Monday was the day, 3 years ago, that my life changed in a profound way. It was the most chaotic and fabulous day of my life. At 9 AM, almost exactly, the Monday after Mother’s Day, my phone rang. It was my brother, John, who I had not talked to for 4 years, who I had begged to talk to me for so long. I was so needy for the connection to my family. I was isolated and felt virtually sacrificed in the family feuding. My brother was talking to me. It was the best thing I could imagine, until it became the most heart wrenching conversation of my life.
What he told me blew up everything I have ever known about myself. It put my family craziness and my own isolation outside of that family in complete perspective. At first, I wanted to believe he was lying to me. There had always been resentment there but I couldn’t understand why. I was 12 years younger than him. We scarcely had a relationship throughout my lifetime.
I was always scuttled away from him mostly because of him being close to my Mother and Uncle Mike. They were toxic and John gravitated toward that. My Daddy, Jim, kept me at arms-length from the noxious elements that were excreted by the mere presence of Mother and Mike. I never understood it because I was level headed, what could they possible do to change that. I knew the stove was hot but Daddy was insistent they would take my soul if I got close. My Daddy’s instincts were always right. I knew that but I didn’t understand them.
On that beautiful May morning in 2012, I was elated to be speaking to my brother. We had not spoken since Mother’s funeral in 2008. I thought we made amends—for what I couldn’t be sure. Yea, Mother manipulated us against each other, but we each knew that and talked about that. Emotions were high then and we had become orphans together. He was all I had left. Then nothing. Silence until the Monday after Mother’s Day, 2012. All the emails begging and pleading, scheming even to get his attention had all paid off. He called me. While my husband, Chris, couldn’t understand the flutter that my heart had for the longing of this relationship to come to fruition after the pain, he couldn’t be prepared for the fallout of the conversation.
The conversation started with John with a preface of, “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you this. Hon, I don’t get any pleasure out of saying this, no matter what you might think.” He said that because he must have known intuitively that Chris believed every word from John was a weapon for which he would use to slice my soul. John seemed to acknowledge this, but I was certain no matter what he had to say it was the beginning of a new era. One that brought brother & sister together as a family. There was no way anything he could say would change my mind on that. NOTHING COULD CHANGE THAT.
We began talking about health problems and hereditary issues that we each experienced. He had DDD, Degenerative Disc Disease, like Mother. I had the beginnings of it. But I had a cyst on my heart that was most likely benign but this was the pretense I used to prod this conversation. Also my daughter has a genetic abnormality that I passed on, according to geneticists in Michigan. These were the reasons for his call.
He told me that I had to find out from Joe Aaron about all that. Joe Aaron? Who the hell is that? Our Grandma was Josephine Aaron, who went by Jo Aaron. Her last husband, (5-6th), the man I knew as my PawPaw was Ernest Aaron but he was dead. He had a brother Ray but what did this have to do with anything? I was perplexed. Nonsensical. How could I check with a woman who died in 1990? And why would it be something for my brother to have me check out? Wouldn’t that affect him too? She was our maternal grandmother. The only one we had in common as we had different fathers.
Then John told me a story. In 1973, my Mother left my Daddy, Jim, and John who was 11. She ran off with a man, Joe Aaron, a brother of Ernest’s. What? Ernest had another brother. I thought about it and I vaguely remembered another brother that had been spoken of that had killed himself in the 1970’s but that was not him. Joe? My Grandma had stayed close to the Aaron family after Ernest drank himself to death in 1977. No Joe Aaron ever came up and that was odd because I had spent a great deal of time with Grandma and had met Ray Aaron, who was gay.
John went on to tell me that Joe was the wayward twin of Ray; he was the James Dean of the family. He was violent beyond measure. He married young. He beat his wife and kids, rumors of “other” abuse were suspected. Mother left with him in 1973. The story continued. Mother came home eventually in 1974 maybe 6 mos later, according to my brother, and she was beaten nearly to death. She was also very pregnant. Jim took her back, nursed her to health and agreed to be my father. My mother had to agree to put his name on my birth certificate.
