“My Father’s Water”

by Giovanna Campomizzi May

The first place my father went to each morning was the refrigerator for a plastic pitcher, the kind that never wears out but turns yellow with age. It sat in the refrigerator holding dad’s water. He showed his desperation this morning more than he did other mornings.

He always spat in the water so that we would not touch it. Early one typical Saturday morning, I poured my father a cup of coffee. He had rolled some cigarettes the night before. The hand-rolled cigarette barely held together in his hand as he took a puff, smoking in between slurps of coffee with four heaping tablespoons of sugar to make it almost like syrup, sickeningly sweet. When he opened the refrigerator door, he didn’t see his pitcher. Not typical. He glared at my sister and me as we cowered in our pajamas over our raw eggs and Marsala. Mother buttered bread in silence at the corner.

“Where’s my water?” he asked, locked up like a statue, livid.

“We didn’t touch it!” I cried.

Lucy huddled next to me in silence. She would not dare to answer him back, or move his pitcher. We were scared. Father rummaged through the only shelf tall enough to hold the pitcher, and eventually found it. We knew the rules. We didn’t touch his water. We did not touch his drinking glasses, which had their own special place in the cupboard, because we drank milk. My father did not. If anyone put milk in his pitcher or one of his glasses, he would fly into a rage. He  poured himself a glass of water and sat down to his coffee at one end of the table. Mother poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down in silence opposite us. Lucy swirled the egg in her glass, trying to make designs with the yolk, drank it down, and shuffled over and sat on mother’s lap.

I couldn’t understand dad’s behavior. There were days when he behaved as normally as any father I could imagine, laughing and joking around with us, days when the contentment and security of family life were not even a conscious thought. Then days like this would come along when my father’s past eclipsed any rational judgment, leaving him and us to the furies of memories he could not vanquish or explain. He looked at us, through us, as if he had nothing to say and everything to say. Papa leaned onto the table with his left arm, his hand and its two crippled fingers clearly visible.

“You see these broken parts of me all the time,” he said, with a trace of remorse in his voice and a thinly veiled terror in his eyes. “I’ve told you a little about what the German camps were like. Some of the Germans made people suffer. They hated people who weren’t German. The simplest thing to say is that camps were very bad places. I know it’s hard to believe, but I did this to myself,” he said, glancing at his fingers. “I was scarred. I hit my foot with a sledgehammer because then you would go to the camp ‘hospital’. You would get some soup.” He lifted his left pant leg, revealing its calf half the girth of his right, with a long scar down the shin. “I hurt my leg,” he said. “The scars are all here.”

We could see the agony of the victim at times, but not the tyrant who created him. I did not know why he hated milk. This was not a dislike, but an utter loathing. I could not understand it; milk, the first food that babies take from their mother’s breasts, sweet and good. All that any of us knew is that he had suffered something terrible. We knew he was afraid. He always slept with the bedroom light on. We knew his screams in the middle of the night; the terror in his eyes the morning he woke up yelling at some invisible enemy; moments when the past sucked him back into a present that he could not escape; the times he would drink a couple of beers, and just lay his head in his arms and go stone silent for a very long time. Only rarely did he ever mention details in a rational state of mind, as if he were certain that reason held no power over hell, and to even mention it would drag him into an insanity that would keep him there forever.

 “The Germans killed people by the millions,” Father said, and stared into the table. How do you describe a handsome thirty-five-year old sitting across from you, stone still? Shuddering through his eyes from a terror within? “They built furnaces to burn the dead…it’s true…they stacked the dead like firewood along the walls, in heaps as more and more prisoners were crammed into the camp…more and more executions…more and more trains from other camps with as many dead as living on them…

“Me and others finally got out of there. Thanks to the Americans. Two other guys and I started making our way south, traveling by night and hiding during the day, in barns when we could find them. We knew only too well what the Germans were capable of and were terrified of them…” Father crushed out his cigarette and held his glass of water with both hands. “Cows…we could get milk. It’s six hundred miles from Munich to home. We hid, we ran, we lived on milk, convincing ourselves that if we ran hard enough and far enough we could break free from what we had lived through. But there was no running from that hole from Hell…” He lit another cigarette “I never want to see another drop of milk for as long as I live.”

As a little girl, when I was still in Aielli in Italy, deep in the middle of one night, I felt a pair of arms grab me from my bed and ferry me downstairs where everyone was huddled in terror. An earthquake had trembled our little town. There was no place to run when the very ground began rumbling beneath the villagers’ feet. Even as a little girl I could feel the fear of adults who rarely showed such an emotion. They did the only thing they could do: wait, and pray that the scourge would pass.

Now, in America, my father was solid and strong. I loved him, but I feared him in his dark moods, when these ‘earthquakes’ trembled within him, disfiguring the mountains in us. I longed for the ground to stop shaking. Mother looked into his eyes, reached over and laid her hand across his wrist.

“You’re their father…” she said to him. Lucy slipped from mama’s lap and stole off to our bedroom. I helped mother clear the table and left him to his water and his silence.