Of Unknown Origin
What are we to make of those who make us?
It is a 1954 newspaper photograph and in it are two children, a girl of 5 and a boy of 6. This is supposedly the first day of school and yet, inexplicably, the boy is wearing a bowtie and fedora, a valise in his hand. He and the girl are both “young models in Foley’s ‘Classroom Colorama’ style show,” according to the Houston Post caption, but it’s the girl, Julia Taylor, that I’m drawn to.
She stands in half-profile carrying a lunchbox and wearing a starched pleated jumper over a spotless white chemise. Her posture is relaxed, her hair curly and blonde, her expression awake and full of promise. Only 44 years remain of her life, but till the end she will astonish and delight all who come to know her. She will dabble in art and music. She will have a laugh as festive as New Orleans jazz, a smile as bright as Las Vegas neon.
She will also be an alcoholic. At various times she will be addicted to codeine and heroin and methadone. To support her drug habits she will enlist her third-grade son in ever more brazen shoplifting schemes, and then almost kill him after drunkenly setting fire to his bedroom. She will stab her husband and lose her children to foster care, and the darkness won’t end until her body is torn to pieces by a car on Interstate 40, as she’s trying to dash across it in the wee hours of a November morning.
As a journalist, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to understand the motivations of those who would perpetrate crimes against themselves and others. But no tale has ever proved more puzzling or difficult to tell than the one about the little blonde girl in the Foley’s Classroom Colorama style show.
And not only because Julia Taylor was my mother.
Over the years, I’ve had ample opportunity to apply the same investigative techniques on Mama—combing through arrest records, charting her path through the legal system, interviewing dozens of witnesses—that I use on so many others. But for some reason I just didn’t. Then, two years ago, while covering a story about a crooked art gallery, something happened. It was a hot July afternoon and I was at an artist’s opening down on West 19th in the heart of the Heights. There I met a woman named Kerry Jordan who said she’d been a friend of my mother’s. They had gone to Lamar High School together, Jordan explained, and she had something to tell me. Then she changed her mind.
“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” she said. “It’s too much.”
Too much … to handle? I found the idea almost laughable. Not only had my mother been dead for over a dozen years at that point, she’d been a violent, drug-addicted felon. What could be worse?
Jordan took a few more sips of art gallery red and then lowered the boom: Mama had taken LSD regularly while pregnant with me.
I just looked at her. That’s supposed to surprise me? A man whose mother had wanted to name him Geronimo, whose idea of compromise was giving him Nova as a middle name?
Jordan took a healthy slug and hesitated. Then:
“Your dad stole your mom from her girlfriend.”
From her...? Wait. What?
That night, I called my sister Peggy to tell her the news, only to find that this was not news to her. In fact, despite being 16 years my junior, Peggy had known for a long time that Mama was bisexual. I spoke to my brother, six years my junior. He also knew. Everyone knew, it seemed, except her eldest child. How could I, her running buddy in many a misadventure, be the last to know? And what else didn’t I know? The more I thought about it, the longer the list of mysteries began to grow. This woman who gave me life, with whom I shared everything from an addictive personality to short legs and nearsightedness, was a stranger to me. Which meant that I must be a stranger to me too.
“While the physical damage it inflicted on her had healed over due to skin grafts, the mental damage remained.” So wrote my father, John Lomax III, part of a 10,500-word memoir with which he furnished me when I told him I was finally ready to look into Mama’s past. The damage he referred to was the result of an accident that occurred when she was two years old, one that Mama always believed had set her on the path to self-destruction.
She had come into the world as Julia Plummer Taylor in Austin on August 30, 1949, the second of seven children born to Harry and Charlotte Taylor, whom everyone called Moe and Susy. Mama was hardly born when she received her own nickname, one that would stick with her all her life. When her parents took her home from the hospital, her brother Tom tried to say “Look at the baby,” but what came out was “Look at the bidy.” Henceforth, she was Bidy.
The accident occurred in Port Arthur, where Susy’s parents lived. One weekend, a social engagement tied to Moe’s job at Crown Petroleum took him and Susy away to New Orleans, and her parents offered to look after Bidy and Tom. “The day before we got back, Daddy decided he was going to barbecue a turkey,” Susy told me. “He warned the kids not to get too close because he was handling gas. They didn’t listen.” One or both of the children crashed into Susy’s father just as he was pouring the gas into the pit. It ignited, splashing Mama and my uncle with what amounted to napalm. Tom’s burns were deeper and confined to his legs, Susy remembered, but Mama’s were spread over more of her body.
