Transcript

313:

Parental Guidance Suggested
Transcript

Originally aired 05.19.2006

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Sitting in the chair operating a video camera, her feet do not even touch the ground. Her hair is braided in pigtails, Jasmine is just nine years old. On her video, first she interviews her mom, and then her mom interviews her.

Jasmine's Mom

Do you know how much I love you?

Jasmine

Yes.

Jasmine's Mom

Do you know how proud I am of you?

Jasmine

Yes.

Jasmine's Mom

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Jasmine

A medical professor.

Ira Glass

This is all taking place in a Texas prison. Jasmine's mom is in for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Jasmine's here with her Girl Scout troop. Everybody in the troop has a mom in prison. There are dozens of Girl Scout troops like this all across the country. A couple of filmmakers, Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein, put together a film about this troop called Troop 1500. And as part of it, they were there as the girls and their moms interviewed each other.

Jasmine's Mom

How are you doing in school?

Jasmine

Great.

Jasmine's Mom

What do you went us to do when I come home?

Jasmine

Go to the zoo.

Jasmine's Mom

What's your favorite color?

Jasmine

Blue.

Jasmine's Mom

I thought it was purple.

Jasmine

I like a whole lot of colors. I like maroon and blue and purple.

Ira Glass

There are so many moments like this when the girls talk with their moms. Some of the girls do not want to disagree with their moms about anything, even when their mom gets their favorite color wrong. Other girls, it's hard to imagine how they're ever going to work it out with their moms. What's going on between them is like this thick web of cable that nobody is ever going to be able to untangle. Jessica is nine. She wears big, silver headphones that are plugged into the camera. When her mom talks, Jessica hugs the big legal pad with her questions tightly to her chest.

Jessica's Mom

OK, let's see. I don't remember what I asked first.

(SUBJECT) JESSICA It doesn't matter. Start from number one.

Jessica's Mom

OK, don't be acting silly now. Let's not act retarded, OK? Move your hair out of your eyes first. What do you say when people ask you where your mom is?

(SUBJECT) JESSICA I don't know.

Jessica's Mom

Re you embarrassed that I'm in prison?

(SUBJECT) JESSICA Yes.

Jessica's Mom

Does it embarrass you?

(SUBJECT) JESSICA No, you ask me, are you mad at me.

Jessica's Mom

I'll ask you that in a minute. Jessica, come on baby.

(SUBJECT) JESSICA OK, just go.

Jessica's Mom

Put your legs together. Thank you. Do you like coming here with the Girl Scouts to see me?

(SUBJECT) JESSICA Duh.

Jessica's Mom

Yeah. That's good. Have you learned any tricks on your new bike?

(SUBJECT) JESSICA Yeah. Falling off.

Jessica's Mom

Yeah, that'd be a good one. Let me see--.

(SUBJECT) JESSICA Mom, I need to go to the restroom.

Jessica's Mom

Well, let us finish this up--.

(SUBJECT) JESSICA I need to go very bad.

Jessica's Mom

Jessica, can't you just hold on just another minute? Do you know how much I love you?

(SUBJECT) JESSICA To the stars and to the world and back.

Jessica's Mom

Say it right.

(SUBJECT) JESSICA To the stars and to the world and back.

Ira Glass

Other moms sound like really good mothers, doing everything possible under the circumstances to be close to their girls. And you just kind of cross your fingers for them that it's going to be enough. Kenya is a neatly put together inmate in a white prison jumpsuit. She's in for possession with intent to distribute, and gives heartfelt answers when her 14 year old, Caitlin, asks a series of astonishingly direct questions. When you get out of prison, will you still have a boyfriend who does drugs? Why did you start selling drugs again after you'd already been in prison for it once before?

Kenya

I worked. You know I had a job, but it wasn't enough money. It was just a decision I made, which was a wrong decision. I wanted things, and I went about it the wrong way to get it.

Caitlin

OK. Were you around drugs when you were little?

Kenya

Yes.

Caitlin

With who?

Kenya

My mother. My mother always sold marijuana. And when I was 12, my mother started doing crack.

Caitlin

I didn't even know grandma did that.

Kenya

Well, she's been clean for about 16 years. My mom didn't go to prison, but she was gone from me all the time, and I know how it feels. And I felt like she didn't love me. I felt like she didn't care about me, because she'd just leave. And I don't want y'all to feel like that.

How is it like living with grandma?

Caitlin

It's fun.

Kenya

I mean besides the fun.

Caitlin

Like, what do you mean?

Kenya

You know how she's dramatic and stuff. You know how she cries or she gets upset or she's really emotional?

Caitlin

Yeah, and Alex does not help at all.

Kenya

That's grown up stuff she's going through. Don't concern yourself with that, because your job is to go to school, stay out of trouble, be a kid. Like you told me the other day that grandma is stressed out about money. Well, that's not your concern, because you're not even old enough to get a job yet. You know what I mean? What could you do?

Caitlin

I'm almost there.

Kenya

Just be a kid.

