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When he was 24, the author found his family
The author of this narrative was born Steve Klakowicz in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1967 to a mother, Marian, whom he does not remember. Removed from her by the Department of Social Services, he entered foster care at the age of three and lived with cruel and neglectful families, spending 11 years in one especially cold and violent household. It was in that home that he learned, accidentally, that his father had been a boxer of some local repute by the name of Kenny Pemberton, since murdered. And it was there also that he set himself goals—to learn about his parents, to find family, to escape a brutal situation by means of college, specifically Boston College (to which he aspired from seventh grade onward, owing to a brochure given him by a teacher). His quest for family began with a death certificate tracked down at city hall, wound through newspapers and case files, and at one key moment was abetted by a telephone operator, who, when he explained his search, helped him to locate a step-grandparent in a half-heard-of town in another state. And then he learned he had a sister and brothers.
I got up before dawn that August Saturday in 1991, brimming with excitement and anticipation. The drive from New Bedford to Freehold—a town that, incidentally, was the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”—was going to take several hours, but I would ride in style, having traded in my beat-up Volkswagen Scirocco for a new red Volkswagen Fox. On the passenger seat was a map of central New Jersey; in my cassette case was all the music I needed to keep me company.
A soft rain was falling by the time I reached the Garden State Parkway. At nine o’clock, the Freehold Raceway Mall, where Marc and I were to meet, was empty of shoppers. I peered out over the parking lot as the Fox’s windshield wipers beat a steady swish. I had no recollection of having siblings; I was simply too young to remember. What did Marc and Ben look like? What do they remember of our mother? Did we look alike? Would I recognize them if I saw them? Could I pick them out of a crowd? And what about Joni?
A late-80s burgundy Camaro approached, its engine roaring. Heavy, thumping bass and the screeching of a rock guitar poured from its speakers as the car came to a hard stop. The door opened, and out spilled a tall, white, mustached man dressed in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt. His hair was brown and feathered down to his shirt collar. A cigarette dangled precariously from one side of his mouth. I remember first thinking, It’s going to fall. My second thought: My brother is white.
He didn’t close the driver’s side door. Rather, he stepped around it to extend an open hand. “You’re Steve,” he said.
“And you’re Marc,” I said, smiling.
I took his hand, and then we embraced. A lifetime of searching, wondering, and imagining had brought me here to this near-empty parking lot in central New Jersey, to the embrace of a stranger who was my brother. Finally, I thought. I have found where I’ve come from.
“It’s good to finally meet you,” I said.
We stared at each other for an awkward moment. My grandmother had known nothing of Marc’s father, and my mother had stubbornly refused to tell her. Now, try as I might, I couldn’t discern any resemblance between my brother and me. It’s a good thing we met this way, I thought, because I could have passed you a thousand times on the street and never known we were brothers.
“Well,” he said, leaning one hand on the driver’s side door, “let’s head over to my girlfriend’s house. Joni is there, and she really wants to see you too.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
We got into our respective vehicles, his door creaking as he slammed it shut. I rolled down my window. “Hey, Marc, slow down a bit. My car probably can’t keep up with your mean machine.” He shot me a thumbs-up and peeled off anyway, water spraying off the Camaro’s tires. I burst out laughing and gave chase.
A short while later, we drove down a tree-lined street and pulled into the driveway of a modest home with brown shutters. Marc’s small, blond girlfriend greeted us at the door: “Come on in. Joni is in the shower, but I’m sure she will be right out.”
We stepped inside to a small kitchen. An older, stocky gentleman in a bright-yellow, sleeveless T-shirt sat at the table. His graying hair was combed straight back, and his hands were large and calloused. I judged him to be in his mid-fifties. He extended his hand. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Mason.” That was all he said. Nobody told me who he was or what he was doing there. After we shook hands, he walked down the hallway and rapped on the bathroom door. “Joni, ya bruddah, he here.” His accent was thick and Southern but somehow different from the drawls I’d heard over the years.
