Contents: May/June 2002
c o m m e n t a r y
The Soul, Sanded Smooth
. . . The Bumpy Road from Revere to Humility
by Roland Merullo
My parents had great ambitions for me. Who among us can say otherwise? There may be something particularly intense about the ambition of first-generation Americans, though: partly to give them a better life, their own parents had made the great leap from a poorer or more troubled country to this one. So much was expected of these first-generation Americans and yet they were born here with no tradition of local success behind them, no connection to the power elite, no legacy of wealth or property. My parents were bright, strong, hardworking, and they made a good life for themselves, but there was always a ceiling over their heads, an entrenched social system that let them scramble a notch or two up the ladder, but no further. My mother was the daughter of a factory foreman and wanted to be a doctor, but she settled for physical therapy. My father's longed-for law degree came only when he turned sixty. Both of them settled for a string of used cars, a five-day motel vacation once every other year, and nice clothes bought on sale.
Neither of them complained very loudly about the material facts of their lives, as if aware not only of what hovered above them, but what lay below. After all, we had plenty to eat, a nice house, friends, health, faith enough to carry us through the hard times. But all around them, my parents could see evidence of what seemed to be a better life: newer cars, larger yards, quieter neighborhoods, people who owned second homes, whose children went to prestigious colleges and moved from idyllic campuses into lucrative careers. When I came along, on a cloudless September afternoon in 1953 (they were thirty-seven and thirty-one; my father had the death of a wife and child behind him; my mother had suffered the first of several miscarriages; they were living upstairs from his parents), the occasion was greeted with a great deal of joy. At the same time, probably without their knowing it, an enormous cargo of ambition was shifted onto my small shoulders.
When a few years went by and I turned out to be "smart" meaning I had the kind of mental agility over which so much fuss is made in this society: I could learn words and add numbers quickly that ambition began to be molded into a clearer shape. I told people I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. I didn't know the slightest thing about how doctors actually lived; I had gotten the idea from my parents, because, to them, being a doctor meant breaking through the ceiling that held them down; it meant crashing out of the working class and into the quiet life of stock portfolios and automatic respect. Age eight and I was a doctor-in-waiting, fawned over by teachers, praised by uncles and aunts, walking down Essex Street from Barrows School with a gold star on the middle of my forehead. How could I have known about humility then? To make matters worse, or at least more complicated, I was good at sports, too: the fastest runner in the third grade; an all-star shortstop in Little League; a better streetfighter, early on, than my Essex Street friends Frankie Imbrescia and Albert Santosuosso. Everything except swimming came naturally to me in those early years, though it was hardly due to any effort of my own. Like my two athletic brothers, I'd inherited good genes, that was all.
On top of all this, I was the product of two families who were a little bit like royalty in their respective parts of the city. My mother's father was Boss to most of the men on Olive Street, respected and liked, and had owned a car before any of his neighbors. My father's father had been a boss once, too, had also been one of the first people in Revere with an automobile. Grandma Haydock was famous for her beauty, and for being able to recite poetry by the hour. Grandma Merullo was thought to be a holy woman, and the best cook this side of Naples. Everywhere in the city we were known by our connection to respected relatives "I'm a friend of your aunt," people would say, "I played ball with your grandfather," and they talked as if they felt proud and lucky to have known us. I was a Merullo, I was from Revere, I was good on the diamond and good in the classroom, I was going to be a doctor.
In the years between then and now thank God, thank life so much of that proud edifice has been dismantled. First, in junior high school, I was beaten up, embarrassed, humiliated. Then, in high school, I met people who were so much smarter than I, and in such a deeper sense. Soon I began to understand that owning a car in Revere, Massachusetts, even in the 1940s, wasn't quite a sign of royalty after all; that the Catholic Church might not really be the only refuge of the chosen; that becoming a doctor was one of the last things on earth I wanted. In my twenties I broke my upper back, in my thirties I had surgery to remove a disc from my lower back, and in my early forties I learned that I'd inherited something called psoriatic arthritis, all of which added up to decades of daily pain, tens of thousands of dollars in chiropractor bills. I took medication for the pain, which skewed my digestion, which affected my sleep, and so on. There was some very rough sledding in the early and middle years of my marriage, the sudden passing of my father, persistent financial worries, a long string of rejections before my first book came out.
Doesn't everyone have woes along these same lines a chronic sleep problem, a shattering business failure, an auto accident, estrangement, divorce, disability, depression, disinterest? I'm steering clear of the very worst cases here victims of torture, children born with HIV or suffering from cancer, people driven insane by grief or abuse. But don't even the sweetest-looking lives hold pockets of pain?
The point of all that striving and suffering if it has a point is a matter of individual opinion. Each of us forms an explanation for the existence of failure and pain, and every explanation is a mini-religion all its own. My religion, I suppose, the belief system I've made for myself to render the events of my life meaningful, is this: In a mysterious fashion not completely understandable to us, everything moves the individual soul toward humility.
Which is not to say I am humble. Old habits die hard, and there is a way in which the conceits of youth mutate into other forms: one can be proud of being humble, even of trying to be humble, even of thinking or writing about such things as trying to be humble; one can think one knows, when in fact one doesn't. Still, I find it hard to argue against one idea: that, in most lives, the rough hand of time sands the soul smooth. Time shrinks the ego even if the most egotistical among us must wait until old age, or the very moment of death, for that to happen. The arc of a well-lived life, a life in which good fortune is accepted gratefully and bad fortune borne without too much bitterness, leads toward a kind of interior smallness, the very opposite, perhaps, of what I used to feel walking down Essex Street with a star on my forehead.
If the ego is small enough, and the will is put to good use, then life sands the soul smooth that's the notion that carries me. It is the I itself, the enormous, demanding, petulant, perpetually dissatisfied "I," that hangs like a bolt of gauze between the face of the soul and the world's wonder. Little by little, the curtain thins, there's no stopping it. You break your back, you fail in something that matters to you, you find love, lose it, find it again, bring up children (what could possibly be more humbling?) and set them off on the same path; you follow the line of your own particular fate, built partly of your soul's unique essence and partly of your class and place and time. You march along through the mud and past the flowers, toward, in the end of ends, as the Russians say, a small small godliness of your own making.
Roland Merullo is the author of Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home and Beyond (Beacon Press, 2002), from which this essay is adapted. Copyright © 2002 by Roland Merullo; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2002 Unitarian Universalist Association