In an old family album, there’s a cracked and faded snapshot of three children standing in front of a white and brown clapboard house that’s most certainly somewhere in Los Angeles. The lanky, mop-haired child in the center is my Aunt Shirley at age seven. She’s holding the hands of her siblings: Clifford, age four, and Patricia, my mom, who was a chubby tow-headed toddler of two. I love the sweetness and innocence of this photo. I look at their young faces and I see the adults I later knew. Shirley has a faraway smile. Clifford, dressed in oversized blue jeans and suspenders, purses his lips to form a straight line with his mouth. His eyes squint into the sun as he poses dutifully for the camera. And my mother, Pat, has a brooding look on her face, as if the day was not going the way she’d hoped.
I’d see that same look on her face on and off over the years, though Pat was not generally considered a dour person. Mostly, people remembered her for an inexhaustible sense of humor and a hearty laugh. Like many funny people, humor was her armor in a life filled with hard knocks and disappointment.
Pat grew up in South Central Los Angeles not far from the Watts Towers. In the 40s and 50s, her neighborhood was as diverse as it got. With a fairly even mix of white, black and Latino families, it was a true melting pot. “I didn’t really think about it,” Mom told me looking back. “We all hung out together, played together, went to school together.” From the place she lived, Pat developed tolerance and an unwavering belief that all people were the same. From her mother she learned to work hard and have a good time. She and her mom, Winnie, also loved movies. They were like life, only better. Men were handsome, brave and true. Women were beautiful, charming and cherished. Hard work could turn a pauper to a prince. Watching larger than life stories played out on the big screen filled Pat’s young mind with fantasies of romance, glamor and adventure. Something she’d never completely outgrow. Despite a mounting body of evidence that showed people to be shallow, greedy, dishonest, cruel and unfair—Pat clung doggedly to her belief that life was good and dreams could come true. She was stubborn and determined.
Pat was an avid reader. She loved learning about art, music, history, philosophy and politics. All that lust for knowledge, and she didn’t even finish high school. At 15, Pat dropped out of tenth grade and learned the typesetting vocation from her mom. She got her driver’s license, bought a car and was financially independent by the time she was 17. I admired her gumption. Assumed she did things her way. But I had it all wrong. The real story would not be told until much later. It all started with a dance.
Fourteen-year-old Pat was quiet and a little naïve. But like her mom, Winnie, she was a dancer. Jitterbug was the hot trend in the 50s and Pat couldn’t get enough. She entered contests and won many of them. At one of these dances, she met a handsome young sailor whose name is lost to history. He danced her silly and sweet-talked her right into bed. Mom lost her virginity that night. She never saw the sailor again but he left a lasting impression. One missed period led to another. As the horror of being an unwed, pregnant high schooler dawned on Pat, she panicked. Finally, she had to confess to her mom. Winnie pulled her out of school and shuffled her directly into a Catholic home for unwed mothers. She lived there for the next six months, hidden away from prying eyes and wagging lips.
I try to fathom how she must have felt. To be 15, alone, and surrounded by cranky nuns as a child grew inside her. Surely she made some friends. Being young girls, they’d have whispered secrets to each other in the dark. Perhaps they bonded with their unborn babies–and maybe even dreamed what it might be like to keep them. That, however, was not in the cards. As soon as Pat’s baby girl was born, she was taken away and adopted out to a respectable married couple who could give her a good home and decent Catholic upbringing. Did my mother cry? Was she relieved? Did she feel guilt? She never said nor did she ever try to find her daughter as far as I knew. Her illegitimate child, like other family secrets, was not discussed until many decades after the fact. Eventually, my siblings and I would meet “the baby,” who oddly enough was named Patricia by her adoptive parents. But that’s a story for another time.
Meanwhile, Pat returned to life. Her sister, Shirley, was still missing after running away several years earlier. Her brother, Clifford, soon went off to serve a two-year stint during the Korean war. Her dad, Herb, was having an affair with a floozy who was always hanging around the auto body shop where he worked. Winnie and Pat had each other. They worked together, went to movies together and grew closer. Pat was a great comfort to her mother and vice versa. Of course, Winnie knew, it wouldn’t last. Eventually, Pat would find a man and fall in love.