Joni yelled something back. Suddenly the bathroom door burst open, and she emerged amid a torrent of steam. I was taken aback. A tan towel was wrapped around her hair like a turban. Another towel with green horizontal stripes covered her body. She was pale and very thin. Dark circles hung under brown eyes that were recessed and hollowed. Her cheekbones protruded. In the short time it took her to reach me, I thought, She looks like a prisoner of war. Sorrow and a desire to protect her overcame me. I opened my arms, and she ran up, hugging me close and weeping on my chest. Wrenching sobs came from the depths of her soul; her body wracked and convulsed against mine. Several times she tried to speak but couldn’t.
I understood her pain and kept whispering, “I know, I know.”
When she finally pulled away, her eyes were red, her face flushed. She wiped her eyes quickly and furtively, as if embarrassed. “I have to go get dressed,” she said softly. She disappeared into a back bedroom, the door clicking behind her.
I looked at Marc, searching for an explanation. He shrugged his shoulders in an I-have-no-idea gesture. “She’s been crying since she got here yesterday. She’s fine one minute and then the next. . . .” He sighed heavily. Mason bobbed his head in agreement.
We all sat down at the small kitchen table, a basket of plastic flowers its centerpiece. Marc’s girlfriend offered something to drink, and I accepted a glass of Coke. I had so many questions for Marc, but I didn’t want to plow right in. Marc spared me the need. “So,” he asked. “How did you find all of us? I went back to New Bedford several times trying to find you guys, and I never could.”
“You remember us?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. I remember all of you. We were always hungry, and I used to put sugar and water in your bottles and give them to you to try and keep you quiet.”
“Was our mother there?”
“Sometimes. But sometimes she would leave us with people, and other times she would just leave us by ourselves.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “How old were you?”
“About seven or eight.” There was a distance to his voice as if he were talking about someone else. He snapped his fingers as if an idea had come to him. “If I remember correctly, you should have a huge scar on your left foot.”
He was right. I had always carried a long scar that ran horizontally across my foot, but its origin had been a mystery.
He opened his can of Coke. A loud pop and hiss sounded across the small kitchen. “You got it when you were about two or three. Our mother had left us, and we went out looking for food in garbage cans around the neighborhood.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, lifting the can to his lips. He took a long swallow.
“That’s how it was. Me, you, and Joni went looking for food all the time. We’d leave Bernie, the baby, in the apartment, figuring he couldn’t get himself into too much trouble.” His tone was still even, but I could detect a certain haunting in his eyes. “Anyways, we were in a neighbor’s backyard rooting through their cans, and you fell into a pile of glass. You cried and hollered like nothing I’d ever heard. Me and Joni got you back to the house, and I just remember there was blood everywhere.
“I think the neighbors took you to the hospital, and when you came back, you had this huge bandage on your foot.”
A year before, I had met Lois Gibbs, a friend of my mother’s who had lived in the same apartment building. She told me how one day my mother asked Lois’s father and her to drop me at a babysitter’s and how Lois’s father had written in his diary that I didn’t have “a chance in the world.” Lois also told me of my mother’s neglect, and I knew that was the reason she lost her children. But absent any memory, it had not truly hit home for me. Marc’s story made my mother’s actions real, and for the first time I began to sense how perilous life with her must have been.
Joni returned and sat down at the kitchen table. She wore acid-washed jeans and a man’s T-shirt that said “Big Dog” on the left front. On the back it said, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.”
She sat at the kitchen table rocking gently, her eyes skittering across the room, as if she were trapped. I stared at her, swallowing hard, trying to hold back tears. What has life done to you, Joni?
Marc continued to tell us about his upbringing—how, after we were taken from our mother, he came to live with our grandparents, Joe and Loretta Murphy, and with our older brother, Ben, in Tuckerton, New Jersey; that for years he thought Ben was his cousin; that after a year his grandparents could no longer afford to keep him and he was sent back into foster care; that he lived with foster parents who treated him as if he were an indentured servant.
“I remember a lot too,” Joni suddenly whispered. She stared straight ahead at the floral basket. “I remember being hungry—always, always hungry.” She repeated “always, always hungry” as if it were a chant. “But that’s not what I remember most. I remember these men touching me in places they shouldn’t. I remember that a lot. I wasn’t no more than six years old.” We said nothing, listening in stunned silence. But Joni stopped talking. Off in the distance a car horn beeped, reminding me of the world that existed beyond our collective pain.