The beating my mother took was so severe, doctors encouraged aborting. After all she was 30, which was old for a mother to give birth. The severity of the beating likely caused brain damage. They were pretty sure I was a Down’s syndrome baby. “Abort,” was the unilateral consensus. My mother had her bladder, gall bladder and spleen displaced in the beating. These could all present major problems if she were to give birth, plus to a defective baby. It wasn’t worth the risk.
Somehow or another the decision was made by Mother and Daddy that this was not an option. My Daddy would do whatever necessary to help preserve my Mother’s health. As long as she could have the baby, the decision was to proceed with the pregnancy. Think about the reality of the situation; this baby was a bastard child the symbol of betrayal, anger, hurt and abandonment to my Daddy and John. But Daddy could not biologically have kids. He married my Mother because of John. He wanted a family. He was 18 years her senior and he had done all the nonsense in his life. He wanted a family. My Mother was a young mom with all kinds of family drama. Alcoholic mother and step-father, criminal brother. John could not be left with these people and he loved my mother. She was young, feisty and was a damsel in distress who was looking for a father after hers passed away when she was 9.
My Mother, Lizabeth Maddox
Now leaving the fate of the baby and my Mother in God’s hands, my family became a family again in a small community in Cahaba Heights where they had relocated shortly before my Mother’s escape. My Daddy had utilized the help of kind neighbors to help him take care of John while Mother was gone. JoAnn Warren, 2 doors down, made him a plate for dinner every night. She looked after John who was 2 years older than her daughter, Patti. They made it work. Mother came home and was resentful of JoAnn filling in, but JoAnn was married and no real threat. She was no beauty queen but she was kind and crazy as hell—always cutting up. She would diffuse pain with humor, much like my Dad. Which came first, I will never know. Maybe he rubbed off on her or vice versa.
Daddy was close with her husband Bill Warren as well. They were buddies. This is what my Mother came back to see. She was the black sheep and she couldn’t deny her actions or circumstances. But no one asked her too, but she perceived it differently. Everybody loved my Daddy and she felt like a pariah, for a while, even if it was in her own mind.
John felt caught in between. He loved Mother but resented her. He loved Daddy but was angry at his weakness for letting her come back to create chaos in a life he just began to think of as normal. He hadn’t seen Grandma and Ernest in months because they hated my Daddy. Daddy’s mother, Granny, adored her son, and John but loathed my Mother. So it was a bashing of her at every turn around Granny. How was a 12 year old supposed to deal with that? After all, he was his Mother’s son, not Jim’s. I believe that inferiority set in even if was just perception on his part.
Skipping ahead, when I was born, I was not a Down’s baby. No obvious defects. But my Mother wasn’t in good shape. She stayed in the hospital for 2 mos having her organs re-seated in muscle tissue. Her womb, kept the pieces in place but without the baby, it all went to hell. She ultimately had to have a hysterectomy due to her injuries. I was sent home with Daddy who had never handled a newborn. He married Mother when John was in diapers and toddling. He was absolutely scared to death of breaking me. Due to his kindness of taking her back in and agreeing to completely let bygones be bygones, Mother gave the privilege of naming me to Daddy. I began “Jimmie Lee Barnett”, named after my Daddy, “Jim Barnett”. JoAnn stepped in, again, while Mother was in the hospital. Daddy couldn’t take care of me, work and take care of John alone. So I stayed with JoAnn for the first 2 mos of my life. My Daddy would come home after work and see me. He’d come back after John went to bed and spend more time with me before he went to bed to start all over again.
I became Jimmie Lee, the apple of my Daddy’s eye. There was always a bond there that couldn’t be equated. This was always a problem for John. He had been Jim’s joy for so long now this baby who wasn’t even his replaced him in Jim’s eyes. This resentment still exists 40 years later.
Me & Daddy, Jim Barnett
Hearing John’s version and understanding the facts I knew, like about JoAnn and my birth being so traumatic on my Mother’s body, it all began to click. I didn’t want to believe that Daddy knew all my life I wasn’t his. Had he looked at me and saw the betrayal? Not even once.
Wow…how could I even understand this type of pure love? I was always called the miracle baby, which is what I was always told I was, because Jim had gone through life without ever having a child, until boom, I came along. It was a medical miracle. Knowing this I always wondered why, Granny, Jim’s Mother, didn’t cling to me. After all, my Daddy was her favorite. It was true and everyone knew it. I was his only heir. Was it because of her hatred of my mother? That’s all I ever could chalk it up to, but it still seemed odd. Now I understood.
