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In one of my occasional clutter purges, which undoubtedly started as a quest to find a stamp or the Post-It note with the password to the router on it, I came across a letter from my mother written and mailed on the same day. She must have gotten an early start.
This is what she called me, along with “Sissy,” or “Jean-Jean,” and when I was a very little girl, “Prunella.” Where she got that, I haven’t a clue.
Maybe she needed to get some stuff off her chest. This would have been two days after my birthday. Perhaps she was simply reminiscing about the day I was born.
“I’ll try to fill you in on some of the circumstances, or, whatever you call my life situation when Tommy and I found each other.”
Ah, Tommy, the elusive Tommy. In the envelope is a crookedly cut, Xeroxed copy of my father, Tommy Lester and my grandfather Booker Waddell in a bar called Louie’s Place in Placerville, California, probably taken around 1955, the year of my birth. Tommy is behind the bar. Booker is having a drink. He’s in profile, looking away from the camera toward Tommy, who’s leaning forward with an “I gotta level with you” look on his face.
I can’t tell if my grandfather is grinning or scowling, I can only see the side of his face, his ear, one lens of his wire-frame glasses, his washboard wavy hair, not yet gray. He has an indecipherable tattoo on his upper left arm, a souvenir from France during WWI presumably, and his fingers are wrapped around a short, stemmed glass. Red wine or whiskey, hard to tell. Tommy’s got a lit cigarette in the ashtray on the bar side of the bar. He’s wearing a white, short-sleeved dress shirt, looks freshly pressed. Dark hair, dark eyes, black Irish, my mother always said, a cross between a slender Jackie Gleason and a heavier Colin Farrell. Fact is, he looks like me. Three times now, since I found this artifact, I have spread my finger and thumb apart on top of the photo, the way you do with a digital image, in a futile attempt to zoom in. Silly me. I want to make the picture bigger to see what the sign says behind the bar. I want to read the labels on the liquor bottles and the names of the songs on the jukebox. Mostly, I want to get a closer look at my father, because I have never seen him. Never met him in person. Never even saw a photo of him until I was in my 20s. I guess my mom was waiting for the right time.
“You were the product of a fling,” she said one evening in Albuquerque.
I was sitting on the edge of her king size bed, my stepfather, Mike (stepdad number two for me, husband number four for her) was already under the covers, propped against the brass headboard, his artificial leg taken off, standing by the closet door. The bedspread was that that thin, bumpy cotton kind, not chenille, because the knots were still tied, not fuzzy, a “Martha Washington” bedspread. Anyhow, you could always make out the long leg and the short one under the covers. Mike was diabetic. Miserable disease, diabetes. Infections in the feet or shins can lead to disaster. It was close to 10 o’clock and Mike looked tired. His expression read, “Now? You need to have this conversation with her right now?”
My mom and I had been watching a program on PBS about blended families. I have no idea why I was even home. I was a college freshman, commuter student, still living at home going to school during the day and waiting tables at the Mexican restaurant in Old Town at night. Chances are, I had just come home from work, loosened up the pony-tail braid down my back, (actually, I probably did this in the car, smoking a cig and blowing the smoke out the window) changed out of the ridiculous Cinco de Mayo fiesta skirt and peasant blouse get-up we had to wear and perhaps plopped down on our gold velvet couch, circa 1974, to hang with my mom for a minute before I started doing homework or talking to my boyfriend on the phone. Sounds about right. There was this scene in the documentary in which the step-siblings are screaming and fighting over some perceived inequity in privileges. Doors slamming, screaming, threats, tears. I distinctly recall saying to my mother.
“Well, I’m glad that all my brothers are my real brothers.”
Four brothers. I suppose I meant that I was grateful for the solidarity in surviving our childhoods.
“Oh, Sissy,” Mom said, with a hint of uncharacteristic remorse. “We have to talk.
That’s never a good sign. She got up and took me by the hand.
“Come in here.”
We went in the bedroom and sat on the bed next to each other. Mike looked on, more like a notary than a father. Although to his credit, he’d been part of our household longer than the first dad, James Whatley, whom up until that precise moment, I had always understood to be my real father. That is, until we crossed the threshold of the truth. In an attempt at sensitivity, that she managed to miss the mark on, she said that, in fact, James Whatley was not my biological father, and indeed, I was the result of “a fling” with a man named Tommy Lester.
