Memoir

That Time My Mom Married a Lion Killer

Our house became a hunting lodge, and that was just the beginning.

That Time My Mom Married a Lion Killer

When I was three, my father died in a plane crash. The attorney who handled my father’s will was a lawyer named Gerald, a big, bearded guy with an expansive gut, an ex-wife, two sons, and an adopted daughter. Within a year of my father’s death, in 1999, my mom married Gerald in a small ceremony behind our house in Sanford, a tiny town outside Raleigh, North Carolina.

She and Gerald hadn’t even gotten back from their honeymoon when she realized she had made a mistake. His personality grated on her in a myriad of small ways. But she didn’t want to quit that fast. And so began our new life with Gerald, the small-town attorney and big game hunter.

By any measure, Mom and Gerald were mismatched. She enjoyed gardening, interior design, reading and traveling. He enjoyed hunting, hunting and hunting. He was a conservative who feared the fascists would come take his guns. She had subscriptions to Newsweek and Time. His house was dark, wood paneled, and decorated like a hunting lodge. The place Mom designed (which he moved into) was a white stucco postmodern house that looked like she plucked it out of California or Miami.

In fact, the whole town was wrong for Mom, who had moved us there from New Jersey (and convinced her parents to also move there from Arizona) in order to raise us around my father’s large extended family. Now, she was stuck in a town she had nothing in common with, with a new husband she disliked. I, at four years old, was blithely unaware of all of this. My more sensitive sister, at ten, was starting to get the picture.

One of my sister’s first memories of Gerald is seeing a picture of him in his study, crouched behind a dead lion. Mom knew that he liked hunting when she married him. That wasn’t abnormal in central North Carolina. But she soon found that hunting wasn’t just a hobby for Gerald. “It was an obsession,” Mom says. “That was by far the most important thing in his life. He expected his family to understand how he felt about it, and to bend their life to meet his needs.”

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When waterfowl season opened on Thanksgiving, Gerald had to go out hunting. “So everybody had to hold Thanksgiving until he got back,” Mom says. “It could be very late, between hunting and cleaning up, and getting home and putting the dogs away.” Dinner had to be pushed back from one p.m. to around six to accommodate him.

Gerald wasn’t a sociopath, like some animal lovers paint hunters out to be. He wasn’t mean or abusive. Mom describes him as honest, and at times funny. But he wouldn’t have won a father or husband of the year award either, and soon my whole family came to intensely dislike him.

My sister remembers him as being kind of a jackass and, above all, lazy. “He was always getting people to do things for him,” she says. Whenever Gerald didn’t feel like doing something — helping move his own stuff into our house, doing work outside in the garden or yard, opening a jar of pickles — he would blame his diabetes and say he was too tired. My aunt remembers how he would boss me around, sending me to the fridge to fetch him a soda or beer, while she seethed nearby.

One time, I picked up a partially-full can of Coca-Cola from the kitchen counter and took a swig. It turns out that Gerald had been using it as a dip cup and had thoughtlessly left it within my reach. My grandmother was the one who held my hair back while I vomited the dip back up in our elegant, black-tiled bathroom.

Gerald had three or four hunting dogs, black labs, which he kept in small runs at his property. A dog run is essentially an outdoor fenced cage — Gun Dog Magazine recommends about twelve feet by four feet — with doghouses inside. He would go over once a day to feed them and hose down the concrete floor, but he only took them out of the runs twice a year for a hunt. Mom was disturbed by how he ignored the dogs, so she insisted he bring his favorite dog, Grace, over to our house, where she would sleep in the garage at night after a full day of playing with me and my sister. “She was so hungry for attention,” Mom says.

Sometimes Gerald and Mom would deposit me in the hunting lodge with some coloring books and head out for a few hours of clay shooting. While I carefully colored inside the lines, I could hear the crack and echo of shotguns in the distance. I won a coloring contest that year, probably because I was so bored that I spent extra long filling in each and every shape perfectly.

