Apologizing that her home looks like it was cleaned with an eggbeater, Lillian Haggard Rea welcomes a visitor with an offer of water -- "or would you rather have a beer or champagne?" -- and a misgiving that the slightly tardy newspaper reporter might have decided to abandon the interview altogether in favor of a more fascinating subject than she.
"Why would you be interested in anything I have to say?"
But that's where Rea is wrong. She has 94 years worth of interesting things to say. Over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour interview Wednesday, she barely scratches the surface of her full and somewhat unconventional life, but manages to address a number of subjects just the same: the effort underway by two sisters to relocate and restore the boxcar home where she once lived with her famous younger brother; how she remains surprisingly youthful and energetic in her 10th decade; and her commitment to living the life she wanted in defiance of the narrow roles prescribed to women of her time (just don't call her a feminist).
"I'm a very modern woman."
Rea's reflections were prompted by a birthday celebration being held in her honor Wednesday, to which the public is invited. Prints of her original artwork will be offered for sale; proceeds go toward moving the Haggard home to the Kern County Museum, restoring it to its 1935 condition and opening it to public tours.
"When I'm 100, they're going to quit doing these things," she says. "People like you, asking me about my life, you keep me so busy I don't have time to die."
'Walking in the past'
It is said you can't go home again, but that's not entirely true. The Haggard siblings did go home last week, though Rea says now that might have been a bad idea.
"Merle reacted the same as I did because it is in such a sad condition, like a dump," she says. "Who wants to be there? It was so unlike what our life was like. I took one look and left. No way could I be part of that."
On Tuesday, the country music icon, accompanied by his wife and youngest son, got a last look at the boxcar at the spot on Yosemite Drive in Oildale where he grew up, just yards from the railroad tracks that would whisk him to freedom as a young runaway and serve as inspiration for some of his greatest songs.
Construction crews were dismantling the additional rooms tacked on to the boxcar by the siblings' father, James, yet even amid the construction chaos, it was clear the home had fallen into serious disrepair in the decades since Rea sold it.
Haggard, intensely private despite decades on the stage, was subdued and faraway Tuesday as he walked through what was left of the home.
"A lot of his problems early on related to unresolved grief over our father's death," Rea said. "That's what his problem about being there was. He was walking in the past and remembering when his life started."
'I hate the word Okie'
For Haggard's sister, life started in an abandoned log cabin on Jan. 28, 1921, when she was delivered into the world by a midwife.
"I was an Okie from Muskogee -- just a few miles south of there, in Checotah -- but I hate the word Okie with a passion. There's nothing more offensive than to call an Oklahoman an Okie. I can't think of a word for how great I think people from Oklahoma are. They're tough, Oklahomans."
James and Flossie Haggard -- who at 20 and 18 years of age were little more than babes themselves -- lived on a farm about 10 miles from Flossie's parents' home near Mount Nebo, which Rea calls "the closest place to heaven I've ever been until I get to heaven."
With the baby coming, Flossie wanted to be near her mother, so they hitched the horse and wagon and happened upon the log cabin, about a half mile from her parents' home. When Flossie's labor pains started over lunch, she instructed James to get her mother and the midwife.
"Dad went five miles there and five miles back for the midwife, and then they delivered me."
Eighteen months later, Rea's brother James Lowell was born.
"He was fun. He and I had a perfect brother-sister relationship. He died in December 1996. It was very hard. He had cancer and from the time he was diagnosed, he lived one month."
Researching family history is a passion of Rea's, and her home -- cluttered but clean and inviting despite her protests to the contrary -- is filled with photos and stacks of documents tracing her lineage.
"The Villines and Harps -- my mother's parents -- were from Tennessee and North Carolina. They came to the Arkansas territory in what was around the Civil War. It must have been an absolute confused and dangerous time for everybody. They were caught in the crossfire between Unionists and Confederates. All my grandfathers were murdered."
Rea, a masterful story-teller and amateur historian, is currently at work on a book about her second husband.
"My great-grandson asked about his grandfather and I said I'd have to write a book to tell you about him. The next thing you know, I was writing a book."
But she's also gathering information on her own family and the life they eventually made in Oklahoma. As for the California chapter of the Haggard saga -- make that chapters -- Rea doesn't need to do research. She remembers it all.
An idyllic life in the boxcar
When the Haggards decided to settle in California in the 1930s, James Haggard got a job as a carpenter at Santa Fe Railroad. A church acquaintance asked Haggard if he would convert a refrigerated boxcar into living quarters at a property she owned in Oildale.
"He and mother drove out to Oildale in late August of 1935," Rea said. "There were no houses, and the boxcar was all alone in some tall dry weeds. It didn't look like it belonged there. He took on the job with no intention to live there at all. But eventually he said to my mother, 'We'd be smart to buy this.'
"It was supposed to be a temporary dwelling until they could build a house at the front of the property.
"That got sidetracked when my mother blushingly announced to the family she was pregnant."
Merle, born in 1937, was "so much fun. He had a great sense of humor and was so mischievous, which he never got over. I used to chase him out of the house with a broom."
After Lowell moved up north to Redding and the tragic death of their father from a stroke in 1946, the boxcar family was down to Flossie, Lillian and a young Merle, who began to display a fierce independent streak, hounding his mother for the same freedoms afforded his adult sister.