So my only question for John was what about Joe? He knew Mother was pregnant. Did he not want me? Did he never want to see me? Had I ever seen him? John replied, “As far as I know, Uncle Mike killed him on the mountain in Pine Valley, California in 1983.”
OH MY GOD! Another time frame that had always been an enigma. My uncle was a con artist and he defrauded many really important people in the 1980’s. He was a “cocaine cowboy”. In 1983, we, my Mother and I, were flown to LAX in the cover of night with Ray Aaron, Ernest brother. I was told some bad people were after Mike and he needed to make sure we were safe. Good guys (FBI) and bad guys (who he defrauded and cocaine dealers) were all targeting him. But Ray Aaron, why did he need to come with us? Ernest had been dead for years. Why was Mike insistent on Ray coming? Why was my Grandma and John left behind? None of this made sense.
Uncle Mike Maddox, Vietnam
While all the people after Mike was true, the villain we were running from was Joe. There had been an attempt to kidnap me that I didn’t even know about. A man approached me that Sunday morning in our yard, asking about my Daddy. When I said my Daddy was working out of town, he kept telling me what a “pretty little girl” I was. He left and stalked our house, driving up and down the street. This set off a panic that my Grandma, my Mother and Uncle Mike acted on immediately.
After getting to California, we separated from Ray which didn’t make sense and Mike shuttled us to numerous houses. We had bodyguards. We couldn’t leave the different safe houses or even go near the windows. We brought no clothes or toys. I was 8. There were arsenals of guns at each location which I was made aware of so that I didn’t accidentally hurt myself. Eventually we met up with my Aunt Dee and my cousins at a house on top of a mountain in Pine Valley, California. The house was my aunt’s mother’s home with stables at the top of the mountain on a road that dead ended. No through traffic. It was beautiful and I had kids and a few toys finally after weeks of skulking in these beautiful houses that I couldn’t enjoy because of the tension. I had not talked to my Daddy in all this time and I asked about Grandma & John. I was told they were fine in Birmingham. It didn’t make sense. Grandma was less than 5 feet tall, a petite old woman who couldn’t defend herself. Wouldn’t she be a target if someone wanted to hurt her son?
Me & Grandma
Mike never stayed with us. We had bodyguards all of us. We got to play in Pine Valley, in the backyard next to the horses. Until one day, someone approached my cousin Curt who was 7 at the time, outside. My cousins were not restricted to the confinements of the backyard as I was. Didn’t make sense. But a man approached Curt and everyone freaked out. The man was asking questions and Curt was told not to talk to me about it. Although, I overheard him telling his older brother David who was 10 what had happened.
We went back on lock down. Mike was more present and stayed all night only to leave during the day. Someone was always on guard, one of the bodyguards or Mike. Then one day, Mike came home and said, “he’s dead. Bobby got him”. Bobby Riggs was this Grizzly Adams looking cowboy who dressed like Johnny Cash in all black, pearl button western shirts with a black cowboy hat and boots. He was a nice guy and had been with us most of the time. He was always armed but he could relate to kids.
While all the adults sat at the kitchen table asking questions, my Uncle on a cocaine high, popped a bottle of champagne. He was celebrating while everyone else was apprehensive. He claimed Bobby had been arrested but the “SOB” was dead. On the Monday after Mother’s Day, 2012, it became clear to me that the “SOB” had been Joe. Shortly after this event, we returned to Birmingham as if nothing ever happened.
When I did talk to my Daddy, he was highly upset by my Mother taking me to California. Ray also returned to Birmingham with us after being elsewhere in California the entire time. Now I knew Ray was trying to “manage” his identical twin brother. That was his function. Had this all been about me? No one ever explained what or who was going on at the time. Even as an adult I had asked my cousin David who was 10 in 1983, what was that about? He said some bad dudes were after his dad. That was the “official” story.
