New Kid on the Block

Juvenile HallMy 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.

A week later, when I had my own “room,” I got up and padded over to the locked door. I began to knock, tentatively at first.  Then, as my bladder complained, I knocked louder, banging with the side of my fist until it ached.  Finally, about an hour later, I heard the slow, methodical steps of one of the direct-care staff, her important keys jingling on the end of the lanyard.  She opened the door, rolled her eyes, and told me to hurry up. “That’ll teach you to pee before “lights out,” she grumbled.

My throat burned, making it hard to swallow.  I had the chills and realized I’m very sick.  Each morning after getting dressed, we stood in line down the long hall to see the nurse.  For the fourth time in as many mornings, she told me to gargle with salt water.  I finally refused to attend school and went on a hunger strike in order to get medical care. The ex-military nurse called me a baby before she found that my temperature was 104 degrees.

My plan had backfired on me.  The idea of running away to force my parents to wake up had almost gotten me removed from home permanently.  This was 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.


-Goethe

Fulfilling Dreams

GradIt was May of 2001. A full year had gone by since I had fallen down the stairs, broken my neck, and gotten addicted to pain medication. I had spent so much time at home in bed that I felt isolated from friends and from participating in any kind of life. One night I tossed and turned due to pain and depressive thoughts. I finally fell into a fitful sleep…and dreamt.

There were the three of us, seated alone in the stands overlooking a huge Olympic-like running track.  My mother was seated next to me on my left, and a close friend of mine on my right. Below us, walking along the dirt lanes of the track as if in a parade of some sort, were thousands of people, all dressed in Biblical costumes. I knew that they were portraying the history of man, from the beginning to the end of time. The “end of time” was going to be portrayed way off to my right, farther than our eyes could see. I felt comforted by my mom’s presence. In the back of my mind, I remembered that she had died of cancer at 56-years-old in 1986.

“Were you in the processional last year?” my friend asked.

“No, last year I broke my neck,” I answered.

“I was in it last year,” she responded. I already knew this, because when I picked up the flat crystal pendant attached to the gold chain around my neck, the circle of glass, the size of a fifty-cent piece, afforded me a glimpse into last year’s parade. I picked it up and watched it again, and there she was, walking the track, just as she had said.

I glanced over to her to say something and noticed she had a bouquet of “Lily of the Valley” in her hands.

“Can I smell your bouquet?” I asked.

“Sure.” She handed me the bouquet and I buried my nose in the tiny fragrant white blossoms, inhaling deeply.

“Ah, that smells intoxicating,” I said as I handed the flowers back to her.

My eyes flew open and I realized I was flat on my back and staring at the ceiling. What a dream! It seemed significant, but I had no idea what it could mean or if I had just eaten too much pizza the night before.

A few days later, thoughts about the dream returned as I was worked around the house.

Last year you could not participate (in life) because you broke your neck.  This year you cannot participate (in life) because you are still recovering. But in a year, things are going to change.

I thought about the comforting presence of my mother in the dream and the bouquet of flowers. I remembered the lyrics of a hymn by William Charles Fry written for the Salvation Army long ago, “He is the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star.” I thought about how I could inhale the fragrance of His presence and it was sustaining me in this time of healing. I wondered if I was right in thinking that the dream meant something was going to change in a year.

A year is a long time to wait for something to change, and as weeks crept into months, I really stopped expecting anything to change much at all. Then came another May, with summertime just around the corner. Lily of the Valley grows rampant next to my backyard fence, so as usual, I picked one or two tiny white flowers and crushed them between my thumb and forefinger, bringing them to my nose before I dropped the petals back into the flowerbed.

Later that day, a friend of mine, a therapist, stopped by for a visit. She had a surprising agenda.

“Linda, I want to ask you something. I believe that you have a real gift for counseling others and if you would go to college and get your degree, I would love to take you into my practice.”

“That would take me ten years!” I answered.

“No it wouldn’t, and even if it did, so what?” was her retort.

As if on cue, the dream of the procession of the history of man seemed to have been pulled out of a file cabinet in my brain and placed into a Blu Ray player. My heart skipped a beat.

Later on, I relayed my friend’s suggestion to my husband.

“You should go for it,” he said.

