Every family has its secrets and closeted skeletons, which remain locked up unless one of its members spills the beans. Pamela Des Barres’ mother, a down-to-earth beauty from Georgia, did just that to her daughter late in life—and long after Pamela’s philandering father was dead. Pamela shares what she learned from her mother, and about life, from the revelations.
As an only child, I was adored and catered to by my devoted parents, Margaret Ruth Hayes Miller and her tall, lanky cheating man, Oren Coy Miller, nicknamed “Hollywood,” in his prime because he was so freaking hot. My mom was a down-to-earth beauty from Buford, a small town in Georgia, and my dad a dashing black sheep from itty bitty Pinsonfork, Kentucky. They both happened to be at a church social in Dayton, Ohio – Margaret on her way in, and OC on his way out, where they stopped in the doorway and made eyes. Sparkly, demure, come-hither brown, and winking, wicked, flecked green. Somehow I arrived with baby blues a few years later.
Six weeks premature, I was instantly cherished, weighing in at 4 pounds, 4 ounces, and kept in an incubator for several days. I was almost named Penelope, which would have come in handy when decades later Cameron Crowe called his Almost Famous character, Penny Lane. But let’s go back to 1948. September 9, to be precise, 5 AM on the dot. My mom was left by herself in the hospital room, and expelled me all alone, screaming and wailing. She often mentioned how I shot out of her vagina like a slippery cannonball and almost dangled off the table by my umbilical cord before a nurse came in, gathered me up and dashed the bleating bundle to the nursery.
My mother had lost two babies before my birth, and two after, so I quickly became the center of the Miller universe. I vaguely recall hearing her moaning one late night, tip-toeing to my parents’ room, then being gently sent back to bed. The next morning, the fire pit in the backyard was smoking even though it was a warm day. Years later my mom told a tragic tale of losing a premature baby boy that night, and cremating the tiny body in the fire pit, while she and my daddy stood there weeping. It wasn’t always a bed of roses, but Pam Miller grew up believing in the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy and the jolly man in red chortling “Ho Ho Ho”.
My very first memory, however, wasn’t a jolly one. At age 3, I was standing at the bottom of a set of stairs, staring up at my parents, who were arguing wildly and heatedly above me. As a toddler, I thought I must have done something horrible and they were, of course, fighting about me. It’s odd, but I see that image in my mind, as if hovering above the scene, watching my chin trembling and tears starting to trickle, as my tiny, stalwart Aunt Bert suddenly arrives, yanking me away from the furious marital fracas.
I didn’t find out the cause of that frightful scene at the top of the stairs until decades later. As far as I knew, mommy loved daddy, daddy loved mommy, and all was well on Jamieson Avenue in Leave-it-to Beaver, technicolor Reseda, California. I was never spanked, and they never argued in front of me, although once in a while, my mom gave OC “the silent treatment,” which filled the house with ice. Brrrr.
Even though OC Miller eventually became a bottler at the Budweiser plant, I got everything I wanted for every birthday, along with a homemade cake and a fanciful party, and looked forward to Christmas with the kind of wide-eyed glee that probably doesn’t exist in America anymore. Along with the giddy anticipation, the Noel season was also very mysterious to me. Next to the various light-up Santas, we also had a rubber baby Jesus doll, nestled in a mound of hay under the tree, and unpacking his crèche each year was a solemn process. I still have Him — in pristine condition. I also have the little plastic spinners, that twirl from the heat of the tree lights which enchant me endlessly. The carols about wise men, the brilliant North star, the cattle lowing, the silent, holy night, the curious virgin birth mystified me, and still does. Not sleeping a wink on Christmas eve, I’d shake my parents awake at the crack of dawn, and they staggered out to the blinking tree to watch me open my endless array of gifts.
But the day my mom divulged the Family Secret, disarrayed puzzle pieces began to click into place.
My darling daddy had worked in the Kentucky coal mines from ages 21 to 25, and passed from this world from black lung disease forty-two years later. It was an awful, lengthy ordeal, and I’m grateful I could be with him for his last struggling breath while my mom and aunties keened like banshees. My mother and I had always been extremely close, even during that trippy hippie phase that so many tortured parents just couldn’t handle. My dad worked nights so was spared much of what my dear mama had to endure, but we got through those wacky years because she was determined not to lose the openness that had kept us so tight.
