Where dreams may go

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.

The outlaw hero

My mother’s older brother, Clifford Haughawout, was a prominent figure in the early life of my family. Tall and craggy with a lop-sided grin and slicked back hair, he looked like a man who’d stepped out of an outlaw saga. In some ways he was. Uncle Cliff was a gambler, a drinker and a conman. He listened to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Always had a cigarette in play. Didn’t so much walk as swagger. And he loved to spin a yarn, one eyebrow cocked and a sly half-smile sliding up the right side of his mouth.

My mother adored Clifford. He’d been her best friend and protector when they were teenagers growing up in 1950s Los Angeles. When she was 17 and he was 19, they went in on a brand new Chevy Bel Air convertible—cherry red and white—and cruised around town together with a car club. Both were working. They had money to burn. Life was grand and the future full of golden promise.

Then, Cliff joined the military. Everybody drank in the service. And he kept up with the best of them. He did his duty, made some buddies, and was out two years later a raging alcoholic.

For a time Cliff functioned. Held down a job. Met a girl. Got married and had three children. A good Catholic man with a strong sense of responsibility, he wanted to do right by his family. Love and be loved. Drape himself in a cloak of goodness and decency and make his mama proud. But Cliff was no longer driving his own life. Alcohol had him by the reins. He fought the demon, prayed and cursed. He binged and purged and binged and purged. Out of the smoke and ash of this raging battle, the outlaw emerged. Cliff surrendered to his vices and became a petty crook with a string of aliases. His marriage disintegrated. His wife went crazy and was institutionalized. And all of his children went into foster homes. He wouldn’t see them again until they were grown.

When I was a kid being raised by Mom and Grandma Winnie, Uncle Cliff drifted in and out of our lives. Sometimes he was sober and brimming with stories of his adventures on the road. Other times he was raging drunk, in jail or lost among the bums on Skid Row in downtown L.A. Grandma was often bailing him out of one fix or another. I dimly recall going with her to a run-down street in the heart of the city. Winos lined the sidewalks that reeked of piss, shit and garbage. I held tightly to Grandma’s hand as we stepped into the dark hallway of a neglected brick building with boarded up windows. I don’t remember how she knew where to go to find Uncle Cliff. All I recall is her determination. She was the Angel of Salvation and he was the Fallen. We made our way to a wretched apartment with a couple of dirty mattresses on the floor. Uncle Cliff was there in worse shape than I’d ever seen him. His face was a sallow pit of despair. Inside the crumpled, dirty clothes was a man who was dying of drink. Grandma Winnie tried to get him to come with us. He refused. “Get out. Leave me alone.” He did not want to look at our faces. Could not bear the tormented eyes of his mother. So she left him some money and we drove away.

It made me sad to see Uncle Cliff so crushed by life. In my child’s mind, he was a heroic figure who’d made his own rules and rose above the tedium or ordinary life. I’d heard countless stories of him traveling all over the country with his friend John Hood. They lived by their wits. They cheated at cards and pulled small-time cons. They’d go into a store to confuse the clerks with practiced slight of hand that yielded them a profit. One time, John Hood met a woman in Texas and married her. He took her money and her car, picked up Uncle Cliff, and drove to San Francisco where the soil was fertile to start their exploits anew. When I saw the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I thought of Uncle Cliff and his partner John Hood–a couple of rebels carving their own path through a world filled with obstacles for those not born to privilege. Or so it seemed to me then.

Cliff never did hard time, except in his battle with alcohol. But he kept trying to be a better man. To go straight and get clean. To redeem his sins in the eyes of God and his family. When I was 10, he moved with Mom, Grandma, and the four of us kids to Utah. Why a broken down Catholic family thought life would be better there is hard to fathom. It wasn’t. And six months later we were fleeing back to Southern California and a life that was, if not easy, at least familiar. We made our exodus in winter during a snowstorm. Crossing over a mountain, our beat up old station wagon, Betsy, broke down. No surprise. She was crammed to the gills with three adults, four kids, two dogs and the stuff of our lives. As we sat freezing on that mountain pass, snow piling up around us, Uncle Cliff cinched his inadequate trench coat around his body and positioned himself next to the highway with his thumb out. The few cars that passed sped up as their lights reflected off his shadowy figure. He stood for a half hour, refusing to give up as his hands and face froze. Not until my brother, Bobby, ran to his side did a car finally stop. Standing there with my brother, Cliff was no longer an outlaw—but a father looking out for his child. And in that moment, we were saved.

Don’t call me Shirley

My Aunt Shirley was a fallen angel. A sinner and a saint. An old soul blessed with the virtue of forgiveness. She forgave her father for using her young body; for stealing her innocence. And she did not allow his darkness to reside in her. Instead, she ripped her roots from the tainted earth and blew like a tempest through her youth. At 12, she would fix herself up like a movie star and go to Pacific Ocean Park in Long Beach, where she got sailors to buy her cotton candy and take her on the roller coaster. She was a child pretending to be a woman. Mature beyond her years.

“She looked just like Ava Gardner,” Mom used to say. “I wanted to be like her, but I was so quiet and shy. Shirley was the opposite. She was something else.”

Something else. A force of nature. Wild child. Free-spirit, hippie, poet, beatnik. When I was little, I heard my aunt described in all of these ways. Her Gypsy looks added to her mystique. She had high cheekbones and dark eyes that glittered with mischief. Waves of black hair framed her extraordinary face. Her skin was olive and her lips were red. Aunt Shirley was fascinating—and as different from my pale, blond mother as a cheetah is from a Labrador retriever.

