Lies My Mother Never Told Me

BOOK: Lies My Mother Never Told Me
Lies My Mother Never Told Me

A Memoir

Kaylie Jones

To Eyrna
My best teacher


   City of Lights



   Birth of a Student

   Birth of a Writer

   The Black Hand of God


   The Brink



   Chicken or Egg

   Death of a Writer




   Your Own Private Omaha


   The Power of Good-bye



I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing…. I did use it—often in conjunction with music—as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to


My mother was a renowned storyteller. She was hilarious, irreverent, capable of Chaplinesque self-deprecation as well as boastful self-aggrandizement, depending on her audience. She was known for shocking the gathered company into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, or horrified silence.

Here is a story my mother loved to tell, which ended up, in a slightly different form, in my novel
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.


One night when I was perhaps two, I stood up in my crib when my parents came in to say good night and announced, “I'm all alone.”

“No, no,” my father explained, “you're not alone. You have us.”

“No. You have each other,” I told him, “but I'm all alone.”

Apparently my father sat down in a chair and burst into tears. My mother used to say that these words of mine convinced them to adopt my brother.

Why had my statement made my father cry? Perhaps this is only wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that on some unconscious level, he knew my words were true.


When I was little my mother often told me, “If I had to pick between having your father or having you, I would pick your father.” This seemed to me a perfectly reasonable and honest statement because, given the choice, I also would have picked my father.

City of Lights

footsteps of his writer heroes, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al., James Jones decided he wanted to live in Paris for a few years, and so my parents, newlyweds still, moved there, neither one of them speaking a word of French.

This was seven years after the publication of
From Here to Eternity
, a novel based entirely on my father's own experiences in the peacetime, pre–World War II army. The book, which won the National Book Award in 1952, sold more than three million copies in the United States alone and was published worldwide, including in Eastern Europe and Asia. The film, starring Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Ernest Borg-nine, and Burt Lancaster, won eight Academy Awards in 1954.

By the time they moved to Paris in 1958, he'd written two other novels,
Some Came Running
The Pistol
. While all three were bestsellers, and
Some Came Running
was made into a Vincente Minnelli film starring Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Dean Martin, the novel had been savaged by critics.
The Pistol
fared much better with reviewers. Neither book reached the level of success of
From Here to Eternity

They moved into a little one-bedroom apartment on the quai aux Fleurs, a block from Notre-Dame cathedral. My mother was an excellent reader and offered insightful comments, though of a general nature. My father gave her the first 150 pages of
The Thin
Red Line
, his Guadalcanal combat novel, and she thought they were terrible. She didn't know what to say and finally she blurted, “It's too technical, there's no heart in it.” And he burned the entire 150 pages in the fireplace. He started again, approaching C-for-Charlie Company as one collective, emotional consciousness, and he was off.

Over the course of their first year in Paris, my mother suffered several miscarriages, but eventually she became pregnant with me. Five months into the pregnancy, she had some complications, and total bed rest was recommended. My mother, for the next four months, had to give up the nightlife she loved so much.

My father was making progress on
The Thin Red Line
, so my mother, lying flat on her back, listened to him clacking away on the typewriter in the next room. One day, the laundryman arrived just as my father was writing one of the saddest scenes in the book. During an attack, Sergeant Keck, a die-hard, solemn, no-bullshit veteran, foolishly pulls a hand grenade out of his back pants pocket by the pin. Realizing this terrible mistake, he rolls away, onto his back, not wanting to upset, or hurt, his men.

My father got up and opened the door, and there stood the old laundryman, carrying their clothes. My father was shaking, his face twisted up, tears flowing; the laundryman could see my mother through the door, lying hugely pregnant in the bed. As my father reached for his wallet, the laundryman threw up his hands and said,
“Ne vous inquiétez pas, monsieur! Pas de problème!”
Don't worry, sir, no problem! And he refused to take my father's money. “You pay me next time!” My father, with his very limited French, couldn't convince the kind man to take his money.


In early August 1960, a few days after I was born, we moved into an apartment my father had bought and renovated on the Île Saint-Louis, which overlooked the quai d'Orléans, above the Seine. My father had furnished it himself—with mostly Louis
Treize, dark, shiny wood with red velvet and beige-toned upholstery. It was a strangely shaped apartment, since it spread out over two second floors in different buildings, and the buildings were not level. The living room/dining room was in one building, overlooking the quai and the Seine, while the bedrooms were in the back building, down a narrow hallway and shallow flight of stairs.

