Realizations The Autobiography
of Julian Lee / COPYRIGHT
2009 JULIAN LEE
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Virginia was a spirited, affectionate Pisces and one of the four "Lee Girls" of West Des Moines. As grandpa moved up the ladder they were first "the teacher's daughters," then "the principal's daughters," then "daughters of the Superintendent of schools." This made her, in some sense, a dignified society belle with her sisters. It was like being in a political family, but one that was more respected, because my grandfather had a strictly wholesome role in the community, was the surrogate authority figure to everybody's sons, and was popular and even beloved.
This charming wit he could turn on when he wanted to. He seemed to know how to talk to women, something his son never did well and which he never taught me how to do. I just didn't see it enough. His real nature at home was quiet and retiring. But as my father he directed that wit to me in the form of good humor and cute witticisms when he was in a good mood, which was reliable if he was simply relaxing with his family.
So now he was right in the middle of things, and charming Ethyl Lee who had come in originally to buy insurance. Perhaps he got himself invited to dinner at the Lees. That would fit. There he probably awed all the Lee girls. He wasn't of her class or the income bracket she grew up in, but they believed he could go anywhere.
Socially, mother was truly the daughter of Amos Lee. She came on strong to about everybody she met, verbally. Her chief quality was to be very engaging with others, and very spirited and positive, gay in the correct sense of the word. She seemed to always want to make whoever she met feel good by breaking through their barriers, drawing them out a bit, then affirming them in some way. My father was waaaay more reserved than that. But like her father, she had her mind more on The World and Everybody Out There than on the persons in her family. This was her great fault, in my mind. It did not emerge clearly until later, but even as a very small boy, I sensed where her mind really was. My father, by contrast, had his heart mostly on his family.
But she was a natural, instinctive mother. She had the things that matter most: A mother's warm heart, a full physical presence for us, and a mother's fierce protective spirit that I believe would have killed to keep hers from harm. She evinced, lifelong, an intuition about her kids, often calling just when one was upset, or needed money, or had something to tell her. I used to walk everywhere, and long distances.
Rescued By a Cadillac
I loved walking at night. There was never any fear or danger in Des Moines in the 1960's and 70's. One night coming home late from my restaurant dish washing job, 45 minutes away from our neighborhood, I was being menaced at a distance by some country boys. The were what we called "new longhairs" or "greaser hippies," one a couple years older that me, one maybe a year younger. They were walking with their bikes, about a block away. This was in my big "rock star" period. I had a band at that time, called "Lear," and I liked to dress the part. They didn't like my style. These fellows had harassed me on other nights and I had evaded them rather than fight, seeing it was two-against-one. And I was a good runner. But this was a sudden appearance in a new place. I did not know the fences or potential hiding spots. They had taken to throwing stones at me whenever they saw me. Fairly large rocks were now whizzing past and hitting near me. And they had bikes. Hey, lobbing rock missiles a great distance, with some accuracy, is a serious sign. I didn't know them, there was nobody around, and I was a little scared. Suddenly they jumped onto their bikes and started coming for me.
I started running for all I was worth, knowing they had the speed advantage, hoping to round the corner before them to spot a nook or cranny. But the corner was too far. They'd reach me first. Just then a golden Cadillac appeared at that corner, careened sharply and roared right at us, all eight pistons. It passed me then intercepted them, giving me a break by making them slow. I kept running but started looking back. It kept after them in the street like the driver was homicidal and going to run them down. They had turned back sharp the other way and were pedaling like mad. Still the Cadillac bore down on them until it was on their butts. It was showing them a thing or two about unfair advantages. Somebody in that car was pissed. They tried to stay on their bikes, but the car wouldn't let them. Like vengeance the driver wanted to force them into the curb.
I looked back again, just in time to see two bikes slam into the curb and fly across the sidewalk, and two figures scurrying into the shadows of nearby houses seeking backyard protection. The Cadillac had rushed them all the way to the curb, just braking there with a squeal and a final lunge. Then I recognized the car. It was just my mom, happening by. I was thinking it might be her straightaway, but couldn't believe the timing. Only her behavior made it sure. It was not the first time my mother had made all the difference at a dire moment in my life.
I took a ride home and asked her, "How did you know they were after me?" She said, "I saw you running, and them coming at you and knew they wanted to hurt you." Split second mother's instinct. They never bothered me again.
