REPOSTED from August 27th, 2009: A PERSONAL STORY -- Contacting my mother after 11 years of not speaking

REPOSTED from August 27th, 2009 in lieu of my recent trip to Florida for my mom's 75th birthday.....

TREAT: My mother's sermon on her 75th birthday

Millions of people around the world have heard about my advocacy efforts for the homeless community of Washington, DC. I've been quoted or written about in the New York Times, Washington Times and Washington Post. I've been on WPFW Radio, NPR (National Public Radio) and CNN. I've even been on a Russian TV station that broadcasts to 100 million people.Few are they who know anything substantial about me as an individual.

So, here it is. I was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the age of 8 months old, my skull was fractured by my biological mother. I then spent 5 years in a foster home, before being taken in and eventually adopted by Rudy and Joanne Sheptock. With the focus of this post being a recent reunion with my adoptive mother, I won't delve into the details of my childhood or what it was like growing up in a family of 10 girls and 27 boys, but will instead fast-forward to the matter that drove a wedge between my mother and I in 1998.

I first became homeless in February of 1994, right after my 25th birthday. I worked out of labor halls for a while. Then, in October of 1997, one of the companies that I worked for decided to hire me. (This would end up happening 2 more times over the next 7 years.) I got out of homelessness for several months, by renting a house in south Orlando for $325/month. Around February of 1998, a certain man began to bother me. It got to the point where I bought a Marlin .22 caliber bolt-action rifle. Long story short, once the man knew that I had a gun, he left me alone. I never had to shoot him, though I had put the cops on alert about him bothering me. The Orange County sheriff deputies told me to make sure that, if I shot him, that I did it on my property and didn't run down the road shooting him.

Shortly thereafter, I wrote to my parents and explained the incident, being that I used to maintain semi-regular contact with them. In April of that year, I called to wish my father a happy 66th birthday. Little did I realize that it would be the last time that I would speak to him.....ever. He informed me that he had just retired. After he and I spoke, he put my mother on the phone. This is where the trouble began. She began to ask me rather sarcastically how I was thinking, if my head was screwed on straight and if I was having any crazy thoughts. This brought to mind all of the trouble that she and I had during my childhood and convinced me that she and I would never see eye-to-eye.

I bit my tongue and politely finished the phone call. I then thought for hours on end before finally deciding never to call her again. I knew that she wouldn't approve of me calling to speak to my father only, thus creating a division between the 2 of them. I also knew that my siblings and I don't keep each other's contact info and we usually only meet at my parent's house on holidays. This meant that not calling my mother would, in effect, be disconnecting myself from my entire family. For the first few months, I actually had to fight the temptation to call. It got easier as time went on. Remembering the trouble that she and I had had during my childhood made it easier.

One must bear in mind that, at the time of my departure from their house, my parents had raised or were raising 32 children (gaining 5 more after I was grown and on my own). Some of those children were retarded or physically handicapped. When speaking at different churches or news events about our family, my mother would mention this. When chastising various ones of us, she would turn psycho-analytical and play the junior psychologist, though she never went to school for it. She would claim that, if I got upset with someone it was misplaced anger about me having been abused as a baby. I could never get her to see that I was reacting to offenses committed against me in what was, at that time, the present.

I couldn't get her to look at the matter rationally and to see that I was a normal, intelligent kid who was reacting to various stimuli in the way that any boy should be expected to, in spite of my head injury. She would say that I subconsciously remembered what happened to me when I was 8 months old and was acting it out. If true, this would mean that my sub-conscience at 8 months was more powerful than my conscious mind at 10 or 15 years of age. Needless to say, I don't buy that stuff about the sub-conscience. She would forbid me to play football -- even 2-hand touch. Then, when I would play anyway, she'd accuse me of failing to accept my limitations and wouldn't even acknowledge that, in spite of the head injury, I just had normal boyish ways. And these are just a few of the things that we would have at it about. So, you can imagine the flood of memories that I was dealing with after our phone conversation, even though I'd left her house 11 years earlier. It was easier not to call her anymore than to go through all of this all over again.

In June of 2002, I met Angela Lorraine Hoskins-Bradley while in Morehead City, North Carolina and ended my homelessness for a few more months. Due to a slightly complicated set of circumstances, we had to marry the following month, if we were going to remain together. (I was her 2nd husband.) We married on July 29th.