My mom had shared with me that my dad was quite a player, before and during their marriage. She told me about a time she followed one of his paramours into the ladies’ room at a party and gave her all kinds of hell. She even pointed the hussy out in a photo taken at the event. I experienced my dad’s hidden naughty behavior once myself, on a trip to Ensenada. OC was also quite an adventurer and often spent time in Mexico on gold mining trips with his pal, Reuben. I was sitting on his lap in Reuben’s office when he opened the desk drawer to find a pencil, and smack dab in front of us, in blazing black and white, was a photo of my dad with a sassy Latina doll cuddled up on his lap. Oops. It seemed he was still up to No Good at age fifty-four.
My mother was an only child, and so was I, but my father had several siblings, most of them sisters, and all were very close — except for my Aunt Zora. I never understood her reluctance to visit us, and wondered why her Christmas cards held such sparse greetings. I’d seen many photos of my parents on double dates with Aunt Zora and Uncle Herb Aikman in their younger years, often wearing amusing hats and silly grins during New Year’s Eve festivities. Next to Zora, a zaftig brunette, and Herb, a slight, dark, wiry fellow, my gorgeous parents glowed like superstars. Whenever I asked about those particular relatives, my folks shrugged and changed the subject, and life went on.
A few weeks after my daddy’s death, my mom and I were drinking coffee in her kitchen in North Hollywood (my dad lost our Reseda house trying to strike Mexican gold – long story) when I mentioned I’d been in touch with cousin Susie in Denver, who happened to be Aunt Zora and Uncle Herb’s daughter. She got a faraway, dewy look in her eyes, and slowly turned to me, “I guess I can finally you why Aunt Zora disappeared from our lives.”
One evening, during a family party attended by the double-dating Millers and Aikmans, surprising, subtle sparks flew between Oren’s wife and Zora’s husband – sparks that both parties initially ignored until the tension became unbearable, and they finally gave in to their pent-up desires and started meeting alone. My mother sighs. “We fell completely in love.”
This family secret of lust, passion, dishonesty, grief and longing will always be embedded in the bones of that little girl at the foot of the stairs.
This was quite a stunning revelation to me, and I wanted more, more more information! After all, my big handsome daddy had been flagrant, and what’s good for the gander…Once the subterfuge started, Herb and Margaret spent as much time together as possible. My dad worked nights at a gas station, and Herb worked days, and also had four kids, so their moments together were fleeting and passionate. Desperate at times, they even created tales to explain missing hours. My mom often used the library ruse as she was a voracious reader, and had dreamed of being a writer. She had only slept with one man, my dad, and would only ever sleep with these two men during her lifetime. It was 1950, remember. As I said, mom and I told each other almost everything and I was slightly agog when she told me that Herb was…shall we say…more well endowed than my dad.
In order to keep their secret, one that would surely shred the tight-knit families, Herb and Margaret continued to double date with their spouses as usual, somehow tamping down the truth with raised glasses and lowered lids. Amazingly the romance went on for almost two years before the jig was up. They had started making plans to break up with their once better-halves so they could be together, but as usual, female intuition prevailed. It’s not surprising that Zora was the first to “twig,” (figure it out) as they say in the UK.
My mom and dad were having dinner at home one evening before OC left for the gas station when his sister Zora called, screeching so loud my mom could hear her across the table. I must have been in a high chair making a mess with my spinach (see photo), but luckily I don’t remember this particular godawful experience. As my mom looked on in horror, her husband’s countenance shifted from curiosity to shock to stunned realization to rage to full-fledged mania. I can imagine the steam spitting out of my dad’s ears as his face flamed pink, then red, turning purple with scorned, furious betrayal.
Through gargantuan sobs, Zora was explaining to her beloved brother that she was certain Herb was having an affair, then proceeded to point out all the dates and times she suspected him of clandestine behavior, and slowly my dad started to twig himself, recalling long beauty parlor appointments, or library visits, perhaps. After hanging up the phone he stared at my mother long and hard before stumbling out the door, fists clenched. Thank the Lord he didn’t have a gun handy, because OC headed to the Aikman house and beat Herb up so badly he should have been hospitalized. Arriving back home with torn and bleeding knuckles, he announced savagely, “I should have killed the bastard.”
