Gone but not forgotten

Invisible forces are at work in our lives. Spirits of the dead knocking about in our psyches. Reminding us they once were. Leaving their indelible mark on who we are now. And begging the question, who is holding on to whom?

Take my grandfather, Herb. My memories of him are grainy and vague — like an old black and white film roughly cut. His life ended in 1967, when I was too young to understand who and what he was. But he didn’t die. Not really. His specter has carried on across the decades, no longer just a word or touch, but part of the gene pool. A dark stain on our DNA that can no longer be erased.

He was born Herbert Blair Haughawout in Genoa, Nebraska in 1902. Perhaps if his mother hadn’t died in birthing him, things would have been different. But she did. And instead of a first beloved son, Herb was seen as a cause of death. A burden to be unloaded.

Rather than grow up with his father and three older sisters, Herb was sent away. Far away to Elsinore, California to be raised by his grandmother and great aunt – two old ladies with a strict Catholic moral code. They did not spare the rod. How could they? Boys were dirty, nasty creatures who would grow up to be immoral men if given half a chance. They were determined to make a good, God-fearing fellow out of little Herb. So they disciplined him with iron fists. They scoured his soul with fire and brimstone. As a boy, Herb was constantly reminded that his natural urges were the work of the devil. Women, he learned, were either saints or harlots. Repression and resistance were drilled into him.

One day, at age six, Herb got hold of a cherry bomb. He blew off two fingers and lost an eye. Later, the glass eye he wore would give him a roguish look that women found irresistible. But as a kid, it made him a perfect target for bullies. He had to get tough. He learned to fight. And his teenage years were spent causing trouble on the streets of Whittier, California.

Because of his deformities, Herb never served in the military like many of his friends. And his juvenile delinquency was eventually replaced with other interests. He became an auto mechanic by day and a ballroom dancer by night. The former provided him with a decent living. And the latter guided him into the arms of my grandmother, Winnie. Together they won dance competitions. And they produced three children, Shirley, Clifford and my mother Patricia, in that order. Winnie was happy in the beginning. But with each child she bore, Herb’s sexual interest in her dwindled.

“He put me on a pedestal,” she would later say. “I was the mother of his children. After Patricia he didn’t even want to touch me.”

Grandma attributed his lack of interest to her busy schedule as a mom and full-time typesetter. There was less time for dancing. Her waistline thickened. At some point, Herb took a mistress. Though furious and humiliated, Winnie was too proud to show it. She carried on, growing unhappier by the year. Winnie didn’t know that Herb’s infidelity was masking a much darker secret. Something happening right under her nose. It would be years before she learned that her manly husband was a pedophile—and the victim was his own eldest daughter, Shirley. It started when Shirley was four or five years old and continued until she was 13, when Grandma walked in and caught Herb with one hand between her daughter’s legs and the other on his exposed and rigid member.

“I don’t think she knew before that,” Shirley told me many decades later. “And she didn’t say a word. She looked at him with the stoniest eyes I ever saw. They walked out of that room and he never touched me again.”

But the damage was done. Shirley became a wild, unruly teenager. At 15, she ran away from home for good. As for my mother, Pat, she claims her father never laid a hand on her. But much of her early childhood is murky and devoid of memories. So she could never say for sure.

No one knows what Winnie said to Herb to make him stop abusing his own daughter. The incident was swept neatly under the family rug, never to be mentioned. By the time he became my Grandpa Herb, some 15 years later, it was all but forgotten. I remember him as an old man, with thinning hair, a glass eye and a deeply lined face. His tobacco stained hands were gnarled and calloused from a lifetime of manual labor. My sister Teri and I would dance on his feet and giggle madly as he twirled us around the living room.

Herb was an attentive grandfather. He even taught Teri and me how they kiss in France, using their tongues. We thought it was funny and icky. I remember when I showed it to Mom. She pulled her face away from mine, shocked, and asked, “Who taught you that?”

I hung my head, surprised by her reaction. “Grandpa did. He said everyone does it in France,” I said.

That incident passed as well. And for some reason Herb still had access to his granddaughters. Only when I was fully grown did I learn what a tragic mistake this was. Not for me. For my sister, Teri, who became the next in line to be groped and defiled by him.

Finally, a child’s intestinal problem brought an end to Grandpa’s hideous passions. My sister Teri was the sick one. Grandpa, for reasons I’ll never understand, was charged with giving her the anal suppository medicine she needed. I was the witness. Together, the three of us went to the upstairs bathroom. Grandpa pulled down my sister’s pants and inserted the suppository with a trembling hand.

Then he stood suddenly. Teri quickly pulled up her pants. Grandpa opened the bathroom door and walked out. We followed him together to the top of the stairs. Holding both of our hands, he took the first step, and the second. Then he put his right hand on the wall, waivered, and tumbled the rest of the way down. Two days later, he was dead from a stroke. I was six, Teri was seven and Grandpa was 65 when he died. You could call it poetic justice that he went the way he did. I call it a stroke of luck.

Sadly, my grandfather’s crimes occurred in a time when families did not speak of such things. Nor did they understand them. I believe if Mom and Grandma had known that Shirley’s history was being repeated on my sister, they would have done something to stop it. But they did not. And in the end it took a little girl to defeat the monster.

He is long gone. But the shame that should have been his alone found a new home in my sister’s heart. I cannot begin to imagine the demons she has wrestled with or the memories she has blocked in order to survive. But I do know this. She became a warrior—a defender of the weak.

This does not mean she has forgotten. Never. Every time we go to the San Fernando Mission to visit the graves of our elders, we stop at the stone that bears the names of Winifred and Herbert Haughawout. As we look down at the gray marble, the very same words leave my sister’s lips:

“Love you Grandma. Hate you Grandpa.” And we move on.

Note: My sister, Teri, was reluctant to make her story public. She does not want to be perceived as a victim nor has she lived her life that way. I applaud her courage for allowing this story to be told. Pedophilia is much more common than people like to believe. Only by speaking out can we protect those who cannot protect themselves.

A legacy of talk

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.

Bits and pieces

The stories in this blog come from my life growing up in a family that could never quite master normalcy (whatever that is), stability and good taste. We were and remain very much creatures of the place that reared us. California—a brassy tart of a state; all voluptuous curves, radiance and promises of heaven. But underneath her golden veneer she is cracked and always, always on the verge of breaking apart.

Optimism and vulnerability. Sunshine and dark secrets. Bold imaginings and fear of falling. These were the underpinnings of my childhood. I saw the world through the eyes of my mom and grandmother, sturdy working class women who raised me and my three siblings with an abundance of humor, all the while grappling with dark forces that relentlessly drove good fortune from our door. What they lacked in money, they made up for in scrappy persistence and love. This blog is for them—Pat and Winnie—the heroines of my life then and always.