Ira Glass

Of course it's hard just being a kid when your mom is in prison. What can your mom really say to you that's going to help? She can't make you a nice meal, or give you a nice place to live. She can't read to you at night or tuck you into bed. She can't be there to hear about your day. All she can do is hug you, show you that she loves you, give a little advice maybe, and just hope that's going to hold you, and you'll be OK until the next visit.

Well, today on our radio show, Parental Guidance Suggested. We have a bunch of stories where kids are not allowed to be kids, where they want somebody to look out for them and be the parent, and where parents get into impossible situations where it's hard to be a parent, which, I got to say, sometimes makes for really sad stories, and sometimes makes for really, really funny stories. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show today in three acts-- act one, Two Possibilities, Both of Them Bad. In that act, a kid and a parent face an impossible choice together. Act two, The Grandma Letters, a miserable teenager and his miserable grandma correspond. Act three, My Angels in the Centerfolds. In that act, a 10 year old girl starts her own business with a phone, a collection of index cards, and her dad's old Playboy magazines. Stay with us.

Act One. Two Possibilities, Both Bad.

Ira Glass

Act one, Two Possibilities, Both Bad. What's amazing about this story is that the people in it make one reasonable choice after another. But they're living in such an unreasonable time and place that eventually, they're forced into a position that no family should ever really be in at all. It all happened to Gene Cheek. And when the story begins, he's 10 years old, growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It's 1961. His parents split up long ago. He lives with his mom. And partly because it's just the two of them, they're really, really close. She spends a lot of time with him. And one day, he comes in from playing outside.

Gene Cheek

And Mama was on the phone crying. And I thought somebody had died or something was wrong. So I stood at her door for a minute. And she eventually, after much pressure from me, eventually told me that that was her boyfriend on the phone, or a man that she had been seeing, is the way she put it. And I didn't even know. All she did was work and come home. I didn't know when she had time to have a boyfriend.

Tuck was what everybody called him. His name was Cornelius Tucker. And my mom and Tuck worked together, and we talked about it. And I said, why are you crying? What'd he do to make you cry? And she said, nothing. He thinks we should stop seeing each other for your sake. And I said, well, why does he think I will have a problem with him seeing you? And she said, because he's black.

Ira Glass

Was there any part of you at that point which flinched a little when she said that? You're a little kid growing up in the south. You probably didn't have much contact, or were close to any black people.

Gene Cheek

I did flinch a little. We didn't live too far from the African American community, a couple of streets over. So you would see them in your daily lives, going through their neighborhoods, or going through yours to get to theirs. But that was it, really. Jim Crow civil rights was at its beginning. Blacks were being killed, lynched, beaten. I was aware that this was not going to be a very popular thing.

Ira Glass

And so how soon after that did you finally meet Tuck?

Gene Cheek

A couple of days later. He wanted to give me a birthday present, even though it wasn't my birthday. So he drove by at night and circled our block. I walked outside our apartment and walked around the corner. And he went by to make sure he wasn't being followed, circled back, and the second time around, he slowed down, rolled down his window, and said catch, and threw out a football.

Ira Glass

And could you even see him? Or was it just this mysterious voice and then a football?

Gene Cheek

Yeah, it was night, and I couldn't see him, really. You could see a figure inside the car. I assumed it was him. Mama told me what kind of car he would be driving.

Ira Glass

That is so secret agent. Was this pretty much the coolest thing that had ever happened to you?

Gene Cheek

Oh yeah, definitely. And it was exactly that, secret agent man.

Ira Glass

Now this is 1961, so it's six years before the Supreme Court rules that interracial marriage is legal nationwide. Was it legal for her to see him?

Gene Cheek

It was not legal. Well, it was illegal for them to be boyfriend- girlfriend, or any other kind of relationship, as far as that goes.

Ira Glass

And so would you start to see him? Were you in situations where it would be the three of you and you would hang out?

Gene Cheek

Absolutely. Mom and I would leave our house after dark and we would walk around the corner. Normally we would cover our faces as much as possible. Mama wore a scarf, and I had a coat that I would pull up the collar on, and a baseball cap, and that kind of thing. And again, Tuck would circle by and keep going, to make sure he wasn't followed. And he would turn around and come back from the other direction, pull up to the curb and we would jump in.

Ira Glass

And when you were in the car, would you have to duck down so people couldn't see you?

Gene Cheek

Yeah. I would be scrunched down in the seat, so that I wasn't as visible. Normally, we would pull up in his driveway and sit in the car for a minute or two just to make sure that we hadn't been followed. We would get out, and it would be dark, of course, and the porch light would not be on. And we would go into the house and do what normal people did-- talk, play games, Monopoly, card games, watch TV, listened to the radio, listened to the stereo, played marbles on his floor. He had a carpet and he would take a piece of chalk and draw a circle on the carpet, and we would shoot marbles.

Tuck was an amazing human being, and he had a way of just immediately putting you at ease. After the first night that I met him and spent time at his house, it was easy for me to see how mama had fallen in love with him. He was just that kind of a man.

Ira Glass

And then would you stay over there, and then go to school from there in the morning?

Gene Cheek

No. No, we never spent the night. And Tuck had made it plain that we had to be very careful. I was oblivious. I was just caught up in the espionage of it all-- that I had a secret that nobody else knew.