Oh. Okay. That’s one way to put it.
It’s hard for me now to remember exactly how I felt. In words I would use today, I would describe it as numbing or maybe one of those out-of-body experiences. But that’s the adult Jean looking for words to characterize an emotion from 48 years ago. Back then, I don’t think I had sufficient discernment to know what I was thinking or feeling. Let’s just go with numb.
“Does he know about me?”
“Is he still alive?”
“Yes. He lives in California.”
“Has he ever seen me?”
“Of course! We stayed there until you were three. That’s when you and I got on the train and went to Texas. Jim Whatley (she never called him just “Jim” it was always “Jim Whatley” like the villain in a Western novel) and I made a deal. He asked me to come to Texas and try again.”
Oh. Okay. They made a deal.
The deal was that old Jeano would never be told that the man in the picture, tucked away in some musty photo album, just happened to be the paterfamilias in my bloodline, as George Clooney so passionately defended in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? In exchange, Jim Whatley, to whom my mother was still legally married at the time of my conception and my birth, would raise me as his own. His name was already on my birth certificate. Nobody would be the wiser.
Only one problem. In the years after the big reveal, when my courage, or curiosity, and I suppose to some extent a flicker of rage over being lied to all of my young life, rose to the surface and I would press my mother for more details about my infancy in California, she told me that I was loved and adored by my father. She recounted, with a note of sadness, that Tommy proclaimed that the day he took us to the train station was the saddest day of his life.
“You screamed “I want my Daddy!” I had to pull you away from him.”
Oh. Okay. Who knew?
Maybe me, somehow. On some cellular level, ever since she told me that, I’ve wondered if, in some kind of meat cleaver gash to my psyche, if there remains a scar from that uncoupling. I wonder.
But wait! There’s more!
“Tommy offered to marry me. We would both get a divorce and marry each other. But I knew it would never work. He got around.”
“Tommy’s mother wanted to keep you,” she added. “They had money.”
These particular details, about me screaming for my daddy and the grandmother with money, occurred some twenty years after she’d confessed her liaison. We were out on my deck in North Carolina, overlooking the giant, magenta crepe myrtle in my back yard, roasting green chiles she’d brought me from New Mexico. You never forget the location for memorable conversations such as this.
“But nobody was going to take my little girl.”
“I’m glad you kept me. I suppose.”
“Trust me on this,” she said in an apparent wrap of this conversation. Zip. We were done.
The deeper resonance of those words, “I’m glad you kept me” wouldn’t settle deeply in my conscious until many years later, after she was gone and the full measure of her influence on me remained as apparent as the veins on the back of my hands—which of course, look just like her hands. In the early days, after she’d told me the truth, she must have felt a little vulnerable. She seemed compelled to spit out addenda to the story she began that night in the bedroom, to reinforce that I was better off with her versus the Lester clan. Specs of data, like blips on the radar screen of my life, these factoids were always wrapped in what would become the longest running narrative of one person’s life that I have ever been party to. It was the decades long version of the Meryl Streep-Albert Brooks movie, “Defending Your Life.” I don’t know if she was defensive or proud, but her stories were infinitely better than the movie. In one of these vignettes, she described the day she told my father she was pregnant.
“What are we gonna do?” Tommy asked.
“I don’t know about you,” she retorted, “but I’m having a baby.”
That’s how she rolled. Head up. Be brave. Don’t look back. If she ever had any stabs of doubt, she never talked about it. Whether she was truly that confident, or embellishing her bravado, mom always seemed to know what needed to be done next. And next. And next. And next, until the day she died.
“You have to have the courage of your convictions, baby.”
This would become the standard by which any advice she dispensed or behavior in which I partook would be measured, for the rest of her life and mine.
“You have to have the courage of your convictions.”
Look, this is nothing new. She did not coin this phrase. But my mother owned it. She earned it, in her words and in her deeds. Such determination, my God! And boy, did she need it, because as things turn out, I was not the only DNA outlier. As she explained to me on the same night she told me the story of “Tommy the Bartender,” she also told me about “Nick the Cabdriver.” Approximately four years and nine months earlier, she had a prior, okay, let’s just call this one a “brief indiscretion.” She flat-out described it as a one-night stand. I cringe to reveal this about my dear, departed mother, but if she were alive today, she would look at you defiantly and say, “so what?”
