Here Comes The Bride

Despite the various and sundry crimes my fiancé perpetrated on unsuspecting friends and strangers, my parents caved in to the pressure by his parents to allow us to get married.  Apparently, being the non-criminal element in the relationship afforded me a certain privilege with my fiancé’s parents. Namely, I got to be the one to save him from ruin, and the sooner I got started, the better. I was only sixteen-years-old.

My fiance’s mother was sort of the alter ego of well-known atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare; same domineering obnoxious personality, completely opposite view of what happens when one…uh…shall we say…passes on. So, three times a week, during the short respites from burglary and auto-thefts, he insisted we attend a little gathering of believers at the home of “Gifford,” one of his mother’s friends.  There I was taught that only 144,000 of us would make it to heaven. This number included only Caucasians, and only non-Catholic Caucasians at that.  Every Scripture was in secret code too, only to be unraveled by one of the 144,000 non-Catholic Caucasians.  We all assumed that Gifford was the one with the key to the code.  She seemed to think so too.

On the infrequent nights we did not show up for Bible study at Gifford’s, my fiancés mom would get one of his sisters to drive her the fifteen miles to my neighborhood and canvas the streets until she found us in his turquoise 1956 Chevy, pull us over like a highway patrolman, and lecture us on the horrors of hell until we were sufficiently contrite.  Sometimes this took a couple of hours. She claimed to see horrible looking gargoylian demons sitting on our shoulders.  That in itself was enough to drive me running back to the house church, begging for mercy, while the parishioners swayed and shook, jerked and moaned, danced in circles around me, and prayed for my salvation.

I knew my fiance’s mother was calling my parents on the phone and bullying them into allowing us to marry.  I was still surprised they didn’t put up more of a fight.  It didn’t take long for them to sign the consent.  Not only did they consent, they agreed to pay for an over-the-top garden wedding extravaganza and a formal sit-down dinner at an Italian restaurant owned, by all accounts, by a couple of Italian brothers with membership in “the mob.”  I didn’t think of the wedding plans so much a celebration of future bliss as much as my parent’s celebration of getting my future mother-in-law off their backs.

My father’s mother came for a visit at some point in the planning of this gargantuan catastrophe.  I loved her, but she was not my favorite grandma.  I was much closer to my mother’s mother, who was pretty and brought me Dentine gum every time she visited. This other grandma had bird stick legs and a sour expression. I had overheard my parents discussing her “situation” many times. It didn’t sound good. They were constantly having to supplement her income and they weren’t happy about it. It seems grandfather had left her and my dad when he was an impressionable thirteen-year-old, and left for South America to stake his fortune with his brother, who had founded Cost Plus.  My father never saw him again, except for one brief visit after my father almost burned his leg off in a fire.

I was standing in the bathroom trying on my veil, turning my head just so, slight smile on my face.  My grandmother happened by the bathroom on her way through the laundry room to the kitchen.  “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of Sheba!” she squawked.  She had never spoken to me like that before.  Shock and hurt coursed through my body in quick succession.  My mind searched for an explanation for her hostility and came up with one that made sense to me. My mother must have told my grandmother I had been mean to her, and my grandmother believed her. But I truly believed that my mom loved my brother and sister and alcohol more than she loved me. I thought everyone saw this as I did and felt sorry for me. Even so, I had been trying to hold on to the slim chance that it might not really be true.

I had always loved all my relatives unconditionally, assuming they felt the same way about me, and I wasn’t prepared to let go of that view in such a quick flash. I thought my mother’s alcohol-fueled diatribes would appear so nonsensical to my grandma that she would empathize with me and feel a sense of concern and obligation to make sure I was all right. At least Ron’s mother cared about my eternal salvation and tried to keep my feet out of hell fire.

