Until I was four, I lived in a household with my mother and her parents. My grandfather, Horace, didn’t talk much. He was given to long walks near his farm, where he and his wife Lucille grew most of our food, when not working at their textile mill factory jobs. I now think Horace was autistic. When not working or hiking, he sat in a rocking chair reading the Bible, talking to no one. I had a hand in marrying my mother off to my step-father. He was older by 11 years, and owned a barbershop and the two-unit commercial building in which it was located. My mother met him because he was the first barber I’d allow to touch me without a loud protest.
When they married my mother and her new husband came to her parents’ house and the four adults, and asked where I wanted to live. My first response was, “Can’t we all live together?” at which everyone laughed. I’ve always assumed I was given the choice because everyone wanted me to live with them. (A few years ago, telling this to a slightly horrified friend, I realized that they were all hoping I’d choose the other party. It was probably the former, but I'll never know.)
My mom had me out of wedlock, and hence, back in those days in rural Tennessee, needed a husband. She’d run away from Nashville at 19, where she was a receptionist after finishing secretarial school, and met an engineer out of Georgia Tech, four years her senior. After six years living together in Los Angeles, and not getting pregnant, he did something that made her leave and come back home. According to her, that’s when she discovered that she was, unexpectedly, pregnant.
I’d always known about William Hill. I had some of his hardcover books with his signature. (Some women save an ex-lover’s sweatshirt; my mom took his Nicomachean Ethics.) I had photos of them on an ersatz honeymoon on the glass bottom boat to Catalina.
When I was out of college, pre-internet, I decided to find William Hill, last known address Whittier, California. I called all the detective agencies in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. They all turned me down, saying they just did divorces or industrial espionage. I turned to The Los Angeles Times personals section for lost relatives and classmates. They had a special running, $10 for one weekend day and three weekdays. I could afford that on my entry-level 1980s salary. We went through the text: “Would William Maurice Hill who knew M—- G—- Powell please contact Bruce Powell Hill Majors at 202-333-xxxx?” I used a long fused name I went by until second grade, before jettisoning the “Hill,” and my office phone number. I told my mother I was going to do it. Did she want to know what I learned or never hear of it again? With a wry little smile, she picked the former.
The day the ad was to run I had to leave the office at 5:00. At home that night I kept waking up, with an image of a man’s arm picking up an old rotary phone and dialing, trying to call me. Part of my job was managing three graduate student interns. When I came in the next day, one of them said: “Oh a man called you. Right after you left.” He’d left no message. I worked late for the next few weeks, hoping he'd call again. Eventually, a letter came. It was an odd letter and subsequently every story I heard was odd—everyone’s story made them look better and the other side look worse. William Hill assumed if I was looking for him, I’d only just found out about him, and that I must’ve learned about him because of my mother's deathbed confession.
There was a phone number in the letter and I called. I told him my job might be sending me to northern California soon, and if it did. I could rent a car and drive down to L.A. He told me that someone had sent him an anonymous postcard when I was born, saying it was a healthy boy, and that he shouldn’t come around if he knew what was good for him. I also learned that I had four half-siblings in California, but that he was now divorced from their mother and married again and was a step-father to a final set of children. And that the woman he’d divorced took their L.A. home. When I shared this report with my mother on my next Tennessee visit, I believe she enjoyed that last detail.
I never met my father, who enjoyed both cigarettes and alcohol, and died on an operating table after a cardiovascular event. His kind step-daughter, who reports that he was a far better father to her than was her own disappearing father, sent me a memorial notice. But he did once call me out of the blue, after I’d come home from the aforementioned business trip to northern California. I picked up the phone and an anguished male voice, without introduction, asked, “You must be really angry at me.” I hadn’t been dating anyone for months, and I wracked my brain as to which former lover (I’m gay) I’d rejected who’d make such a painful call. Then I realized it was William Hill. In his mind, I was meeting him on a specific day and time at his favorite restaurant. He’d arranged for his current wife, and a friend near my age, to be with him to buffer whatever I might do if I met him. He was upset that I didn’t show up for this dinner I knew nothing about. Momentarily, I felt sorry for him, and slightly guilty I hadn’t completed a plan to visit. And then thought, I didn’t show up for one dinner I knew nothing about, and where were you for decades.
Years went by, and I tried to reach the four half-siblings, via postcards, which I’d tried with William Hill, before the successful classified, with no results. Then I become one of the 10 million people to join 23andMe (and one of the five million to allow others to contact them). Nothing happened for some time. 23andMe sent me lists of people who had a two-three DNA match with me and might be a distant cousin. I began to ignore the emails. One day I realized someone had emailed me a month or two earlier, through the 23andMe system. Someone with a 12.5 percent DNA match. Exactly correct for the child of a half-sibling. Michael is a Florida architect, 20 years younger than me, who was the child not of an LA half-sibling, but an Atlanta-area half-sibling, born years before me.
This was hard to process. My mother didn’t seem the type to steal a husband. And how would she, at 19, steal a husband in Nashville from a wife and two children who lived two hours south in Georgia. By the time I learned this detail, my mother was beginning to lose her faculties. An interrogation wouldn’t work. My mother no longer recognized me, thinking I was her (deceased) brother or others from her past, only showing a real memory when I’d take her for a drive and play SiriusXM 40s or 50s channels, and she’d sing along to every lyric.
But eventually I did find the California half-siblings, or at least two of them. And they filled in more details. The first was William Hill Jr. Excited to talk to me, he’d taken a trip decades earlier to find half-siblings. First he met one of the Atlanta ones. Then he'd traveled to D.C., found my building, but was frustrated by a front desk that wouldn’t let him in or up. I was very touched by this effort, and it led me to overlook the huge number of texts I began to receive, sometimes on things like Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders that I might be interested in, but also veganism, landscaping projects, hikes and his playing the guitar. He told me stories about our father’s own harsh childhood, and that William Hill had said that the most important thing in life was to impregnate as many women as possible.
I can credit William Hill with living up to his own standards.
Then another L.A. brother contacted me, this one just younger than me. A realtor, like me, I’d found his real estate website, which was pretty boring. One curiosity: in his website's books recommended for clients, was one by Ron Paul. I’m a libertarian.
The older half-brother filled in details. William Jr. sent me odd texts because he’d a diagnosed psychological disorder. William Hill Sr. was abusive to him, and had also, according to the one sister among these half-siblings, sexually abused her (though her older brother said he didn’t believe this). The really interesting story he shared was that the first of the wives—legal or common-law in Atlanta, was from a family that had paid William Hill to divorce their daughter and leave and never come back.
I shared some findings with a surviving Powell, my mother’s first cousin Dottie, now in her 90s. I always called Dottie “Aunt Dottie,” and her slightly younger brother “Uncle Howie.” Dottie remains sharper than anyone else in our family, and Howie had the best career of my Tennessee relatives. Howie traveled the country selling giant generators for a hydroelectric company related to the Tennessee Valley Authority. According to Dottie, before I was born, Howie went to L.A. on a sales trip. He had my mother’s L.A. address, went to her apartment and knocked on the door. William Hill opened the door, holding a gun. He ordered Howie in, had him sit on the couch and explain who he was. Eventually Howie escaped.