Ira Glass

Oh right, you couldn't even tell kids at school.

Gene Cheek

Oh, heck no. God no. I couldn't tell anybody. I couldn't tell my best friend. Couldn't tell anyone.

Ira Glass

And how far did it go? Like how often was there something where there was trouble?

Gene Cheek

Well, we got chased. The police would come by and they would knock on the door, or just open the door sometimes, and just walk right in. And we would be sitting in the living room talking, or sitting at the kitchen table playing games, and they would say, nigger, what are you doing with this white woman? And he would say, we're just friends. We're just visiting. And then they would say something to my mom, don't you know better? What's your son doing here? And she said, well, what's wrong with my son being here? Well, you can't stay here. Don't you know it's illegal for you and that nigger to be sleeping together?

But they would always say, you and your boy are going to have to leave. And Tuck would say, OK, they were just leaving. I'll take them home. And they would say, oh, hell no, nigger, we'll take them home. You're lucky we don't arrest you. So that's usually the way it went.

Ira Glass

That happened how many times?

Gene Cheek

It would happen once a month probably, or once every six weeks. Once it was known that mama was seeing Tuck--.

Ira Glass

How did it get to be known?

Gene Cheek

Well, my dad followed my mom-- my biological father had followed my mom. Him and his brother followed my mom to Tuck's house. There was one time when the cops came and as we walked outside Tuck's house, I could see my dad and his brother parked down the street. So I knew who had brought the cops with them.

Ira Glass

So your dad called the cops on your mom. Why?

Gene Cheek

Well, because he was full of hate. It was bad enough that his wife had left him, but she was now seeing a black man. My dad was a stone cold racist, and that was more than he could stand.

Ira Glass

Would he lecture you about it?

Gene Cheek

Oh yeah. Oh God yeah.

Ira Glass

What would he say?

Gene Cheek

He would say it was unnatural, and it was against God's law, and those kinds of things. He would use the analogy, you don't see a black bird and a red bird together. And I always wanted to say, well yeah those are different species there, Dad, not just different colors.

Ira Glass

And so Tuck and your mom, they also got fired from their jobs, right?

Gene Cheek

They did. My little brother was born. That kind of changed things. It's pretty difficult to hide that. They got fired from their jobs at the mill. My mom's family, my dad's family, our friends, everybody disowned us, walked out of our lives, didn't have anything to do with us after Randy was born. My aunt-- her sister-- came to visit her in the hospital. She had checked into the hospital under an assumed name. But Aunt Goldie went to see her, and when she saw Randy, she said, Sally, this baby ain't white. And Mama said, I know Goldie, but he's still my son. And Aunt Goldie handed Randy back to Mama, and walked out of our lives. And it was 30 years later before they ever spoke again.

And about eight months after Randy was born, we had gone to bed one night during the week, and I was awakened at 2 o'clock in the morning by sounds outside. And I could see through the curtain that there was something burning, and I didn't really know what it was. And when I pulled back the curtain, I could see three Klansmen. One of them had a shotgun, and was shooting it into the air, which is what had woke me up. And they had put a cross on the yard and were shouting racial slurs-- death to nigger lovers, and those kinds of things.

And Mama woke up. And when she came in, she said, get away from the window. It's the Klan. And of course, I know what the Klan was. And I said, what are they doing here? And she said, they're here because of your brother. And I was just infuriated. We spent the night sitting in the living room. And I had gone to the kitchen and got a butcher knife, and I'd taken a chair and set it facing the front door, and sat there thinking they were going to bust in at any minute. And we didn't have a phone, so we couldn't call anybody.

Ira Glass

If she could have called somebody, was there actually somebody who she could have called, who could have come over?

Gene Cheek

She could have called Tuck. The police probably would not have done anything at that time.

Ira Glass

Could she have called her family? Wouldn't they have stepped in to rescue you, even if they were having this fight?

Gene Cheek

No, not at this point. No. Her family had turned their backs on her and her family would not have lifted a finger. Her \ probably sent the Klan in the first place, if you want to know the truth about it. She had nobody.

Ira Glass

Why not just move north?

Gene Cheek

Well, we had talked about it. Tuck asked me. He said that we could move up north and be more like a family. He said, your mom and I could even get married. But you got to understand that we didn't have any money. Tuck didn't have any money. It was not like we could just gather up what we owned and off we went.

Ira Glass

I know. But so many poor people move north. I mean, the whole city of Chicago is like people who had nothing, who just picked up and moved.

Gene Cheek

I know. And the only thing I can look back on now and say is that things happened so fast. From the time Randy was born, things just spiraled out of control before they could get a handle on it. They didn't expect things to turn out like they did.

Ira Glass

Things turned out like they did because of what happened next. And what happened next is that his mom told him that they had to go to court for child support. They'd been fighting with his father over child support payments for years, so Gene wasn't especially worried about this.