The Thin Red Line
was published in 1962, and it was a critical and commercial success. The book was sold to the movies, and with that money, my father bought the ground-floor apartment in the front building, which became my parents' elegant bedroom. A curving, carpeted stairway was built, which led from the downstairs entryway to the high-ceilinged living room. He also bought the third-floor apartment in the old, musty back building, which became his office.

Like a king and queen holding court, my parents were soon surrounded by admirers, revelers, court jesters, and even the occasional spy. They had a cook, a housekeeper/nurse, and a chauffeur. They were wild and irreverent and defiant, and so hospitable to anyone passing through that you never knew who might show up. As a little girl, I met famous writers, actors, movie stars, film directors, socialites, diplomats, and even an emperor—Haile Selassie—who stood by my bedside while I was awakened from sleep, and blessed me in some incomprehensible language. Ambassador Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy were frequent visitors, as well as the French writer Romain Gary and his then wife, Jean Seberg. My parents counted among their friends the writers Richard Wright, Irwin Shaw, James Baldwin, William Styron, William Saroyan, Carlos Fuentes, Françoise Sagan, and Mary McCarthy.

Their parties went on all night, sometimes into the next day. Both my parents escaped oppressively religious mothers—my mother's was deeply Catholic and my father's was Methodist
turned Christian Scientist. Both came from small towns—my father was raised in Robinson, Illinois; my mother in Pottsville, Pennsylvania—and both claimed to be atheists, though, if pressed, my father would admit to being agnostic. They derided ignorance, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness.

My father's father, J. Ramon (pronounced
) Jones, had been a dentist but became the town drunk, losing all his patients and his high standing in the community—absolutely everything. His wife, Ada Jones, died of diabetes in March 1941. My father was already in the army in Hawaii and did not request a leave to return home for her funeral. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December that year, while my father and the rest of his infantry company were building pillboxes on Oahu to hold back a Japanese invasion, Ray Jones, a World War I veteran, went down to the closest U.S. Army recruiting office to enlist, but he was drunk and was laughed out into the street. He went back to his empty office, sat down in his dentist's chair, and shot himself in the mouth. He was found by my sixteen-year-old aunt, Mary Ann, on her way home from school.


The bar in our Paris apartment was an antique eighteenth-century carved wooden pulpit from a French village church. My father had seen a pulpit bar at a friend's apartment and for several years had searched for something similar. He finally found ours at the Village Suisse antiques market and installed it, complete with prayer stools, as the centerpiece of the living room. To him, this was the greatest of ironies, the most irreverent of jokes he could pull on his Christian forebears; it was as if he were thumbing his nose at all of it—the hypocrisy, the sexual repression, and the beatings his mother had given him in the name of God.

The pulpit bar became the scene of many political debates. Occasionally things got so heated fistfights broke out, candlesticks were thrown, and lamps overturned. As a result, my father, the
supreme ruler of his fortified castle, created the Ten-Minute Rule. Anyone could take the pulpit, but after ten minutes, the person had to step down and give someone else a chance. James Baldwin loved to take the pulpit and was often found there in the early-morning hours putting forth the proposition that all white Americans, by the mere nature of their being white Americans, were racist. This would throw my dad into a rage.

Paris had its first big American civil rights march in the early sixties, and my mother took me along. I was not old enough to walk, so I was carried on Jimmy Baldwin's shoulders, all the way from the U.S. Embassy on a corner of the place de la Concorde, up the wide and tree-lined Champs-Élysées, to the Arc de Tri-omphe. I don't know if I remember the day, or if I remember my mother and Jimmy telling me about it. In my mind I see the backs of thousands and thousands of heads moving up the avenue, everyone singing songs. No one seemed afraid. Every time in my life I saw Jimmy, he would remind me of that day. He almost single-handedly turned me into a raving liberal.


In 1962, when we spent the winter living in a beach house in Montego Bay, Jamaica, my parents became friendly with a British couple, Michael and Pheobe, who ran an upscale hotel where my parents liked to hang out. Michael and Pheobe were fostering a little French boy they'd named Ambrose and were apparently trying to decide whether or not to adopt him. My mother, upon seeing the little blond baby frolicking in a shallow pool with his nurse, said to Michael, “Oh, how I wish I could have a little boy like that. If you don't want to adopt him, we will.”

