Jackpot

It’s a workday, Monday, and Catherine is dressed up for being in the office. She wears a silk blouse and slim-fitting pants in a pretty color of green. When she sees me in the lobby, she rushes over.

“There you are,” she says, taking hold of my arm in a strong mother’s grip. Her hand is soft but strong. Purposeful. “I was worried. What took you so long? Are you okay?”

She can already tell what’s going on inside of me—like a mother—and it’s unnerving. “I’m just nervous,” I say. “Is he here?”

“Yes, he’s already sitting down. I’m sorry,” Catherine says, “I know I sprung this on you at the last minute but I just want to get this over with. Just meet him and then that will be done.”

She leads the way through the packed restaurant, a place called Chili’s, which is a favorite of Daniel’s.

She holds my hand and walks with great, long, confident strides. I shake so hard, I feel like I will throw up.

She turns a corner and leads us down a long row of tables. Pretty soon, we are in front of a huge, red, plastic booth and there he is, the man I’ve seen in all the photos. Daniel.

When he looks up from his menu, his expression is not that of a stranger. He is so familiar—his face is my own. Daniel has gray white hair and one of those rough whiskered faces, as if he forgot to shave only it’s fashion. His jaw is chiseled like a Marboro man, he has a wide generous mouth and bright, alive eyes—blue with glints of white light. The man is electric.

“You’re Jennifer?” he asks.

I nod like yes, since words are lost. This man is my brother. My brother!

He takes me in from head to toe and back up again and laughs like I am the best joke in the world. A punchline. He sounds so happy and surprised and even delighted. In the sound of his laugher, so much like my own, I’d swear I’ve known him my entire life even though we look at each other for the first time.

Catherine stands back and laughs too, hand over her mouth. “I told you,” she says, tears in her eyes. “I told you.”

Daniel tries to stand up but his thighs hit the table and it’s a little awkward to reach each other. After a scoot and push, finally he comes around the edge and we hug. Daniel feels just great and what a skyscraper of a man.

It hits me again, like a wave from sea. A brother! I’ve had a brother all this time.

Just what is the mystery contained in DNA? What is the energetic wavelength that moves within family units? What don’t we know, despite all our scientific strides and advances? As I hug my brother and see my own mysterious knowing fall into place, I can only say that I knew of his existence—I did.

Daniel ushers his wife out of the booth and says she is Rona. I offer my hand but then that seems weird and instead we hug too.

Why not? We’re one big happy family now, right?

Rona is a small woman with deep-set eyes and a pretty face. She says, “You sweet thing, you’re shaking like a leaf.” She holds my hands and seems very sincere.

We all settle into the booth again, the three of them on one side with Daniel in the middle and me on the other side. Water arrives in giant, red, plastic tumblers as if they are standard issue here in the Biggest Little City in the World.

I stare over my mega-sized cup and study this brother.

Daniel, doing the same, puts his elbows on the table and holds his hands together, just like Jessie did yesterday at breakfast. I sit back and hold my own hands in my lap.

Somehow, like a miracle, food gets ordered and Catherine claps her hands like calling this meeting to order.

“Well, here we are,” Catherine says and she laughs as if she has told a joke.

Daniel laughs with her but then rolls his eyes like he she’s on his last nerve. Rona laughs in the same way and coughs into her fist.

“When Catherine said we were all meeting for lunch . . . ” Rona begins, from the far side of Daniel.

“ . . . Well, I told her forget it. No way. I have a million things to do today,” Daniel says. He makes big gestures, like I do, like Catherine does, using his hands while he talks.

“Which isn’t to say he didn’t want to meet you . . . ” Rona explains.

“ . . . No,” Daniel says, “of course not.”

“Daniel just has so much going on and Catherine caught us by surprise . . . ” Rona says.

The two women smile at each other and Catherine does a quick shrug like everyone just needs to get over it. “ . . . I just wanted you to meet my daughter. After all, she’s here,” Catherine says, finishing the sentence.

“She has a way of catching us all by surprise,” Daniel says, with another eye roll.

More laughter all around.

I nod like I understand and it all makes sense but really, I don’t know what to say. I think Daniel says, without words, that he’s pissed that his mother never told him about me. Like everyone in this family, I’ve been my mother’s secret for all of my life and most of hers. I guess he’s pissed about it as if he has right to his mother’s whole story just by the fact of being her son, the one she kept and raised and loved.

I bite my lip and keep how I feel about things inside. This is not the time to set Daniel straight.

When the laughter dies down, Daniel becomes serious. “Mom says you’re a Buddhist, is that right?”

“Well, um,” I begin. I glance at Catherine and she grins and nods like I should go ahead and confess. “Something like that.”

Daniel is like a laser beam of focus, all-business now, and I’d hate to negotiate with him. I bet he’s tough!

“So what’s the bottom line here? Do Buddhists believe in God?”

