Pretty Little Girl

A day in the life….

Archive for the tag “Josephine Leonard”

Trauma in the Making: Part 2

After being traumatized by watching a mere TV show, I finally saw my grandmother in the bigger picture. She was a broken woman with a strong will but a fractured spirit. Was it a wonder that she was an alcoholic? Hurt people hurt people. That statement from freshmen psychology is the moral of the story.

This TV show enlightened me. In the early 1960’s, my grandmother was transitioning in life. She was an aging woman with now grown children. How could that be? She was so young in her heart. It was an inconceivable thought. She was no longer young woman. This compounded by the corpse in her belly. A reminder of her last chance to be young was, in fact, turned to a calcified cadaver that was no longer a child but a curse.

In this emotional turmoil of coming to terms with how her life was not what it had been. Seemingly overnight, the young hell-raiser was now a middle aged woman, who wore her age honestly. She must have felt the beginning of the end with her body acting as a casket for last opportunity to be a mother–her last chance to re-do the role of mother. With all this going on, a younger man started coming around to drink with her. He was familiar. His family and hers had intertwined with this man’s brother being the father of her only grandchild. She was too young to be a grandma but she was and there was no way around it. Her youth like her baby was gone, but this younger man, Ernest, was about 8 years younger than her. He was a prankster.  A fool and a drunk to be sure. That was what fueled his character, the alcohol. Ernest had a hard time making a living but as Jo’s taste in men went, he was a step up. He didn’t hurt her. He was younger which in a way made her feel younger–more desirable. So they married.

Jo was restarting her life with her son helping her by sending money to her while he was in Vietnam. She was supposed to save it for him but she needed the money to be comfortable. That was a fight for a later date. She and Ernest lived pretty well for a while in that honeymoon phase. Then it happened. She went to the doctor for the first time in years. She had cervical cancer. They discovered the baby still in her womb. Doctors suggested aggressive treatment of the cancer which meant chemo therapy and radiation. The baby wasn’t causing any immediate problems so that was to be addressed at a later date. It was the cancer that needed to be treated–and fast.  Also being concerned, the doctors removed over 100 small moles on her back, fearing they might be cancerous. Thankfully they were not.

Since Ernest did not work much, Grandma worked through her chemo therapy. She lost her hair and donned a wig. This had been a sensitive issue. She’d had dark auburn hair her whole life…now she had nothing but this damn wig. She simply couldn’t catch a break…..then her world turned on a dime. The little she held dear to her was now being used as a weapon against her. …to be continued.

 

Trauma in the Making: Part 1

My grandmother was a paradoxical woman. She had a fire but by the time I saw it was but an ember.  You could see the smoldering in her eyes. She quenched it with drinking, every day. Relying purely on stories, I have been able to see some of the fullness of her life and the demolition that came to bring the need to self-medicate, daily.

Josephine Ruth Leonard was born in 1918 in Talledega, Alabama. She was one of 5 daughters and 3 sons of Pa and Ma Leonard. She was the black sheep, the hellion. She broke away from her family but her emotional fragility always brought her into the care of her sisters or brothers.

I spoke to her younger sister just days before she passed. She described my grandmother as being so kind and frail but not physically frail, but emotionally. This is an opposing image to the one given by my grandfather, Curt’s family. She was a floozy. She drank, danced—a walking temptation surely sent by the devil to lead the meek to the self-destruction.

Jo, as she was known, was a woman first and a mother second. After her much older husband died suddenly, she spun into a era of insensibility. As a woman who needed to be taken care of, she was not adept to nurturing but being nurtured. She found this in a slew of men who came and went. While, her children fended for themselves, she continued on her search for someone to take care of her. Drinking, fighting, instability. This was her life. Rejection, subjection, and dejection were the pillars of her existence.

One of her “husbands”, was an Native American (Indian)  named Short. He was hateful, according to my mother. He was “damn mean”, evil to the core. Jo got pregnant by this man. She was several months along. One night he beat her so severely that he killed the child in her womb. Being so fragile, she was so sullen. This baby was dead but still there. She could not afford to go to a doctor. There was always a hope that the baby might still be alive even though the it ceased to move or grow. Jo wanted that baby, but she knew that would not happen.

She worked as a waitress at is the equivalence of “Waffle House” today. She worked with one other person on the night shift. She made friends with many people who were patrons of the restaurant. Policeman particularly would sit and talk for hours at night waiting on calls to go take care of the menial crime of the time on the Southside of Birmingham. Jo was always the one who could permeate the souls of people she encounter. Men wanted to take care of her but her fire pushed them away. However, in purely platonic relationships, the policeman thought of her as a sister they must protect. So when Short beat her and killed her baby, the policemen were enraged. This was in the 195o’s Birmingham, Alabama. As my mother would say, “There was only one thing worse than a nigger and that was an Indian”. They couldn’t be trusted.

