Remember when facts were facts and lies were lies?
We have a serious problem in this country, rampant misinformation. Pitting brother against brother, family against family, friend against friend, what we have here is a telecommunications civil war.
This civil war has created a divide in our country that may never mend. It’s too vast and too personal. No one wants to say, I was wrong, I was deceived. It’s deeper than political leanings, it’s bordering on psychosis, a giant national social psychosis.
Thanks to 24 hr cable news, the internet, twitter and facebook, there is no one central information system that ALL Americans can agree on as where we get our facts. Every day things happen, every day news happens, but depending on what source you use, the reporting of events is wide and varied.
In the past, in the good ol’ days there was the evening news. At 6 pm the family gathered around the TV for Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley to inform the public of what happened that day. There was one set of facts. And everyone agreed, yes this happened today. Maybe Democrats and Republicans were at odds in their reaction to these facts, but they still accepted facts as facts. Everyone had one jumping off point on which to base a RATIONAL discussion. Discourse is good, discourse is healthy, but it is only possible when all parties start with the same information accepted as fact.
We’ve always had the lunatic fringe who was recognized and dismissed AS the lunatic fringe, the 3 am radio crowd who in dark corners of the country whispered and reassured each other their madness was not madness.
Now every nutcase and conspiracy theorist has their own news source (see Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) to confirm their paranoia and now these nutcases (see Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, etc.) are running for office and WINNING.
The lunatics are running the asylum.
In an effort to bridge the gap and restore oneness of information, we have fact checking organizations who do nothing but try to give the public what it needs to be sane, the facts. Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are two of the most reputable, but in this time of misinformation, even they are scorned as ‘liberal’ leaning. The reason Snopes.com is more often accused of bias by conservatives than by liberals is that facts have a notoriously liberal bias. Facts are facts and lies are lies.
Stephen Colbert was right. And that’s a fact.
I’m getting damn tired of hearing people say “Pray for rain, or Thank God for the rain we got today”. Here we are in the 21st century and there are people who are still attributing weather to a god in the sky.
People, that stuff worked back in the days of Roman and Greek mythology because even though they were more advanced in their thinking than we are now, they still did not have scientific reasoning. Climate is a scientific matter. It is complicated. It is not dictated by a sky god with an iPad manually manipulating storm clouds for those who prayed the most or the best.
Never mind that Texas Governor Rick Perry held a big ol’ Texas size event last year with all the power prayin’ people in attendance to pray for rain for Texas. Guess what? It didn’t rain. I guess God just wasn’t listening that day.
You can pray all you want for rain, but the GLOBAL jet stream has been affected by climate change, also known as global warming, you know that fake scary hoax Al Gore perpetrated on all of us just to make money on new green technology.
If you feel you really must pray for something, pray for HUMANS to wise up and listen to the scientists before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.
By Don Millard
Growing up as an only child, I always knew I was adopted. My parents told me this as soon as I was old enough to comprehend it, which was a relief as I must have known it instinctually because I always felt something didn’t quite fit; having blonde hair while both parents had jet black hair probably had something to do with it, too. After finding out I was adopted, I felt luckier than other kids who weren’t. I knew that I was really wanted and I loved to hear the story about how they “got” me.
My mom, Amalia Anne Millard, a full blooded Italian, told me of how I started drinking right out of the bottle when she first picked me up in her arms, which shocked the people at the adoption agency, because they had had a lot of trouble getting me to eat. I like to think that, even at that age, I knew a good woman when I saw one. As I would come to find out soon enough, I couldn’t have found a better mother. I was the luckiest kid in the world.
Knowing all this at such an early age, the subject of my adoption was the easiest thing in the world for my parents and me to talk about, even joke about. Whenever I was being a particular pain in the ass, I would tell my parents, “Hey, you guys picked me out.”
The full ramification of being adopted didn’t hit me until 4th grade, when we were assigned to do a family tree. I remember being panicked about getting a bad grade because I didn’t have a family tree; I had a stump. My mom tried to soothe my fears by saying that I did indeed have a family tree, even though I wasn’t related to it. But in my head, I knew that didn’t count and I was missing a heritage.
My mom quickly diagrammed her side of the family, tracing her relatives all the way back to Naples, Italy.
This isn’t going to be so bad, I thought.
Then I brought the diagram over to my dad, who was asleep in the chair, watching BARRETTA. After explaining the project to him, he grimaced and said,
“I don’t know, Donald. Jesus Christ, I’m trying to watch this. I think we’re French or somethin’.”
Thinking back on it, I think we just made up his side of the tree.
My mom was directly responsible for my first political memory as a kid. It was August, 1974 and we were on vacation in Cape Cod. As we were walking around Provincetown, my mom heard that Nixon was going to resign on national television. I remember her saying to my dad, “I want Donald to see this. This is history.” Even though we had already had lunch, we started to search for any restaurant that had a TV. We quickly found a luncheon place with a television and took our seats in a booth. We ordered something just so we could sit there and see the 37th President of the United States resign in disgrace. This was my introduction to politics.
My mom was and still is the greatest person I ever knew. Her character was summed up by the quote she chose for her high school yearbook.
“Private sincerity is a public welfare.”
As a young woman, she was a very talented pianist who wanted to go to Yale School of Music but couldn’t because it wasn’t open to women yet. She ended up becoming a secretary, transferring the dexterity of her fingers onto the keyboard of the typewriter. Those who heard her type would stop in amazement at her speed and skill. She was a staunch Democrat who proudly voted for Adlai Stevenson twice. She listened to talk radio in the afternoons and hence, so did I. It was a call in show out of New York City and I remember one of the hosts she particularly liked was Barry Farber. She also founded a local political action group in Clinton, Connecticut which she named ACCT (Association of Concerned Clinton Taxpayers). As her son, it was impossible not to be aware of and interested in the issues of the day, both local and national.
As I got older and my interests in history, art, writing and reading grew, the closer we became. In her world, poets, writers and artists occupied the highest station in society and she always encouraged me to follow my dreams. We would have long philosophical discussions about every subject, including religion.
My mom was a devout Catholic, and she raised me as one. She was one of the few true Christians I’ve known. She was too busy being a Christian to tell everyone how Christian she was. By the time I was a senior in high school I had to tell her that I was an agnostic. Instead of lecturing me she said, “You’ve done a lot of original thinking about religion, which is more than most people your age do, so I respect your opinion.” I truly believe there couldn’t have been a more perfect match if I had searched the world over five times for a mother.
After a year and a half of college, I decided I wanted to see some of the world. If I was ever going to be a writer, I needed some real life experiences besides puking in a dorm room. I had already written 2/3 of a screenplay and was stuck on how to end it.
“He wants to have an adventure,” my mom said to my dad, who was asleep in the chair.
With a friend, I vagabonded around Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, and finally ended up penniless in Paris. The year was 1985.
When I returned home, I found out the very next day that my mom had cancer. The doctors told us the tumor was highly treatable and they were optimistic about her chances. I took her to all of her treatments for chemo and radiation, but her recovery was not to be. She died almost a year to the day of her diagnosis. She was 56 and I was 21.
A few days before she passed away, she cleared everyone out of the hospital room by telling them she wanted to talk to me alone.
“You have to tell me that you’re a survivor. You have to tell me that you’re going to survive this.”
Of course I said yes, even though I had no idea whether I could hold up my end of the bargain. I was just scared and numb.
She had always told me and others that she hoped I would know my birth family and roots later in life.
This was the last thing on my mind when she died.
Two years passed and my dad was selling the house and we were moving to Florida. As we were going through a safety deposit box, we came across a paper from the lawyer who handled my adoption back in 1965. As I read the letter, I was stunned to see the following sentence which read… “the infant named Terry Lee Wichael.”
Terry Lee Wichael? WTF?
I can’t express how it felt to read this strange name and yet know that name was once mine. My first thought was, if things had been different, I’d be driving a pickup with a gun rack, sporting truck nuts. Silly or not, this was my first thought.
I put this piece of paper away in a drawer with the thought that one day the time would come for me to pursue this.
I don’t know how to explain it, but in 1993, something told me it was the right time to try to find my roots and more importantly, my birth mother, if she was still around. This is not a decision you can enter into lightly. You have to get to a point that you know that once you embark on this journey, there is no turning around, no matter what the outcome. You have to accept that you might not like what you find.
It was the hardest decision I ever made. You can’t un-ring that bell.
According to my long form birth certificate, I was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at Rockingham Memorial Hospital. Sorry, but I don’t remember the room number, Mr. Trump.
Being a history buff, this lack of knowledge about my own heritage started to weigh on my mind, more than it ever had before, especially with the thought of someday having children. I thought I had no heritage to give them. I also realized I had no medical history, which was kind of scary on its own. My doctor had told me I had to write my birth hospital to get my medical records, which I did.
In the screenplay of my mind, I had this Hollywood hope that somehow they would forget to black out my mother’s name on my records. Upon receiving the records in the mail, I saw that everything was, in fact, blacked out. It might as well have been a CIA document. I laughed at myself for thinking that somehow I would get critical information leading to her identity. Then I happened to look at the photocopy of my own request page and noticed some faint writing going up the top right hand corner of the page. There, before me, was the name “Junelle Anne Wichael, moth.”
Someone at the hospital, for whatever reason, must have written my mother’s name on another piece of paper and it happened to transfer to my cover letter. The odds of this happening have to be pretty slim. I took this to be a good omen.
Turned out, my birth mother’s sister was the head pediatric nurse at the hospital where I was born. She confirmed to me over the phone that Junelle was indeed my birth mother and then gave me her phone number. She also told me the circumstances of my adoption; of how my birth mother was stood up at the alter by my biological father even though he knew she was 4 months pregnant. My heart went out to her and I hoped with every fiber of my soul that none of my father’s cowardice was in me.
It was jarring indeed to realize that the charmed life I had been given was the result of such heartbreaking conditions. It was my first glimpse into how truly unselfish my mother’s decision was. My first thought was the hope that I could in some way erase her pain by thanking her for my life.
Her life had been as hard as mine had been easy. Giving me up had left her feeling as though no man would have her. She married a man who had always pursued her, but then abused her. She worked as a school bus driver. She would later tell me “I could haul everybody else’s kid but my own.”
I talked to my mother for the first time on New Year’s Eve, 1993. It was so strange to hear a gentle, Southern accent on the other end of the phone and yet know that this person was the one who brought me into this world. We talked for two hours and watched the ball drop together.
About a month later, I went to visit and see her in the flesh, to make sure this was all real. It was real. Real country. Despite the cultural divide, there was an immediate connection. People couldn’t get over how much we looked alike. She looked like a mini-me. I was happy to find out she was funny and that she was the kind of person that young people were drawn to. She got a kick out of me being left handed, as she was the only lefty in the family herself. The first night we stayed up all night just talking. I got to thank her for my life and tell her how good I’d had it. She was very happy to hear this and it was a comfort to her. She was so relieved to know how close I had been with my mom in Connecticut. All my life, she had worried that I would harbor ill feelings toward her for giving me up for adoption. I was reminded once again that all the pain of my adoption had been on her side; although I wondered about my heritage, I wasn’t really missing anything, whereas she was missing EVERYTHING. If a person is capable of a more unselfish act then what she did, I don’t know of it.
I felt like my role was to heal the pain in her heart and to make right what once went wrong. I felt like I was starring in my own personal episode of QUANTUM LEAP, without Al.
The hardness of her life was laid bare in that visit, as I saw how her own kids treated her and I heard stories from others about what she had endured from them.
She wanted me to live there straight away but I resisted for a time, for many reasons, not the least of which was the exact opposite universe that I would be moving into as well as a complicated family dynamic.
But then it hit me. It was time for me to be unselfish.
So, a spoiled Connecticut Yankee moved to redneck Virginia and it all somehow worked out, despite the expected ups and downs of any upheaval. This decision gave me every day moments with her I would have never had if I’d stayed away. I was so glad I made this decision because I didn’t know it at the time, but I would be spending the last 10 years of her life with her.
My mother was diagnosed with ALS in the fall of 2003.
As bad as it was when she told me the diagnosis, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else on the earth but where I was.
She knew she was facing a death sentence, yet her humor and bravery remained intact. She wanted to know everything there was about Lou Gehrig, When I told her about Lou Gehrig’s famous speech at Yankee Stadium where he said that he considered himself the luckiest man in the world, she said,
“How’d he figure that?”
In true fashion, the weaker she got, the more she cared about others. Towards the end of her own journey, she found out about a friend she had known all her life who had committed suicide. Even though she could barely get around or barely speak, she told me in tears,
“She should have called me, I could have helped her.”
I was never more proud to be her son or share even a strand of her DNA.
She passed away in April 2004, at the age of 61.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I give praise to TWO Moms. One who nurtured me, and one who gave me life.
The window in my office rattled as I heard the explosion and I immediately went outside, looking south toward the airport, thinking a plane must have crashed. Then I looked to the east and saw black smoke rising from the downtown Oklahoma City area. I ran back inside and hurriedly turned on the TV to the local news. And there it was.
First reports were sketchy and reported few casualties, but those numbers didn’t hold up for long.
I worked at the Lions Club State Office in Oklahoma City and on that day, April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh took the lives of 168 men, women and children and seriously injured hundreds more. Yes children, as he so callously attacked a building which housed a day care center for the children of the men and women who worked there and in the downtown area.
Donations from Lions Clubs all over the world began coming in and in the weeks and months following that day I busied myself with helping survivors, acting as liaison between my organization and the Red Cross. I attended meetings, visited the site, weeded through applications for assistance, dispursed funds. Even then, in my head I had not processed what had happened. I had not cried.
For almost a year, I was consumed with the aftermath and what we could do to help. Then we received a $50,000.00 donation from a club in Boston, Massachusetts, asking us to use the money to build a memorial playground in honor of the children who perished that day. I worked alongside other club members, volunteers and city workers to ready the playground for the one year anniversary. I still had not cried.
On April 19, 1996 we all gathered at the playground at Lake Hefner with some of the families of the children who fell victim one year earlier. As they unveiled the red granite stone, marking the dedication of the site to the children, I saw them; the tiny handprints engraved into the stone. Two perfect tiny handprints… and then I cried.
I cried a year’s worth of tears and felt a year’s worth of pain and anger. This man, who so brazenly acted so selfishly, so full of hate and vengeance, had taken the lives and hopes and dreams of 19 children that day. He took mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and grandparents. He had broken the hearts of families and friends and even those who didn’t know them personally… like me.
