My stepmother, Gladys, was a glamorous Chicago model (by way of Kentucky and Ohio) and a student at Northwestern University whom I seldom saw in anything but evening gowns during her whirlwind courtship with my father. She married him in Kankakee, Illinois, on his 38th birthday, New Year's Eve of 1941/42, although he lied and told her he was only 33. She was 20. "The Heart of the Rose" does not include the interim years, except the blessed end of them, but I shall relate here an incident which occurred three months after they married.
There was a young man who lived in our building at 321 Custer Avenue in Evanston, outside Chicago. He was
terribly ill. He had lost his hair to cancer. I remember
that he was 19, and he wore a baseball cap to cover his naked scalp. He
was so embarrassed about it that he wouldn't take it off at any time. He even slept in it. He was very kind to me. He "baby-sat" me sometimes by taking me to his mom's
apartment, where she would lavish maternal love on me, "that poor little
boy down the hall with those terrible parents." They were Italian. She cooked spaghetti all the time. The
father was dead, and she worked very hard to keep her son's expensive
medications on the shelf. On the day that I turned eight on March 31,
1942, he took me out riding to the lake (Lake Michigan). It was
sparkling and clean in those days, and the beaches were white. We rode
on a double-decker bus and saw all the sights from on top. What a day
that was, but he got me home late, and my stepmother met me at the door
with a knotted dish towel in her hand and began to beat me about the
face. My friend went to stop her, but my father rushed into the fray.
They struggled, and I remember kicking my father in the shins. "I hate
you! I hate you!" I screamed. I tremble with rage even now, after all these
years, and in my mind I kick and yell and reach again for
putter in the corner by the door, and I strike him across the back
repeatedly, my father, until he falls to his knees in pain and stunned surprise. My 19-year-old Italian, tall, gaunt, dying his
slow, agonizing death, lay trembling. His baseball cap had fallen off.
He looked so naked there, and so afraid. I knelt down beside him and
took his poor head in my lap and kissed it and put his cap back on.
That's when his mother came from their apartment down the hall, in
response to the screams. The dear Italian lady who barely spoke
English helped her son to his feet and took me by the hand. As she led
us away, she turned to my father and stepmother and said: "In my country, I kill you for this. You don't hurt my son
no more. You don't hurt your son no more when you here, this building.
Long way to fall down four floors. I only a woman, but I push pretty
good. Come on boys, now we eat happy-birthday ice cream, and Mama tell
you a story."
I was safe until my father moved us to another city, where it all began again. We were always moving. I went to twenty-four schools before attending college.Eventually, both Gladys and Dad paid a price which must be attributed, in part, to their mistreatment of me - not because I believe in "what goes around, comes around." My philosophy in such matters is that most of one's experience of good and evil derives from one's own attitudes. I believe in the maxim, "Love is reflected in love." So, too, is hatred or any other evil ultimately reflected back upon itself and its perpetrator. As my father had denied me my mother, so I would come to deny him his son. After running away from him at 17, the total of the time I spent with him and Gladys, until he died at 77, could be measured in hours, not days. Our relationship had been irrevocably soiled by his viciousness toward my mother and me. He never missed an opportunity to speak in the filthiest terms about my mother. Mother, on the other hand, had forgiven him long since and thought it would be nice if perhaps they could have a chat on the phone, but he went into paroxysms of rage at the suggestion. Poor Gladys carefully arranged her life so that in her last years after my father's death she could be near her siblings and their families - "my people," as she phrased it. Somehow, she managed to estrange herself from nearly all of them. It could not have been their fault. Many of them had provided me with sanctuary in my youth. All of them were decent, Christian people. I believe her to have been mentally ill.
Toward the end of her life, Gladys and I actually became long-distance friends. In one memorable telephone conversation, after she lamented the fact that she and my father had never had children together, I asked why they had not adopted. "Oh, Brock," she blurted out without thinking, "I could never love another woman's child!" There was a silence, as I could think of nothing to say. Finally, she said, "I suppose I shouldn't have said that to you, of all people." I laughed. "No matter, my dear," I said, "I knew it long before you did, but I am blessed with my mother's forgiving heart." Gladys died lonely and alone at the age of 75 in 1996.