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 my father's 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.

Growing Up

This was the face my mother saw in late 1950 when we met in secret rendezvous for the first time in twelve years. I could hardly believe how she fussed over me, saying that I looked scrawny and malnourished, had a bad complexion, my hair slicked back and uncared for, my clothes cheap and teen-age tacky. I was used to parental figures who paid no attention to the way I dressed or how I looked and cared little about what I ate and just generally treated me like a piece of furniture until I committed an infraction of the mysterious, unspoken rules and had to be beaten with baling wire or leather belts, sometimes almost senseless, and then locked away in the coal bin for the weekend without food, allowed out only to use the basement toilet and scoop water into my thirsty mouth with my dirty hands.
On my sixteenth birthday, in 1950, I unwittingly committed such an infraction, for which Gladys gave me a push and a kick through the basement door, locking me in till my father came home and beat me. Thoroughly cowed by then, as I had not been when I attacked him with the golf club on my eighth birthday in defense of my friend, I took his lashing without a struggle. Afterward, perhaps stricken with guilt, for it was my birthday after all, he came down to the coal bin and handed me a piece of lemon meringue pie. "Your mother made this for you," he said, and locked the door again and went away. "My mother?" I said to myself. "That woman is not my mother!" I looked at the narrow half-window of the coal bin that led to the yard. In a sudden frenzy of hatred, I cracked it with my fist. It broke, and bloodied my fist, but I didn't care. Scrawny as I was, I still had a terrible time squeezing through, but I managed to push myself out into the yard. It was dark. I had no money, but I had rage, and on the strength of my anger boiling over as it never had before, I fled into the night going nowhere, just away! Thus did I begin an odyssey which took me to my Auntie Boo two hundred miles away, and it was she, shaking like a leaf and pulling down the window shades for fear my father had followed me with his gun, who opened the door to my future when she confessed her role in the conspiracy to keep me from my mother. Within a month, I would meet my mother for the first time after all those desperate years.

Timeline Pictorial 1950-1952

Back to Table of Contents

2000 Brockman Morris