I thought grandmothers had to like you. It’s a law or something.
― Mary E. Pearson, The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The wedding took place on the last Saturday of December 1967, a year and a half before I would have graduated from high school.  I had gotten kicked out earlier that year, so I didn’t have any homework that weekend anyway. Although it was right after Christmas, the Los Angeles weather could not have been more perfect for an outdoor garden wedding. I walked down a curving white staircase on the arm of my father and out into a garden surrounded with ivy covered walls. The guests turned towards me as they stood together, quieting their murmurings about the absence of my mother. She showed up later at the reception, full of vim and vigor and a good portion of a fifth of vodka. She staggered around the tables, greeting guests in her yellow and cream brocade sheath dress with matching coat and pill box hat, laying it on thick about having had diarrhea while trying to stabilize herself with backs of chairs. I was horrified, and yet felt strangely justified. Only later would I feel a sense of shame and regret so deep it made my chest hurt. All those shoulda, coulda, woulda’s clanging around in my head.

One night several years ago I had a dream.  My mom was in heaven with her family singing a song about the holy Word of God.  She, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and two of my aunts were using sign language to illustrate it as they sang, and somehow I knew they learned it there. One day on the other side of this life my mom and I will talk again, forgiveness and love will flow, and it truly will be unconditional.

A Pimp Named Slim

Where to begin?  This week’s blog post has been harder to pull out of my head than an impacted wisdom tooth. I could write several chapters just about the weird, crazy things that happened both before and after I married my first husband at sixteen-years-old.  It’s kind of like looking into a kaleidoscope; all these jagged pieces of colored glass tumbling around in my mind.  Most of the time they dance around in the background, but when I stop long enough to examine them, they fall into place, and I write.

It’s the same old story you’ve heard a thousand times.  Somebody’s trust gets broken.  Someone’s left behind.

-Travis Tritt

One summer’s day during my fifteenth year, I found myself sitting at a kitchen table with a tall, black, big bulk of a guy named Slim, and five, twenty-something white prostitutes lined up on the couch like so many pieces of fruit ripening on a windowsill.  There was a quick tap at the door of the dingy apartment and a man walked in and glanced at them, deciding.  He looked over at me and said, “I want that one.”  “She ain’t work’in,” Slim answered.  I froze, and glanced over at the girls.  They stared back, hostility visible behind blank eyes.  “I said, I want that one,” he repeated.  “And I said, she ain’t work’in!” said Slim, as he began to reach under the table.  The man lifted his hands as if in surrender to some unseen enemy, backed out of the apartment, and left.

Where is my boyfriend?  Why doesn’t he hurry and come back.  I am so tired of being dropped off here or there while he spends an hour or a week going out for pack cigarettes!  But somehow, in just a few short years, I have stopped believing I deserve anything more.  Somehow, I have come to believe that wherever I am left, that’s where I’m supposed to stay.

Look’in For Love…

English: 1956 Chevrolet Two Ten Series 2100B, ...

English: 1956 Chevrolet Two Ten Series 2100B, Model 2102 2-Door Sedan photo by Douglas Wilkinson from Copyright 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(If you would like to start at the beginning of this journey, please begin at the beginning, and start with “It Was A Dark and Stormy Night”).

The guy in the turquoise 1956 Chevy was really something!  Dark hair, like my father’s.  Thick lower lip, like my father’s.  Tall and thin, like my father.  But that’s where the resemblance ended.

My father, although he had his faults, wasn’t a convicted felon.  He hadn’t stolen the car he drove to work.  He didn’t watch the game on televisions he acquired by breaking into other people’s houses. He never finagled the driver’s side window of a friend’s car to gain access to his pumped up car stereo system.  And I’m quite sure his crowd didn’t include gang bangers from East Los Angeles, or pimps and prostitutes from South Central.

Back when I was a shy, naive sixth grader at James Kew Elementary, meeting the James Dean wanna-be would have never entered my mind.  My mind was filled with dreams of becoming a great writer, dreams inspired by my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Snyder.  One day he read a piece I had written out loud to the class, a story about Benjamin Franklin and a mouse.  I have a flashbulb memory of the moment he told the class that I had all the makings of becoming a great writer some day. He told them I left him “wanting more,” at the end of my paper.  I still remember where I was sitting as he spoke about me…last row on the right side of the classroom, sunshine streaming in through the open windows, the smell of fresh cut grass wafting in.  I recreated that moment in my mind all summer long, and signed up for a Creative Writing class as my first elective at Monroe Junior High.

