My Father's Peace

I am a member of the baby-boom generation, born after the GIs and G-gals came home from the Second World War and settled into civilian prosperity and peace. I grew up knowing that there was only one war, World War II. It was "The War" that we heard about at family gatherings, remembered on Memorial Day, saw depicted on television, and played at in the sandlot. It was a "war to end all wars"—but didn’t.

Growing up in suburbia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I had no personal understanding of war until the year I turned five. My father, Richard Mello, then an art teacher, was granted a sabbatical. With the funds and time given him, he decided to study how art was taught in schools overseas.

We traveled as a family to Italy, settling in a small village just outside of Verona where my father’s relatives had lived for untold generations. Here, my parents left us in the care of Rosetta and Luigi, our adult cousins, while they went off exploring on their own.

Living on this farm was like stepping back in time. Cousin Luigi still plowed his fields with oxen, and Rosetta did the laundry by hand at the communal village tubs near the river. I was learning Italian quickly, and before a month had passed, I was communicating in a strange patois of English mixed with the village’s Roman dialect, and I understood much more than I could express.

After dinner was over and the work of the day was complete, neighbors, friends, and family would gather around the kitchen table to talk. It was then that I heard about "The War." These stories were not about triumph and victory, nor were they nostalgic reminiscences of rationed food and rubber drives, as in the United States. These memories were full of fear, terror, anger, and sorrow. I heard how armies marched back and forth through the town taking whatever they wanted. My cousins talked of the rape of the land and its people, and in my childish way I began to understand that in war there is no such thing as a real victory—that those who survive have the horrific and difficult task of picking up the pieces, burying the dead, and building anew.

Our family returned to the States, and as I grew up I eventually heard more war stories—this time from my father’s perspective. I learned that my father was desperate to join up after the devastation at Pearl Harbor, but at the draft office he was declared "legally blind" on account of a congenital cataract, rated "4F," told that the army didn’t want him, and summarily sent away.

This wasn’t the first time his eyesight had been a barrier. At the beginning of his school career, the teachers labeled him "slow" and "stupid." Luckily, an observant teacher thought to check his eyes, and my father, who is now an artist by profession—whose world is rooted in images—was given a pair of glasses. Suddenly the world came into focus! His "learning problem" disappeared.

In spite of his "bad eye," he kept trying to enlist until finally, as my father tells it, "the army didn’t care who they took as long as you were a warm body." He requested immediate induction, was sent to basic training, and then shipped off to Italy as part of the army of occupation. The transport ship landed at the port of Livorno. From there, troops were sent to Pisa, home of the famous leaning tower, and as soon as they had leave, my father and his cronies made for town.

In 1946, the city was left decimated by repeated bombings and artillery fire. Its basilica and abbey were reduced to rubble, and the great frescoes that had been part of their plaster walls had disintegrated into small pea-sized chips. Making their way through this destruction, they reached the tower of Pisa—at which point, my father reports with a wry grin, they raced to the top.

The next day, leaving the devastation of Pisa behind, the company was trucked into Florence—the city of my father’s revelation. The streets were empty. Motor traffic was nonexistent and the populace had fled, so my father had an uninterrupted, almost private, view of the city’s masterpieces, including the Cathedral, Uffizi Museum, Giotto’s Tower, and the Pitti Palace. He met the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo in person. He roamed the foothills and looked down on the eternal landscape of Dante. He had arrived in an artist’s paradise at a time when the world was experiencing hell. His vision soared and his mind’s eye expanded. He was transformed by a passion for creation and design.

After his tour of duty was over, he was shipped home, but he vowed to return someday. The magnificence and grandeur that was Florence stayed with him. The war that oppressed countless millions had, in this way, liberated my father. In addition, some far-thinking politicians had taken the phrase "men shall study war no more" seriously enough to send a generation of soldiers to college. The GI bill gave thousands of veterans an opportunity to study, and my father used his money to attend the Museum School at Tufts University. He eventually graduated, became an artist, married my mother, and fathered my sister and me.

My father’s artwork, with its strong images, was woven into my family’s everyday world. We took for granted the smell of oil paint that permeated the house, and the long hours of silence when my father would disappear into his studio—with only a transistor radio for company. When my friends would report that their parents fought over where to put the new swing set, I would counter with a description of my parents’ argument over where and how to hang a painting. When other families took camping trips, we went to museums. At least once a month we’d make the long trip into New York City to see a new Picasso exhibit or a Pollack opening. Through countless galleries of impressionists and modernists we’d follow my father, watching him watch the artwork. He never talked much at home, and in the museum he was even more restrained. We came to think of museums as sacred spaces.

Sometimes one of us would be brave enough to break the hallowed silence and ask: "Dad, what is that supposed to be?" His perennial answers were: "What do you think?" "What do you see?" and "How do you feel about that?"

We were always encouraged to interpret for ourselves: to construct our own understanding, our own emotional and artistic vision. Of course, this was frustrating as a child. It wasn’t until I grew up that I really began to appreciate the lessons my father taught us during those Saturday afternoons wandering the galleries. To this day his voice stays inside my head, telling me, "Look! See! Feel! Know! Imagine! Be!" I know now why he was considered such an extraordinary teacher: he encouraged his students to know and value themselves as creative and viable human beings. He modeled what he preached, patiently painting—trying to get "it" perfect and right.

