[This story is a continuation of last week’s story, “Surprise,” in which my mother tells me, when I’m 30, that the man I call Daddy is not my biological father. It’s still 1976.]
Once an art teacher had given our class a homework assignment to collect photos for a collage, including a baby picture. When I’d asked my mom for one, she’d told me my baby pictures had been lost in a flood; yet, here they are.
In the house on Van Ness Avenue there is a walk-in closet under the back staircase. It is always locked; my grandmother, Gaga, whose bedroom is nearby, has the key. I have walked past that closet several times a day for a couple dozen years without even seeing it. Today, the door is ajar.
I am seated at the dining room table. The soft lace tablecloth has been removed, folded, and now rests atop a nearby chair. My mother and grandmother are toting from the closet one box after another and placing them on the table before me . . . off-white Robinson’s gift boxes (Gaga worked at Robinson’s for 25 years) filled with mysterious-looking packages wrapped in creased and yellowed tissue paper.
Unwrapped, there are relics: small envelopes, a couple containing snippets of dark curls, another with a string of tiny beads; three fired ceramic pieces typical of early childhood classroom projects; a faded blue baby book; lots of both hand-written and typed notes, letters, and official-looking documents with signatures and seals. And photographs: black-paged albums filled with black-and-white photos of people and places I don’t recognize, others that look vaguely familiar, all with brief descriptions in white ink — the who, what, where, or when, but never the why.
Once an art teacher had given our class a homework assignment to collect photos for a collage, including a baby picture. When I’d asked my mom for one, she’d told me my baby pictures had been lost in a flood; yet, here they are. That’s me, with a headful of dark curls, perched on a wooden high chair!
On the front of one envelope is my name, misspelled: “Babara’s curls.” And in this one are my brother Larry’s blue baby beads spelling a last name I’d never heard before. And there’s that name again, preceded by the initial ‘L,’ carved into clay on the back of the ceramic projects.
The blue baby book is Larry’s and it has been completed, almost all the blanks filled in detail, through his first year. There is no pink baby book, no baby book at all for me. The adults in my life must have had other more important things on their minds than recording my statistics and milestones. Because as I’m now being told, from just six months old until the age of two or maybe even three, I lived with Aunt Blanche and Uncle Ernie, while Larry, at age five, went to live with Gaga and Grandpa Bill. Because after our father left our mother upon learning of her indiscretion, she had one hell of a time getting her paramour, the husband of her best friend no less, to leave his own wife and child and to marry her. After an extended melodrama during which Larry and I had evidently become excess baggage, he finally did. Then he adopted us, and in time they had three more children, all boys, two of them twins. We had became one big happy family. With one big fat secret. Ties to the pesky past had long since been severed “because it was just easier” and were not to be spoken of again — at least not around me. I didn’t know Daddy was our step-father, but Larry knew. I didn’t remember our bio dad, but Larry remembered. And he remembered Daddy’s son, his first best friend, the five-year-old boy left behind that neither of them ever saw again.
A separate box holds items related to Larry’s adult life along with stapled pamphlets and brittle newspaper articles, circa 1965, about LSD, and heroin. Here are color photos, copies of a police report, the admission form to Camarillo State Hospital, and even the welcoming brochure designed “to help answer some of your questions.” (Taking a page from Dante, it might well have read, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” but that’s a different story.) And, here’s a certified copy of his death certificate. On top is a note written in my grandmother’s hand: “I put these away right after Larry’s funeral [in 1966] and to date I still cannot go through them. July 18, 1978.”
I wish I could say I remember an outpouring of emotion, even crying, as my mom and grandmother remembered, and shared with me, the buried past, and the secret Larry had carried to his grave. And that may have happened, I don’t recall. I do remember my mother quipping, “I left my husband to marry my best friend’s husband, and boy do I miss her.” That’s my mom . . . she wasn’t known for introspection. “Why dig up the past? What’s done is done.” But now, now I have my past, my authentic past, the missing pieces of the puzzle of me. Now I can start putting myself together again. Larry never got the chance.
Postscript – 2019: When my mother eventually moved from the house on Van Ness Avenue into a small apartment, I commandeered a stack of illustrated children’s books that had resided in the family bookcase for as far back as I can remember. There’s “Puppy Stories,” “Pinocchio,” “Katooticut: The Story of a Rooster,” and “The Brimful Book of Mother Goose,” among several others. As a rule, I barely give them a glance but have carted them with me each time I have moved (35 times at last count). Having them nearby has always given me a comforting sense of family, history, and self. Not long ago I pulled them out and, one by one, began looking at them more closely. In each book, on one of the pages that precedes the title page, there is an inscription: “This Book Belongs to…” and then some permutation of Larry’s and/or my name. What I discovered, what’s interesting, is this: If you look closely, in a certain light, you can see that in each inscription, something was erased and altered. And if you look really, really closely, say, with a magnifying glass, you can even see some of the faint letters spelling a different last name.
There had come a day, an hour, a moment when a deliberate decision was made to obliterate any trace of my brother’s and my earliest history. I’m not saying there was intent to deceive; that has such a malicious ring to it. It may simply have been for the purpose of correcting our names to correspond with our newly adopted names. Because, really, what’s the big deal? At the time, it certainly made things simpler all around. How could anyone have known that it would end up making things infinitely — and tragically — more complicated? Because kids shouldn’t have to keep adult secrets. Because kids feel guilty without understanding why. Because kids sense when they’re living a lie, even when they’re not sure of the truth. And all of it fucks them up.
I don’t blame anyone — I truly believe everyone did what they thought was best for all concerned. And I’m not angry, at least not for myself — I am angry for Larry. And I’d give just about anything to have been able to talk with him about all this. But that the truth was hiding in plain sight my entire life is what gets me to this day, and I have to laugh. I have to laugh.
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.
I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.
As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.