The policemen took Short out of the small, dilapidated apartment where he squatted, while sending my grandmother to work. Everyone saw the policemen take Short. They headed out to the country and killed him. As the story goes. He never returned.

The most disturbing part of this story is the fact, at 70+, after varying cancer treatments, the remains of the baby was still entombed in my grandmother’s womb. This all resurfaced after I watched an episode of “Law & Order-Criminal Intent”. The title is “In the Dark” from 2004.  The character had dementia and inspired the murders over a baby that was never born. She said she didn’t want people to know she was “a coffin”. Wow! The very thought of the emotional and psychological effects of that statement explains so much.

The remainder of the story is to come………

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Dear Lord, Thank You!

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Out of chaos comes stability. Out of ugly comes beauty. Out of hate comes unabounding love. I have to look at the parts of the circumstances around my family at the time of my birth. It all comes pass in a fluid form of harmony. While everything was falling to waste, my mother’s health, my parents’ marriage, my brother’s reality, out comes a baby that unites everything. It is remarkable really.

Then you have my dad alone with a child that is not his and a newborn baby that is also not his, trying to work and balance time with everyone including my mother in the hospital. He was overwhelmed as he’d never ever handled a newborn before. He couldn’t stay up all night and go to work. Nor could John. There was no allowing of my grandmother Josephine to help, because she was a damn drunk with a husband who was possibly a sex offender. Nor could he ask his mother Georgia, for she didn’t like the circumstance that had befallen her son. So what do you do? He’d been close to the Warren family 2 doors down who had a daughter Patti who was 2 years younger than John. From what I understand, JoAnn, the mother and wife of the Warren family, would make him a plate of food at night after work while my mother had been gone. She’d help him out with John so that Daddy had some help. Quite kind of her in the circumstances.

Now he had a newborn trying to navigate the same situation. Whether she volunteered or he asked her, she took the newborn to her home and kept her there and Daddy would visit. She kept me for the next 8 weeks because my Daddy was afraid he’d “break” me and he was just overwhelmed by the entire situation. But out of that chaos, he and JoAnn where the first people on this planet that bonded with me.

When I was almost 3 mos. old, my mother came home and in the Liz fashion swept in to get “her baby”. She had little to do with JoAnn Warren after that. It seems to me that jealousy set in. She played the doting Mother for the first few years of my life. She was the normal mom. It wasn’t until I was 4 or 5 that she and JoAnn made some sort of peace. They became best friends. My dad was always closer to the Warrens and I assumed it was because Bill or (Uncle Bill) as I called him was his buddy. But I know now that wasn’t the case. The dynamic of seeing JoAnn and my Dad talk about me was unusual and I was not able to put words to it until I was older and knew the situation of my birth.

Throughout my life, my mother took a freefall. She went from “Carol Brady” to “Joan Crawford”. She blamed my Dad for his part in her descent. She was a walking zombie. She was drinking, popping pills. She’d gone back to work at Harry Alexiou’s “Gold Nugget” Restaurant. She shifted over to the his brother, Johnny Alexiou’s restaurant ,the “Brass Rail”, which to everyone threw up a red flag.

Johnny was reckless and lived on a level that was not as stable as his older brother Harry. Self-destruction was his middle name. His reputation could be inferred to be wild. I say that because of people’s reactions when she told them she was going to work for Johnny. Everyone lowered their brow and asked the same question, “Liz, are you sure?”. My mother’s answer was that he was “not the same”. Even as a young child, I knew what that meant.

From that time, JoAnn was my babysitter, my emergency contact. She was my rock. My mother tried to balance it by leaving with my grandmother on the weekends but her lack of parenting skills was infamous. Had I been a bad kid, I could have gotten away with anything? I would sit on the hill infront of her Southside Apartment. I would then barricade myself in her bedroom while she sat in her recliner drinking beer. Was the indifference because of me and where I might have come from? Maybe because she seemed to be different in the pictures of my cousins, Curt and Anna when she visited California. She didn’t seem ambivalent to them. I thought it was because Jim was my dad and the tension between the 2 of them was palpable. But now I know it may have been the fact, I was possible her dead husband’s daughter. How do you get passed that?