Mother is, in fact, your first cosmic protection. My mom did not work a conventional job. Being there for your kids was the norm then, especially with many children. This was a bigger job. Instead she was free, with the run of the town, close to her kids, yet with the whole town and everybody in it available to her, day long. The pathological Marxist culture arising around us wants to normalize motherly abandonment of children so that women can be chickens in office chicken coops trapped by four walls, while missing the best thing in their lives. But she was not from this age. A woman's mere physical presence is perhaps more than half of what a child needs to turn out sane. Her mental presence is also highly significant, and she was weaker for that. But she was always there and near in body, easy to touch and ready to comfort. After years of finding fault with her and analyzing her negatively, I realized she was a primordial mother. And because she was a Primordial Mother, she saved me from both madness and debility despite all.
It would be fair to say that my mother adored her father. It would also be fair to say all four of the Lee girls (my aunts) adored him, which is a testament to his nature, at least as a father. Mom said that her happy times as a girl were being out in the woods and nature with her dad, especially her horse riding, something he arranged for her. One can assume he did the same, or similar things, to his other children. When you are the second of four daughters back then, and yet you end up able to go to college at The University of Iowa, you know the father and mother are trying to be real providers for all four. In fact the youngest sister, Helen, probably received the most boons from her parents because she was born much later and got to be not only the "baby" of the family, but the closest to an only child. This aunt Helen ended up with the closest relationship with Amos and Ethyl.
But it seemed each Lee girl had her own relationship with grandpa, felt like she had his heart and could lean on him in a crisis, such as when money was tight and there were mouths to feed. Grandpa seemed to be ever giving, whether bringing some produce or writing moderate checks. I got the impression that as a girl mom felt she could believe in herself, that he encouraged her to try things and take risks. Whichever parent you feel the most love from, you turn out much like them. At the same time, whichever parent you feel the most need of love from, you take on their nature also, but from a different dynamic. She clearly identified more with him than with her mother, with whom she had a strained relationship. I once saw a very strange photograph of mom standing next to her mother on her wedding day, all decked out in her bridal gown behind a festive wedding table. She had the strangest look on her face at that moment next to her mother. It was probably something that grandma had just said to her before the camera clicked. But I could read it as a dark resentment. She used to say that grandma criticized her, she could never do anything right, from cooking to cleaning. This is probably why mom was a total neat freak. She worked to please her mom, and have her love, lifelong.
But she became like Amos Lee because she loved him, and wanted to be like him. It affected her indeed that others regarded him highly in the community. It made her want to have that same kind of respect and profile in the community. Like him, when driving around town she seemed to know everybody, often smiling and laughing with delight at this person, that person. It was astounding. On her deathbed she was thinking of her father Amos much of the time and actually appeared to become him. She'd cry out, "Daddy!" I looked over one night, and there was Grandpa Amos lying on the bed, so identified was she with him in her final days that she was indistinguishable from him physically. I looked again and again, and couldn't distinguish her from grandpa.
Mom was inclined much towards art: Drawing and painting. She went to the University of Iowa and was an art major. One day father came home to find that she had painted a beautiful fresco on two walls of our little bungalow featuring his four sons. He was bemused. I wish that fresco had been preserved. It was damaged by renters when my parents later rented out the house. I remember it very well. The figures were life sized. Where there was once two blank walls, now you were looking out on a country scene full of four winsome boys. She presented each of us in a loving way. We were all having fun in nature. Mark was stepping onto a horse. Victor was doing something impish with a toy. Little Joe was down on the ground at play. I was up in a tree eating an apple. I remember thinking "How strange mother's imagining me up in an apple tree. How would that ever be?" I realized many years later that she was painting what she desired for her boys. She had grown up that way. Now she was married to a poor man, in a small bungalow in a declining residential area with very small front and back yards, and her children had no place to go such as she knew. This must have weighed on her. She wanted us to be out in nature and able to experience the same things she had as a girl through the grace of her father Amos. Since we couldn't be in real life, she put us there in both her mind and ours, with her painting. Soon after that, she located a great big house in a much nice area, being sold by an M.D., for a steal. It was much larger -- three stories and a basement instead of one story. It had large green yards and was set back well from the street. It had hedges and trees. And guess what? There were two well-developed apple trees in the back yard, one red, the other yellow apples. I grew up climbing those apple trees many a time and eating as many apples as I liked at all stages of ripeness, from green to mellow yellow. I only realized just now writing this, at fifty two, that a caring mother manifested the very vision she had for me.
