Ch 1: You Can Call Him Dad
How Uncle Norm became Dad
Welcome to the first chapter in my long-awaited (by me, at least!) memoir, If You Only Knew: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Their Undoing. It’s my hope that you find this to be a book of healing and light after a journey of revelations—my parents and mine. In this memoir, I’ll be exploring themes of DNA surprises, adoption, NPE (non-parental event) discoveries, LGBTQ life, death journeys, and reconciliation. If you want to know more about this project and what to expect, you can find it here:
And if you missed the four letters to Mom I published as the prologue, you can find links to those and anything else you miss along the way here:
So let the story begin…
In the summer of 1960, just after I turned five, Mom, my older brother, Jarrett, and I boarded a train in Ann Arbor, Michigan, bound for Denver, Colorado. Mom was a petite woman, only 5’2” with heels. Convinced that, at her height, she couldn’t afford an extra pound, she worked hard to maintain her weight. She always wore make-up—mascara, rouge, lipstick—but it rarely looked overdone. A prominent widow’s peak foretold her life to anyone who was listening. She had wavy, black hair with silver streaks—fitting for her forty-seven years—but unusual for a mother with two children under seven. Her hair was the kind of silver-gray that sophisticated women spent hours seeking—and paying for—at the beauty parlor. But to Mom, it just meant she stood out from her friends—all of them ten or even twenty years younger than she—and standing out was the last thing she ever wanted. Mom was happiest when she was in the background, helping others shine, especially when it was her kids.
She was probably well-dressed for the trip, in a skirt, jacket and pressed white blouse— as she would dress for church—because that is what you did when you traveled. She would have carried a purse, not too big, just enough for her leather clutch wallet with the gold metal clasp at the top, a white lace handkerchief, a plastic comb, a pink compact with mirror, a tube of red lipstick, a roll of Lifesavers, and of course, our tickets.
Before this trip, I don’t think Mom had ever traveled very far from Detroit where she was born and raised. Over the years, she made mention of visiting relatives in Toledo, of an occasional trip to Ontario, a trip to Wisconsin for her first honeymoon—I still have the large wooden plaque framing a copper relief of the Madonna that she bought there. She also told me of how her mother sent her as a young teen to work as a housekeeper for a couple in Port Huron, a small city in Michigan’s Thumb region. That trip ended badly.
“I begged my mother to let me come home,” she told me one day when I mentioned a friend who lived in Port Huron. “The man chased me around the kitchen table, trying to get at me.”
“Did she let you come home?” I asked, avoiding the threatening question—the one I wanted to ask—“Did he catch you?”
“She did,” she replied, “but she never forgave me for it.” I was not sure if she meant for coming home, for getting chased, or for getting caught. And I didn’t ask.
I always wondered, though. Mom shied away from touch, turned her face to the side when even her kids moved in to give her a goodnight kiss. As I grew into my teen years, I grew to hate that ritual. It felt like rejection every time I tried to kiss her and all I got was the side of her face.
None of the other trips she had taken in her life could compare to the train ride to Denver. This was a trip into the unknown from which she could never return.
Mom was the consummate worrier. When Mom worried, she worried about everything. She worried about being late for church on Sunday. She worried about her Super Bowl party guests being upset if their favorite team lost. She worried about how we’d get to school if even a long-shot weather pattern might head our way.
When she worried, she got anxious, she wouldn’t sleep, and she fussed over everything and everyone. She fussed because she wanted people she cared about to be happy, for things to go well, for nothing bad to happen. “For nothing bad to happen,” isn’t that the mantra of so many who have had bad things happen to them, who live in fear of the bad things? That was my mother—always anticipating the worst—though it would be years before I knew why.
So I imagine she worried long and hard about this trip. But that didn’t stop her. Even though she was a worrier, she had a determination about her that drove her to do what she set out to do. For the past five years, she had been a single parent of toddlers. Her first husband, and the man she told us, and we believed, was our father, Bob, died when she was four months pregnant with me. He left her with no pension and very little, if any, in savings. I’m not sure how she covered expenses. The only income I know about was the Social Security survivor’s benefit for widows with dependent children that the government sent her—about $50 a month for each of us—which even then, didn’t go far.
So that’s why, she told me when I was older, that she packed up our house in Plymouth, one of Detroit’s picket-fence suburbs, and moved to Denver to start a new life with a man who would take care of us.
“We’re going to Denver to see Uncle Norm,” Mom told us when she announced the trip to us.
I was excited about seeing Uncle Norm. He had moved from Plymouth a couple months before to work as a salesman for Daisy Air Rifles (aka BB guns). He made me laugh and gave me lots of hugs. And I knew what Daisy was because Uncle Norm had already given me a Daisy for Christmas that year, a cap gun and holster that I loved.
Uncle Norm and Aunt Betty were our godparents, not our real aunt and uncle, but I don’t remember ever calling them anything else. In Plymouth, where I was born, they were around for every holiday, for trips to the beach, and just about everything else. We saw them more than we saw our real Aunt Babe and Uncle Paul, who lived on a farm just a few miles away. We regularly visited Uncle Norm and Aunt Betty at their restaurant, the Marquis Toll House. I would help Aunt Betty fill the napkin holders and salt and pepper shakers, and Jarrett would help Jimmy, the cook, bring supplies up from the storeroom in the basement, dipping into one of the no. 10 size cans for a handful of coconut while he was there. I’m not sure how much help a couple of toddlers were, but Uncle Norm, Aunt Betty, and the rest of the staff humored us and made us feel at home.
