Before the Call

In Issue 63 by Sandra Schnakenburg

Before the Call
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I stared at the phone, wondering what to say to a man I thought all my life— was dead.   

In 2008, two years before the call, everything I once knew had vanished. My angel Mom, who had given me hope, had passed away.

I pondered what I would do next. After some inner work, my purpose crept up inside me like a wildfire needing to be tamed. I heard the call. I remembered the promise made to Lee Metoyer, our family housekeeper, over a decade ago. Finding Lee’s urn in the depths of my mother’s closet had triggered a mission, but what unfolded next, I could have never imagined.

Lee, who had helped raise me from the age of three and a half, was something of a mystery wrapped up in a package of love. As far back as I could remember, she would cradle me on her lap, read books and squeeze me so tight I could feel her love seep into my bones, tingling my hands and feet. Lee presented a special kind of unconditional love. She sat on the shag carpet and played games, letting out a burst of gregarious laughter while pretending to be a character in a story. She was stern when she needed to be. Her bottle-thick glasses magnified her hazel eyes as they stared into mine. “I'm going to ax you one last time, clean up your mess, or else.” There was never an “or else.” All I wanted was to make her happy. Somedays, I mimicked her cleaning using my mini-sized iron and ironing board, mop, broom, and dustpan. I was her mini-me. What I remember most about Lee was her relentless loyalty to the game of baseball, more specifically to the Chicago Cubs, and even more specifically to Ernie Banks. Lee’s typical day hinged on whether the Cubs had a game. If it was a home game, tasks were complete by 1:10 p.m., when the starting lineup was announced.

I pondered whether to pick up the receiver and just dial the number. How would I introduce myself? 

As early as I can remember, I felt something secretive about Lee, as though she was holding back. I couldn’t put my finger on this awkward, nagging feeling inside. It ached so badly that I couldn't help but pepper her with questions.

“Do you have other siblings? Where do they live? What was your childhood like?”

It was the only time I remember her getting angry, eyebrows cringed, jaw clenched. She would say in a deep stern tone, “Listen here, enough already! I told you no more questions.”

I wondered if Phillip would resent me when I told him all the wonderful things about his mom.

When I was six, my growing curiosity led me to sneak into Lee’s basement bedroom behind the Penda Flex curtain while she was busy ironing. Leaning over a cream-colored dresser, I stood on my tiptoes to get a closer look at the two wallet-sized, black-and-white photos tucked into the frame of the mirror.

I knew I wasn’t allowed in her bedroom, and I knew I wasn’t allowed to ask her about the people in the photos. But those photos captivated me. One showed a white man in a military uniform wearing a leather flight jacket, a white scarf, and an officer’s cap. The other showed a little boy who looked mixed-race, about two or three years old. He stood next to a bed, his eyes crossed. On the bed was a crossword book. I heard Lee’s footsteps come up behind me.

“Who are these people?” I quivered as I turned, afraid she would yell at me like my father did when I didn’t listen.

She took a deep breath. Her features softened; she closed her eyes, tipping her head back before speaking. “The man was my husband. He was an important man and an officer. And the boy's name was Phillip. He was my son.”

My face still held a questioning gaze, baffled why I wasn't in trouble for sneaking into her bedroom. Lee frowned at the photos for a moment. “Come over here, Sandy. Sit with me.” She had a tall bed, almost double the height of mine. She lifted me. My legs dangled in the air.

“I will tell you what happened to my husband and son now, but you need to promise me something first.”

“What do I have to promise?” I asked, tilting my head to one side.

“Promise me you won’t keep asking me about them anymore.”

“I promise.”

“One day, I made a nice dinner for my family,” she said. “I thought I had green beans at home but realized I didn’t. So, my husband offered to run down to the corner grocery store. Phillip was five, so naturally, he wanted to ride with his daddy. On their way home, another car ran a red light. My husband and boy were killed instantly, and the police never caught the other driver.” Lee told the story without emotion. She said matter-of-factly, “It was a sad day, but I don't want to talk about it anymore.” She gently nudged me off the bed, and off she went back to ironing.

The day I realized Phillip was alive, I stopped everything— paralyzed by shock. I thought of this boy for decades, wondering what he would have been like had he lived.  

