Part 77: Brother From Another Mother
My father began a page of his journal looking back on his childhood with the header “Some Memories,” so I shall begin back on Cypress Road in Oxnard, where everything went haywire. I'll put that part at the end of this blog, but first, I have some bonus material.
Just last night, I had a Zoom call with a "new" nephew, Chris Shepard. I'd found him on 23andMe in 2019, right after the "Hidden Brain" episode aired. On the site, I saw this man listed as a close relative, Chris Shepard. I got the feeling that something new was about to be revealed, although it listed Chris as my first cousin, which seemed impossible, he was born in the 1970s.
This was our (edited down for clarity) conversation from January 28, 2019 on 23andMe:
SSS: Christopher, I'm trying to figure out how you are my first cousin. My father was Richard Riley Shepard, he had brothers, Floyd, William and Victor. But it seems you are too young to be Floyd's son!
CS: Hi. I think Richard is my grandfather. Never met him and neither did my dad Chris Shepard. He had a relationship with my grandmother for a while but she never talks about him. Is he still alive?
SSS: You think my father, Richard Riley Shepard, is your grandfather? Then...Chris is my brother. I've met other half-siblings... my father was not a reliable partner. I want to make sure this is what you are saying. Can you tell me anything else about your father's mother? Sorry I'm flabbergasted. My father died in 2009. Is your father alive? Sounds like he is. I'd like to talk to him.
CS: My father Christopher Shepard is alive. His mother is as well. He is not really interested in talking with anyone about his past or family. And as I said before my grandmother never discussed anything with me or my father about Richard. My dad never had contact with him. Listening to your NPR piece now. Crazy story. I don’t know why 23and me says we would be first cousins. You should be my aunt right?
SSS: I am your aunt, yes. I respect the privacy of your grandmother and father. If you'd like to know about health things, or anything else, let me know. I've met so many people--- four half-siblings and I've learned so much. I don't even know if I'm the last child my father had, but he did raise me. My mother would have been his fifth wife, if you count common-law marriage, they were together 23 years.
CS: Thanks for the info. I wish my grandmother would have been more open about her relationship with him but it sounds like from the stories you have been telling, it was not a happy ending. But that is not an excuse to hide things.
At the time, I wanted to meet his father and his grandmother. I didn't know her name, and Chris didn't offer it. I told Chris I'd be in New York and wanted to meet his father, but nothing panned out, they didn't want to connect. Now I know his grandmother was the literary agent Kay McCauley. Sadly, Kay and her son, my half-brother, both died suddenly--- Kay last November, and Christopher Shepard Sr. several months ago. I'm still processing last night's Zoom call with Chris, the nephew. The fact that I had a brother who died so young (he was born in 1957) who I never had a chance to meet is sad. Kay and her brother Kirby McCauley were both literary agents in New York, and her son, my half-brother, worked there, too. Kay represented George Martin, the author of "Game of Thrones." Riley pursued smart, talented women. I wonder how long they were together.
Riley wrote about Kay---the pregnancy, and where the baby was born in that "secret" journal I found. In it, he said Kay's name was Mary, describing her as a "brunette." Mary from Minnesota, he wrote. He even wrote about how she went to San Bernadino, California to have the baby. How strange not to remember the name of the woman you had a child with.
I have Chris Junior's permission to write about this. He told me his grandmother's name last night, and he gave me the photograph of him (below) with his late father, Christopher Shepard. They are both named Chris, I hope it isn't too confusing. Maybe there'll be more about this later.
Every now and then I search around online to see if there are any conversations online about Riley, the encyclopedia, or his music career. I found this comment from 2020 on Mudcat.org, or the Mudcat Cafe where folk music enthusiasts talk shop. Here, Frank Hamilton is responding to a string about Riley's "Encyclopedia of Folk Music" and the "Hidden Brain" episode based on my stories and research.
Subject: RE: Master Book of American Folk Song
Date: 06 Sep 20 - 08:15 PM
This is very interesting. I knew Riley Shepard in Hollywood. I rented a studio across from his on Hollywood Boulevard. I was teaching guitar when I ran into Riley who had a number of aliases. He was very knowledgeable and I found it hard to reconcile his eminent folk song acumen with his self-admitted writing of pornography. We discussed a music business plan together involving a number of people in the industry whom he knew.
He suggested that it would be a good idea to form a musical outfit that would service publisher's demonstration recordings. I thought it was a good idea and I discussed this with Craig Doerge, (married to Judy Henske). Craig is a brilliant pianist and worked with some seasoned LA musicians. He took to heart the idea and formed a group that became the "Section" for James Taylor. They moved far beyond the demo stage.
