My parents divorced when I was five. And my maternal grandfather died not long after. These two seemingly tragic events conspired to bring about the greatest blessing of my childhood. Grandma Winnie. She came to live with us when it became clear that my dad was not interested in helping financially, and my mother couldn’t cope with raising four unruly little kids on her own.
Winifred Haughawout (Winnie) was a pistol. Almost immediately after becoming a widow, she bought herself a brand new 1967 Camaro—yellow with black racing stripes—and a leopard coat to match. She loved to dance, gamble and have a drink or two. Her one-liners were legendary. Her pioneer grit and monetary contributions helped keep us afloat in the worst of times. But her greatest contribution to the family was a big comforting blanket woven of words.
Grandma was a storyteller. Her family lore was artfully crafted of dark truths, homespun humor and shimmering elaborations. Some of the stories had been passed down over generations of table talk. But most of them were of her own making. I say “making” because there were times when it was hard to distinguish truth from fiction. Growing up, I believed every word. But later, I’d find holes and discrepancies that could only be explained by Grandma’s adherence to the principal that truth should not get in the way of a good story.
Because of her unusual name, Winnie Haughawout, and the fact that she grew up in Lead, South Dakota—Indian country—she always told people that she was half Oglala Sioux. A close examination of the family Bible showed otherwise. But Grandma hated her married name. So she made it exotic and interesting by changing its origin. For decades my father believed his own children were one-quarter Sioux, and therefore entitled to government benefits reserved for Native Americans. Imagine his disappointment.
Storytelling was part of the culture into which Grandma was born. She grew up in the Black Hills under the shadow of the Homestead Mine. Her own grandmother owned a boarding house in Deadwood. For years Grandma claimed Wild Bill Hickok as a second cousin. She may have even believed it since they were both Butlers (her maiden name) sharing a common geography. But a little bit of digging and the connection falls apart.
Grandma’s mother, Mattie Moore, was a widow who owned three houses in Leed. This dark-haired Irish beauty married a second time to a traveling actor named John Butler and bore him three children. Winifred was the last. When John was in town, the house was full of music and stories from the road. But he was often gone. So, Mattie raised her kids with the help of her mother, the boardinghouse matron. With no TV or radio, they passed the time talking about family happenings, goings on in Leed and Deadwood, politics of the Homestead Mine—owned by the wealthy Hearst family—and tales of the Indians who lived among them as reminders of the brutal cleansing that occurred to make room for their way of life.
As a child, Grandma, her brother Leslie and sister Martha took shortcuts through the tunnels of the mine, ducking into niches in the dirt walls when they heard the rumble of ore cars coming their way. Later, Winnie and Martha would sneak off to Rapid City to go to the dances. At 15, Grandma moved there to attend correspondence school. She went to dances every week while earning her secretarial degree. These were breathtaking times for this small town girl. But they were nothing compared to what lay ahead.
For months, Grandma’s family had been receiving glowing letters from a cousin, William Parker, who’d moved to Los Angeles to become a beat cop. The year was 1926 and the city was growing like gangbusters. Cousin Bill wrote of movie stars, palm trees and sunshine. Tall buildings and sleek automobiles. But what captured Grandma’s imagination more than anything were the dance halls. Big bands played while women in glittering gowns and men in crisp tuxedos floated and twirled across floors of gleaming wood.
Winnie badgered and pestered and before the year was out, the entire family packed up and moved to California. Seventeen-year-old Winnie was in her element. She immediately got a job downtown as a secretary. Most of her earnings went to sequined ball gowns and fancy shoes. Soon, she was a regular at the dance halls.
One night, she went to the Alexandria Ballroom with Martha. As they approached the hall, a roguishly handsome man appeared with a woman on his arm. Winnie was captivated. She leaned in to Martha and said, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” Later that night, she learned his name was Herbert Blair. They danced and Winnie was infatuated by his odd combination of grace and leathery masculinity. She fell hard. Only after she agreed to marry Herb did she learn an alarming truth. His middle name was Blair and his last name was Haughawout. HAUGHAWOUT!
“I almost backed out right then,” she would say. “I couldn’t imagine going through life with a name like Winnie Haughawout. I’d be a laughing stock. But boy that man could dance. He charmed me off my feet. And so, here I am.”
Winnie married Herb and they had three children—Shirley, Patricia and Clifford. Bill Parker, the cousin, went on to become the chief of police in Los Angeles. Grandma’s father died at 57 of black lung from years spent working the Homestead mine after his acting career ended. And Mattie Moore Butler lived out a long life surrounded by her children and grandchildren.
Thus began the first generation of my family’s history in Los Angeles. One that would prove less than auspicious, but chock full to busting with stories both triumphant and tragic. Stories meant to be learned from, cherished and shared.
And so, here I am.