Gene Cheek

Mom and I rode the bus downtown, and then walked into the courtroom by ourselves. And we sat on the right side of the courtroom, and on the left side was my dad, his brother, my grandmother, Mom's brother, Uncle Bill, our next door neighbors. And on our side of the courtroom was me and Mom. And when the judge walked in, he said, in the matter of the custody of Jesse Eugene Cheek. And I knew immediately what that meant; that we were not here for child support. And Mom's lawyer didn't show up, he never did show up. So it was all downhill after that.

She had told her sister the day before this trial that there's no way they'll take Gene away from me, I'm a good mother. And she believed that. She was convinced that they would not take me away from her, because she was a good mother. And I'm here to tell you that she was. There was nobody in that courtroom that day that could testify that she was not a good mother. And nobody did. What they did testify was that she had a mixed race baby by an African American man and was therefore unfit.

Ira Glass

Now one strange thing about this case is that your dad wasn't actually trying to get you back himself, right?

Gene Cheek

No.

Ira Glass

Explain what your dad was arguing in court.

Gene Cheek

He was arguing that Mama was unfit. But he told the judge that he, himself was an alcoholic and an epileptic, and could not raise me. His brother-- my uncle-- testified that he could not provide me with a home either, because he had his own family to raise. My grandmother-- my dad's mom-- testified that she could not offer me a home either, because her doctor had advised her that having a teenage boy in the house would be bad for her health. And so they all testified that mama was unfit, but they couldn't take me for this reason or that reason.

Ira Glass

It's just so crazy, the notion of a parent going in and saying, well, she's unfit, but I'm unfit too, so I can't take the kid. I've never heard of a custody hearing that works like that.

Gene Cheek

Well, that's exactly what he said. I mean, that's honest to God exactly what he said. My dad was a rare bird.

Ira Glass

And then when the judge asked your mom, is the father Tuck-- because I know as part of the court proceeding, he actually asked her flat out, is this guy the father of this baby? What did she say?

Gene Cheek

No. She denied it. She said that the father was a truck driver, who is now deceased. And that's all she said about the matter.

Ira Glass

And didn't they ask, who is this guy? What's his name?

Gene Cheek

No, they didn't.

Ira Glass

Because they just could see that this is a lie?

Gene Cheek

Sure. Well, they knew she was lying. But it was a felony for her to admit in a court of law that she had a baby by Cornelius Tucker. So she had to lie about it. She had to say, no, it's not Cornelius Tucker's baby. The father's dead, I don't remember his name.

Ira Glass

It didn't take long for Gene and his mother to figure out this hearing was not going very well for them. Gene's mom started crying. He started crying. Gene says he simply had no idea the world could work the way it was working in the courtroom that day. It was incomprehensible. It was shocking.

Gene Cheek

I didn't believe it. Mama didn't believe it. We believed right won out. When the judge made his ruling, that it's the ruling of this court that your son be-- actually, he gave my mom a choice. He said give up this baby, is the way he put it, I believe, or give up your son.

Ira Glass

Let me just be sure I'm totally understanding the logic. The logic of that is, OK, what makes her an unfit mother is that she's got this mixed race baby.

Gene Cheek

Right, and I'm around him.

Ira Glass

And you're around him, and you'll be exposed to this mixed race baby.

Gene Cheek

That's right. Yeah, it'll rub off on me, I guess. Whatever.

Ira Glass

And so basically, if you get the baby out of this picture, then she's suddenly a fit mother again by abandoning her baby?

Gene Cheek

With the choice he gave her, that's exactly what he was saying, yeah. Somehow this will all be better, if they're not around each other. It'll all be better.

Ira Glass

How does that make sense?

Gene Cheek

Yeah, I don't know. It don't make sense. It wasn't meant to make sense. It was just more punishment, as far as I was concerned.

Ira Glass

And so does a judge actually say to her, OK, here you are, just choose which kid are you going to give up?

Gene Cheek

Not in those exact words. But his words were-- I'm going to paraphrase-- but he said, Mrs. Cheek, you can give up your illegitimate son, or we're going to take Gene away from you. One or the other. I just looked at Mama and I leaned over and I whispered and said, Mama, if they take Randy, we'll never see him again. He's just a baby. And I said, I know where home is, let them take me. And before she could say anything, I just turned to the judge and said, take me. And so that was enough. He did. He pounded the gavel and said, it's the ruling of this court that Jesse Eugene Cheek will be removed and placed in the custody of Forsythe County Child Services.

And at that time, two policemen, who had been standing in the back of the courtroom, came down. And Mama and I were clinging to each other. I was holding onto her and she was holding onto me. And she was screaming, don't do this, don't do this. And I was cussing, screaming at my dad, I'll kill you for this. And so the cops took me by the arms and literally pulled me away, tore me away from my mom, and just drug me out of the courtroom. They put me in a police car, drove me to a detention center that was a couple of blocks from the courthouse, for juvenile delinquents. A lady got up from behind a desk, went to the end of the hall and unlocked a door. The two policemen pushed me into the room, the door was pulled shut behind me and locked. And I spent three days in that room.

They fed me by slipping trays of food under the door. Those three days, two and a half days, that I spent locked in that room, all I did was cry and sleep, really. I was devastated. My life had ended as I knew it. When I came out of that room, I was an angry kid, and I stayed angry until a few years ago, to be honest with you.

