The Wrong Direction

Inspired by the work of Studs Terkel, I interviewed a family friend and then crafted and arranged her words into the essay below. She has lived one hell of a life. I am honored to call her a friend and share her story.

Cooking was something that had been an anchor for me when I was a teenage bride. I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t even know how to make my own bed. I was completely the little princess until I became the naughty girl who got pregnant. And cooking was the first part of the new job of being a wife and mother that I really got the hang of. And of course you get instant gratification from it. If I never have to make a bed again, I’d be fine. But if I didn’t get to cook for people and see them enjoy my food… that became kind of a through line that came up again and again. But it’s not something I ever thought would be a part of my life.

I was adopted in the middle of Kansas, in Junction City, Kansas. And Kansas has one of those “Right to Know Laws” so you can get your real birth certificate if you want to later in your life. So I did. When I was long grown up. I didn’t ever even ask about it for years – if you could do it. I found out that my mother was from East Orange, New Jersey, which I think is kind of funny. I don’t know why I think it’s funny. You never think of anybody being from East Orange, New Jersey. My guess is she got pregnant at the end of the war by somebody who… is not on the birth certificate, which was the way in those days. They left it blank like you were immaculately conceived or something. My Dad owned a dime store and I have to say that that is probably best place in the world to grow up, to be able to run amuck in a dime store. You know, like the whole dime store was my oyster. It was good. And I was an ‘entertainment kid.’ I took lessons every night and I guess that’s the only thing your parents could push you into ‘cause there weren’t really ‘sports for girls.’ But I did have ballet and tap and piano and flute and elocution.

And it all came to a crashing halt because I got pregnant when I was thirteen years old. That’s a bad one.

I really can’t figure out what my parents were thinking. Because they weren’t cruel people and they weren’t…you know, they were as refined as you could be in the middle of Kansas. They only saw one solution to the problem. And that was that I’d get married. And of course that was probably helped along by the fact that the boy – my first husband, Bill Cooper – he desperately wanted to marry me. He had just graduated from high school and he thought that that was the right thing to do. And he was madly in love with me so, “Why shouldn’t we get married?” And instead of saying, “You’ve gotta be crazy. She’s only thirteen years old. She can’t get married to anybody. Go away,” they said, “Okay, well this is just awful. You’ve completely embarrassed us and now you have to get married.” So I got married in a traditional white lace dress and I had my first child when I was 14. I know; it’s really a drag when you get large breasts early. It causes all kinds of problems.

I was married to Bill Cooper for eight years and I had all three of my children before I was 20 years old. I guess if I saw somebody that young with that many children now I would think “Oh my god. What a white trash kind of a situation.” But somehow I hung in there. And after I had all three kids… well, that’s the part we need to talk about. Kids couldn’t go to school when they were pregnant then. You were drummed out of school. They didn’t want any pregnant children running around. And of course I was just a freshman. It was a true small town scandal, you know, as you could imagine.

Bill Cooper went to Kansas State University and graduated and became a teacher. And then we went to another small town in Kansas where we lived until we got divorced. During that time at some point, I started taking some correspondence classes from K State. I had about 15 to 20 hours of college when I got divorced and that enabled me to go to college in Kansas City, where I moved after I got divorced. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to graduate from college that they realized I didn’t have a high school transcript. That would never happen in this day and age where we have computers, but then I was able to skate by and kind of sneak in. And by the time I had a whole college transcript and I had been on the Dean’s List for two or three semesters (And I did that while also working as a cocktail waitress, of course), “Well, I don’t have a high school transcript,” I said. “But look, I did good, so what’s the problem?” And so they let me graduate from college. So in other words it was a real ass backwards way of doing things. Have your kids before you’re 20 and then go to college. You know, it was all done in the wrong order.

It’s funny how you are sure you’re going to go in a certain direction…

I got two different degrees in Administration of Justice and Communications. And instead of becoming a lawyer who was on television, I became a rock and roll caterer. Who saw that coming? That was my first job out of college. Well, I started it during my senior year of college. This is the late ‘70s now. Up until that time it had kind of been one of those deals where the local producer would give some groupie 100 bucks or something and she’d go and get cold cuts and beer and that was what backstage catering was. But it was getting more and more complicated. So producers had to have a real fulltime caterer to take care of the needs of the band and the crew.

The Eagles, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, a lot of English bands. Willie and Waylon and the boys. Linda Ronstadt. Late ‘70s stars. I think my first big concert was Pink Floyd. I did that for about two years. It was my first brush with working in the food world. I had never thought in my wildest dreams I would be involved in food. It wasn’t my ambition. And in those days — the ‘50s, ‘60s — it wasn’t anyone’s ambition like it is now. To be a chef.