Putting All the Lies Together

After the conversation with my brother, I spent the next year remembering every moment of my childhood. Every instance that now was a red flag. Encounters, conversations, interactions between everyone. I started asking people. I started with Patti Warren Lett. She was like a sister to me. Her mother, Jo Ann, was the woman who took care of me the first 2 months of my life as well as most of my childhood. Jo Ann was my babysitter  She was my surrogate mother. I loved her so much. Patti was leaving the nest when I spent the bulk of my time with Jo Ann. She was 10 years older than me and 2 years younger than John.

Patti told me that she knew Jim wasn’t my biological father. She remembers hearing him say that no one had the right to take me away. I was his little girl. The rumors had suggested that the man who contributed to my birth might have something to do with my PawPaw Ernest. She said somehow he was involved. It made sense since it was his brother Joe. She never saw Joe. Patti was able to corroborate the tale my brother told. So if Patti and her family knew who else knew?  I contacted Kim Aaron Lloyd. She had an Ancestry account with Ernest and Joe in it. She was part of their family. So in the most awkward email of my life, I told her my tale. She responded by putting me in touch with her aunt, Sonia Stephens. It seems Sonia worked with my mother while she was pregnant with me. She knew my mother and grandmother.

When I called Sonia, I was nervous.  This all seemed so unreal. Sonia talked about my mother, being young, pregnant, enamored with Joe Aaron when they worked at Lamar’s Drive In. She said my uncle Mike was always around and he smelled so good. None of the kids wore aftershave but he did and he smelled so good. There were 2 red flags in that statement. The fact Mike was there, when I know he was in California by the time I was born through pictures and stories and that none of the “kids” wore aftershave. My mother was 30 when I was born…this is not making any sense!!!!

“My Baby”

When I tell  people about my family, I have to remember who my family is. People can’t wrap their heads around the reality of my family.  Every single relative has a chemical dependency problem. How do you make that normal or coherent for somebody? On our spontaneous jaunt to California, I realized for the first time how unconventional and off the chart my family was as a whole. A stranger skulking our house early on a Sunday morning. I heard my grandmother feverishly making phone calls to what seems like random people. My Uncle Mike in California was screaming through the phone. My mother was recovering from a drunken bender the night before at a friend’s house. This wasn’t the most odd Sunday but it wouldn’t be a typical day in the life of any of my friends.

It was a crisp Sunday morning. What the hell was going on? By the end of the day with virtually no clothes or possessions we were on a plane L.A.X. Before we boarded the plane, an older man with kind face walked up to my mother and hugged her. He said it had been a long time. He was trying to calm my manic mother. They discussed what my uncle wanted us all to do. She finally introduced me to him.  “This is Ray. He’s Ernest’s brother.”

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Ernest was my Paw Paw. Even the mention of his name, made me smile. He died when I was 3 years old, but I remember him being the source of continuous laughter and him being a clown all the time. It wasn’t until I was older that I was told he was just “a damn old drunk”.  He couldn’t hold a job; he sponged off my grandmother who worked midnights at Waffle House-esque diner known as the “Steak and Eggs”. But to me, he was my crazy Paw Paw telling jokes, pulling the chair out from under my mother or taking me to the little general store to buy me whatever kind of candy I wanted.

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Ernest wasn’t biologically related to me. He had been my grandmother’s last husband many years after the death of my grandfather, Curt. He was younger than my grandmother by about 8-9 years. He died abruptly in 1977. I remember the night clearly. I was a sleep on the couch in our living room on Cypress drive. It was odd because my mother wasn’t there; it was just me and my Daddy.  My mother didn’t drive and I don’t know where she went. My normal routine was to sit down with my Daddy and watch TV after my bath. Daddy would carry me to bed, but this wasn’t what happened this night. Daddy said we had to go see Paw Paw. We drove up to their apartment. There were flashing lights everywhere. People were walking all around. It was the middle of the night or at least it seemed like it to me. I’d never seen people at their apartment before–not even the neighbors. My daddy and I sat down on the stairs amid all the chaos. He had a look on his face. It almost looked like anger. He was a mild man. He didn’t throw fits or anything. He would look at you with this look of disappointment and restrained words.  It wasn’t a scary look; it was a look that always made guilt well up in my chest. I remember asking where Paw Paw and Grandma were. He said Paw Paw was sick and Grandma and Mother had gone to see how Paw Paw was doing.

None of those words meant anything to me really. I never realized I’d never see my Paw Paw again. I was “his baby” as he’d always say. He came to our house all the time. I knew my Daddy didn’t like him or my Grandma for that matter. Daddy had never taken me to see them before. It was unusual but I couldn’t comprehend the truth of it all. My Paw Paw had died. Grandma had found him when she came home. Mother was at the hospital with her.

Now 5 years later we sit in an airport terminal with a brother of his, on the spur of the moment. I had school Monday morning. What had happened now?

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