“I think she felt like she had died then and was living on borrowed time afterwards,” wrote my father. “I never really delved into that issue much because I could tell it was unpleasant to her, and the scars were never anything I thought especially bad.”
Bidy was heavily sedated with morphine for weeks in the Port Arthur hospital room she shared with her brother. Her skin was red for months after she returned home. Kids would point at her, wonder why that little girl looked like a lobster. Years later, Mama declined going out for the basketball team because she was terrified of putting her by-then-faint scars on view. “It really did a number on her,” Susy said.
By the summer of ‘69, they had shacked up in a now-demolished duplex near the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy, where I was conceived in the heady days leading up to the moon landing
For her part, Mama had no doubt that this was the howling void from which her demons later came. “I’ve been an addict ever since,” she told me once, deep in her cups. “To be so little and to be so full of pain and then to get such relief from that needle… . God, I still remember it. Then my addictions lay dormant for years until I met your dad.”
“And it was the ‘60s,” she added.
Over the course of the Age of Aquarius, Mama went from being a prim Incarnate Word freshman who played classical piano, devoured the works of Pearl S. Buck and proudly subscribed to the views of the John Birch Society, to a bisexual, rock and roll loving hellion who regarded Geronimo the Apache Indian war chief as her hero. She wound up at Lamar—Catholic schools could not tame her.
After high school, according to Kerry Jordan, Mama began running with a clique of school friends who called themselves The Family and loved getting into trouble. Mama ran away from home for a time, leaving her real family distraught. Moe, her father, searched Montrose for hours in his huge sedan, tears streaming down his face, puffing menthol Salems, scanning the streets for any sign of the daughter he said right to the end of his life was his smartest.
“She was wearing jeans and an unbuttoned shirt over a long-sleeved cotton, solid color tee,” Dad wrote of the night he met Mama. “She was elfin then, about as slender as she ever was, given she was on the big-boned side and had wide hips. Her hair was short, a tiny bit of red mixed amid the predominant brownish color, not dyed, just seemed to have a slight tint. She had a world-class smile that could light up a room and a marvelous, no-holds-barred laugh. I was captivated.”
She also had a girlfriend, according to my godfather, Darryl Harris, who offered me the following primer on the subtle gradations of girl-on-girl love.
“It was pretty much a teenage girl crush.… I don’t know if you could call it full-fledged lesbianism,” Harris said. “It was something from high school, before I knew her, but she talked about it a lot and … yeah, she was always very interested in girls, too.” Mama’s girlfriend, meanwhile, “was a full-blown lesbian. I don’t think she ever had a boyfriend. To love Bidy was to tolerate a lot. By [the early ’70s], I think Bidy was fully capable of going either way.”
A “switch-hitter.” That’s how veteran folksinger Don Sanders described my mother to me. And while Dad claimed no knowledge of such affairs, “It would not surprise me if she was swinging from both sides, as she was an emotionally needy person and I wasn’t the quickest to give her that support always.” Interestingly, everyone I spoke to felt that Mama’s bisexuality was less a function of sexual taste than her need for constant pain relief. I wasn’t so sure, but whatever the source of Mama’s agony, it was deep and persistent, and in the drive to alleviate it, no one and no thing was off the table.
At that time, the center of Houston’s folk scene was a lower Richmond coffee shop called Sand Mountain, and it was in the parking lot of that establishment that my parents first laid eyes on one another. (Dad thinks Mama might have been thrown out of the strict alcohol-free venue.) My parents were both pretty aimless at the time. Dad was fresh out of UT, working dead-end jobs while trying to become a rock music writer and avoid the draft, all the while taking lots of LSD. Mama was fresh out of high school and had no plans for college.
Needless to say, their romance was fast-paced. By the summer of ’69, they had shacked up in a now-demolished duplex near the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy, where I was conceived in the heady days leading up to the moon landing. Dad remembered their fledgling relationship as an acid- and pot-infused whirlwind of music, mostly at downtown’s Old Quarter club and at the then-new Anderson Fair, which was fast becoming Houston’s hippie central.
Mama was three months pregnant when she married my father, on her 20th birthday. The vows were exchanged at Holy Rosary Church, where a barefoot female guest scandalized the priest, and the reception took place at my grandparents’ rambling three-story home on Institute Lane near Rice and the art museums.
