Dad, a White man, knew the power of grievance politics, what he believed to be a sustaining element of Trumpism, better than most. It didn’t come just from his fascination with the Civil War; my own family fractured over one woman’s prejudice even before I was born. His mother’s rejection of his marriage to a Black woman, my mother, and the fallout that ensued, didn’t define him. His work ethic and kindness did that. But it shaped his understanding of the origins of bigotry and the power of forgiveness.
In his study, my father kept figurines of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee standing atop wall-mounted displays. As a half-Black, half-White child, I had trouble understanding his reverence for both sides. He told me he was captivated by this period of time when the American experiment nearly failed. And he loved learning about the characters of the war and the multitudes they led, scores of poor White men who stood little to gain from the abolishment or continuation of slavery, yet for varying reasons were willing to die for their side’s cause. Alex wondered what side he would’ve ended up on, having grown up in Virginia. He couldn’t rule out the Confederacy. Big, sweeping political movements influence people to make decisions in spite of their moral compasses, he reasoned. You can only fight so hard against the tide.
The earliest tide in my father’s life was his mother, Antonia, and it carried dark currents. During World War II she made her way from Ukraine to Berlin as a refugee, and when the war ended, she worked in a military hospital operated by the Allies. There she met an officer from the American Midwest and conceived my father, who was born in Heidelberg after his father shipped home. Five years later, my grandfather sponsored her and their son’s emigration to the United States on the condition that they never contact him. She settled in Virginia, married, had another son, divorced and kept dating. Antonia was prone to fits of anger and verbal abuse. In one episode my dad recalls, she took the large tin can of his collected marbles and dumped them in a sewer drain in front of him when he was 12.
He joined the Navy after high school and served in Vietnam. After he returned home, he worked as a mover, started a moving company and bought his mother a townhouse in Alexandria, Va. He met a young veterinarian at the University of Maryland. Antonia was thrilled that my father was dating a doctor. At first, he concealed her race. One day, several months into the relationship with my mom, Antonia phoned her son to let him know she’d be dropping by his house to pick something up. “That’s great,” he told her. “You can meet my girlfriend, who’s Black.”
She paused. “Fuck you,” she said after a moment. Then she hung up and didn’t speak to her son for five years.
When my parents married in 1987, Antonia gathered most of my father’s childhood pictures and destroyed them. With what few she didn’t burn, she scrawled “NIGGER LOVER” in black marker over each image, put them in an envelope and mailed them to my parents.
Antonia was the daughter of a respected man in Poltava, Ukraine, who navigated through a devastating famine in 1933 only to see his family and community torn apart with the Nazi invasion in 1941. Her arrival in the United States must have been an instant blow to her pride: She worked as a maid, cleaning the homes of rich, White families while living with them. She relied on government assistance in a foreign country. My father suspected she dated mostly for financial reasons; she had two young boys to support and no hope for them to attend college without a partner’s income or help from the government.
But despite her poverty, she could still cling to one vanity: She was a White woman in a segregated world, a member of the protected class. In her mind, she was better than at least one group of Americans, and so were her sons.
My father never explained to me how he had eluded his mother’s thinking on race, and I never asked. It’s a strange thing for a Black son to ask his White father: Why aren’t you a racist? He met Black men in the Navy and while working as an office mover, and at some point simply decided that his mother was wrong about Black people. He avoided the romance of the Lost Cause, relying instead on what he saw in the real world.
Five years after Antonia defaced the photos, she asked to come back into my dad’s life. She was no longer collecting an income and was in danger of losing her home. Dad saved the house. Still, she declined to apologize for her actions, and when he brought up the destroyed photos in later years, lamenting that he had no record of his childhood, she pretended not to know what he was talking about. She told him she pitied my brothers and me for being Black but didn’t blame us. For the rest of her life, Alex visited her on Sundays, a secret he kept from me until I was a teenager. He didn’t bother trying to reconcile his mother and brother and his wife, who tolerated his loyalty to blood. (My mom could have easily poisoned us against our grandmother and prevented us from ever seeing her, but I believe she wanted us to see for ourselves who and what Antonia was.)
Antonia and Alex shared this binding experience, the gravity of which I can scarcely fathom: They got on a boat and together made a life in this foreign land. For that bond, he decided he could coexist with this unapologetic racist. He decided he could move forward.
I met my White grandmother for the first time at 17, in 2004, 13 years before she died, in the townhouse my father bought. My mom had given her grudging approval. I hugged her that day out of a sense of obligation. She was a small, blonde woman, hunched over and shuffling in a threadbare navy-blue robe. Makeup covered the blemishes and liver spots on her face, though not the ones on her neck and chest. She was 83. Antonia stared at me with blue eyes, smiled and touched my cheeks with wonder. I had been a grinning picture on the wall for 17 years, and now I was sitting in her living room.
Here was a woman who had tried to poison her son and failed, who felt so desperate in her inadequacies that she’d effortlessly added American anti-Black racism to the European anti-Semitism she brought over. She called my mother the n-word, in writing, and I still couldn’t hate her. There was some hate there, sure, but the overwhelming emotions were pity and heartbreak. She had done something extraordinary in rescuing my father from postwar Europe, instilled in him a tremendous work ethic and — even if it was by accident — a sense of fairness. Yet as a consequence of her hate, she didn’t get to be a part of the world she helped create for him, and for me.
My mom thought she had the answer to that sort of bigotry. When my grandmother died in 2017, a dozen of her friends and family members came to her funeral: her two sons, women who knew her from the hair salon and other forays into town, her caretakers and neighbors — all White. My two brothers were there too, and my mom’s brother and his new bride, all Black. I chose not to attend.
They made a point of introducing themselves, shaking hands or hugging, and smiling sympathetically as they did. They stood somberly as Antonia was lowered into the ground. They held my father’s hand as they walked to his car. “We wanted those people to know we weren’t the monsters she must’ve told them we were,” my mom told me later. Even if they couldn’t change any minds, they declined to use the event to exorcise their frustrations.
On Thursday, my dad was cremated; his ashes will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, on the former grounds of Robert E. Lee’s plantation. He’ll rest alongside thousands of men who, like him, had ideas about what this country ought to stand for and were willing to die for that vision, however flawed.
I don’t have to wonder what my dad would’ve said about the men who brought the Confederate flag into the Capitol, and violence with it, in a failed effort to overturn the results of a democratic election. He would want them and those who inspired and organized the riot to be held responsible, just as my grandmother lost precious years with her grandchildren. He would want them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And ultimately, he would want these men and women in the grips of a dark tide — his siblings in this American experiment — to be forgiven.