Part 94: Back To The Future
I'm taking a break from the 90's to announce that I've met a new family member, Christopher Shepard.
Christopher and I came in contact online on the site 23AndMe way back in late January, 2019, after the "Hidden Brain" episode aired. Time is strange... it was pre-pandemic, in the "before times." It seems longer ago that we chatted online, and also months ago. When I logged on to 23AndMe, I noticed I had a new "close relative" listed. The site tagged us as first cousins. I was confused, because it seemed unlikely that I had a first cousin from my Shepard side that was born in 1979, as Riley's brothers were pretty old to have a kid born then. But... as you know, anything is possible. I stared at the screen, my wheels turning. I'd already met four half-siblings. Who was this Christopher Shepard?
On January 28th, 2019, I messaged the mystery relative, and here's how our conversation unfolded:
Me: "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!"
Christopher: "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?"
Me: "You think my father, Richard Riley Shepard, is your grandfather? Then Chris is my brother. I've met other 1/2 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. My father raised me and told me I had 3 siblings but that "I couldn't meet them" but since he passed I met another woman who is my half sister."
Reading back over my messages, I can see how unclear I was, just rambling and flustered. I gave Christopher the link to "Cowboy Philosopher" on Hidden Brain.
Christopher: "My father Chris 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?"
Me: "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 and four 1/2 siblings... 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. Here is my number if you ever have any questions. 206 xxx xxxx. It's all very odd and still surprises me. Even though I assumed there might be more children–– I've said so to my husband and friends. On ancestry my 1/2 sister, who I met in 2011, is listed as my cousin. I've spoken to her birth mother, who is still alive, she had an affair with my father in 1944. She was an actress, met my dad in Chicago. He told her he was sterile, which I can't wrap my head around, then he borrowed money from her, promising to fix up a place for them to live, but he took off. She put the baby up for adoption. Glad you listened to the podcast. I've been writing about this and researching this for over 20 years now. I understand if you are like, "Whoa, too strange!" and I never hear from you again. If so, I wish you a wonderful life!"
Christopher: "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. Did I see from your Facebook that they are going to make a movie about him? "
Me: "Hi Christopher, I manage that page, and we like to "dream" so I posted that. Of course I want a movie made, but one that doesn't glamorize his life. It was difficult for women back then to have a baby with someone who didn't stick around, or who ended up being a terrible provider. I have to ask, is your grandmother Winnigred Sedgewick Cessek? Unlikely but I had to ask. This was his second wife. But the truth is I have no idea how many there were, if you heard the podcast you know he lied about stuff. I should go back to that FB post and make sure it sounds like a wish instead of a reality!"
Christopher: "Oh ok. I can confirm that is not my grandmother. Not sure why she gave my dad that surname if it was such a terrible relationship. Maybe she will open up more about it someday but it looks unlikely."
Me: "The shame people endured (and still do, but way worse in your grandmother's day) about any kind of separation, divorce, or having a kid with no father was intense. There would be pressure to have the name. My 1/2 brother Richard also has my father's last name, and his mother also didn't want to talk about it. It was a very stressful thing for a women to go through. These days, not as big of a deal. Back then, people would whisper about you, exclude you, men would think you somehow not a "good woman." I feel for her, and she gets to have her privacy.
Months later, on October 7, 2019, I messaged Christopher again, hoping maybe overtime there was some discussion, maybe something had changed. I didn't want to be pushy, but also I had to ask again:
Me: "Christopher, I will be in NYC Wednesday for several days. Ask your father if he will meet me if he's in town. I won't have access to this app while there but my email is xxxxxx."
Christopher: "I sent him your message. I wouldn’t count on him meeting you though. Hope all is well."
Me: "I understood it was a long shot, but had to ask."
After that, there was no more messaging. I knew it was time to accept that I wasn't going to meet anyone in this family. Not everyone is up for digging into the past and meeting new sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles.
During the pandemic, something changed, and for a sad reason. At the time of our 23andMe chats, Christopher's father Chris and his grandmother, the literary agent Kay McCauley, were alive. Of course I didn't know her name at all, I just had to try to guess which woman she was from my father's diary. I remember when Christopher first reached out to tell me that his father and grandmother had passed–– not from COVID, and in unrelated health events. It's an incredible blow to lose two close family members in such a short period of time, and my heart goes out to Christopher. Even though I'd never met my half-brother, and knew nothing about him, I was really sad when Christopher told me.
Chris Shepard was the general manager for a time at Bailwick Restaurant in New York City, where he bartended with famous people, Bruce Willis and others. Before that, he worked at a hotel in London for a while called Holland Park Hotel, from 1976-79. Later, Chris went to work for his mother and uncle Kirby at their literary agency, where they represented many well known science fiction and fantasy writers, including Stephen King and George R.R. Martin.
Here's a link to a tribute by the author George R.R. Martin, the writer of the "Game Of Thrones" series, to Christopher's grandmother, Kay McCauley. Here's a link to read about Kirby, Christopher's uncle, who died in 2014.
Christopher (who also goes by Chris–– he and his father were both named Christopher/Chris, but to save confusion in this blog, I've used Christopher for my new found nephew) reached out last year, and we had a Zoom call with me, Marion, and Leslie. That was the first time we "met"... but Zoom isn't the same.
Last week I went to Hudson, New York for a wedding, and I'd asked Christopher if there was any chance that he and his wife, Kate, could meet us there. It's not that close to the city, but they made the drive, and on Thursday, September 15th, we all met on Warren Street for dinner. Christopher and Kate got a hotel a few blocks away, and the next day we went to the Won Dharma Center Retreat for hiking (I heard later we were supposed to be silent on our hike! I didn't get that message AT ALL, 'cause we gabbed the entire time. Next we had snacks outside at Olana State Historic Site. It was wonderful to get to know Kate and Christopher in such beautiful settings. Christopher and I have some things in common, we were both involved in life changing car accidents, for one thing. We both have broken collar bones on the same side that never healed right. No strapless gowns for us...
There's a random guy's thumb to the left, he was kind enough to snap a pic of all of us at Olana.
Photo below by Kate Wei of our first night together in Hudson, New York.
Christopher and Kate, below:
Chris Shepard was born on Aug 30th, 1957. That means Riley met Kay either right before Jo Sullivan or maybe they overlapped, I'm not sure. Jo and Riley had two kids, Leslie, born in 1960, and her brother Graham, born in 1958. I'll have to double check my notes, but there may have been another woman in the mix around that time. In Riley's diary, he simply writes about a brunette who went home pregnant–– home to San Bernardino, California to be with her mother... doesn't even recall her name is Kay McCauley. These are the times when I wonder what made Riley so callous, and you can see how for a time I wondered if my father was a sociopath.
Chris Shepard might be the last of Riley's kids I'll find out about... but maybe not, who knows. I do know that I'm really glad to have met Christopher and Kate–– they're both warm, fun, open, and excellent company.
Here's Christopher as a little kid, with his father, below. These images make me wish I'd known Christopher the entire time. What a cutie.
And one more of Christopher Shepard Junior:
Rest in peace, Chris Shepard, half-brother. I heard from your son that you loved movies and had a great sense of humor. Sounds familiar...See you next blog.
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