The Day We Learned My Dad and Charlene Were Dead

My grandmother’s piano sat in our front room. It’s dark cherry and well-worn and every Smith kid had to take piano lessons. I wasn’t that great at playing conventionally, but I was good at playing a song by ear. I could read music and loved all things Billy Joel and Elton John. I aspired to nail Funeral for a Friend that starts with what sounds like organ music and ends with pure joy (yes, go listen to it – I’ll wait). The piano was the backdrop for the bombshell my mom was about to drop.  

March 16, 1980

That Sunday afternoon we got a strange call. It came on the mustard-yellow landline that hung on our kitchen wall (sporting the typical tangled 12-foot cord so someone could try and seek privacy). The call was from Phil Drescher. My dad’s law partner. He never called us. Ever. This was my mom’s house and the Smith kids were often considered to be wild children by the upper crust. We hung out with the affluent, but we absolutely were not. While Phil’s kids went to private school, we were JC Penney-wearing public-school kids being raised by a divorcee. Ya know, riff raff.

“Mom’s not home right now,” I told Phil. “May I take a message?” I wasn’t complete trash, we had been raised to one day be ready to have dinner with the President should the opportunity ever arise.

“No,” he sputtered, “I’ll call back.” And that was that. But I knew it was weird. It was mid-afternoon. I was home with my 15-year-old brother Jay. Gary had gone up to my dad’s house to mow the lawn. We lived at 6103 Sutter Street which was about a mile – as the crow flies – to my dad’s house at 573 High Point Drive. It was a way he could make some money as a 12-year-old.

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Mom’s house is there in the lower area by the school and dad’s house is up on High Point.

Not long after the mystery call, my brother Gary came bursting into the house and ran directly to his room. We could tell he’d been crying. Mom looked strained and Jay and I came over to meet her at the foot of the piano. I was sitting on our bean bag chair and Jay was standing beside me.

“Your father is dead,” she started.

Just like my mom to just lay it out there. There was a beat while we took in that information.

“Did Charlene shoot him?” I asked. My dad had a conceal carry permit and he kept his gun in his trunk. I always worried one of their fights would escalate into a deadly scene. Not because I thought Charlene wanted to kill him, but she’d do anything to create drama and gunfire seemed like something she just hadn’t tried yet.

One time, my dad called up to the house to break up a fight and Charlene did something that night that I have remembered my whole life. My dad was on the front lawn because she had shoved him out (and probably because he thought walking away would deescalate things). Anyway, before I could do anything to calm things down, Charlene ran into the kitchen and grabbed something. It was the silverware tray that separates the knives from the steak knives and the forks and spoons from the salad forks and dessert spoons. It was loaded with silverware. She took that sucker and snapped it at him sending the silverware hurling – each spinning in rotation as an independent object – toward my dad. Not one piece hit him, but I always thought the move was bad-ass. With the right lighting, it would have looked spectacular. If someone uses this in a movie, please give her credit.

“No,” my mom said calmly. “Charlene is dead too.”

“What!” I nearly jumped out of the bean bag. Jay was quiet.

“Gary found them in the bedroom. The police are there now trying to figure out what’s happened.” I honestly don’t think she said more at that point. She really didn’t know much and had a kid in tears in his room. Jay immediately bolted out the door and took off. He had been preparing to go for a run and this news was all he needed to hit the streets. A few minutes passed and mom went to check on Gary. I had a different plan.

“I’m going to go see if I can find Jay,” I yelled as I grabbed the keys to the VW Bug (yep, the same one you see in those black and white photos). I hopped in the car and headed to Loma Vista, a main drag that connected our neighborhood to others. I figured he was heading toward his good friend’s house. I don’t remember if I was crying. I think I did when she told us. I’m sure I did. But I wasn’t crying when I was driving. I was scouring the streets looking for my brother and yet I knew where I was going to end up. I had to get up to my dad’s house to see if what mom said was real. I headed over.

As I drove up the hill, I could see all the activity. Dad’s house was only about half way up the block. Police were milling around and the yellow crime scene tape was up across the front of the house. Neighbors were outside talking and watching the activity. It was true. They were dead.

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Why does it always seem like these folks don’t know what they are doing. Crime scenes always have cops milling around. What’s up with that?

I went back home without Jay. He had made his way to a family friend’s house and mom was glad he was there. They were good people and no matter what, she felt comfortable knowing he was with them. I honestly don’t remember what Gary did after he ran to his room. I was able to learn from mom what had happened. She told me in a quiet moment that we didn’t realize would be one of our last for awhile as police, lawyers and relatives began assembling.

Gary had gone up to mow the lawn.

When we got there, the front door was unlocked so he walked in. It was just as he had expected. Just after noon, he figured they might be eating lunch. Instead he heard their alarm clock going off. If you remember, those awful digital alarm clocks were loud and required an intervention to get them to turn off. He started walking to the back of the house but paused. Maybe his timing was off and they were just waking up. He needed to give them privacy. But after a beat, the alarm kept making noise and he didn’t hear anyone moving. He continued back to the master bedroom.

In the bedroom, he could see two people in the bed. The comforter was pulled over their heads. Gary walked around to my dad’s side of the bed (he slept on the side closest to the sliding glass door) and shut off the alarm. He gently lifted a corner of the comforter. It stuck a little to my dad’s head as he pulled. All Gary needed to see was the scar on the shoulder we all recognized as belonging to my dad. Using the phone on the nightstand, Gary called 911 and police asked him the address. Gary had to run out front and look at the numbers because we hadn’t memorized the house number back then. He came back in and picked up the kitchen phone and gave them the address. They directed him to wait outside so he immediately went out.

While he was waiting, friends of my dad and Charlene, Judge Lewis and his wife Claire, spied Gary sitting on the wall. They lived up the street in the development. They stopped and asked Gary what was going on and stayed with him. Coincidentally, my mom had been at a friend’s house in the same development and she decided to drive by to make sure Gary had gotten there okay and was getting the job done. She passed the house and saw all the activity, so she turned around in the church parking lot and headed back up. She asked to people standing on the side of the road what happened and one motioned “dead” by pulling his flattened hand across his neck.

“Which one?” she asked.

“Both,” he said. Mom parked the car.

All I really remember from that point on, was chaos. People and process and questions and movement. The newspaper wouldn’t break the story until the afternoon edition on Monday. But it didn’t matter. It was a small town and news traveled fast. My dad and Charlene were dead. It would be decades before we understood what had really happened.

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My family will kill me for this. One of the few pics I could find. Us at my mom’s house at roughly the age of dad’s death. This was either the Thanksgiving before or after. The women in my family are notorious for gaffing photos. The boys, on the other hand, look adorable. That is my mom’s mom, my favorite person of all, Lila.

2 thoughts on “The Day We Learned My Dad and Charlene Were Dead

  1. Wow. Great read, Jennifer. I can’t imagine what that did to Gary – I hope he was able to get on with his life.

    That photo is a time capsule of goodness. Your mom has that look. That mother look. Her eyes are saying, “Take the damn picture quickly!” Your brothers take after your mom but I see your dad in you.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing everything.

    1. Thank you Eric. Sorry for the late reply – I love how you just know our family. That’s kinda cool! I’ll keep writing.

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