Their Mutual Folly
My mother and Lee didn’t live the violent drama of Bonnie and Clyde, but they were partners in their own folly.
The summer before my senior year of high school my mother moved us back to the town we had fled five years previously. The town where I had endured my childhood in a home of alcoholism, fighting, and divorce; and now the town where she and I would live with Lee, her male friend. He had apparently grown tired of the nearly 300-mile-roundtrip commute on weekends to see my mother, and made her an offer her ego could not refuse.
Their paths had crossed before my mother had moved us away from Gilroy when she accepted the same position as director of nursing in Sebastopol, California. Their current mutual needs dictated our return. Dorothy needed to distance herself from the aftermath of a previous affair with her married boss. Lee needed to be swept from the clutches of the IRS. They would save each other from the ire of their individual choices for many years to come.
Lee worked and lived in a rented main-street building not far from the state of its 1895 legacy. He was the pharmacist for his Rexall Drug Store, an adequately lucrative business in 1967 before the onslaught of corporate chains. He filled the residents’ prescriptions and sold remedies for the usual ailments. I admired Jenny, Lee’s Hispanic clerk. I thought she was pretty, confident, smart, and ambitious. She seemed as comfortable as any big department store clerk when she assisted women with makeup or perfume choices. I wanted to be like her.
A photograph taken sixty years prior to this time hung on the wall behind the counter. I could see no likeness to the saloon that was originally where I stood; but a walk up the dark stairway in the back of the store lit my imagination with what had been above the saloon. The right Hollywood props would make this upstairs space of a large central room with connecting smaller rooms into what we know of rooms in 1900. I felt like I’d stepped into the popular television western, Gunsmoke, and expected to see the beautiful Miss Kitty rounding a corner. One of the days I helped my mother scrub, scrape, paint, or wallpaper, she paused and said, “Sometimes I think I hear the girls laughing.” My mother’s imagination matched her nonconformist approach to just about everything.
Dorothy was tantalized with the challenge to make this arcane, unusual place into a page out of House Beautiful as she had done with our five previous abodes. When she wasn’t engaged in that she immersed herself in the reason Lee had lived more like a vagrant than a professional in the first place: He was broke. My mother’s keen assessment, diligence, and cleverness would pull Lee from the talons of the IRS for three years of tax evasion.
Lee had reached this point on a journey that read like a Hollywood script: He grew up in southern California, established drug stores in Newport Beach, Balboa Island, and Palm Springs, and catered to the dubious needs of the rich and famous. He boasted about knowing people like Frank Sinatra, who purchased expensive bottles of perfume for each of his many bathrooms. I could imagine Lee’s joking banter with them about the goings-on in Hollywood or Washington. He was a big man who liked big stories, especially his own. My mother knew of two wives, and the third when she found a document many years later. And there were three children: a boy my age and another son and daughter several years younger. Their sporadic visits colored our lives in interesting and grotesque ways for years to come.
Dorothy basked in the intrigue of southern California. She and Lee drove the five hours south to visit friends of Lee’s who had successfully stayed ahead of the game, making their claims in property and business. They dined at the tennis club Lee had frequented when he held ground in the rich and beautiful lifestyle. My mother shopped as if she was among the elite, though her bank account in no way resembled theirs.
This curious or ludicrous setting was the backdrop to my last year of high school. I think Lee and Dorothy knew one thing about the seventeen-year-old girl living with them: I had a boyfriend I’d met on one of their forays, and our foursome had enjoyed mutual dining and weekends away because Rick’s uncanny intelligence and wit made pleasant conversation with these unconventional “grownups.” They didn’t know my only friends were back at the high school I had to leave. They didn’t know I had no life after high school. They didn’t know I was horribly insecure and having sex with my boyfriend. I was incidental to their lives.
The carefree days when the four of us would pile into Lee’s red MGB like teenage buddies were coming to an end. Real life would snag me as my mother and Lee drifted on.