Lee built a museum of Chicago Cubs paraphernalia behind the Penda Flex curtain in her bedroom. Behind Lee’s bed was a framed signed picture of Ernie Banks. Her bookshelf was complete with the stories of Cubs Hall of Fame players, like Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of ‘69, by Phil Rogers; Billy Williams: My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs, by Billy Williams; and Ron Santo: A Perfect 10, by Pat Hughes and Rich Wolfe. Next to the bookshelf against the cream-colored wall were stacks of Rawlings Simplex original baseball scorebooks going back as far as 1965, each filled with every play of every game, player lineups with loads of statistics laid out in batting acronyms like RBIs (runs batted in), K for strikes, and H for hits. The stack grew with each passing season but lost between the pages were the faded memories of the players’ facial twitches and secret nods that went unrecorded.

Whoever was home rallied around Lee, watching her mood follow the game's trajectory. A Cubs win meant she was ecstatic; a loss meant she walked around in a dejected slump, enduring the grief. She'd eventually shake it off with a cup of Irish coffee spiked with extra whiskey. One thing that never changed was her long deep inhales. She smoked Pall Malls as if she was on her way to her execution while she endlessly studied each player's stats.

Why did she lie about Phillip? What mother would abandon her child? What happened to Lee to make her flee her past?

Over the years Lee became an intricate part of our family, someone we could count on when my parents’ marriage slipped into infidelity and divorce.  Lee was our pillar of strength at every turn.

 Toward the end of Lee's life, my mother never spoke about Lee’s impending death from lung cancer, but she had made it clear that morning in 1994 while beating eggs. “Sandy, why don’t you spend some time with Lee today? She won’t be around much longer. The doctors warned me she only has a few weeks.”

I honestly couldn't imagine being without this angelic figure in the world. It didn't feel real. I denied the grim possibility for a while. The little white, weightless tubes Lee delighted in and sought solace in, the Pall Malls, were stealing her last breaths.

I walked downstairs toward Lee’s bedroom. I could hear a whispering sound, gasping for each breath, creating an invisible cord from her hissing oxygen tank to a direct pain in my heart fueled by the memories that filled the walls outside her bedroom: the thirty years she shared with our family. Photos at Wrigley Field, her wide smile at Christmas when she received her Mr. Cub book, Lee holding me up with a cast on my broken leg, my first communion photo with Lee and Mom on each side, Lee with her cast. We were a clumsy bunch! My steps timidly passed her wide-open door. She was sitting up in bed— as if she’d been waiting for me. The oxygen cord traveled from the tank into each nostril, secured behind her ears.

I heard Lee’s soft voice. “Sandy,” she said softly, “will you come here and sit with me?”

I approached and sat next to her on the light blue comforter. A sliver of light shined from the small window in the corner. My eyes darted straight to the mirror that locked into place the two pictures she brought with her when she first arrived to work for my family in 1965. I thought. Soon she will see her loved ones again.

Lee gently removed the oxygen tube from her nose and placed her frail hand over mine.

“Can I ask something?

“Of course, you can ask me anything.”

“I never wrote that book I was going to write. I am running out of time now.”

For years, Lee said she would "write a book." I never understood what the book was about, but she was certain she had a story living inside her that she would release into the world someday. Several times over the years she’d blurt out in a jovial and confident tone, "Just wait, no one will ever believe my story!” followed by her crackling laughter.

I felt the question coming. The anticipation of it had me brace myself for what to say. How? Why now? What about all those times I peppered you with questions.

“Would you write it for me?” she asked, her eyes weakened with time, staring into mine.

“You mean the book you ‘threatened’ to write?” I teased.

We laughed again, fueling a coughing spell. It tore me up in pieces to see Lee struggling for air.

“Well?” she nudged.

“I don’t know if I can do that. I mean, I don’t know your story!” I thought of all the times I had provoked her with curiosity. I got nothing but an angry brow and sinched crow's feet.

“Will you at least try?”

This was the last thing Lee would ever ask of me, and I could tell it weighed heavily on her. I thought of all the times growing up when I asked Lee for a favor—"Lee, can you get this knot out of my necklace?" “Lee, can you help me find my running shoes?” Lee this, Lee that; no matter how menial or absurd, she did it every time—I couldn’t refuse her.

“Yes, I will write your story when the time feels right.”

Lee breathed a sigh of relief and squeezed my hand. Her relief did not smooth out my hesitancy to keep a promise.

I stared at his phone number. Maybe the story is buried between the dashes. Maybe Phillip won't even talk to me! Or maybe Phillip will tell me why she did it!

