Jerry and Jenny: Fear, the devil and Archie Bunker


The television flickered in the living room, bouncing shadows off the stairwell, and the white walls of the living room, quivering lights made the other room almost vibrate within the otherwise dark house. Archie Bunker bellowed at his forever-suffering wife, his voice overwhelming the confines of the small shrill speaker from the black and white television, meanwhile I crouched under a blanket at the foot of the stairs, counting and checking my breath as it heaved inside my head; surely my father could hear me breathing. Laughter poked through the white twinkling lights of the television, they splattered over the walls and it was a comfort to hear my father laugh, a deep yawp the cut through the fear that seemed to grip me whenever I laid down. Life was a daily trial, as the mornings and early afternoons where spent braving anxiety that caused a child’s mind to stumble and worry, only to adjust on the playground then back into the classroom as the mind wandered, climbing up the posters of numbers, maps and playful cats and puppies that adorned the classroom walls. After school was a time of great relief, building rocket ships, tanks and caves from the prickly branches of various bushes in the neighborhood, exploring abandoned houses and playing pick-up football, eased the ill-fitting mood the fell over my mind like a shawl during school. At night, it could turn to stark cold fear, if I was unable to crawl into bed with my brother, who would at various times let me sleep at the end of his bed and at others would order me to “grow-up, you’re going to have to learn to sleep at night on your own someday.” Oddly, it would take me nearly thirty-five years to learn this lesson.

The comfort of my father’s laughter would help, soon I would curl up on the hardwood floor, the yellow blanket with the frayed corners that I would hold to my cheek, a soothing tactile comfort for a lonely scared kid, I would soon slip off into a deep slumber. Waking up briefly, while I heard my father’s heavy breaths as he cradled me in his arms and carried me up the stairs. Rubbing my eyes, looking up he excited the room, back to his own room that was littered with dog-eared paperbacks the appeared to have crawled in slow movements over his room, like they were small bulky insects exploring the world outside of their rocky abodes.

Realizing early on, I understood he was a lonely man, an immigrant not just in one country but two, fleeing Budapest at the age of four, into Austria and finally to Caracas, Venezuela where at the age of ten he was neither here nor there, not physically nor mentally. My two charming uncles, assimilated well in Venezuela, both filled sharp humor they, who in-the-end always identified as Latin while, their older brother, my father was left to grope for a place of origin. Perhaps it was the ever-moving sense of a changing idea of identity that he must have grappled with, along with the constant transient nature of my upbringing, there was an almost genetic predisposition to being an outsider, even when alone.

After divorcing my mother, he became a monk, spending his days in ivy covered brick buildings of the monastery, whose walls would echo the soft clatter of footsteps, where the quietness of the Lord’s campus could pardon the most reticent nature of humanity. Perhaps.

We would visit him, a broad smile expanding across his face, making his black moustache dance a tiny jig across his upper lip, in his brown robes and sandals, he did, in fact appear at peace; even to his littlest child. When he left the cloistered life, something turned inside, and slowly the safety of my father turned to mistrust as I grappled with swinging mood fluctuations that could result in shouting and violence. My mother had remarried several times at this point, and at the age of ten I attended a church camp where the instructor believed that Satan was walking the streets, and could, quite easily find a place to dwell inside of little boys and girls. “The Exorcist is a true story,” she explained over a plate of Nestle Chocolate Cookies, “if you don’t pray and keep guard, you too, can get possessed by the devil himself. He finds his way into your heart and mind through television, movies and of course rock and roll.” If I had hair on the inside of my body, they would have stood straight on end, mortified, I wanted to rid myself of her words. I asked my mother if the movie was true, could people be possessed? “No honey, it is a movie” she spoke while driving the car, she AM radio blasting out bits of soft-rock hits, perhaps the devil did reside in the easy going tunes of David Gates and Bread?

Going straight to the authority on all things God, I asked my father then next time I visited him and my new step-mother, “Dad, it the Excorcist true?” Sipping a glass of burgundy wine, his eyes peering through gold wire-framed glasses, “Of course it is true, you must always be on guard of the devil.” He swallowed a hearty piece of beef, and stabbed a tomato, “The devil could be anywhere, in a store, on the street or even a restaurant, and he will be charming, maybe even seem nice at first.” He took another gulp from his glass and looked over his wife, her lip quivered a tad and her eyebrows scrunched together, “Bela, yes, he can come at any time, it is why you must pray and go to church. You might see him at the playground or a party, most likely he will be a gay man.” At this, she lost me, “a gay man?!” I asked myself, that makes no sense. Turning off my ears at that point I was ready to pack up my twelve-year-old self and go back to my mother’s, this made no sense but the seed of fear had been planted. The weekly dinners with them always ended in this, a discussion of evil, Satan and to be vigilant and to attend church as much as I could. “But I do go to church, every Sunday, the Methodist church with mom and Bob, don’t worry we go.” I would answer while planning on how I could leave dinner early. “Oh, God doesn’t recognize the Methodist Church, you must go to the Catholic Church” my stepmother would answer as her face grew darker, more serious, my very soul was at stake. “I have to go, I have homework.” That summer between 12 and 13 was a time of constant fear, especially at night when even soft brushes of wind could startle me my deepest core, and while at the same time I was making an effort to distance myself from a father that grew longer in stature but much more distant, an almost statue-like presence in my life, who was harder and harder to relate to. Whose constant paranoia and fear of evil stood in pointed contrast into the stories I read of Christ, as I had delved deep into the New Testament and within a few years after graduation I would return to the Catholic Church, not out of fear but as a spiritual migrant. The rituals, and the deep quiet of the wooden pews, lending a salve to a drinking problem propelled by inner uncertainty. Eventually, the exploration would be solidified in eastern philosophy, and a keener understanding of suffering, and that in the end a breath is just a sacred as a prayer.

My children laugh and go to bed, relatively easy on their own, there are mornings when my bed is stuffed to sides with a clamoring of elbows, knees and feet fighting for space, somehow they migrate to their parents’ bedroom but the nightmares are few and far between. I desire them to laugh and not to fear the world, a world filled with forts, with comic books, with music that moves small limbs in extraordinary positions. Where bedtimes is a time to celebrate the day and a map to the new day of tomorrow, where differences are celebrated, and always a lesson to learn, to help, to be chip away at the loneliness that is a part of everyone, because in the end love should be on a child’s breath not fear.

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