The reception was festive, according to Dad. Townes Van Zandt and Darryl Harris were there. Dad’s uncle, the folklorist Alan Lomax, came down from New York and sang a few songs. Still, it was clearly a stressful occasion, particularly for Susy, my grandmother. That afternoon the left side of her mouth began to droop awkwardly, as if out of synch with her face. She developed a case of Bell’s palsy that afflicts her to this day.
I came into the world in Austin in March of 1970, weighing in at close to 12 pounds. Mama told me the only kid bigger born at St. David’s that day was named Turnipseed. After strongly considering naming me Geronimo, my parents chose instead to give me one straight name and one hippy name, though I was known to one and all as Nova until I went to kindergarten and got it bullied out of me.
Having a mother like Mama might seem the stuff of nightmares, but it wasn’t, not always. She was a woman who could sing “You Are My Sunshine” and “Waltzing Matilda” at a child’s bedside, a woman who taught me to pray, taught me how to read, who laughed at my endless renditions of Monty Python skits. She told me to toughen up when I whined too much about backyard football injuries, and I did. She taught me to squeeze her hand once-twice-three times to tell her I-love-you, and I did that too. She was a woman who could turn the dials on an Etch A Sketch and in an instant you’d see a jockey riding a horse.
Mama was wonderful. Really.
“She was absolutely an amazing person,” said Harris, “kind of a force of nature,” a renegade, which pretty much describes the way I saw her in those days too. She was the sort of mother who could call Vanity Fair the “monthly journal of people who are going to Hell,” or see the bright side of going insane (when you reread all your favorite books, she said, they’ll seem new). As a cocktail waitress at a downtown club, my mother infuriated Bonnie Raitt by serving her ice from her bra and made country bad boy David Allan Coe cry by taping his album cover to the inside of a toilet. (She thought he’d stolen some of her friends’ songs.) Mama thought nothing of calling bullshit when she saw fit (Dad on attending a lecture at the church of Scientology: “Bidy grabbed me and said, ‘We gotta get out of here, these people are into mind control.’”) In fact, she once had a batch of business cards printed up, listing her occupation as “An Investigator of Claims of Dubious Veracity.”
Meanwhile, my father had gotten his act together. By 1971 he’d obtained a library science degree and obtained gainful employment as a reference librarian at the downtown library. It was after work one day that Dad noticed a nasty abscess on Mama’s arm that she wouldn’t explain, an unmistakable sign that her pain, and the addictions she treated it with, were fast approaching a new level.
“I gave Bidy the first heroin she ever did,” Darryl Harris told me. (He is my godfather, I remind you.) “I had gotten a package from my little brother who was in Vietnam and we were all pretty inexperienced about it. Nobody had ever shot anything up in their lives, and I gave Bidy a snort—one snort—of heroin. And, uh, the rest is history.”
Soon, Mama was secretly writing checks out of the back of the checkbook to pay for drugs, according to Dad, and dropping me off at Moe and Susy’s, “so I don’t think there was ever a risk of you being exposed to smack dealers, though I do not know for sure.” Eventually, the elder Lomaxes got Mama into a rehab facility, or “the nuthouse” as she called it. The cure did not take.
One of my cousins told my dad that to feed her drug habit, Mama took to stealing silver from my dad’s parents, just as she would one day steal and hock her own father’s valuable coin collection.
A year before she died, speaking of her heroin addiction, all Mama would say was, “I wanted life to slow down, to just dream. And it gave me relief, the same relief I had known in the burns ward.”
Through much of that tumult, Moe and Susy took care of me. I’d even taken to calling Susy mama. Meanwhile, Mama was apparently gallivanting all over Texas. By 1973 she was hooked on codeine cough syrup, 40 pounds heavier than she’d been at her wedding, and something of a shoplifting phenom.
“She was the only person I knew who could shoplift drugs from behind a pharmacy counter,” recalled Harris. “When she was staying with me she would go into some little pharmacy without much business, and walk in there and tell them that it was really hot and she just had to sit down for a minute. She’d just stay there … waiting for an opening, waiting for everybody’s back to be turned. And then she’d be in and out and come back with these bags full of bottles full of 500 Valium. It was kind of impressive, really. It takes a very special con man to be able to do that. Bidy was very good at getting her way. She really was.”
