Nobody gets to choose their family. It’s kind of a sad fact of life. Sometimes you land in the middle of a fabulous group of people who love, nurture and support you. Sometimes you wind up with a bunch of drunks, drug-abusers and thieves. I landed somewhere in the middle of both of those groups.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my family—most of them, anyway. My parents weren’t the worst or the best, but they did their best for us in the only way they knew how. I give them credit because neither one had a great upbringing. Yet they were determined to make sure their four children had lots of love. If love were measured in dollars, I’d never want for anything and there wouldn’t be bank big enough to manage my account. It’s good thing I got love instead of money. Chances are good it would have been stolen by a family member. My extended family was full of thieves of every stripe. Some of them were even pretty lovable.
That’s why I was interested to see the new ABC show, “Scoundrels,” starring Virginia Madsen. It’s the story of a family caught up in crime as they struggle to live a middle class existence. I won’t give away too much of the show, but with its cast and storylines, I’m sure I’ll be watching more of it. I can relate to these people.
Mama, I just shot a man
Madsen is the matriarch. My own Nana, my father’s colorful mother, was the leader of our crooked pack. With her six husbands and seven kids, love of gin and filter-less Pall Malls, she was no ordinary woman. In between husbands, I’m not sure what she did to get by, but when all of your children wind up in jail at one time or another (or in the case of two uncles—simultaneously and often together), well, one wonders.
My father’s few trips to the clink happened mostly in his wild youth. He drank a lot before becoming a father. He was the first to admit to his stupidity. He was also fast to nip it in the bud. Two of his younger brothers followed in his steps and cleaned up their lives after a few missteps while they were still young enough to change. Uncle Rocky became a firefighter. Uncle Bucket trained police dogs for K-9 units and the military. My uncle Darryl was blind and that probably kept him out of a lot of trouble. Nothing could stop my uncles, Irvin and Brad and their only sister, my aunt Jody, from staying out of trouble.
Aunt Jody shared a lot in common with her mother. She was married four times, had three kids by three different men and she pretty much drank herself to death. In between men, she struggled to support her family and often shoplifted to make ends meet. It was usually food she took while waiting for her next shipment of food stamps. A few times she ended up in jail for drugs. Many more arrests were for driving drunk. In spite of it all, she was actually a loving mother. I worshipped her as an aunt. When she wasn’t drunk, she was really funny and sang like Tanya Tucker. She called me “Kat Blue” like the movie “Cat Ballou” modified to address my eyes that she loved.
Drugs were often the downfall of my uncle Irvin. He was a lifelong heroine addict and that wasn’t just sad, it was downright heartbreaking. If he had been a terrible man, it would have been easier to take when the cops burst through my bedroom door one in the middle of the night when I was seven. I remember being scooped up out of a sound sleep by a police officer who was part of the search team looking for my uncle who was wanted for armed robbery. He had been seen at our house hours earlier but knew the heat was on, so he left. I forgave him for that terrifying night because he made me laugh. To this day, I have a hard time seeing him point a gun at a person and demand money. I tell myself this was the heroine, but in truth, it was him.
Uncle Brad was also addicted to heroine and he certainly loved weed. I remember seeing him swallowing balloons filled with heroine before he turned himself into the cops. He was afraid he’d die in jail if he didn’t have a way to get his “fix.” He didn’t mean for me to see it, but he had slipped into my bedroom without saying anything and when I went to fetch my Barbie Doll, he was busted as he popped the last balloon into his mouth. “Here you go, baby, you can have the rest of these [empty] balloons to play with.”
Brad was the super-tall, super-handsome uncle who made me feel like a celebrity when I was with him. Women fell all over themselves around him. He was so charming. He and my dad and uncles Irvin and Rocky used to sing together and sounded so much like the Beatles. I didn’t understand why a man with Uncle Brad’s looks and talent couldn’t just go straight to Hollywood and be a huge star. I’m kind of glad he didn’t. I would have missed his stupid magic tricks and the way he could get me free ice cream at the ice cream counter just from talking to the lady behind the counter. His usual crime was auto theft or jewelry from homes he burgled. He often gave me “gifts” of jewelry in little paper bags.
This was the good side of the family, in my eyes. A loveable band of addicted thieves with hearts of gold—stolen, no doubt, by someone from a wealthier neighborhood. Then there were the addicts and thieves from my mother’s side of the family. I despised them all but two of them.
