Finding Jeffery: The Back Story

We were a working-class family slogging through the tired, rain-soaked towns of Western Oregon, six kids clawing for consequence amid the throes of our mother’s venom and vodka—the 12 houses in 18 years, the characters who came and went through the doors, and the fathers who seemed so indifferent to it all.

Finding Jeffery is the sun, my sun—the rays that are beginning to break through the clouds of Hurricane Dorothy after 50 years of chasing the wake. It’s the screaming into pillows. The pounding of fists into mattresses. The dabbing of eyes swollen from a childhood of empty bleachers and old suitcases.

Finding Jeffery is a memoir, my effort to capture the stories of the people and places and moments that have brought me from riding Big Wheels through the trailer park at 5, to writing for the Los Angeles Times at 22, to staring out the Saturday morning windows of 12-step conventions at 50. My family’s first college degree sits on my bookshelf, three handbag dogs nap at my feet, and a rusty VW microbus carries me through the towering Carolina pines of my life today.

Finding Jeffery is the navigating of those roads. It is what I was: wounded, lonely, angry, and confused. It is what I have: humor, oddity, tenderness, spectacle, and enlightenment.

It is both my sorrow and my smile. My tears and my gratitude.

It’s stud miniature schnauzers named Hustler, ponies named Flicka, and a family pig my mother named after me. It’s laying awake until the early hours of another weekday morning, waiting out the fading laughter from the Pinochle game in the kitchen—then tiptoeing past the drinking buddy passed out on the floor, leaning over my mother snoring on the couch, and peering into ashtrays, making sure all the smoldering cigarettes are accounted for.

It’s the burlap sack of kittens she thrust at my 9-year-old brother, with instructions to drop them off the bridge and into the river below. It’s my father, sprawled in the middle of the street, moaning as EMTs cut away his pants—the gasoline fumes, the hiss of the radiator, the frantic search for my 14-year-old sister.

It’s listening to Creedence records while lying on the nicotine-stained shag carpets of our 1970s living rooms. It’s the pounding chest of setting pennies on the tracks as the oncoming locomotive blasts its disapproving whistle at me. It’s clutching the tailgate as we wind along the river in an open truck bed, five children laughing and singing toward the ice cream parlor on an Oregon summer night. It’s catching tadpoles in the river and backhands from my mother.

It’s Sheriffs standing in our driveway. It’s the death rattle of my elderly father, his glossy eyes, my helplessness. It’s the day 17-year-old sisters disappear to the hush of rumors and lies. It’s divorces, marriages, and Elvis standing at the jukebox. It’s that late-night drive through the Southern California desert—my drunken brother ranting about family secrets, then launching three grenades that forever changed my landscape: You. Were. Adopted.

It’s the glorious laugh of my favorite aunt and the even greater splendor of her attention. It’s the long lost birth mother who returned my call. It’s rummaging through my father’s old safe after the funeral, jiggling the butter knife into the lock just as he’d instructed, opening the squeaky metal door to the wives and children he’d never revealed.

It’s hurt people, hurting people.

It’s the gregarious stepsister—the one always laughing so loudly, the one always weaving her way through the drunks at the family gatherings to toss me a lifeline: How are you? How is school? How is baseball? It’s the schoolboy crushes on junior high journalism teachers and Little League baseball. It’s the national writing award in high school. The Scholarship. The exhaustion of mowing greens, coaching T-ball, and covering high school football games while working my way through college. It’s the revered journalism professor stopping me in the stale, dusty hallways of old Liberal Arts buildings, inviting me to lunch.

It’s the college graduation—my biggest stage, alone. The 200 wedding guests. Alone. The birth of three sons—alone, alone, and alone.

It’s the day the prettiest smile I’d ever seen came up my stairs. It’s the sons who hang onto a leg on the first day of Kindergarten. It’s the monitors that chirp and buzz at all hours of the night in the children’s hospital, as you offer your 8-year-old some fatherly comfort while also wondering if this is ever going to end.

It’s that phone call, 35 years later but not a moment too late—a conversation between a father and a son that heals some of the hurt.

It’s finding The Box. My box, in my birth mother’s closet—a box built out of the compassion of forgiving sons.

It’s the Sunday morning view from this window of the coffee shop, sipping a large Americano, processing forgiveness, deigning to reach out and take its hand.

***

Over the course of the next several days, I’ll post a series of short stories that will bring you aboard Finding Jeffery.

You’ll ride shotgun on the short bus, rambling through The Divorce, starlings that drop from the sky, hounds that hump by the chicken coop, and Civil War heroes who drink lemonade in the garden.

You’ll meet Petey, John, Jack, and Dorothy—the heroes, and villains, of my youth.

  • Chapter 1: Petey Cries
  • Chapter 2: Clink, Clank, Clunk
  • Chapter 3: Smiling Nervously
  • Chapter 4: The Unquenchable Thirst of Civil War Heroes
  • Chapter 5: Jack and the Short Bus
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Latest Comments

  1. Lisa Hadley says:

    Wow Jeff! Loved this. You have such a talent for writing (yeah, I know you know that, but I still like to say it). As adults it is always interesting to learn the back stories, the ones we never knew about growing up. The stories that want to make us reach out and hug each other for all that we went through during our youth and sometimes beyond. I look forward to the first five chapters!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gabe Burkhardt says:

    You had me at “six kids clawing for consequence amid the throes of our mother’s venom and vodka”

    Looking forward to the next 5 chapters

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Viveca says:

    Superb writing Jeff. Hard for me not to get emotional reading this “The Back Story”. Very much looking forward to reading your next short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Debbie Johnston says:

    Lots of emotions felt as I read this!Intense,loving,painful,honesty,loneliness!Don’t stop!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kathy Chenault -- World Witness says:

    I am eager to go along on this ride. Keep the writing coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Renae Darlene Wilber says:

    I have a lump in my throat while sitting on the edge of my seat; my mind desperately wanting to know the pieces of your puzzle…the most moving memoirs always stir me this way. I want to jump in to your story.

    Liked by 1 person

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