2:1 ~ “My Little Runaway”
Lying in bed at home after brain surgery gave me plenty of time to think and reflect. For most of my life, it seemed I had been running from something. At times I felt I could draw a breath and skate awhile, then something would happen that would cause my bloodstream to fill with adrenaline. I knew fight, flight, and freeze like the back of my hand.
Of course, these emotions are as familiar as eating and sleeping for anyone raised in an alcoholic, neglectful family. We read in the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” handbook that many of the things we took for granted and thought were a normal part of family life were actually unhealthy coping mechanisms. Many still carry them around like they are part and parcel of our own skin and bones.
It would be many, many years before I had a fuller understanding of what happened to our 1950’s all American family. By then, I had already written the first draft of my memoir. In it, I had exposed things about my parents that they would find humiliating if they had lived to read my words. But they are no longer here to defend themselves, and my own understanding of them has changed. I no longer wish to tell the world the specific things they did or didn’t do without telling the whole story…how my mother experienced the suicide of her younger brother when I was just a baby, or how my father almost burned his leg off saving another employee from a fire at the plant when I was three. My mother was thrown into grief and shock and my father lived in terrible physical pain. Pain that was so bad, he had a metal contraption welded to keep the sheet and blanket off of his leg in bed. Eventually, he turned to alcohol in an attempt to numb the pain. My mother followed his example, and our family was soon lost.
But there was a plus side to living in a house with emotionally absent and neglectful parents. You get your first taste of freedom early. By the time I was twelve I was free to come and go as I pleased. By thirteen I was sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to walk the streets with my older brother. Together, we smoked the cigarettes our dad had bought us the weekend before and talked through the night. I was free to steal my parents’ alcohol and smoke marijuana, try my mother’s Darvons and sniff glue. But I didn’t want all this freedom. Not really. I wanted someone to reign me in. The moms had stopped allowing their children to play with me long ago. I was on my own.
I wasn’t completely on my own, however. Fear was my constant companion. It was a boa constrictor, threatening to squeeze the life out of me. I was afraid of the Russians (this was during the Cold War). I was afraid of UFO’s. I was afraid I would spontaneously combust. I had no idea at the time that my mother also suffered from terrible anxiety issues. She stopped driving and isolated herself in the house. It was a blueprint for what would eventually become of me.
I began running away from home, sleeping under my girlfriend’s bed or in an old car at night. By day I wandered the streets of our Los Angeles suburb. The first two times I ran, I got caught by the police and sent home. After my second time on the run, my parents sent me to my grandmother’s apartment near San Francisco, California. She and my aunt attempted to straighten out this wayward fourteen year old girl. Suddenly, life was much more structured. I had chores and an allowance. I went to bed at night, safe and secure under their care. It should have been wonderful. But my body was used to high alert, chaos, freedom. Safe felt uncomfortable. Again, I ran.
I hitchhiked down the coast of California, determined to get back home. I didn’t have any idea what was good for me; how the choices I was making would affect me for decades. Thinking ahead was absent from my vocabulary.
One night I slept under the boardwalk at Santa Cruz, California, waking to the roaring of sea lions at earliest light. Two days later I made it home to Los Angeles, and the guilt from the hurt I caused my grandmother and aunt has stayed with me to this day.
The third time I ran away, I was picked up by a tired, overworked officer with the Inglewood Police Department.
“What’s your name,” he barked.
“I don’t have one.” I stared at the ground, arms folded across my chest.
“Well, I don’t care if you stay here until you rot, you little rat.” He kicked the interrogation room door shut and left me to sit on the filthy floor to stew for awhile. I wondered how long it would be before he came back, defeated, with no choice but to let me go. After all, I didn’t have a name. How long can you keep someone with no name? It seemed logical to me that they would have no choice but to let me go.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Linda Amthor, better known as Little Miss Runaway.” He strutted back in, file in hand. My missing person’s photo was clipped to the top of the manilla folder.
It didn’t make sense, but I wanted to go back home. I begged him to let me go.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he answered. “Not this time.” He led me through a maze of locking doors and long, dreary hallways. He unlocked a small holding cell and stood back, motioning me in. A chipped green metal table, bolted to the concrete, offered the only seating. The bunks were bereft of mattresses. They had not been expecting company on this side of the jail. Especially not a fourteen year old wisp of a girl with a chip on her shoulder. Several hours passed. I sat there, contemplating using my belt buckle to add my initials to the others that covered the surface of the painted surfaces surrounding me.
“Let’s go.” A female officer, along with my new friend from Missing Persons, led me to an unmarked vehicle in the police headquarter’s parking lot. I soon discovered I wasn’t getting a ride home. We were on our way to Sylmar Juvenile Detention Center. I wondered if my parents knew about this and if they would demand my release. Probably not. Apparently, after being caught the third time as a runaway and the various other charges against me made me a ward of the court. My parents no longer had a say in matters concerning me.
I fleetingly thought about God, and what he must think of this. But I was no longer the little ten-year-old girl who had tried to find Him on my own on a sunny, Sunday morning in June.
That Sunday morning, I had tried to take my spiritual upbringing into my own hands. I got up, put on my fancy lavender dress with the satin ribbon that tied in back at the waist. I put on my nicest lace trimmed white socks and my black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes.
“Where do you think you’re going? My mother glanced up from behind the Sunday comics.
“I’m going to church.” Her look of disbelief spoke volumes but she didn’t respond.
I left the house before my dress started smelling like the stale vodka and cigarettes I smelled on my mother’s bathrobe and I walked the four blocks up Spinning Avenue to the big, white, Presbyterian church that was an anchor for the subdivision where we lived. I felt important walking up the steep wide steps to the oak double doors. I stepped into the foyer and tried to adjust to the dim light. There was a lot of activity, with adults rushing around. A table by the back of the room held carefully placed pamphlets and small Bibles. I waltzed over and picked up one of each. Then I followed the adults into the sanctuary and found a seat on a pew near the back. I imagined those around me admiring me for my maturity. I had come alone, after all. They probably assumed I was much older. I hoped they thought I was a teenager. Or at least twelve!
An hour and a half later, I left that church knowing what I wanted more than anything in the world. I wanted to be “good.” I wasn’t at all sure what that meant. Maybe I would have to be nicer to my younger sister. Maybe I should always believe that Jesus was standing by my closet while I slept, even on nights when I didn’t feel afraid. The minister had mentioned becoming more like Him. Maybe I needed to do that. But I wasn’t at all sure what Jesus was like.
Neighborhood street signs disappeared unnoticed as I thought hard about what to do during the walk home. By the time I hit the house, I thought I had it all figured out. I knew that if I were to become more like Jesus, I would probably want to talk just like Him. I walked into the living room. My mother was still sitting on the couch, the paper spread around her.
“Hello, Mother. How is your morning going?” I was sure that a proper English accent had to be one of the things God would require if one were to become good.
Her eyebrows shot up as she smirked.
“Church was simply wonderful,” I continued. “The minister was very nice. You should really think about coming with me next Sunday.”
I left the living room and walked down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my sister. I was determined I should probably start reading my new little Bible right away. Within minutes all the thees and thous had me stumped. Oh well, so much for trying to be good. I ran outside to play, and all thoughts of God disappeared as I sought out my neighborhood friends. But the Holy Spirit began His work in my heart.
No man comes to the Father, except the Spirit draw him. (John 6:44 NKJV)
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