I have always loved redheads. And you can see why. My mother, pictured above, was the first Miss Junior New Orleans and was always known for her red hair and dimples. (Editor's note: I can't find any corroboration that she won this so-called pageant but it's a family legend that I will continue to perpetuate). But my story with my mother doesn't necessarily end as you would imagine concerning a former beauty queen.
I was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a Jewish father, Frank Kaplan, and a beautiful gentile mother. My father was the son of Russian immigrants who came to this country for a shot at a better life. My mother was the former Jean Clyburn, first cousin to famed pianist Van Cliburn. (Van's side of the family changed the spelling of the Clyburn/Cliburn name some time before he sky-rocketed to fame.) My parents met while my father was stationed in New Orleans where she lived. They married and moved to Newark and had my brother, Ronnie. After years of infertility and miscarriages, she gave birth to me at age 36 which when I was born that made her older than all my peers' mothers. My brother was 16 years older so I was her last shot at mothering a daughter. She named me Lisa and the American meaning of the name is "devoted to God." She had no idea that the name would belong to a person with a desire to do that.
My parents had a tumultuous start; both were addicts and his philandering ways were known to my mother, which didn't bode well for a young wife/mother. Then, when I arrived, he had just fathered a child out of wedlock with his mistress and my parents' married days were limited. They divorced; she remarried a few years later. The second man she married was a pill-popper who suffered from bi-polar disorder and finally killed himself when I was about 9. The crazy thing is I was always told that the second husband, Marvin, was my father. It wasn't until his death (and they had been divorced for about five years) that I was told that actually Frank Kaplan was my father.
After Marvin's death, my mother decided the two of us, a couple of Welfare recipients with NO money, should move to her hometown of New Orleans and start over. She had no skills but thought moving to NOLA would allow her the ability to get a job with a cousin at her restaurant waiting tables. That didn't last long. Why not? If you know anything about alcoholics, they often aren't reliable in the workforce. But one thing my mother was consistent was her devotion to me. She adored me. I didn't know any other child existed on the planet; she told me I was funniest, most talented and the smarted child ever, and I'm so gullible that I believed her. She would wait for me in the kitchen to get home from school everyday, except for those days she was drinking. On those days, I would find her laid up which brought out my performer side. I thought that if I made her laugh, she wouldn't WANT to drink. Truthfully, I wasn't responsible for her drinking or not drinking. Those were her choices. I just happened to suffer many of the consequences.
There was that day in the sixth grade when I came from school, and my cousin, who lived down the street, was waiting for me outside the apartment in her car. She asked, "where's your mother?" I told her, "she is upstairs in the apartment asleep." (It was 3:30 in the afternoon). My mother had broken her toe a couple of days earlier, and I closed her bedroom door so she wouldn't be bothered by a ringing doorbell and unplugged the phone so no one would awaken her. You see, when you live with an alcoholic parent, you tend to be the parent because that parent is often not able to do his/her job. My cousin was suspicious something was wrong with my mother because of her unavailability. I unlocked the door to that tiny apartment in Gretna, LA, and walked upstairs to open my mother's bedroom door, and my cousin jumped ahead of me to see my mother's lifeless body. My mother had overdosed probably before I even left for school that morning; she was drinking wine and taking painkillers. (Editor's note: don't mix alcohol with painkillers. Ever.) I realized that I was likely an orphan at this point (Frank Kaplan wasn't in the picture), so I wondered, where was I going to go? Who would wash my hair? Where would I live? My brother was in New York City; Frank was in Jersey. Neither offered me a place to stay after this tragedy. Enter into the picture, Sherry Gibson.
Sherry Gibson is my first cousin. We are twenty years apart. My mother was the baby of her family of five children, and she had me later in life and the rest of the Clyburns had their children in their 20s, so all my first cousins are twenty years older. Sherry was the southern belle who lived in a small town in southeast Arkansas and was married to the man she wed after a short courtship at age 19, and they had two sons. One son was six months younger than I; the other five years younger. Sherry came to Gretna to give me a place to stay for a few days, and I never left. Little did I know that that just three weeks after my twelfth birthday, I would find myself in a town I had never heard of with people I never met who would become my forever family. She and her husband Charles Sidney Gibson (I named two of my children after him: Sidney and Gibson) adopted me about a year later (it wasn't hard for Frank Kaplan to give up parental rights), and it totally changed the course of my life.
What the Gibsons did, with Sherry's insistence, was the most selfless thing a person could do. And for that, I don't know if a blog post about my story is even adequate as a tribute to her. But here goes: Happy Mother's Day, Mama. I hope all those years I gave you fits are now a distant memory and you remember my thankfulness for what you did for me.