Truth is Stranger Than Fiction – a Memoir continued

My mother and father divorced. Mom took custody of my two brothers and Daddy got me. Occasionally through the years I would ask mother why I went to live with my father and she would always tell me that taking care of three children would have been too difficult for a single mother (especially, as it turned out, without promised child support). It was sixty years later I came across Mom’s divorce papers and found that I didn’t go to my father’s home because I had “daddy worship” but because he got custody of me. After their divorce Dad married Gigi, who became to my mind, “the wicked stepmother”. They had an eighteen-month old baby girl, Gloria, when I moved in with them at the tender age of seven from the sunny tropics of Florida to the freezing winters of New Jersey. Also joining us for the summer was Gigi’s son, Rod, from a previous marriage.  He was a few years younger than me.

When I arrived in New Jersey we lived in a construction shack along the Passaic River. My father worked with heavy Caterpillar equipment doing contract work for the city building roads, tunnels, sewers and whatever else such huge equipment is used for; and this little shack of a house was once used as the office of the construction company. One night, my father and Gigi got into a terrible fight and my stepmother was screaming bloody murder – I truly don’t remember my father hollering, but maybe my hero worship dulled his voice. The next thing I remember, Daddy shoved his new wife across the room; she fell on the floor, reached over and picked up a pair of scissors, screamed at him to stay away or else! At this point, my father told me, “go outside, go outside!” – which I did. This memory has stayed with me all my life, hence began the fear and dread of my “wicked stepmother”.

Not long after moving in with Daddy and my new mother they began looking for a bigger home. They found one that, to this day, I remember vividly. In fact, one day as I was walking my baby-doll in her buggy I stopped, looked at the house and told myself, “don’t forget your address, because someday you may want to come back to visit”. (I guess in the back of my head I knew I wouldn’t always be living there). Around thirty-four years later I did go back to the address I’d stored in the back of my mind; but things looked different – which corner was it on?  The address I’d memorized was off (either it wasn’t correct or the addresses had been changed at some point in time).  But it was a corner house and the big two-story house on the northeast corner did look like it, sort of, from what I remembered.

Over the years when I would relive my childhood days with Daddy and Gigi there would inevitably be one scene frozen in time in my mind’s eye:  I’m outside in the cold snow.  Gigi had put my coat and gloves on and told me to go out and play.  After a short while I am freezing and ask in my small timid voice if I can come back in.  But she says, “no, you haven’t been outside long enough.  Just play awhile”.  I am too afraid to ask again so I try to keep moving.  I can’t feel my hands and feet they are so numb.   My fear of her was so great that, when my doll’s head came off – and it was Gigi’s childhood doll that she had given to me, I was absolutely terrified at what she might do to me!  Finally, I drew up enough courage to offer my piggy bank to repay her for the damage I had done to her doll.  She laughed, and seemed genuinely surprised that I was so upset over this and reassured me that she could fix it, not to worry about it and gave me a hug.  I felt tremendous relief, but still did not lose my fear and trepidation that  my  “wicked stepmother”  might someday harm me.

One day, after living not quite two years with my father and his new family (according to mother)  my Dad took me to my maternal grandmother, Nana, who also lived in New Jersey, dropped me off with a bag of my clothes and left. He told her “I was too much to handle”. Sixty years later ( the same day that I discovered Mother’s divorce decree) I found a letter from my grandmother to Mom. In it, grandmother wrote that father arrived at her door with me.  He told Nana that Gigi had gone off the deep end and they had to institutionalize her, so he was returning me to Mother since he couldn’t care for me by himself.

Over the next fifty-five years I would occasionally, maybe once or twice every year or so, think of my half-sister. Having only brothers I thought it would be really nice to meet my half-sister; would she look something like me? would she have any of the same interests that I have? Would we become close? She was, after all, blood-related and I fantasized how it might be to have a sister, albeit a half-sister.  This was before computers so I would go to the libraries and pour through phone directories and newspapers from different cities that I thought they may be living in; but always came up empty-handed.

One day, when I was living in Arizona, I was expressing my desire to find our half-sister to my younger brother. He couldn’t see why I was so interested in finding her after so many years, but, he thought he could possibly help me. When our father had died in the ’70s my brother went to his funeral and had kept a copy of his death certificate. He remembered there was the name of one of his wives on it. Over the years my father had married four times, the fourth not long before he died at the age of fifty-six. He called me back later with the name of just the one I was looking for: my half-sister’s mother, Gigi! And her address. I could not believe where she lived! Less than three miles from where I had lived for thirteen year in California – and this was clear across the country from where I grew up! And my half-sister lived only about one mile from her mother! To say I was excited is an understatement!