She'd dealt with some childhood difficulties of her own. She was still a bit of an emotional wreck because of it. As a coping mechanism, she had come to see a then 88-year old woman who she affectionately knew as "Mama Edith" as her mentor/mother figure. Angela was fearful of Mama Edith's impending death and didn't know how she would cope with the loss. I told Angie about my family. She asked me to put her in contact with my mother, in hopes of my mother becoming her new mother figure.

During our time together, I needed to travel back to Florida, where I had moved with my parents in March of 1985, at the age of 16. While in Florida, I wrote a flurry of letters to my mother, Joanne Elizabeth Tedesco Sheptock. I explained that she had been wrong over the years for giving my father such a hard time and being such a fussy woman. I informed her that the Bible which she had read and believed for so many years is quite chauvinistic and puts the man in control; but, if it is what she claims to believe, she should govern herself accordingly or change belief systems. I referred her to scriptures such as Genesis 3:16-17, 1 Peter chapter 3, 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Timothy 2:9-11.

In September my marriage fell apart. However, I still made good on my promise to connect Angie to my mother, who had changed her number as it turns out. I was able to find out her new number and called her. As soon as my mother answered the phone, I handed it to Angie. I wasn't sure as to what my mother was saying to my now ex-wife. In retrospect, it is safe to assume that she was explaining, among other things, that my father had died on September 13th, 2000.

Over the next 2 years, I would continue to travel up and down the east coast doing day labor and migrant farm work. Then, in August of 2004, I returned to Gainesville, Florida, where I'd lived from May of 1988 until February of 1994. I would remain there until July 6th, 2005, when I began my 25-day hike to Washington, DC. However, on April 24th, 2005 I ran across Martha Fortineaux near a convenience store. When my father was the assistant director of Environmental Services at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, she worked under his authority as a supervisor. I later was employed by her. (My father had actually switched departments before I began working there and left the hospital altogether about a month after I began working there.)

I told Martha that I needed to buy a card for my father, whose birthday was in 5 days. She gave me the meanest, grimmest look as she exclaimed,"Sheptock, do you mean to tell me that your father's been dead for 3 or 4 years and you're just now finding out???!!!" Those words still reverberate in my head until this day. I felt my heart drop to my left knee. I was too stunned to ask about the details of his death, so I didn't. In utter dismay, I simply got on my bike and rode off.

I began to wonder if I'd ever be able to reconcile with my family, now that I'd missed my father's funeral and hadn't been there to help him in his last days or to help his widow after his death. I thought to myself that what's done is done and I can't change the past. If my family wanted to disown me for this, there was literally nothing I could do about it. Then again, it does no good to remain mad at someone for missing a funeral. It won't bring the deceased back. What's done is done. At some point, my thoughts shifted to me just wanting to know the details of my father's death, a wish that would eventually be granted in increments.

On the night of July 31st, 2005, I arrived in the nation's capital. I made many acquaintances. As has been my habit throughout my adulthood, I continued to tell people about my upbringing and my extraordinary family. (As a matter of fact, I had just told 2 women on my job about my family on August 25th, though I wasn't even thinking about the fact that my mother's birthday was the next day. The timing was mere coincidence.) Now, I needed to account for my father's death somehow. I began to tell them that he died on 9/11/2001 as a result of his bad health (not the attacks), basing my guess on the words of Martha Fortineaux. However, I was ashamed to let anyone know that I had actually missed my father's funeral. I'm over the shame at this point. Life goes on.

I began advocating for the homeless in June of 2006. In November of that year, David Pirtle told me that, unless I learned to use computers, I would be of no use to the Committee To Save Franklin Shelter. He then took me to the MLK Library and helped me to open an e-mail account. I had some trouble when I tried to log on without him the following day. I eventually got some help from another committee member named Michael McFadden. I've been using computers ever since. My ability to use computers would eventually enable me to reconnect with family.

In July of 2007, I met Julie Sommers who was a chaperone for a YSOP group. YSOP (Youth Service Opportunities Project) is a national youth volunteer corps which sends groups from different cities across the nation to DC. While here, they serve food at soup lines, help clean in around different shelters, do meals on wheels for the elderly and perform various other types of volunteer work. Their itinerary always includes feeding dinner to the homeless at my church. During that time, they sit, talk and play games with the homeless.