Ira Glass

Gene was sent to a foster home on the other side of town, but he was like a different kid. He was not the well-behaved boy that he'd been. He was in the crazy position that he had done the right thing. He'd volunteered to leave his own family, for the sake of everybody. It was better for his baby brother. It was better for his mom. The main person it wasn't better for was him. And though he knew he did the right thing, he had other feelings about it too.

Gene Cheek

Somewhere along the line, that little 12 year old boy that got taken away from his mama expected-- as all 12 year old boys do-- that his mama would make things all right. And I was mad at her because she didn't make things all better.

Ira Glass

Right, that she didn't sweep in and move you all north?

Gene Cheek

Yeah. And that everything was just all better all of a sudden. And I guess for the first two or three months in that foster home, I held onto the possibility that things would be all right. But you lose hope of that pretty quick. And I did.

I was a terrible foster kid. I beat the heck out of her own son the first day I was there because he was standing on the back porch-- I had just come back from a walk-- and he said, you're the one with the nigger loving mama. And it was the wrong time for him to say that. So I was a pretty bad kid. I would skip school and go see my mom, and ride the bus, hitchhike, walk across town, ride a bike. I would go see her anytime I wanted to.

Ira Glass

It's a funny kind of juvenile delinquent who's evading a social worker and his foster parents, and nobody knows where he is. And where he is, the bad thing he's doing, is going to visit his mom. Eventually Gene got in so much trouble for this he was sent away to a facility called Boys Home, 200 miles from Winston-Salem. He could come home 20 days a year, that was it. But at Boys Home, he finally got a more or less normal life. He made decent grades, got a girlfriend.

Gene Cheek

I played sports. I was popular on campus. I fit in. My anger subsided some, mostly because of sports and those kind of things. And Boys Home was probably the best thing that happened to me. Because at this point in time, you're 200 miles away, and you know that you can't just walk across town and see your mom. So you resolve yourself to this fact, I'm not going home again.

Ira Glass

The first time that you heard about Tuck, Tuck was saying to your mom, maybe the two of them should split up for your sake.

Gene Cheek

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Do you think he might have been right?

Gene Cheek

Well, in hindsight, absolutely. And in hindsight, yeah, they probably should have-- but I can tell you one thing. I wouldn't change one minute of my life. I have two wonderful brothers. Had that happened, I wouldn't have known Tuck. So I'm glad they didn't end it. To be honest with you, I'm glad. I'm happy. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ira Glass

Randy's grown up by now. Does he ever talk to you about the choice that you made then?

Gene Cheek

Yeah, we've talked about it. Randy grew up thinking I was one of the knights of King Arthur's court.

Ira Glass

Because his parents had told him?

Gene Cheek

Absolutely. My mom and Tuck would tell him. So he worshipped-- like any little brother would, he worshiped me, but even more so, because in his mind, I had made this sacrifice for him.

Ira Glass

Well not even in his mind. You did make this sacrifice for him. He got to stay with his parents because of you.

Gene Cheek

I know.

Ira Glass

Years later, you must have talked to your mom about that decision, about how Tuck raised very early the thought that maybe we should split up, because look at all the bad things that can happen. Did she have regrets about the choices that she made? Or mixed feelings about the choices she made?

Gene Cheek

Oh, definitely. There's no question about it. She came to my graduation at Boys Home, and I'd been there five years by this time. And it was the first time that she had ever been to Boys Home. She rode the bus down and I picked her up at the bus station in one of Boys Home's cars. And we were going by campus and I said, Mom, do you want me to show you around? And she started crying, and she said, no, I can't do that honey. And I said, oh, it's OK, I understand. It was like we were living separate lives, and I was growing up without her.

And so she continued to cry, and I parked the car and stopped. And she just looked at me. And by this time we were both crying. And she just looked at me and she said, I'm so sorry.

Ira Glass

Sorry that you had to be there at all?

Gene Cheek

Yeah. Sorry that things had happened the way they had. Well, I just looked at her and I told her, I said, sorry for what, mama? For loving me? For loving Randy? For loving Tuck? What do you have to be sorry for? That's when I told her that I had just spent five years with 104 boys who knew for a fact that no one in the world gave a hooting hell about them. The difference between me and them was that in my lifetime I had been loved. There was never a moment, never a moment, in my life when I did not know for a fact that I was loved. And I said, you don't have anything to be sorry for and you don't have to tell me you're sorry. You never have to say that to me.

There's no question that it shortened her life and that it was something she carried with her. Guilt she carried with her every day of her life. And Tuck too. She used to ask my ex-wife how I felt about it and did I blame her? Even though we were close, very close, that's just something that can't be removed from a mother. And she was a loving mother so it was devastating for her.

Ira Glass

Gene Cheek. He's written a book about his family's story called The Color Of Love: A Mother's Choice In the Jim Crow South. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that state laws that prevented interracial marriage were unconstitutional. But North Carolina only got around to following the Supreme Court's orders on this matter in 1974. It was after that finally that Gene's mom was able to marry Tuck. They had another son, and lived out their days together. Tuck died in 1982. Gene's mom died in 1995.