But the weirdness doesn’t stop there. For a brief period, after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, I moved from the slightly damaged apartment I was living in to a friend’s house. From time to time I would take walks in the beautifully wooded neighborhood. One day I had walked about three long blocks from where I was staying, turned around and was heading back home when someone called me, “Sandra!”. I looked around, didn’t see anyone, and thought it must have been a figment of my imagination. But no, as I stood there thinking and analyzing where this voice came from, I was certain this was a real voice and not in my head. So I looked around again. There was a lady standing in front of a house about a block away, just about where I had turned around to head home. It was too far to go back on a whim that maybe it was this lady who was calling me – after all, I knew nobody in the neighborhood, so how could it be her?

As it turned out, the house where I saw this lady was directly across the street from my step-mother’s house!  But it would be twelve years later before I would put these pieces together.

To make a long story short, I contacted my step-mother and she in turn gave my half-sister’s phone number and address to me. We communicated for about three years. Both Gigi and Gloria appeared to be very happy and excited to be reconnected with me after all these years. They sent lovely greeting cards for my birthday, we talked on the phone, and Gigi wrote long breezy letters reminiscing about our life together in New Jersey and included photos of me holding Gloria in my lap.  She also sent pictures of the house, which I was able to confirm that, indeed, the house I visited some years back was the house I lived in.   On two occasions my husband and I went back to California to visit relatives and hoped to visit Gigi and Gloria while there.  But they refused to see me on both occasions.  They had different excuses on each visit, but the second excuse was probably the real reason why they didn’t want to see me:  My physical presence would bring up too much of Gigi’s painful past with my father.  Gloria had told me she didn’t remember me at all since she was only a very small baby at the time – and she wasn’t really interested in meeting me in person since her life was so busy. Naturally, I was absolutely crushed.  How does one enjoy conversing on the phone with you – and writing long letters to you, but does not want to see you in person?  After the second rebuff I decided for my own sense of self-worth it would be better to stop all communication (it seemed to me to be a bit of a sham to do otherwise).

In my correspondence with Gigi I did find out the real reason why they  sent me back to my mother. When Gigi’s son, Rod, returned home to his father, the father disappeared with their son. This caused great emotional stress for Gigi and after returning home to live with mother and my brothers, Gigi and my father went to Carmel, California to look for her son, since Rod’s father lived in Portland, Oregon and traveled throughout the West.  But it was many years later when Rod was sixteen years old before she found him- and then, evidently, she forgave Rod’s father and they were remarried! They stayed married until he died many years later.

I think the greatest good that came from my persistent drive to find my half-sister was to correct an imperfect picture I had of Gigi – the “wicked step-mother”.  Gigi was really a very special lady. She actually had my best interests at heart, made my clothes and doll’s clothes, enrolled me in the Brownies and did what most conscientious mothers do, looking after my basic needs. So, even though my desire was to reunite with Gloria  it turned out my “karma” was with my step-mother, and, through our conversations and letters, was able to let go of the mental image I’d carried of Gigi all those years and to forgive her for any perceived “wrongs” she had done to me and  accept her as a vulnerable young woman who was doing the best she could in a difficult life situation.

But the strange coincidences don’t end yet! While living in Northern California, and before discovering my step-mother and half-sister, I met a fellow singer at one of the popular piano bars in the area. My mother was visiting me from her home in Cape Cod when a tall handsome man entered the bar. Mother poked me in the ribs with her elbow and said, “Now that’s the man you should go after!” (At the time I was dating a younger man who was trying to dump me for a younger woman). My best friend, Brenda, introduced me to this man, Roy, and we hit it off right away. So here was this man that my mother thought was made for me, and Brenda and my boyfriend both were doing their best to pair us up. Well, they were right, he was the one for me. We were married one year later. As we got to know each other, we found out that Roy was born one mile from where I was born in New Jersey; he lived in the same neighborhood as my step-mother, Gigi, just one block away. Every week some of the local businessmen would get together and play bridge – two of them were Roy’s father and Gigi’s father! And, while I was living with my father as a child, one of Roy’s best friends was my music teacher!

Truth is stranger than fiction!

~All names except the author’s and DH, were changed to protect the privacy of still living individuals.

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