Julie's group was from Elkhart, Indiana (one of the places that has been hardest-hit by the recession). I told her about my family and that there was a book about us entitled: "Our Growing Family", which was published in 1980. I got her e-mail so we could stay in touch and her group returned to Elkhart. In September of 2007, she mailed me a copy that she'd bought at her local library. I carried it around and showed it to dozens of acquaintances. This exchange had been made possible, in part, due to me having learned to do e-mail a mere 8 months prior to meeting Julie.

On August 26th, 2007, someone asked what the date was. Though they were asking the general crowd, I answered and stated that it was also my mother's birthday. A friend named Ron who was standing nearby asked if I had called her. I said,"No, I don't have a phone or money to call." He handed me his cell phone. I told him that she lives in Florida. He didn't care. I was out of excuses for not calling now. Or was I? I called the number that I'd found in 2002. That number was non-functioning. I called the number that I'd known her to have before that. Nothing. I called 411 and long-distance information (area code + 555-1212). They had no listing for a Joanne Sheptock in Interlachen, FL. I handed Ron's phone back to him as I began to think that I would never see my family again. As it turns out, my mother had moved from Florida back to New Jersey for 3 and a half years and is now back in Florida.

Though I had learned to do e-mail in November of 2006, I didn't actually learn what a search engine was until some time in 2007. I used Google and other search engines to find various bits of information related to my advocacy and would eventually use them to gather info about my family members. I found my brother Jon on-line. He was born with no arms and a short right leg. He is quite intelligent and has worked as a lawyer in New Jersey and sung the national anthem at an Astros game in Texas where he now lives. He is married with children. He tried out for American Idol and was rejected. He planned on suing; because, he thinks that it was due to his handicap that he was rejected. He can be found on-line singing by Googling "Jon Sheptock" (no "h"). I've also learned that my brother Sam works at Shands Hospital and that Joseph, who is grossly retarded, is now in a group home. I learned this and more about family members well before actually communicating with them.

That same year, David Pirtle and Mike O'Neill of the National Coalition for the Homeless encouraged me to start a blog, being that I was writing for a paper called Street Sense and they both thought that I write rather well. I didn't take them up on it. On May 6th, 2008, while at a meeting in City Hall, I met a man named Greg Wragg. He made the same suggestion and, in June of that year, he actually set up my blog at his website. Though my knowledge of computers and the internet was increasing, this still wasn't enough to reconnect me with family. There were still a few more links to the chain.

In late-May or early-June of 2008, I decided to see what info I could find on-line about my father. I found a directory that listed him as living in Interlachen, Fl and being 76, which he would've been if he hadn't died already. I also found an on-line death certificate from which I was able to glean the date of his death -- September 13th, 2000.

Around September of 2008, I began using Facebook, though I don't recall who turned me onto it (though I think it might've been a woman whose alias is Louise Thundercloud). I didn't have many contacts and it was no fun. I left it alone. Then I became good friends with a woman named Ingrid who'd begun to attend my church. She said that she found me on Facebook. I told hr that my account should've been disabled for lack of use. She told me that it wasn't, as she'd seen a "friend suggestion" with my name, and encouraged me to resume using it. I did and now I have about 15,000 friends and fans. Around May of 2009, I decided to search for family on Facebook. I've found about a dozen family members so far. Coincidentally, my eldest sister Mary Grace was also trying to track down family. She contacted me on Facebook through the application "We're Related". My Facebook friends now include my eldest brother, Rudy, Jr. and included my niece Whitney who has since stopped using Facebook. Through Whitney I was able to reconnect with my brother Steven who is her father and who didn't use computers at the time. (I also began using Twitter in 2009, though it didn't aid me in finding family.)

On June 9th, 2009 I was featured on NPR (National Public Radio)'s show called "All Things Considered". I'd been found by Pam Fessler who covers poverty issues as she searched the web for links on poverty and homelessness in DC. Being the diligent worker that she is, she checked her facts by calling my mother. After I was on her show, she invited me to tour the facility. As she finished the tour, she told me about having spoken to my mother and that my mother said that she loved me. Pam told me to keep in touch. I suspected that she invited me for the tour more as a way of letting me know that she'd contacted my mother than it was because of her wanting to give me a tour. I took it in stride.

