There just wasn’t putting it off any longer. Hell, I’d had the phone number for two weeks. My niece Amy had tracked it down through tax records. Take that, Google and Facebook.
But I had waited. Waited until I was in a quiet place, with nobody else around, so I could focus on what to say.
What do you say to somebody you don’t know but with whom you share the same father? “Hi, I’m your long lost sister, the one your daddy got in trouble with his wife over….”
At the very least, I wanted to be parked. Hard to do on an 8400-mile road trip. But it was getting late. I wanted to give them a couple day’s notice and I didn’t know exactly where he lived, didn’t know if the address and phone I had in El Dorado County was the right guy. But like standing at the edge of a swimming pool looking at the water, it’s not getting any warmer. Staring at the back of a white horse trailer, with a chocolate brown tail twitching to and fro, in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 101, eighty miles outside San Francisco, I dialed the number. Why do we still say, “dial?”
“Hi, Angela?” I took a wild guess, since that was one of the names in the county records.
“Yes,” she said. Bingo.
“My name is Jean Whatley and I’m looking for a Michael Lester whose father’s name was Tommy. Do I have the right house?”
In one call, one phone call, I had found him.
“My mother was an old family friend. I believe my older brother Don may have known Mike, I was hoping to talk to him.”
“Mike’s my dad, I believe he’s sleeping right now. He’s got kind of a cold or something.”
I told her no problem, I could call back. I was afraid if I got off the line though, I might not get her back again. I didn’t want to sound desperate.
“No problem, just tell your dad that Jean called. And I believe he might have known my older brother Don, in San Francisco and maybe my mom. They’ve both passed away, but I’m trying to back track with some old…acquaintances.”
Another pause. “Let me see if he’s awake.” She left and came back, long enough for me to move forward forty-five feet.
“Yeah, he’s asleep.” Pause.
And then, “was my grandpa your father?” Just like that. Way to cut to the chase, home girl.
“Yep.” It was all I could muster, staring at the horse’s tail and a sea of taillights. For someone who’s been throwing words out like grass seed from a broadcast spreader all of my life, that’s all I had.
“I know about you,” she said.
“I know about you.” The realization that in someone else’s household, at some point in time, whether sitting around a kitchen table, on the front porch, in the living room, in a beer joint or on a death bed, that some words had been spoken about a little brown eyed girl, a baby, really, who’d gone away on the train with her mama, the fact that somebody, anybody had talked about me, had remembered, or wondered, moved me beyond words.
“I know about you.” How I had wanted them to know about me. I had wanted him, my father to know about me. I wanted him to know what a wonderful, loving, beautiful soul had sprung from his seed. But we had missed our chance, he never came around. But now, I had found my brother.
“Are you okay?” Angela asked. Of course I was completely choked up, center lane, traffic moving at the breakneck speed of 12.5 MPH and my eyes are welling with tears. Of course, what else?
“I’m sorry.” I always fucking apologize. “This just means a lot to me. Thank you, Angela, so much for taking this call. I am so glad you picked up.” As if she’d had ESP, that the long lost sister/aunt was the person on the other end of the line.
“Don’t cry! Be careful!” She had a laugh in her voice. “It will be okay, just don’t have a car wreck, okay? It will ALL be okay.” How’s that for a woman whom I’ve never met, my new niece, having the immediate generosity of spirit, sense of humor and common sense to snap me out of my holy shit moment? Fast on our feet, it apparently runs in the family.
“I will have him call you, I promise.”
An hour later, he did. THANK GOD it wasn’t as I was navigating the mix-master where you can either take the Golden Gate bridge or head north to San Rafael. That freeway is a mother. Instead, the phone rang while I was doing donuts in suburban Novaro, following the pulsing blue ball on my GPS, trying to find the street to my friend Dan’s house, with whom I was spending the night. I was late for supper, when Mike’s number came up in my iPhone. Such a weird feeling, to see “Mike Lester” in my cell phone, the mystery brother, suddenly real. I had to pick up.
“Jean, I guess this is your brother Mike.” I pulled over at the Shell station. “I always knew this day would come.” We talked for about a half hour. He said he’d only seen me one time, one time in his whole life, when he and my dad were coming back from a salmon fishing trip and they stopped by. Frankly, it was a booty call. He said I was just a baby, playpen age. “I remember my dad telling me, “this is your baby sister.” I didn’t know what to think, except I do remember thinking you were so cute and you had the prettiest eyes.”
