I have to turn the clock back to 1996, to the days of peeling back the first layer of family history. I was sitting at a dining room table in a casita in Taos, NM. It was winter, the first time I’d lived in snow outside a few teenage weekends in Arrowhead. Snow silence that sucks up every imaginable sound, and the absence of any neighbors, I was the only resident in the compound, left me to unravel a secret life, the one my father guarded with irreproachable tenacity.
The first layer came off from the Immigration and Naturalization (INS) files on Allen smiley, birth name Aaron Smehoff, tagged “Armed and Dangerous.”
Allen married, Irene on January 16, 1926, (my father’s nineteenth birthday), in San Francisco. On July 18, 1926 Allen was arrested for robbery in a drug store on Geary Street with another unidentified boy who fled the scene. On September 17, 1926, Allen was convicted of first degree robbery and confined to Preston Reformatory for boys in Ione, California. On November 23, 1926 Irene, who remained in Oakland, gave birth to a baby girl, named Loretta. Allen was released from Preston Reformatory in December of 1927. He returned to Oakland to reunite with his wife and child; but they had vanished. This is what the INS gathered from Dad in an INS hearing. I read from the court transcripts of that hearing, about 300 pages of interrogation and the answers’ in my Dad’s own voice.
The snow sedated the choppy feeling in my stomach, the jaggedness of suddenly discovering, why my father was wired with anxiety. His whole life was occupy Allen Smiley; arrest him, convict him, send him to Russia, and never pull the tap from his apartment, or the FBI guys from his tail.
When I ordered all those government files I had no idea that the government probed into personal lives as much as criminal activities. They recorded all the household conversations, arguments with my mother, his betting on the phone, his visitors, discussions with his housekeeper about the ashtrays, and his hatred for the government, “I wish somebody would drop a bomb, just to get rid of some of these guys.”
What would I say to this daughter now in her eighties, about the father she never knew?
It was a one of a kind experience, to pick up the phone and speak with Chris, the granddaughter, who discovered me from my columns. She went looking for the other Smiley daughter, and confronted her own family secret. The tension cross-circuited our conversation, both of us heaving with questions, anxious for an answer to the family puzzle, the answers we could not wait to get, that I cannot share, even though the names are changed, I do honor the right to privacy.
I paced the room moving unconsciously from one place to another, reaching for my father’s voice to soothe her, rewrite history in between dusk and making dinner. Then the unveiling of the tragedy; the loss and the family shame, surrounding a marriage to a gangster, a father whom they never got to know, as I did. In the passing of an hour or less, my voice resonated the stories of her grandfather; his health and humor, his disciplinary regulations, and his life long battle to remain anonymous, in the public eye of organized crime.
Chris asked if I wanted to speak with Loretta, my half-sister, and I said of course I would. She set up a phone call for the following Sunday,
with a forewarning that her grandmother did not encourage the communication, or the research, she was beyond asking for a resurgence of truth or pain. How does one retrace seventy or eighty years of believing the color red may be the color blue or least a bluish tint. Loretta was not proud of what she read about Allen Smiley.
In the days before the arranged phone call I sifted through my internal index of Dad’s history, and what might console her. I could tell her about the time, he sat me down in the living room, to discuss sex with a gentle sternness;
“ Once you get pregnant your whole life changes, and you’re not even close to being ready for that. It happened to a gal I loved, when I was a young man.”
Was that Loretta’s mother he was speaking about? When this young love of his said she was pregnant, he tried to persuade her against it, because he wasn’t “properly financed.” So I asked him what happened.
“We’re not talking about my life; I’m trying to get you to understand the consequences of sex. You see God made the act beautiful so we would procreate, and if you ignore the consequences, you’re not fulfilling God’s wishes.”
I waited by the phone until it was time to accept that the call wasn’t coming. During that time of waiting, I tried to walk in Loretta’s shoes. I only had to take a few steps to comprehend the combustion of emotions she’d face by having a Sunday evening chat with me.
I made the choice to be public, to be viewed by strangers all over the world, and to receive their rage as well as their rewards.
It wasn’t a year ago that I received an email from the most distant of childhood memories. The email came from Inga, our first Nanny. The last time she saw me I was six years old. She sent me photos of us in the backyard at Bel Air, photos of her watching over me on the swings. She told me by letter, that my father was so good to her, so generous, and she loved being a part of our family. “I had no idea he was involved in anything criminal, and even if he was, it wouldn’t have mattered because he was such a kind man.” The color red is also the color blue, and because of my Dad, I learned to accept the contradictions in all of us.
Our interior life is uncensored, unsuitable to guidance from our parents, our husbands and wives, our lovers; it is uniquely you, red and blue.