Since I had been kicked out of high school years ago, my first wobbly steps were to enroll in an adult education self-paced class to relearn high school math. Then I took a course on “how to study.” I thought I was as ready as I would ever be.

Four years later, at almost 55-years-old, I graduated Maxima cum Laude with a B.A. in Psychology from one of the top ten best four-year colleges in the western United States (according to US News and World Report).  I proudly  “walked” on graduation day and threw my mortarboard in the air with the rest of the young graduates. I had had my “do-over,” and now I was on my way to grad school.  I had been one of twenty-five who had been accepted into a Masters of Social Work program at the University of Montana.

But look at that picture above again…because unbeknownst to me when I was smiling for the camera, something insidious was lying in wait, lurking in the deep recesses of my brain. Soon God was going to have change the plans of two neurosurgeons who told me I had one year to live if I was ever going to fulfill my dream.

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. II Corinthians 2:14″

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Big Expanse of Sky Called Montana

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image15372074

Adventure had never been a part of my life. While some of my childhood friends had come home from trips to the World’s Fair or from far away mystery places like “back east” to see their grandparents, my only claim to fame was that we had stayed at the Motel Fresno (located in farming country in Fresno, California) six years in a row.  It was a halfway point between Los Angeles, where we lived, and Oakland, where my grandmother resided, so my parents and my grandmother met there each summer. And it had a great bar.  My parents could get pleasantly drunk while hanging out at the pool, watching us kids get blistery sunburns the first day out.

So, when Tom asked me to marry him and move to Montana, you can bet I was ready for an adventure. Tom described Montana to me the weeks before he left to start a new job there.

“It’s a land full of mountains, rivers, streams, and waterfalls.  And there’s animals, almost everywhere you look.  Bears and deer, antelope and elk, moose and mountain goats, everywhere! And the sky, well you can breathe in that huge expanse of sky all day long.” So I packed up my meager belongings and flew out to Montana that June.  And he was right about Montana. I’ve seen all those animals and more, sometimes all in one day. I’ve fly-fished those rivers and streams, watched eagles dive for fish on a sunny summer day, while wearing waders in the middle of a premier trout stream, and I’ve viewed some spectacular waterfalls.

Tom had bought a house for us on a street that sounded intriguing to me…Upper Miller Creek Road. He told me to always call it “Upper Miller Crick” if anyone wanted to know where I lived. Me, being me, refused, and I’ve said “creek” when I mean “creek,” for the last nineteen years, but I digress.

Tom and I were both a little skittish about getting married. We had only dated for eight months, and I knew less about Tom than he knew about me.  I only knew that I was going to commit the rest of my life to him unless one of four things happened, and he knew what those four things were. On his part, most of what he knew about me was the stuff I told him early on when I was trying to scare him away.

Tom and I were staying in a campground for a few days until the house closed and the inhabitants moved out, which was supposed to be on Wednesday of that week.  Since Tom had to travel about four hours north for his new job, it was up to me to take some of our things over to the new house and meet Tom there in a couple of days.  I got up early, grabbed a cup of coffee to tide me over, and headed over to my new home. When I arrived, I saw that boxes and furniture filled the two-car garage from floor to rafters, and people were running in and out of the house carrying lamps, boxes, and more pieces of furniture to a rental truck.

Disappointed, I drove past.  It was legally our house as of that day and it didn’t look like they were in any hurry to vacate.  I also noticed that the gorgeous ¾ acre bright green lawn was now yellow and parched. Apparently once it was sold they decided they wouldn’t bother spending any more money on water. My stomach dropped, thinking about Tom and what he would say about this. I had never seen him angry, but I figured there had to be a temper hidden down in there somewhere. All men get angry easily, right?

I didn’t have a cell phone back then, and I knew Tom would be calling me on the phone we had already hooked up in the new house. I was in a new town, two states away from my home, family, and friends. I did not know one soul there, and I felt frightened, alone, and intimidated. I could not go to that house until those people were gone.

So, several times during that long day I drove back up Upper Miller Creek Road to peek at my new home. Each time, people were still there, carrying boxes and furniture to the rental truck. I explored the town, and finally, I decided to kill some time by taking myself to the movies.

Once the movie let out, I climbed back up Upper Miller Creek Road one more time, unsure of what I would do if they were still there.  It was six o’clock at night now, getting dark, and I was sure Tom had been trying to call me all day.

