Sunday, April 25, 2010
I usually get this way on Father’s Day.
But this morning, after I drug my worn out body out of a hot bath and was slathering lotion on my parched skin, smoothing it in the direction I want the hairs on my arm to lay down, I just started bawling.
Not like I have forearms like Robin Williams or anything, it’s just that the hairs are so, so, apparent! There was no holding it back. Just like the torrential rain which pockmarked my birthday today, the tears were an inevitability because, it was my father Tommy Lester, who gave me these hairy forearms.
Or so I’ve been told.
I have just one photo of Tommy-- black Irish, average height, stocky build, intense brown eyes, like Colin Farrell, with probably the same temperament and proclivity for being a rounder. A rounder, that’s what my mother called the guys who made the rounds at the cafes and beer joints in Northern California where she and Tommy met.
His photo sits in a mother of pearl frame on my mother’s pine sideboard in our family room--a place of probable undeserved honor, along with the urn bearing Pete’s, (“The King of Dogs”) ashes and a comical photo of my mother, my daughter and myself ; three generations of head strong women.
I’ve lived with the gap of never knowing my father, quite adroitly all these years. But in my heart, I’ve always wondered if my attraction to short, rascally guys, and occasional fuzzy ones, (the kids called my last boy friend, “The Hobbit” he was so covered in fur. I call him King James here, not a Biblical reference, but a nod to the 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets he kept on his king size bed, which were delicious to slide in between, for more reasons than one. And, smart Hungarian/Irishman that he is, he knew they wouldn’t rub his back hair the wrong way) but I’ve often mused that this inexplicable attraction to Irishmen (or bad boys in general, there was a Greek, a couple of Mexicans and an Italian along the way) and subsequent train wrecks with the aforementioned bad boys, stemmed from being yanked away from my father and put on a train bound for Texas at the tender age of three. Shit, moving to Texas was bad enough.
And so, there are these occasional days, like today, when the ghost of that three year old screams in protest at being on a train bound for a place she doesn’t want to go. The weather didn’t help. It was sunstealth versus sunrise on this birthday morn, overcast, with forgiving, swirling hues of grey and white, nary a trace of blue; the perfect palette for introspection --or depression. I’m midway through the breakthrough decade that’s woefully short on breakthroughs. I am tired and disheartened. Where has the time gone? Didn’t I JUST have my 50th birthday two weeks ago? Lauren, who was only 17 at the time, threw me a big surprise party. I had just been laid off from a big deal consulting job, where I’d be writing talking points for corporate CEOs one day and a Governor the next, (the late Ann Richards among the more notable) when the agency for which I worked pulled the plug on the Midwest region. I was never so happy in my life! I had a little-bitty severance and a shit ton of optimism. I was in the middle of writing a screenplay; so the freedom, terrorizing as it was with so little money AND turning 50 AND having no back up, because the ex-husband was in the slammer, the freedom still, was exhilerating. I did some consulting, did some radio gigs, finished the screenplay then took a full-time job, and then, another. And as fast as the parachute ride at Six Flags whooshes down, I’m five years down the road, burning the midnight oil at the college library, writing nights and weekends, hoping, praying, and writing nights and weekends. At the midpoint of my 50s, with so much I want to say and do, with seemingly impossible obstacles to conquer, I am overwhelmed with loss; the loss of time, the loss of opportunity to live the writer’s life I dream of, bereft --at least at this moment. I am 55 years old, Sally O’Malley plus five! I can kick, I can stretch, I clear high hurdles every single day in my 11-hour a day, day job, just to keep this little ship afloat.
It’s what I do, it’s what my mama taught me. “Hard work is its own reward,” she’d say.
Sure, and it keeps the lights on, illuminating the dining room table, where I wrestle late into the night, with these demon stories, trying to trap the words on my Mac, far too often nodding off, slumped over the computer, my coffee turned cold, while the tormenting words fly away. This makes me profoundly sad.
And then, joyous.
Because at least I have them! My words are the most precious gift I possess. Blessed be these words! The words that pop up like wooden Scrabble tiles from the steamy bath on this melancholy birthday, settling on the surface, like a thin layer of soap scum, inseparable, mocking me if I dare attempt to push them aside, from my sight, from my soul, or from my schedule. To ignore them would be like leaving a baby in the road.
And so, I have my words, my devil muses, like a dog barking at the door to be let in. Blessed be my muses. And blessed be my blood. Their names are Nathan, Patrick, Lauren and Sean. I have my blood, I have my friends and I have my dog. Blessed be them all.
And I have these hairy forearms. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to describe them as beatific, but they are mine, after all, a post-pubescent source of consternation and curiosity, a focal point for my longing to know more about the direction from whence they grew. Go west, middle aged woman, go west.