Pheobe committed suicide in 1963, and Michael, who was already in his late forties, felt he could not handle raising the little boy on his own. Ambrose's biological mother did not want him back, so he was temporarily placed in a French orphanage. Michael called my parents in Paris and told them what had hap
pened. By this time, my mother had had two more miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, and did not think she could conceive again. It took almost a year for the paperwork to clear, but Ambrose came to live with us.

He arrived a month before his fourth birthday, in September 1964. I'd just turned four in August. He spoke only French, having forgotten his English completely during his time in the orphanage.

I have an image in my mind of the day he came to us, a little blond boy with a downcast look, in shorts and jacket too small for him, tightly gripping a small, battered suitcase, the only thing he owned. In it, he had a change of clothes and a few pairs of underwear and socks, and stained old footie pajamas. My mother went through the suitcase and promptly bought him a whole new wardrobe of beautiful, expensive clothes. Even so, he kept that suitcase, with its original contents, and took it with him everywhere he went, and slept with it under his bed. He must have thought he was going to be taken back to the orphanage at any moment.

Ambrose ate and drank everything put in front of him, quickly and efficiently, bent over his plate, never looking up. Everything except fish. No one could get him to eat fish, even under threat of punishment and even when Judite, our nanny, stood behind him at the little kitchen table and smacked him on the back of the head. He did not react, he just sat, his cheeks glowing, a glassy expression veiling his eyes, as if this was a normal part of life, something children had to endure. I knew this was wrong of her but did nothing to stop it. Ambrose's arrival did not alleviate my loneliness, but rather added to it, because now, while our father tried to remain impartial, our mother took Ambrose's side in every argument and defended him like a mother bear with a cub. To me, Judite was the only person in the whole house who was completely on my side.

When we ate dinner formally with our parents a couple of
nights a week, our dad would get annoyed at Ambrose and tell him to stop swallowing his food like a savage. Apparently none of us considered where he'd been. He'd spent close to a year in that orphanage, and who knew how much they were given to eat, or if there were bigger kids who tried to grab his food away from him.

For the first few months, my brother sometimes woke up crying in the middle of the night, begging someone called Tante Hélène not to beat him for wetting his bed. He'd been completely alone in the world, and now he was not. But he did not know this yet. And though I resented his arrival into our home, when he woke up sobbing, I helped him change his pajamas and invited him to share my bed, and told him he had nothing to fear ever again from Tante Hélène or anyone else, because our daddy would kill anyone who tried to hurt him.

Around this time, our old black-and-white TV broke three times. The TV repairman couldn't figure out what was wrong. One afternoon I heard a loud banging and came running to see. Ambrose was hammering the back of the TV with a long, flexible plastic rod with some kind of heavy magnet at the end, probably a piece from some board game.

“Mais qu'est-ce que tu fais?”
I asked him what he was doing.

“I want to open it up to see the little people inside.”

Judite swooped down and backhanded him across the head. “Ah, you little bastard,” she shouted in French, “I knew it was you!”


My mother showered her little boy with gifts. She threw the biggest birthday party we'd ever had at our Paris apartment, inviting every child she could think of, ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. She ordered a two-foot-high cone-shaped cake made of little cream-puff balls, glazed with honey. His eyes practically popped out of his head when he saw the pile of presents, all for him. It took him two days to open them, which horrified me. If
'd had that many presents, I'd have torn the wrappers off in a matter of minutes.

Not for one second did my parents differentiate between us. He was ours now, for the rest of his life, and apparently he realized this himself pretty quickly. Shortly after his birthday party, my brother gave his suitcase to our father and told him he wanted to change his name to Little James. Our father named him Jamie.


Jamie learned to speak English in a matter of months, and then took on the task of Americanizing himself, refusing to speak, read, or write in French in our kindergarten class at the École Al-sacienne. One day, while standing in the school yard, the teacher told my mother that her son was retarded. My mother promptly threw sand from the sandbox in the teacher's face. We ran away and never went back, but the next week we started at École Active Bilingue, a French school where English was taught. Unfortunately, this move didn't help Jamie much.

By the age of six, Jamie could give our dad a run for his money in a game of chess, and beat both our parents at gin. Our mom said, “Retarded, my ass! Now, stop acting like a jerk and start focusing in school.”

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