How Frankie Jean left Cali & became Mary

by Kristin on January 19, 2009

in Love, family & community

Photo by Clairity

If you’ve spent much time here, you’ve probably noticed that this blog is basically a laundry list of things I didn’t expect in my life. Luckily all of those things are woven with stories, which is probably what makes the blog worth reading.

Anyway, here’s something I must add to the list: I didn’t expect to ever know a former teenage runaway who was eventually taken in by the Hell’s Angels. I certainly didn’t expect such a person to be my mother-in-law.

See? I told you in my previous post that my mother-in-law is one-of-a-kind. You thought I just meant she was a talented artist, or she baked amazing cakes, didn’t you? No, her story is a whole lot more interesting than that.

How a girl named Frankie Jean got a new name

I’ll kick the narrative off by saying that my mother-in-law was not given the name “Mary” by her parents, when she was born in Northern California in the 1950s. She was given the name Frankie Jean.

I know—I would change that name as fast as I could, too. But Mary didn’t change it. The Hell’s Angels gave her the name Mary when they took her under their wing (nice eh? Angels and wings). They also got her a new social security card, and she’s been Mary ever since.

Mary had good reason to persist in her efforts to run away from home. She tried several times before she finally succeeded. She is nothing if not determined.

Eventually, she arrived in Chicago and decided to stay awhile. She was spare changing on the street when she met Tim, my father-in-law. He was handing out fliers to an event organized by Rising Up Angry. I don’t know if Mary thought Tim looked extra fine, or if she just knew she was angry and might as well meet some other angry people. Whatever the inspiration, she went to the event, saw Tim there, and the rest is history, as they say.

My husband: a product of sweet rebellion

Tim has an interesting story in his own right. He grew up in one of Chicago’s most affluent north suburbs, and went to what’s still considered one of the best public high schools in the country. About a month before he graduated in 1970, the Kent State shootings happened, and Tim dropped out of school. He couldn’t see the point of having a degree when everything seemed to be falling apart.

In some ways, I’m sure that hooking up with a spare-changing runaway was the perfect frosting for Tim’s rebellion cake, but he and Mary are still married, so there was clearly more than rebellion at work.

Mary’s life certainly improved after meeting Tim, but it was never easy-breezy, to say the least. They had very little money, even though they had a variety of jobs and Mary made some money arm wrestling in bars (true story).

While Mary’s body struggled with alcohol and drugs, her heart and mind struggled to reconcile a lot that had happened in her past. She had a baby back in California to retrieve, along with family she had to deal with. Then in 1975, she had another baby—my husband, Jason. Mary and Tim eventually got married, and later had Jason’s sister.

When Jason was in elementary school, Mary began working on the futures floor of the commodities market in Chicago, eventually working her way up into a career she’s had ever since. When Jason was 10, his parents were able to move their family out of a moderately dangerous Chicago neighborhood to a modest South Evanston neighborhood with good public schools. They started going to an Episcopal church, too, and Mary hasn’t had a drink for more than 20 years.

Just what I needed

Clearly, I don’t need to explain why I decided to tell Mary’s story. It has all the elements of a great story.

But it also intersects with my own story in important ways. I’m not just talking about the fact that Mary and Tim made this baby who seems to have been put on this earth just for me to spend my life with.

In the years leading up to when I met Jason, in 2005, I was feeling really crappy about myself and my life. Part of me was wanting desperately to be the person everyone seemed to think I was: happy, put together, lucky, and just plain good. Another, even bigger part of me was dying to make peace with who I really was, while worrying, deep down, whether that kind of person could be loved by the people I wanted love from.

So can you imagine what it felt like to meet Jason, and the wonderfully loving, fun, and messed up family he came from?

It felt like love and complete acceptance. It felt like freedom—like nothing I could say or do, let alone anything I had ever done, could shock or upset them.

It also made me really believe something I was just beginning to grasp: that the difficult messes we face ultimately save us, in the end. They save us from being oppressed and silent. They save us from being mediocre and false. They save us from staying where we are simply out of fear, or lack of inspiration.

Which, of course, is why we have to keep telling our stories.

My wonderful mother-in-law, Mary

My wonderful mother-in-law, Mary

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  • ang

    Being messed up makes us human; my findings have been the more perfect one appears the more neurotic they are. Nice Post!

  • Mark

    Can you try to explain your last paragraph more? Sounds profound but I am not clear if you are saying that no matter what you do you have the chance of being better for it or that if you don’t confront your messes you are destined to be mediocre and false (or I am completely missing it). Don’t mean to be obtuse, just want to understand what you are saying. The mess only saves us if we have the courage to work through it?

  • Julia

    What a wonderful story — I would love to meet your mother-in-law someday, just because of you blogging about her.

    I found your blog via Chuck Westbrook’s project, and I can already say that yours is one that will be staying in my feed reader much, much longer than two weeks!

  • Alli Butler

    Plus damn, she’s HOT! :)

  • Betty Duffy

    I’m enjoying your blog.