At our new and larger home in a much better area, she did the same thing. But this fresco was new. It showed a beautiful woman who looked a lot like her reaching up to a handsome man who looked a lot like dad. The woman's hair was done up and back, the way she wore it in the early days and the way it is in the photo here. The colors were done in grays so that they looked like ancient statues. There was a Grecian pillar with its detailed decorative cap. The sense was classic wealth and luxury. And he was holding two chubby babies, one in each arm. They almost floated in his arms like cherubs, and he was postured decorously like some Michaelangelo, looking down on her very tenderly. I think tenderness was what mother always craved from Dad. The woman was well draped and dignified, laying down with a third child while handing a fourth one up to him, offering one more.
Only at the age of 54 did I realize -- and it hit me like a thunderbolt -- why she drew this scene: It was her and dad.
Here she was, married to a Catholic, and producing child-after-child. Her friends, often with more wealth and higher status, had fewer children. There was probably some sniffy unspoken and even overt criticism of her large family among her friends. And this is how she responded: Drawing herself as a horn-of-plenty for my beautiful father. It was right there in the face of every friend of hers who might visit our home. I realize now what these murals say about my mother's rebel soul. The whole thing is grace for me, planted in the past.
She was basically an unconscious woman driven by unconscious drives. Her noble sentiments were rarely presented coherently as a program. It's just what she was. Aside form whatever nobles ideas she could entertain about her family, her chief trait was to be a social gadfly. She used to say to me "You are a people lover like your grandfather." Or, "Like me." She saw herself as an embodiment of her father Amos. It was basically true, but there was more to me than that. More like, I was interested in all people and can, with a humanitarian's eye, appreciate them all. I would say I can find something to like and praise about anybody I meet and I like to cheer any and all. I have the capacity to care about a stranger, which was something my dad lacked or didn't display. On the other hand, there are few people who I really like. I prefer my family first, even when they are painful. Then my church, then my community. And that's the way I think it's supposed to be. The world can't be your family. World is world. Your family is your family. "Family" is not some meaningless word that can be applied to anything.
I was blessed to be taught to read. I thank my father who, even though he was a cheapskate, somehow acquired a Reader's Digest library of children's literature. Through the years I scoured every story. Dad probably didn't think much of it, and the art wasn't very good. But it enriched my mind and kept me reading. I also thank the editors and publishers. It began a long romance with books. It would be fair to say that my life has been pretty uneventful and unglamorous externally, but full internally. Once I read a mythic Grecian tale about the gods. Each of the gods and goddesses were offered any wish for their earthly life, and one god stayed away a bit too long from the meeting. By the time he got there, most of the really cool stuff like -- "great talents, great wealth, great beauty" -- were already taken. One thing was left, though, and that was "A life consisting of mostly undisturbed quiet" in which he could study and learn as fully as he liked. He took this, and considered himself the lucky one. I feel the same way. And most of the really important events in my life were inner events, and most of those developments were associated with the discovery of a new book or text. My mother rarely read to me, and my father never did. But my reading was quickened by indirect events connected to my mother's basic adversity as the wife of a handsome and strong Brahmin-like poor man.
My father never made much money. He was too honest for sales and promotion, and as a 'Virgo sun' was inherently frugal. Mother was different. She was creative, a promoter, and could talk anybody into buying anything just to enjoy a few moments of her smile, voice, and radiant loving nature. To get extra cash she used to collect stacks of used newspapers from the city's apartment buildings by arrangements she made with the managers. She'd say, "Don't throw them away. Tell me where you stack them and I'll come take them away for you." It was actually some rather intrepid doings. What a creative entrepreneur she was. Though from a wealthier Society background and the daughter of a high-status father, she took a pro-active approach to her husband's poverty. Hunkered down with four young boys, she made us handily into her work team for a weekly outing. She drove us to apartments throughout town. Four buzz-headed boys would march into apartment basements and come out bearing stacks of newspapers in our arms that the managers had carefully stacked in laundry rooms for her to pick up.
She made it all seem fun by her attitude. It's one of the feminine powers to make things emotionally survivable for the male no matter how bad the situation, and to encourage him toward greater doings, all with her attitude. As she stood at the back of the station wagon with the swing-down door as her table, tyeing up bundles with twine and adroit fingers, she would effusively praise our hauling efforts. Heartened to see mother happily pleased with me, I would strive to carry ever bigger armloads, till my piles were so high I couldn't see over them. Boys are made strong by their mother's praise, and that growth of ability gave me confidence in myself as a male. Each time she spoke with admiration I grew stronger without and within. She gave me stronger arms and a strong back, and made me unafraid of work. And it was exciting to be out of the house and seeing the town.