I loved going to the restaurant, especially when Uncle Norm sliced me off a piece of Marquis Chocolate Cake, the house specialty three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Jarrett and I would sit at the counter with the restaurant regulars, old men who came every day to the restaurant to eat. They would challenge us to milk-drinking contests and to see how far we could blow drinking-straw wrappers across the room. Eating the cake was my favorite part, though. I can still taste the rich, moist cake as I licked the sweet chocolate frosting off with my tongue and let it dissolve against the roof of my mouth. It became the cake of birthdays and other special events throughout my childhood.
The train left Michigan Central Station in Detroit and headed west along what is now the I-94 Corridor, the first border-to-border toll-free interstate highway in America. In 1960, when we traveled on the Wolverine train, only parts of the interstate were open, so the train route between Detroit and Chicago, which passed through Ann Arbor to pick up a mother and her two small children, was a popular one. From Ann Arbor, the train traveled through Jackson, home of Jackson State Prison, and Albion, an industrial city filled with iron forge factories and parts suppliers for the auto industry, both towns where I would eventually work after college. The train would roll on through Kalamazoo and Dowagiac, the home of Heddon Fishing Lures, a company that would come to be owned by Daisy, and part of the product line Uncle Norm would peddle in sporting goods stores throughout the West. The train would then swing around the base of Lake Michigan and into Chicago’s Union Station.
We would have had to change trains in Chicago. I’m sure that meant my mother fretted until the California Zephyr (CZ) bound for Denver pulled out of the station with us aboard. Early in the CZ’s history, the railroad segregated women and children in the first car, but by the time we rode, this was no longer the case—we could have chosen our own seats anywhere on the train. Because the CZ traveled all the way to San Francisco, across the Rocky and Sierra Mountain ranges and through Feather River Canyon in northern California, it boasted a second level of seating high above the rails in its Vista Dome chair cars. To assure passengers enjoyed the most scenic views in daylight, it left Chicago, rumbled through Chicago’s warehouse district, and into the small towns and farmland of Northern Illinois, so that by the time it passed into endless flatlands of the Great Plains, it was dark. That meant we probably arrived in Denver, at the east end of the Rockies, in the early morning hours.
I can imagine Mom’s anxiety rising again as barren grasslands replaced the lush landscape of her known world. At the time, I wasn’t cognizant of Mom’s emotional state, but in looking back at it, I’m certain worry would have consumed her—worry for us, worry for herself, even worry for the other passengers on the train.
All I remember is that somewhere close to Denver, Mom freshened us up and prepared us to disembark. After we were looking smart, she stood us, my brother and I, next to each other, put one hand on each of our shoulders, my right, and Jarrett’s left, and said something like, “Kids, I want you to listen to me. When we see Uncle Norm at the station, you can call him Dad.”
Because we were standing up at the time, I suspect we might have already pulled into Denver’s Union Station. I don’t remember if the morning sun had started to peak over the horizon we had left behind. I don’t remember if I felt the morning chill against my five-year-old arms. I also don’t remember if the whistle was blowing as the train rumbled into a more populated area, but I’m pretty sure it was, because whenever I hear a train whistle today, I think of that moment, of Mom’s words, “You can call him Dad.”
I can still transport myself back into my tiny body with its head full of curly red hair. I can still feel Mom’s hands on me while she fussed with my clothes. I can feel my eyes getting big and something fluttering fast in my chest as I heard her say, “Dad.” I was too young to understand much of what was going on, but I liked it when people were happy, and Mom sounded happy, and Jarrett seemed happy, and Uncle Norm—I mean, Dad—seemed happy, so that was enough for me.
As dawn broke in the Denver sky, we stepped off the train and greeted our new dad. I don’t know if we actually said, “Hi, Dad.” I do remember that he leaned down to Jarrett and me, kissed each of us, and then grabbed us close to his rotund body with one hand, as he reached out to grasp our mother’s hand with the other. No doubt two pipes loaded with tobacco protruded from his belt and a pair of glasses sat precariously atop his bald head. When I felt his arms around us, it was like the engine had just locked on to complete the train. You can call him Dad.
“I’m so glad you’re here. How was the trip? Did you have fun on the train?” I can imagine him peppering Jarrett and me with questions about our experiences as he continued to hold Mom’s hand. I noticed that, and it made me smile. Mom seemed stiff, uncomfortable, as she always did with outward displays of affection, but Dad made up for it with his warmth and enthusiasm about having his new family together. I was glad he seemed so happy.
When Mom and Dad finally got the first hug of their new life together, I wormed myself in between them to make sure they knew it included me. I don’t think I really feared it wouldn’t. In fact, I don’t think it took me any time to adjust to the idea of having a dad. I don’t think I questioned how it happened that Uncle Norm became our dad or whatever ever became of Aunt Betty. He had been so much a part of our lives before, and now we got to have more of him. That was all I knew to care about.
Read Chapter 2
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