Yes, OC Miller had cheated on my mother more than once by this time, but had he fallen in love? Absolutely not. Besides, a cheating female was considered a trollop and a cheating man was, well, just a cheating man. Despite his beating at the hands of a man 5 inches taller than he was (in the height department, that is), Herb told Zora and then Margaret told Oren that they were in love and wanted to be together. My very first memory must have happened the following morning during my parents’ frenzied verbal fisticuffs at the top of the stairs. Apparently my Aunt Bert rushed me away just in time, because my father insisted vehemently that if my mother dared to leave him, and for Herb Aikman yet, he would kill his baby daughter right in front of her.
Herb and Margaret never saw each other again, and I suppose it’s my fault. The Aikmans hightailed it out of town, out of the state actually, with their brood, and I’m not even sure Oren ever saw his little sister again. The lovers had set up a private PO box where they’d shared torrid notes when the time apart grew too long. A few days after the deception came to light, my mom retrieved Herb’s last heart-shattered letter, which she hid in various places, and kept her entire life.
I was too young to grasp the tension that must have permeated the Miller home, but shortly after the emotional ruckus, OC headed to his nick-namesake, Hollywood, hoping to secure a job in the movie industry as a grip, which he did, before sending for his family.
The next memories that I can conjure up took place in a triplex in the San Fernando Valley, where my childhood seemed perfectly idyllic, complete with a cocker spaniel we called Terra Lee, and a big blonde box of a TV where I sat happily watching Ding Dong School and Engineer Bill’s cartoon show. When the light turned green (in black and white), he’d tell me to take a sip of my milk, which I did dutifully.
I was daddy’s girl and mommy’s pride.
By the time my parents bought our house in Reseda, my dad had been bottling Budweiser on the swing shift for a few years and my joyful valley life continued as a doted upon only child. Birthday parties, PTA meetings, Christmas days, report cards, poker games, vacations, Barbie dolls, Elvis, the Beatles, and boyfriends came and went, and as far as I could tell, all that permeated the Miller household was a sense of love, security and comfort, except for Margaret’s occasional Big Chill aimed at OC. For the most part, and to their credit, I always sensed a sweet sense of affection, acceptance, and understanding between my parents.
But the day my mom divulged the Family Secret, disarrayed puzzle pieces began to click into place. Aunt Zora’s unfriendliness certainly made sense, the sudden move to California, and my first frightful memory as a toddler at the foot of the stairs. The most shocking reveal, however, was that while she did care deeply for my father, she’d never fallen out of love with Herb. She also told me that even though she and OC made love every day before his lungs started failing (impressive!), she secretly pined for her long lost cuckold.
Margaret had told me many times that she married my father partially for his huge, welcoming family, which suddenly became splintered, and exceedingly unwelcoming. Perhaps it was because of the times, or saving face, or machismo, but I cannot comprehend why anyone would want to stay with a person who desperately wanted to be with someone else, no matter what the consequences. I’m certain my dad would not have murdered his beloved child, but my mom wasn’t taking any chances. And who knows what Zora might have threatened to do that night in Dayton, Ohio. It was a ghastly betrayal after all. She probably wanted to rip my mom’s thick mahogany hair out by the roots.
About ten years before my darling mama passed, Herb and Zora came to visit my Aunt Edna, the one Miller sister who’d remained a steadfast friend to my mother. I wanted to see this man who’d captured my mother’s heart, and even offered to pass him a note, which, sighing heavily, she declined. Although she never spoke the words aloud, I knew she hoped Zora might enter the Great Beyond before Herb did, and maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to reconnect late in life.
I don’t know what I expected, but there he was, Herb Aikman the homewrecker, a small, graying man, sitting next to his long-suffering wife, hunched over and distant, gazing anywhere but at me. We exchanged benign pleasantries, but when Herb’s flickering eyes briefly pierced mine, I knew it was a message to my mother.
Sadly, Herb entered the Great Beyond not long after our uncomfortable visit, and my mother’s guilty hopes drifted away with the smoke from her ever-present cigarette. As she lay dying from lung cancer, my mom insisted that she had done all she’d wanted to do in life, had no regrets, and was ready to leave this earth. One of her final movements was to place an imaginary cigarette to her lips, but just before her last breath, she opened her eyes, raising up with arms outstretched as if greeting someone. I like to believe it was OC Miller at the Pearly Gates, but perhaps it was a slim, dark-eyed fellow who long ago was willing to turn his entire world upside down for Margaret Ruth Hayes Miller from Buford, Georgia.
Every family has its secrets, skeletons in the closet, shimmering their undying truth behind a padlocked door. This family secret of lust, passion, dishonesty, grief and longing will always be embedded in the bones of that little girl at the foot of the stairs.