Marc asked about the circumstances in which I’d grown up, and I recounted my tale. He listened, interrupting when I told him about college. “You went to Boston College? You must be pretty smart.”
I shook my head in denial. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I worked pretty hard. I knew education was my only chance.”
Marc waved me off. “Naw, you’re pretty smart. You found us, and nobody else done that.”
“Well, almost,” I replied. “We still haven’t found Bernard yet. This won’t be complete until we find him.”
Joni had been quiet, but now she looked directly at me and said, “You’re not black. You can’t be.” She said this almost pleadingly, as if saying it would make it so. I was so stunned I nearly asked her to repeat herself. I let out a long sigh. I had experienced racism before, but I had never expected it would factor into my family reunion. I had known my mother was white, and as far as I knew, I was the only one of her children who was of mixed race. But I had believed that such considerations would have no place here, that the loss we collectively suffered would transcend any difference.
“But I am, Joni,” I said gently. “I know our mother was white, but my father was African American, and I grew up in an African-American community.”
Like many children of mixed race, I had grown accustomed to questions about my identity. Most people wanted to know which side you identified with, and there were others who demanded you choose a side. I never had any patience with the latter and would admonish anyone who crossed that line. Yet with Joni I knew I needed to tread lightly, no matter how annoyed I might be at the question.
“You’re not black!” she said again, her voice this time panicky and shrill. She burst into tears and bolted from the kitchen table, slamming the bedroom door behind her.
An awkward silence took hold of the room. I looked around the table and met with downward glances. Marc spun the Coke can around in his hands. Mason had his hands folded but tapped his thumbs together. Somewhere in the back bedroom, I could hear Joni’s muffled sobs. None of us knew what to say.
Plans had been made to meet our brother Ben for dinner that night, and we decided to pass some time by heading over to the mall where Marc and I had met a few hours earlier. The long, pristine corridors and wide hallways teemed with shoppers. High glass ceilings gave the place a palatial feel. We walked around the shops looking at things none of us could afford. Joni and Mason stepped into several jewelry stores while Marc and I waited patiently outside. It was clear that Joni wanted to keep as much distance between me and her as possible. She and Mason, who by now I realized was Joni’s boyfriend, stayed a few yards back from Marc and me.
After half an hour, we stopped in the food court on the lower level. Joni and Mason sat at one table, and Marc and I sat at another, eating our Wendy’s and Chinese food. A children’s carousel spun nearby, its gilded music blending in with the birdlike chatter of a hundred conversations. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Joni casting curious glances in my direction.
Each time I tried to make eye contact, she looked away. This was a departure for me; I usually ignored those who held racist views, believing that racism was its own prison. But this simplistic philosophy seemed terribly insufficient in trying to come to terms with my own sister.
Marc and I talked a bit more about his job as a mechanic; I laughed as he told me some of his favorite stories about irate customers, and he did the same as I told him about some of my college pranks. Both of us had mischievous personalities, and it occurred to me just how much havoc we might have raised as children had we grown up together. We laughed at this prospect, but soon my thoughts returned to Joni. Though she was sitting less than five feet from me, she might as well have been a universe away.
I poked at my food. What had I done when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles? I had pushed through them. Why would this be any different? It was decided: Time, distance, and circumstances had done enough damage. I wasn’t going to let something as trivial as race keep me from my sister. Racial attitudes can be changed, but only if you are willing to fight through them. The only question was whether Joni would be willing.
“Hey, Marc,” I said. “Would you mind taking Mason for a walk? I want to try and talk to Joni.”
Raising a questioning eyebrow, he got up and walked over to Mason. Soon they were headed to the escalators. I let a moment pass and then walked over to where Joni sat. A new cycle of carousel music began. “Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked.
