Lessons in Survival from My Okie Mom

Chapter One, “Don’t Chase Boys”

In light of the momentous global and national tumult, I realize that mother-daughter stories might seem insignificant at present. But some things do hold up over time, like these “soundbites to live by” from my momma. Here’s her oft repeated advice about how to keep the upper hand with the opposite sex: “Don’t Chase Boys.” You can read Chapter One below, or listen to it on Soundcloud.

My mother looked much younger than her years.  Always did. Except for maybe in 1940, smoking Pall Malls and drinking whiskey neat, making the rounds in beer joints in Reno.

She was seventeen. Her step-dad drove her there from Placerville, California, taking the shortcut through the Sierra Nevadas via the Mt. Rose Pass. The view from the summit, nearly 11,000 feet, is cinematic. It looks like the opening sequence to Bonanza.

Cotton ball patches of snow hug the ground clear until spring, under the dense green stands of Ponderosa pine on the California side. They thin out on the descent into Nevada. The shouting blue sky from the higher altitude mutes to a pastel whisper as hairpin turns straighten out to wide open highway and 60-mile vistas of desert browns and sandstone pink. Rugged, that desert. Formative for my mother, I suspect.

Her doting step-dad, Pat O’Neill, (who would have a brief tour of duty with my grandmother, because she dumped him to remarry my grandfather) had dropped mom off in downtown Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World.” It was also the divorce capitol of America. She would be required to live in Nevada for six months before she could file. Everybody from starlets to ranch hands rolled into Reno to do their time to walk away a free man. Or woman. Nevada lawmakers ain’t no fools, the divorce trade was a money maker.

Mom waited tables to earn her keep and lived in a boarding house just off Virginia Street, while she served her six-month sentence. In the occasional spurts of information about her first two husbands, she told me once that she’d been crushed to learn that Frank Hampton, her Merchant Marine husband, had been cheating on her. He was apparently an early adopter of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” moral code. She wanted a baby. He wanted a girl in every port. She needed to cut her losses. Six months later, she walked out of the Washoe County Courthouse, divorce decree in hand. She took the bus back over the mountain, a divorcee at the ripe old age of seventeen, and Frank would be the first of what would become four husbands. The next one, also a fellow named Frank, was waiting at the station in Placerville.

There was never a lack of suitors. My mom was a sex pot. Yep. Beverly Gene Waddell Hampton Goss Whatley Garcia, was a powerful one-two punch; sultry like Rita Hayworth but with Dinah Shore, girl-next-door appeal.

Five-foot-four, thick, dark brown hair with a widow’s peak she could never tame, she had a graceful neck, narrow shoulders, slender hands with long fingers. “Piano player hands,” is how they described them and man, could she fill out a swim suit. Va-va-voom! She had hazel eyes with flecks of gold at the outside of the irises, which I often regarded as hateful. Maybe I was just paranoid, probably defensive, because she had a way of seeing right through me, especially when I was lying or stoned, frequent in my teen years, which coincided with the 70s, not necessarily an easy time for parenting, or being a teenage girl, an insecure one, at that.

It’s fitting then, that we start out her admonishment, “don’t chase boys.” She didn’t have to worry about it, because men gravitated to her like a super magnet, whereas I have been chasing boys since the second grade when I fell in love with Mark Garmany playing swinging statues on the pounded-down turf on the playground at South High Mount Elementary in Ft. Worth, Texas. It made my heart go pitter-pat when he was “it” because that meant he was going to touch me. Whoever was “it” spun all the kids round and around a few times, then let go. You had to freeze in whichever way you landed. Often the contorted poses were impossible to hold and if you moved at all, you were “it.” I would blink or twitch on purpose, just for the chance to grab Mark Garmany’s sweaty little arms and give him a spin.

I don’t think my mother ever experienced a mad crush on a boy or a man in all her 82 years. Maybe she did, but I can’t ask her now. By my account, men were mostly an accessory for her, everything from a smart alligator clutch to a burlap-inspired, cross-body shoulder bag, the type you’d find at a flea market, depended on the man. Paco, her Mexican immigrant boyfriend and the last of her lovers, who was seventeen years her junior, fit the latter. Men flocked to her, like husbands to Zsa Zsa Gabor. My mother’s suitors however, were mostly poor.