Somewhere in California, I believe I still have a half-brother, a Lester, who can fill me in about my father. Michael was about thirteen when my mother and I left San Francisco. She had decided to reconcile with her husband, even though they’d been estranged for years. She was going to Texas, to be with him, with the round faced, brown eyed clone of the Irishmen with whom she’d had a fling, in tow. This is how she explained it to me fifteen years later, when she was forced to fess up.
“I’m glad that my brothers are all my real brothers, you know?” We’d been talking about some other family’s step-sibling rivalries.
“Well, sissy, we probably ought to talk about that,” she said, “I’ve been wondering how to tell you.” She proceeded to explain that the lanky, lazy, good-for-nothing, “so called” father I thought was mine, really was just a co-conspirator in what I suppose were socially acceptable degrees of deceit in modern American families when illegitimate children were brought into the fold back in 1955.
“You were the product of a fling,” she said, “a fling I had when I was separated from your father. Well, not your real father, but, well, you know, the person who you thought was your father...until now.”
I was a freshman in college at this time and “Wow,” was all I could muster.
But, how wondrous and liberating the truth can be! It answered so many questions in my young heart --about why I never trusted, nor had any affection for the “no count” Whatley dude. (This is how his mother, my fake paternal grandmother whom I adored and who adored me in return, described worthless men, “he ain’t no count” she’d say. However, this description was never applied to her precious, "no count" son.) I keep the Whatley name, because that’s what’s on my birth certificate, and to honor the person who’s carried this name all her life and to pay homage to the Whatley boys, who indeed are my real brothers.
But somewhere out there still, is that Lester boy, somewhere out in California, where I was born.
If he’s still alive.
My mom came up in hard times. She and her parents were on the tail end of the dust bowl exodus from Oklahoma. There was no way to make a living. Plus, there was that little issue of my grandfather Booker, bootlegging whiskey and something about some stolen horses. So they loaded up their truck and they moved with Beverly. My mom, that is-- no swimming pools, no movie stars. The circles in which she ran in Northern California during World War II, were the definition of a blue collar, hard scrabble life-- selling shoes, waiting tables, working in coffee shops with my grandparents, hanging out after work with sailors, merchant marines, cab drivers and bartenders, one of whom became my father. Blessed be her indiscretion.
For, without it, I would not be here, on my 55th birthday today, feeling tired, rundown, used up and just plain scared. Scared that life is passing me by, scared that the back log of words that I have, which can’t find their way into my computer for lack of time to pluck them and place them, will pile up like an overfilled ice maker, with the bar, (my brain, my heart) annoyingly tapping, “click, click, click, click” on the solid mound of unused ice, nagging the occupants of the house, “Hey, use some fucking ice!” I’m scared. Scared that my words will simply freeze like some big chunk of semi-worthlessness.
I don’t think that’s my destiny though. Truly I don’t. I don’t think that’s what the universe or my dog wants. What we want, is to go on a road trip to find this Lester guy before it’s too late. Because let me let you in on a little secret --people die.
In 1983, I was actually in Northern California, waiting tables at Ceasar’s Tahoe for a summer, making bank. I’d gone up there, free rent for a summer, living with one of my best friends, while my eldest son, Nathan, four at the time, went for his first long visit to Arizona with his dad and new stepmom. It was the first time we'd been separated for more than a couple of days, and I could not bear to be without him, so I took off for California to make some quick cash, before my final year of journalism school. (Okay, I had a lot of gaps in my college career: college, marriage, college, kid, divorce, college.) I was 28 at the time, ten years after I’d learned that the dad I thought was my dad, truly was not my dad at all, and the real dad was still alive, somewhere in El Dorado County California. I told my mom I wanted to try to meet him. She told me she’d try to track him down. I didn’t follow up, she didn’t follow up. I let 12 weeks go by and chickened out. I worked and played and partied (one of the Italians I was referring to) and went back home to Albuquerque, where just two weeks later, I landed my first television reporting job and met husband number two, the golden boy, heir-apparent to the New Mexico broadcasting dynasty, and future felon. We got married, immediately started having babies, three “on-air” pregnancies in five years, never breaking my stride on breaking news.
It was actually in the newsroom one night, I was on deadline, about eight o’clock, when I learned the real dad was dead. The phone rang. It was my mom.
“Sissy...” she said.
“Hey, Mom, what’s up?” I asked, still typing on the government issue green, IBMSelectric, state-of-the-art high tech news gathering device of the day. She’d just returned from a quilt symposium in Monterey.
“Well, honey,” there was at least a teeny bit of hesitation. “Well....I found out when I was in California....Tommy’s dead, honey. I guess he passed away a few months ago. I’m sorry, baby. But I thought you should know.”
Yeah, no problem, Mom. Just let me finish typing this story about the flash flood in the Embudo Arroyo and get it into editing and jump in the live truck and go stand in front of the reservoir where the run-off and the drowning victims wash up. Poor damn kids, caught unaware of the walls of water which roar down the mountainside after summer storms, turning the diversion channels into skateboarding death traps.
