Sunday, February 6, 2011

Daddy, "Coons" & Astrophysics

Spiral Galaxy Messier 81
Ever since I was a little girl, Daddy and I had maintained a secret relationship. He would tap on my bedroom door in the morning. That was our signal. I would jump out of bed and pad into the bathroom in my pajamas and stocking feet and take my place on the closed toilet seat, guru-style. While he shaved, we would share intimacies on our favorite subject -- Astrophysics.

I'm not sure why. My father was an Army man, a non-commissioned officer who had served in Australia during World War II. So, maybe his interest emanated from the countless opportunities he must have enjoyed over the years to peer into the night sky while on military maneuvers. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that his mother, Grandmama Hilliard, had been a school teacher in rural North Carolina, who raised her seven children on constellation charts rather than fairytales. Whatever the reason, scientific discourse appealed to both my Father and my own impulses for intellectual stimulation and rational escape, and it undoubtedly represented a temporary salve to the painful shyness I suffered in discussing more people-populated themes.

Yes, Astrophysics seemed in my adolescent's mind to have the capacity to unlock all the secrets of the universe In those days I knew the cosmos in such intimate detail that in peering into the seeming emptiness of interstellar space on a cloudless night I could even detect its smell -- the ever so faint whiff of Old Spice Shaving Cream.

"Sit still, honey and take a deep breath," Daddy would begin our early morning talks. "Now tell me about . . . ." Ever since I could remember, both my parents prefaced almost every communication to me with the same dual injunction: "sit still, honey and take a deep breath." It was only in later years that I came to realize that the exploding bursts of cognitive energy that provided me with limitless energy for solo concentration and work, also represented the symptoms of a chronic anxiety disorder that would eventually threaten the tenuous foundations of my life.

Our Father-daughter expeditions into science often veered off track.

"Daddy, that cracker down the street, you know. . . the one who lives in the old gray house and rides that rusty green bike, he called me and Ida ‘c-o-o-n-s’ last night. We were just walking home from Frank's store, just minding our own business," I announced one morning.

"Hum," my Father replied, without missing a stroke in his shaving ritual.

"Should I kill him?" I asked, puckering my lips into a pout.

"Why?" he asked.

"'Cause he called us c-o-o-n-s." I spelled the word, having decided that the vocalization of it might cause my Father pain.

"Is that what you are?" he asked

"But it's a curse word for Negro," I said emphatically.

"Actually, 'Coon' is a derogatory name for a person of African descent because it implies traits of stupidity, shiftlessness and laziness," he said.

"So?"

"If the name doesn't apply to you and your baby sister, then the boy is merely showing his own ignorance."

"Can't I just punch him next time I see him?"

"Not if he's bigger than you are, sweetheart."

And then Daddy and I would return to more cosmic matters such as Einstein's theories of general and special relativity. Or, we might debate for the umpteenth time whether the curved space of the universe was open and would continue to expand forever or closed and fated to reach a point where it would begin retracting.

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