After our station wagon was full and sagging to the ground, she would drive to a company on the country-ish outskirts of barely- developed West Des Moines to a quonset hut called The Insul-Wool Company. As she'd slow-drive across bumpy railroad tracks, I'd see and feel the forest mixed with the industrial productions of man. The area smelled of oil, dust, the nearby city dump, and the freshness of the forest. Coal-loaded train cars stood in their sooty glory, and tall cement silos and a concrete company as I recall. But nature was still in force. Insul-Wool ground up old newspapers to make home insulation. I remember the smell inside the corrugated hut: newspaper dust and the sweat of men. It was a break to get out of the car and enter the loud and cool of the long steel hut, and see the workmen's' energetic movements, the young men moving faster, and wizened old ones moving slower. What a strange place! But so were we. Sweat and work-steeped, the men watched bemused as the beautiful young Norwegian stock mother and her toe headed crew offered our paper catch to the manager. Happy in the new cool, we boys would avidly stack mom's bundles on their floor scale, eager to show off our mother-burnished work ethic to the men. (Our father definitely taught us: Work is good.) She would get maybe 10 or 12 dollars for that carload. That was how we had a good dinner that night.
Sometimes she would visit the nearby city dump, where she used to bribe the toothless old junk man in the little gate hut into not asking her if she lived in West Des Moines proper -- by regaling him with her smile and bringing him a cold soda. Maybe he knew she was one of the "Lee girls." She had grown up just blocks away. But she was sure to bring him a cold soda just the same. He was always delighted with it.
Then we'd tool back across the tracks toward civilization. How good it felt to be done with some hard work, our station wagon now empty and perked up. Often as a reward she would drive to the Dairy Queen and spend about 30 cents each getting us ice cream cones. What joy! We never had such a thing as ice cream at home. What grand entitlement for the working man! I was about five. Such a little thing. But in those moments life seemed pretty good after all.
She conveyed to us then that we were not to tell dad. I don't know what she said, but she had her way of "letting on" her hopes without actually asking us to lie. Dad would never have bought us an ice cream cone to reward our labors, even if we had shaken the farthest the trees. Stinginess and failure to reward was one of his great faults! One time Dad even promised an ice cream reward if we did a serious labor for him. He used an exotic word, saying "I'll get you all sundaes at the Howard Johnson's if you finish this job." I asked a brother what that was and was told it was an ice cream treat. This was very exciting to me. Even just the prospect of going somewhere with dad, never mind the exotic "Sundae." The mysterious name "Howard Johnsons" added to the wondrous promise. We duly performed that labor, and it was harder work than I'd ever done. But he somehow forgot about his promise, which I had hoped for with all my heart being very isolated in my home and never having been to a restaurant. I know that, for my part, I tied hard to please my dad, did everything he asked and did not stop until he said we could, even at the tender age of four. I didn't run to mother. But somehow the "sundae" promise was forgotten; he never raised the idea after that.
That was a small devastation. How I detested his reneging on that promise. He was such a father that his 3rd son felt timid to even bring it up. I think this experience helped add to the worldview that "the rules" are not necessarily true. At least they don't work for everybody. Working for promised rewards was, perhaps, delusional. Later this became a foundation of cynicism about ideas like "Go to college and you'll make a lot of money," or "You need to go to a music teacher to learn to play an instrument." I didn't believe in the the rewards society promised, or the things my school peers believed.
However, when collecting papers, Mother always rewarded us for doing good.
My mom even did something else -- she seemed to give us good things undeserved.
God bless mothers. It is mother who teaches her children about the munificence and compassion of the Creator, which becomes later the foundation of religious faith and our sense of the possibilities of God. It is mother who lays the groundwork within for men and women to become either saints or cynical and bitter men. I have to thank my dear mother for giving me faith in the very possibility of a Being who is compassionate, generous, and overlooks my faults. God first shows Himself to men as their mother. And for this reason, all boys and girls truly worship their mothers until the world cuts it short. The more she is there for a child, showing that divine giving, the more he or she loves her and the more they get faith in God.
But that duplicity of mother's, her tendency to be dishonest or conniving, later caused me to respect her less than my scrupulously honest father. Yet here she made our lives worth living, with just 30 cents each, and finally taught us there is some reward for work. Maybe losing respect of her sons, over little unimportant deceptions to an over-austere father, was just one more sacrifice of a mother.
The atmosphere of that place stayed with me lifelong, and the skies, and the dust, and the tar smells of the train cars and tracks. Those days were the the times I was most with her, sitting right beside her and feeling her body close, and learning the most.