So, Garrett Daniel, my next older brother, was also born out of wedlock. Wedlock. What an weird word. She clearly was not locked into matrimonial fidelity, because this happened to her twice while she was married to Jim Whatley. Their first baby, Don, was really his. Mom gave birth to my oldest brother Don in 1945, while Whatley was a Marine stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was actually there the day it was bombed. Brush with death notwithstanding, after Whatley came home from the war to a happy wife and bouncing baby boy, the marriage went bad. I don’t know the reasons why and everybody who does know, has died.
All I do know is that my mother and Whatley were on the outs. Dust-ups, break-ups and make-ups, that was their M.O. During one of these times, mom got pregnant with Garrett. To his credit, Whatley said, “that’s okay, let bygones be bygones” and by golly she bygoned twice! Garrett and I, the only brown-haired, brown-eyed kids in the bunch, were sandwiched in between my eldest brother Don and eventually my two younger brothers, J.R. and Paul—the younger bros, long-tall, drink-o-water, blue-eyed Whatleys, all the way.
For a multitude of reasons, the stigma of having illegitimate babies maybe weighing on her more heavily than she cared to admit, coupled with her ever-present desire to rise to a higher plane, this “courage of your convictions” credo was a through-line in everything she set out to do. From eventually divorcing Whatley, to marrying Mike Garcia, which in 1964 was generally frowned upon in segregated Ft. Worth, Texas, since Mike was Mexican, for all these bold steps, she never stepped back. She never retreated in the face of criticism or difficulty. Never. Not once.
In fact, she delightedly brought it upon herself with a stick-in-your-eye vigor. I mean, when she was seventeen, she moved to Reno to wait tables and hole up for six months just to get a divorce. When she decided to bail on the restaurant business fifteen years later, because she knew that working nights and weekends in cafes and clubs was no way to raise kids, she kept silent about being six-weeks pregnant with me when she started teletype operator school at Western Union in San Francisco.
“I kept my mouth shut,” she would tell me in later years. “What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.”
Teletype machines were much in use after WWII and operators in high demand in 1955. The teletype machines, which ingested paper ribbons punched with code and spit out typed words on a page, were in use in industrial and government settings ranging from the telephone company to the FBI. My mother recognized teletype training as an opportunity to get a decent job. She finished Western Union school by the time she was showing. If she’d have told them she was pregnant from the get-go, they never would have let her take the course. (take 2, 20:39) But now she had a marketable trade that could never be taken away. This step-up on the economic ladder kept us five kids in shoes for years to come.
She got her first, full-time teletype job in Ft. Worth, Texas at Meacham Field, a reliable civil service job, with the Federal Aviation Administration. It was the beginning of a stable life for us, even if she did divorce Whatley not too long after she got the gig. It could have been the security in knowing she’d have a steady paycheck, Or, it might have been the handsome Garcia, who was an electronic technician where she worked. Always a man waiting in the wings, my momma.
When riots broke out in Watts in the summer of ’65, Mom instigated a near-riot right there in the Flight Service Station when the news came over the wire. The same wire service they used to relay weather reports to pilots, carried the AP and UPI. When the first reports of massive looting and fires cleared the wire, one of her good old boy coworkers said the N-word loud enough for everybody to hear it and my mother went ballistic.
“They should burn it down!” she screamed. “Burn it down! Burn the whole thing to the ground!”
The women blanched. J.C. the porter, got nervous. Ed Scirocco, who looked like Mr. Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, pulled her aside and pleaded with her to simmer down. She was lucky she didn’t get fired. Of course, I was not in the room to witness this first -hand, but with the multiple recitals of this story, it is forever burned in my conscience. How she loved to wax-poetic about her heroics—forever the advocate for blacks, Latinos, hippies, commies, draft dodgers, migrant workers, teamsters, gays and lesbians, not necessarily in that order. You name ‘em, she jumped in to defend ‘em.
The seeds had been sewn for her fiery advocacy long ago, when she was a skinny, Oklahoma kid whose mother was a spoiled, malcontent and whose daddy stayed just one step ahead of the law. I will never know if she had a chip on her shoulder or if it was really that tough growing up feeling like she didn’t belong, anywhere.
“I read about my parents’ divorce in the paper,” she told me.