And what did he accomplish? Nothing.
Today I still think about those tiny handprints. And today I still cry.
By Don Millard
It all came to me at the Dollar Store.
As I stood there rubbing the prickly two day’s worth of beard poking through my skin and making my face feel like sandpaper, I stared at the prices of razor blades in disbelief.
Of course this was not the first time I’d been appalled at these ridiculous prices, but the sheer rip off factor of it all really hit home. But, absurdly, I’d hoped that Family Dollar might, just might be the last bastion of reasonable prices for replacement cartridges for my multi-blade razor. Oops, I mean my “shaving system.” In the bullshit parlance of shaving industry advertising, razors are no longer called razors. Prices for replacement blades seem insanely expensive? But, but this is a “shaving system”! Silly me. I’d just come from cursing the prices of such blades at Wal-Mart only to find that the situation here no different.
“I don’t fuckin’ believe this,” I said out loud, almost as though I were expecting a reply.
There was no response, save for the sound of a child being spanked in another aisle. There’s always a kid getting his ass beat at a Dollar Store. It’s one of the constants of consumer life, like getting a shopping cart with a bum wheel or the person in front of you in line writing a check for a Zagnut.
It seems like only yesterday that a razor sporting 3 blades was the latest so-called cutting edge technology in the “science” of shaving. In 1998, Gillette rolled out the Mach 3, the world’s first triple blade razor, like it was the Porsche of razors. The introduction of the Mach 3 was also accompanied by about a 30% mark up on the replacement cartridges needed for this “shaving system.” But Gillette knew that Americans would pay this inflated price for the privilege of having the latest “advance” in a razor. Of course once the Mach 3 came out, Schick and other razor manufacturers had to follow suit. I’d held on to my Gillette Sensor twin blade razor as long as I could because I was able to get generic replacement blades for said razor. But those days were over, and my particular twin blade Gillette Sensor shaver was now as obsolete as an 8 track tape. Consequently, I had to make the switch to a triple blade razor or be relegated to using plastic razors in a bag. So, faced with this choice, I grudgingly started buying 3 bladed shavers and paying more for the blades. But now, just a few years later, my once advanced shaver was now suddenly the PONG of razors, with new “shaving systems” that featured 4 and even 5 blades. And, now I couldn’t even find decently priced generic blades for my prehistoric triple bladed shave stick. Can you say planned obsolescence, anyone? The way it is now, the average guy almost has to take a second job just to afford shaving. In 2003, Gillette’s Mach 3 razor was the most shoplifted item in the world. Criminals love razor blades because they’re easy to sell and easy to re-sell. The brazen racket of it all disgusted me to the core.
Though I have fairly light hair, I’ve always had a pretty heavy beard and needed a halfway decent razor to get a close shave. But now, even THIS was a luxury. Yes, I’ve tried electric razors and all they do is burn my face. I’ve also tried those BIC disposable razors and all they did was cut my face up. They should stick to lighters.
I can still remember when I started shaving and what a thrill it was the day my Dad took me down to the drug store to get me my own razor and shaving cream so I could get rid of my peach fuzz sideburns. I was 16 and couldn’t wait to shave. I think every guy feels this way. It’s one of those classic rites of passage that boys treasure almost as much getting your driver’s license or the day when you can legally buy alcohol. But, thirty years later, shaving was not only a dreary chore, it was also a financial burden!
Like a typical consumer sucker, I wondered: Gee, why are new blades so expensive when the razor was cheap? More than once I’ve bought the same razor twice just to get the blades cheaper. I bet you have, too. Then it hit me. Today’s razor manufacturers are like drug dealers–give away the razor and a blade or two for a taste. The first shave is free…
The more I thought about it all, the angrier I got. Here I was, with two of the same razors and no blades. My blood pressure spiked as I looked at the names of some of these “shaving systems” with 4 and 5 blades. They all had names that sounded like sports cars; names like “Fusion”, “Mach 5 Turbo”, “Hydro” and are hawked by star athletes–probably because they’re the only ones who can afford the blades for them.
Thoroughly pissed off, I left the Family Dollar store without buying a thing. As I drove away, I decided there had to be a solution to this problem besides buying a bag full of cheap plastic razors made in China or joining ZZ Top.
There had a be a third way. Had to be.
Turns out there is such a way, and it was (no pun intended) staring me in the face the whole time…
One of the few television shows I like to watch is AMERICAN RESTORATION on the History Channel. It’s a show where old items are restored and brought back to life. It also has slightly more historical value than MUDCATS. Or ICE ROAD TRUCKERS. Or AXE MEN. Or SWAMP PEOPLE. Although I’m the least mechanical guy on the planet and can barely roll up an extension cord, I enjoy the technical aspect of the show as well. But what really resonates with me is the show’s opening words by restorer Rick Dale: “Remember back in the day when things were made by hand and people took pride in their work?” Watching this show makes me mourn for all that we’ve lost in the name of “progress.”
Just as our infrastructure is crumbling in the name of eternal tax cuts, so much of our manufacturing base has been sacrificed on the altar of Wal-Mart. So many times, it seems, we’d rather buy the same cheap, crappy item made overseas 10 times rather than purchase a quality product made here once for a few dollars more. Of course corporate greed and low wages have also played a part in this transformation.
What does this all have to do with shaving? Well, a LOT.
Just a few days after my shaving meltdown at Family Dollar, I came across a box of about 6 or 7 vintage razors I’d collected about 10 years ago. I’d forgotten I still had them, actually. Seeing them again after all this time, I remembered why I collected them in the first place. They looked cool and were pleasing to the eye. The razors I’d collected were the original Schick Injector razors, first made from 1935 to 1946 with gold-plated heads and short Bakelite handles. Although even the modern injector razor is no longer made, Schick still makes blades for this shaver. In fact, injector blades made today not only fit the last model of this particular razor, they also still fit the very first injector razors made in 1935. Now THAT’S a “shaving system.”
A little history…
The injector razor and the electric razor were the brainchild of a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Jacob Schick. A veteran of both the Spanish-American War and World War I, Schick spent five of his Army years between the wars stationed in Alaska coordinating the construction of more than a thousand miles of communication line in the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System.
A stickler for always being clean-shaven, Jacob Schick viewed daily shaving as a must for any civilized man and saw it as a sign of self-respect. It was during this time in Alaska that Schick first got the idea of designing a razor that would solve the problem of shaving in Artic climates as well as the danger of handling razor blades in subzero temperatures. He also wanted to devise a “motorized” device for “dry shaving” when hot water–or even cold running water was not an option. The time Schick spent in Alaska led to his two most famous inventions–the injector razor and the electric razor–kind of the way Jack London’s time in Alaska inspired Call Of The Wild, White Fang, and numerous short stories.
A year after being discharged from the Army, Lieutenant Colonel Schick invented a new kind of safety razor in 1921. He called it the ‘Magazine Repeating Razor’. This new type of razor was modeled after the repeating rifle Schick himself carried in the Army. In Schick’s new shaver, the replacement blades were stored in a clip that could be fed into the shaving head with a lever, thereby removing the hazard of handling the sharp blade with human hands. These magazine repeating razors were made in three models between 1926 and 1935 and were the forerunners to the razors I had in my box. The only real difference in the razors I had was the separate magazine clip that held the blades that are to be injected into the head of the razor. The mechanism works by pushing the old blade out and injecting the new blade into the head of the razor all in one motion. The Schick injector razor was and still is the only razor in the world to ever have an automatic blade changer.
The razors themselves were like a work of art. I remember even seeing one of them in the American History wing of the Smithsonian. But though they were pleasing to the eye, the semi-exposed gleaming blade in its gold-plated head told you this was a MAN’S razor. You could tell they were old because they were built to last, not fall apart in a few months. In fact, in 1941 Schick guaranteed each razor for 20 YEARS.
Even though I’d put new blades in these razors years ago, I never had the nerve to try to shave with one of them. Once or twice I’d gone as far as to put the razor up to my face. As I felt the cold steel of the blade against my cheek, I wondered how any man shaved with one and lived to tell about it. Someone told me that shaving with one of these beauties was as close as you could get to shaving with a straight razor. This alone had been enough to keep me from trying the injector out. I wanted a close shave, but I didn’t want to have to call 911.
Speaking of straight razors, by the way, how do you get good with one without cutting your own throat first? My birth mother told me that my grandfather shaved with one all of his life, never even switching over to a safety razor. He died in 1974 (not from shaving) at the age of 72 in 1974, but I never got the chance to know him.
Anyhow, I decided that if my grandfather could shave with a straight razor his whole life, I could try to shave with my 70 year old vintage Shick Injector razor at least once.
My decision made, I read what I could on the web and even watched a few videos for tips on how to shave with an old school razor. I learned very quickly that basically I’d have to un-learn all of the bad habits I’d picked up by shaving with a multi-blade cartridge razor. In particular, the one thing I warned not to do was the one thing I always did: PRESS DOWN on my face with the blade. Applying pressure and pressing down on my face had become my signature style of shaving. This habit was due mainly to crappy plastic cartridge blades that become dull almost right after the first shave. Because of the expense, I was forever trying to extend the life and save money by shaving with a dull ass blade as long as humanly possible, but my face was the one paying the price with terrible razor burn, especially the red irritation around my neck. I might as well have been trying to carve a turkey with a butter knife.
It was time to shave.
For my maiden voyage into manly shaving, the injector razor I chose from my collection was the one with the art deco butterscotch Bakelite handle. It was the oldest of my old razors. Here’s a picture of it:
As I held the vintage razor in my hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about its original owner. Since the model I going to try to use was made from 1935 to 1938, I thought about this pocket of time in our history and the man who originally put this razor up to his face… Was this the razor he learned to shave with? Did he shave with it during the dark days of the Great Depression? Was he shaving with it when he heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor? Did he go to war? Was this razor waiting for him when he came home? Or was he killed in the war and his widow didn’t have the heart to throw out his razor? Who knows. But no matter what its history, this razor had surely survived its first owner and, eight decades later, was now in my nervous 21st century hands. Thinking about it all, it was kind of an honor just to hold this thing.
To really experience a truly old school “wet shave”, I needed shaving soap and a shaving brush to work up a lather. Since I had neither, I had to use my canned chemical shaving gel. But, rather than just splashing my face with warm water like usual, I applied a hot towel to my face instead. The steamy cloth felt good on my face and I could feel my facial muscles relaxing. When the towel cooled off, I ran more hot water over it and repeated the process for about another minute or two.
As I now spread the shaving cream on my face with my hands, I kept reminding myself not to press down on the blade once I started shaving. I also had to remember to try to keep my wrist locked so I wouldn’t change the proper blade angle–assuming I could find it to start with, of course. Just let the razor do the work, I told myself. It was easy. All I had to do was NOT do what I’d been doing for 30 YEARS.
I tentatively put the razor to my cheek, using my left hand to stretch the skin tight in the area I was about to shave (or slice open) as if I were using a straight razor. Here we go, I thought…
At first there was nothing… I was neither cutting myself nor shaving whiskers off my face. I braced myself as I angled the handle away from my face at what I hoped was a 30 degree angle as I’d read you’re supposed to do. I hoped my geometry was right as I began to roll the blade slowly down my cheek. Suddenly I heard the classic unmistakable sound of whiskers being sliced off cleanly. I’d never actually heard this sound except in the movies; movies like RIO BRAVO and the scene where Angie Dickinson shaves Dean Martin with a cutthroat razor. Until now, I thought this wonderful old school sound was just a movie sound effect. But it was real. This was the sound of a man shaving, not some lazy guy blindly hacking away at his skin with a cartridge blade designed to self-destruct after the first shave. You only get this sound by shaving with a single blade razor.
Inspired by initial success and the lack of carnage, I shaved on. My nervousness started to disappear and it sounded like I could hear every single hair being removed from my face. Still,
as I shaved on, I also reminded myself that the goal on this first “pass” was beard reduction, not beard removal. Therefore, I used short strokes rather than my old method of shaving from right below my ear to my throat all in one swipe. Strangely, I found the concentration this all required to be relaxing rather than stressful or laborious. My first shave with an old school razor was a little easier for me than it might be for some others because I have a goatee, which saves me from having to shave my chin & moustache area, two of the trickier regions to shave.
After finishing my first pass, I wiped the residual shaving cream from my face and applied a hot towel to my face again. I could feel that there were still a few rough patches of stubble on my face in the usual stubborn spots, but the rest of my face was already SMOOTH. Lathering up once more, I prepared for Round Two.
During the second pass, I was even more comfortable and confident with my new old razor. I even shaved against the grain, in a South to North direction to defeat the toughest stubble. When I did this, the remaining whiskers fell away cleanly and smoothly as well. I had done it.
Because I’d shaved with only a single blade, one of the most enjoyable parts was that the whiskers from my beard didn’t get clogged in between the other blades every twenty seconds. When you shave with three, four, or even five blades, you end up spending half of your time trying to knock the clogged hair loose by banging the razor head against the sink. And sometimes when you do this, the cartridge comes apart from the razor and you pray that it didn’t actually break off as you fish it out of the sink. Fun. This entire exasperating ritual had been eliminated by using just one blade. What a concept.
Amazed, I wiped my face with a towel and saw that there were no cuts on my face, not even a nick. Seeing that my face was unharmed, I rinsed my face off with cold water to close my pores. It was invigorating. Fittingly, I finished my old school “wet shave” off by splashing Pinaud Clubman after shave on my face for that classic barber shop smell.
I couldn’t believe what a close shave this vintage razor had just given me. Far from being cut up, my face was baby smooth, but I prefer the term girlfriend smooth. My face was as smooth as it had been before I ever HAD to shave, way back in the Reagan administration. Not only was my stubble removed, but gone too was the usual razor burn around my neck that I thought I had to live with because of my heavy beard.
All of this was a revelation to me. Armed with a 70 year old razor and only one blade, I had just given myself the best shave of my life! I felt like a new man. I knew right then that I would never shave with a plastic multi-blade razor ever again. I knew that I’d also never waste another dime on costly replacement cartridges as well. I was going cold turkey and my face was already thanking me for it. The days of me being a sucker on the corporate shave train were over.
