Grace Stevenson: "For years I kept saying, ‘He killed my mom, he killed my mom, but he didn’t mean to do that.'"
"The thing that bothered me most was that I didn’t have a dad; that bothered me a lot. I remember going to my friend’s house after school and her dad coming home and meeting her and hugging her, and I’d feel real crappy about that.” The woman, Grace Stevenson, 41 years old, almost 42, mother of three, now single, is speaking in a soft, determined voice. She’s a petite, barrel-chested woman with short auburn hair, round face, shimmering brown eyes.
And this is Brawley, California, one of the last funk desert towns left to Imperial Valley. It’s late afternoon, still hot, still building heat, jet-exhaust heat, impossibly hot, hot like a bad thing is going to happen.
One blows into town for no reason. You’re taking a few days for a drive-around, a get out of San Diego drive-around, and you’ve been in your van all day sweating from places you didn’t realize pumped sweat, and you want a break from the wheel and the bad music and the bullying heat. You feel lonely. What’s required is some small talk, just a chit and a chat, something to help you out from underneath your own head.
So you find city center, stop, walk around. It could be a laundromat, a bar, a library, a church picnic, or sitting on a bench underneath a tree in the town park, but next to you is a nice lady. You look over and there’s nothing sexual there. Just a nice lady and all you want is a smile, a morsel of palaver.
And so you say hello and say that you’ve always liked small towns like this, towns with old ratty buildings and pick-up trucks. And then, the woman begins to talk and you realize that evil has come, and your stomach tightens and you remember that evil does live in the world, something that’s slipped to the back of your mind after riding a steady paycheck for a few years.
The evil brought me to a second-story apartment on the north side of Brawley. Grace Stevenson and I sit around a white oval Formica table set between her kitchen and living room. A large TV plays. Grace’s 19-year-old daughter Patricia is in and out, pouring pop, fixing a sandwich, back again for more pop, back again to deposit dishes in the sink.
I gratefully accept a soft drink, ask Grace where she was born.
“I was born in Blythe, California, August 9, 1951. I had one brother and one half-sister. My brother was a year older, and my sister is 12 years younger.”
“What were your parents doing when you were born?”
“They were field workers for one of the farms out there, Palo Verde. My mom was 20 and my dad was 27. They were getting a divorce when I was born.”
Grace slowly rolls her head, shrugs her shoulders. “My roots are pure Mexican. My mom was the first American born on her side of the family. On my dad’s side, my brother and I were the first American-born. My dad’s still not a citizen. He’s worked in the United States, has pretty much all my life, and is now retired from Foremost Dairy in L.A.”
The air conditioner kicks in with a thump. “What was your first memory?”
“I was 18 months.”
“What did you see?”
“The kitchen in my grandfather’s house. Green curtains, tables by the door heading toward the living room. The refrigerator was on the right-hand side, there was a counter in front. Over towards the corner was the stove and then the sink. I was on my grandfather’s lap sharing a Lucky Lager beer,” Grace laughs. “He used to come home from work and like clockwork drink two beers before dinner.”
“You said your parents were getting a divorce?”
“My parents were getting divorced while my mom was carrying me. My father divorced my mom, joined the service, and after he got out he went up to L.A. That’s when she got into being what you call a ‘fruit tramp’ working in the packing sheds instead of the field.”
The television is turned off. A young boy gets up from the living room floor, walks into one of the bedrooms, closes the door. Grace gazes at her hands. “When you’re a fruit tramp, you build a reputation. My mom was a fast packer, and she was a clean packer. You got boxes, one layer or three layers. Everybody can pack the top layer so it’s pretty, but the bottom layer, if it’s dirty, people will complain when you deliver it. My mom was fast, and she was good. She packed cantaloupe, tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus.
“My half-sister came along when I was 12, and my mom was working as a secretary. She wasn’t always a fruit tramp, she tried to get out of it, but there was never enough money anyplace else. There were times when we were left with a neighbor or a relative, and after a while it became necessary for us not to be moved from school to school. There were times when we stayed with other people; there were times when we went with her. When she’d go, she’d be gone three months. My mom was a very spontaneous person. She was neat.”
“Where did you live from the ages of six to eight?”
“Lived at my grandfather’s house, on Vine Street here in Brawley. I was eight years old when we moved over to the west side of town. Started school at Witter, first grade.”
