Today's Reading

The term "snowplow parent" hadn't been invented when we were kids, but it wouldn't have applied to my folks anyway. They supported us but never pushed us to be sports stars. They concentrated more on being life coaches. Even my ultra-competitive father, who was a terrific athlete, never cared if we won or lost our games. "Did you try your best and have fun?" he'd ask, same as my mother did.

My parents always treated Randy and me equally, which was unusual for many families then. But when I didn't share the same love of shopping or painting my fingernails that my mother did, I would notice the look on her face. She earned a cosmetology license the year she was engaged to Dad, and she was always so stylish in her pinched-waistline dresses and impeccable hair and makeup. I eventually learned that she had been a fast runner and terrific swimmer as a girl and used to body-surf in fifteen-foot-high ocean waves before she married my dad. On our swimming outings, Randy and I would thrash around, but she'd just float serenely, bobbing in the rolling waves like a cork. I'm sure I inherited some of her athletic talent, but she always played her abilities down. She had strong ideas about what was "ladylike." She was happier (and far less conflicted) when I told her I was eager to sign up for cotillion like the other girls.

Later, once I started to question my sexual orientation, it was hard for me to forget those kinds of messages, or the day my hot-tempered father was driving Randy, my mother, and me to a tournament when I was about thirteen. We passed two men walking together down the street, and it triggered Dad's memory. He told us a story about a man in the service who propositioned him. "I'd have clocked him if he hadn't backed off," my father said. I believed him. The competing cues and emotions were hard for me to reconcile at times, but I also knew that people on both sides of my family had repeatedly demonstrated an independent streak. In the end, that was the temperament I gravitated toward, too. Both the Moffitts and the members of my mother's clan, the Jermans, came from mining and oil-geyser towns on the western frontier. They kept their heads down and worked, worked, worked. But they also bucked convention and seemed incapable of remaining quiet or complacent once they were fed up with something. They were passionate, gritty, action-oriented people.

I was named after my father, Willis Jefferson "Bill" Moffitt, a hardy Montana boy who grew up in Livingston, a railroad town on the banks of the Yellowstone River. When my dad was thirteen, his mother, Blanche, packed him and his two siblings into the family's Model A Ford and drove off from their home, leaving his father, William Durkee Moffitt Jr., behind with a hangover and a knot on his head. Blanche had cracked a window screen over W.D.'s skull for coming home violent and drunk one too many times. She pointed the car west and didn't stop until she reached the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, where she knew nobody. I guess she thought that if she was going to start over it might as well be in the sunshine rather than in the shoulder-high drifts of Montana snow. She and W.D. never lived together again, but they never divorced, either. He sent Blanche a bit of money each month to help support them. Blanche enrolled their three children in Long Beach's first-rate public schools, where they thrived.

Dad went on to become a basketball standout at both Long Beach Polytechnic High and Long Beach City College, where he occasionally competed against Jackie Robinson, then a four-sport star at Pasadena Junior College. (My father had a cherished photo of them playing on the same court.) Dad was strong-jawed and handsome, and he loved dancing to big-band music in the seaside ballrooms. So did my mother, Mildred Rose Jerman, who everyone called Betty. She was seventeen years old and still in high school when they started dating. Later, she wore my father's miniature basketball trophy on a chain around her neck, even after it chipped her front tooth one day as she leaned down to take a sip from a water fountain.

After their third date she told her mother, Dot, she was going to marry him.

"Well, has he asked you?" Dot said.

"No, but he will," my mom replied.

Dot never seemed overly warm to me, but she was considerate and gentle. Blanche was different. My father's mother was a hard-edged woman who chainsmoked Chesterfields, drank black coffee all day, and was full of colorful sayings such as "If they don't watch it, I'll lay 'em out in lavender!" She was tough, but then she'd had some staggering disappointments in her life even before she abruptly packed up her children and left W.D.

She was born Hazel Campbell in 1897 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a Scottish teenager who was living in a home for unwed mothers, and she was given up for adoption before she was three. Her new parents, Jefferson and Georgia Leighton, changed her name to Blanche and moved with her to Butte, a mining boomtown in central Montana. Her mother opened a candy shop there, and her father worked as a carpenter. Blanche became such a gifted pianist she was sent back east to train at the Boston Conservatory for two years. But she had to come home when Georgia died and her father stopped paying her tuition. Blanche took a job working at the railroad depot in town, and that's how she met W.D., who was a brakeman on the Northern Pacific line. They moved to Livingston after they married and rented a house just beyond the tracks, where they could hear the whistle and rumble of the steam locomotives passing by, or step outside and look down the street and see the Absaroka mountain range rising in the distance.

My father was born in Livingston in 1918, two years before his brother, Arthur, and two years after his sister, Gladys. Blanche used to say W.D. was a nice enough man when he was sober, but he was a nasty drunk. Sometimes he'd beat her in front of their kids, and one day my dad, then only twelve, finally had enough. As W.D. wound up to take yet another swing at Blanche, my father stepped between them and told W.D., "If you hit her again, I'll kill you." W.D. backed off.
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