INCREDIBLY, I WAS unaware of the fame surrounding my new boyfriend’s father, the famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio. A 1969 poll conducted to coincide with the centennial of professional baseball voted him the sport’s greatest living player. Songs by famous artists were written about him. One example was a song called “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” which was written by Alan Courtney and Ben Homer in 1941, and performed by the Les Brown Orchestra. The song was reportedly inspired by his fifty-six-game hitting streak, which led to him being given the nickname “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” His name was also used in the song “Mrs. Robinson,” which was used in the movie The Graduate.
Nor did I know of Joey’s relationship with his legendary step-mother, Marilyn Monroe, until I returned home after five days “on the lam,” so to speak.
I had called my mother from the bowling alley that fateful afternoon and told her I was not coming home, but not to worry: I was safe and would be staying with friends. I knew a lot of kids from school, and it was easy to find various friends to spend the remainder of the week with. Mother was angry, but evidently not worried, because she didn’t call the police the entire time I was away. That week, Joey and I became sweethearts. During those first twelve hours that Joey and I spent together, we shared many of our deepest thoughts and feelings with the ease of lifelong friends.
He asked me questions like, “What was it like for you growing up wondering about your father?”
“Well, it’s been hard. I think about him all the time. You know, it’s like a piece of me is missing and I can’t be all of me until I find that missing piece.”
“I can understand, because I know who my father is, yet we’ve never been close and I, too, feel as if there’s a piece of me missing.”
“How do you mean?”
He breathed in, pursed his lips and blew out his breath, then wistfully said, “Well, if I could know him a little better, then perhaps I’d understand myself a little better.”
I remember thinking, p-e-r-h-a-p-s, stringing each letter on the imaginary clothesline in my mind. I liked that word, but wondered what it meant exactly in his situation and why did he say that just at that moment?
I asked, “What about your mom? Are you close to her?” “No! We haven’t spoken in over a year.”
I nuzzled him with my head. “Oh, Joey, that’s so sad. Why?”
“I don’t know, Dawn. I guess we’re both just too occupied with the intricacies in our own lives.”
Again, I carefully hung a word, i-n-t-r-i-c-a-c-i-e-s, on my clothes-line, wondering what exactly that word meant, but too embarrassed to ask. My response was, “Yeah, but not even a phone call, Joey?”
He seemed to drift away then, as he always did when the subject of his mother arose. I intuitively knew to change the subject whenever he got that faraway sound in his voice.
He continued to ask me questions about what it was like to live in foster care or what it was like to have so many different parents. He wanted to know how I felt about my upbringing. Never before had anyone shown such passionate interest in me. It would be years before I realized that his assumed interest had little to do with me, and everything to do with his obsession with Marilyn.
After just one week he said he loved me, and he placed his gold chain with its football amulet around my neck. The football was Joey’s most prized possession. It was from a prestigious boarding school in New Jersey, Lawrenceville, which had awarded him the medal for outstanding athletic ability in football. Joey said the talisman brought him luck. I would later learn that it was important to him because his father, the great Joltin’ Joe, never came to see his football games or even acknowledged Joey’s athletic abilities. For him, the amulet seemed to even out the score in some way. It proved to him that somebody believed in him. Although I didn’t understand any of these nuances at the time, I knew the gold football was extraordinarily special. This amulet was his sign of commitment to me, and I felt honored.
I did a lot of thinking that week before deciding whether I would return home and obey my mother’s new rules. I had less than three months until I graduated, and I was determined to finish. If I didn’t graduate, I would disappoint my counselor, Mr. Cousineau. More than anything else, I wanted to see a smile on his face at my graduation. I wanted to repay Mr. Cousineau for his years of kindness and support.
Without calling, I simply walked back into my house one week after my disappearance. True to form, both my grandmother and my mother acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. They seemed happy to see me. My mother turned off the television, which in itself was a miracle. As usual, Grandma offered me a cigarette, which I gladly took. The three of us began chatting like old friends as Grandma and I blew smoke rings, though this ritual was ordinarily done before the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph statues in the sanctuary of our bedroom.
Mother asked off handedly, “Where have you been?”
“I stayed at Bobby’s apartment a few nights and Sara’s two nights. I took the bus to work, but I didn’t go to school.” This inaction didn’t faze them in any way.
“I see,” said Mother.
I added, “I also met a boy at the bowling alley, and I think I’m in love.”
Now showing more interest, Mother continued, “Really? Tell us about him.” Excited to have her undivided attention, I launched into a lengthy description of Joey. When I said “Joe DiMaggio” in the course of the conversation, you could have heard a pin drop. Stunned, they asked about his last name to make sure they had it right.
Mother asked if he was related to the Joe DiMaggio, the great ball player, to which I replied, “Who? What are you talking about?”
They patiently explained the history of this famous ball player and his celebrated marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and wondered if my new boyfriend was related to them.
“I don’t know, but I’ll ask him.” On the phone, I asked him, “Do you know anything about a famous ball player named Joe DiMaggio who was married to Marilyn Monroe?” With a chuckle of delight in his voice, he said, “Yes, that would be my family. He’s my father, and she was my stepmom.”
Surprised that in all of our intimate conversations Joey never mentioned this to me, I weakly blurted, “Oh.”
I wasn’t sure how to process our conversation. It didn’t make much of an impact on me until I reported this information to my mother and grandmother and pandemonium ensued. They were more than elated; you would have thought that I had just won the lottery.
My mother got up off the couch (which for some time was something she only did when visiting the bathroom or returning to her bed) and began to pace the living room floor as she pondered this new development. “Oh, my God, Dawn, this is fantastic! I’ve always told you that it’s just as easy to fall in love with someone with money as it is with someone who’s poor.”
I shook my head, “Mom, Joey doesn’t have any money. He just got out of the service and doesn’t even have a job or a car yet.”
Mother reasoned, “It makes no difference, Dawn, if he’s got money or not; coming from the DiMaggio family is the same as having money.”
I couldn’t remember a time when such high spirits had filled our home. It was as if my mere association with Joey had forever changed their lives. Their excitement was contagious, and I felt a euphoric bliss.
A few days later, when Joey met my family, a mysterious love affair began among the three of them. Joey practically moved into my already-cramped house. Instead of job hunting, he spent his days talking with—charming, you might say—my mother and grandmother. Coming home from work or school, I often felt like the intruder interrupting a private family affair. I was the tolerated family member encroaching upon their lively, intimate conversations. I have absolutely no memory of what they talked about, but it was clear that the three of them had deeply bonded.
Within six weeks, Mother and Grandma were talking about the two of us getting married. They let Joey live with us while he was getting settled. I felt torn between my desperate desire to escape from my family and the exhilarated feeling of making my family happy at last. It felt as if I had found the Holy Grail, and I alone had the power to share it with my family or let it slip away. I did love Joey, but marriage? The thought panicked me. I was only seventeen, and I hardly knew him.