“How did you like school?”
“I liked it, I liked it a lot. The teacher was great. I can’t remember her name, but I remember how pretty she was, had nice black hair. There was a boy named Monk Henley, we both had a crush on each other. We were her pets, the teacher’s pets. And on the last day of school I went to kiss the teacher on one side, and he went to kiss her on the other side, and we ended up kissing each other. We both just about died! I ran home, we never even said good-bye.
“During the summer we went with my mom. My uncle was a fruit tramp, had a house in Los Banos, and there were times we stayed with him. In fact, my uncle Carlos, my mom, and my grandfather, I remember all of us staying there at the same time.”
“What was the day like? What time would your mom go to work?”
“Sometimes as early as six o’clock in the morning, depending if it was in the rush of the season. When it was going full bore, 16 hours a day. We were told what we could do and what we couldn’t do, and that’s just how it was. I’m not saying we didn’t screw up, but we didn’t screw up major. My mom was not someone you crossed.”
“What would your mom do after work? Would she come home, visit people, go out?”
“I remember, on Friday nights, we’d go out to a movie and then eat Chinese food. We always walked to the theater, and from there we’d walk over to the restaurant.”
“When did it stop, the traveling with Mom?”
“When I left home,” wistful, appealing laugh. “My family is very traditional, old tradition. If I went and did anything it was either with my mother or my brother or I had family there. I was never unchaperoned. I was always watched over. My cousin, the same thing. My cousin and I, when we first started going to dances, our mothers went with us. And the boys asked the mothers if they could dance with us, we were never asked. It never seemed unusual to me; I was just glad to go to the dance.
“I never had a pair of jeans until I moved away from home. Before I turned 16, dating age, my mom took me over to my grandfather’s house. We sat down on the front porch, and he told me the do’s and don’ts. About boys and what they could and couldn’t do, what races I could and couldn’t go out with. To this day I follow his advice. I call him Daddy.”
The television is turned on again, I hear a child’s sigh. “When did you leave home?”
“My mother gave me an ultimatum when I was 18: ‘Quit your job, stay home, and do as you’re told or leave.’ I was becoming too independent to be living at home, and it bothered my mother. She was fair. I knew I needed to leave.”
Patricia brushes past us on her way to the kitchen, retrieves another pop, some ice, fills a glass; a telephone rings. “Your mom and dad divorced before you were born. Did he stay in contact with you?”
“My dad was always in contact with us, gave my mother child support. Theirs was an extreme love-hate relationship. It’s amazing, they would fight with each other, but you could tell even in that moment, there was so much passion in it that it was unreal. They really loved each other, but they couldn’t get along.”
“Would they scream and yell?”
“My mom would yell. My dad would just be stern and keep talking, but she always had the upper hand. ‘Kids, let’s go,’ and it was over.”
“So if you were visiting him in L.A. and they started to fight, she would pull the plug?”
“She had a knack of control. He, to this day, is very, very traditional. When he comes over here, spends three days, he gets up, his coffee has to be ready. I fix his breakfast. I don’t think the man knows how to use a frying pan. He sits down and I take him what he wants — that’s just how it is. My mother didn’t mind doing that, but at the same time she wanted some voice in what was going on. The reason for the breakup, he was having an affair. In Mexico it’s no big deal for a family man to have another woman in another house, and the wife doesn’t say anything about it. But my mom said, ‘I’ll be damned…’
“Are you married?”
“I’ve been married twice. My first husband was Anthony, my high-school sweetheart. I still love the man; he’s a real super guy. Anthony and I only fought one time, and then he left. We grew apart; he was and still is very much a hippie. He’s working on the Greenpeace ship now, deckhand. He loves to travel, but you can’t do that with a child.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“I was raised here. I was gone for 18 years — lived in Arizona, Nevada, but most of the time in the San Diego area. I always came back here to visit, this was always home.”
“When did you move back?”
“September 16, 1988.”
“Does your brother still live here?”
“He was killed in a car accident after he left the Planters bar. He was drunk and didn’t want to drive, so he got a ride from somebody else, but he was too drunk to realize that this guy was too drunk too.”
“When was that?”
“My mom died when I was 28. He died five years later, February of ’83.”
I looked into clear brown eyes, aware now that Grace and I have arrived at the cliff. I am very ambivalent about jumping. I lean back in my chair. “Tell me how your mom died.”