Sure, my wet shave had taken a little longer, but some of that was because this was my very first shave with a single blade old school razor. My girlfriend smooth face and the total abscence of razor burn more than made up for the extra time involved. Even though we live in a microwave society, some things should take longer than 90 seconds. Furthermore, I felt like I had taken part in the same ritual as my father and grandfather before me. Somehow, SOMEHOW they’d managed with just ONE blade, not Three or Four or FIVE. As I write this, there’s now even a razor with SIX BLADES. Gillette and Schick (the Coca-Cola & Pepsi of the shaving industry, respectively) each now have a battery powered version of their latest wonder that vibrates. What are we? Shaving with vibrators now? How many blades will the next generation shave with? TEN? TWENTY?
Speaking of vibrators, Gillette is now owned by Proctor & Gamble since 2005 who also manufacture Duracell batteries, so the Gillette vibrator comes equipped with that brand of battery. Shick, on the other hand, is now owned by Energizer Industries, so the Schick vibrator comes with–you guessed it–Energizer batteries. Call me old-fashioned, but vibrators belong in the bedroom, not the bathroom.
A few days later I got myself a shaving brush and some shave soap in order to go completely old school. Working up a lather took a tiny bit of effort, but I enjoyed the tactile sensation of the lather on my face with a brush. I noticed, too, that the lather didn’t dry out on my face right away like the pressurized chemical goop in a can I usually used. Using a shaving brush also helps lift up the whiskers on your face, thus making shaving easier no matter what kind of razor you use. Try it sometime and see.
For me, one shave with shaving soap was enough to convince me to abandon the flammable aerosol can. Also, it’s more eco-friendly because there’s no can to dispose of, the only waste is the soap that goes down your drain. The blades themselves that vintage razors use are easily recyclable, too, whereas the modern plastic cartridge blade is not and is just one more thing clogging up a land fill. So, by going retro, you can get a much better, closer shave and go green at the same time.
Although I was even able to find new injector blades at a local grocery store, they aren’t that much cheaper than the cartridge blades. You’re also forced to shave with an old injector razors, as Schick no longer makes the injector razor. If you really want to a great shave and save a LOT of money, a safety razor is the way. Yes, the heavy safety razor that uses a double edged blade that’s been around for 100 years–the same one your grandpa used, and probably still uses if he’s still living. You can save some serious coin doing so, since the average cost of a good, double-edged blade is 25 cents or less. The average cartridge blade cost $2 or $3 or more apiece!
Despite my new found love of the vintage Schick injector razor, I wanted to save money as well as get a close shave. Accordingly, I’ve now switched to a new safety razor made by Edwin Jagger in England. For about $35, I now have a classy, well-made razor that will last me the rest of my life. I won’t have to buy it twice to get a better deal on new blades, either. I can order a carton of a good quality not made in China for around $15 (including shipping). The price for FOUR replacement cartridges for the FUSION “shaving system” is $20! A good double edged blade will give you about a week’s worth of great shaves, so that’s basically TWO YEARS worth of blades.
Yes, there is a bit of a learning curve in using a safety razor, but it’s not rocket science. I’ve been using mine for about two weeks now and haven’t cut myself once. I’m getting the best shaves of my life and won’t have to buy blades for another two years. And even if I do get a few nicks along the way, that will be nothing compared to the nicks my wallet has been enduring for many years. By far, the worst cuts I’ve ever got came from using disposable plastic razors made in China.
The multi-billion dollar shaving industry has been fooling its customers since 1971, when Gillette introduced the twin-blade razor and the shaving wars began. Guys have been tugging at their face and irritating their skin by scraping multiple blades across it instead of slicing their stubble off smoothly with a single blade ever since. Everything you need for a fantastically close and comfortable shave was perfected in the early 20th century.
By Don Millard
In February of 1994, after 28 years of life, I was about to hug my birth mom for the very first time.
As my mother got closer to me, I could see my face in her face and my smile in her smile. Until recently, she had been a complete stranger, even
though she had given me life. Everything seemed to be in slow motion now as we got closer and closer till we finally embraced each other in a giant hug. Although it was a cold February night with snow and ice on the ground around us, I wasn’t cold at all. I was very warm. It really did feel like a scene right out of a movie.
Although most movies that end in a freeze frame usually suck (see COCKTAIL), I really must do my own literary freeze frame of this moment in order to do it justice. This moment was the culmination of my search as well as a beginning of the rest of my life. It was a moment of pure joy that life could never take away from me no matter what happened from this time forward. There was also an ever greater joy and satisfaction of seeing my Mom’s happiness. My adoption had been a heavy burden and a secret heartbreak that had crushed her spirit since 1965. To know that I had taken away some of this pain and sorrow from her heart after all these years made me a very happy man. I felt like I was in an episode of QUANTUM LEAP and I was trying to put right what once went wrong.
The best way I can try to express how this moment felt and what it meant to–what it still means to me–is to reference yet another movie. If you’ve ever seen MY FAVORITE YEAR, there’s a part at the end of the film where the narrator and character Benjy Stone says of the swashbuckling hero loosely based on Errol Flynn played by Peter O’Toole:
“I think if you had asked Alan Swann what was the single most gratifying moment in his life, he might have said this one right here.”
When my Mom and I finally let go of each other, the normal speed and sound of life seemed to resume. I now focused on the other people in this biological receiving line. I saw that my half brother and sister as well as my mother’s sister and her husband made up the rest of the people there to greet the long lost Terry Lee Wichael. I’d spoken on the phone with my brother and sister a bit and recognized them from the photos my mom had sent me. My brother was wearing a flannel jacket and sporting the official hat of the South–a baseball cap. He may have been wearing a hat, but his curly orange hair was still billowing out of it in much the same way his shirt was hanging below his jacket. He sure didn’t look like a bit like his mother–or his father, for that matter. But, as we shook hands, he seemed genuinely glad to meet me. From what my mother had told me, he seemed to enjoy the idea of suddenly having an older brother. When he first learned of me, he said, “You mean I have a brother older than Sissy?”
Next up was my sister, or “Sissy.” She too had curly hair, but it was light brown like mine. She looked a little bit like Junelle, but as I would discover soon enough, that was where the resemblance began and ended, especially on the inside. She was wearing a leather jacket and had a country and western look about her right down to her cowboy boots. But even with with her cowboy boots, I doubt that she was 5 feet tall. My mom had told me that she loved horses and horseback riding. What she lacked in length, she made up for in attitude.
By the way, I would’ve already been in Harrisonburg a few hours earlier if not for Calamity Jane insisting that I not arrive until she could meet me when I got off the bus. In order to do this, I had to go back to Richmond and then take a different bus so I wouldn’t get to Harrisonburg until SHE could be there. The last thing I wanted to do in the world was add even more hours onto my bus ride, but for my Mom’s sake, I honored this demand.
As I approached my sister, I thought it would be kind of silly to shake her hand. We had talked on the phone and she’d been very nice, even though I had already heard some disturbing stories about her and how she’d treated Junelle. As I went to hug my sister, she immediately recoiled and took a step back as though I were a leper or something. It was very awkward, and I felt like saying to her, “Thanks for the 100 extra bus miles, bitch.” For the first time since getting off the bus, I felt cold.
After this Hallmark moment, I walked over to Junelle’s sister, Janet, we hugged. I could be wrong, but I think Janet might have hugged me even tighter than Junelle had. Then I shook hands with “Mo”, Janet’s skinny truck driving husband who was wearing a belt buckle bigger than my sister’s head.
Once I had retrieved my big black bag from the belly of the bus, it was time to get out of the cold and into a car. My sister had driven her and my brother to the bus station, so my Mother and I climbed into the backseat of her car for the 20 mile ride back to the house my mother and brother lived in, while Janet and Mo followed behind us in their car. My sister lived closer to town with her boyfriend of several years, but he hadn’t come along.
We hadn’t been driving but a few minutes when we came to a complete stop on a dark country road. My sister looked at my brother.
“Do it, Sissy. Do it,” said my brother.
“How do you do it again?” she asked, wanting to know how to do the latest redneck burnout involving the emergency brake.
“Sissy, don’t!” exclaimed my mother.
Our wheels spun and the tires started to squeal as we remained in the same spot for a few moments until we shot out onto the main road. This little stunt upset my mother, but when she had protested, the two of them just laughed.
“That didn’t bother you, did it, Don?” my brother asked me.
I said nothing.
“You see, Momma, that doesn’t bother him,” declared my brother.
As we sped down the country road toward my mother’s house, I hoped her house was near, as I wanted out of this car as soon as possible.
Thankfully, my sister soon slowed down and hit the brakes as we approached a modest brick home set off a bit from the road amongst a group of pine trees. We pulled into the long gravel driveway, and I could see my mother’s shiny school bus parked beside an outdoor garage which housed a monster truck as we came to stop in front of my mother’s house. As we were all getting out of my sister’s car, Janet and Mo turned into the driveway and parked next to us.
“Didn’t mean to leave you in the dust back there, Mo. It was Sissy’s fault,” my brother said with a grin.
“I had a cramp in my foot,” replied my sister.
I could clearly see how this had upset my mother and so could my brother and sister, but they seemed to enjoy that it had done so.
When I entered my mother’s home for the first time in my life, I was greeted by Floppy, Junelle’s rust-colored miniature Daschund who instantly made me feel more at home.
“Who’s that, Floppy?” asked my mother, as he wagged his tail and I began petting him.
“Yeah,” said my brother, “that’s Floppy alright. If that little bastard bites me again, I’m gonna put a cap in his ass.”
“You leave that dog alone,” replied my mother.
Floppy, my mother told me in one of her recent letters, has been a surprise Christmas gift from my brother and sister two years ago. He was about 5 years old, as they had got him full grown from a previous owner. My Mom had told me that she was sure he had been abused by the father of the little girl who had to give him up. She told me of how the little girl would still send the dog a birthday card every year and it would be addressed to “Mr. Floppy”. If there is a Hell, one of the hottest spaces should be reserved for those who abuse animals. Anyone who can’t treat an animal right won’t treat YOU right, either.
“That dog does not like me,” my brother said.
“I wonder why,” Junelle replied.
“Watch this,” said my brother.
My brother began talking to the little dog by simply saying “Floppy” a few times in a normal, non-threatening tone of voice. From the very first time my brother said his name, Floppy started to growl and each time my brother said his name, the dog’s growl grew louder and louder until at last his teeth were exposed.
“Stop it!” said my mother.
“That dog does not like me,” my brother said again, with seeming admiration for how mean the dog had become in a matter of seconds.
“Man, Floppy don’t like you, Bungy,” said my sister, calling my brother by his nickname and laughing.
Anyone could tell by Floppy’s reaction that he had likely been abused in the past just as he was now being abused in the present.
It was about this time that I saw the special cake that had been made up for this occasion sitting on the kitchen table. It had white frosting and was in the shape of a heart with purple lettering that said, “Welcome To Our Home Don.”
The next thing I noticed in my mother’s house was all the antlers on the walls. The house had originally been the hunting cabin of Junelle’s husband and he and my brother had furnished it in Early Death Panel. Sarah Palin would’ve felt right at home.
My brother quickly took me on a tour of all the dead animals in the house, with particular emphasis on the ones he had somehow miraculously managed to kill with a high powered scoped rifle. I’m not a hunter and have nothing against hunting per se, but killing Bambi with a high-powered rifle does not make you Kit Carson.
As I was having to look at all the dead animals on the wall, I spotted a very old, very cool crank phone hanging on the wall as well. I asked about it and my mother told this has been the original phone that had been in use in her parents’ home when she grew up. Hanging up on the wall near this antique phone was a beautiful, old calendar clock from the late 1800s. My mother explained to me that it had hung for years in a local bank in town and proudly told me of how she had won it in a silent auction when the bank closed years ago.
I love antiques and always have. Probably one of the reasons for this is because I love history as well. I had to smile when Junelle told me during our first phone conversation that she liked antiques. I guess it’s in my blood. My Mom also had a lot of other collectible figurines around the house and in a curio cabinet as well as some Depression glass. She told me that whenever she got depressed, she’d go to yard sales. She had amassed quite a collection of antiques and collectibles over the years. My brother and sister must not have inherited her antique gene because they referred to it all as “Momma’s junk.”
Junelle once asked my brother what would happen to all her antiques after she died. He told her he would back a truck up to the house and take it all to the dump.
As we all settled in, my brother introduced me to his favorite beer, OLD MILWAUKEE. I’d drank my share of cheap beer in college, but had never tasted this brand before. After one sip, I discovered that it was a notch below PIEL’S or MEISTER BRAU. Oh, well, I needed a beer–any kind of a beer–at this point. The OLD MILWAUKEE we were drinking was a perfect compliment to the deer jerky I was eating out of a green Tupperware bowl. My brother had made it, and it was actually pretty good. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d ever eaten deer meat.
It was starting to get late and my sister was the first one to leave. She reminded everyone that SHE had to work in the morning, as if she was the only person on the face of the earth who had a job. I had a sneaking suspicion that she was related to that other incredibly unique individual, the one who declares, “I pay taxes.”
After saying it was nice meeting me, my sister said to Junelle: “Bye, Nellie.”
WTF? Who the hell calls their mother by their first name? And not even her first name, but a nickname made from it. This struck me as just about the most disrespectful thing a child could do to their mother. My adoptive mother’s name was Amalia and she went by “Molly”, but it was her HER choice to be called Molly.
If I had ever tried to call my mother “Molly”, I probably would’ve been slapped in the mouth by her or my father–or both–not that it would have ever even occurred to me to address my mother in such a brazen way. I would have no sooner called my mom ”Molly” than I’d call the First Lady “Shelly.”
“Junelle” was a beautiful name. My mom had told me that she’d always liked her name because it was somewhat unique, so I was pretty sure she had no desire to be called “Nellie” by ANYONE, let alone her her own daughter.
Junelle and Janet had already told me some disturbing stories about my sister before I’d even left Florida, but I was trying to keep an open mind. Junelle had told me of how my sister had called her a “hussy” when she tried to quiet her in church. My mom said my sister was about 7 years old when this took place. She would later tell me that Janet had once said to my sister, “When your mother dies, I don’t want to see any tears from you, as bad as you’ve treated her.” I’d already seen enough with my own eyes to know that my sister made the girl in THE BAD SEED look like Pollyanna.
Once my sister left, it was like all the air came back into the room and everyone began to relax and even enjoy themselves. I noticed, too, that my brother started acting better. We even shared a few laughs together and I found that he, unlike my sister, at least had a personality. Quite frankly, I already hoped this was the last time I’d see her on this visit–or ever.