I thought of all the times I probed and prodded Lee looking for answers about her family, where she belonged, her roots, and her bloodline before she came to our home. Flustered at the enormity of this moment, my mind descended directly to the worst-case scenario. What if Lee's family had been searching for her all those years while she was with our family? What if they were angry, hurt or . . . what if I called them and they hung up on me? Who would I say I was? Lee's daughter, friend, confidante, or a distant relation? Who am I in all this?

How could I share stories about Lee with Phillip without concern for his loss of her presence, spirit, and love? Did he even know she had been alive? How would this be received by her loved ones? Would they be angry for her absence, jealous we had her love, relieved she lived a good life, confused as to how she managed to escape her past seamlessly? I was most curious why she would want to escape her past in the first place!

I lowered my eyes, staring at the white sheet of paper in front of me. Nervously crossing and uncrossing my legs, I lowered my head to study the number with trembling fingers.

I dialed.

1-555-444-1111

As exhausted as my head and heart were in the hours of raw clarity, I had to keep going.

Holding the phone firmly against my ear, praying that Phillip would receive my call. My hands were shaking. I knew this moment was a pivotal one.

After two long rings, I felt a pulsating sensation in my ear.

"Hello," a deep voice answered. I bit my bottom lip at a loss for words.

“Hello?” the voice repeated, a little louder. I had to pull myself together.

“Hello, my name is Sandy. I’m looking for Phillip Metoyer. Do you, uh, do you…know Phillip?" I mumbled, voice trembling. My face flushed with embarrassment. It felt like I was tipping into forbidden territory, crossing a line drawn years before. Calling someone back from the grave.

The phone went quiet. I repeated myself.

 “Hello, may I speak to Phillip?”

 “This is he,” he replied in a calm, slow, deep voice.

"My name is Sandy Schnakenburg. Lee Metoyer was our housekeeper. She lived with our family for thirty. .  . .”

“Well, for heaven’s sake,” Phillip interrupted. “It sounds like this call is not only a surprise to me, but it sounds like you've had a bit of a surprise yourself!”

“Excuse me if I sound a little frazzled. I can't believe it's you. All my life, I thought about you.”  I didn’t want to say to him on the phone, but I thought to myself— I thought you were dead for thirty years, and that’s the dang truth! But Phillips's voice was surprisingly charming, warm with delight.

"Now, isn't that something?" he said.

I was swept up in Phillip’s demeanor over the phone. It mirrored his mother’s, and he didn’t even know it.

“Phillip, do you remember Lee?”

“Oh, yes.  Do you mean Leaner Mae? That was her real name.”

My jaw dropped open as I listened.

“Oh yes, much later in my life I learned the woman I called my Mama all my life was my aunt. She was married to my Uncle Edwin, Leaner’s brother, who I called Papa. They both raised me in the best way.  When I was young, Mama told me that Leaner was my aunt. Mama told me Leaner was not well and she had to stay in a hospital. But she would come home on some of the weekends and stay with my family. I was the oldest of seven siblings, so our house was hectic. When Aunt Leaner Mae came over, we ran and played around her, but she would sit in a chair by the front door and never move."

 “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but when did you learn she was your mother?”

There was a long pause.

"When I signed up for the U.S. Marines at eighteen, my Mama gave me my birth certificate. I waited until I was at the registry before I glanced at it. I became confused when I learned Leaner Mae was my mother and not my aunt. All those years of lies. I wanted to know why. I began trembling so badly that I could not complete the forms. Rage built up inside me. I was led on a quest, determined to find her. It took me a long time to process this news.”

My emotions collided, forces of nature crashing into each other. Complete delight confronted total sadness.

“I wanted to know my mother, I wanted to meet her and tell her I loved her, so I went on a mission to find her. It was around 1965. I found out that she had been in Manteno State Hospital and later moved into a halfway house at Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. After that, I was told, she had moved to the YMCA homeless shelter in Chicago when she applied for employment with a maid agency nearby. The agency told me that she had been placed with a family on the north side. I went to the agency, but they could not give me the family's name. They were bound by confidentiality. I hit a dead end.”

I swallowed hard. I pinched my lips tight to keep them from trembling as I spoke. “Phillip, knowing that you are —Lee’s son— makes us family.”

The phone went silent. I could hear Phillip's sniffling on the other end of the line.

When the call was over, two universes had collided into one.

I don't know exactly how long it took me to process the details of Lee's life before she showed up on our family's doorstep with that massive Mary Poppins purse and captivating presence. Our family had prayed for someone to help my mom; she was stressed keeping up with six children, a challenging husband, and an estate fit for Dr. Doolittle. We had a lot of animals. My mom’s prayers had been answered—the two-week trial period had stretched into thirty years. It was ludicrous to even think of her as a housekeeper. She came disguised as one but effortlessly transformed into my second mother and my mother's best friend, and, ultimately, a guardian angel.