She glanced at me briefly before returning her gaze to her plate. Again I was struck by the hollowness in her eyes. I pulled the chair out and winced as the metal legs screeched against the floor. “Look, Joni. I don’t know why you feel the way you do about black people. But when I look at you, I don’t see someone white. I see my sister, a sister I haven’t had my whole life. You’re the only sister I have and am ever going to have. We both have lost too much to let something like that keep us apart.”
She began to cry, deep sobs that shook her rail-thin frame. She held a small gray purse that she kept twirling in her hands. “The man who touched me when I was a little girl was black.” She offered this as neither an explanation nor a justification but simply as a statement of fact.
“Was this when we were with our mother?”
She nodded her head vigorously yes. I let out a long, slow breath of air. Joni’s childhood innocence had been yet another casualty of our mother’s wayward life.
I swallowed hard. “I won’t pretend to understand what you went through, Joni. And I am so sorry you had to go through that. I really wish I could take away the pain that you have, that all of us have, but I can’t. All I can tell you is this: Whoever that monster was, he had nothing to do with me or anyone else who is black.”
She raised her head then and looked down the mall toward the crowded shops, putting a hand to her mouth to keep the sobs from escaping. “It still hurts,” she whispered.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Never before had I so wanted to assume another person’s pain. I stood up from my chair and came to kneel beside her. I put my hand on top of hers, and to my relief she did not pull away. I leaned close to her and whispered, “You have brothers now, Joni. No one will hurt you as long as we’re here.” It was the only thing I knew to say. Off in the distance, the music from the carousel had stopped.
That evening, the four of us stood in front of La Dolce Vita, an elegant Italian seafood restaurant 20 minutes from Freehold. Joni’s attitude toward me had thawed considerably; she even held my hand as we walked in. We milled about the lounge area for a few minutes, snapping pictures and looking at paintings, when the front door swung open.
As soon as Ben—neatly attired in a tan blazer, yellow shirt, and black jeans—walked in, I knew he was my brother. He was a shade over six feet, with an athletic build and a shock of perfectly coiffed blond hair. It wasn’t these features that gave him away but the striking resemblance he bore to Joni. Both had deep-set, dark-brown eyes, pale complexions, and strong jaw lines. Joni must have seen it, too, because as soon as he stepped into the small reception area she ran over to give him a huge hug, a scene similar to the one when she and I had met earlier that morning. And as she had with me, she was holding on to Ben for dear life.
When Joni finally let him go, Ben and I gave each other a warm embrace. “So you’re the investigator,” Ben said, once we separated.
“At your service,” I said, laughing.
Marc and Ben shook hands, and I envied their familiarity. The hostess escorted us to our table where a wonderful view of the ocean awaited. We sat down, Marc and I side by side, Mason, Joni, and Ben shoulder to shoulder, across the table.
Over drinks and appetizers, we talked about Ben’s early life, how he had grown up in Tuckerton, how he had thought our mother, Marian, was his aunt and Marc his cousin, how before Alzheimer’s had overtaken our grandfather Joe he had asked Ben to take care of our grandmother. It was a promise Ben kept. Loretta served as Ben’s accountant as he built a successful career in sales.
Our conversation turned to Joe. In his honor, our mother had given all four of her sons the middle name Joseph. Joe was the son of Irish immigrants. A veteran combat infantryman who rose to the rank of sergeant, he stormed the beaches at Normandy, was wounded in combat in France and Germany, and earned a Bronze Star. He also battled what the military termed a “mother hen” complex, a near-paralyzing reluctance to send the young men under his command to what he knew would be their deaths. In August of 1945, three days after the Japanese surrendered, Joe Murphy was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, his service to his country complete.
As did many soldiers who returned from World War II, he struggled, haunted by the faces of the young men he had seen perish. Peaceful sleep rarely came, for he was often awakened by nightmares. He drank frequently, and Loretta and he nearly separated. When Loretta sought the advice of Joe’s commanding officer, his counsel was simple and direct: “These men have seen horrors you can’t even imagine. And you can’t erase it from their memory. So, young lady, you’re going to have to decide if this is what you want. Because this probably won’t ever get better.”