She was either at a friend’s house or the library, reading the legal notices. That part remains a mystery.
“I ran all the way home and screamed at my mother. She hadn’t even bothered to tell me. Then Daddy left and took Dawes with him.”
Her only brother Dawes, fourteen months her junior, went with Booker to live in New Orleans, with his mother. Her only sibling and her father, yanked away, to go live with the paternal grandmother whom she would never even meet. Children were often parceled out in those days. Everybody was poor, everybody, especially in those parts, especially in those days, small town Oklahoma, in the 1930’s.
She carried that with her. Her world view dawned through the eyes of a little girl who felt like an inconvenience to her mother, expendable to her father, and an outsider to the other kids who came from the “nice” families. She wanted to be like them. So, she went to church.
“I’d get up, get myself dressed and go to Sunday school,” she told me.
By herself and of her own volition, my mother would walk to Sayre Church of Christ when she was just a little girl. It seems that nobody in her household was dragging their lazy, sinner asses out of bed to go. And I’m betting that nobody from her family was there to witness her being saved at the Church of Christ tent revival one summer. I seem to recall she was about ten years old by this time.
They probably sang, “Just As I Am, Lord” for the altar call. The hymn was written by Charlotte Elliott in 1835. The daughter of a preacher, whose biography notes that she felt conflicted in her own faith, she struggled with doubts about God and her worthiness. Elliott was an invalid, often unable to go to church herself, so she wrote lyrics for people who were sick or alone. A renowned historian of hymns, Kenneth Osbeck wrote that “Just As I Am, Lord touched more hearts and influenced more people for Christ than any other song ever written.” Mahalia Jackson made it legendary. Billy Graham saved a ton of people with it. Willie Nelson recorded it and I identify with it.
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
But there was nobody there to watch my mother come forward to the preacher’s open arms that day at the revival. There was nobody there on the Sunday she was baptized at the Church of Christ by that same, young preacher. Some fifty years after the fact, ever the diligent daily news devotee, my mother read in the Albuquerque Journal that the very same preacher who had baptized her in Sayre was to be a guest minister at the Church of Christ nearby. She went to see him. She went to thank him for saving her. What a remarkable gift back to him.
For all of her sincere attempts at piety, human nature often held sway. She wrote about the first time she ever “connected” with Tommy. It was New Year’s Eve, 1953. She writes in her letter,
“Jim Whatley was on one of those trips to pick up prisoners in faraway places.”
Whatley was a prison guard at Folsom Prison at the time. Mom wrote that she’d asked him to quit volunteering for those prisoner transfers because “he came back from those trips owing more than he collected.” He had a habit of spending his paycheck at the bar. After her waitressing shift and alone on New Year’s Eve, she parked my brothers with the babysitter and went out.
“I made the rounds downtown and wound up at Louie’s Place. Tommy was working and when I got ready to leave, he said, ‘wait for me.’ I was in a reckless mood. We spent the night.”
Apparently more than just one. According to my calculations, she couldn’t have gotten pregnant with me on New Year’s Eve, since that would have been the gestation period for an elephant. No, my conception had to occur later, like in August of 1954. By that time, she had already broken up with Whatley, she had left Placerville and was living in San Francisco, where, little ‘ol Jean was born in April of 1955.
Forty-eight Aprils later, here she was, writing all of this down, filling me in on the “circumstances” about Tommy Lester, my father. In the closing paragraph of the letter, she writes —
“This turns out to be more about me than I’d like, but to sum up our relationship, we were playmates. I only have good memories of him. I’m glad it happened because we were fair with each other, and I have you.”
Okay. Fair and square.
She held up her end of the bargain and didn’t let on that Whatley wasn’t my real dad until I was eighteen and I innocently threw that lie in her face. That’s all it took to open the spigot on the vat of truth.
I had the opportunity to act upon that truth, but I was a coward. I spent a summer in 1983 in Lake Tahoe, working at Ceasar’s waiting tables. I was twenty-eight. First time in my adult life I was ever on my own, no husband, no child to look after. I was divorced from my first husband. He had our son Nathan visiting him and his new wife in Phoenix. It would be a whole month and I was miserable without Nathan. So I accepted an invitation from a friend to come to Tahoe and work for the summer. I could live with her, and when Nathan’s month with his dad was up, he could come up too. I drove from New Mexico to California in a beat-up Honda with close to 200,000 miles on it and got a job the day after I got there. I spent the days hiking and swimming and hanging out with good lookin’ men. I spent the nights working, making a ton of money, and I spent the late-night hours circling back with those same good-lookin’ men. Maybe a couple more. I am my mother’s daughter.
