The year was 1948, in the Southern California town of Long Beach.
Sylvia Jean Brunner had just turned sixteen when she met my smooth-talking father, Frank Webb Jr., who bragged about being an actor, even producing eight-by-ten black-and-white glossies stamped with the signature of his Hollywood agent.
My Midwest-born grandparents, Kiki and Art, were ultra-conservative, the odd couple at the beach in wool suits, hats, and gloves. Imagine their horror when their only daughter missed successive periods.
Poor Mom was rushed to the family doctor so fast she scuffed her black-and-white saddle oxfords. After peeing in a paper cup, her sample was injected into a female rabbit.
“The rabbit died.” Finger-pointing whispers ensued, a euphemism for a positive pregnancy test. But that’s misleading since all rabbits tested died. A few days after the injection, they were surgically sliced open for an inspection of their ovaries, which would change in response to hormones secreted by pregnant women. No one took the time to stitch up the poor bunnies. They were simply tossed out with the trash. Later, frogs took their place in the lab.
No birth control pills until 1960, though various forms of the tortuous IUD had been around since the 1600s. Mom’s rabbit wasn’t the last in our family to die. Mine bellied up seventeen years later.
While writing this I wonder why Daddy wasn’t charged with “unlawful intercourse with a minor,” more commonly called statutory rape, since Sylvia Jean was under eighteen. And why didn’t the jerk-off use condoms? Like, No balloons, no party!
My parents had little in common other than his sperm swimming through her cervix and up her uterus. Maybe she wanted to escape her overly strict parents? Maybe he believed being married would help him clean up his act?
In January 1949, my grandparents loaded and aimed the metaphorical shotgun. There aren’t any photos of their wedding. But in pictures around that time, Mom looked like a young Sophia Loren with dusky cat eyes and naturally full lips. She wore fashionable dresses with snug collars and formfitting bodices. Her hair was drawn up on the sides in an auburn jelly roll, the back cascading in waves.
Being married didn’t keep her from being expelled from Long Beach High School. Her condition was too visible, evidence that she’d done the dirty deed. Apparently the principal didn’t want other students imagining wild fun in the backseat of a convertible.
My soon-to-be parents moved into a shabby little motel that proclaimed “efficiencies,” such as a kitchenette. Grandpa Art arranged for my dad to work on the assembly line at a factory that built aircraft.
My teenage mom did the only thing she could and shut herself in the motel room, absent from friends and family. Other than sporadic visits from her best friend, she was alone, bored, and humiliated by her situation. So she turned to greasy burgers and fries from the joint across the street. Her enviable five-foot-six, one-hundred-twenty-pound figure blew up by seventy pounds.
I arrived mid-August 1949. Seven pounds thirteen ounces, twenty-one inches long. I probably would’ve been taller than my adult five foot three if I hadn’t started smoking in fourth grade. They named me Sherry Jean Webb.
Around this time, one of Daddy’s drinking buddies offered cheap rent—a furnished one-room cottage that shared a spacious corner lot with his family’s rambling ranch house in San Fernando Valley. A newly painted white picket fence hemmed the cottage, but I imagined beware to all who enter whispered from the flowerbed.
Our new landlords Margaret and Bill, whose last name I’ve lost, had a son my age, an insipid goody two-shoes named Michael who refused to be my accomplice when I snatched an unopened box of brown sugar from his parents’ kitchen. I crouched on the side of the house, eating the entire box on my own, which is likely the reason I’m not all that fond of sweets.
Margaret and Bill also had a teenage daughter, so Daddy had a playmate, too.
My grandparents adored my mom, who had also been a “surprise,” born ten years after her brother. And they adored me, spoiling their first grandchild. But they abhorred their son-in-law, recognizing a snake-charmer when they saw one.
Grandpa Art had comb marks in his thinning hair, narrow furrows of silver. Old-school stern of German heritage, he’d moved to California after his European tour in World War I. I never felt close to him, felt more like he was a far-flung relative to occasionally visit, though his pipe-smoking ritual fascinated me.
I’d sit at his feet, watching him unzip the soft leather pouch that held cherry tobacco, tapping the dried leaves into an ornately carved meerschaum pipe bowl, a souvenir from the war. He’d wink at me before making an O with his mouth and pushing out A1 smoke rings. It wouldn’t be that long before I’d be practicing with borrowed cigarettes or packs stolen from the drugstore.
Daddy portrayed the characters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—an entertaining, lovable guy when sober, and a cruel, remorseless Hyde after drinking the poisonous potion. Instead of building up a tolerance, as happened in Robert Louis Stevenson’s allegoric tale, it took less and less poison for Daddy’s dark switch to flip.