I steal a quick look at Rona, who seems equally interested and then I can only look at my own hands. I shift my fingers around as if they can tell me what to say but there are no words there.

“Well, um,” I hear myself say again. “I suppose.”

“Oh, Daniel,” Catherine says, slapping at his arm, “leave her alone.”

After that, we downshift to politics and since it happens to be an election year (McCain versus Obama), they collectively talk about the possibility of “that man” making it into office. “That man” being Obama. Catherine talks about her admiration of Sarah Palin and how she hopes this country has the good sense to put such a bright lady in office.

I can only shrug and say I’m not really political.

Finally, we make an even deeper downshift and find the mutual ground of children. Daniel and Rona tell me about their daughter. I talk about Spencer and Josephine.

“I’m just dying to meet them,” Daniel says.

“Daniel just loves kids,” Rona adds.

“He’s wonderful with them too,” Catherine adds.


Pretty soon, salads are eaten and the water is gone and Daniel, Rona, and Catherine are like a team of stockbrokers before the exchange opens. They check their watches, read their text messages and tap at their phones. Time to get back to work.

As we leave the restaurant, Rona and Catherine pull together a loose plan for all of us to meet for pizza tonight. Rona wants me to meet her daughter, Brittney, and Catherine wants Jessie to bring her kids over too.

I sway a little, imagining another layer of family and my stomach rolls with nausea. All I want to do is sleep again but I nod like yes, pizza would great.

Daniel is quiet and when he hugs me, emotion rises in him—some old sadness that I don’t know but that I certainly recognize. I want to ask what’s going on but he lifts a hand between us like I need to give him room. Tears spark in the edges of his bright blue eyes.

Later, Rona will tell me that this was happiness. Daniel was just so happy to meet me.


After they leave, it’s just Catherine and me again. We stand close to each other, in the parking lot, next to her car. Our bodies—so much the same—do not touch.

“That went great, didn’t it?” she says. “I think that went really great.” Her blue-gray eyes look tired, as if this meeting took a huge effort.

“It did,” I say. “You did a good job.”

“Me?” she says. “You did a great job. I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re my daughter.” She touches my cheek, the lightest glance of a touch and in that moment, I am so thankful I had the guts to come to Reno and to endure meeting all these people.

In a Reno parking lot, I am someone’s daughter and I get to feel how it is to have my mother be happy to have me around. It’s the best gift. Better than gold, and no, I have not made a bad gamble with my heart.

Let’s just get it out there, and try to have a thick skin on this one. Who in the hell writes four memoirs?

(Laughter. Jennifer falls over laughing.)


No, I’m serious. Who does that? What are you, Maya F*$%ing Angelou? Are you like a career memoirist?

Okay, first, if you swear in my house—you owe me a quarter, so let’s do the math. You are fifty cents in debt.


I’ll give you a couple dollars. (More laughter and this reporter hands over two bucks.)

Thanks.


No problem. So what’s the deal?

First, we have to talk about Found. If we don’t, my publisher will get pissed or we’ll run out of time. Whatever. Let me just tell you a little about Found.



Fine. Two sentences.


Just two?


You’re wasting space here.

Fine. Okay. Found is the true sequel to Blackbird and a really satisfying but surprising end to that story.


So it’s a cliffhanger?

A bundle of surprises and a page-turner.


You still get one more sentence.

Really? Great!

In Found, I re-approach the deaths of my parents from the perspective of being adopted and manage to find my way back to original family, so it’s a story of a hero with amnesia who comes home to a different kind of reality.


Man, did you pack that sentence!

You just gave me the one.


Okay, so answer the first question. Are you a career memoirist?

No, not really. It just worked out that way. And Still Waters (the second memoir) was not my idea. It was a “marketing memoir.”


Marketing memoir?

Right. My publisher, Pocketbooks, Washington Square Press, Atria (I really can’t keep all the imprints straight), let’s just say Simon & Schuster, saw Blackbird go through the roof after I was on Oprah in 2000 and the pressure was on. WRITE ANOTHER BOOK. WRITE A SATISFYING SEQUEL.  NOW!

At first I said, “no way, it cannot be done.”


What changed your mind?

A mind-boggling amount of money.


So you’re a sell out.

A woman in her right mind does not say “no” to that kind of dough, especially a woman who has been homeless as a child.  In fact, I’m pretty sure Jenny circa 1972 took that money. And there was my husband who came from a depression era family.  His parents still eat only potatoes—for days.  They are conditioned to this poverty mentality and so, even when they have money, they live a Spartan existence.

He has that same mentality.

Little Jenny and my husband won!

Also, our marriage was on the skids. I rationalized that maybe all that cash would take some of the pressure off our relationship.


Did it work?

No. But we did stay together for longer than we might have which was good because I had my beautiful daughter, Josephine. She is the cake, the icing and all the candles. Both my kids are pure Grace.


Don’t get all purple on me.