It’s not that Mom was pin-up-girl gorgeous, she had acne as a teenager and her front teeth, on the top, overlapped. She always described herself as a “plain, little Oklahoma girl,” but she apparently oozed sex appeal, coated with a highly attractive outer shell that pinged “your loss, fella,” lest any particular man to whom she’d given the nod didn’t return the compliment. That confidence! How in the hell did she develop such confidence?  She had a 9th grade education. Uprooted from Sayre, Oklahoma at 14 and transplanted to California, which by 1938 was largely inhospitable to the Dust Bowl Okies, grit took on a whole new dimension for my mother. It would be infused in her spine. Maybe that was it, that grit from whence she came. The California girls were jealous and the boys just wanted to get into her pants. She joined the glee club. What she might have lacked in talent she made up for with enthusiasm. Always a performer, my mother. Me too.

 

My acting career started when I was five, securing the starring role in the kindergarten performance of “Little Black Sambo.” I know, racist as hell, but this was 1960 in Texas and “Little Black Sambo” was part of the primary grades literary canon. No, I did not dress in a turban. It was a story acted out in front of the South High Mount PTA using wooden figurines, taken off the shelf from what us kindergartners considered to be a magical story book. It was on casters and opened up in the middle. Inside were four shelves, stocked with hand-carved, gaily painted story-book characters, about five inches tall, characters like Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Henny Penny and yes, Little Black Sambo. The sky truly would fall if someone acted out Little Black Sambo at a PTA meeting today. But I was chosen, apparently because of my budding oratorical skills, to act out the story of the little Indian boy who was chased around the tree by tigers. Only problem was, I called the tigers lions. The whole time, I referred to the tigers as lions, who purportedly chased Sambo around the tree so many times they turned into butter. What the hell, man? Lions could have turned into butter! In my five-year-old brain, I distinctly recall wondering why those moms with their bee-hive hairdos lacquered with Aqua Net hairspray were laughing so hard. I mean, what was so goddamn funny?  My mother recounted that story for years afterward, about how I’d screwed up the whole damn thing. She didn’t do it in a mocking way, “it was the cutest thing I had ever seen!” she’d say and of course there would be multitudes of the cutest thing she had ever seen, all different of course, for decades to come. I’m glad she thought it was cute.

 

I just didn’t think I was. Cute, that is. I cringe at pictures from the awkward years, from the time I was about eight to thirteen. The chicken fried steak and cream gravy just didn’t look good on me. I was chubby, not obese, never really fat, just, well, plump. Shopping for school clothes was so depressing. My mom was always piss-poor broke and I was always relegated to the “half” sizes meaning I was just about a half size too big. Two measly rounders in the corner of the girls section at Monkey Wards, that’s what we called Montgomery Ward, two pitiful racks of clothes, way in the back, under the florescent lights with one of the bulbs burned out, the other making that horrible buzzing noise. Far away from the prominent, petite sized mannequins with the pleated skirts and poplin jumpers, a far cry from today’s PC department stores with strategically positioned plus sized mannequins surrounded by entire departments of plus clothes, signaling “it’s okay to be fat,” we’ll still take your money. My fashion mecca was tucked in the back of the girls’ department in a shameful dark corner on a couple of tippy rounders. There would be maybe four outfits from which to choose. What does it say to an eleven year old when you walk out of the dressing room and your mom says, “that’s slimming.”

But, slim down I did, all in one summer, between the eighth and ninth grade, aided and abetted by a four-inch growth spurt and the Marlboros I was buying instead of Giant Sweet Tarts at the Magic Mart on Hulen Avenue. In twelve weeks, I morphed from a pudgy thirteen-year-old into a lanky, flat-chested, fourteen-year-old brimming with insecurity. I inherited my mother’s thick brown hair, slender wrists and chicken legs, but not her cup size. Eventually I came to appreciate it, like now when I don’t have ruts in my shoulders from toting boulder sized breasts. At the time however, it was one more thing to make me self-conscious around boys. This lack of confidence with men remains among the top five things to conquer on my list of self-improvement goals. Psychologists have put their kids through college and purchased condos in Florida with the money they’ve made off of me struggling to work through my lack of confidence with men.