After Janet and Mo left and my brother went to bed, my mother and I sat there at the kitchen table and stayed up all night talking, talking. Talking and smoking. Junelle hadn’t wanted me to know right away that she smoked, much the same way I hadn’t wanted Frank to know right away that I smoked. I guess you could say we were a little bit alike.
Junelle wanted to know everything about me and my life for the past 28 years. I did my best to fill her in while deflecting any direct questions about my health. I can’t tell you how great it was to be able to give some of my baby photos to my actual mother. We must have gone through every photo album of hers that night. She also showed me the albums she’d already put together of the photos and letters I’d sent her.
While we were sitting there talking, we suddenly noticed that it was getting light out so we finally went to bed. It had been an amazing night. I slept in my sister’s old room and hoped that none of her rubbed off on me. There wasn’t there much danger of that happening since they only think left of my sister in the room was a horse calendar that she’d left behind. As I looked at it, I thought maybe if my mother had been a horse, my sister would have treated her humanely.
Junelle had arranged for a substitute bus driver so she could have the week off. Finding somebody to do this wasn’t easy, but I found out that my mom was well-liked and even loved by just about everyone in the county–everyone, except her own kids. Well, that was about to change, at least with me.
My Mom and I spent much of that week visiting and talking with some of her oldest and dearest friends. I could see how each of them had helped her deal with her troubles through the years, even though they never knew that she had given me up for adoption in 1965. I saw how all of them had an ever deeper understanding and respect for my mother after finding out the original source of her pain and the terrible burden she had carried with her for nearly 30 years.
My brother threw a party at the house on that first weekend of visit and invited every redneck in the county. My brother had just graduated from high school the year before and my mother allowed him to party at the house. She said it was better and safer than making him do it somewhere else. He partied in a building his father had built just 20 feet or so from the house. His father had been working on the wiring of that building when he’d dropped dead right in front of Junelle. Perhaps because of this, the building had never been completely finished or furnished. There was no heat in it, but it did have electricity now and a pool table. In the winter like now, party goers would drink and stay out there for as long as they could stand it, then come in Junelle’s house and warm themselves by the roaring wood stove. I still remember us all laughing when one drunken teenager staggered in and set his beer on top of the red hot stove.
But thank god for that pool table. It was the only bridge between my world and my brother’s. I’ve always loved to play pool since I was a kid and learned to play on a friend’s warped table. Playing pool was the only activity I could do with my brother and his friends that didn’t involve guns or a 4 wheel drive truck. I’d never seen so much flannel or heard so much Lynyrd Skynrd in my life. I’m sorry, but there should be a thousand year moratorium on playing FREE BIRD. If I never hear that song again, it’ll be too soon. I tried to fit in as best I could with my brother and his friends–even chewed a little tobacco to blow their minds. But it was hard. I’d never heard the word “reckon” used so many times in all my life, either. Actually, I’d never heard the word used in real life at all. The last time I’d heard the word “reckon” was when we read HUCKLEBERRY FINN in school. I knew I was in for this kind of culture shock ever since The Guns of IGA. I couldn’t change who I was. I was Don Millard, not Terry Lee Wichael.
If I had been abducted by aliens and taken to another galaxy, I don’t think I would’ve have felt any more out of place than I did right here in rural Virginia. Indeed, Junelle told me that Frank had already warned her not to get her hopes up about me moving here by saying, “Now, Cuz, he’s a real city slicker, so don’t expect him to ever come live around here. But he’s also just about the nicest young man I’ve ever met. You’ll be very proud.”
When I was trying to describe my suburban Connecticut upbringing once again, Janet asked me if I’d ever picked potatoes.
“Yeah–aisle 8,” I replied.
During the second week of my visit, my mom asked for and received another week off from driving her school bus. Junelle took me with her to meet her boss who told her she could certainly have another week off considering the circumstances. He told me that my mom had endured a hard life, but had really stood up to it. I could think of TWO reasons in particular why her life had been hard.
On Valentine’s Day, I took my mom out to dinner at the Buckhorn Inn, the old, rustic country buffet restaurant where she worked on the weekends. I told her she could be my Valentine this year. Her co-workers were very happy for her that we had found each other. When one of the waitresses came over to refill our iced tea, she smiled and said, “You’re both left-handed.”
It was true. Growing up, I’d always wondered why I was left-handed when it came to writing and eating since I was right-handed when I played sports. Junelle was the only lefty in her family and I was the only one of her children who was left-handed.
A few days later we had a happy visit with Frank and his family, which meant a lot to me. While we were there, I thought, why can’t my brother and sister be like Frank’s kids?
Although I loved and cherished the time I was spending with my mother, the hardness of her life was laid bare during this visit. It broke my heart.
Junelle told me about my brother and sister’s father, the man she DID marry. She spoke of how he had always liked her and had pursued her ever since high school and how she wasn’t interested. But after being left at the altar 4 months pregnant with me and then giving me up for adoption, she felt as though no man would ever have her now. So, when my brother and sister’s father learned what had happened, he saw his opening and came calling for again and this time my mother accepted his marriage proposal. She said he was a good, church going man, but that he also had a terrible temper, a temper that my brother had inherited along with sky high cholesterol. She told me of times when he’d knocked over a table where she was working on a jigsaw puzzle when he got mad at her. I shuddered to think of the things he’d probably done to her that she didn’t tell me about. She then talked of the things my brother had broken or damaged in the house during his own fits of anger. She’d married a man who’d always pursued her, but then abused her when he got her and gave her two kids who grew up to mistreat her in the same way he did. And, in a way, all because of the shameful act of my birth father who made this all possible with his cowardly act.
My mother’s life had been as hard as mine had been easy until my own personal medical nightmare in 1989. It made me sad to realize that my happiness had come at the expense of hers. Growing up, I had thought of my birth mother in vague, sketchy terms. I thought of her as just the vessel who had brought me into this world; as someone who was probably in high school and didn’t even want to pregnant so young. How wrong I had been. This was my first real glimpse into just how much my mother had suffered and how truly unselfish her decision to give me up had been.
But she was so happy now that I’d found her. How could I ever tell her about my horrible medical condition now? She had endured so much pain and sorrow in her life already, how could I lay my nightmare at her doorstep? I knew telling her what really happened to me would break her heart for good. I didn’t want her to know how much I was suffering or how it had my illness had robbed me of my life without so much as leaving a clue as to what it was. Yes, I’d told my mother I had some serious health issues, but there was no way she could imagine how truly horrific it was. How could anyone? I was the only one trapped in my body and suspended between life and death. Whenever my mother probed me about my health–which was often–I simply told her that I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and it had finally been diagnosed a few months ago. How could I tell her that my entire body had shrunk right before my eyes in the span of a week? How could I tell her that my symptoms matched nothing ever recorded in the annals of medicine? How could I tell her that I thought it was a fate worse than death? And how on Earth could I tell her that I STILL feared that it might be all my fault? No, I couldn’t tell her this–especially not right now. Best to just crack another OLD MILWAUKEE and have some more deer jerky.
I guess I didn’t a good enough job of hiding the inner torture and sadness that this caused within me because Junelle said to me one night out of the blue,
“You’re keepin’ something from me. What is it?”
I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t do it.
I had originally planned to spend about a week in Virginia and had told my boss/roommate as much. but my mom had begged me to stay longer and I couldn’t say no to her. She had missed the first 28 years of my life. What was I supposed to say to her? No? Or, sorry, Mom, but I have to cut my visit short because of my dynamic new career as a telemarketer? I knew job would be there waiting for me no matter how much time I took off. After all, I had already shown them I was management material by showing up two days in a row on numerous occasions.
But after two weeks had gone by, however, I told my mom that I really did have to think about getting back to Florida soon because my rent would be coming due shortly, as well as a few other bills. This was all very true, but it wasn’t the only reason. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom how out of place I felt in this area, nor could I dare tell her that the thought of no longer being around my brother and sister made me almost ecstatic.
As I was getting ready to finally leave for Florida, a heavy snow was fore casted for the very day I was supposed to leave. My mother told me that she was praying for a blizzard and a blizzard is what we got–almost a foot of snow. This act of God gave us nearly another week and my mother was so happy.
The evening before I was to leave for real, my mother snapped another picture of me as my brother and I were sitting around the kitchen table.
“Dammit, Momma!” my brother shouted as his face turned red. “I’m sick of it!” he yelled.
He got up from the table, grabbed the camera out of my mother’s hand, and smashed it against the counter.
Junelle burst into tears and I just sat there, stunned.
I had never been around behavior like this and sure as hell didn’t want to be around it now. You can’t talk someone out of having a violent temper like this. This was his nature. The sins of the father… After this last incident, I couldn’t get on that bus fast enough. I wanted to spend more time with my mother, but by the same token, I didn’t want to spend another second around my brother and sister.
Throughout this visit, I had tried to be mindful of my brother and sister’s feelings and wanted to cut them slack despite some of the stories I’d heard about them. I was no angel. I tried to put myself in their boots and imagine how I’d feel if the situation was reversed and my mother was suddenly lavishing all of her attention on a long lost son no one had known about for 28 years. This wouldn’t have been easy for me, either, and it was only human nature for there to be some jealousy and resentment. But the kind of behavior I’d seen went way beyond this. Furthermore, the two of them had mistreated my mother for YEARS–long before they ever knew I existed. Their words and actions were just the latest manifestation of the same malignancy and it was never going to change. There was nothing I could do or say that was going to alter their course. As Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
It was time to go. At least for now. I needed some time by myself to let this all sink in and wrap my head around it. I almost wished I was only child again.
As we drove to the bus station the next day, we made a quick stop at the local mall so I could say goodbye to my sister who was a hairdresser there. I had only seen her twice in the whole three and a half weeks I’d been there. I would’ve rather had a root canal than see her again, but I did it for my mom. As we left the beauty salon, my brother showed up. He had a bag in his hand, which he handed to our mother, saying: “Open the bag, Momma.”
Junelle opened the bag, reached in, and pulled out a brand new camera.
“Thank you,” she said.
The cycle of abuse was complete. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other things my brother had to buy to replace what he’d broken. I had a feeling that this was a sad ritual between the two of them. My brother had also bought film for the camera which he promptly loaded for her.
After arriving at the bus station, I checked my big black bag in again and got ready for another hell ride courtesy of Greyhound. When it was time to get on the bus, I kissed and hugged my mother and told her not to be sad. I told her I’d come back to visit her again as soon as I could. She took one last picture of me with her brand new camera. When I disappeared behind the door to get on the bus, I looked back for a moment and could see that my Mom was already crying.
By Don Millard
So there it was. Junelle Anne Wichael–my Mother’s name. I noticed right off that she had the same middle name as my adoptive Mom, right down to the “e” on the end.
Moments after being positive about my discovery, I excitedly brought the paper over to show my Dad, who was sitting in his recliner. He’d been
supportive of my efforts to find my birth mom, but I noticed that after he looked at the request letter and came to the same conclusion as me, he seemed to have something in his eye. Seeing this, I told him once again that I wasn’t rejecting one family for another–I was just finding more family.
This wasn’t entirely true, however. I was rejecting one person in my family–namely, my step mom. She was a horrible woman, but don’t take my word for it. I’m not saying this because she didn’t compare to my adoptive mother–even my father’s friends in Florida couldn’t stand her, either, and they’d never met my mother in Connecticut. My step mom was petty, talked endlessly in a high-pitched helium voice that made your ears bleed, and was most likely an alcoholic. The only person who seemed to even remotely like her was my Dad. I tried to be sympathetic. Loneliness can do awful things to people.
I knew this woman was T-R-O-U-B-L-E from the first nano second. She and my father had been matched by some kind of dating service he’d joined. Their first date took place while I was dating Amy and before I got sick. The morning after this first date, my Dad was eager to tell me all about it as soon as I came into the kitchen:
“We got along great,” he said. “She says I can’t see other women.”
Oh, great! Let me know when she boils your rabbit, Dad.
I’ll give her credit for one thing, though–she did stick by my father when he had his larynx removed during his throat cancer surgery in 1989. They were married in 1990, and I just remembered that I was the Best Man at the wedding. I must have blocked this out of my mind for years. That was a bad day.
But if I had at least one morsel of respect for my step mom, that evaporated the evening she noticed that my Dad still carried a picture of his wife of 29 years–my mother–in his wallet.
“Why do you still have a picture of HER in your wallet?” she asked.
It took every bit of self-control I possessed not to say anything when I heard her say this, but out of respect for my Dad, I said nothing. I wanted to point out to this shrew that my father was a widower, not divorced like she was. Call me kooky, but if I were a woman, I don’t think I’d want to be with a man who stopped loving his wife because she was dead.
Anyway, I now knew for sure that MY mother was a Wichael. This was now a source of pride, but it was also frustrating since I still hadn’t heard a word from Frank. Consequently, I ran all kinds of wild scenarios and screenplays in my head to try to explain his silence. Was there some deep, dark secret about my mother that he was keeping from me? Was she crazy? Was she in jail? Or did he already know she wouldn’t want to know me? Did he think I was a jerk? Was he just being nice to me while I was there? All of these crazy questions came into my head. I was pretty sure that if my Mom were dead, Frank would’ve told me by now and been done with it once and for all. What WAS it? Did she have some kind of bizarre shrinking disease, too?
So close, yet so far away.
It was at this moment that I decided to write Frank and let him know that I knew my Mother’s name now. I was also letting him know that even though I now knew my Mother’s name, I wasn’t calling any other Wichaels and asking them to give me info on Junelle Anne Wichael.
It’s at this point in the story that I must issue a correction in this narrative. While going over my letters to Frank, I see now that I wasn’t diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome until a few weeks after visiting the Wichaels in August 1993. It was THEN that I went to see Amy’s mom and told her of my diagnosis. I wondered if she’d share this news with Amy. This correction also means that I hadn’t ever been diagnosed of anything the whole time I was with Amy, even in the Spring of 1993.
When I informed Amy’s mom of my diagnosis, I also told her of my amazing visit with the Wichaels and how I was finally trying to find my birth mom. She was happy and excited for me. My adoption was a topic that we’d discussed quite often when Amy and I were together. She’d always encouraged me to find my roots.
Anyway, sorry for the confusion, but I don’t have total recall of the last 20 odd years of my life. Now, back to the letter…
In my letter to Frank, I told him of how I’d just been diagnosed with CFS and that I had some other health problems, but I didn’t mention the shrinking. I said I needed my medical history, and closed this tortured letter by telling him that if there was something seriously wrong with my Mother I needed to know because it could affect me as well.