In hearing, my brother’s confession, my life changed. The hardest thing to understand was always that my Daddy knew I wasn’t his, yet he made me the center of his world. That is not man’s love. That is God’s love. Mortal men cannot see beyond the circumstances. Yet he made the best relationship of my life out of an absolute disaster. I have since found out that Mike didn’t kill Joe Aaron on the mountain. But whatever happened, altered this excursion. There was no threat any longer. I found out that Joe died on the same day my Daddy died, 7 years later, May 23rd, 2004 in Florence, Alabama.. My Daddy died actually around midnight on May 22, 1997, but his death certificate it says May 23. The symbolic nature of this was not unnoticed.
My life changed after this revelation. I spent a year connecting to Joe Aaron’s family only to find out that they knew about me, including his wife and most likely his 3 remaining children, one son of his was dead. Joe was a murderer according to family lore, went to prison, alcoholic, violent, even describing him as the devil himself by his nieces. I was lucky to be taken from him. While his twin was kind, he was the divinely opposite. There had been 8 sons in his family, Ray and Joe were the babies, my PawPaw, Ernest was one of the oldest. Their father was a preacher highly regarded in the community but all 8 of his sons were either pedophiles or gay. My brother once told my Mother, PawPaw, molested him when he was a young kid. I thought that was a lie because PawPaw also had a special connection to me, even though he died when I was 3. He used to come visit with Grandma and tote me around telling everyone I was his “baby”. He spoiled me by walking me up to the country store and buying me candy. Even though he was a lazy drunk, as I’d become aware of when I was young, he wouldn’t have molested John
Ernest Aaron & me
.Now that became clear as well. I recalled Ernest staging pictures of me before he died that I felt uncomfortable about. I was 3. One was me naked on the grass and another was standing “seductively” next to a bike. He died soon after. Those pictures still make me cringe. I was supposed to be his next victim.
After talking to a member of the Aaron family, I got a better understanding about the circumstances around my conception. My mother left my Daddy. She went to her Mother’s apartment. My Grandmother was battling cervical cancer, lost her hair, while working and supporting Ernest who couldn’t keep a job for all his drinking. While Ernest was laid up drunk, my Mother out of her own psychological issues, slept with him. My Grandmother caught them and threw my Mother out. That’s when she ran off with Joe. He didn’t know about my Mother sleeping with his brother. When he found out, he beat her, focusing on her stomach to kill her but also to kill me. He almost succeeded. That’s why Ernest always said I was “his baby”.
Me & Ernest Aaron
My God! My Grandmother….How dare they? Did she ever look at me with resent? I certainly didn’t think I was her favorite but she was never unkind but she was what I would call emotionally withdrawn. She wasn’t like that with my cousins in California, but she was with me. I always assumed it had to do with her hatred of my Daddy Jim.
Grandma, Jo Aaron & me
Out of all this, I saw how divine intervention had been working in my life for so many years. I could see the specific instances that had been changed by God, including my stable home with my Daddy after my parents divorced and my mother reversed back to being an angry, alcoholic, vengeful woman. I had been saved. I was the miracle baby. I always knew that. When I was a little girl, I knew God had a “big” plan for me. I just knew it. No one told me. I knew it would be later in life but I knew I was exceptional, extraordinary. I never felt that way. I was chubby kid who was always awkward with others, but I felt this light within me. If my being alive and well today required this much hurt and pain, defying all laws of nature and emotion, then my mission must be worthy of the sacrifice necessary for my existence. All the suffering would not be in vain.
That Monday after Mother’s Day, I realized how extraordinary I was. My mission began. Bless God, my heart was full of love for all the people who shouldn’t have loved and nurtured me who protected me against monsters I could never imagine. The price of this was the isolation from my brother. Still stings today.
As I sit here writing this, I am keenly aware that Tuesday, the 12th, was the 15th anniversary of my Uncle Mike’s death. He was one of my protectors. Even though I never knew him well because of the distance my Daddy imposed, I know he was an angel that swooped in to save me. I will forever be grateful. I love you, Uncle Mike!
Yesterday, in contemplating writing about all this, I found a dead sparrow in my backyard. This scared me because I know that a dead sparrow means death. But in meditating about it, I found that to mean that someone took on death for me. It is there to remind me, I was saved, in the face of all the damned, evilness of the world, Christ died for me. I was rescued. Bless God.
Galatians 12: 22 was brought to me last night.
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”
Thank you, Lord!