About a year after her father stopped abusing her sexually, Shirley left home. With a few clothes, a little bit of money and an over-abundance of courage, she stuck her thumb out on the highway and was gone. Was she running away from her dad? Escaping her childhood? Or was she running toward a new life filled with adventure?

“At 14, she just ran off,” Grandma Winnie said later. “Didn’t really ever talk about it. Didn’t leave a note. Gave no reason–nothing. Tore my heart in two. I prayed to Heaven she’d be okay.”

Time passed and no one heard a word from Shirley. It was as if she’d vanished. Only years later would the story come out. Shirley spent a couple of weeks hitchhiking around and finally ended up in Miami. Free from all family restraints, she was now writing her own script. She changed her name to Linda. And when the opportunity came to join an animal oddity show, she took it.

Hired as the ticket girl, she traveled with a crew of carney folk from town to town and state to state. Among the curiosities on display in this small circus were an albino alligator with blue eyes, several of the world’s smallest deer, a two-headed goat and a big white Brahma bull named Bing. There was a monkey show and a flea circus. And lots of teenage boys around Shirley’s own age who were charged with setting up and tearing down the show.

When the animals weren’t on display, Shirley would visit with them. She fed cigarettes to the deer and sang show tunes to Bing the bull. Most nights she ate dinner with the man from the monkey show. He’d make a big pot of slumgullion using whatever meat and vegetables he had on hand. They ate it right out of the pot with hunks of bread, surrounded by screaming monkeys. The way Shirley told it, one of the little monkeys was in love with her, always wanting to sit on her lap or shoulder.

These were exciting and interesting times for young Shirley. She made many friends and felt safe with most of them. She saw the world and had money to burn. It wouldn’t last. The owner of the show was a drunk who’d inherited the business from his father. One day he invited Shirley into his trailer for a friendly visit. Then he tried to force himself on her. But he was drunk and old and she was not. Shirley slapped him and ran. The man pursued her, determined to get what he wanted. So Shirley grabbed a sledgehammer and turned the tables. She chased that lecherous creep all over the camp.

“You’re fired!” he finally yelled.

“You can’t fire me. I quit!” she screamed.

Shirley grabbed her few belongings and the money she’d saved and stormed off. Most of the teenage laborers left with her. They found themselves homeless and jobless in the middle of Wichita, Kansas. But they were young and unafraid. And as luck would have it, a Wild West Show happened to be in town. Shirley and the boys joined up—she selling souvenirs and they doing whatever odd jobs were needed.

Fifteen. On the road. Surrounded by males. It was inevitable that Shirley would seek out a protector. The lucky fellow was a broncobuster named Winky, ten years her senior. It became known at the Wild West Show that Shirley was his girl. Both of them did their jobs by day and at night they’d get a room and eat a good dinner in whatever town they happened to find themselves. It was romantic and exciting. Until Winky began to get restless. He wanted to become a real rodeo star. Not some dandy player in a make believe show. So, he told Shirley he was moving on.

“I’d love if you came with me,” he said.

“I will,” she said. “But only if you marry me.”

Winky refused but Shirley held firm. Next thing she knew, he was gone. Heartache for Winky blossomed into an obsession. Determined to find him and restore the love they’d shared, Shirley started hitchhiking to every town she knew of on the rodeo circuit. Eventually, she ended up in Reno, Nevada. She never found Winky. Instead, she met a charming Irishman named Danny Kelly. He was handsome, funny and a career bank robber. Shirley felt like she was in a movie. She fell hard for Danny and three days later they married.

For a while, Shirley was dazzled by the dangerous life of a robber’s wife. Several times she even waited in the getaway car while Danny and his boys pulled a stick up. But gradually, she grew weary of their hard, fast life. And then she got pregnant. Danny was thrilled. Shirley was terrified. This, she knew, was no life for a baby. It ended as quickly as it began. Shirley took off without a word and hitchhiked back to Los Angeles. No note. No phone call. Nothing.

Her head full of visions of motherhood and domestic bliss, Shirley reunited with her family and settled down in Long Beach to raise her son. Her life there was anything but tame, however. She began hanging out with jazz musicians, smoking dope and writing poetry. Her son, Michael Kelly, was born in 1950 when Shirley was 18 and at her pinnacle of hedonistic experimentation. She loved her son, but was out of control. Michael grew into a wild young man on the streets of Long Beach. By the time he was 20, he was following in the footsteps of a father he never knew. Shirley’s boy, the son of a bank robber, became a bank robber himself.

As a young girl, I idolized my Gypsy poet aunt. I pictured her feeding cigarettes to deer, robbing banks and hanging with beatnik musicians in dark jazz bars. Her courage terrified and amazed me. Shy as I was back then, I felt sure I’d never be as brave or as interesting as Aunt Shirley. She’d set an impossible standard. As I grew older, I saw another side to my aunt. One that made me love her even more. Because until the day she died at 73, Shirley believed that humankind was headed toward an age of enlightenment. Despite the abuse she’d endured as a child, and later (I would learn) as a woman, Shirley had an abiding faith in the goodness of people. Yes, she was careless and often neglectful. But she was never cruel. Nor bitter. Nor even cynical. She looked out on a world full of violence and pain—and she saw something worth saving. She embraced the most broken among us and forgave even the darkest sins.

Once, I asked Aunt Shirley about her father. “Do you just hate him?” I wanted to know. She looked at me with mild surprise. “No,” she said. “He couldn’t help what he did. He was just a hurt little boy. No, I forgave daddy a long time ago.”

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.