There is good reason for this. It should be noted that the dearth of decent male role models when I was a child, with the exception of my oldest brother Don and the infrequent visits with my grandfather Booker, probably contributed to my discomfort and general suspicion of the opposite sex. When I was just five years old, I declared to my mother, ”when I grow up I want to have four kids but no husband.” Amazing the prophecy. My reasons for skipping the husband part were borne from observation. My first stepfather, Jim Whatley was a sullen drunk; the second stepfather, Mike Garcia, a molester; and my biological father, Tommy Lester, hadn’t seen me since the day he put my mother and I on a train in San Francisco, with a one-way fare to Texas. I was three years old. Never saw him again. More on this later.

In the absence of the model father figure then, one tries to navigate the murky seas of assessing the attributes of boys and men with only the thinnest of life-preservers, the cheap, vinyl kind that split at the seams or pop the stopper at the slightest bit of pressure. There’s an unintentional metaphor here. Such was my flimsy shield, which one might assert, left me sunk from the start. I had no heavy-weight inner-tube, no dependable paternal floatation device on which to cling, no goddamn paterfamilias, just a tossed off “don’t chase boys” to keep my head above the choppy waters of sexual attraction. As if any, single, solitary boy on the planet would ever swim towards me.

I lie. Some did. Actually, several. I call them the Bernies of the World, the shy, soulful loners, like Bernie, the salad prep guy at the Baycove Seafood Wharf who one night shaved off the tip of his finger slicing cabbage and didn’t realize it until the whole bucket of cole slaw turned pink. Bernie, I hardly knew you. Tall, slender, dark blonde curls, that stuck out under his hair net like a ruffle.  Bernie loped around the kitchen, from the walk-in to the cold prep area to the walk-in and back. Surrounded by the Filipinos who worked circles around him, Bernie was a slow burn, tolerant with us bitches, who’d stab another waitress over a stolen salad. Bernie would crank them out, tossing cucumber slices like poker chips, as fast as he could, just to keep the peace. But when he’d had enough, he’d explode and disappear into the walk-in for no apparent reason other than to, obviously cool off, making us wait even longer.  Drove us fucking crazy.

I didn’t realize that Bernie was attracted to me until one night when the whole crew went out for drinks and he sat next to me in the booth. With every 7 & 7 he grew more bold. Never mind that my 100% polyester, nautical-themed, navy-blue, waitress uniform with the white piping around the collar smelled like fried flounder. There was nobody else on the planet when Bernie began telling me how much he cared. Flattery will apparently get you everywhere, because I let him kiss me. Right there at the Duck Inn on the Lynnhaven Inlet, right there in front of God and the whole Bay Cove Seafood Wharf crew, who kinda just looked the other way, we made out for a hot minute. Me, a married woman! It was thrilling and oh, so sinful at the same time. In hindsight, it was like standing in the sand at the beach at low tide, each wave pulling out a little more sand from under your toes. With each minute, each story or laugh or confession, the space between our lips got smaller and smaller, wave after wave. I could feel it, but I couldn’t resist the pull. Then, that was it. We kissed for a minute and I snapped out of it.

Somewhere in the pit of my cheating gut, there was a voice screaming, “you miserable slut.” I quickly got up and made my way out of the Duck Inn and promptly went home and confessed to my 22-year-old husband who was only slightly less introverted than Bernie the pantry guy, and then I threw up. Being paired with me, a textbook extrovert, former childhood actor, and occasional cheater, the dye was cast for the ill-fated marriage of our youth.

It’s the mismatch I struggle with to this day.  All of the mismatches, of which, there have been a few. Timing, temperament, temperance, let me count the ways I’ve been out of sync in love. It was the bad boys by junior high. I’d given up on the puddle-eyed sweet boys, who made straight As and whose mommies’ packed single-serving Fritos in their lunch boxes and bologna sandwiches with the crusts cut off.  Hell no, by seventh grade, I was panting over the Ken Scotts of the world; peg-leg Levis and button-down blue Oxford shirts, sliding into algebra after the bell rang, smelling like cigarette smoke and English Leather cologne. Ken Scott’s voice had dropped several octaves by the time he was thirteen and he already had a smoker’s cough, but he was a fox, man. That’s what we called cute guys back then, as in “what a fox!” Enthralled I was, by the way he’d run his fingers through his baby-fine chestnut hair, pushing it off his forehead, the golden strands settling in an exquisite pattern like feathers on a bird’s back. He would laugh, deliciously at some note folded into a triangle and flicked like a football onto his desk, as Mrs. Atwood blathered on about irrational numbers, oblivious to what was going on behind her back. It was irrational to think he’d ever pay any attention to me, what with Honey Burns (I swear that was her name), who was busting out of her training bra, punting those love letters his way.  Please. I didn’t stand a chance.

