passion. She is currently writing After the Manner of Women, (forthcoming, Fordham Press, 2014) She has published fiction, poetry and essays in literary magazines and anthologies. She teaches at CCNY, The Center for Worker Education and is on the MFA faculty in writing of Manhattanville College. Reading, writing and teaching are just as important as cooking, eating and drinking good wine are to Ms. Herman.

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