Three days after being on NPR, I was on CNN, due to them having seen me on the NPR website. The day after my NPR stint, I had 553 new followers on Twitter and 277 messages from Facebook, with 8 of them being from friends that I'd already had, the rest being friend requests. I gained about 60 new contacts after being on CNN. I still get an occasional message from someone who heard or saw me on NPR or CNN.

Finally, all the planets had aligned and I would be able to contact my mother. I thought about asking Pam Fessler for my mother's number right after the tour but decided against it. I still hadn't worked out how I was going to talk to my family about the details of my father's death, though I had some of them on Facebook.

Then, I was using the computer on August 26th of this year, flipping back and forth between Facebook, Twitter, my blog and my e-mail when I noticed the date. I was in Facebook at the moment; so, I decided to post an update explaining that it was my mother's 72nd birthday, that we'd lost contact and telling anyone who might know her to wish her a happy birthday for me. Rudy, Jr.(actually: Rudy, II) responded by letting me know that he would send me her number if I wanted him to. Then, wouldn't you know it, the computer that I was on at the Library of Congress began to act up. It took me over a half hour to get it to send my response. I feared that Rudy would get off of the computer before I got my response to him, though I'd seen his mesasge moments after he sent it. I finally sent my message and got off of the computer immediately thereafter. Due to the half-hour spent dealing with a malfunctioning computer, I didn't have time to wait for him to send the number. I had to go outside so that I could make some calls on my cell phone.

Before going to the MLK Library, I needed to stop by where I stay. While walking there, I called Pam Fessler, who I'd also e-mailed earlier in the day asking for my mother's number. She was busy and asked if she could call me back, which she did within 15 minutes. She gave me 2 numbers, of which she said that only one worked but she couldn't recall which one it was. She also informed me that she had found my mother's number by simply going to an on-line directory called .

I called both numbers. The latter one worked. Someone answered whose voice I didn't recognize. When I said my name, they hung up on me. I began to think that my family had disowned me. But I tried again. This time my mother answered and we spoke for about 10 minutes. She told me about my father's death, not knowing that I'd already found out. However, I didn't know the cause of death. I knew that he had double-bypass heart surgery on September 12th, 1990 (Martha's 60th birthday and the day her husband, Warren, died.) I explained to my mother that my father lived 10 years and 1 day after his heart surgery and that they say you live about 10 years after heart surgery. That's when my mother explained that my father actually died from a combination of pancreatic, bladder and prostate cancer. She said that my older brother Robert had taken a 3-month leave of absence from his job to care for our father in his last days and that my father died at home. She told me that she had adopted 5 more kids since we'd last spoken, bringing the grand total to 37 (7 natural and 30 adopted). 2 of them are actually her grandchildren. She said that she still goes around speaking at different churches about the love of Christ. We discussed other family members, exchanged words of love and she told me to stay in touch.

I couldn't help but notice that she was calmer than I'd known her to be in times past. When I was a child, if she and I had argued right before I went to bed, she would pick up where we left off in the morning. However, when we spoke on her birthday, she didn't seem to care why I hadn't called in 11 years. She was just glad to hear from me. It reminded me of my relationship with my now-deceased girlfriend Joyce Ann Williams of Gainesville, FL. During our 4 years together, there had been a 6-week period during which we separated. On the day that I returned, she said,"I thought you didn't wan to see me anymore." I simply said,"I'm back." That was all she needed to hear and we picked up where we left off. That much being said.....

.....I'M BACK!!!!!


OldHippiChic said…
Eric; speaking as a mother who is estranged from her boys (two of them; 23 and 20, we rarely speak perhaps due to conflicts with their father and I long divorced - I want to thank you for sharing your journey around your family. it gives me a bit of hope and brings a smile to a sad face. You inspire; stay well and strong.

love and light
Eric Sheptock said…

I'm glad to bring you hope and put a smile on your face. Hopefully you and your sons can work out your differences. Maybe one day society will get to the bottom of the differences between how men and women think. Or don't you suppose that to be the nature of the issue with your sons???
ninjaclectic said…
Hey Eric,

Thanks for sharing this.

I really didn't know much about your family background and this was a really incredible story.

I'm glad you started blogging!

Meg said…

Your honesty is always so motivating to me. Thank you for your story and for your descriptive blog entries, again and again. I read them all. You give me, and so many others, great hope. Hopefully we can meet up at some point soon and chat about the new happenings in your life and in your advocacy work.

Meghan P

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