I was pretty sure that Frank was not only related to my Mother but that he also knew her as well. But I wasn’t so sure if he knew that my Mom had been pregnant and had given a baby up for adoption way back in 1965. Since this was a small, rural religious community in the South, common sense told me that very few people probably knew about Terry Lee Wichael.
It was the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write.
I mailed it off in October and so passed about 4 or 5 of the longest weeks of my life as I waited and waited, but STILL didn’t hear anything from Frank Wichael. What was going on? I was getting paranoid and starting to worry that maybe my Mother was in a mental institution or something.
And then, just a few days before Thanksgiving, the phone rang.
I don’t know if it was wishful thinking, but something told me it was Frank. When I heard a Southern voice on the other end of the line say, “Young man”, I knew it was Frank.
Frank got right down to business, saying: “We’ve been in touch with your mother’s family. Her mother just died this summer and she was in the hospital this summer–that side of the family has mental problems. We’re in touch with the family and they want to get the okay from her doctor before they tell her about you. They want to make sure it doesn’t cause a setback.”
“Okay,” I said, a little bit stunned. Why would telling my Mother about me cause her to have a setback? Wouldn’t this news make her happy?
“Now, as soon as they get the go ahead from her doctor, they’re going to tell her,” Frank continued. “So, just hang in there a little longer, young man. Next time you come up, we’ll just get in the car and go to Gettysburg for the day.”
I thanked Frank for all his help with this and wished him and his family a Happy Thanksgiving. As we were hanging up, he said “Come around!”
Just a few months later I would find out that shortly after my visit in August, Frank had gone to my Mother’s house about 20 miles away to tell her about me, only to learn that she was in the hospital. So, he hadn’t been stalling or stringing me along at all. He was planning to tell her the news himself that day. He would tell Junelle later: “As soon as he stepped out of the car, I knew where he belonged.”
As alarming as it was to suddenly find out that your birth mother has had to be hospitalized for depression, there was also a certain amount of peace in this news as well, strangely. As I’ve said, I was certainly no stranger to depression–especially during my high school days–where even the slightest rejection was seen as EPIC. But, as I tried to tell my doctors, at no time when I was depressed did I ever complain of being sick or claim strange things were happening to my body.
Discovering that my Mother suffered from depression was in a way cathartic. I say that I always assumed that my own struggles with depression were due to having an artistic temperament. I never once thought it might be hereditary in any way. My parents told me I was adopted as soon as I was old to understand what that meant. Growing up knowing I was adopted, I thought whatever traits I had were mine and mine alone and that the only other influence was my environment. But one phone call from Frank Wichael changed all of that and showed me just how wrong I was. Turns out, I wasn’t quite as unique as I thought I was. Imagine that.
In a way, for better or worse, we’re all victims of our biology. Each of us are endowed with certain talents and handicaps; talents and handicaps which we had no say in choosing; and it’s these endowments that control our fate. All we can do is steer.
Being adopted is kind of like playing Seven Card No Peek. We’ve all heard the saying “You’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt you.” Well, being adopted is like having to go through life without getting to look at your hand. Most people get to look at their hand and bet accordingly. Not so with adoptees. After 28 years, I was finally being allowed to peek at one of my cards; and even though it may not have been the card I wanted, seeing it helped me to understand myself in a way I never could have otherwise. Priceless.
My father has never understood depression. Since he’s never really suffered from it, he doesn’t think anyone else should, either; kind of like a skinny person not being able to understand how somebody could be fat. He seemed to think that anyone who struggles with it does so because they’re weak or have no will power. Like telling a person with diabetes to just snap out of it and forget about insulin… Oh, well, this is the same person who worried that dog shit might not dissolve like human shit when I flushed it down the toilet; the same person who, when John Lennon was murdered, said: “They shot Jack Lemmon”; the same person who threw away vintage WWII photos of his step-father in Europe because he liked the photo albums so much he wanted to put his own dopey present day photos in them instead. It was times like these that I made a special point of telling people I was adopted. He must have looked good in his Marine uniform when my Mom met him.
Now that I’d been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, my father felt it was the perfect time for me to move out so he could rent out his house to a family while he and his shrew lived at her museum of a house with its horsehair couch. He’d been splitting his time between both houses as he couldn’t seem to put up with his new bride full time. It was a match made in Cape Coral.
I managed to rent a room from a young, unmarried couple who lived in a lonely quadrant of Cape Coral usually reserved for ritual killings. The couple was pleasant enough and so was the house, but as anyone who’s ever rented a room knows, basically you’re expected to pay rent but not actually live there. Or eat there. Or… well, you get the idea. To make me feel more at home, they graciously cleared out a spot in the refrigerator big enough for a whole two liter bottle of soda. I guess they didn’t think I required food.
I remember, too, that they had a cat, but put its litter box in MY bathroom. Every time I got out of the shower, I’d step on granules of kitty litter that the little bastard had flung from his box. It wouldn’t surprise me if this couple took their own shits in my bathroom as well when I wasn’t there.
This is the same couple who shanghaied me into an AMWAY meeting, but that’s another story.
When I moved in with these two, the girl thought it would be great if we all rented a bunch of movies and watched them as a way of getting to know each other. I was for this and looked forward to it until she showed me the movies she’d picked out, saying:
“You like Chuck Norris, right?”
I gave Frank my new number and hoped he’d pass it on to my mother’s family.
At this point, I was off disability, but was still getting Supplemental Security Income (SSI). I was trying to work some, but it was a classic CATCH-22 situation. They didn’t think I was crazy enough to get full disability now, but I really wasn’t well enough to work full time, especially if it was any kind of a physical job. So, that sort of left me with only one viable option–Telemarketing. I know, I know. I felt the same way about it. Ugh. As I’ve said, my illness didn’t kill me–it did something much worse–it robbed me of my life. And that is a fate worse than death. That I still couldn’t get an explanation let alone a real diagnosis was just an added bonus. I’m still constantly amazed at how life finds new ways to be cruel to people. Nothing is so cold and indifferent as Nature, and the idea that there is somehow a kind hand behind all of this is absurd to me. But people will believe ANYTHING as long as you promise them life after death.
It was in this curious setting and residence that the phone rang again, this time just about a week before Christmas. Since no one else was home, I answered the phone and heard another Southern voice, but this time it was a woman:
“Is this Don?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, Don, this is Janet. I’m Junelle’s sister. How are you?”
“Alright,” I replied.
“Well, bless your heart… Now, Don, like I said, I’m Junelle’s sister and we’re very close. She’s got two other sisters, but they live a ways away. Nancy is the oldest and she lives in Richmond. Our other sister, Catherine Hope–we all call her ‘Hopey’–lives in Petersburg. She’s married to a preacher…”
There was a pause.
“Do you know why you were adopted, Don?” Janet asked.
I braced myself before answering.
“Not really,” I replied. “They told us that my parents were very young, maybe in high school when this happened.”
“Well,” Janet began, “they weren’t in high school. They were both in their early twenties and were planning to get married. Junelle knew she was pregnant with you and so did your Daddy. They were all set to get married. We all went to the rehearsal the night before and everything seemed fine. But the next day, the day of the wedding, your Daddy never showed up and left Junelle at the altar. That’s when she told me she was pregnant.”
My blood ran cold when I heard this. I was stunned. I shuddered to think that I even shared one strand of DNA with this coward. Ever since finding this out, I’ve never had and never will have any desire to know this man. I couldn’t fathom the amount of cowardice and shameless it took to just not show up for your own wedding without any notice or explanation. How could you live with yourself? I sure couldn’t.
Janet told me that none of his family showed up for the wedding, either, and that there was never an explanation, ever, from anyone. My birth father simply walked out of my Mother’s life forever on their wedding day knowing she was pregnant with his child. I thought this kind of a thing only happened in the movies or soap operas. Now more than ever, I hoped with all my heart that I looked like Junelle and not this son of a bitch.
“Now, Don,” Janet continued, “back in 1965 I was head nurse on the maternity floor at the hospital where you was born. It was kind of a blessing because I made sure your Momma got the best care possible when she had you… I guess I’m the one who convinced her to give you up for adoption. Junelle really wanted to keep you, but it would’ve been hard for her and hard on you. She didn’t want you to have to grow up without a Daddy. Momma & Daddy were getting old and it would’ve been hard for them to help, but they said they’d do everything they could. Junelle didn’t have a lot of money, so we thought the best thing to do was to put you up for adoption and give you a chance at a better life.”
I told Janet I completely understood this decision given the circumstances. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up without a father.
If you’re adopted, common sense tells you that you were cared about otherwise you wouldn’t be on this Earth in the first place. Common sense also tells you that the reason you were put up for adoption was to have a chance at a better life. My eyes still fill with tears when I think of the sacrifice Junelle made for me. I can’t begin to imagine the kind of pain that must have caused her. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. If there’s a more unselfish act than a woman giving up her own flesh and blood so he/she could have a chance at a better life, I’m not aware of it. As far as I’m concerned, my Mother deserved a Purple Heart.
I never believed I was put up for adoption because I wasn’t loved or wanted. I told Janet all of this and she seemed so relieved. I think she was worried I’d blame her for convincing her sister to give me up. I told her it was the right decision and, more importantly, it was done out of LOVE. Now that I was Don Millard, I couldn’t conceive of ever NOT being Don Millard or having the parents I’d had. But I had it easy. Junelle was the one left with all the pain and loss.
Janet then told me all about Frank and my Mom and I learned what the “H” stood for as well.
“Now, Don, Herbert Frank and Junelle are first cousins. They were very close growing up, always called each other “Cuz.” Frank was your Mom’s favorite cousin. He helped out Daddy a lot on the farm when he was growing up and he was Daddy’s favorite, too… You couldn’t have picked a better person to contact than Herbert Frank.”
My hunch about Frank Wichael had been right, somehow. Frank was the man. I’d also gotten my wish, too. Not only was Frank related to me, we were cousins!
Had I called one or two other Wichaels listed on on my page, Junelle’s secret would’ve been known by the whole county before I even hung up the phone. “Good thing he didn’t call Leon,” my Mother would joke just a few months later.
Janet told me that Junelle drove a school bus for the county and had done so for 14 years. She said that she also worked at a restaurant called The Buckhorn Inn on the weekends. She had to work there as well, Janet explained, because she was a widow and had been one since 1984. Her husband had dropped dead right in front of her while they were working in the yard. He was only 45, but had suffered from a bad heart for years. The death of her husband forced her to raise her two other children by herself. Her daughter was 17 at the time while her son was only 9. Janet told me that my half sister had been born about a year and a half after me.
My heart went out to my Mother after hearing all of this. Some people seem to be able to skip through life relatively unscathed while fate seems to pick on other people mercilessly. I could already tell that my Mother was in the latter category.
“Well, Don, your Mom has a lot of fun about her and everyone likes her. You told Herbert Frank in your letter that you didn’t have a mean bone in your body. Well, that’s a perfect description of Junelle… You’ve got a good Momma, Don.”
I had just found out that my Mother was funny and kind. What more could a guy ask for? As far as I was concerned, I’d hit the jackpot. I didn’t care if she were rich or poor, fat or skinny, pretty or ugly. Nothing else mattered.
And then, at last, Janet gave me my Mother’s telephone number and said to call her tomorrow at 5 pm. She told me that she’d be waiting for my call.
As I hung up the phone, I felt like I’d just completed a journey of a million miles. I felt like I had successfully navigated through a giant maze as well as a mental obstacle course. Somehow, it seemed like everything happened the way it was supposed to. All in all, my search for my birth mother had taken only about six months. I was very, very lucky. If I hadn’t known my birth name, how would I have ever been able to find her? I’d still be looking. This was turning into one amazing Christmas! For me, this was the first time it ever felt like Christmas in Florida.
Needless to say, I called Junelle Anne Wichael at EXACTLY 5 pm the next evening. I was happy, excited and nervous all at the same time. When I heard her Southern accent, it seemed so strange that she could be my Mother. It was a bit mind-boggling that though we were from totally different worlds and cultures and had never known each other, I had once lived inside her. It’s hard to put into words, but it was a strange dynamic. It was like we were intimate strangers. It was very surreal.
Maybe it’s partly because of this that I can’t really remember the details of the very first time I talked to my Mother on the phone. This may sound odd, but it’s the truth. But one thing I do remember is being able to say 5 words to her that I had longed to say ever since I’d started my search for her:
“Thank you for my life.”
“You’re welcome,” came the gentle reply.
About a week later, I received a letter from my Mother. It was dated December 25, 1993. Here are a few passages:
First from day one I have loved you with all my heart. So many times I thought if I could only see you and hold you that would help or know where you were.
If it had been my decision only there wouldn’t have been any question about keeping you. When you were born I wanted to see you and hold you in my arms but nobody would let me.
When I left the hospital without you I just wanted to die. I hoped so much that you would look like me and have my heart.
I became depressed in November 65 and was in the hospital for a while and have been off and on since then. I never could tell the Doctor until I started going to a doctor that I really liked. That was 1990.
I was married in November 65. My husband accepted this but I wasn’t allowed to talk about it.
I love making people laugh. I guess that’s one thing that has kept me going.
I love antiques and have quite a few of them.
I am 51 years old now and have gray hair. My hair has been gray since I was 41. Guess I’m a antique too.
My life has been changed so much since I found you. You will never know exactly what this means to me. I have cried and cried about this.
Everything seems like a dream. I haven’t been able to sleep or eat since I got the good news.
I am so proud of you. I want to tell the world.
I want to see you so much. I love talking to you on the telephone. It means so much to me. I can’t wait to see you. Our baby pictures sure do look alike.
I wish I could see you and talk to you every day. I love you with all my heart and always will.
How could I not already love this woman?
I wanted to meet my Mom in person as soon as I could. On New Year’s Eve, we talked on the phone for an hour and then watched the ball drop on TV together. It was a great way to end one year and begin another.
In the meantime, against my better judgment, I took another telemarketing job, this time in the nearby town of Ft. Myers. I was raising money (sort of) for the Police Benevolent Association. The last time I’d seen or heard of this organization, they were the sponsor of my little league team. I remember our shirts were blue and said PBA on them. Again, I’m not sure of the exact percentage that went to the cause, but I’m pretty sure our regional manager drove a DeLorean.