Mom thought clay shooting was fun, but she had no interest in actually hunting animals. Nor did she have any interest in dressing or cooking any of the ones he shot. He once brought home quail and gave them to my grandmother to prepare for dinner — a major faux pas. Nana had developed a soft spot for quail while living in Arizona, watching them walk and bob across her backyard. She even owned some mama and baby quail figurines.

Then there was the hunting safari he went on in Africa. Mom claims she wasn’t mad he went — it was his money — but it sounds like it did peeve her at least a little bit. “Instead of doing a trip where both of us could go someplace nice, he spent the money on going to Africa by himself,” she says. To her memory (and she says her memories might not be reliable, because she has tried to block that time out) the trip cost at least $10,000. “The permits alone were very expensive.”

Gerald spent three weeks riding horses around South Africa and came back from the trip skinnier, with several trophies. Mom didn’t want animal heads in the main part of the house, so the antelope head, with its tan-and-cream face and elegant curving horns, went in the master bedroom. The Cape buffalo head, a huge black bull with horns that parted from the center of his head then flipped up like a crazy ’60s hairdo, went at the top of the stairs leading to the playroom above the garage. Every time my sister, stepbrother, and I wanted to go play“Duck Hunt” on our first-generation Nintendo, we had to pass underneath it.

The zebra skin rug, stiff and scratchy, went under the baby grand piano in the living room. This was the one that confused me the most. I liked horses; I rode them at my great Aunt Sally’s farm nearby. And I knew, even as a five-year-old, that African animals were endangered. So why was he allowed to kill a zebra? It didn’t help that for some reason, when wasps got inside the house, they chose the rug to die on, and it became a graveyard of tiny, crispy, black shells.

Gerald just couldn’t bring out the brightness and laughter in Mom like my father did. And it wasn’t long before she was sleeping in the guest bedroom and calling my aunt almost every night, crying. Two years after they got married, Mom finally filed for divorce from Gerald. In response, he tried to take her to court, claiming she was mismanaging a trust belonging to my sister and me (not true). When he threatened to draw the divorce out in other ways, she told him she wouldn’t file their income taxes together, so he would lose a lot of deductions. He backed down. “That was one of my finest moments,” she says.

It took him a while to move out, but eventually the animal heads disappeared and the last of the red shotgun shells were ousted from the garage. Gerald tried to remain a part of our life. He once picked me up and took me to a visit to the zoo, an irony that I’m only now appreciating.

Those two years were so odd and brief, that sometimes I forget they even happened. Mom has a hard time accounting for her decision to marry Gerald. “They always say ‘don’t do anything for at least a year after you’ve been widowed.’ You were married to somebody and you were happy, and you want that again, so you rush into something,” she says.

Mom and my sister have both cautioned against drawing conclusions about big game hunters from our short and regrettable experience with Gerald. But it’s tempting. Hunting lions, especially with a rifle like Gerald did, has been called cowardly and easy, the perfect pastime for a man who would rather ask his wife to open the pickle jar for him than do it himself.

Mom put up “no trespassing” signs all around our property and would tear down any deer stands she found on our turf — poachers would audaciously build them every hunting season. But that was more out of concern for our safety and resentment against trespassers than any principled stand against hunting. “I’m not trying to indict all hunters,” Mom says. “I know some people, the reason they hunt is because they kill deer, and they eat the deer.” (She’s even invited bow hunters onto our property at our new house. Anything to keep the overpopulated deer from destroying her garden.) “I don’t know why you would kill an animal just for the trophy, though. I just think it made him feel powerful.”

We moved away to Maryland in 1996, and Mom remarried in 2000 to the man she’s still with today. We heard that Gerald passed away due to complications from diabetes in 2004 at age sixty. And just like that, a man whose favorite hobby was killing exotic animals succumbed to a very American, very mundane fate.