Her So-Called Life

Raised in a family devastated by drugs and neglect, Porsche Williams became a mother at age twelve, and a murder victim at fifteen

A loosely framed photo of Tessie Massey and her four grandchildren sits on an armoire in her cluttered efficiency in Opa-locka. Massey is only slightly turned toward the camera. Her figure is straight and square, her shoulders are firm, and she appears to be in her midsixties. The children at her knees, one of whom is Porsche's mother, are dressed mostly in white, their Sunday best. All three girls sport triangle-shape baby-doll dresses and tight pigtails. The one boy wears shorts, a tucked-in shirt, knee-high socks, and buckle-strap shoes. The siblings all stare off in different directions.

Massey came to Miami on a mission. The wife of her son, Howard Massie (who uses this variant spelling), died in 1967 at the age of 22, just three days after giving birth to their fourth child, Howard Lee, Jr. So 58-year-old Massey left her home in Clayton, Alabama, to raise the motherless clan. "I came down here three years after Kennedy was assassinated and four years after my own husband died," she recounts while sitting in an old wooden rocker, in front of a television set. Massey's front door is always open, but she keeps the doorway's iron grate locked. "When they came under my care, Sue was six months old, Tessie was four years old, Merrial was six, and Howard Jr. was but a week old," she says. "I was the only mother they ever knew. Some of them died so young. Porsche didn't even make it past her teens."

Porsche's late mother Merrial Williams (left) with her younger siblings, Howard Massie, Jr., Sue Williams, and Tessie Jones
photo courtesy Tessie Massey
Porsche's late mother Merrial Williams (left) with her younger siblings, Howard Massie, Jr., Sue Williams, and Tessie Jones
Wearing his sister on his shirt, John Lee tries not to forget her face
Steve Satterwhite
Wearing his sister on his shirt, John Lee tries not to forget her face

Massey also helped rear her grandchildren's kids, fifteen in total. "They all call me Mama," she says with a mixture of pride and sadness, while four-year-old Isaiah, a great-grandson who she baby-sits, lays on the floor next to her, drawing circles and straight lines. Pokémon cards are spread out between a ceramic Buddha and a statue of a dalmatian on a doily-covered coffee table. A framed portrait of a sacred heart and a poster of a guardian angel hovering above two white children as they cross a perilous bridge adorn her walls.

While her son Howard worked to support the family, Massey raised her grand- and great-grandchildren on large doses of gospel music, Bible studies, and church on Sundays. But her strict, Southern style of discipline clashed with children generations beyond her comprehension.

Merrial Williams, who took her mother's maiden name, was Porsche's mom, and the oldest of the siblings. She dropped out of school early and conceived three kids, all from different fathers. She never held a stable job, and drugs dominated her life. At the age of 38 she died of AIDS complications, as did her brother Howard Jr. before her. Sue Williams, the youngest of the women, also had five children from different fathers. She is unemployed, currently homeless, and on and off cocaine. She also lives with the constant fear that DCF will take away her children. Tessie Jones, the middle grandchild, seems to have avoided some of the pitfalls in her siblings' lives: She's married, lives in the suburbs, and has a college education. But Tessie Massey thinks there's a dark side to this granddaughter as well. "Tessie's slick," Massey says disapprovingly. "I don't know why they named her after me. Merrial was more like me; she was kind. Tessie always in a hurry. She got a little college and she thinks she knows more than me. I don't pay her no attention; I call her little ol' educated fool."

Merrial Williams met Michael Clark in 1981 while they worked together in a nursing home. Clark was a cook, and Merrial worked in the kitchen. They dated for three years. Two months after they ended their relationship, Clark ran into Merrial at a Martin Luther King Day parade while she was working at a concession stand. "She gave me her telephone number and told me she needed to talk to me. I thought, Oh my goodness," he says covering his face with one hand as if reliving the moment. "I never did call her, but she called my mom and told her she was pregnant."

Clark questioned his fatherhood, and he had reason to. After 22-year-old Merrial gave birth to Porsche on January 31, 1984, at least two other possible fathers eventually came forward. "It was so shameful," Tessie Massey remarks. "At Christmastime Porsche be gettin' Christmas presents from all three of 'em."

Tessie Jones claims Merrial never revealed who Porsche's real father was. Based on the lack of evidence of paternal ties, Jones has challenged Clark's temporary custody of Porsche's son Erin. While Jones, Porsche's maternal aunt, contends Clark's fatherly love amounted to "ten dollars here and there," Tessie Massey defends her unofficial grandson-in-law. "He can't be no stranger, 'cause he went to see about Porsche on and off," Massey comments. "He would buy Porsche school clothes, and when the water or electricity was cut off he would help them get it back. He did more than my son [Porsche's grandfather, Howard Massie] ever did for those children."

Clark never paid child support and never got tested for paternity. Yet he says he assumed some responsibility for Porsche, initially owing to his mother's insistence, and later with his wife's support. "My mom kept telling me the child is innocent, so I said to myself, Okay, I have a job, I can do things for her," he says. "I've taken care of Porsche long enough that even if she wasn't my daughter, I accepted her as such, but I can't really prove that I'm her biological father."

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