And Nicky Phiripes? Oh my God. Nicky was a Greek God if ever there was one. I mean literally, a Greek who was the lead singer in a band that performed at the Stripling Junior High Variety Show. To this day I have the 8X10 autographed black & white glossy. I mean, how fucking cool is a lead singer in a band in knee high moccasins and a suede coat with fringe? Dude was extra. He was the office assistant during 3rd period and the days when I was chosen to take the attendance cards to the office was a day from heaven. I would stop by the girls bathroom to make sure I didn’t have a glob of sleep in my eye or food stuck in my teeth. So in love. Although at that point, cute boys just made my heart beat faster, as opposed to later when they made certain parts of my anatomy throb.

It was the latter that fueled my on-again, off-again attraction to bad boys. Take Pete the Imposter. I, for the record and in accordance with my mother’s teaching, did not chase him. He set his sights on me early, more like a rifle scope on an unsuspecting doe.

I was waiting tables in a Chinese restaurant on N.E. Central in Albuquerque in 1982.  The New Chinatown, it was appropriately called, when in 1976 the Ong-Jew family built a new, fancy version of the restaurant they’d had on Route 66 since 1949. The New Chinatown was the classiest Chinese restaurant in the southwest.

Now, Pete, the Imposter, as he will forever be remembered in Whatley family lore, was a waiter at the nearby Italian place, owned by the Lebanese family, called Louie’s, but Pete was Greek. I had a thing for Greeks I guess, and Pete, as it turned out, had a thing for me. He would come into the cocktail lounge at the New Chinatown, after this shift at Louie’s one block west and have a couple of VO and Cokes. Sometimes he’d have the pu-pu platter. Then, Pete would amble across Central to the motel in which he was living.

That should have been my first clue. But ever the naive, nit-wit I was, I bought into Pete’s story about him rehabbing a house in the towny Nob Hill neighborhood, which was forcing him to post up in a motel for a while.

My former sister-in-law, Gwen, introduced me to Pete. She asked me first if it was okay to tell him my name. She worked with me at New Chinatown, in fact she’d gotten me the job. It was hard to get a gig there because waitresses stayed for years. We were making bank. So, not only did Gwen, who was married to my first ex-husband’s brother, get me a job, which was nice considering that I had dumped her husband’s younger brother, but she also hooked me up.

“That guy, Pete, wants to meet you,” she told me one night at the waitress station after she’d picked up some drinks at the bar.

“What’s his story?” I replied.

Keep in mind that I was at this time, a recently divorced, 26-year-old, returning college student and mother to a three-year-old boy. I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands, but then, I was only twenty-six and there was that throbbing thing.

Gwen, to her everlasting credit, made no claims or disclaims.

“He comes in here all the time, seems pretty nice, but I don’t know much about him.” Then she kinda laughed. There was something cautionary however, in the way she made the introduction and stepped away from the car.

We were off to the races!  He gave me the phone number to his room across the street, appropriately written on the inside of a New Chinatown matchbook cover.The whole motel story should have been red flag enough, but he was a smooth talker, he was clearly smitten with me and I was intrigued by his dark, good looks, his adventurous tales and his finesse. He was from Cleveland.

In no time, Pete and I were a thing. He looked like Al Pacino, swear to God. Super-handsome and super-charming, smelled good all the time and was raking in cash at the Lebanese owned-Italian place. His plan, as he’d explained to me in elaborate detail, was to open his own restaurant once the rehab job on his house in Nob Hill was done. He said he couldn’t afford two major projects at one time and had moved into the motel because it was cheap and he could just walk across the street to work. We even drove by this alleged house, but he said it was too messy to go in and the rehabbers had actually been living there; a partial trade-off for pay. “I really need them to wrap this up,” he said, “I’ve been too lenient with them. He said there was a Porsche parked in the garage that belonged to him as well.

“I can’t drive it just now, he explained. “My license is suspended because of some parking tickets I got in Cleveland.”

