Part 36: The Promise

It's Sunday, August 2, 2020. At least in Seattle, people are talking about what will happen with schools in the fall, with unemployment benefits, and the election. We talk about our fears of going to the dentist, the grocery store, and our medical appointments. The virus is flaring up in states in the Midwest and the South, and California is having higher numbers.


The reality star that is now the president of this country has suggested that elections be put off, and he's put his friends on the board of the United States Post Office, shortening hours, which is leading to delays in mail delivery.


This reality star also believes, or claims, that mail-in voting is different from an absentee ballot (nope, not different) and that somehow it leads to more "voter fraud."


Now, back to the early 1960s.

Riley had a photographer do a series of black and white pictures of my mother when we were living in Hollywood. This photo shoot happened around 1967, when I was a toddler. I wish I knew the name of the photographer, I'd give her/him/them photo credit. I'm not sure the web does this shot justice. I have the original, and the light behind her lacy, patterned dress, the lush foliage of whatever park they were in, the tendrils of her long hair flowing down her backside-- it's lovely. Plus, you know, not to be all caught up in looks... my mother is gorgeous.


To refresh, let's go back to 1962 in Reading, Pennsylvania. After a while of living separately from Jo Graham, his fourth "wife" (I use quotes because he was still married to Alix, as far as we can tell) Riley had an affair with my mother. He told Jo that they were "just friends." My mother was 23 back then, a single mother to my half-sister, and Riley was two decades older. Riley was charming, well-read, and appreciated women as artists and thinkers, unlike many other men at that time, and my mother was drawn to him. She'd been a beatnik for a short time in New York, and she rejected conventional roles for women, and conventional people.


One of the great things my father taught me is that when you purchase art, you don't do it because you think it will one day increase in value. A cultured person should buy art that they feel a connection to. There was a general disdain (to be honest, intense hostility) in my family for people who collected art for other reasons, or expected the artist to be famous, or hoped the artist would one day become famous. There were so many reasons why an artist would want to run off with my father. Unlike her first experiences with men, my father believed in her talent.


Not long before, Mom had been dumped by her husband, and she never divorced that guy. They are still married. He had a long Italian last name, but he was trying to be a published writer, he had a pen name... I think it was "Lion" or something.


I heard a story about the time my parents first shacked up. The story goes that this Lion guy, my sister's bio-dad, came by the apartment to see his kid, but Riley basically told him to fuck off and not to come back. My sister never saw her father again, and probably never will. My parents always spoke of the Lion guy as a total and complete jerk...because he ditched my mom and his own kid so coldly, and so suddenly. Obviously, now I find that opinion a little hypocritical.


Truth be told, even if my sister's father had made an effort to find her again, it would've been like finding a needle in a haystack. We moved often, and Dad sometimes didn't give out his real name. Riley gave my sister his real last name, Shepard. Dad was more dedicated to my half-sister than any of his biological children born before her.


On a side note, recently, we found a DNA match for my sister and the nephew of her bio-father who was on 23andMe. That nephew said he could put my sister in touch with her father, he is still alive. She hasn't done that so far.


Riley began creating other....shall we say..."personas" as I don't want to call them stage names or pen names as he used to claim, long before he met my mother. Around the time my father met my mother in 1962, his "creative identity factory" was in full force. These are full on fake identities, complete with social security numbers and personal histories. The numbers are not his social security number, and I'm not sure if they belonged to anyone, but they might have. Notice how he gives Harley Shepard a full back story on this "note to self" card complete with a stage name for the fake name, fake birthdate, and even fake parents.


Later, after Riley left Reading with my mother, he used the made-up name Richard R. Cooper to get a fake social security card and a library card.


I tried to make the light, texture, and background in my iPhone shots groovy like the photographer back in Hollywood did for my mom's dress. A little color added in the background... it's like a still life for Dad's bogus social security card and library card collection. Notice the side light from the sunset shining through our window, lighting up the cards so they almost glow. (Yes, the COVID-19 shut down has left me with a lot of time on my hands.)

This isn't Riley's entire collection. I came across these cards once when I was a kid. I was super nosey then, too, always snooping around and asking questions like Peter Falk in Columbo. Back then, when I asked him what these cards were for, he grabbed them up quickly and said they were important for his pen names. "Show business" was the short answer for most of my nosey my questions. "Dad, why did you get married so many times?" "Show business." "Dad, what's with all the moving around all the time?" "Show business."


Back in 1962, Riley told my mother that he'd left his wife. Only, he didn't tell his wife that crucial bit of information.


One day, my father said to my mother, "If you leave here with me, you can never contact anyone you ever knew before. Not even your family."


She agreed. They left Reading together, stopping at Riley's brother-in-law's house on the way out. This was Jo's brother. My mother hid in the car with Lisa, her two year old. Riley went inside the house, and asked his brother-in-law for money. He said he needed the money to get to a gig he was headed to, but that he'd be right back.


"Pay you back with interest," is something he'd say.


He used the money from Jo's brother to leave her with my mother. So, just like that. Poof. Gone. Jo was so shocked and ashamed, she decided to tell everyone that her husband had died in a car accident. According to Leslie, she thought her father had died in a car accident until she was almost a legal adult.


My mother kept her promise to my father, never to contact anyone she knew before. She kept that promise for nine years.


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©2020 by Stacya Silverman.

All photos on this site were taken by Thomas Schworer or David Hiller unless otherwise noted.