Of the ten members
of the Ward family who attended Oberlin College,
I was the only one to flunk out. For me, Oberlin proved too
loaded a proposition, too burdened by the ghosts and expectations
of my family's past. No one as thoroughly embodied the nightmarish
impossibility of my living up to my heritage as my godfather,
Professor Andrew Bongiorno. During the worst years of my life,
his very existence was a kind of reproach. From the time I
first began to speak, I had called this slender, fond, soft-spoken
man Uncle Andrew, and it was not until I was almost in my
teens that it occurred to me that we were not blood relations.
Andrew never asked that he be my godfather, nor that I be
named after him. As a devout Catholic he was always a little
puzzled as to how he was supposed to see to it that this child
of lapsed Protestants should attain the stature of Christ.
But beyond the height requirement, there was the matter of
my schooling. In a verse he composed on my first birthday,
Andrew predicted that as the son of a college dean I would
eventually become an austere contemplative, but he urged me
first to "eat your porridge" and "suck your bottle, then proceed
the time I entered Oberlin, however, I still hadn't proceeded
to Aristotle, and my attitude around Andrew was one of tongue-tied
shame and embarrassment. I would sit choking in the rarefied
atmosphere of Andrew and Laurine's book-lined living room,
where they sat expectantly, poised on the edges of their
chairs, searching in vain for some tiny sign of an intellect
pulsing under my downcast brow.
Andrew heard from his colleagues of his godson's absences
and delinquencies, he dutifully reported all to my parents.
When I was on the verge of flunking elementary Italian,
he arranged for me to come to his office on Wednesday evenings
to sit before this translator of Castelnuovo, this legendary
explicator of Dante, and miserably conjugate, say, the present
tense of the verb andare.
after all he tried to do to help me, I dormire'ed
through the final exam, and as I limped through my last
semester of academic probation, I found I could not face
him. If I glimpsed his papal figure strolling down East
Main, I would duck into a store until he passed. When Oberlin
finally cast me out, I could not bring myself to tell Andrew
in person but instead left an anguished little note under
the door to his office, where, I am ashamed to say, I could
see him sitting, correcting papers at his desk.
tiptoed off into limbo as Andrew proceeded into one of those
protracted retirements in which Oberlin seems content to
exile its greatest teachers. (It used to pain him to receive
invitations to the annual "at home" at the president's house,
where the guests were all from town. "It is an invitation
I wish I were spared," he once wrote me. "It serves only
to make me feel more than ever a stranger in a place that
was once my home.") He wrote sometimes to inquire about
my progress down the path of least resistance. But we did
not really correspond until ten years later when he began
to come upon my writing in The Atlantic Monthly.
praise for my essays and parodies was like a benediction,
and for years I used to frustrate the copy-editing departments
of a whole string of magazines by passing everything I wrote
through the Bongiorno sieve. I still have the little typed
scraps he sent back, noting the page and line numbers where
he'd come upon a colon doing the work of a semi colon, an
independent clause indecently displayed without a comma,
a heedlessly misplaced modifier. He saved me infinite embarrassments,
and gave me a leg up with my unsuspecting editors.
have concluded," he once told me when I began to show signs
of progress, "that you were never uneducable, Andy. Only
was not until the early '80s when I decided to write a novel
about India, that Andrew's influence became less professorial
and more godfatherly. As I fantasized my way into the perilous
and sometimes dismal world of 19th-century India, I began
considering seriously for the first time questions of suffering
and free will. When I periodically lost my nerve, I began
to turn to Andrew more and more, until we were exchanging
long epistles on faith and the mystery of God's purposes.
the merciless architect of the world my characters inhabited,
I guess I didn't believe in God so much as identified with
Him. I asked questions a lesser professor might have dismissed
as sophomoric: Is God just and all-powerful? Or unjust and
all-powerful? Or not all-powerful but only just, in which
case, who needs Him?
God were just and all-powerful, Andrew replied, then His
justice was the very mystery Andrew himself embraced. He
assailed the notion of an all-powerful, unjust God as the
Byronesque excuse of the guiltless, tragic hero. And, he
gently suggested, if God were just but not all powerful,
then perhaps the question was not whether we needed Him
but whether He needed us.
In my unbelief I had always felt as though I were feeding
from somebody else's trough. Andrew was pleased when, after
he had taken such pains with me, I finally concluded that
I was not an atheist nor even an agnostic but what he called
"an alienated Christian."
me confide to you," he once wrote, "that I was born five
months and 24 days before the death of Queen Victoria. Doesn't
that explain everything?"
actually, it didn't. It did not explain, for instance, how
a man, who until his early middle age thought homosexuality
had expired with the ancient Greeks, could recognize in
his extreme old age the workings of God's grace in the grotesqueries
of Flannery O'Connor's parables or make his way past what
he called the "blood-and-guts" propaganda of D.H. Lawrence's
short stories to a "well of English undefiled." Though there
was nothing in the way Andrew lived his life that would
have ruffled the most decorous Victorian, he was a man of
the 20th century.