“I had a premonition. I’ve always been very strong on premonitions. My mom knew about it. It’s a sixth sense. Three weeks before my mom passed away I had a premonition that someone was going to die, and because of the fact that Grandfather was the oldest, I thought it was going to be Grandfather.
“My mom was staying at my house. I was living in Oceanside; she was working at the Vega Packing Shed in Carlsbad, packing tomatoes. My mom and I were heading home from the store, and she said, ‘I wish I knew what it was like to die.’ I told her, ‘I know, I know what it’s like to die.’ My mom says, ‘What do you mean?’
“ ‘I had a dream. It’s just a struggle, and then all of a sudden it’s dark and it’s peaceful. You don’t have to worry anymore.’
“She started to cry. I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘That’s not good, that means that you’re going to die.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not going to be me.’ I couldn’t tell her that I thought it was going to be Grandfather. So…when I got the phone call it was weird.”
“Where did your mom die?”
“Here in Brawley. It was Halloween weekend, October 29, on a Friday, and my brother and his wife were having a costume party at their house. My sister was in a quinceañera. My mom had driven her over from my house to watch my sister in the ceremony. My dad had come down from L.A. After the ceremony, my mom and dad left. I guess there was a reception afterwards, and after that, my sister went to a sleepover with all the girls. My dad and mom went to Grandfather’s house for a little bit, and then they went to her house over on E Street.”
“Your mom’s house?”
“My mom always had to have a house here; she paid rent even when she was away. That night she was drinking — my mom was an alcoholic — and evidently she wanted to go to the sleepover and see my sister. My dad said, ‘That isn’t a very good idea.’ And she started in. I don’t know what exactly transpired, but my dad called my brother and said, I need your help, please come over here.’ My mom got on the other line and said, ‘No, baby, it’s all right, everything is fine,’ And my dad said, ‘George, please come over here.’
“Everybody was leaving the costume party. They were going to a packing shed and party some more. My brother George and his wife had gotten into a little bit of a hassle, and they decided to stay home. They were both sleeping when they got another phone call. George answers the phone, and my dad says, ‘Meet me at the police station. I’ve just killed your mother.’ George got really mad and said, ‘That’s nothing to fucking joke about.’
“ ‘It’s no joke, George. Meet me at the police station. I’ve just killed your mother.’
“My brother lived over on Trail. He hung up the phone, and his wife said, ‘What’s wrong, George?’ He said, ‘I’m going to my mom’s house. If you want to come with me you better get dressed now.’ He threw her pants at her. She just put them on under her night shirt. They were three houses from the corner, turn right on Western, five blocks up, make a left, and three blocks over is my mom’s house. They were going up Western, and he kept saying, ‘He better be fucking joking. This better be a fucking joke.’ As soon as they turned down E Street, he started to cry because he saw the police cars.
“They wouldn’t let him in. He kept asking, Is my mom all right?’ They said, ‘No, she’s dead.’ That’s when he called me. It was one o’clock in the morning when he called. I remember the phone ringing. I was asleep when I heard the first ring. Even before I woke up, I knew it was a phone call saying Grandfather was dead. I answered, ‘What’s wrong?’ ”
“No she’s not!”
“It’s no joke, Mom’s dead.”
“How did she die?”
“Dad killed her.”
“Dad killed Mom.”
I light a cigarette, look at orange pop, feel like I should say something, have no idea what. “Did you believe it right away?”
“I knew it was true. My mom and I had never been close. The last three months we started to talk, actually have conversations with each other. Talk about things that had been taboo: sex, men, different things. After she died, I waited five years for her to walk in my door, say, ‘Hey, it wasn’t me.’”
“Your dad went to prison?”
“One year to the day.”
“When was the next time you saw your father?”
“Five years later when my brother died.”
“Your dad attended the funeral?”
“No, no. He was taken to the funeral home by my sister-in-law to view my brother. He could not attend the funeral. He has no contact with my mother’s side of the family. He murdered my mother, he beat her to death. She had a broken jaw, broken esophagus —she was beaten to death.”
“Did you go to the trial?”