I hadn’t thought about any of this in a very long time when memories came flooding back on September 11. Once again I confronted war on a personal level as the towers in New York City came crashing down beside the Hudson River. My father’s stories of Florence, and my recollections of Rosetta’s and Luigi’s painful tales all flashed through my mind. As I sat in my office trying to get a grip on my own emotions and desperately trying to figure out what I would say to my afternoon class, I realized that I needed to talk to someone with history: a survivor, someone who was older, a peacemaker who could put these events into context. So I called my dad.

My father lives half of each year in Italy now—having achieved that dream formed long ago when he was a young soldier. He has retired to the Chianti hills in order to paint full time. Aside from his yearly trips back home to be with family, especially the grandchildren, he spends most of his time creating images of the Tuscan countryside. My father also makes olive oil and a little wine. Each morning he eats fresh Tuscan bread spread with honey from the local abbey, made by bees whose stock goes back to the 16th century. My father’s world gives me a larger perspective on things, as it is more timeless and time-honored than my own.

I called him on the phone after an unsuccessful attempt at getting through to my sister in Brooklyn; all of New York City seemed to have been cut off from the rest of the world. I needed to hear his voice, needed to tell him I loved him. I also needed his guidance, as he is the best teacher I have ever known. I wanted to know how it was possible, in times of crisis, not to lose yourself in the agony of the world around you. What was the secret to surviving hard times?

He didn’t really have an answer to my questions; his response was more like a cosmic shrug: "Just sit tight, stay safe, it will resolve itself, it’s how the world goes." For some reason this practical, fatalistic view calmed me down.

As the television flashed images of the World Trade Towers imploding, I prayed that my family in New York City was safe, and I drifted off into memory, recalling a trip my dad and I had taken to Pisa together two years ago. We went back to the port where my father had landed as a young soldier and walked through the palazzo, now reconstructed to its former glory. Of course, we went to the museum too, walking silently in its sacred air. In one of the galleries was a large, elaborate fresco. Originally titled "Heaven and Hell," it had been painstakingly restored—brought back to life out of the bombed-out rubble.

Photographs of the restoration process covered one entire wall. With tweezers, toothpicks, magnifying glasses, and tiny brushes, artists and craftsmen had picked up the pieces of war-crushed art bit by bit and glued them back onto the reconstructed walls. The work had taken decades, and now, were it not for the photo essay, one would never have known that a bomb had destroyed the painting, or that the ancient walls that supported it had ever been harmed.

I stood in that gallery, watching my father looking at the mural that he once had climbed over when it was a pile of rubble. Its title was "The Inferno." Glaring devils and avenging angels danced around our heads; men and women screamed in agony and underwent tortures of the vilest kind. It was a medieval warning of what humans can perpetrate upon themselves. The artist had given succeeding generations a glimpse into a gruesome and yet thrilling medieval judgment day. I found it ironic that this image, one of ultimate Armageddon, was destroyed by the world’s most destructive armies and then rescued by the world’s most patient artists. But, after all, as my father had shown me, that is what artists do.

That is what art is for: to mirror our own experience back to us, encouraging us to expand our universe; and to challenge our perceptions so we are compelled to delve into our own beliefs and see them from a new perspective—to persevere; to Look! See! Feel! Know! Imagine! Be!

Surrounded by the images of this ancient hell, I also thought about our modern one: of hunger, homelessness, poverty, and oppression. Times had not changed much, at least in terms of human suffering, since the fresco had first been created. And I began to understand why my father chose to paint the things of this world that are eternal, like the ancient olive trees, grape vines, Etruscan hills, rock foundations, fortresses, and walls—all of which have outlasted numerous wars, famines, earthquakes, droughts, and floods.

He looks for things that last, are strong and intense, or things that eternally renew no matter who sits in power or whose face is minted on the currency. He embraces life fully and intensely, teaching and connecting to those around him, painting the faces and images that are dear to him, celebrating the life of the landscape, acknowledging the power of the earth and sky. Like the artisans who reconstructed Pisa’s frescoes he explores life through his paintbrush and pen, in small stages, intimately and painstakingly working on an infinite theme.

I am deeply grateful for my father and his vision of the world, especially in this year when global turmoil, war, and hatred have come closer and closer to my home. Now I see clearly that what we need are more teachers like him. We need their peace and vision and the courage to remember what "real war" is, that it cannot be ignored, and will cause real destruction.

For we cannot, like children playing games, simply erase the things we do not like or ignore the people we don’t want to include. We cannot simply hang a flag out our window and think that the crisis will disappear. It doesn’t work that way. Peace works, instead, the way my father creates a painting, piece by piece and bit by bit, patient and intense. We need to respect the peacemakers, like my father, who teach us that survival is not about destruction, but rather about vision—about building and sustaining life and honoring the things that are eternal. My father’s lesson, if we have the courage to learn it, is that we look inside ourselves to see, feel, think, imagine, and that we keep strong to the realization that the pen, paintbrush, and creative heart are always mightier than the sword.

Robin Mello

Robin Mello, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is a professional storyteller who is interested in how stories influence our lives. She has written Animal Tales, a story-play, and an article, "Cinderella Meets Ulysses," in the Journal of Language Arts. She is a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.), sojourning at Madison (Wis.) Meeting.