Red flag number two. As if the Cleveland P.D. would track down his sorry ass in Albuquerque? For parking tickets?  I don’t know if I was truly that gullible, or willing to look the other way because there’d been so many liars in my young life, or if I was just desperate. Besides, we were having fun. I didn’t see any harm in seeing how it would play out. The funny thing is, there was some legitimacy to him. His aunt was a respected journalism professor at the University of New Mexico and his cousin was a news shooter for the NBC affiliate in New York. One time we went to dinner at this Aunt’s house and I remember feeling relieved that some of his stories were panning out. She was fantastic and the house well accommodated. Since I was in journalism school at the time, introducing me his aunt was helpful. We had a really nice time, but somehow the conversation never came around to Pete and his rehab house and his fancy car, or his time in Vietnam. That was also rich territory, his war stories. He told me many a tale about seeing guys blown up and saving lives and stuff. Pete always warned me not to make sudden moves or loud noises around him, it would trigger his PTSD. So, I was careful. He would wake up sometimes in the middle of the night, screaming. Looking back, it was probably flash backs to jail time versus the jungles of Nam.

The end came right after we’d moved in together. The remodeling on his place was going to take several more months, I had been living temporarily with my mom, then bugged out to my younger brother and sister-in-law’s house after my mother got a little carried away in a screaming fit directed towards me and actually shoved me against a built-in corner china cabinet. I still remember the rattling glass doors. Problem was, my three-year-old kid was on my hip and that was not cool. I don’t have the foggiest notion what she was mad about. After that, Pete the Imposter seemed safe enough, plus he was handsome and he was good in bed.  We rented a house. He was excited because he had just gotten a new job as the Food and Beverage Manager at the Four Seasons, a posh hotel at the time. Things were looking great. I was still in college, working nights at the restaurant. My mom and I had made up, probably because I called her bluff and moved out and she was watching my son on the nights I worked, so I needed to be nice to her. Nathan went to daycare while I was in class and we had our afternoons together. Life was good. For about ….let’s call it a month.

Turns out, having me around all the time cramped Pete’s style. He became hostile. Especially when I went to the hotel one day looking for him. I dropped him off that morning, then tried to reach him via phone. No mobile phones at that point, of course, but I needed to reach him about some change of plans that night, so I just drove to the Four Seasons.  It was nearby. I asked at the front desk, nobody had ever heard of him. I thought maybe the front desk people just didn’t know the F&B people, so I went to the catering office. Again, no such Pete.

I went home and lay in wait for him. I left Nathan at daycare a little longer and called my mom.

“He’s totally been lying to me,” I told her. I was humiliated and a little bit scared. “He’s been pretending to go to work every day. I have no idea where he goes after I drop him off.”

“Do you want me to come up there?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

By the time Pete got to the house, he always had to get a ride home or take the bus, my mom was there. For once in her life, she stayed out of it. She let me talk to him, give him the third degree. I didn’t scream or acuse, I honestly can’t even recall what I said to him except “get out.”

He lit a Tareyton. This was the cigarette with the slogan “I’d rather fight than switch” and he put up his dukes — some cockamamie story that he wasn’t at the hotel because he was training at an off-site location.  When he saw I wasn’t buying it, he resorted to yelling, screaming that this whole thing was bullshit.  He was like a dog with a wounded paw, ready to bite anybody who came near. Mom stood in the dining room, arms folded, not defiantly, more hunkered down, maybe she thought he was going to get violent. She just looked pained to be witnessing the whole thing. She probably felt responsible in some miniscule way for me being so desperate to get out of an untenable situation at her house that I had rushed to shack up with a pathological liar.

“Pete, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said when we paused to take a breath. “It is unfortunate this has happened.” I think she kind of liked Pete. He was sexy.

I called a cab, I don’t remember if he said “goodbye Jean” or “fuck off, Jean” or anything really. He looked seriously stressed, lost almost. I actually felt sorry for him. I don’t think my heart was broken, it was just what would become a recurring theme: me trusting total miscreants, but with a tinge of gut plunging, self-recrimination that rose back up like an overflowing toilet. I had had my doubts, but I just didn’t listen. Anyway, he left in that taxi, with all his worldly possessions in the trunk. That should have been clue number three, he traveled light.

My younger brother J.R. had a field day with the “Pete the Imposter” story. He would laugh at subsequent family get togethers for years afterword. I know though that J.R. and my other brothers were actually concerned about their sister’s apparent lack of judgement.