My Uncle Dale once grew and sold pot. He quickly reformed after being busted by the Feds. When the threat of hard time loomed, he got with the program. He is now a successful contractor in Salt Lake and he has my respect and love. Once illiterate, he learned to read well past the age most people do. He was almost forty. It humbled me to learn of his secret; he made me proud that he didn’t accept it and live with it. It was one of the reasons he became so caught up in the drug trade.
Three of my uncles, well; I’ll only mention them briefly because they have yet to mend their ways. Uncle Steven hasn’t met a drug he doesn’t love or a drink he won’t drive home after having. My Uncle Rick has a host of addictions, too and has always steadfastly refused help. My least favorite of the crew is my Uncle Brent. He is a sexual predator and a cocaine/meth addict who is thankfully doing hard time for burglary and drug possession. It keeps him off the street and away from innocent children. It’s too bad this didn’t happen when I was still an innocent child. Let’s just say he stole that from me and I will never forgive him nor will I forget.
Not all of my mother’s siblings went down the career criminal path and not all were bad. I can still look at my Uncle David with a lot of love and respect and my Aunt Nadine hasn’t ever caused trouble. My mother managed to keep a clean record, too. She wasn’t perfect, but she tried hard to be good and stay out of trouble. I’m very much like her.
Always getting sucked back in
Uncle Irvin and Uncle Brad were so much more than their crime sprees. Both landed in jail for the first time in their teens. Uncle Irvin would go on to spend three-quarters of his life behind bars. He tried to quit drugs, but the addiction was more powerful. It was such a vicious cycle.
There were funny moments when he was jailed. I used to go with his ex-wife, my aunt Glenda, to visit him in prison. He was always very happy to see me tagging along. At Utah’s Point of the Mountain prison, he was a celebrity. Everyone loved him from the fellow inmates to the guards. He was a champion weight lifter, a master at the prison rodeo where he won several belt buckles and he was once listed as one of the smartest people in the state. His IQ was well beyond genius. This is why we were never surprised when, during many of his lengthy sentences, he’d turn up at our house for visits. He would often just walk through the doors and hitchhike to the city. He missed us.
Of course, the prison missed him. In a few hours, our house would be surrounded by law enforcement and bull horns calling his name. It was embarrassing, but also kind of funny sometimes. He would usually turn himself in after a few hours of freedom knowing he would never be truly free. He contracted HIV from IV drug use and you’d have thought that would have killed him. Instead he died from withdrawal in a jail cell less than 24 hours after being incarcerated for yet another robbery.
Brad was another matter. He had a fetish for Volkswagon Bugs. He’d often steal one and then spend hours working on it, cleaning it up and fixing any little problems the engine had. Then he’d drive it around for a few days before dropping it off somewhere and telling police where they could find the missing car. I always knew when he was going to steal a car because he told me. “I’ll be back, Kat. I need to go borrow a ride.”
I was certain that he would wind up dead one day because I had seen him “sicker” from the drugs than I’d ever seen my Uncle Irvin. Miraculously, after spending half his life in jail and addicted to drugs, he got himself sober and cleaned up his life. He now counsels people fighting addiction. He’s still devastatingly handsome. I’m prouder of him than ever.
Goody two, goody two, goody-goody two shoes
Last year, my sister got arrested. She had written a bad check and she ended up having to pay for it. Both of my brothers have spent time behind bars mostly for drug possession, but my youngest brother used to steal things and sell them, too. Both of my brothers have cleaned up their lives, thankfully. I am the only one of my siblings who has never been arrested. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying hard to make sure that never happens. I’ve always been like that.
After seeing the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse and seeing the wheels of justice turn with my family caught up in the cogs, I’ve long been determined to be the “good one” in the group. I didn’t even try illegal drugs until I was 34. I had some weed in a music studio with a group of artists. It seemed okay at the time, but not a necessity for life. I just felt I had been really good for a really long time. I tried cocaine, too, on a separate occasion. I quickly ruled out ever wanting to do it again.
I try not to sit back and judge my family too harshly. I’m happy for those who’ve escaped the cycle, but I’m saddened for those who haven’t. When my Aunt Jody died, she was in her mid-40s but looked like a woman nearly twice her age. I miss Uncle Irvin’s Woody Woodpecker-like laughter. I know now how sick they both were.