Coming up, grandmas rush in where wise men never go. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. The Grandma Letters.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Parental Guidance Suggested, stories of kids who need parents to step in and fix things, and what those kids end up doing when the parents fail to act. We've arrived at act two of our show. Act two, The Grandma Letters. In this act, as in our first act, a boy finds himself far from the home he knows and the world he knows. But in this case, the adults in his life seem to stop guiding him effectively, even once he gets to high school. So instead, he turns to the postal system. Will Seymour told this story on stage as part of The Mortified Stage Show, where people read from embarrassing old diaries and letters.

Will Seymour

In 1981, I was fine. I had pets, and my parents were married, and my grandparents lived next door. All was well. And then my parents divorced. I had to give up my pets and I had to move. We moved far away. And so my best friend, of course, was my grandmother, and she lived far, far away. And back in the '80s, there was long distance phone, very expensive. So I had no one. I started a new school, and I had no friends, except my grandmother.

So I wrote my grandmother letters, a lot of letters. And I'm not going to read all of them. And she wrote me back. She was probably pretty worried about us and I shared nothing but terrible information. [LAUGHTER] And then just so you know, she was kind of dying of emphysema, so she had really terrible information too. She actually wrote me back and treated me like an adult and we actually became really good friends. So here's a couple of our little exchanges. This is like 1981, freshman in high school.

Dear Grandma, I hate it here. I'm faking sick today and I'm staying home, just like yesterday. [LAUGHTER] I'm so afraid of school. Hopefully I can change my schedule out of PE and maybe like a library aide or something. I lost more weight. I just don't get hungry. I get worried when I lose my hunger. And when I worry, I don't get hungry. [LAUGHTER] Grandma, don't feel bad if you're too sick to write back. Feel terrible. Just kidding. Well, it was wonderful talking to you. [LAUGHTER] I love you, and I miss you, Bill Seymour, your grandson. [LAUGHTER]

Bill dear, I guess our wonderful chats on the phone are a thing of the past, since neither of us can afford them. Well, we can still write. We miss all of you something fierce. I'm sorry my writing is terrible, I've become so messy. But it's not me. I'm back on triple strength antibiotics. My medication speeds up my metabolism and causes these trembly hands. [LAUGHTER] Well, enough of this [BLEEP], here's a joke. Do you know what they call 10 rabbits walking backwards? A receding hare line. Ask your mother to explain it. Well honey, I guess I'll close for this one. Keep the letters coming. They really help, Bill. Love, Grandma.

Hello, Grandma. School's not great. It's just OK. I'm kind of worried about algebra and French. Actually, my grades are OK, considering I don't go to school for very much. [LAUGHTER] I am writing you right now from class. Love, Bill Seymour, your grandson. PS, I put my last name, just in case you forgot. [LAUGHTER] What the hell?

Hi, Grandma. It's special Thursday. Want to know why? Today I went to school and I found out I'm behind in my French class. Just kidding, it's no big. But seriously, I'm failing my French class. [LAUGHTER] How are you? I'm OK, not great. I didn't take the bus today. I cut my last class and I walked home instead. They were throwing pee balloons, because the water was shut off at school. It was a long walk but at least I don't have pee on me. [LAUGHTER] Love Bill, your bored grandson. [LAUGHTER]

Bill dear, I'm getting a mask. It sterilizes the air that I breathe in, but I hope they come in colors. I'd like to get one that matches my eyes, but gramps says they don't come in bloodshot, [BLEEP] brindle brown. [LAUGHTER] Bill, [LAUGHTER] you said you were bored. I'll show you bored. Things are so bad here I squeezed the Charmin twice this morning, just for the hell of it. [LAUGHTER] I know I shouldn't say hell, but who cares? I'm pretty sure God understands. Write soon, and keep smiling. All our love, Grandma and Grandpa.

Hello, Grandma. How are you? Hello Gram. Yesterday and today were snow days, no school. I'm fine with that. Too many people said they were going to beat me up this week. I miss you both. Update: I'm now going to give you my opinion of mom's current boyfriend, soon to be husband, Phil. Well, he's super. Super terrible, super spectacularly fake, and full of super creepy personality. [LAUGHTER] Now for a few jokes. Have you heard the joke about the two girls playing jump rope? Oh, just skip it. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Love, Bill.

Dear Bill, so nice to get your long letter, honey. Still flat on my back, so writing is really difficult. [LAUGHTER] I'm going to try to use my walker today. Perhaps I'll be strong enough. How is school going? I imagine it's not the happy place it should be, but honey, hang tough. Keep at it. Time will pass quickly. And as for your impression of Phil, your mom has never really mentioned him in detail, or for that matter, de-head or de-mind either. [LAUGHTER] Your jokes are funny. Have you heard of these? What would you give a pig with a sore throat? Oinkment. What lies on the ocean floor and twitches? A nervous wreck. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Well love, coughing, no time for me. I've got to get on my breathing machine. I never coughed so good when I was smoking. We love you, Grandma.