He went on, “I’m so glad you called. I didn’t know how to find you. All I knew was I had a little sister named Jeannie, someplace.” We agreed to meet on Tuesday, I’d drive up to El Dorado Hills, past Sacramento after I tooled around in San Francisco for a day. I got to Dan’s house late, a news shooter I’d worked with in Albuquerque and had not seen for 26 years, NO small reunion there and I’ll be damned if that sweet guy and his darling wife didn’t have a steak dinner and a nice pinot noir, ready to set on the table. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Until I got to meet my brother. And you know what? It was pretty damn easy. I was a little bit nervous, but I’ve had worse, try bankruptcy court, or reporting on live TV from a helicopter, or sitting behind a glass window, waiting to talk to your former husband who’s on suicide watch in the county jail. I wondered, driving out to their place in the rolling hills, hence El Dorado Hills,will he be short or tall, fat or thin, bald or a full head of hair? Will he look like me?
And of course, he does. Could this story have ANY other possible ending? Mike is handsome and sweet and funny and we look like brother and sister.
“So, I guess you must be the sister,” he said as I walked into the yard and he shook my hand and then pulled me in for a brotherly hug. Libby was hot on the scent of the other mutts who live there. Angela was there also, to referee the dogs, and to help carry the conversation along, but truth is, it was only awkward for about 18 seconds, if that.
“Well let’s check it out,” Angela said as Mike and I squinted in the noon day sun to study each other’s faces. Can you imagine how it feels, to look at a grown man for the first time, realizing that half of his genetic fiber came from the same source as your own and for both of your lives you’ve coexisted on the planet, not knowing? It was so much easier than I’d expected, the sweetest sparkle in his dark brown eyes, dark as mine.
“Yeah,” we kind of smiled and nodded knowingly, like looking in the mirror, only a different gender with nine years difference. When we got into the house, out of the glaring sun, it was uncanny, to me anyway, how much we’d gotten from our father. Mike was the only son of his mother and Tommy. I was the only daughter of my mother and Tommy. Each of us had other siblings from our respective mothers, with enough marriages and divorces to keep the El Dorado County Clerk in business for a month, and each of us with a couple under our own belts.
We talked about Tommy. I learned his lineage is as much English as it is Irish. He was a logger in his young days, in Washington State.
That’s where his people came from. He managed a bar, the infamous Louie’s Place in Folsom for decades. That’s where he undoubtedly met my mom. And they grew cozy, I don’t know who’s respective spouse was around at the time, but we see where nature took it’s course. Thank you for your life force and mischeviousness, Tommy and Beverly. I am grateful for my life.
I learned that Mike had his share of heartache as a kid. Tommy and his mother also divorced. Mike lived for a while in the projects in Sacramento, his mother, like mine, working hard to provide for her kids. Tommy wasn’t around sometimes when he should have been. But, when I asked for one of the photos that he and Angela had spread out on the kitchen table, Mike took a long time, looking at them. I sat patiently.
“Okay, this one” he said, handing me a particular snapshot I was coveting, one of my father behind the bar at Louie’s place at Christmas. Mike thought long and hard about parting with it. I could see the love in his eyes. Tommy died when he was only 67, he’d developed diabetes, things went from bad to worse. Mike had seen him, just a day or two before he passed. They seemed to have been close by then.
Life, if we’re lucky, teaches us, that over time, hurt might not go away completely, but the heart can expand, to move stuff in next to it. Stuff like forgiveness, love for the here and now, understanding and grace. If we’re lucky, this is what we load up front, relegating anger, bitterness, disappointment and regret to the rear cargo hold.
I had a chance in 1983 to visit my father when I was working in Lake Tahoe. I’d gone up there for a summer, lived with friends, waited tables at Ceasar’s Tahoe, made a ton of cash before I finished journalism school. Mom had told me where to find Tommy. I chickened out. I didn’t know what I’d say. I didn’t go. I went back to Albuquerque, got a job a month later at a TV station, met Mr. Wonderful and started having more babies. It was in the newsroom four years later, that my mother, with zero tact, told me as I was on deadline that “Tommy is dead, honey.”
I’ve learned the hard way about living with regret. My father, my brothers, Garrett and Don and running out of time. Can I just tell you how proud I am for finding my brother Mike? He’s lived all his life in Northern California, he’s a good dad to his two kids and grand kids, he owns his own automotive business, and he’s proud of the Chevelle he just rebuilt.
When we were taking pictures he said,”move your arm, you’re covering the wheel.” I love this guy!
I do not blame my father for not coming to see about me. My mother had made a deal, Tommy was to stay away. But apparently, she had sent him pictures, for years. Sitting at the table with Mike and Angie, I had pulled out a photo of Nathan and I when he was a baby, to show them the family resemblance. Angie’s voice went up, “Oh my God, I have that same photograph! Not two weeks ago, I came across that very same photo in Grandpa’s stuff, I had no idea who it was.”
He knew about me.
And now, I know about my brother.