At the time, this seemed like the best job to earn some quick cash to finance my trip to Virginia. It was also the kind of a job I could just abandon for a week or two and then return, no questions asked. In the world of telemarketing, if you show up two days in a row they want to make you a manager.
Speaking of managers, when I told my telemarketing manager how unhappy I was renting a room and having a litter box in my bathroom, he offered me the extra bedroom in the new two bedroom apartment he’d just rented across the street from where we worked. He would give me a big break on the rent and I’d be paying about half of what I was paying to share a bathroom with cat. He seemed like an interesting and decent enough guy, even though he was a born again Christian, which should have been a HUGE red flag. He said he managed rock and roll bands on the side, even claiming to have been one of the managers of Saigon Kick, a band that had a big recent with the LOVE IS ON THE WAY. He said they had listed him on their album. I looked at the album credits and didn’t see his name anywhere on it. If he was involved with him, I think all he did was roll up an extension cord.
Still, I leapt at the chance to retrieve my two liter bottle of soda and leave that Yuppie wanna-be couple in the dust. My new rental rate would give me more money for my trip.
I decided the cheapest and easiest way to go for me would be to take a bus. This, of course, wasn’t my preferred mode of travel, but it was cheap and didn’t involve having to drive my little car a thousand miles to Virginia in the dead of winter.
In order to get an even cheaper rate, I bought my bus ticket a month in advance and I counted down the days as I moved in to my new place with a Jesus freak. Junelle and I talked to each other on the phone as much as we could (these were the days of the dreaded toll call) and exchanged letters every week. I didn’t think it would ever come around, but finally a month passed and it was time to go. I told my boss/roommate of my trip about a week before I was to go, and he acted like I should care more about my bullshit fundraising job than seeing my birth mother for the first time in my life. I calmly told me I was going and he could fire me if he wanted or had to. He quickly backed down and told me my job would be there for me when I came back. In what other job could I have done this? You see, there’s a method to my madness. The only question now was who would take me to the bus station.
I was living in Ft. Myers these days, across the Caloosahatchee River, and about 20 miles from my Dad in Cape Coral. He had never once come to see me when I was doing stand up comedy, so I wasn’t thrilled about having to ask him to take me, anyway. Meanwhile, I’d been giving Amy’s mom regular updates on my search for my birth mother. Ever since I’d told her about meeting Frank, she’d wanted to know of each and every development in my quest. As I telling her about my pending trip on the phone, she asked:
“Who’s taking you to the bus station?”
“I don’t know yet,” I replied.
“I’ll take you,” she said immediately.
And so she did.
Amy’s mom didn’t live very far from me and I didn’t live very far from the bus station. It was really kind of fitting that she would end up being the person to take me because she’d always been like a second mother to me even after her daughter and I had broken up. It was like I was being delivered from one mom to another.
After checking in my big black bag, it was time to get on the magic bus that would take me to the mother I had never known.
Amy’s mom and I hugged each other as we’d always done, maybe a little tighter and longer this time given the circumstances. As we were coming out of our embrace, she suddenly and quickly leaned back in and kissed me on the mouth… She’d never done this before. There was no tongue, mind you, but it surprised me and gave me something to ponder on the long bus ride to Virginia.
When I got on the Greyhound bus, I noticed that it was anything but magic. If this had been a ship, we’d all be in Steerage. Although I’d never really traveled much by bus before, I didn’t have any illusions about it. It was just as shitty as I expected, but it still beat driving all those miles in February, alone.
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that after 10 hours of riding on that bus, I wasn’t any closer to Harrisonburg, Virginia than when Amy’s mom kissed me. ‘Greyhound’? Shit, they should call it ‘Bassethound.’
It was a LONG, boring, smelly ride. I brought along a paperback copy of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln in preparation for this, but was able to read only a few pages due to the stench of diesel and despair. I felt like I needed a HAZMAT suit for my soul.
The only vivid memory I have from that bus ride is a guy with a gym bag getting on the bus late in the evening. He found a seat just a row or two in front of me. Moments after he sat down, he unzipped his bag and produced a ferret. ‘Leave The Driving To Us.’
As the miles crawled by and we stopped at every sparrow fart town, I noticed a distinct pattern: Greyhound, with incredible foresight, had placed every single one of their bus stations in the absolute armpit of each city. I’m pretty sure Nostradamus has a quatrain about this very phenomenon. Just ask The History Channel.
About 20 hours and two hemorrhoids later, we entered Harrisonburg, the city of my birth. I tried to look around but wasn’t able to see much because it was dark–again. I couldn’t believe this bus ride was coming to an end.
It was then that the full weight and reality of what was about to happen hit me. I thought, what if this isn’t real? Maybe I was in a coma and was all some crazy, drug-induced dream.
While this thought bounced around in my head, the bus suddenly slowed down, took a right, and pulled into a diner parking lot. My heart moved to my throat when I saw the Greyhound sign lit up on the side of the building and the bus came to a stop.
I was anxious to get off that bus and was one of the first ones to do so. As I got off the bus, I saw a line of about six or seven people standing together nearby. Just then, one of the people from this line, a short woman, broke ranks and started walking directly toward me. As she got closer, I noticed that she looked like a little me.
This was real. This was my Mom!
By Don Millard
Homeward Bound, again? Not really.
When I got back to Connecticut I had a place to stay. I stayed with an old high school friend of mine and his wife, who was expecting. I’d stayed with them and paid them rent during the last two months before Christmas after my crazy landlady, I kid you not, accused me of stealing some of her diarrhea pills one Sunday night. Apparently, her diarrhea pills were highly sought after and had a street value I didn’t know about. Brown market?
Shortly after I began staying with my friend again, he and his wife left for Florida for vacation. I took advantage of this solitude to work on the final draft of the sarcastic novella I’d written the summer my Mom died in 1986. My little novel is called ‘REBEL WITH A CAUSE: The Shocking Story Of A Young Man Who Gave Humanity The Finger!’ It’s the story of a young guy who vents his spleen to a psychiatrist about what pisses him off about people and life. I know this may come as a shock, but the book is a wee bit autobiographical.
Amy and I had kept in touch by phone since I’d come back to Connecticut and about a month later she called to tell me that she’d met someone and they were moving in together in a week. Although this kind of stunned and hurt me, I pretended like it didn’t bother me a bit and said I was still her friend, blah, blah, blah.
It was during all of this that I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I say that because it was a decision I knew I couldn’t go back on if I didn’t like the results. Consequently, it was a decision I’d wrestled with for the last few years, but now the time seemed right. So, I decided once and for all, to try to find my birth mother, the woman who’d given birth to me on March 14th, 1965 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Since I hadn’t been able to solve my medical mystery, I would now try to solve the ultimate mystery of my life: my adoption.
Once I made up my mind to find my Mother, I wrote this poem the same night:
Though I lived within you
I have lived without you
How I wish you knew
What a loving home I was brought into
You gave me life
You gave me breath
You chose life over death
And no matter what you went through
I am still part of you
Do you sometimes wonder where I am
Where I’ve been
What I’ve seen
And everything in between?
For I am a tree without roots
A ship without an anchor
Few can fathom the fickle hand of fate
How I hope I’m not too late
If you’re out there, say a prayer
How I hope you’re still there
For ours is a bond you can never smother
I will find you, Mother
I wrote The Children’s Home Society of Virginia, the agency that had handled my adoption, and asked them to give me what they called “non-identifying information.” There was such a void, and I was hungry for even the tiniest detail; Was she kind? Was she funny? Was she smart? Was she an artist? Was she pretty? Who was she? Who was I?
The adoption agency would later send me my “heritage summary”, which I poured over and tried to make meaning out of the most mundane of details. This is what they had to say about my birth mother at the time of my adoption:
“Your birth mother was 5’2″ tall and weighed 105 pounds. She had good taste in clothes and preferred soft colors. She had a medium olive complexion, brown hair and brown eyes. She was described as attractive, withdrawn, and someone who kept her problems to herself.”
One thing I didn’t tell the adoption agency was that I knew my birth name and had known it ever since the fall of 1988. Just before moving to Florida, my Dad and I had come across a letter in a safety deposit box from the lawyer who handled my adoption. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the first sentence of the letter, which said: “I represent Mr. and Mrs. Donald Bruce Millard who adopted a male infant named Terry Lee Wichael who they named Donald Bruce Millard, Jr.”
Terry Lee Wichael? I can’t really express how strange it was to see this name and realize that was once ME. I hate to say it, but my first reaction to seeing my birth name was that it made me sound like a serial killer. “Terry Lee Wichael is set to be executed tonight.” When I saw my name, I couldn’t help but think that if not for a simple twist of fate, I’d probably be driving a pick up truck with a gun rack. Hell, I probably would’ve even chewed tobacco! Oh, wait.
When we moved into our new house in Florida, I put this stunning document in a drawer all by itself. I told myself that when the time was right and I felt I was ready, I’d act on this. Well, the time felt right and I was ready.
Wichael? What kind of a name was that, anyway? I’d certainly never seen or heard it before and wondered if it was a rare name. I was sure glad it wasn’t Smith. I enlisted a good friend of mine who lived in New Haven to go to the Yale Library and see just how rare this Wichael name might be. At the time, the Yale Library housed pretty much every phone book from every major American city.
A few days later my friend reported back to me that he hadn’t been able to find even ONE Wichael listed in ANY city in America! Any city, that is, except for the Harrisonburg, Virginia area where I was born! He xeroxed that page of the Virginia phone book and when he gave it to me he said I was probably related to every one of those people listed. As I held the piece of paper in my trembling hands, I too realized that the 8 Wichaels listed there were probably all related to me. Me, an adoptee and an only child who never felt connected to anything and who always wondered if he looked like another soul on this Earth. As far as we could tell, these 8 Wichaels listed were the only ones listed in the entire country, and that was a heady thought!
I must have stared at this page of the phone book every day for a month. Part of me just wanted to pick up the phone and start dialing, while another part of me was afraid of what I might find. Had my adoption been a secret? How many Wichaels even knew about it? Was I a child of rape? Would this ruin my mother’s present day life? If she was married, did her husband know that she’d given me away? These kinds of questions haunted me and gave me pause every time I was tempted to pick up the phone. After all, the adoption agency had told me that my birth parents had been very young and weren’t married at the time of my adoption. But, for all I knew, that was probably the same story they tell every adoptee who requests what they call “non-identifying information.”
In July I left Connecticut to visit a kindred spirit in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Pete Duchesne had been one of my best friends since we met as pimply freshmen in college in 1983. We had kept in touch off and on ever since and I trusted his judgement over just about any one’s. When I told Pete about my dilemma, he said: “Don, I know you always want to do everything the right way, but I’d just call.”
That was good enough for me.
So, one warm Friday evening, fortified by a stiff drink or three, I decided to do just that.
I chose to call the very first Wichael listed, a woman. I might even be calling my Mom, I thought. As a reluctant telemarketer, I’d done some cold calling in my day, but this was ridiculous.
My whole body started shaking when I heard a woman’s voice say hello on the other end of the line. Trying my best to keep my voice steady, I attempted to explain my situation as succinctly as I could. The woman was very nice and sympathetic to my cause, but explained that she wasn’t really a Wichael; she’d been married to one but was divorced now. She said she was sorry she couldn’t help me and wished me luck with my search.
Well, shit! I’ve got one more call left in me, I thought, as I looked down at the remaining unsuspecting Wichaels on my page.
As I looked down at the candidates for the thousandth time, I kept coming back to one name in particular, the name my gut had told me to call in the first place. I can’t explain it, but something told me that “H Frank Wichael” was the man to call about this.
Working up my courage one last time, I dialed the number (and yes, it was a dial phone). Even though his name was listed as “H Frank” I was pretty sure he went by Frank. I certainly wasn’t going to say “May I speak with H, please?” Sure enough, a woman answered this phone, too, and I did my very best to sound as casual as I could while nearly having a heart attack at the same time when I said: “May I speak with Frank, please?”
To my utter relief, this woman didn’t say, “Who’s calling, please?” What would I have said to that? Terry Lee Wichael?
“Just a minute, please,” she said pleasantly.
While I waited for “H” to come to the phone, I thought I’d go insane. Or maybe I was already?
“Hello?” said a warm, friendly sounding Southern voice and I felt comfortable instantly.
I told Frank my situation; of how I’d been adopted; of how my original birth name had been Terry Lee Wichael and that I’d been born in 1965 in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“Where are you calling me from?” he asked.
“New Hampshire,” I replied.
“New Hampshire?” he said incredulously. “You’re in the wrong part of the country, boy,” he said, laughing.
“I know,” I replied.
I couldn’t believe how well the call was going or how much I was already enjoying talking to this H. Frank Wichael. He told me very quickly that I was pronouncing Wichael wrong. He explained to me that it was pronounced like “Michael” but with a W. After learning how to pronounce my last night properly, I wondered if there was anybody named Michael Wichael.
Frank asked me all sorts of questions and seemed genuinely intrigued. When I told him I had blue eyes, he sounded shocked and said:
“BLUE EYES? All the Wichaels have brown eyes!”
All my life I was glad that I had blue eyes, but now I kind of wished I had brown eyes, since this was such a Wichael trait, apparently.
I bet I talked to H Frank Wichael for about an hour that night. When I mentioned that I was likely to be returning to Florida soon and would be passing through Virginia, he said: “Stop by.”
Stop by? Um, okay.
I was floored by his warmth, humor and hospitality in the span of just this phone call. I sure hoped I was related to HIM.
In preparation for my return to Florida, I stayed in New Hampshire with my college buddy Pete and picked up a temporary job working the graveyard shift in a factory. The only thing I remember about it now is that we had to pack glue sticks in a box while trying not to fall asleep.
About a month later, I drove back to Connecticut, gathered up my Van Gogh’s and headed South toward Florida by way of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the land of my birth as well as the scene of the original mystery of my life. Who was I, anyway? Twenty eight years later, it was time for Don Millard to meet Terry Lee Wichael.
As the miles rolled by, my nervousness and excitement grew every time I saw a sign that told me I was getting closer and closer to Harrisonburg, the city of my birth. I had been adopted and lived in Virginia for the few years of my life, but I had no memory of Virginia because my parents moved back to Connecticut before I was even in kindergarten. We’d lived in northern Virginia, far from Harrisonburg, so this was the first time I was really back in this area since, well, since I’d been given up for adoption. In a way, I was going back from whence I came.