I did it again in 1983. Enter the highly respected, handsome anchorman, most eligible bachelor in I Albuquerque. Everybody thought he was bonafide. In total and complete charity to him, there were some good years and I managed to pick up three additional offspring from the fourteen years I spent as his wife. It would be churlish to say now that I wish he’d told me before we got married that he wasn’t attracted to women. (Pause….)Okay, I don’t care, he wasn’t in to girls, but that was the early 80s before a lot of people came out, especially TV journalists. I outed him in 1998 and we split the sheets.

Fast forward 18 years to 2016 with all manner of the routine and not-so-routine ups and downs of life in between; good old Jean has finished raising aforementioned kids, they’re all out of college and making their own way; a progression of family losses mount up, three of my brothers and my mother pass from this earth; throw in a couple of lay-offs, a trio of semi-serious relationships, minor car wrecks here and there, a solo-road trip of nearly 9,000 miles and the book that came from it; a few random surgeries, one kid coming out, two weddings and a son diagnosed with cancer (praise God and modern medicine, he was cured) and just about the time I’m thinking that love isn’t in the cards for me, just about the time I think I’ll never open up my heart again, I fall in love with the tall Italian. I fall in love, so big, so powerful, and so completely.

“I didn’t chase this one, Mom, I promise.”

In the quiet of my bedroom, late at night, the streetlamp throwing long shadows across the front lawn, I whispered that little p.s. at the end of a prayer asking God to let me know if it was right this time.

“Send me a sign, God. Let me know.”

Because he was not what I expected. Thirteen years and eight months younger than me, (but then who’s counting) I fought the urge to fall for him. Improbable. 50/50. Unlikely. That’s how I framed the potential that we’d ever really become a couple, when I confided to my girlfriends that I was crazy about this guy. But, I went there anyway. I went there in such a big way, because he told me that he loved me. He told me he wanted us to be together. He held me close and whispered into the crown of my head on a humid, St. Louis summer night, “how could there not be a God when he sent me you?”

So, how could I not go there?  You do! You go there, floating on puffs of rarified air, that blows at your back like a giggle, your distrustful side dissolves like sugar in coffee and you drink in the possibility of being loved and comforted and cherished. His love, his attention, his constancy in your life, it’s like a vernix that protects you and keeps you warm. Such sweetness! You go there.

Then, like so many crackly leaves and curled, brown petals on a drought-stricken rose, it dried up. His love dried up. I was such a fool because I let him do it to me twice. We had dated for a year or so and had a bad break-up. That one happened on the eve of a polar vortex, like a legit, 50-year blizzard and record low temperatures. The pipes burst in my house the day after we split. That was the time he told me he “needed to get his house in order.”  Ahh, the irony.

But, over time, he drifted back into my house, my life, my bed. We’d both dated other people in the ensuing sabbatical. We laughed about how mismatched we were with the others. We talked about how much better our lives were when we were together. He told me that being apart made him realize how much he truly loved me. Never mind that days after we made up he went to Sanibel Island and told me he’d be “off the grid for a few days.” Sure, he brought me some cute trinkets. He said it felt good to tell a woman in a bar that he was “taken,” but in the end, he couldn’t take being taken. At least not by me.

The second break up occurred on a night that was the polar opposite of the polar vortex. It was a stifling hot August night — his increasing distance was feeling like the draft of a New York subway you’ve just missed. There had been so many clues. Oh! I know, like talking about moving away with nary a word about where, if and how I might fit into that decision. I stewed for a day, and then, with two margaritas under my belt, I called him on it. I went to his house to tell him how hurt I was that in all of his deliberations about a possible relocation, he had never mentioned where that would leave us. With six little words it became abundantly clear.

“I just want to be friends.”

“What?”

“I just want to be friends.”

Why not just say, “I don’t really love you.” Or, “you don’t mean that much to me.” Or,        “I want to have sex with someone else.” Or, “I’ve met somebody else.” Or “forget what I said, you really are too old for me…” There are any number of things he could have said that would have comported him with a speck of dignity, but “I just want to be friends?” What are we, sixth graders? Wait! That was precisely it! In a matter of six painful bayonets, “I just want to be friends,” I was yanked back to sixth grade and Mark Garmany. That sweaty little bastard ended up going steady with  Marsha Hughes and she had a big nose!