I had to reconcile the Lee I knew with who she was before she arrived at our home. I had to step back to see her from a different perspective, merging all of Lee’s experiences into one life, one identity now. Before Lee arrived at our home, she was Leaner Mae Metoyer—this was her birth name after all. Her real birthday was September 4th, not January 21st— the day we celebrated her birthday every year.  I wondered why she had changed her name and birthdate. Was she hiding something from her past?

We can only presume the agency collaborated with Lee to fabricate the story about losing her husband and son to protect her from revealing her true past and to help her obtain employment.  This was in 1965, long before the computer age of instant background checks.  After all, who would hire a housekeeper who had been hospitalized for mental illness and had children of their own, to help raise their children?

When I started peeling back the pages of her past, I learned the man in the pilot uniform, supposedly her husband, was a complete fabrication. Lee had never married. We believe she found the photo perhaps from an old goodwill album. It was my understanding that the agency was legally required to disclose that the applicant had been hospitalized. More than likely, Lee would not have been hired if she had shared her truth. A truth that rarely speaks to a healthy, lively, giving, loving individual: This is how she consistently showed up in our family.  There was not an inkling of her traumatic past.  What was the invisible formula that separated the heroes from the victims after trauma permeated their lives?

Trying to put all the pieces of Lee's life together took me on an emotional rollercoaster. It was not until I found her relatives and spoke to her first cousin, Ira Metoyer, that I learned what happened to Lee.  After several discussions with Ira, I eventually understood why she adamantly defended her secret and why she deflected my annoying, prying questions. The truth sent a harsh jolt throughout my family, sibling, and grandchildren, a blow of complete and utter disbelief and shock.  I now realize that there is a time to keep a secret and a time to share the truth, even if it is long after one passes away.

Looking at the whole picture of Lee's life, there were two separate pieces of the puzzle: one of her past, from birth 1922 to 1965, and one with our family from 1965 to her death in 1994. Both pieces told a story, and both pieces were incomplete without the other part. Like assembling a puzzle. After the shock finally settled, I eventually realized the magnitude of Lee’s courage and that her ability to experience life with zest and positivity could not have come easily.  She achieved a miraculous transformation, something only a few people achieve after a devastating trauma that endured for years.

Lee’s unstoppable mental focus and contagious spirit drew me closer and closer to her over the years. My memories of her working on a challenging puzzle were of a woman who, against all odds, overcame the deepest violations of human dignity. She had lost everything she had once loved and belonged to.  What Lee endured is a story of improbable survival. The initial violation occurred when Lee was just eighteen; she was left for dead in a notorious Chicago Park, unidentified, with no teeth, multiple broken bones, and naked.  Her hands and feet were frostbitten.  Barely alive on that cold November morning in 1940, she was rescued.  But what came next is a twenty-year journey of recovery in the most notorious insane asylum in the country, receiving treatments and violations, that in today’s day are considered barbaric.

In many ways, our family had an advantage in not knowing about Lee’s past. We navigated our relationship with Lee without judgment. We were privileged to know Lee's true nature, free of the chains that might have tied her to a past she wished to escape. Lee eloquently equipped me to take bullets of her hard truth. This story was an emotional reckoning, a galvanized search for a past kept silent, an inquest into a history lost. It became my attempt to reflect on Lee's influence on our lives, and how she permeated each micro-action with love and kindness despite all she had endured.

After talking to Phillip, I had to summarize Lee's story before treading into the more emotional territory—her other children. Sporadically—and maybe even a little hysterically—I laughed at the irony of Lee insisting that I write her story and my sheer innocence, thinking it would be a few hours of “story-gathering” or finding two burial plots and kissing her urn of ashes before laying her to rest!

This is just a small piece of the "Puzzle" that led me to discover the true story of what happened to our precious Lee!

About the Author

Sandra Schnakenburg

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I left a career in corporate finance in 2010 and began to study creative nonfiction, enrolling in writing courses and attending conferences. Before settling in Houston, Texas, I lived overseas for ten years in Singapore and Australia. I am active on Twitter and my website is sandraschnakenburg.com. I earned a B.S. in finance and international business from Arizona State University and an M.B.A. at the University of Southern California, where I specialized in international business and finance.