Dear Grandma, this fun kit has been made especially by me to get you well. And it's basically, I made about seven of them. And they're about 14 pages long, each of them. And this particular one had a quiz in it. Hey you, do you think you're smart? You think you've got the know how in the noggin? OK, just to be perfectly sure, take today's quiz to find out how smart you really are. Number one, Babe Ruth was famous for hitting A, the bottle; B, his mother in law; or C, small children with a baseball bat? [LAUGHTER] Number two, Typhoid Mary was infamous for spreading A, rumors; B, dirty mouse breath; or C, a feverishly hot stew? Number three, Beethoven played A, the field; B, shuffleboard; or C, because he was an artist, damn it. He was an artist.

And then the last letter. Bill dear, it always gives me such a warm feeling to write those words. We've always had such a special relationship, haven't we? You're not only a loving grandson, you've been a friend, and that's a real treasure. I've needed to tell you of my love for you, so you will be able to wear it like a warm jacket for as long as you want, something that no one or nothing can take away from you. You've always made me happy. I love you, Grandma. Over. PS, when I hear this song, I think of you. It's the theme of the TV show Love, Sydney with Tony Randall. [LAUGHTER] Please believe me, lately my whole world is changing. Suddenly you're here, and life is better than before. We're like friends forever. And when the rest are gone, it's you who will be there for me, my friend. Thanks. [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Will Seymour lives in Los Angeles, where he is still avoiding French class. He read at The Mortified Stage Show. You can find them on the web at getmortified.com.

[MUSIC - "THEME FROM THE TELEVISION CHOW LOVE, SYDNEY"]

Act Three. My Angel's In The Centerfolds.

Ira Glass

Act three, My Angel's in the Centerfold. There's a story that my mom used to tell about when my sisters and I were little. The Gosgoth's cat next door to us had kittens. My sister Randi was six or seven at the time, and she asked my mom, OK, so how exactly did that happen? Like what happened to make the cat pregnant? And my mom, she just thought like, oh, this is really great. She's asking me these questions. We can get this out of the way. She's so young. And so she tells Randi the whole story and reproduction, and the mommy and the daddy cat, the whole thing. She gets to the end of this whole story. My mom is feeling great. And she turns to Randi and she says, do you have any questions, Randi? And Randi thinks for a second and she says, can birds really fly?

I think the moral of the story is you can throw certain information at kids, but they're only going to absorb what they are able to absorb, and they're going to ignore everything else. And I bring this up here, because our next story is very much an example of that phenomenon. A warning to listeners, there's nothing explicit or graphic in this story, but it does acknowledge the existence of sex. Thea Chaloner tells the tale.

Thea Chaloner

My friend Emily had a rough time growing up with her dad. Part of the problem was his job. He taught human sexuality at Boston University, which is pretty impressive. But to a kid, it's your worst nightmare. Your dad is a sex professor. By the time she was 10, he was a local celebrity, famous for his knowledge about sex.

Emily Helfgot

He had a radio show on WHDH in Boston called Talking Sex with Doctor Joseph Helfgot. It was a call-in show. And it was a maverick show of its time because he would talk frankly about sex. Most of the people who called in were women talking about how-- I mean, I can clearly remember, I can hear a woman's voice calling in and asking if he could explain to her how she could achieve multiple orgasm. So at Rebecca Ritter's house, fifth grade, in my Care Bear nightgown, in my Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag, I swear to God, as like girly as it gets. And then we are in our sleeping bags about to go to sleep, and Rebecca sits up and says, let's listen to Em's dad's show.

So they turn the radio on and we'd be like in the dark, listening to my father on the radio going, [EXHALES]-- because he also smoked-- Doris, I'm really glad you called in. Women so often think that it's something that's going on with them, that's the reason why they can't achieve multiple orgasm. And he was very flirtatious with the people on the air, too. And I knew that, I could sense the tenor of the flirtation, even when I was a little kid. And I was trying to pass it off and be giggly and like, oh, it's so funny, like all my friends were. But I was putting my nails into my thigh to get myself not to cry. And I also just felt, why couldn't my dad be normal?

Thea Chaloner

Emily's parents divorced when she was five, and she and her brother spent every other weekend at her dad's house. He enforced a lot of family time, which usually meant watching TV. Then he'd fall asleep and the kids were left to amuse themselves. Her brother occupied himself with Archie comics and GI Joes But Emily was on her own. It was weird being there, and boring, until she discovered the bookshelves.

Emily Helfgot

It was all books on the top three bookshelves, and then the bottom bookshelf was all Playboys. I mean, it was like a 64 Crayola box of Playboys. And my first mission, because I was always a very kind of organizationally oriented kid, was to chronologically organize them. So I had them going October '81, or whatever it was, all the way through to whatever the current one was. Somehow-- and I wish I could tell you how I figured this out-- I decided that I would use the magazines, and kind of use the centerfolds and the questionnaires that they would answer, as a portfolio for women who I would use in my dating service.

Thea Chaloner

The tools for her imaginary dating service were: a Smith Corona typewriter, a phone unplugged from the wall, a box of index cards, a Yellow Pages, and of course, a huge collection of Playboys.