As I rounded the last curve and saw the empty driveway, I let out let out a sigh of relief. I drove up my new driveway and ran up to the house, used my new key to turn the lock, and opened the door. I did a quick glance around but then headed straight to our new phone.  I saw the light was blinking on the phone telling me there were six messages. As I listened to each one, I heard Tom’s voice sounding more and more worried. The sixth message sounded frantic. “If I don’t hear from you in fifteen minutes or so I’m going to drive back to Missoula,” he said.

I dialed the phone with shaking fingers. I knew how angry he would be. Who wouldn’t be angry? I probably did something stupid. I deserved his wrath. I should have marched into “my” house and told those people to hurry up and leave! I should have demanded to use my phone and let Tom know what was going on. Of course he’ll be mad…and he should be. Leave it up to me to cause a problem.

“Hello Tom? What happened was…” I reiterated the story, hoping he wasn’t regretting trusting me with something that should have been so easy.

“Oh, I’m so sorry that happened,” he said. “You must have felt so worried that you couldn’t call me and tell me what was going on. How about if I come pick you up and you can stay up here with me. We’ll drive down to the new house together in a couple of days.”

It’s been almost nineteen years since that first day in my new home in Montana. Over and over again, Tom has proven himself to be that kind, gentle man who was willing to drive four hours to come get me just so I’d be more comfortable. He has taught me more about God’s unconditional love than anyone I have ever known. And he’s never ever done one of the four things. Ah, I can finally breathe, and that big expanse of sky is a great place to catch your breath.

Monikers

Mr. BunglesI was working at a job I loved and that made me feel good about myself.  After all, making other people’s teeth whiter was important work.  And I also had my first business card with my name on it. I got into the habit of leaving them on tables in restaurants or accidentally dropping one in the foyer as I left church.   I gave them out to strangers on the street or in the chip aisle at the supermarket.

My daughter had grown up, and was planning on moving out.  We untangled from each other like octopi backing out of a group hug.  We knew it was what was needed for both of us, but we didn’t want to let go.

My son was spending summers at his grandparent’s home in Los Angeles.  Suddenly I had time on my hands…too much time.

I didn’t know what to do with all that freedom.  After a lifetime of feeling encased in anxiety and grief, I had broken out of the cocoon and was flying on my own for the first time.  I tried to relive a childhood I had missed.  Every minute I wasn’t working I was playing on the beach or windsurfing at the lake.  One sunny morning I went out to the street to look northwest towards the beach.   I wanted to see if there was any telltale sign of fog.   There was.  That meant wind by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m.  I ran back into the apartment and dashed down the hallway, sliding into the bedroom I shared with my eighteen-year-old daughter. I shook her awake and yelled “Kowabunga!” She rolled her eyes and turned toward the wall in an attempt to get back to sleep. She had become the older, responsible one.

I was still the orphan looking for someone to love me.  There was a part of me that didn’t believe God would ever allow me to get into another relationship.  After all, I had blown three marriages.  But then I thought, maybe my definition of marriage is flawed.  I mean, I thought marriage meant that “two became one.”  I was pretty sure that didn’t mean I became one with the STD my husband shared with his latest girlfriend or that my eye became one with the end of his fist.  Still, I felt stupid; the type of woman people felt sorry for; kind of like a dimwit. Oh, that’s Linda, don’t mind her…she can’t help it.  She’s been…shhhh…don’t tell anybody…mentally ill for years now.

The guys I dated were all wrong for me.  I was like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to fill that missing piece with guys who just didn’t fit.

I was still giving men nicknames, just as I had in the 1970’s.  It hurt a little less to be dumped by “Wing Nut” than it did to be dumped by Scott, the man I had just given my heart to.

There was “the dentist.”  Seven years younger than I and a playboy with a fancy education from back east…not a good match for the likes of me.  Oh…and he had a pretty blond girlfriend stashed away in England part time.  Whenever her visa ran out in the States, she headed back across the pond for a spell and a spot of tea.  That’s when he would ask me out.  When she returned, he dated her; something he conveniently failed to mention.  I called him at home one day and there was her voice was on the answering machine.  “Hulloo…this is Lady Mary Elizabeth…”we’re” not home just now…yada yada yada.” Oh yeah…I got a million of ‘em.

