Genetically Speaking

By Diane DeVaughn Stokes

As far back as I can remember, I always loved to write, from making homemade Mother’s Day cards that my mom adored, to writing poems and limericks. I knew I was destined to work for Hallmark someday or at the least write for a living. My family, however, was sure I would be an actress or performer of some type, as I used to love to recite and act out commercials that I had memorized. Just give me a stage!

Of course I had many a diary over the years, and I recall this entry that I scribbled one night while under the covers of my bed: “Dear Diary, I would love to be a writer someday or perform on Broadway.” I was only ten years old, but I knew, even then, what my passions were. Writing, just like public speaking and performing came so naturally to me.

When I was four, my Aunt Jean and her daughter, Elaine, who was four months younger than me, came to live with us in my grandparent’s two-bedroom apartment. Yes, six of us, under one small roof: My mom and me, Aunt Jean and Elaine, Trixie the dog, and my wonderfully benevolent Nana and Pa Pa who took their daughters back into their home after they left bad marriages.

Elaine was a very serious child, whereas I was rather silly and very out-going. Occasionally, we would color or cut out paper-dolls together, but usually Elaine was found sitting in a chair reading a book. She could do it all day long. As for me, I chose to write a book. My first attempt was about the little kitten I wanted to adopt from a neighbor’s litter, but my mom said no because there were already too many mouths to feed in this small apartment. It was my first broken heart, so I wrote a little book about it using art paper I brought home from kindergarten, and I found that my heart did not hurt as bad after I spilled my guts amidst the folded pages: My first cathartic experience.

I also loved to write and design menus to alert my grandfather what was coming up for dinner that night. “Tuna Casserole or Salmon Croquettes? Would you like to take a guess?” That was just one of my many poetic menu headings. Okay, give me credit, I was five years old, and Pa Pa thought I was brilliant!

Catholic School opened up doors for me as each class was small and intimate. Sister Maureen was my third grade teacher, and she said that I had a “real gift.” She was the first person outside of family who encouraged my writing ability. One day she asked me to stand up and read my composition entitled “Divorced Mom,” for which I got an A, the only one in the class. You see this was a topic that really hit home for me, as Elaine and I were the only two kids in the entire school who had divorced parents.

This was an oddity back in the fifties, not to mention among good Catholic families. Worst of all, since they were divorced, our moms could not receive Communion. I was so afraid that my mom would die and go to hell because of the divorce, which I spelled out in the essay that I tried to read aloud to the class without crying. I also detailed the hurt of never knowing my birth father, comparing my no-show dad to Elaine’s ever-present father who appeared every weekend bearing gifts.

A month later, my mom said we needed to sit down and talk. Sister Maureen had called and told her about the paper. I knew she wasn’t going to be happy about me spilling the beans about the divorce, so I braced myself for the worst. Instead she was so proud that I got an A and Sister assured her that my gift of writing was God-given.

However, it was what my mom went onto say afterwards which mattered most to me over the years. This was the first time she told me anything about the man who was my father. I never wanted to ask her about him. I knew it was a sore subject. She was eighteen when they married, had me eleven months later, and he left us when I was just nine-months old. She hated him, which was obvious by the photos in my baby-book. One photo showed a man holding me but his head was cut off, and another of a man bending over my crib, also headless. I knew nothing about him except that this headless sperm donor was my father

This was the time my mother chose to tell me about something I grew to treasure. “You know, Diane, your father was an excellent writer, and there’s no doubt that you get this talent from him because I can’t write a lick! He used to write me poems and love letters all the time”. And then she showed me what he wrote in her high school annual. I’ll never forget that moment, as I realized that some part of me was just like him, the man I fantasized about and longed to meet, the man I wished had loved me enough to stick around for a while, or to at least visit every now and then. For the first time in my life, my father became real to me. At the same time, I finally knew that my mom and my birth father did love each other at some point, and it made me happy to know that I wasn’t a mistake. Best of all, my mom, putting all hatred for him aside, loved me enough to finally say something positive about the man who not only gave his sperm to give me life, but also gave his genes which would mold me into the person I was to become.

College found me majoring in Journalism for the first two years, switching to English with an emphasis on Creative writing and Speech. Plus, I became the university’s student spokesperson to the local media. I also worked on the newspaper staff and yearbook, chaired the entertainment committee and was a cheerleader for four years, relishing the limelight, which all led to my career as a radio and TV talk show host/producer. Keep in mind that very few women were in the media at this point. I was a forerunner, a pacesetter so to speak and being a good writer helped me every step of the way.

When I finally met my long haired, earring wearing, Harley-riding birth father, Howard Michaels, for the very first time, I came to realize the strength of genetics. My father had been one of the dancers on American Bandstand, worked for a local newspaper in Philadelphia and was once a scriptwriter and radio personality. He had been a singer and dancer with a traveling troupe, “The Latin Aires,” and was the manager of the Soul Survivors whose famous record from the sixties, “Expressway to Your Heart,” is still played today on radio stations across the nation.

Sadly, Howard died six years after I met him from a massive heart attack while dancing at a nightclub he owned in Philadelphia called “Nowhere,” but I’ll always be grateful that my mom and step-father, who legally adopted me when I was ten, supported me in this decision to find my birth father and to meet him after all these years. Not only did I gain a new sister, brother and really cool step-mother, but I also learned that even though I never lived with this man and never knew him as a kid growing up, I shared much of the same talents and passions for life that he did. He loved to perform; he was a very good writer and just like me, was the “director of everything” as my husband likes to say. The rest of my good nature and warped sense of humor comes from my beautiful mother who gave me her heart and soul from the day I was born and continues today brightening my life. Mom knows what to say at all the right times, just as she did many moons ago when my love of writing needed nurturing, even though it meant giving credit to a man who lied to her and cheated on her, and left us both without offering one cent as he walked out the door.

Throughout the years, I have had many jobs that involved creative writing. I’ve written documentaries, television commercials, several musical revues, even two songs that made it to the radio and tons of articles like this one. Each time, writing brings me joy, like nothing else. It’s a passion that fulfills me, and one that I must never take for granted because this talent came genetically from a man I hardly knew. What a gift!

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One Response to “Genetically Speaking”

  1. Juhi Basoya says:

    Dear Diane,

    That was beautiful. Not so much of what you said, but what you left unsaid.

    I just finished reading David Mamet’s take on writing in which he talks about “hearing the notes that aren’t played” (which is also the title of the essay, incidentally.) Your writing exemplified that for me. Thank you.


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