As I thought about it all, I had a good feeling about H. Frank Wichael. Though I’d only spoken with him on the phone, something told me he was going to help me in my quest to find my mother. I was already a confirmed agnostic by this time, but in this one tiny corner of my life I had faith that it would all work out.
The landscape got even prettier as I entered the Shenandoah Valley, that gorgeous and fertile region that stretches for 200 miles across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in western Virginia and two counties in West Virginia. The rolling hills and panoramic vistas even reminded me a little bit of Ireland. Hillbillies get all the pretty country.
During our study of the Civil War in high school, I defended the South in my AP history class. I defended the South by pointing out that if the North’s economy had been based on agriculture, THEY would’ve been the ones with slaves. Upon hearing this, one of my Yankee classmates asked me:
“What? Were you born in the South?”
“Actually, I was,” I told him with a smile. Loving history the way I do, I’ve always been proud to have been born in such a beautiful and historic state. Still am.
When I got into the city of Harrisonburg, I wondered how close I was to Rockingham Memorial Hospital, the hospital where I’d come into this world. I was hungry from the long drive and didn’t want to confront my past on an empty stomach, so I stopped at a Pizza Hut. I also stopped here because I needed a little bit of time to collect my thoughts, take a deep breath, and try to relax for a moment before I called Frank Wichael to let him know good ol’ Terry Lee was in town.
While I sat there eating one of their custom shitty pizzas, I thought about how this might be my last supper as an adoptee who didn’t know anything about his birth family and how I couldn’t undo any of this now if I didn’t like what I found here. It was a heady thought.
As I left Pizza Hut, I seem to remember that it was one of those rare occasions where I passed the men’s room without having to immediately extrude the pizza I’d just eaten.
You are now about half way through Part 8. Please take this time to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom or visit the Snack Bar.
It was time to find a pay phone and call Frank Wichael. Finding a pay phone in 1993 wasn’t very hard, as back then they were as plentiful as satellite dishes in West Virginia. Come to think of it, I believe the state flower of West Virginia is a satellite dish. Or maybe it’s a gun now.
Speaking of guns, they were just about the first things I saw when I walked into the local supermarket in Frank’s little town of Bridgewater before called him. Just one step in this store and you knew were South of the Mason-Dixon line. The rifles were hanging on the wall just as matter of factly as tomatoes in the produce aisle. Talk about guns and butter. Yeah, I’m going to blend in here, I thought. Growing up, I’d done a little bit of fishing here and there, but that was about it. I’m no hunter. The only thing I’ve ever hunted is the remote. Maybe I should have mounted that.
I called Frank from the pay phone at the local Guns & Ammo IGA and told him where I was. He already knew I was supposed to be getting into the area sometime that day, a Saturday. I figured the weekend was the best time to pester him about the mystery of my birth and adoption. Frank told me I wasn’t very far from his house, but gave me directions to meet him in the parking lot of an old general store nearby as it would be easier to find for a city slicker unfamiliar with the area. Hanging up the phone, I repeated Frank’s directions over and over in my head as I got back into my car.
As I drove to meet Frank, I was nervous and excited and wondered if this all was really real. This seemed like something out of movie rather than real life. But right now my biggest fear was getting lost and that’s exactly what happened. When it comes to getting lost, I’m an expert. Christopher Columbus ain’t got nothing on me. Sure enough, I saw no sign of the old store that Frank had talked about as I went down one country road after another. I was so close and yet I might as well have been in Cincinnati. Frustrated, I finally admitted defeat and drove back to town. I promptly called Frank from a different pay phone on Main Street. I felt like an idiot. Frank’s wife answered the phone when I called, and said Frank had just got back to the house.
“He thought you chickened out,” she said.
“No!” I replied. “I got lost. I’m still here!”
This time, she gave me directions and said Frank would stay at the store until I showed up. Her directions must have been better than her husband’s because I found the old store with no trouble on this go around. As soon as I pulled into the dirt parking lot, a beat up greenish blue pick up truck appeared from behind the abandoned store and pulled up next to me. We both got out of our vehicles. Frank looked to be about in early fifties. He had the complexion of someone who spent a lot of time outside and had a full head of gray hair. “Just because there’s snow on the mountain top doesn’t mean there ain’t a fire in the furnace,” I’d hear him say later.
“Frank Wichael,” he said with a smile, putting out his hand.
“Don Millard,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Just follow me back to the house,” he said, as he got back in his truck.
As I followed Frank Wichael that late afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of it all. Here I was–the quintessential Connecticut Yankee–following a Southern man in a beat up old pick up truck down a country road to find my roots. I felt like I was leaving the present behind and passing through a time portal to my past. It was like I was entering a different dimension of time and space with Rod Serling riding shotgun.
We couldn’t have driven but a mile or two when suddenly we were pulling into a long gravel driveway. My little car suddenly shook as it went over something I’d find out later was a cattle guard. I didn’t know what the hell it was when I drove over it and it startled me. Frank had a handsome brick house, a sprawling yard, and a giant satellite dish. I parked near the house on the grass near the wooden fence. When I got out of my car, I made sure to leave my cigarettes in the car because I didn’t want Frank to know I was addicted to nicotine.
Frank showed me around his house very briefly. He seemed to be the only one home now. Then, putting on a sweatshirt, he said:
“I’m goin’ to a cookout. There’s gonna be a lot of Wichaels there. You wanna go?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
So, just a few minutes later, I climbed into Frank’s truck and off we went. As we were driving, I
wanted to ask him right then and there if he knew who my mother was, but I held my tongue. I trusted Frank and was waiting for him to tell me what he knew about it all. Already, just based on Frank, I was hoping it was my Mother who was a Wichael.
On the short drive over to the cookout, Frank told me that the Wichael name was quite rare and that there wasn’t many of us around. He said the only Wichaels he knew of were all from this pocket of the Shenandoah Valley.
Almost right after he finished telling me this, we pulled into a driveway full of cars. This must be the cookout, I thought. As we got out and walked toward everyone gathered in the front yard of yet another handsome brick house, I was nervous as well as curious as to how Frank would introduce me, or even explain me.
There was a crowd of people in the front yard; some were standing around and talking while others were already seated at picnic table. I felt like all eyes were on me as I waited for Frank to say something. Frank introduced me to the group by saying my name was Don. He didn’t mention anything about my adoption. But then he said three words that changed my life by adding: “He’s a Wichael.”
I almost burst into tears when he said this. He said it so matter of factly, as if it was as undeniable a truth as gravity.
It’s very hard to describe just how much this meant to me. To never know you, really, who you were growing up and never anyone who was actually related to you; to be adopted and an only child wondering if you even looked like someone else; to never know if you had your mother’s eyes or your father’s chin. Life is hard enough without having to go through it not knowing who you really are. To not know any of this all your life and then suddenly be introduced with the words “He’s a Wichael” changed all of that forever. Even though I didn’t know anything more than that at this moment, it was already enough. Everything was different now. I had found my anchor. I was a Wichael.
As the sun was setting, I could see the Blue Ridge mountains one side of me and the Allegheny mountains on the other. I was glad to have been born in such a beautiful spot, nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.
As I looked around at the younger faces of those at this cookout, I noticed that some of them looked like me and I got a bit paranoid. I started to worry that maybe everyone knew who was my mother was except me. I also wondered how many of these people I was related to. But again, I trusted Frank. That being said, I still didn’t mingle too much, however, because I was afraid somebody would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. You know, questions like “Who’s your mother?”
Although I chose to remain somewhat aloof, most everyone there seemed to accept Frank’s introduction at face value and looked at me as just another Wichael. Frank also personally introduced me to his two brothers, James and Paul. Paul, the oldest of the three, had a full white beard, but underneath his face looked very red. As if he could tell what I was thinking, Frank said to me quietly ”He was in a fire.”
Another memorable moment came for me when Frank’s wife, Sharon, said to a group of people: “You know, we’ve always said that Brandon was the first Wichael to have blue eyes,” she said, pointing to young man who looked about 20 and who resembled me. “We can’t saw that anymore.” And then, looking at me, she said, “You’re the first Wichael to have blue eyes.”
Man, I thought, Frank wasn’t kidding about that whole “all the Wichaels have brown eyes” thing!
So, I was not only a Wichael, I was the first Wichael to have blue eyes. This was MY heritage and no one else’s! I felt my blue eyes getting moist again.
After the cookout I rode back with Frank back to the house of Wichael. Since it was starting to get late, I told him I’d see again tomorrow before I left for Florida.
“Have you got a place to stay?” Frank asked as I was walking out the door and into the Southern night.
“Yeah,” I lied.
I didn’t have a place to stay, but I didn’t want Frank to know that. I didn’t want him to know that I was trying to save every dollar I could for the remaining drive back to Florida. I also didn’t want Frank to think I was trying to lay claim to anything except my heritage and finding my mother.
So, I said good night to Frank Wichael…
I ended up spending most of the night driving around the Harrisonburg area and smoking. I wanted to tell everyone I ran into that I was a Wichael. Even if I’d had a place to stay that night, I doubt I would’ve got much sleep, anyway, while I tried to take in what I had seen and heard. Still, I was happy
when the dawn came. I knew country people usually get up pretty early, so I had no qualms about showing up again at Frank’s door bright and early on a Sunday morning. When I pulled into Frank’s driveway that morning, I made sure to leave my cigarettes in the car once again. Looking back on it, it was kind of silly of me not to want Frank to know I smoked. After what I had been through, it was a miracle I wasn’t on heroin.
I arrived at Frank’s just in time for a hearty country breakfast that would clog an artery.
Frank and I talked some more after breakfast. He had a good sense of humor and a lot of fun about him, even in the morning. His wife, Sharon, was a Literature professor at the local college. When I asked him how he and his met, he said, “Drunk.” When I asked him if there were any Wichaels who drew or painted, he said he didn’t know of any, but then mentioned that his sister had gone to the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore on a piano scholarship. That was good enough for me. Still, I longed to just break down and just ask him if he knew who was my mother. I felt that if he didn’t know, he had a pretty good idea, but was saying anything because there may have been some delicate variables involved. Again, my greatest fear was that he was going to tell me that my mother was dead. Anything, anything but that, I prayed.
Frank and his wife had two children, Craig, and a daughter, Shay, both of whom were in college. I didn’t get a really good look at Craig at the cookout the night before but now when I saw his face in the light of day, I was stunned. Stunned, because he looked just like me when I was in high school! It was uncanny and a little unsettling. It was like looking at the ghost of myself from high school past. This was getting heavy.
I told Frank I had something to show him and walked back out to my car to retrieve an old photo album that held, among other things, some pictures of me when I was a kid. As I was showing a picture of me sitting on a sofa at around age 3 or 4, Frank looked at this photo especially close. Then he said to me,
“I’ve got something to show you.”
He promptly went back into another room and came back with a photo album of his own. He flipped through it until he found the page he was looking for. “Look at that,” he said, handing he his photo album. I looked and saw a picture of his son Craig sitting on the couch. He couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 himself. The photo was nearly identical to the one I’d just showed him! Right down to even the facial expression. Frank laughed heartily as he saw how blown away I was by this. I was speechless. In the photos Craig and I not only looked liked brothers, but twins. We had to be, at the very least, cousins. But, again, I didn’t press Frank for the details.
“You can have that,” Frank told me, taking the photo of his son out of the album and handing it to me.
When I was talking to Sharon, she told me: “Frank and Craig love history. They always answer all the history questions on Jeopardy.”
“So do I,” I replied.
I would find out later that Sharon thought Frank was my father because, she said, we had the same personality and humor. Right after I left that Sunday afternoon, I would also find out, she came up to Frank and said, “I think you have some explaining to do.”
I had picked up a disposable camera the day before at the Guns & Ammo IGA with the hopes that things would go well and I’d want to take pictures. Well, I certainly did now. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I asked Frank if we could get a few shots of us together. Here are two pictures taken on that amazing day:
When we were taking pictures, I noticed a red and black 1965 Ford Mustang convertible in a special garage nearby. It was Craig’s. This was so weird because I’d owned a yellow and black 1965 Ford mustang convertible myself when I first lived in Florida. I loved the car but had to sell after I got sick. It was yet another casualty of horrible illness.
It was now afternoon and time to say my goodbyes to the Wichaels. As I was doing so, Frank looked at my photos again and picked a large black and white photo of me when I was about 5.
“Is it okay if I hold on to this for now?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
I was excited that he wanted to keep one of my photos for now because I took this to confirm my belief that he knew or had a pretty good idea who my mother was. He told me to be patient and that he’d be in touch soon. This, too, was good enough for me, except for the patient part.
As I drove away from Frank’s house that memorable Sunday afternoon, I felt like I finally knew who I was for the first time in my life. I felt like I’d found a piece of myself that had always been missing. I finally had a name and a heritage of my own to take pride in. For the first time in my 28 years, I finally felt like I was connected to something. I who so loved history finally had a history.
I was also happy that the Wichael name was so rare. It made me feel special, like I was part of a select club that had only a few members. Club Wichael.
I took the drive back to Florida nice and easy, even stopping at motels for the night. When I got back into the Cape Coral area, I drove straight to the Edison Mall in Ft. Myers to my pictures developed in an hour. It was one of the longest hours of my life. I was half expecting them to tell me that the camera had malfunctioned. It was my first experience with a disposable camera, so I had nothing to go by. When they handed me the photos, I was happy with the way they came out and still couldn’t get over the resemblances.
I went back to have some enlargements made of two pictures in particular at a different store the very next day. As I told the woman behind the counter what shots I wanted to enlarge, she glanced at one of the photos and said, “Looks like you had a reunion.”
A few weeks after getting back to Florida, I decided to try and get my medical records from the hospital I was born at in Harrisonburg. I knew my birth name and that I was a Wichael, but I still didn’t have any medical history. Considering my medical nightmare, this seemed almost criminal. My family thought this was a good idea as well. All of that was true, but the real reason I was writing for my medical records was because I had this crazy idea that somehow, someway my mother’s name would be revealed on one of those pages by accident or some other such miracle. It had been nearly a month since I’d visited the Wichaels and I hadn’t heard a peep out of Frank.
Therefore, I sent a letter to Rockingham Memorial Hospital and asked for my medical records. I had to give them all the necessary information, such as the exact time and date of my birth and well as get it notarized. I took it a step further and even put my birth name on there. I wanted them to see that I knew my birth name in the hopes that they might think there was no point in hiding my mother’s identity anymore, even though they had to by law. That was my theory, anyway.