Daddy rarely endorsed a paycheck after being fired from the aircraft factory for ignoring the hours of his shift and continued to feel misunderstood. He considered himself an artist, an actor of mythical scope, later adding playwright to his imaginary résumé.
More than a decade before the Motion Picture Association volunteered a film rating system, Daddy swept me off to a matinee of Tennessee Williams’s film, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 play.
Muscled in tight white t-shirts, Stanley Kowalski (played by Marlon Brando) brandished a bottle and treated his wife and sister-in-law like shit, so I believed Daddy might be a movie star after all.
As if further descent into drunken debauchery should be part of my education, he thought I should see Williams’s play-to-screen adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). I smacked Sugar Daddies, enthralled by Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat because she had the moxie to sashay in her silk slip and rocket cone bra in front of all of us in the theater.
Maggie’s handsome husband Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) was also weighed down by the bottle. I wonder if Daddy’s matinee playdates were subconscious efforts to justify his own degenerate self, as Freudian as that sounds.
During our occasional Sunday drives to Long Beach, we’d gather at my grandparents’ house, before making sure the neighbors knew we were going to church as a family. I fidgeted in a starched petticoat and a dumb dress with pink roses on it.
Afterward, we drove to a coffee shop and waited in the lobby for a table. Grandpa Art questioned Daddy about job prospects. “Fathers and husbands provide for their families.”
Everyone knew about Daddy’s allergy to time cards, though he did have a short-term pool-cleaning business. It didn’t require much—a long-handled skimmer, chemical tester, and the correct ratio of chlorine to muriatic acid. A stiff brush to scrub the tile coping, if you were ambitious.
Daddy’s clients weren’t home during the day, so he took his time hanging out in backyards in fancy neighborhoods, drinking beer from their fridges, and getting a George Hamilton tan. He bragged about having film star singer Debbie Reynolds as a client. That’s the story he told, though never in detail.
The next we heard he’d lost Debbie Reynolds’ account because she filled in her pool with dirt. No one bought it. Then, in her 1988 autobiography Debbie: My Life, she wrote about digging up her backyard and putting in a swimming pool while her father was out of town. She had the words “Abba Dabba Honeymoon,” a hit from the movie Singing in the Rain, written on the steps in colored tile.
Debbie’s father disliked it so much that he had the pool filled in, in 1955, when his daughter, his second child, married Eddie Fisher. Later, Eddie Fisher dumped Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor and Mommy dumped Daddy, so I hoped Daddy and Debbie would get together.
Back to that Sunday afternoon at the coffee shop. Daddy was about as interested in Grandpa Art’s lectures about getting a job as he was in the $1.99 pancake specials, mostly because he couldn’t get away with ordering beer for breakfast.
Grandma Kiki wedged herself between Daddy and Grandpa under too bright lights, a reluctant referee in a pillbox hat secured with pins long enough to scratch their eyes out.
Daddy chain-smoked Winstons, even sang the slogan with the two-beat claps near the end by flicking his cigarette lighter. Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. Fred Flintstone did the same thing with his lighter in a 1960s TV ad.
Too proper to smoke in public, Kiki steered me down the narrow corridor to the ladies’ room. Standing by the sink, she peeled off her white gloves and plucked a filterless Camel from her handbag. “Our little secret, okay?”
I nodded. I was good at secrets.
Grandma Kiki reapplied peaches-and-cream lipstick with the same hand that held her cigarette. She had a fair complexion and steel gray hair permed in waves. She never learned to drive, squirmed restlessly as a passenger, and rarely left the house without her husband. I vaguely remember her stoic-looking parents from old photos and tales of their journey to California in a covered wagon.
My grandmother had an endearing habit of dabbing tobacco off her tongue with her pinkie finger. It seemed so Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. She and I shared the same shady half-moons under our eyes, though hers looked more romantic, less like messy smears. Our gray-green irises were genetic glue. I liked that.
This may seem an ordinary family story, but I’m not sure that’s altogether true.
Sherry Shahan has more than thirty-five books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. Titles include adventure novels Frozen Stiff (Random House), Death Mountain (Peachtree), and Ice Island (Random House). Her novel-in-verse Purple Daze (Running Press) is set in the tumultuous 1960s. Shahan has been widely published in magazines, newspapers, literary journals, and anthologies, including Backpacker, Drink, Country Living, FamilyFun, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Oxford University Press, ZYZZYVA, Confrontation, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches an ongoing writers course for UCLA Extension.