At the start of Love & Fury, Richard Hoffman's father tells him that his will is pretty simple. The same could not be said about their relationship. In his memoir, Hoffman writes elegiacally of his upbringing in a working-class Pennsylvania family where he would inherit the abuse, racism, sexism, and other toxic values he would come to terms with. Juxtaposed with these toxic values was his father’s tenderness, making him all the more mysterious. Hoffman was, in his own words, “a boy made of coal and steel and violence and trucks and shame,” filled with a yearning to escape but also a longing to connect with and understand his enigmatic, difficult father. A father who, as he would come to understand later, carried a different kind of class shame. With this opening passage, Hoffman brings all the nuance of his complex relationship with his father to life.
We’re sitting in the kitchen, at the scarred Formica table, my father and my brother Joe and I, having just finished the kind of meal we have had innumerable times in the twenty-three years since my mother died: take-out hot dogs from “Yocco, the Hot Dog King” with a side of deep-fried pierogies, or maybe it was microwaved Lloyd’s Roast Beef Barbecue from a plastic container in the fridge, or strip steaks on the George Foreman Grill, with a side of microwaved instant mashed potatoes. I can’t recall for certain what we ate that night, maybe because my father has asked us to meet with him after supper to go over his will, and the two steel boxes have been there on the table next to the tall plastic bottle of orange soda throughout the meal, keeping their secrets to themselves. I know what’s in at least one of them, though: birth certificates, death certificates, account numbers, records, directions, the deeds to graves. It’s two weeks since he’s been diagnosed with MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition that, at his age, eighty one, almost always becomes leukemia. He has everything in order, he says. It’s all right here in the boxes.
“Now the will’s pretty simple,” he tells us, “everything’s split down the middle so there’s nothing for the two of you to fight about.” He has told each of us the same thing in the past two weeks, and Joe and I have talked about it on the phone. “You want the toaster oven or the Foreman grill?” my brother joked. It’s true that there wasn’t much to split up.
My father had a story he liked to tell about sitting down with my mother at the kitchen table once each month to pay bills and putting all the bills in my mother’s stockpot and drawing them out one by one, writing checks till the money was gone. “And that was that,” he’d say. “If we ran out of money before we got to you, well then you went back in the pot next month.”
Once when I was young and knew, according to my father, neither the difference between shit and shine-ola, nor my ass from my elbow, on a holiday visit home from college, I chimed in with a lame coda to my father’s anecdote, trying to augment the good humor of it, give it a little extra spin. As my father drew the story to its canonical close, “well then you went back in the pot next month,” I wisecracked that I finally understood why we never had a pot to piss in, another expression of my father’s. “You guys were using it as the Accounts Payable Department!”
My father looked at me blankly as if he didn’t get it. Then, before I could compound my mistake by trying to explain it, he rose from his chair.
“You little punk,” he muttered as he left the room.
I had tripped a switch and plunged my father from the safety of his lyric, humorous, emblematic scene into deep shame and remembered desperation, the very emotions that his ritual telling, with its shrug and goofball smile, its cavalier “fuck ’em” attitude, was meant to exorcise. I was of course the one who didn’t get it, sitting there on my elbow with a shine-ola-eating grin on my face. I was not the one who had stood against a wall at six in the morning for the shape-up, hoping to get picked to work like a donkey for the next twelve hours. I was not the one who’d had to go down to the PP&L office with money made from cleaning out somebody’s suburban garage just to get the lights turned back on. I was not the one who felt humiliated the year our Christmas presents came from the Salvation Army, complete with tags that said, Boy, 6–8 years old. My father had taken all those years and all that shame and locked them in a little box of a story, and just when he was clicking it shut again, as he had so many times before, I propped the lid open a moment longer with my fatuous cleverness, and a monstrous cloud, a genie of shame, escaped.
Everyone in my family considered themselves middle-class, all my aunts and uncles, each and every household, whether anyone had a job or not, regardless of what kind of work they did when there was work, regardless of whether or not they had “a pot to piss in.”
We never used the word “class.” My father called us working people. He always said we were working people, and he wanted me to be proud of it. I was a good student. School came easily to me, and I couldn’t wait to be the first in my family to go to college. And my father, conflicted in ways that he showed by barking, shouting, kicking things, and occasionally knocking me down, let me know that he was scared for me, jealous, proud of me, and betrayed.
About the Author
Richard Hoffman is the author of Love & Fury: A Memoir, Half the House: A Memoir; the poetry collections Without Paradise, Emblem, and Gold Star Road, winner of both the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and the short story collection Interference and Other Stories. He is senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.