After the dentist, I met “the pilot/surfer/IT geek.”  He bragged about his ability to do somersaults in the sky.  One day we rented a Cessna 170 and flew from San Luis Obispo to Fullerton Airport.  Soon into the flight I looked out the window and said, “There’s Lake Lopez.”

“That’s not Lake Lopez,” he said.  I looked again.  I had windsurfed that lake a hundred times.  I would recognize it upside down and backwards.

“Yeah, that’s Lake Lopez, alright.” I said.

The engine was so loud that I couldn’t hear the quick chatter between him and the air traffic controllers.  He avoided eye contact for the rest of the trip. I noticed the right half of his face twitching as we entered LAX airspace.  I just thought he had a tic.  When we finally cruised down the landing strip at Fullerton he broke out into sobs. Apparently he had almost flown us into the side of a mountain.  He climbed out of the cockpit and vomited onto the tarmac.  My children already didn’t like him very much. That pretty much cinched it.

That coupled with the cases of beer he consumed on a nightly basis worked to pull us apart.

And I can’t leave out “AJ the Weatherman.”  Most of the time I couldn’t remember what his real name was so I just called him “The Weatherman,” for short.  He reported all the latest weather patterns on the 7:00 o’clock and the 11:00 o’clock evening newscast for the local television network.  When he took me out on a date (rare) he wore his letterman jacket with the station call letters on the back.  This was to impress the cute cocktail waitresses so he could get us free drinks.  He also wanted to make sure I knew that all the cute cocktail waitresses thought he was hot stuff.  Apparently he didn’t see them roll their eyes as he headed over to his table.  I wasn’t impressed either.

I was right in the middle of breaking it off with him during our date on New Year’s Eve.  “No!” he yelled, almost spilling his Bud Light.  “I was willing to give up ever having children for you!”

Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention his stalking behavior.  I caught him hiding behind the potted plants on his deck balcony more than once after coming home from the 11:00 o’clock news report, lying in wait for me to arrive home.  The next day, as I left my apartment, his somewhat shrill “Hey!” would force me to look up towards his second floor patio.  Leaning on his patio railing was all 125 pounds of him, baby-oiled arms, hands properly protected by weight-lifting gloves, his smile looking like a Chihuahua ready to latch on to the mailman’s ankle.  “Oh, yeah, hi,” I answered.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine.”

“So, where were you last night?”  Subtlety was not his strong suit.

That coupled with the cases of beer he consumed on a nightly basis worked to pull us apart.

So, I decided it was better if I didn’t date men who lived at “Divorce Central” with my children and me.

By this time I was beginning to think I didn’t know how to pick men or something.  I mean, seriously. I was learning.  Really.  I just wasn’t a quick study.

So then, along came “the Air Force guy.”  He went to my church.  He dressed impeccably.  I was drawn to guys in Italian suits from the Mens Warehouse with $20 Rolex watches from Mexico who drove leased Mercedes Benz’ far beyond their budget.  Well, truth be told, I had never been drawn to guys like that.  I had been drawn to guys in dreadlocks with Jamaican accents, but that’s another story altogether. I’m all about experiencing all the world has to offer.

We began dating, and I found myself falling for him.  I had waited a little while this time before falling in love; at least two and a half weeks.  I couldn’t really figure out what it was about him that drew me in.  He wasn’t handsome.  He had a high voice, like a man pretending to sound like a woman.  If I called when he wasn’t home, I found myself cringing at the recording on his answering machine.  “Hi, this is Todd.”  He sounded like Robin Williams might sound on crack during one of his manic episodes.  But he drew me in.  And apparently he drew a lot of other women in too.  By the time he got done wringing out my self-esteem like a wet, dirty dishcloth, I knew something was seriously wrong with me.  I began to run the track at the high school after work in an attempt to outrun years of rejection and abandonment.

And then, along came “the guy in the parking lot.”

A Major Misstep

Old Farmhouse Porch

Old Farmhouse Porch (Photo credit: k9mq)

Certain events can change a life in an instant.  On the other hand, some things take place over time.  Many tiny miscalculations or silly decisions create a chain of events, and suddenly you find yourself staring in the mirror at someone you no longer recognize.