“Okay, thanks for letting me know,” was all I could muster after this little bomb shell. I guess I could have said, “Well, okay. Let me just hold back this thundering wall of disappointment and regret, which you’ve just rained down on me on a Saturday night, thirty minutes to air time. If I can just finish birthing this story I’m writing, right at this second, maybe on the way back from the live shot, while my photographer drones on about crap I don’t give a flip about, maybe then I’ll stop and acknowledge this ( keeping the metaphor alive here) watershed moment in my life.
“My father is dead,” says my brain, as I scan the dark, desert mesa beyond the freeway, grateful for the cover of darkness inside the cab of the truck as well, and my shooter’s distraction on the two-way radio, as he calls in, “Unit 10 to news base. We’re ten-eight, ten-nineteen," code for wrapped and returning to the station.
“My father is dead,” says my brain as I’m hearing the Police sing, “every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”
But he won’t, ever. Never again. Never did, really. Except from afar, through school pictures my mother sent to my grandfather every year, which Booker would take to the bar in Placerville, to show Tommy, so he could see how his little brown eyed girl was growing up, the spittin’ image of her father. So he saw me, but he never came to see me. Shame on him. But, he’d made a deal with my mother on the day she pulled me from his arms at the train station.
“He had tears in his eyes and begged me not go,” she’d parcel out tiny fragments of information decades later. “You were kicking and screaming and you said, ‘I want my Daddy !’"
I suppose I still do. Or the notion of him, or a memory, or a fiber of the one remaining trace of him, Lord knows I have the hair follicles! I don’t regret my mother’s decision to keep me though, babies belong with their mothers. On this day, my birthday, I am particularly grateful for her facing the music, to have me in the first place and having the courage of her illogical convictions. “Love me, love my stray” such is the pact she made when she went traipsing off to Texas to get back together with “no count”, along with a promise that Tommy, would never be part of our lives again. Oh, the deals that are struck over innocent children. But, I know in my heart I was infinitely better off with the tough minded, wicked smart, funny as hell, determined, forceful, often tactless and occasionally loose, woman who was my mother. Blessed be her soul. She did her best with the tools she had to work with, which my shrink always told me was too generous an assessment and my mother recited almost daily as a boilerplate defense. But I admired her backbone. I did not have the backbone to go and find my father when I had the opportunity, that summer of 83, when he was no more than an hour away. People die. We lose our chance. The train leaves the station, the news truck barrels down the highway.
Twenty seven years later, I’m still gunning it down the road, cranking out the content, other people’s words--from natural disasters, to national policy, corporate mergers to collective bargaining, I am a walking, talking word machine. Always bargaining, brokering deals with myself, about the allocation of time for my words, foolishly thinking that there will still be time, at the end of my shift, at the end of my day, at the end of the list of things to do, to get back to it, to get on with it, to get the words out that matter, the words that just might resonate as a ripple of resemblance in some one else’s pond, making them not feel all alone.
But people die. And so will I before I get to all these words at the rate I’m going.
So, today, on my birthday, I’m sending out a message to the universe, I’m letting go with my most ardent desire. It’s freedom, dude. Freedom to get off of this runaway train stoked by other people's stories and get behind the driver’s seat to finish telling my own. Artistic and financial freedom to go where I want to go and write what I need to write, to take my brother Don and my sister-in-law Beverly and Libby, “The Replacement Dog” to California, to try to find this Lester fellow.
Brother Don has pancreatic cancer, but he’s responding amazingly well to chemo. He can travel now, so it’s time to giddyup. He is the only person in the family that I know who knows about the family I know nothing of. In fact, he and my half-brother were about the same age, they even played together in San Francisco, before we high-tailed it to Texas.
Don bristled when I called myself “illegitimate” once. “YOU are not illegitimate,” he said sternly, in a well deserved voice of authority, since had great responsibility in raising me. And then he cried. Jesus, he’s not as Irish as I am! “Don’t ever call yourself that again.”
Okay. So, this is a legitimate request: somehow, someway, oh kind universe, benevolent patrons of writers, friends, Romans, countrymen, literary agents, Oprah, or God almighty, grant me a path to artistic freedom so I can go all the way back to the beginning of A Woman With a Past, to crack this natal nugget. Who knows if the Lester link is even alive? He might be living in a van down by the American River. Or he could be sitting on both halves of a mighty inheritance, who knows? Help me finish this story, and along the way, I’ll regale you in more stories about my crazy past, including; Pete the Pathological Liar, Albert the No-Show Homecoming Date, the Rock Star Who Didn’t Even Give Me Back Stage Passes and the Stalking Step Dad, all this, plus, the search for the long, lost Michael Lester.
I wonder if he’s still around? I wonder if he looks like me? I wonder if he’s a hairy Lester?