The tall dark stranger

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Elmer (mother’s father), Ketz (her first husband), Clyde (her first son)

Mother was a monogamist four times. At least, I think she was. Pregnant at 15, she had her first child at 16. Before she gave birth to Connie, her first little green-eyed girl, she married the child’s father. Ketz was older than her and had charmed her with his good looks. It’s unclear if he was really her husband. Another wife lived somewhere in his past, and he may or may not have been legally divorced from her. Two years later, mother’s second child, Clyde, was born; a green-eyed boy with curly hair, who looked like his daddy.

Whether the first marriage was monogamy or bigamy, it didn’t last long. Ketz never wanted to put his hard-earned money into the hands of landlords and utility companies; he preferred investing in gambling and other women. Mother had nothing to give the bill collectors, so she left Ketz and moved back in with her mother.

Connie, the oldest girl, and Clyde, the oldest son

One year after  Clyde was born, Germany invaded Poland and World War II officially started. That year, 1939, President Roosevelt proclaimed U.S. neutrality, but just in case, he also asked for a $1.3 million defense budget.

The build up of the armed forces, along with increased federal spending, helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, but unemployment was still high in the area of Pennsylvania mother lived in. So, she left the two children with her mother and went to New York to find work. Finally free from feeding, diapering, and caring for two small children, she went wild, dancing and drinking every night, and waking up on one particular morning with a tattoo of her name on her shoulder.

Mother (in the middle) at a nightclub in New York

One of the nights she went out drinking and dancing, she met Grady, a handsome officer in the Merchant Marines. They did more than just drink and dance together, and she got pregnant with her third child. Right about that time, Japan dropped its bombs on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially declared war. Grady shipped out, telling mother he didn’t know when he would be back. Late in her pregnancy when she could no longer work, her friends took her in. Her father, Elmer, died right after she gave birth to James, so she returned once more to her mother’s house, with another baby.

Jobs were hard to find in Barnesboro, so she left the three children with her mother and went to Chester to find a waitressing job. World War II brought manufacturing and ship building jobs to Chester, which sits on the Delaware River across from southwestern New Jersey. Once she found a job and got an apartment, her mother and the three children joined her. Not long after that, Grady showed up again and they decided to get married.

Mother’s darkest days were just ahead of her, but of course, she didn’t know that. You never do. The future, a tall dark stranger with good looks and an easy laugh, holds out his hand and you take it. In some stories he carries you off into the sunset and you live happily ever after. In other stories, he takes you home, beats the life out of you, and then leaves you out on the street with five children. And that’s exactly what mother’s future did.

40 thoughts on “The tall dark stranger

  1. I love following the story of your mother, I wonder how she kept going with all of that responsibility. No choice, right? She sounds like a pretty amazing woman, she just kept getting back up and getting on with life no matter how hard it was.

  2. Please continue to write your stories…whether or not they end up in a book, at least you’re telling them. This is what I’ve been trying to do, but I’m reluctant to be as honest and open as you are. I hope to get over that, and I do think that everyone’s story needs to be told.

  3. ntexas99

    This was so beautifully written … I haven’t been able to put my finger on what it is about your writing that I find so magnetic, but I know that it keeps pulling me back, again and again. As I read through this, I feel like I’m sharing the story over a friendly cup of coffee, but at the same time, there is the hint of laughter, and the shadow of sadness. It’s all blended together in such a way that the only thing I know for sure is that I want to hear more. Excellent post. Best I’ve read in a long while. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Truth is, genuinely, stranger than fiction a lot of the time. Take the truth that your mother went through the trials and suffering she did, taking her children with her into the dark and through it, and yet produced at least a couple of pretty amazing kids–one of them a writer with such breathtaking range that she can leap from the sublime to the ridiculous in a single bound and then bound right on over to the deeply poignant and gritty and and and . . . just as though it were the most commonplace thing on earth. Which it most decidedly is not.

    Rob is absolutely right. And I would expand on that to say that a great “long story” (novel, what have you) is generally made up of many individual episodes, which are not so different from separate short stories either.

    You, my dear, are astounding. Straight up.

    • Thank you. Coming from a wordsmith like yourself, Kathryn, that is a high compliment. You walk into a room full of wild, snarling words and soon have them eating out of your hand, eager to do your bidding.

  5. What a story — sad and beautiful like all great stories! Who would play the role of your mother if this were a movie? Please continue writing it all down…

  6. Beautifully, painfully written. I agree with the commenters who suggested a book — stories from the Motherland. Tell it however you need to, and then send it out to others who can’t get it out as brilliantly as you can.

    • Often it isn’t until we are older and look back that we see where we failed and who we hurt, as well as understand the people who hurt us. We can’t change the past, but we can forgive and ask for forgiveness. That changes both the present and the future.

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