I dressed very carefully for my first day of 7th grade.  I had on my usual uniform of under things…a white tank top undershirt with the tiny satin bow on the front and lace-trimmed white anklet socks peeking out from white, bright, brand spanking new tennis shoes.  There must have been a memo that had gone out to my elementary school girlfriends during the summer that read, “Sometime this summer, make sure you grow up.  Shave your legs.  Have your mother buy you a tiny garter belt and “suntan” colored nylons.  Experiment with make-up, and get a bra even if you haven’t sprouted any yet.”  I didn’t get the memo.  And we had to dress-out for P.E.

The bullying started that first day and followed me through the halls of middle school, filling my skinny, stick straight frame with shame and fear.  At the same time, my creative writing teacher combed through over one hundred student papers a week, and I think writing a “C” caused her the least stress to her wrist.  One fell-swoop instead of all those curly-cues and straight lines.  I decided that Mr. Snyder must have been smoking something that day so long ago, back in the sixth grade, and once I finally made friends with the bullies, I began to experiment myself.

I met the guy in the turquoise 1956 Chevy two-years later.  After a whirlwind courtship filled with crime and betrayal, we married in a sweet outdoor ceremony under a white arbor, me in white gown and veil and my fiance in standard black tuxedo.  The ceremony took place in a beautiful garden filled with smiling guests who sat in neat rows of white chairs, decorated with little white satin bows.  I was sixteen and he was twenty-one,  and in this forever moment I looked up at my husband-to-be and saw only the face of my father.

New Kid on the “Block.”

Locked in

Locked in (Photo credit: L*Ali)

My eyes flew open as the searchlight passed by the window for the umpteenth time that night. Sleeping was something you did in between. The room was about 10’ by 10’ with a big thick, double-paned window looking out at nothing.  There was wire mesh in between the glass.  About once every half hour or so, the light passed by each window on the south side of the “block,” shining into the cell.  Apparently, this was to make sure a visitor hadn’t baked a saw into a cake, allowing one of us to turn into a fugitive from justice.  I cannot remember now where the light came from.  The memory of its intrusion is enough.

I had to use the bathroom and wondered if I could hold it.  The very first night I was brought in to “juvie,” I slept on the floor, as there were no empty rooms.  There was about a dozen of us, all sleeping on the floor on futon type mats with blankets as scratchy and rough as day-old stubble.  I had a dream that I was sitting on a toilet urinating, and woke with a start to find that I had wet the bed for the first time in twelve years.  Fear and shame gathered me up, like the bedding I threw in the laundry chute, hoping my secret would go unnoticed.

This particular night, I get up and pad over to the locked door. I begin to knock, tentatively at first.  Then, as my bladder complains, I knock louder, banging with the side of my fist until it aches.  Finally, about an hour later, I hear the slow, methodical steps of one of the direct-care staff, her important keys jingling on the end of the lanyard.  She opens the door, rolls her eyes, and tells me to hurry up. “That’ll teach you to pee before “lights out,” she grumbles.

My throat burns, making it hard to swallow.  I have the chills and realize I’m very sick.  Each morning after getting dressed, we stand in line down the long hall to see the nurse.  For the fourth time in as many mornings, she tells me to gargle with salt water.  I finally refuse to attend school and go on a hunger strike in order to get medical care. The ex-military nurse calls me a baby before she finds that my temperature is 104 degrees.

My plan has backfired on me.  The idea of running away to force my parents to wake up has almost gotten me removed from home permanently.  This is a place for castaways.  Here I’m taught how to smoke pot by a direct care staff. There is a nine-year-old and her two sisters who create more havoc in the milieu than the gang bangers from East Los Angeles. We all get pelvic exams, done in haste by a rough female nurse, and once they do mine they slap “Sexual Misconduct” on my record. I have never come close to having intercourse, the whole subject of sex confusing and still a mystery to me.

By the time I’m released, I’m angrier, more distrusting of adults, more disappointed in my parents, and more ready to take the world by the throat. I’ve learned a lot by being sent to juvenile detention. And none of it is good.

Unlike grownups, children have little need to deceive themselves.