His name was Robert Clark Gunnell, and he was supposed to be a blind date for Pat’s best friend Joanie. But Pat ended up with Bob instead. He was charming and good looking, and recently returned from England where he’d served as a radioman in the U.S. Air Force. Pat had taken to bleaching her hair blond, like Kim Novak, her favorite movie actress. She wore coal black eyeliner and peach-colored lipstick that accentuated the blush on her pale white cheeks. The two hit it off. They made each other laugh and talked fervently about politics. Being a worldly fellow with adventurous tastes, Bob introduced Pat to exotic food and drink. He took her to Tijuana, Mexico and impressed her with his ability to make friends–even in a foreign language. Pat was all in. But Bob was not ready to settle down. He had wild oats to sow. He had big plans for the future. Was going to be a rich man someday. Then Pat got pregnant. They rushed off to Vegas and hastily wed in the Little White Wedding Chapel. The year was 1958. Pat was nineteen. Bob was twenty-three. Eight months later, Robert Christopher Gunnell was born.
A glimpse at their wedding photo gives no hint of what the future holds. The groom wears a simple dark suit and tie with a white shirt. The bride a knee-length white satin dress just a little too short for the slip underneath. They smile sweetly at the camera, arm in arm. But behind the façade of youth and innocence, seeds of discontent have already begun to sprout. Eventually, the tendrils they produce will grow and tangle. They’ll feed themselves into the cracks in this fragile union and tear it asunder. The one child will have become four. Bob and Pat’s legendary fights will be etched into the memories of the children, to be told and retold across the years until they glow with a dark and terrible beauty. The pain will subside. The tears will dry. But they’re never truly be gone. Hidden beneath the surface, they root like dark matter into the bones of the survivors. Become part of each one of us. Still, we go on living. And laughing at the absurdity of life that so little resembles the stories we read as children.
Pat was not a housewife. For each consecutive child, born nearly a year apart, she worked until her water broke. When the appropriate amount of time had lapsed, she hired someone to help and went back to work. She supported my father while he went to electrical engineering school. But she was not an absentee mom. My most distant memories of her are like a warm embrace. She read me to sleep. Played games with all of us. Tickled and giggled and told embellished and reimagined stories of family lore. Mom was love. Dad was fear. His explosive temper led to epic rages. They were triggered by a dirty house, too much spent on groceries, loud and unruly children. And my mother was the focus of his anger. If he’d been drinking, which became more frequent with each passing year, he would hit her. The first house my parents owned was on Gladwick Street in Carson. It was a tract house, two stories, very modern and working class. It had sprinklers on the front lawn and a hill in the backyard that was covered with succulent ice plants that bloomed a vivid purple and left smears of gooey liquid on small hands and feet. The three bedrooms our family used were all upstairs. The boys shared a room. The girls shared a room. And across the landing my parents inhabited the master bedroom. One of my most vivid memories in that house started with a jolt awake late at night. Dad was screaming and Mom was giving it right back. Teri and I held onto each other as the fight escalated. I remember my Dad’s hand making contact with Mom’s face. She reeled across the landing, through our bedroom door and across our bed. Her body landed against the wall and slid to the floor. I clung to my sister, terrified, and prayed that my mother wasn’t dead. She wasn’t. Just a little bruised on her face. The wounds that didn’t show were much deeper. They manifested in a sort of low-level depression. Mom took to sleeping during the day when not working. We had a live-in housekeeper by then who helped to care for us, but we wanted Mom. I understand now that she was broken. Sleeping was all she could do to cope. More fights followed. One in which Dad was drunk, red-faced and wielding a baseball bat. “Where’s your goddamned mother,” he screamed. All four of us kids were crying. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” we said one after the other. We knew she was hiding in the backyard behind the brick chimney, but we couldn’t tell this monster. His rage. The bat. It was too horrible to imagine. The marriage finally ended after another fight so brutal that there was no going back. This one I don’t recall. Perhaps we were elsewhere when it occurred. But Grandma Winnie later filled me in.
“One night, there was a frantic knock on the door of our apartment,” she said. “Herb answered and there was your father. Crying.’I think I killed Pat,’ he told us. I’ve never been so scared in my life. We called an ambulance and rushed to the house. Your mother had come to. She was black and blue all over. Her clothes were almost torn off her body. But thank Jesus she was alive. It was all we could do to keep your Uncle Cliff from killing Bob.”
Seven years after it’s inception, the marriage was over. My parents divorced. My brothers and sister were devastated. Bob worshipped Dad, who used to take him to ball games and play catch in the street. Ross, the youngest, desperately wanted to win his father’s approval. Something he would never have the chance to fully do. Teri wanted a family that was whole and normal like the ones on TV. But me, I was glad. Though only five, I wanted him gone. To this day, I believe that divorce was our only chance at happiness. To this day, I know how lucky we were to be raised by my loving, unorthodox mother, and not the angry man who spoke with fists, called our black neighbors terrible names, and worshipped money over family until the day he died.