"Merle, hands on his hips, would say 'If she can go out, why can't I, and he's 9 years old. I wanted to smack him.
"I told my mom, 'I think your life with Merle would be better if I weren't here.' Merle was giving mother a bad time."
And so after going in together with a couple of friends, she moved out, at what would prove to be a pivotal time in her life: She had just started a job at Bakersfield High School -- a career she calls "the joy of my life" -- and met the man who would become her greatest love.
Love of a lifetime
It wasn't love a first sight -- or second or third, for that matter.
Set up by her former boss, Lillian remembers her first impression of Bill Rea:
"He looks too old, but it's only lunch."
Rea didn't do much to improve the situation when he admitted to being hungover. He couldn't even muster the energy or manners to get out of the car and open the door for his date. Things did not look promising.
A recent divorcee -- Rea doesn't care to discuss her first marriage, other than to say it was a casualty of the war -- the young woman was out from under her overprotective mother's thumb for the first time, living with friends and starting an exciting new job in the registrar's office at BHS. She wasn't looking for a serious relationship with a divorced father of two who was nine years her senior.
But after a couple of unannounced drop-ins by Rea -- who in the early days of their courtship would display an uncanny knack for catching Lillian in curlers -- the two agreed to drive to the coast together.
On the winding road through Cuyama, Rea handed Lillian his .22 rifle and dared her to shoot a bird -- a vulture or California Condor, she thinks -- feeding on a carcass in the distance.
"I took a bead on it and killed it. What I didn't know was that he was a commander of the auxiliary sheriff's department and here I am illegally shooting something.
"That's the day our relationship started."
The two were married in 1950, and Rea, who spent his career in marketing at PG&E, presented his new wife with a pair of teenage stepdaughters to raise. Things were tense at first.
"I do not know how I did what I did," Rea recalls of a knockdown-dragout fight she had with the elder of the girls.
"She was vile, using only language a sailor would use in the dark. So I had to get back at her. I let that girl have it. We became the absolute best friends from there."
Rea died in 1983 and both of her stepdaughters are deceased, though she has several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As for why she never had children of her own, Rea says:
"You'd have to talk to the Lord about that. I never knew until later in life that thyroid problems were very common with miscarriages, and I had one and never knew why.
"I did not want children, I realized later. If there's a reason I don't have a child it's because of the pain a child can put his mother through."
A full life
It's a little ironic that Rea, who chose not to start a family, left high school early because of family obligations. But she didn't need any arm-twisting. Her four years as a student at Bakersfield High School were the worst of her life, she says.
"I didn't graduate. I left when Merle was born to help take care of him in my last year. I didn't enjoy school. It's my mother's fault. She didn't let me go to football games or dances."
But it was on that very campus that Rea would achieve great fulfillment, working in the registrar's office, first under Dorothy Donahoe before her election to the California Assembly, and then as registrar herself.
It was while she worked in the registrar's office that Rea made a decision about her truant brother that still haunts her.
"I was told Merle was cutting school and they asked, 'Can we pick him up and put him in juvie? I said yes and that was the first time he ran away. I feel a lot of guilt for that."
Rea retired in 1969 after a 20-year career and she and Rea moved to Pismo, where they lived for a decade before he died.
"His death was the most tragic event of my life, and my mom died eight months later."
Rea eventually met George Hoge, whom she married in 1992; not long after, the two moved to Bakersfield. Characterizing their relationship as a friendship more than a marriage, Rea visits Hoge regularly at the assisted-care facility where he lives, and the two attend church together every Sunday.
But Rea stays busy. She was expecting an overnight guest Wednesday and has friends from around the world. Plus, she's quite close to her nephew Jim, Lowell's son.
"He and I are like this," she said, crossing her fingers. "He is my executor. He's there for me. He's the perfect child, exactly like his dad. Jim has the family integrity and the family interest."
Rea is not as close to her younger brother's children because they don't live nearby. Haggard's eldest four, by his ex-wife Leona, were brought up mostly by Haggard and his most famous ex, Bonnie Owens, "the sweetest woman ever," Rea said, though she "was an entertainer first and mother second."
But Rea has nothing but praise for Haggard's wife, Theresa, mother of his two youngest children.
"Theresa wasn't in the entertainment world, though she sings with him now, but she did not do any of that when the kids were young, so she gave Merle and the kids a stable family life, which they needed."
Rea's own relationship with her brother is complicated by the fact that he's famous, she said. A Haggard staffer calls Rea when the singer is passing through town and arranges meetings at Zingo's Cafe -- where the siblings invariably get the same thing: a half-order of oatmeal.
"I've tried to have him over for breakfast, and 20 people come with him. You can't have family time when you have all these other people.
"Jim will tell Merle, 'If you don't call your sister, then someday you'll call and there will be no answer.' So he'll feel the guilt trip and call and it's 'Hi, how are you, OK, bye.'"
But the boxcar project has given the siblings a shared goal, an opportunity to honor their father, who built the family home with his own hands.
"It was charming, believe it or not," Rea said. "I look around my 2,400-square-foot home and I can't believe we lived there. But my folks were very creative."