I can still taste the bitter irony of that late-night talk with Lee. It was no more genuine than a Hollywood script, but it satisfied another momentary gratification, which was all that I knew to live by. Rick wanted to ditch school the following day and take me to the beach. I needed to cover my absence from classes. The ruse was that anxiety had kept me from sleep, and I needed someone (an adult? A parent?) to talk to about what I would do with my life after graduation in three short months. I don’t even know what I said, and Lee said nothing except that he would keep his ears tuned for any job possibilities locally. I was excused from school so I could sleep in the morning, and went off to the beach with Rick by noon. He had a 4.0 GPA and was accepted to start college at the University of San Francisco in the fall. His parents weren’t concerned about missed classes.
That was the day I got pregnant. That was the day that directed my life after high school. That was the day that caught Dorothy and Lee’s attention, at least momentarily.
Rick and I were like mismatched socks with our respective parents. At sixteen years old his mother and father got hitched in Oklahoma and made their way west. They were determined, scrappy people, and their hard work took them from being grocery baggers to owners of their own stores. Rick’s grades and intelligence got him a parental pledge to fund college. My mother and Lee were professionals: a nursing director and a pharmacist. The only mention of college I recall was Lee’s bemoaning that the G.I. Bill didn’t cover medical school costs, so he had to settle for being a pharmacist. My mother had programmed me to her needs from my early childhood: endless cups of coffee, foot rubs, and expected enthusiasm for whatever gambit or change she cooked up. And kid expectations were not what they are today, especially a kid conditioned to living as an appendage to adults. My meager mention of college was to report that my SAT score would get me into San Jose State. This was no Stanford, but I was just as excited to know I was college material of some kind. Apparently that meant nothing in the world to my parental units.
These disparate adults met like the Hatfields and McCoys to settle the “problem” of my pregnancy, and like those famous fighting families there would be no agreement between our parents. My mother and Lee had decided to find a waiting couple to take the baby when I gave birth. Rick’s indignant father saw marriage as the rightful thing to do. I had no legs of my own to stand on and no idea of what to do. Rick’s rebellious spirit kicked in and made the decision for us. We packed our tooth brushes and drove to Reno, Nevada. Rick got the written permission we needed from his father so we could marry. My mother yelled “I’ll send the highway patrol after you!” as I went out the door.
We remained like deer startled by headlights for weeks and months to come, fearful of everything and unable to help each other.
I understood that my harness of responsibility now extended from daughter to include wife and mother. My jobs were curious as I supported my mother and Lee through multiple small business adventures in my twenties and early thirties: health food and supplements, indoor plants, china and glassware, art objects. Regardless of my diligence, there was no acknowledgment or advance in salary, even given that they could leave me to carry the business for five to six weeks at a time when they traveled around the country. I felt as I did in my teens: unhappy with life as it was, but unknowing how to make it different.
I know it’s not my mother’s fault that I got pregnant as an immature teenager; that my haphazard marriage failed in two years; that I married again before my daughter’s fourth birthday; that this didn’t last either. Maybe she wasn’t to blame for my incessant insecurity. Her life of folly gifted me with curious and fun experiences. These helped to offset the equally curious though bitter challenges I had to maneuver throughout my own adulthood.
My mother liked to quote various sage words from philosophical books she loved. I remember she said, “Some people watch others to learn what to do. Others watch to learn what not to do.” She was so right. Fools persisting in their folly don’t become wise.
Copyright © 2014 Helen Olson
Helen Olson was a member of the Pebbles Writing Group in Carmel, California (which has since merged with Central Coast Writers in Pacific Grove.) Her writing was featured in their collection, The Barmaid, The Bean Counter, and the Bungee Jumper (Thunderbird Publishing, 2003.) She has participated in many writing classes and workshops over the last twenty years, primarily through the UC Santa Cruz extension.
She is a retired nurse manager, school counselor, and former art gallery owner, but now devotes her life to writing. Her inspiration to write comes from her own psychological and philosophical growth process, and she hopes to encourage others who have gone through experiences similar to hers.