  • Kristin T.

    ang, that’s so true. People who appear perfect are often hiding something much more troubling than the average messed up person has ever dealt with. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    Mark, I’m really glad you asked about that. Ideally, I’d like to make sense the first time around, but when I don’t, I really like to have people follow up with a question. My life theme, I guess you could call it, is something like this: Even the messiest messes we can get ourselves into have the *potential* to be made into something beautiful. To me, that doesn’t just mean that we can survive something really difficult and move on, leaving it behind. It means the very mess can be redeemed and made into something more rich and meaningful. When I say the messes “save us, in the end,” I’m saying that sometimes we need to reach a sort of rock-bottom place in order to find the escape hatch to something new and better. (For more on that theme, I think I wrote about some of these ideas in my election eve post in Nov.)

    Julia, welcome to my blog! I’m glad you’re planning to stick around. :) I’m also glad I was able to give all of you a glimpse of who Mary is, even if I can’t coordinate personal introductions.

    Alli, yes, she is!

    Betty, thanks for reading and for letting me know you like what you’ve read so far.

  • Dorie Morgan

    When my husband and I were in premarital counseling, we were told that most important thing we could do would be to tell our story. How we met. How we came to be. Who we were before. What it is like now. Our story was key to remember. At first we told our story only to each other but now we tell the people we meet and I tell people who come to my blog. I can’t help but smile when I hear a story that is similar to ours (my F-i-L got “high on Jesus” after years of using and M-i-L had her own family’s insanity to deal with). The stories that shape our parents shape our own lives in unexpected ways.

  • Juliet – LifeMadeGreat


    I think the difficult times are where we grow and they help create our character. They form a foundation and give us depth.

    I like the way you show how difficult times are actually good to relate. I had never thought of it like that.
    That they are stories and are actually harmless enough. That takes away a great deal of the stress and enormity of them.

    Perhaps I have quite a few essays up my sleave that are waiting to slip out.

    Great insight,

  • ejly

    Hi, I found you through Chuck’s project. Excellent post about MILs. I adore my present mother in law; she works in a jewelry store and my dear husband has never missed a gift-giving occasion – I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Good luckwith Chuck’s project!

  • mommyknows

    She sounds like a fascinating lady. I am hear via Chuck. I’ll be back.

  • Jennifer Brooks – The Rurban Fringe

    I’m also here via Chuck W.’s blog … and while I’m not an essay writer, this post reminded me so much of a volunteer I worked with – a hilarious, driven, compassionate soul who didn’t let her past define her future actions.

    And while I’ve moved on, I still think of her and her adventures (mostly the awesome photo of herself at 19 doing the splits in a bodysuit on a rugged Harley!!) and hope she continues to find a way to carry on and make a difference.

    Thanks for the post, I’ll be back!

  • cpond

    Finally started reading your blog after intending to check it out for a while now. I can really relate when you say “the difficult messes we face ultimately save us, in the end”. I find that it’s often a somewhat paradoxical process: I really wish it weren’t happening, and yet at the same time I know it’s taking me to a better place.

  • Laura

    I am here via Chucks project. Good post I look forward to exploring your blog more and reading more :)

  • Daisy

    She sounds like an amazing woman.

  • stef

    thanks for the story about your M-I-L…i WAS wondering what you were alluding to in your previous post. :)

    also, congrats on chuck choosing your blog! well-deserved, i think. (plus, i already read your blog, so one less blog to add to my blogrolL!) ;) looking forward to reading more….

  • Kristin T.

    Dorie, I love that your pre-marital counselor was wise enough to tell you to keep telling your stories. Pretty amazing. I’m also glad you brought up this: “The stories that shape our parents shape our own lives in unexpected ways.” When we shut out our children or gloss over difficult stories, we hurt them in deep ways they probably won’t understand until later, if ever. This was something I never fully got in my relationship with my first husband, and his relationship with his parents. Now I can see more clearly how it negatively affected us. Thanks for sharing part of your story with me.

    Juliet, I really like how you put this: Recognizing that stories are just stories “takes away a great deal of the stress and enormity of them.” How true. I hope you’re able to write several of your own down soon.

    ejly, how wonderful to have a MIL who works in a jewelry store (and stays on top of important dates so your husband doesn’t have to!). I’m glad you made your way to the blog and found me on Twitter, too.

    mommyknows, I’ll look forward to your return!

    Jennifer, the woman you worked with sounds amazing, and your description of her is fabulous. It makes me wonder how I might impact people who spend time around me, and how I’d want them to describe me.

    cpond, I’m so glad you made it over, and that you left such an insightful comment. As you said, it is a “paradoxical process,” that causes so many mixed feeling, particularly when we’re in the middle of the mess. I think that’s partly why we have to tell our stories to each other, so that people who made it out to the other side can encourage those who are in the thick of things.

    Laura, thanks!

    Daisy, she is wonderful. :) So glad I’m able to “share” a bit of her here.

  • TJ Hirst

    Whether or not on the surface our lives look messy, to each one of us, I think at some time we feel that way. Hence, your statement: “The difficult messes we face ultimately save us, in the end. They save us from being oppressed and silent. They save us from being mediocre and false. They save us from staying where we are simply out of fear, or lack of inspiration.” is a truth we can all share in. Nice thoughts.

  • Kristin T.

    TJ, thanks for your comment. Sometimes it’s tempting to wish for a life we could simply coast through, isn’t it? But I hate to think about how complacent and stagnant I get when I’m able to coast for too long.