Mama’s old friend Phyllis Ivey recalled similar feats at Nau’s Pharmacy in Austin. “it was so overcrowded with gewgaws,” Ivey said, “they once put me on a payment plan to pay for a glass kitty cat my two-year-old inadvertently broke. The pharmacy area was even smaller.” And yet, “by some sort of magic, Bidy could go into that pharmacy and come out with a bottle of cough syrup! The pharmacy is still there and if you could see the space you’d understand the magic in it. It’s hard to imagine that she’d even fit behind the counter.”
“Of course this is a story understood in our little important codeine-needing circle,” she hastened to add. “Her real magic was her laughter and how she could make a dull day seem full of adventure and fun.”
Much of the adventure and fun involved shoplifting, or “techniquing” as Mama liked me to call it when she and I stole groceries together in the late ‘70s. It wasn’t unusual for us to go into a store, pile the cart high with meat, and then just walk right out the door. To ensure my silence, we stole toys, lots, large ones too—a Big Wheel-style trike, a Star Wars Death Star play set. I remember once someone asked Mama how we could afford all these goodies, whereupon she concocted a tale about a garage sale we’d stumbled upon wherein bereft parents were selling off their dead kid’s playthings.
“I learned to love the scam as much as the score,” Mama told me once. “That’s why I got into the codeine. It was fun outsmarting the pharmacists.”(She didn’t always succeed. I’ve come across arrest records showing convictions for shoplifting in Nashville and burglary with intent to commit a felony in San Antonio.)
“From time to time I would catch myself thinking of all the things a wife could do to be pleasing to, and help, her husband,” wrote my father, explaining his decision to start a new life in Nashville and take me with him, leaving Mama behind. “Bidy, sadly, came up short on every count. She’d even lost most of her pleasing personality to the drugs. The world-class smile and ebullient laugh were gone also.”
And so in 1974 we left, joining Dad’s friends Guy and Susanna Clark, Rodney Crowell and some of the other luminaries of the Houston folk scene who’d already decamped to Nashville. Mama soon followed, and she and dad gave the marriage one last chance. From time to time we came back to Houston, which is where Mama tried to kill Dad.
“We went out, had some drinks. She decided I was flirting with someone when I was simply being nice,” he recalled. “I went to bed before she did, and I guess she got to stewing, because the next thing I know, she stabbed me in the chest with a kitchen knife. I was able to partially deflect it so it didn’t go deep, but I still have a tiny scar. I pushed her into a wall so hard it knocked a hole in the sheetrock, the only time I think I ever hit her or intentionally tried to do her bodily harm. She wasn’t hurt much, if at all, but she never tried to stab me again either.”
After two moves in Nashville, we bought a lovely house on a rural-looking street called Cadillac Avenue, though we always called it Cadillac Drive because it sounded better. At the housewarming, this time it was me she almost killed.
Much of the adventure and fun involved shoplifting, or “techniquing” as Mama liked me to call it when she and I stole groceries together in the late ‘70s.
I remember more about the soiree than I do about what happened when it ended. Burgers sizzled on the grill, Blatz beer ring-tops were pulled, guitars and joints passed from hand to hungry hand. We had a little stone-lined pond in the backyard, and around midnight, I was standing near it when Mama came flying past me, her by-then bovine body as naked as the eyes of a clown, and hurled herself into the pond. A raucous cheer came from the inebriated guests as Mama emerged leering from the swampy muck.
Not long after, she put on a robe and took me to bed. Her hair still dripping on the grape-purple carpet in my bedroom, she rushed the job—there was no “You Are My Sunshine” or “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven” that night. I asked for a night-light, but we had none, so she lit a candle and set it on the clock radio on the nightstand. Mama went back to the party and told dad I conked out fast.
For some reason he can’t account for today, Dad left the party to make sure all was well with me. It was not. The curtains were on fire, and flames were also lapping at the side and rear of my bed, on which I still was standing, too terrified to even scream.
Dad swooped in and carried me to safety. The fire was extinguished before it had a chance to spread, although not before flames from the curtains had seared the blankets and purple carpet to char, a smell that haunts me to this day.
Mama had left the candle too close to the curtains.
For his part, Dad pronounced the incident “total parental negligence,” but I can’t help entertaining a more disquieting explanation. Maybe it’s my long experience with crime reporting, but I can’t believe there wasn’t an element of deliberateness about Mama’s actions that night. Or so it seems to me in my darker moments, and when I have confided the thought with family members, they have not disabused me of the notion that she could be capable of such wickedness.