Adding to Joe’s postwar struggles were the difficulties of the older of his two daughters, Marian. Early on, she had shown a contrarian personality, and with Joe away at war, nobody was around to rein her in. Marian’s mother, Joe’s first wife (also named Marian), struggled with severe mental health issues and was likely an alcoholic. Joe was so distraught by his first wife’s behavior that, late one evening, he whisked away the two girls and they never lived with their biological mother again.
Ben’s recounting of the Murphy family history was interrupted by the waitress, who came to get our drink orders. We decided on bottles of red wine, except for Joni, who wanted vodka. We raised our glasses with the simple word “family” and toasted our brother Bernard. By the time the waitress came back to get our dinner orders, Joni was ready for another drink. She polished this off faster than the first. I saw Ben cast curious glances in her direction.
The restaurant was now bustling with patrons, the once-audible roar of the ocean drowned out by clinking glasses and the full flush of summer activity. Ben was about to resume the story of our grandfather when Joni interrupted him to tell us that she and Mason were getting married. Congratulations echoed across the table.
“She’s got brothers now, Mason, so you’re going to have to get our permission,” I said with a smile.
“You can’t run, either,” Marc said. “With Steve around, you know we’ll find you.”
We all laughed, and Joni was beaming.
“Dem big too,” Mason said in response. He pointed at the three of us and struck a double-biceps muscleman pose. Another burst of laughter erupted around our table.
As entrees of chicken cacciatore and meatball marinara arrived at our table, so did a steady resupply of vodka. Joni was becoming increasingly inebriated, her movements more exaggerated and violent. She didn’t reach for her glass as much as she snatched at it. When some spilled, she grew furious. Her language coarsened and became laced with profanity. As her behavior declined, Ben became quieter and quieter. At one point, he physically picked up his chair and moved it a couple of feet away from her. Joni seemed not to notice. She slammed her empty glass down on the table and bellowed, “I want a drink! Somebody get me a drink—now!” Other patrons turned to stare.
“You’ve had enough, Joni,” Marc said patiently. Our collective silence seconded his motion.
“Forget you,” she spat back. She shot up from her chair. Liquid from our glasses splashed across the table. She nearly fell, reaching out at the last minute to steady herself on Ben’s chair. Mason opened his mouth as if to say something, but Joni sent a glare in his direction. “Forget all of you,” she said, pointing at us one by one, her index finger making a small semicircle. She backed away from the table like a bank robber exiting the crime scene, eyes shifting right to left, before staggering off toward the bathroom.
Ben leaned over to me. “You asked me what our mother was like, what I remember about her.” He nodded in the direction Joni had gone. His voice was hard and cold: “That. That’s what I remember.”
Ben paid for our dinner, and we went to the reception area to wait for Joni to emerge from the restroom. She came out several minutes later, her voice loud and abrasive, announcing her arrival well before she came into view. “Let’s go!” she barked at Mason. The two of them strode past us and vanished into the night. Ben shook his head. Marc simply shrugged his shoulders.
The three of us agreed to stay in touch. I stared at the door Joni had just walked through, and it hit me: The four of us might never be together again. A long-sought connection had been found and lost all at once.
I drove back to New Bedford the following morning, unpacking the events of our reunion. It had not been ideal, but at least I finally had answers to questions I’d had nearly all my life. In my dark, empty apartment, memories of Joni lingered in my mind. Over the next two nights, I wondered how she was doing and whether she was safe. The woman I met was so fragile, mentally and physically. How long could she survive, living the way she did? On the third night after I returned from New Jersey, I called her. A mechanical voice answered, and I left a message.
A week later my phone rang.
“Yeah, hello, is Steve there?” a woman asked, rather brusquely.
“You’ve got me,” I said.
“It’s me, Joni.”
She cut me off. “I can’t talk to you no more. You’re black, and I can’t talk to you no more. Don’t call me here again.” And with that the line went dead.
I stared at the receiver until an incessant beeping began. Then I hung up gently.
Twenty years later, it remains our last conversation.
Steve Pemberton ’89 is divisional vice-president and chief diversity officer for Walgreens and a past admission officer at Boston College. His excerpt is drawn and adapted from A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home (©2012 by Steve Pemberton) by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Some names in the text have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.