Part One: Welcome To The Unraveling
When I was twelve, a man called our house and asked if my father was home. When I said he wasn't, the man didn't believe me.
"Sure he's not," he snarled.
"But...he's not," I said.
I could tell the man was elderly, and there was something in the tone of his voice that scared me. His voice was shaking, but he was sarcastic and mean. He said that my father had ripped him off, taken his savings, he said my father was a crook.
As I pressed the phone to my ear, I thought about simply hanging up. But I felt I had to hear the man out. He said the words, and every cell in my body knew it was truth I heard in the rage-fueled voice. Later, my father explained his side, and the part of my mind that knew, the part that had absorbed the sound and feeling of the man's voice, had to be walled off.
I forged ahead, trying to forget the feeling, the old man, and the horrible things he'd said. I loved my father, he was kind, he didn't believe in hitting children, he wasn't violent. He did much of the cooking and caring for me, and he spent quality time with me, supporting my dreams and creative activities. Dad rarely had a drink, and didn't take drugs. He wasn't strict, and he allowed me to stand up for myself.
I knew my father as Riley Shepard, a songwriter, singer, and all around show biz expert. As my father grew older, he gave me an auto-biography he'd been working on, he told me many of his stage and pen names, he wrote me long letters filled with love and fatherly advice, he wrote a cook book for me and my sister, Lisa, and began a candid and personal journal which he mailed to me.
This blog will unravel some family mysteries, and show my research on his life and career. I started digging around in 1995. The blog is connected to my website which shows my beloved day job, which might be confusing to some. "Make a separate page for your writing," someone said. I say, don't be confused. I've been an esthetician for 26 years now.
On my birth certificate, my father stated his occupation as "Cook/Performer." Most of us have more than one way to make it in this world.
Special thanks to my half-siblings Richard, Leslie, and Marion for sharing stories, letters, and stuff your mothers kept in the attic, thank you Marilyn McGuire (ancestry expert genius),the Wilson Library at UNC, Kevin Coffey (writer/researcher), Erfert Fenton, The Wyatt family, Matthew Budman for finding a few of my father's rare and out of print sex books, thank you to the songwriter Larry Bastian, Allan Gurganus for telling me stories about The Fountain School in Rocky Mount, thank you Frances Jerome for finding time to "Nancy Drew" for me. Heidi Parker, Sunny Anderson, what can I say? I suck at technology and couldn't do this without you. Thomas Schworer, thank you for using your magic photography powers to fix all my old photos. Thank you Jennie Shortridge and Joe Guppy. Big thanks to the publishers Lantz Arroyo, Sarah Lopez, and Nicholas Hurd at Radix Media. We don't do this work alone, and crediting the work of others is so crucial. Lastly, thank you David Silverman for being the most amazing husband on the planet and taking this wacky journey with me, literally driving me out into the middle of nowhere so we could see landmarks with our own eyes and meet people in person.
I promise to fact check everything I post, and confront bullshitty stuff when I can, without being too bitchy about it, because I've believed bullshit, too. I will not exaggerate here, no need to. It's been a long process of unraveling. Here we go.
Something happened to Part 2 of this blog, it simply vanished! Odd. Here is what was the general idea was. So here is Part 2:
The photograph, below, is courtesy of Felix H. Stokes. He inherited the original from his mother, Dora Helen Edwards, and he spent hours working to removed the scratches on the original image.
The man in the photograph above is Rev Riley Shepard and his first wife, Clarissa Shepard. My father's name on his birth certificate is Richard R. Shepard. Dad said the "R" was for Riley, and that he was named after his grandfather. To prevent confusion, when I write about my great-grandfather, I'll refer to him as Rev. Riley Shepard, although there's controversy about whether or not he really became a minister or not. Rev. Riley is buried outside of the Primitive Baptist Church in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he had a farm.
Rev. Riley Shepard had 18 children.
Clarissa was also a Shepard, but the cousins I've met researching my father's past say that Rev. Riley and Clarissa weren't related at all, or at least not close cousins. Anyway, she died giving birth to twins, and the babies also died. She left behind 11 children, one of them was Zedoc Shepard, my father's father. Rev. Riley then married again, and had 7 surviving children with his second wife. There are a lot of Shepards in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
The thing about Rev. Riley Shepard is that although he was uneducated, he had the mental capacity to actually memorize the bible "backwards and forwards" as my father used to say. He also expected his children to read and memorize passages. He recited the bible constantly, even at the dinner table. My father remembered his grandfather coming to visit as a child in Wilmington, North Carolina. Dad said that his grandfather wouldn't converse, but rather he would sit and recite bible passages all night.
Dad told me about his childhood memory. "I didn't understand a goddamn word he said".
What my father got from his grandfather, besides the middle name, was a brain that could memorize and understand vast amounts of material. Dad had an incredible memory as well.
The problem my father had with the Primitive Baptist side of his family is that they thought music and dancing was a sin. So instead of encouraging my father when he showed an interest in music, (the kind he heard on street corners played by black musicians, and on his Methodist grandmother's radio and phonograph) he was told it was sinful. I have a feeling if he'd been allowed to learn to play the guitar or banjo early in life, it would've kept Dad out of trouble when he was a boy. I believe music could've saved him.