About two weeks later an envelope arrived for me from Rockingham Memorial Hospital.
I tore the envelope open like I was Charlie Bucket looking for a golden ticket. My hopes faded very quickly, however, as I scanned the 11 pages and saw that something was blacked out on nearly every page. My birth records looked like a CIA file or George W. Bush’s military record. I also noticed that I’d been delivered with forceps. I was brought into this world by an instrument that looks like it belongs on a salad bar.
Disappointed, I scrutinized every page once again, as if doing so would make my Mother’s name magically appear. Well, I thought, it had been worth a try, but I’d been foolish to think I’d discover my mother’s identity from these redacted records.
And then I saw something.
I looked again at the front page of my records and saw that the hospital had made a copy of my original letter of request. I hadn’t really looked at it first because I recognized that it was my cover letter. But now, suddenly, I noticed that there appeared to be something handwritten in upper right hand corner that trailed off the page. I knew this wasn’t my writing, as my letter was typewritten. Excited, I brought the paper closer to my eyes and looked closely at what was written. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It read:
‘Junelle Anne Wichael Moth.’
So there it was! My Mother’s name! Obviously, the ‘M-o-t-h’ that trailed off the page spelled MOTHER. It looked as though, for whatever reason, someone had written down my Mother’s maiden name on a piece of paper, not realizing that it transferred onto my request letter! What were the odds of this happening??
Just as I had hoped, my Mother was a Wichael.
Junelle Anne Wichael.
As I looked at it over and over again, I thought it was just about the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.
Junelle Anne Wichael.
As I stood there stunned and happy, I was hit with a sobering thought. Was she still alive? And, if so, would she want to know me?
By Don Millard
So, this was Christmas… Another year over, and a new one just begun. My present had come early in the form of Amy. This was one gift I never imagined I’d get to unwrap again. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if I’d see her again or if this had been a one time thing. Either way, it beat getting socks or cologne.
By Don Millard
A few days after I drove back to Connecticut, a letter from Helena arrived. She’d written it on the plane. In the letter she told me I touched a part of her life that no one else had and thanked me for helping her to be honest with herself. Needless to say, I wrote back. Her next letter told me that she’d been in a relationship for the past 8 years and had been living with the guy for the last 4 years. She said he was a great guy, but she’d known for a long time he wasn’t the one for her, but she’d been putting things off until she met me. We had now also managed to talk on the phone a time or two. I didn’t pressure her, as I figured if it was meant to be, it would happen.
Even so, I wanted to give her something to mark and honor the time we’d shared in Florida, whether we saw each other again or not. So I found an engraver and told him what I had in mind. I explained to him that I wanted a calendar made of just the month of January on a small block of walnut. On the left hand side would go Helena’s full initials and on the right would go mine. The 8 or 9 days we’d spent together in Florida would be in red, while all the other days of that month would be in black. The engraver did a great job, and when it was done I sent it to Helena.
She loved it and said it was something only I would think of. Actually, truth be told, the original idea belonged to JFK. Just a week or two after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy commissioned Tiffanys to make a calender for the month of October and to engrave those incredibly tense 13 days of October much deeper than all the rest of October, just as they’d been etched deeply in the minds of his closest advisers. JFK then had his and the recipients’ initials in the corners. President Kennedy gave these out to about 12 or 13 people, including Jackie.
Thinking about that calender now, I wonder if Helena kept it, or if it’s quietly rotting in a landfill somewhere with a dirty diaper on top of it.
Near the end of January the sun came to shine on my life as I got a new letter from Helena telling me that she’d broken up with her boyfriend and wanted to come see me for a long weekend as soon as she could.
I was starting to feel good about myself again. Even though my sickness had robbed me of so much, I was still me. Discovering that I could still draw had helped a great deal, of course, but so had Helena. After all, none of my friends who were single had a sexy girl from another country flying in to see them. It was also good to find out that my illness hadn’t completely ruined my looks. Still, I would’ve gladly given up all of this and more in return for my health.
Just a few weeks later, I picked up Helena at the airport and our adventure began. We stayed at The Bee & Thistle Inn, one of those great bed & breakfast places that dot the New England landscape. This lodging was especially sweet for me, as I’d been staying with various people when I could ever since Pete’s folks and brother had returned to the shoebox in late January. I even spent a few wintry nights at a local truck stop. That was fun. I’d start the car and then turn the heat on full blast until my car was roughly the same temperature as the Equator. After I turned the car off, the trick was to fall asleep before the car got cold again. It’d been very hard to find a place to live in Connecticut on my own as the rent was and still is TOO DAMN HIGH. I had no real family left up here who would take me in, but I was willing to do anything to stay rather than go back to Florida, even sleep in my car in January.
I took Helena to New York City for the day and we had a great time. We took a lot of pictures and had someone take a picture of us near the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. It was great to be able to show her around the city, especially Greenwich Village, my old haunt from my acting school days. She lived in a small town in Canada, but was only about a half hour from Toronto. We ended our tour of New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paying special attention the Van Gogh paintings we saw there. It was great to be with a girl who was fun AND smart. For me, intelligence is the ultimate aphrodisiac. If there’s a meeting of the minds, the body will follow. Of course she has to be cute, too. Don’t want you all to think I’m any less superficial than the rest of us.
I took Helena back to the airport on Monday and as we kissed goodbye, I hoped that she’d had as good a time in and out of bed as I had. She wrote soon to tell me that the our weekend had been perfect and that she loved me. Our main form of communication was by letter and she was a great letter writer, with beautiful handwriting. I still have some of those letters she wrote me tucked away in my little box of memories I’ve kept ever since I got sick. Every now and then, in my darkest hours, I go through this box to remind myself that, in spite of this horrible illness, there have been brief, shining moments in time when I’ve been loved and wanted.
Being in a long distance relationship was something new for both of us. It was exhilarating and deflating at the same time. The hardest part was not being able to see each other any time we wanted to, as well as sometimes wondering if the other person was on the same romantic page. Remember, this was during those prehistoric days before cell phones. Our goal, for now, was to try to see each other at least once a month.
At the end of February, I managed to find a place of my own in the beautiful, historic town of Old Saybrook, just two towns over from my hometown of Clinton. Although it was just a room for rent, it was really a large family room with a bed.There was also a tiny table in the corner of the room with a kids chair that made an ideal art table for the my Van Gogh drawings.There was a washer and dryer in the next room so I could do laundry here as well. There’s nothing sadder than having to go to the laundromat. It was in a great area, too–just a road away from Long Island Sound. I could also walk down to a private local beach. It was only about a mile from that little community of houses on the ocean known as “Fenwick,” whose most famous resident at the time was Katherine Hepburn. It was perfect. Except for my crazy landlady.
Just a few weeks later, in March, Helena made the 10 hour drive from Canada to Connecticut to spend nearly a week with me for my birthday. We basically lived in a hotel for a week and took full advantage of it. On my birthday, she gave me a set of oil pants, even though I was still only drawing at the time. “For when you’re ready,” she said.
Since returning to Connecticut, I’d thrown myself back into my Van Gogh drawings. I seemed to really hit my stride one evening when I sketched Vincent’s “CafeTerrace At Night” in one sitting without having to erase one single mark. It was the strangest experience, as if Van Gogh himself was guiding my hand that night. I was also reading Irving Stone’s “Lust For Life” at the time and in many ways I felt like Van Gogh.
I’d would end up doing 20 versions of Vincent’s paintings and called my collection “Impressions of Van Gogh.” One of the most interesting challenges in doing these was to try to get the same effect with colored pencils that Vincent got with oils. I brought a couple of my best drawings to a local little gallery just down the road from where I now lived and showed them to gallery owner. She couldn’t believe they were colored pencil drawings and told me if I ever wanted a show with them, I could have one here.
In April, for Easter, Helena sent me a plane ticket so we could spend it together. She was now living in her parents’ home and we’d have a few days all to ourselves before her folks returned from Florida. It was great getting to see Toronto as well. Toronto looked like a clean version of an American city. I don’t remember seeing even a burger wrapper or cigarette butt on the sidewalks. It was also cool to see the Hard Rock Cafe that was basically in right field of Blue Jay Stadium and to go up in the CN Tower. I never thought I’d ever get to see Canada after I got sick.
One thing I never did was tell Helena that I was sick or what had really happened to me in 1989. What was I supposed to do? Announce it at Easter dinner with her parents? “Just want you both to know that my intentions toward your daughter are honorable. Oh, by the way, I also have a horrific mystery disease that’s never happened to another human being in the history of recorded time and I can never have a normal life because of it. Pass the potatoes.” To which, I’m sure, her parents would say, “Oh, wow, he’d make a GREAT son-in-law!” Yeah, best to just talk about the weather.
But, seriously, how could I even begin to think about marrying someone and not tell them what really happened to me? But if I did, would they still want to be with me? Would they run away? Would they think I was crazy and not believe me like the doctors did? Since my illness, all the women in my life either die or go away.
So, a long distance relationship, full of travel and adventure, was perfect for me. It was like a romance with all the dull bits cut out.
Helena and I took advantage of another opportunity to be together about a month later, even if it was only for a night and a half. She was pitching in a fast pitch softball tournament in Buffalo, and our plan was to meet up at the tournament in Buffalo and then drive to Niagara Falls after the game. It took me about 9 hours to get there, but I made it, pulling into the ball field as Helena was on the mound, pitching. The game was soon over, and it was on to Niagara Falls for “Bunny” & “Bugs”, the goofy pet names we’d given each other.
We got to the hotel in the evening, and I remember our room had a hot tub in it. This sure beat sleeping at the truck stop. We went down to the Falls the next day and gazed out at that awesome display of nature’s raw power from the Canadian side, of course. Heh… In looking through my little cardboard box of memories just now, I came across a receipt from the DENNY’S in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Looks like we had two Molson’s apiece, sandwiches, and mozzarella sticks. It’s dated May 25, 1992. I should probably throw this out, huh? Sick or well, I guess I’ve always been a sentimental fool.
We looked at out the Falls for one last time later that afternoon. Our time was up, as it was Sunday and we had to both go back to work on Monday. We kissed goodbye, then got in our separate cars, and drove away in separate directions. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time I’d ever see Helena in Canada.
You know, I bet if I went over Niagara Falls in a barrel I’d LIVE.
Helena had planned to come down to see me and rent a cottage on the water in Old Saybrook in the summer, but her mother, who had been battling cancer off and on for a few years, took a turn for the worse. Once again, the cold water of reality had been splashed in our faces.
It was around this same time when my landlady hollered down the stairs at me, “Don, phone call!”
As I walked over to pick up the phone on the wall, I figured it was either my Dad or Pete, as only a few people had my number and I didn’t encourage phone calls because it was actually my landlady’s number. When I picked up the phone and said hello, I was surprised to hear a female voice on the other end of the line.
It was Amy.
To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. She had tracked me down through my Dad and she wanted to talk–about everything. She was able to talk, she said, because her boyfriend was at work and wouldn’t be back for a few hours. So we starting talking and talking and talking. She told me that she didn’t even go on a date for nearly a year after we broke up. She wanted to know what I was up to and how I was doing. I told her that I was in a long distance relationship with a girl from Canada.
“I still have a lot of guilt about you,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Don’t,” I said. “This was just something no one could have foreseen. It was a nightmare no other couple had to deal with.”
“Too many people got to me,” she said.
We talked for a very long time and it was, I think, a very healing conversation for both of us. I know it was for me. I’d written her a long letter in 1990, but she’d never replied so I figured the letter had meant anything to her. But she brought it up and said: “It was a beautiful letter, and I’ll probably keep it for the rest of my life.” She said she’d been living with her boyfriend now for about a year, but it wasn’t working out.
“I’m not happy,” she said. “And you’re the first person I’ve told.”
Our conversation about everything ended only when Amy’s boyfriend came home.
“He just pulled in the driveway. I gotta go,” she said, hanging up. I just stood there with the phone in my hand for a while, trying to take it all in.
The next evening after I came home from work, my landlady came downstairs and said to me: “You were on the phone for 3 hours last night. I’m taking the phone out of your room.”
Less than a week later a card from Amy showed up. Inside the card was a photo of her kissing “Elvis”, her cockatiel that she’d trained to whistle the theme from the Andy Griffith Show. Also included was a photo of me holding “Sophie” the Basset Hound puppy I’d gotten Amy for her birthday that her Mom made her get rid of. She’d written a few paragraphs in the card as well, including these lines:
“There are so many things I want to say, but I’m better in person. I could never express my feelings well on paper. One thing I do know is that I wish I was your older, more mature girlfriend. I miss you very much! I miss you every day.” It was signed, “Love Always, Amy.”
Summer turned into Fall and sometime during that transition, Helena’s mother died. It was frustrating for me not to be able to be there for her in person. After this event, our letters to each other dried up and there was no more talk about us getting together as the weather turned cold. Amy and I, meanwhile, had started talking on the phone as Christmas drew nearer. She’d broken up with her musician boyfriend and had moved into her own little apartment in Tampa.
Once again, I planned to come down to Florida for the holidays. Helena would also be down there and we’d agreed to meet up at some point to “talk about things.”
Just a few days before Christmas, as I was leaving for Florida, Amy gave me directions to her apartment. She wanted me to stop by before I got to Cape Coral. Cape Coral could wait.
This time there was no heroic drive straight through to Florida. I spent the night somewhere in the Carolinas. By late afternoon the next day, I was closing in on Tampa. It just didn’t seem real that I was on my way to see Amy, but it was. It’d been quite a year. When I was only about a half hour away, I called Amy from a rest stop pay phone and told her I’d see her soon.
“Cool!” she said.
It was now dark when I pulled into her apartment complex. At that moment, even with this illness, I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone. When I knocked on her door, it was almost immediately flung open and Amy threw her arms around me and hugged me tight.
Her apartment was tiny but cute. She was already cooking dinner and opened the refrigerator to show me she’d picked up a six pack of out favorite beer, RED STRIPE. After dinner, since it was Friday night, it was time to watch a new show Amy had been telling me about: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. It was like they had designed a television show just for us. We laughed and laughed. That night we made love and I got the best night’s sleep of my life since this medical nightmare began.
When I awoke in the morning, I was alone. Then I looked over and saw that Amy was sitting in a little chair by the bed, smiling.
“You slept so good,” she said. “I’ve just been sitting here watching you sleep.”
Christmas had come early, as it were.