All the while, my father, Tommy was fifty-seven miles south, in Placerville, the same little town where I’d gotten my start. But, I didn’t go see him. I didn’t go. My mother had volunteered to track him down if I wanted her to. But I didn’t go see him. I didn’t go. I could have taken Nathan once he got to the lake, taken him to meet his grandfather, whom, I had always been told Nathan favored. But I didn’t take him. I didn’t go. Hard to say why. Maybe I was scared of what I’d see. Maybe I was ambivalent, or resentful. Maybe I didn’t think he deserved it, scared of some initial awkwardness, scared of the emotional upheaval, scared to explain it to a 4-year old kid, I don’t know. When I left for California, with that nugget of information from my mother, “Tommy is still out there, Jean,” tucked into my suitcase with my birth control pills, I told myself I’d do it. I’d go and meet him. But I didn’t go. I didn’t have the courage of my convictions and he died a few years later without me ever laying eyes on him.
Maybe I only experience these life disrupters every twenty-eight years, because exactly twenty-eight years later, almost to the day from that first California sojourn, courage crept up my spine and I left for California again, this time in search of some living trace of Tommy. In fairness to myself, in the intervening years, I had made sufficient deposits into the “courage of your convictions” bank to be at ease with my conscience—the time I threw in the bartending towel and walked off the job with a restaurant full of people; the time I was flat broke but declined an offer to be a pitchman for a pharmaceutical company that deals in methadone; politicians and causes I’ve aligned with or vociferously protested; the first divorce; the second divorce; refusing to take no for an answer from piss-ant bankers or bureaucrats who would stand between me and a car or a mortgage or a good education for my children; getting four kids through high school and college as a single mother with an absentee father; and then, walking away from a steady job to embark on a second pilgrimage to California. This one, had no means nor clear path home. This would really put my mother’s credo to the test.
The ramifications from that road trip are still being felt some eleven years later, as I continue to dig myself out of the financial backslide triggered from going off the grid. But it was worth it. Took courage, but I am better off. Took foolishness, frustration, desperation, grief, depression, name your poison, it took all of that to say, “fuck it, I’m leaving,” but I am better because of it.
I was fed up with my own excuses for not attending to so many parts of my life that I was longing to have the space and time to attend to. I was flat-out determined to retrace my life, leading all the way to California to find my half-brother from my father Tommy. I knew he was out there somewhere. I had heard about him, in typical scanty bits from my mom and my late brother Don. Didn’t have much to go on. But he was the only person left who could tell me anything about my dad. I actually found him. His name is Mike and we look alike. I wrote a book about the whole expedition, fueled by a wad of heartache that would take some 9,000 miles of open highway to untangle.
On that trip, before I headed west, I was winding my way through switchback turns on a narrow, two-lane highway in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, when I came upon a bright yellow sign. “REVIVAL.” It had red letters and an arrow, like a sign on a used car lot, pointing to a wide, green meadow with a double-pinnacle white tent, surrounded by rolling, verdant foothills. Smoky Mountain blue skies were water-colored overhead, with opaline clouds feathered in pink, as it was getting near sunset. I turned off the highway and slowly rolled down the dirt road.
A tent revival. There was something about that. A tent revival. How I was drawn to it.
Folding chairs left empty, people on their feet, the low angle of the sun cutting horizontal daggers of light under the white sheath as the faithful, the sunset side of their faces red from the heat, held up their arms to testify.
“Hallelujah, find the glory.
Hallelujah, find the glory.
Revive us again.”
A tent revival. Is there some mystic fiber from a spoken story that sews a stitch in our conscious, until, nearly fraying, it searches for an opening in our tightly woven minds to tack itself back down again? So it would seem.
And now, this letter. In a dusty, wooden cubby on my desk, buried amid receipts and check registers—found history. My history. In the many times I’ve studied the photo of Tommy and Booker, I’ve often wondered who took it. Must have been my mother! My mother is the other person in the room. My mother is always the other person in the room, this room, every room, this minute, next minute, next day and every day, forever more. I have her.