I was on the periphery of this scene. I might have even pulled Craig into a session, I don't remember. This all predated the Wrecking Crew.
I never knew exactly what to make of Riley although he was very knowledgeable about the music business as well as folk and country music. He knew my step-uncle, the singer David Street and his actress wife, Mary Beth Hughes. He was the brother of my step-father, Phil Street.
It's strange to hear about a guy I knew in Hollywood who I almost went into business with. I haven't heard his name in years.
I looked up Frank, found a school for music he opened, and wrote to him. In our email exchanges, Frank said that Riley spoke to him about putting together a variety TV show. This would've been back in the late 1960s.
"I guess he knew people, but the idea was too chaotic in its application to get it done. He would've had to have a high-powered financier and attorney to make it happen, someone with entertainment clout. Riley was a colorful character and I didn't get any vibes of meanness or self-importance...he had imagination as well as charm...he could engender enthusiasm, and he was intelligent...I found him to be a good man, polite and jovial, and it was really fun knowing him," Frank said. He liked Riley and thought he really loved folk music. They had a nice connection, as Frank was and is a talented musician and self-described inveterate folkie. "He loved country music, and I enjoy it too because it's an honest expression of emotion in the lyrics."
Frank Hamilton is a musician, the music school is in Decatur, Georgia. I love coming across these random, online conversations and getting in touch with people who knew Riley–– everyone has a story to tell.
"It was interesting to see your father as a young man. He was quite good looking and I
would guess a successful Country Artist...he had an enthusiastic one track mind. I was impressed with the range of his knowledge. He had fingers in many different pies. It's a kind of person you don't see
nowadays. He had a broad base of interests," Frank wrote in an email.
© copyright 2019-2022 Stacya Silverman. All rights reserved.
1974, Oxnard, Cypress Road. Some memories:
I made friends with a Korean girl who sucked at PE as much as I did. We were often last when running laps around the field. She was chunky and out of shape, I was skinny and weak, pale, knobby-kneed, my lungs filled with Riley’s cigar smoke, smog, paint thinner, who knows what else. We bonded as we lagged behind.
I don’t remember the Korean girl’s name, but one day, she asked me to go with her to some kind of an outdoor festival, where there’d be tons of food, a huge picnic. "You can meet my family," she said. Was it on the beach? I think so. Exciting! A new friend! I said yes, but when I told Jan about it, she began to suspect that it was some kind of Moonie thing. The “Moonies” were what we called members of the Unification Church. I never knew the official name of the church until recently, only the term “Moonies” and we all referred to Moonies as cult members. I never found out if my new friend was a Moonie or not, because I didn't go to the picnic or anything else she invited me to. If she wasn't one, it's pretty sad. I really liked her. Cults were cropping up all around California, and Jan was on guard. When we drove by the Proctor & Gamble plant, I remember my mother said she suspected it was owned and operated by Moonies. Still. I wonder if the party was just a picnic.
One day I came home from school, and Jan was on her knees in the front yard of the Cypress house, crying and frantically pulling up dandelion leaves, yanking up the plants, throwing them in a bowl, her face swollen, her long brown hair tangled. I stood, staring, shocked to see her so distressed, her black mascara smudged on her red cheeks. She said there was no food in the house, and we'd have to eat the dandelion leaves with oil and vinegar. "Riley's broke. Can't keep a job to save his life," she said. Looking back on it now with my adult brain, I understand that my mother was having a nervous breakdown. The pressure was too much. She just wanted to paint, she didn't think about practical things like grocery money or how to get it.
Now, I also think about the weed killer people used back then and what was on those leaves. I don't remember eating the strange salad. Jan did, though. It wasn't the first time we'd run out of food, and it wasn't the last time.
These were the days where my loyalty to Riley was at an all time high. In my mind, he wrote the song "Blue Christmas" and was just having a lull before he made a huge comeback. I watched him on the phone talking to the landlord. "You didn't get the check? I mailed it." His voice sounded distressed, but his body was relaxed, melting into our old couch. He took casual puffs from his cigar, his face a calm mask, talking about how the Post Office must've screwed up somehow. In my adult brain, I understand body language, but back then, all I heard were the words and I thought the United States Post Office had once again TOTALLY screwed over my dad. I heard his voice. I still hear it. He had the ability to make his voice sound extremely sincere, concerned, authentic. There were several of these calls until the bad news came, we had to leave. The thing was, we had no place to go. Riley had nothing lined up. For the first time, I knew this, I understood we were screwed. Riley admitted he didn't know where we would go next, and it was scary. In my mind, it was Riley against the world.
Maybe I would find us a place to live...
© copyright 2019-2022 Stacya Silverman. All rights reserved.