Thea Chaloner

Take me through a couple of sample scenarios of what this would be. Can you do that?

Emily Helfgot

I can, but I should, as the disclaimer, first say that I would say my lines out loud, but I wouldn't say the lines of the quote unquote, "person on the other line of the phone." [PHONE RING] Miss Lana's Dating Service, how can I help you? Uh-huh. So you're looking for someone who's like 5'10", and weighs 125 pounds? Can you hold on for just a minute, sir? And then I would press-- actually, I don't believe there was a hold button, but in my imagination there was, and I would put the phone down. And I would go to my resource library of Playboy magazines, and I would go until I found someone that was around the range that I had just made up for myself. So really it's very twisted.

And then I would open up to the centerfolds, and not really extend the whole picture of the centerfold, but really just looking at the questionnaire. And once I had that in front of me, I'd get back on the phone. Hi, Mr. Watkins? Yes, I think I have the perfect girl for you. Her name is Amber Rose. She is 5'9", 125 pounds, and she-- what? Yes, she does. She likes oysters, and she likes long walks on the beach at night. And oh, she loves shooting stars. Does that sound good? OK, Mr. Watkins, let me just get your information. And then I would put an index card in the typewriter, and roll it in. It was one of those old manual kind.

And I would say, so it's Ron Watkins. And it would take me hunting and pecking on the typewriter, like Ron Watkins, spell it out, return, next line. And then I would type in the name of the centerfold. I've typed in the magazine she was from, like the month and the year so I'd have it for reference later. And then I would chat sometimes with him on the phone, like, so Mr. Watkins, how long have you been living in Washington? Uh-huh. Oh, you got a recommendation from-- oh, yeah, Bill comes to me all the time.

And I was a facilitator of the woman and the man getting together. I wasn't playing out any kind of fantasy for myself. I was a businesswoman.

Thea Chaloner

Except for the fact that the women are totally naked, in very sexual positions all throughout these magazines. So did that factor into your brain?

Emily Helfgot

No, that's why I say that I really-- I mean, I would look at the actual pictures, really just so I could get a sense, because sometimes they were like, cowgirl. Like she would have no clothes on except for she'd have a bullwhip in her hand, and little spurs on her ankles, and she'd be lying on a bed of hay or something. So I would factor that into my conversation with the guy. I'd be like, and she loves to rodeo.

So then I took it to this other level. This is where the Yellow Pages comes in. Where I would say, so Ron, what kind of cuisine do you like? And I would find a place, and then I would type up on the index card the name of the restaurant, the time the reservation was going to be, and I filed the card away, I'm sure alphabetically, by the guy's last name in the little plastic case. And then it was time for the next call.

I could not have been more content. I always wanted to be a travel agent as a kid, you know the clicking, clicking of the nails on the keyboard, and the simultaneously talking to-- and this was before I think they even had headset phones. So the simultaneous talking to the person, I think I have a good deal for you, and then like referencing things in books, just using all those tools. And the resources available to me were Playboy magazines.

It was also just a coping mechanism for being in an environment that I hated. I didn't like being there for so many reasons, and it was an escape.

Thea Chaloner

For Emily, the long term effects of looking at so many Playboys at such a young age weren't as damaging as you'd expect. When she was 10, she believed that she could choose the centerfold body she liked the best, and then she'd grow into it later on, like that was an option. What was damaging was that her dad just didn't seem to get that she was still a kid and that certain things were better left unsaid. Or in the case of the Playboys, certain things are better left stashed away on that top shelf of the closet.

Emily Helfgot

A 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old girl is not impressed by her father's call in radio sex show. She's not impressed by the fact that he can talk so openly about sex, because as far as she's concerned, that conversation doesn't exist between the father and the daughter. I think what you have to understand is that to cope as a kid, you read a situation when you walk into it, and you conform to the situation. And being able to enter into this-- especially from the world of my mother's house, that was like everything was in its right place, and we got tucked in. And I got my back rubbed in a very certain way. And the door left open just three inches, and then good night, sweet dreams, I love you, with the glass of water. And it's like, we're going to dad's, a different routine. I can fight it and be miserable or I can kind of make a game up with the Playboys until we get back to my mom's house.

Thea Chaloner

Well, it's like, I can fight it, or I can alphabetize.

Emily Helfgot

Yes, exactly.

Thea Chaloner

Emily lost her virginity when she was 17. She told both parents. Her mom's first response was sweet: do you love him? Were you safe? Her dad's? Was it good? Did you orgasm? And yes, at the time, her dad's question completely freaked her out. But now she thinks his intentions were the same as her mom's. His heart was in the right place. He just didn't understand how to talk to his daughter. It's the oldest dad problem in the world.

Ira Glass

Thea Chaloner. She was, until last week, our intern here at This American Life. She's moving back to Los Angeles to become a producer at public radio station KCRW.

[MUSIC - "TRUMP STYLE" BY KIMYA DAWSON]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Sativa January. Special thanks today to Jordana Gustufsson. You know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who said to me just the other day--.

Will Seymour

When I hear this song, I think of you. It's the theme of the TV show Love, Sydney with Tony Randall.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.