My parents finally divorced in 1976, at which time Mama got the house on Cadillac, the car, and unbelievably, custody of me. She took up with a seven-foot guitar player named Chip Phillips, an old running buddy of then-teenaged singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who actually lived in my tree house for a time. Mama gave birth to my half-brother Stephen, after which her addictions again raged, terrorizing us all. In 1979, Dad wrested me away from her custody and Mama split town for Chip’s native San Antonio, perhaps with the Davidson County criminal justice system in hot pursuit.
A decade passed before I saw her again, aside from two afternoon visits. She never wrote or called. By then I’d achieved a few blessed years of stability, attending Strake Jesuit while living with my grandparents, and then going off to UT, although I soon flunked out and moved back to Nashville.
Earle had given Chip and Mama money for a down payment on a good house in a good neighborhood, and I moved in with them, paying rent for an upstairs apartment. She and Chip had two more children during this, the last happy time of my mother’s life. In having babies, Mama told my father, she’d finally found something she loved more than drugs. Indeed, that radiant smile had returned to her face, as had the wonderful laugh.
And then it all fell to pieces again. Chip left with Earle on a world tour; when he returned, Mama found something in the suitcase suggesting an affair. The old void returned and with it the old ways of filling it—vodka, and also strong beer laced with hot sauce. On my 25th birthday in 1995, I came into a modest inheritance, and received a visit from Mama the very same day. She needed $500 to “save the house,” she said, meaning booze money. Soon thereafter, she and Chip split up. The babies Mama loved so much were swiftly dispatched to foster care, even as she herself took up with a drunken guitar player who quickly tired of her.
And by 1997 or so everyone had tired of her, fed up with the disasters, the thefts, the lies. No one would take her in, and my mother began living on the streets. A few more arrests followed before that chilly November evening near downtown Nashville. Mama, attempting to cross I-40 on foot, ended up crossing from this world to the next. It would take one more painful blow to deliver her from a lifetime of pain.
A few years back, while going through a divorce, I moved out of the house that my ex and I had shared. One day my ex called to summon me to our former residence: it was time for me to come get the colorful Talaveras jar that held my mother’s ashes. I balanced the urn on my lap as I rode the Bellaire bus back to my temporary lodging, a shared apartment above the Continental Club on Main Street. The New Orleans gospel of Glen David Andrews’s album Walking Through Heaven’s Gate was blasting through my earphones as I transferred to the train in the Med Center. I smiled as the album drew to a close and the band played a snippet of “You Are My Sunshine,” the song Mama sang me to sleep by on many a tender night before she went crazy.
And then Andrews started to preach: “In the end, ain’t nobody gonna be there for you like your mama!”
A group of beer-swilling rowdy loafers greeted me as I stepped off the platform. Even with the joyous, raucous din in my earbuds, I could hear them.
“What’s in the jar, man?”
Here’s what I wanted to do: Tell the boys it was my Mama, open the jar, show them her ashes, and watch them scatter in every direction. That’s what Mama would have done, after all.
Instead, I smiled, shook my head and walked on, at which point I suddenly realized where I was: less than a mile down West Alabama from where I was conceived and a few steps from the church where Mama was married and I was baptized.
Our Mamas really are always with us, no matter how long they’ve been gone, though to what extent is a question I’m still trying to answer. The entirety of my career can be summed up by the legend on her one and only business card: I too am an investigator of claims of dubious veracity. In my appreciation of music and art, I feel her with me, just as I do in my inability to grasp higher math. She’s with me in my dark sense of humor, my turtle feet. And I’m grateful for all the ways she’s with me, just as I’m grateful for all the ways she isn’t.
Johnny Guess. It sounds like a good name for my mental state these days, but it’s actually the name of the boy in the photo with Mama, the kid in the newspaper clipping with the bowtie and fedora. Decades later, Guess and Mama actually ran in the same circles, believe it or not. He became a roadie for Townes Van Zandt and later a doorman at Rex Bell’s Galveston incarnation of the Old Quarter. And yes, Guess was every bit as wild as Mama. Bell once told me that Guess’s patched-together liver was the pride and joy of UTMB.
It fell to me to give him the news about his old friend. Tears leapt from Guess’s eyes.
“She was a great lady,” he said. “In spite of herself.” He sobbed, walked away and joined her in the grave not long afterward.