It’s not something I like to talk about, but my kids lived in Kentucky. When my marriage broke up, I was briefly hospitalized — like for a month — I was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of the K U Med Center in Kansas City. And my husband took my kids and moved to Kentucky. So my kids lived in Kentucky. And they would spend the summers with me and Christmas vacation and stuff. But I didn’t have everyday care of them. Which made for interesting and terrible memories for both of us… But we always spent our summers together. As my daughter always said, she grew up “schlepping booze to the Grateful Dead.” I mean, how bad is that when you are a thirteen-year-old?

I didn’t have to completely run home to the baby sitter. And through all my different careers, that has been… I’ve had a freedom that most single mothers don’t get to have when they have three kids. It very much limits what you can do and what you can experience yourself.

Somewhere in that time period, I married my second husband, Finn Arnold, who was an artist. Finn and I were married for seven years. And he eventually decided that he wanted to be a musician. And that led to him deciding that he wanted to be in Los Angeles. And I didn’t want to be that far from my kids. We broke up very lovingly and in fact we still are crazy about each other today. We love each other. When I stayed in LA a couple of years ago, he came over and got me and we went up to Melrose and had drinks and necked in the car. He’s married happily and has two college-aged kids. And he’s still a musician.

After I graduated from college and did the rock and roll catering gig I started doing other catering and special event planning mainly for the arts community in Kansas City. And that led me to opening Café Blue. After three years when Café Blue closed (Yes, it is possible for a restaurant to be packed all the time and still lose money. I proved it), I started writing a column for the Kansas City Star about food and wine. One of the stories I did for them was on the new sub-genre, which was ‘culinary mystery.’ In the early 1990s there were probably three or four in the United States and one woman in England that were writing books with food as a theme. And the protagonists in these books were usually some type of food professional. The woman that I interviewed for the newspaper piece was — and who’s still the most popular food writer — Diane Mott Davidson. Her protagonist was a caterer. After I wrote that article I thought, well, maybe I could do one in which the protagonist was a redheaded bistro owner in Kansas City, which is what I was!

I published ten books in ten years. Culinary and historical mysteries. That was a really good run.

Yes, of course, there are things I wish had happened different. I wish I hadn’t gotten pregnant at thirteen. I wish I hadn’t had a horrible divorce and my kids hadn’t been taken away. I wish I had enough sense or agility or combativeness to fight for them. Maybe it was money that I needed to hire a lawyer. There’s a scad of things I wish I had done differently. Nonetheless, here we are. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • Sophia

    This was fascinating to read. I’ve never so much enjoyed reading a traditional autobiography, but here we are. This gives me hope that I’ll end up with a really cool job in a track that I’m not at all headed towards. Thanks so much for writing.

    • Sophia

      wait. it isn’t real? how disappointing. i take my comment back.

  • Lauren

    I liked this a lot when I thought it was true, but then I read your bio and found out that you’re a college student, so it lost some of its appeal.

  • http://twitter.com/Melissa_Messer Melissa Messer

    “Taylor Barrett is a college student.” Maaan.

  • Joanna

    What happened to ‘relevant and relatable non-fiction and thought’? Either this is fiction or Taylor has had some really awesome plastic surgery…

  • salt salt n pepa

    Uh, Whitney Houston is from East Orange, NJ. 

  • newyorker

    that really pisses me off. 

  • HB

    This didn’t seem like TC-worthy material. Also, I was mad when I read her bio and saw that it wasn’t real. False advertising.

  • http://omgstephlol.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

    It’s non-fiction, please see the recently added intro for clarification. 

  • Danaynay

    Fiction on TC? When did that start? 

  • Anonymous

    I thought this was fantastic — a great homage to Terkel. GUYS IT IS REAL. Call off the mob.

  • Mark

    Fortunately I had the benefit of reading this post-intro, and knew this was non-fiction from the get go. Amazing stuff. Hope you do more in the future. 

  • Sarah

    I loved it, just remember, somewhere in the world this is pretty much what has happened and will happen to someone else, and because it is written here  and spoken about it may just influence a couple more lives to go on and flower. It has always amazed me that the same people that told me that being a sole parent at 20 would ruin my life, now say it was the best thing I ever did! Life is all about perspective and choices, you make choices every day, sometimes the choice is just not to make anymore choices….

  • Emma

    Someone else has heard of Studs Terkel?  Ohhh ok, you live in Evanston, makes more sense. Still awesome.

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