“I didn’t go to the trial, my brother did. I wasn’t allowed in to see him. I told the police officers, ‘Would you please do me a favor? This is his daughter, tell him that I love him very much.’ For years I kept saying, ‘He killed my mom, he killed my mom, but he didn’t mean to do that. It wasn’t him, he’s not a violent man.’ It wasn’t until my brother died that I finally said, ‘He murdered my mom, he didn’t just kill her, he murdered her.’
“When my brother died, I was still very angry at my dad. I can say I hated him, but it was his son, right or wrong or whatever, he is the father of the boy that died, and he needed to know. Even my aunt said, ‘Your dad needs to know.’ I went to call his home phone, and I couldn’t remember the number. And then it hit me, ‘Hey, it’s five years since you called this number, since you talked to this man.’
“I was at my Aunt Josey’s house when I got a phone call from my sister-in-law’s mother telling me to go to her house, that my dad was there. For the first time in my life I almost became physically ill. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“He came up and went to give me a hug, and I remember getting real stiff and putting my arms in front of me to let him know that I didn’t want him to touch me, and I told him that I tried to contact him, but I didn’t remember his phone number. I remember the look on his face, the hurt on his face.”
“How long did you visit with him?”
“We sat in the living room for a half hour or so, and he saw his granddaughter for the first time.”
“Did he seem nervous or angry?”
“He seemed so old, very old. My brother told me when he’d gone to the trial that he’d aged. He’d always been a very youthful-looking man. He said in the two months that passed it seemed like he’d aged ten years.”
“Did he ever say he was sorry, or did he ever bring it up?”
“Never really spoke about it. I don’t think I could deal with that, I wouldn’t know what to say. I love my dad, I love him very much, but it makes me angry when he tells me I look like my mother. It’s like he doesn’t have any right to bring her up to me since he’s the one who took her away from me. I don’t know if I’ve forgiven him, but I know that I do love him.”
“How often have you seen him since then?”
“I see him about once a month.”
“That’s a lot. Did you start seeing each other after the funeral?”
“No, not right away. He didn’t push at all. It was a few years later. It’s taken a long time for us to get to this stage.”
“What does your family think?”
“My family knows that I talk to him, they don’t want to hear about it.” Strong, loud voice: “And I know that.”
Realize I’ve been holding my breath. I study the featureless tabletop, TV is turned off, a toilet is flushed. “A lot of children, when something terrible happens to their parents, they often feel responsible. Did you ever feel that you…”
“No. The one thing that bothered me the most was that I didn’t kiss my mother when she left that morning.” Grace cries, “I kept thinking, ‘I didn’t kiss her,’ it was weird. I didn’t hug or kiss her, I was helping her load stuff in the car, and as she was driving away I said, ‘Mom, I love you.’ She goes, ‘I love you too, baby.’ ”
“When you see your dad now, say, he’s walking through that door, what do you think?”
“I always wonder, I always wonder how he feels or if he thinks about it. He tells me there’s not a night that goes by that he doesn’t dream of my mother. He loved her very much. When he walked into the police station and said, ‘I just killed my wife,’ they hadn’t been married for 30 years. For 30 years they’d been divorced.’ ”
“What was your mom like?”
“I was very abused as a child. I remember her standing me up on a chair and whopping me with an electrical cord. She never touched my brother; I wouldn’t let her touch my sister. She wanted a boy so she didn’t have to worry about the dating and the loss of virginity. She loved me, she did, very much so. She provided really well for us: she tried her hardest to do everything, like moving us from the east side — she didn’t want us to live in the slums. But my mom was a very wicked person, you have no idea how.”
“Could she make people angry enough so they’d want to hit her?”
“Yeah, she had a knack of bringing the fire out in a person; she knew which buttons to push in my dad, very much so.”
“Did you ever have the sense that this was somehow foreordained?”
“My mother always said that if she reached the age of 50 and was not married, she would commit suicide because she didn’t want to grow old by herself. I remember standing in front of the coffin with my brother, my sister, my two cousins, and my aunt, thinking, ‘Mom, you got your wish.’ ”
“Do you think you’ll ever talk about it with your dad?”
“I don’t know how to bring it up. I’ve wanted to, but I can’t do it, I can’t do it without becoming angry again. He is sorry, he is very sorry, he misses her very much. To me, that’s his punishment. He’s the one who’s living with it, he’s the one who’s got to live with the fact that she died at his hands. I can’t imagine hurting someone to that extent, beating a person to death. She haunts him through me. I look a lot like her.”