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By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
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She wrote el-Wafi, "I want to give you whatever support you need. Whenever you are in the United States, I will be by your side."
"I was not thinking only about friendship," Rodriguez says. "I was thinking about being true to myself. She was going to be in the United States under very difficult circumstances, and if the tables were turned, what would I need? Support. And friendship. So I appointed myself the head, the membership, and the steering committee of the Support Aïcha Committee."
Phyllis Rodriguez appears controlled and tough, and when she speaks about the murder of her son by terrorists, you can see, by the way her piercing hazel eyes begin to dart and lose focus, that she is fighting back a storm.
If she declines to get emotional with strangers, then there is something about the way that Rodriguez arranges a meal that betrays her attempts at stoicism. At the dinner table, her presence is like the warm glow of an incandescent light.
As was the case in her childhood, the dinner table is a place for current-events commentary, and there, she is more than willing to unleash a torrent of lefty political rants. It is at the table, too, that you come to know her barbed sense of humor, her throaty laugh, and the way she brightens in the company of others.
At the Rodriguezes' summer home in a small town in the Catskills, she arranges simple feasts, reflecting her egalitarian politics: She assigns a task to each person, seeks opinions about cooking times, and guards against waste. In the end, she throws a bounty of roasted vegetables and chicken on a platter for a communal meal. We eat on mismatched plates and use cloth napkins, which, like the furniture in her home, reflect an artist's eclectic sensibilities.
The Rodriguezes bought their country getawayan aluminum-sided trailer home nestled in 30 acres of trees and greenerymore than a decade ago in what was historically a working-class and immigrant summer retreat. It is a natural choice for Rodriguez, who grew up in the '50s as Phyllis Schafer in New York public- housing projects with quick access to parks and nature. Her mother, a volunteer tenant-rights organizer, had become such a hell-raiser at the Queensbridge Housing Projects that eventually the housing authority offered to give the Schafers their pick of homes, if only they'd move away. So they left for the Pelham Parkway Houses in the Bronx when Phyllis was seven.
Her father, a letterer and sign painter heavily involved in union politics, often brought leftover paint and paper home from work for his two daughters. Phyllis, the eldest, became an avid painter, and she was sent to an arts high school in Manhattan, where she was happy to be surrounded by other children who came from unorth-odox families too.
Greg Rodriguez in a photo from 1999
photo: Courtesy Phyllis Rodriguez
In the Schafer household, politics was their religion. Social justice, equality, human rightsdiscussed in the context of the civil rights movement or the execution of the Rosenbergswere their gospel. But she also came from an era when politics, no matter how radical, required a level of respectability. Whenever she participated in protestslike the time she went to stand in solidarity with black desegregationists at a Woolworth's lunch counter during high schoolshe was always careful to dress neatly in her finest skirts and shirts.
In 1960, she became the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. With the family's unspoken expectation that both she and her younger sister would become white-collar professionals, she dutifully enrolled in City College, where she met Orlando Rodriguez. After graduating, she became an elementary school teacher, got married, and had her first child, Julia, at age 24. When their daughter was born, Phyllis Rodriguez switched to part-time teaching. With Orlando working toward his doctorate in sociology, budgets and schedules were tight. Rodriguez's political impulses were set aside; there were diapers to change, papers to grade, and meals to orchestrate. For the time being, politics was reserved for the dinner table, as well as in the setting of it.
As his friends recall him, Greg inherited his father's sensitivity and his mother's gregariousness and impulsiveness. From both parents, he learned to question authorityespecially theirs. Rebellious and moody, he began to push the boundaries. At 15 he came home with a mohawk that changed color and shape depending on his whim. At 16, he took a bike trip around New Englandby then, the mohawk was short and pinkand totaled his bike when he wasn't watching where he was going. Rodriguez and her husband tended to give their children some latitude; they hoped he'd come around on his own. But when he called from an emergency room in Vermont, they ordered him home, grounded him, and forced him to get a job and shave his head.
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