Part 93: Keep Your Eye and Mind On The Real You
For several weeks, starting in the early spring of 1984, we didn’t hear from Riley. Jan said she’d never speak to him again, and I'd said that, too–– but I found myself driving past his old office late at night, to see if he'd slipped back into town the same secretive way he’d left. Maybe he forgot some important item, and I’d find him there. He'd explain everything. I was less and less angry as time went by, and more lost and disappointed at the way things turned out. Plus, I missed him––we’d been getting along so well right before he left. I blamed the town of Porterville, the men who’d invested in Riley’s encyclopedia, and the people who'd bought the songs he sold. I decided it was all a big misunderstanding.
One day, Riley called us, Jan answered the phone. They had a heated exchange, and after, Jan held the phone to her chest. She looked at me, her face stormy.
“He wants to talk to you,” she said.
I held the phone to my ear. “Hello?” I said.
Riley explained that since my accident, he’d been in financial trouble, but he was working on fixing things, that he had to stay out of town for a while. He wouldn’t say where he was.
“I love you very much,” he said.
I paused for a moment, remembering how angry I was, how I’d impulsively changed my name from the one he picked when I was born. “I love you, too,” I said.
Something I find funny, since he changed his name so many times–– (see part 19, where I list every single name Riley used during his life, here) when I told him I’d changed my name, he was furious. “That’s a terrible name for an actress! Change it back,” said the man who used a made up name on my birth certificate.
“It’s too late. I did it with the social security office,” I said.
“The name makes no sense whatsoever. Stasha?" He said my new name slowly, in a loud voice. "That's not a name. I’m telling you, it doesn’t work. What’s the matter with the name Stacy?”
“Nothing,” I said, not wanting to admit how much I wanted to stab him in the heart.
After we hung up the phone, Jan was still fuming, but I felt more compassion for my father, defensive of him, almost. All these people were making his life difficult, they’d ganged up on him. Jan complained about him constantly, and I started to believe she exaggerated things about Riley. The story about the film “The Producers” was hard to believe. Why would Riley treat the encyclopedia as a scam when it was his life’s work? Some of the stories Jan told seemed too crazy to be true, I reasoned.
Sick of living at home, I quickly agreed when a high school friend, Mark, invited me to live with his family. They’d moved to Santa Maria not long before, a few hours south of Porterville.
Mark’s parents seemed wonderfully normal to me, even their house looked like all the other houses around, which I loved. I was in a suburb! I was relieved at first––I could finally blend in. I thought I’d be happier if I moved away and lived with a nice family, but it didn’t work out that way. I had no skills, no clue how to go about getting employment, and ended up getting a minimum wage job at a fried chicken place in a strip mall. An older couple owned the chicken franchise, I met them twice, each time they were both drunk, the smell of booze oozing out of their pores. On both visits, they wobbled over to the cash register, took out all the big bills, and staggered back out to their Buick. The store manager said they always came in drunk.
“I think they have a gambling problem,” she said.
Between the fried food and the depression, I gained weight. As a little girl, I couldn’t wait to grow up and have curves, but when I finally got them, I began to pick on myself, which made me more depressed. On my days off from slinging fried chicken, and Mark’s from his job at his family's print shop, we’d get together. He gave me tennis lessons, other days it was off to the beach, where I’d work on my tan, bleaching my hair with “Sun In”, a product that turned my hair into hay.
I didn’t last long at the chicken franchise, or with Mark’s family. It was a nice break from the bleakness of my situation, but after a few months, I moved back to Porterville and enrolled in the two-year college there, where I was hired at the college’s print shop. I received Pell and Cal grants. I floated through my classes, not sure what I was doing. The stand-out teachers were an art history teacher, a writing teacher, a political science teacher. The theater classes weren’t great and the plays the college put on weren't great, but I always signed up for the theater stuff like an accountant’s kid might automatically sign up for math.
At home, the dark cloud brewing over Jan's head began to expand into every part of life. Riley had created all sorts of financial problems for her, and she had to give up the art studio downtown. People who knew Riley came by asking about him, some thought she knew where he was. She felt harassed by these people.
Jan was hard to be around, but so was I, with my mood swings and inability to face reality. Riley was the one who created the vision for the future, and even if the vision was based on smoke and mirrors, it added an element of excitement to our lives. Piling on to my depression, most of my friends had trust funds and had left town to attend four-year colleges, only coming back during holidays or between vacation destinations in the summer. I felt as though everyone had it together but me. I'd spent so much time living in a dream world–– one that Riley created, but instead of busting out of the house of mirrors, I actually missed being inside the world he created.
One day in late October, a letter arrived for me with no return address. I tore open the envelope. He’d written me on his birthday, October 21st, 1984:
Stacy, I was just sitting here writing and thought I’d drop you a line and let you know that I miss you. I’d be there with you if I could, but there are problems that I must work out first.
Daddys don’t always win, you know---even when they try. But I think it is important that you know that I am proud of you, of how you have handled yourself since the accident and of your talent as an actress. In case you have doubts about it, let me say again that no father ever loved and appreciated a daughter more. You have given me much happiness and –––well, some anxious moments; but I’ve never really worried about how you would mature and turn out in life. I am confident that you can accomplish anything you really want to accomplish, so long as you don’t let things that go wrong bend you out of shape and knock you off course.
The “trappings” of life are nice, but they are NOT life; and as long as you understand this you’ll be okay. It is always better to be admired and respected for what you really are and do than to be acclaimed for something you’re not. In other words, honey, keep your eye and your mind on the real you and what you want to accomplish and ignore the expectations of others, which is generally not good for you.
Well, I just thought I’d let you know I was thinking about you, and hope we can see each other soon. If you ever feel the need to talk, I’m here–– and I love you.
How could I keep my eye and my mind on the "real" me when I had no idea who I was or what I was supposed to be doing?
I appreciate this letter more now. Riley dispensed wisdom and great advice, even if he didn’t follow it himself. After this letter, Riley wrote me often, each letter as supportive and loving as the one above, and phone calls–– encouraging me to read certain books, watch the films he recommended. Looking back, I see how twisted it was that I began to favor him again, willing to overlook everything that I knew.
Jan warned me not to buy into his promises, but I was ready to paint a new picture. I didn’t like what I’d found out–– it was uncomfortable. Riley was ripping people off, knowingly? It was embarrassing to tell the truth, even to myself, so I made up a story, one sort of based on the truth, but only a small part of it. I told people my father was a song writer, and that he’d been in show business but was “retired” from the stage part. End of story. That's the story I told my husband when I met him, and new friends who asked about my family.
After interviewing several people who knew my father over the years, including ex-wives and girlfriends, it seems no one stayed mad at him for long, or at least no one I've spoken with. Some were never bothered to begin with. It took years, but Jan will speak of Riley fondly, admiring the way he took on childcare, cooking, and cleaning so she could paint. I've saved all the letters Riley wrote me back in the 80s and 90s. We became close, as if nothing had happened.
Here's a song Riley recorded with The Thomas Family in 1947 that sums it up in a funny way. The chorus: "If you don't talk too much you won't get into trouble, but if you talk too much, your trouble will be double."
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