My mother would probably view this time as one of the ignoble and unfortunate periods of her life. Later she became semi-famous, and very successful as a portraiture artist, and was surrounded by every opulent and beautiful thing. She was placed in the book "Who's Who" and was featured monthly on a local television variety show, and in occasional newspaper articles. But I don't respect her much for any of that. For me her times as a struggling but noble young mother making her way with her father's loving smile, with her little ones near her arm, were her beautiful times. I love her best in that time. Maybe God, too, loves us best not when we are at the heights, but when we struggle in difficult circumstances yet retain our nobility. I despise the part of her that sought status and popularity. I despised the eventual adulation she had from crowds of idiots as she became a more and more out-of-touch mother. I despise her desire for notoriety -- something my more talented, intelligent, and handsome father never cared one hoot for.
There is something cosmic about a high society woman of class and beauty, tooling around in a paper-loaded old station wagon scraping the ground because she's married to a fellow beneath her class, and ruggedly playing foreman to four boys to make a few dollars. She didn't even have gloves. There is something divine in that scene, and slowly bumping over those railroad tracks, near the city dump, under gathering dusky clouds I saw that divine scene often.
Finally a MacDonald opened up, and we hit that instead of the Dairy Queen. I recall that first MacDonald in Des Moines so vividly. It was staffed exclusively by energetic and efficient young White men. They wore short-sleeved white shirts and actually wore ties, plus very cool white hats shaped like a military sergeant's cap. They radiated energy and ability, and moved very fast, seeming to take pride in the speed which they put burgers and fries in your hands, which seemed about 20 seconds, max.
My family was basically poor. I wasn't really sure about it. It was a realization I came to as I matured. But there was not much around the house of treats or fun-foods. I remember having to scrounge just to find a piece of bread. Then hunting up something creative to make it more than a piece of bread. No butter? Well, aha! Here's some catchup. My brother cut a little hole in the middle of the bread and filled it with catchup. So I tried that. It wasn't much, but it obscured for the moment any thought that I was starving. We didn't have "nothing" -- there was one last piece of bread, and some catchup! Such lives make men resourceful.
But there was much temptation in the stores. Once at the age of four, while my mother was shopping, I stole a "Power House" candy bar from the market. At home mother immediately spotted it. Alarmed, she knew I had stolen it. She put me in the car right that moment and drove me back to the store. We walked in and she handed it unopened to the manager. All was fine. But I sure was on pins and needles. Such actions by parents starting young teach right from wrong and forge the character. But the parent has to take the time, and realize when something big is happening. I honor my mother for that moment, considering she had three other boys on her hands and it was coming up to dinner time -- her busiest time. But she drove me down there without a moment's delay.
Conscience and Sin
Three years later temptation struck again. I had stopped into a little temporary shop, a sort of trailer, that sold sundries. I saw a package of Kool-Aid. That looked pretty good. It was only five cents. I stole it. That night I took the well-hid booty and ate the purple powder. The Kool-Aid powder, though colorful and promising pleasure, was very strong stuff. It was not meant to be eaten. I became immediately sick. I threw up, relieved. But I was tortured for months by my sin. Finally I went in to Catholic confession. I waited my turn then found myself in a dark room. I heard gentle murmuring coming from beyond a shuttered window as the priest spoke with someone else on the other side. Then the shutter slid open and a bit of light shown through some black, sheer cloth, and a voice said something formal to me, asking my name. He was very gentle. I felt I could tell him my sin of stealing the Kool-Aid, and finally did. He asked, "How much was the package of Kool-Aid?" I said, "Five cents." He prescribed that I say some specific repetitions of Catholic prayers. I was happy to have that solution, and I carried it out, unburdened finally by my sin.
Unfortunately, as I grew and the secular world around me became more and more corrupted and disturbed, the question of sin became more confused in my mind. But such is the exquisite conscience and sensitivity of a child's mind, and such was the emptiness of the cupboards in the house where I grew up. When you try to practice self-honesty, you are really creating a relationship to God within, the Divine Watcher within. I remember our nuns doing lectures to us kids -- at very early ages -- about the inner conscience. It is that Divine Watcher within who rewards you or punishes you according to your honesty. The inner conscience is an aspect of inner God. When you work to keep the conscience clear, it is actually working to clear the path to God within. It is an aspect of God's compassion that even when we fail, break promises, or occasionally clutter the path, He is still reaching out to us past the clutter. He rewards his sons and daughters just by seeing them make efforts -- exactly like a human father.