The takeaway, here:  beware the younger man. I did not set out to fall in love with a younger man. In fact, when, after dating him for a few weeks on the down low, when I dared to mention that I was seeing a man who was quite a bit younger than me, my friends would invariably say, “you go, girl!”

Go where, exactly? Straight to the crying towel? God, I absolutely hated that phrase. I hated the implication of me being some cougary old broad, padding around on worn out, tired old paws, stalking her next cub. Fuck that. Did not happen. Dude came after me. But I was blind to his inconsistencies, blind to his inability to commit, blind to the way in which he compartmentalized me into the tiniest box of his life, eventually into the one labled, “Obligation,” Beware the younger man.

Unless you’re my mom. My mother was widowed at the age of 63. The love of her life, Mike Garcia, she married when she was maybe forty-one, or so. It’s hard to know for sure because they got married in Mexico City. Mike was very handsome, like Ricardo Maltanbán Mexican nobility handsome, with thick, white hair as he grew older.  Eventually they made their marriage legal in the states, the exact date is probably buried among the boxes of documents I inherited when she died.  After all the jerks she’d endured in her life, she was absolutely devoted to Mike. He brought a stabilizing presence to our rag-tag existence. I mean, she had five kids from three different men when my step-dad Mike fell madly in love with her at the flight service station at Meacham Field, where they both worked for the F-A-A. Steady paycheck, good government job with benefits, an immediate extended Mexican family, real vacations to places like the Grand Canyon and Disneyland, my brothers and I hit pay dirt when Mom married Mike. We’d finally arrived at middle class. Never mind that Mike groped me, and worse, for years. I’ve gotten over it, seriously. Reparations for my therapy bills would have been nice. I never told my mother while Mike was alive.  He died of a massive heart attack right there in intensive care in the V.A. hospital. My mom was trying to coax him into having a bite of chicken. He said he felt sick. His voice was weak. He sounded tired. Within minutes, he was gone. No manner of doctors or crash carts could save him. It was awful. I had never seen my mother look so utterly lost.

Ever the rebounder, however, after a few months of grieving, an acquaintance of my mom’s, took on new prominence. Paco was the paunchy contrast to Mike’s aristocratic  good looks. Short, chubby, bad teeth, Paco had suffered an injury to his left eye, which made it cloudy. I’m not sure if he could see with that eye, actually.  At once her yard man and occasional dance partner at the G.I.Forum, Paco took to staying over from time to time. He was seventeen years her junior and he adored her.

Paco also wasn’t stupid. Theirs was a relationship of mutual need: he needed to learn English. He needed help navigating American life, like the mounds of paperwork to get a driver’s license, to buy a pickup, to marry off his young cousin, Maria. Mom needed a new cause, a strong back and companionship. Maybe it was that throbbing thing. She did, after all, have a lust for life. She donated my little brother Paul to the cause of citizenship for Maria, standing as a witness to the marriage ceremony in an Albuquerque courtroom which made them fraudulent man and wife. Then, she took on Paco as her pet, in all ways imaginable. Paco, in turn, took her to picnics in the mountains, pig roasts, pot lucks and horse races at the state fair in the fall. He cleaned her yard, hauled off debris, fell asleep on the couch and kept her company for the remaining nineteen years of her life. Paco, the nurses told me, would come to her room and the convalescent home early in the morning before he went to work. He would touch her hand, kiss her forehead, say a prayer and go. She did not know he was there. She was in and out of consciousness after her stroke in April of 2006. We were in and out too, during that nine weeks, until she passed away that July. Paco was, of course, among the mourners. When we left the funeral home after the viewing, my son Patrick rode with Paco in the pick-up truck, a purchase she’d help to arrange.

“Patricio, ven conmigo,” Paco said.

To call someone “undocumented” is obscene. It’s arrogant. I don’t use that word to refer to people, but then, I have some perspective on it now. I realize how cruel and dehumanizing it can be. Undocumented? It is belittling to the point of erasing a person’s existence. Paco was a sustaining presence in my mother’s life. It is documented in our family history and for all time that Paco loved my mother very much.

Now that I am older, and I’ve had more loves and losses, each with its unique set of souvenirs, I realize just how precious one, single love can be. Paco loved her until the day she died, weeping mightily next to her casket.

And, just in case anybody drives by and wants to know, as she would often preface a statement of fact, she did not chase him.

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