(Laughter) You’re tough!


So you wrote this “marketing memoir” but it wasn’t the sequel. What was it?

It was a follow up to Blackbird, a continuation on the timeline but since memoir is a genre that requires reflection and introspection, Still Waters didn’t shine. In the end, that book torpedoed me too.


You mean the marriage?

No, me personally. As a writer, it set me way back. Simon & Schuster released the damn book the month of 9-11. Can you imagine? I called them on the phone, from my tour for Blackbird in Amsterdam and begged, “Please, please, pretty please with sugar on top, hold the book.” My editor was like, “no can do.”  My agent said it was all going to be fine but it wasn’t. I toppled into an abyss of obscurity.  No media interviews happened, other than a great spot on Rosie O’Donnell and I spent my entire tour in hotel rooms eating pineapple.


But hey, hold on. I have the numbers here and you sold like 30,000 copies of Still Waters? In hard cover. And another 30,000 in soft cover. That’s a very successful book.

Apparently not successful enough. Simon & Schuster was like “Jennifer who?” after that. My agent was able to get them to take on another book, Show Me the Way, but that was also considered a flop.


Okay, that book was a flop. I’ve never heard of it.

Right?

I love that book though. It’s this collection of short stories about being a mother and how I’m doing from the perspective of being parentless since nine. That book, in my opinion, is when I became a writer. A real writer.


Okay, again, never heard of it.

Point made. Can we move on?


Touché! Let’s get back on track.

Agreed.


So you took about six years off the whole “publishing” gig and did you think that was it? Did you think you’d ever write another memoir?

I certainly didn’t think I would write Found. No. I wrote a couple novels, one about dreams and another that was loosely based on the life of the Virgin Mary but these were just lame attempts at avoiding the fact that more of my own journey was ahead of me. Now I look back at that time in my life, I realize I was resting. Blackbird was a beginning and the stunning success was overwhelming and totally unexpected.

Totally.


You got a lot of shit for that early success. I have an issue of this paper (we did a Google search) and it’s called like the Will-ah-met something?? Anyway, in this article we found online, you’re called a Stepford wife and they question why you deserved being published at all.

Okay, I do not, under any circumstances want to talk about that paper which is not even a newspaper. It’s free for god’s sake. It’s filler material for when you want to pack boxes and move or put things into storage. No one reads that rag.


You’re bitter.

I’m not bitter.


You’re seriously bitter!

Am not.


Admit it. You’re fuming. Your ears are red and you’re flushed. That’s just not good for the nervous system. Come on, share, let it out.

Fine. I’m stung more than anything. That pub is like a middle school bully. The woman, who interviewed me, came into my home and told me how much she loved Blackbird. She also took almost all our time talking about her dad, how she lived in a car as a kid and how tough her writing career had been. She cried! I was feeding her muffins and handing her tissues. Unbelievable. I was thinking, “Oh my god, is this a therapy session or an interview?”

And then she writes this mean, bitchy, backstabbing article accompanied by an equally mean, bitchy review. They cut my face up like a puzzle too.


I think you look kind of cute.

It was just mean. That is a very unkind group of people.


Okay, isn’t this publication known for being mean? Isn’t that their reputation?

I know. Everyone I knew said to stay away but I thought, “no, I can win them over.”


You’re a WOO.

A what.


Win others over.

Optimistic. I was riding the high of the success.


So, your career tanked, Simon & Schuster was not returning calls and then what? What got you back to do another memoir?

It was worse than that.  My marriage had ended, I had these two little kids to raise, I had canned my agent, my beloved editor and primary advocate had left Simon & Schuster and I was at this turning point in my life. So, I took six years off and got really involved in Tibetan Buddhism.  I practiced all the time, taking these insanely intense retreats.

That’s what I thought I would write about next.


Buddhism?

The spiritual quest and how really screwed up people use spirituality to hide from their problems.


Like you were doing?

Easy now.


Well?

Okay, fair enough. I was very screwed up but in contrast to some of the people I met—not so much. And some amazing things happened high in the Rocky Mountains. I learned meditation practices that blew me wide open and showed me a whole new way to look at being, the mind, life, form, formlessness.


Boring.

To you, maybe, but not to me. I loved it. I don’t think I have ever been so happy as I was being a student of Buddhist meditation. Those Tibetan’s rock.


I’m falling asleep here. You mean like the Dalai Lama guy? So boring.

All right, forget it. The point is, I was meditating up there at this place called Tara Mandala and doing this Tara meditation practice and that’s what changed my life.


But I thought Found was about reunion with your birth mother?

Hold on! Did you even read the book?


Well, ahhhh, actually, I’ve been overloaded…a lot of deadlines recently but I did read the press release.

This interview is OVER! Go read the damn book. I cannot believe it. I’m going to have a breakdown here.


A Nervous Breakdown?

Ha ha! That’s enough out of you. Go read the book.