I had fled the chaotic confines of Norwalk State Mental Hospital and planted a mattress on the floor in the spare bedroom of my parent’s apartment, a fresh start of sorts.  I tried to make myself useful to my mother, so she wouldn’t kick us out.  This time I was going to make it work for me and my sweet little boy.

My mom was one who liked to go to the grocery store daily, as if she were one of those lucky European women who stopped at the bakery each day for a fresh loaf of rye. She may have imagined herself lazily plucking through mounds of fresh vegetables and fruit from street vendors…everything freshly baked and harvested.  On this particular day, she needed a fresh bottle of vodka, so we climbed into the old Ford Fairlane and drove down to the local Food Giant Supermarket.

As soon as we stepped onto the rubberized mat and the automatic glass door swung open, I saw him.  Within two skipped heartbeats I had sized up all six foot two of one of the cutest guys I had ever seen.  He had wide shoulders and wavy golden hair down to the green apron pocket of his supermarket uniform.  The way he placed the milk into the bag first before adding the bread was downright genius!  A bag of oranges went in next.  Our eyes met.  My cheeks flushed and I turned away. I grabbed a shopping cart and walked into the nearest aisle, almost knocking a box of Cocoa Puffs off of the end cap.

I was standing with one foot on the bottom rung of the cart waiting for my mom to decide between a quart and a fifth when I felt a tap on my shoulder.  A conversation ensued and plans were made for this gorgeous hunk of a box boy to pick me up on Friday night.  Once my mom paid for her precious cargo, I jumped onto the back of the cart and let it take me down the slight incline to the car.  Whee!  I was already imagining my happily-ever-after with a new husband and a loving dad for my little son.

Sometimes something catastrophic can occur in a split second that changes a person’s life forever; other times one minor incident can lead to another and then another and another, eventually setting off just as big a change in a body’s life. – Jeannette Walls, Half Broken Horses

On Friday afternoon I changed in and out of several different blouses and made sure my jeans had the least amount of holes and stains.  Finally Sir Galahad arrived in his souped up Corvette and we were on our way.  Were we going out to dinner?  To a movie?  I may not be able to eat tonight anyway!

He turned up the car stereo and reached over to open the ashtray underneath the dash.  “Do you want to get high?” He reached in and grabbed two pink capsules.  “Oh!”  I wasn’t expecting that but I was game.  After all, pink was lighter than red, so therefore, these pills must be milder than the red ones I have taken before.  No harm to come from this. My chin jutted forward. “Sure!”

Instead of a dinner and a movie, I found myself sitting on the couch in his rented farmhouse, which seemed to have landed in the middle of a few acres of packed dirt underneath a freeway overpass.  The farmer must have stood his ground for decades while progress grew up around him and the government waited until he ceased to be an obstacle to their plans to get folks from here to there as quickly as possible.

I very soon realized that “pink” did not mean “less.”  My muscles felt like overcooked spaghetti, my head, the size and weight of a watermelon.  I thought we were alone in the house, but suddenly there was another young man there.  My date introduced me to his roommate.  “Nice to meet you…hey, do you want to see the art work in the other room?”  “OK.” I got up and tried to walk.  “You bastard!” muttered my date.

Art work? Can’t walk. Bastard? Why did he say that? Is he mad? Should I not go? What should I do? What is this room? Why are we going in here? Where is the art work? What is happening? Should I run? I can’t run! Slow motion…It’s too late. Fear.

I was pushed to the bed and my clothes quickly removed.  I looked towards the door, wishing myself there, not here.  My date peered in and quickly turned away.  I heard him making phone calls, and I hoped he was calling the police.

My arms were lead, my lungs hollow.  My date came back in, then another, then another, then another, then another.  One, very heavy, apologized.  “It’s all right,” I mumbled.  It’s all right?  It’s all right!!??

 Much later I stumbled up the stairs to my parent’s apartment, trying to quiet my steps so as not to wake the neighbors. For a moment I thought about calling the police.  I pictured the interview.  “Why did you date someone you didn’t even know?  What were you wearing?  Why did you take the drugs?  Why did you go follow the roommate into the bedroom?  Yes, this was my fault.  I deserved this. I’m a stupid girl.  Worth nothing to anyone.  I’m giving up.  No one will ever know.  No one but me will ever know.

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 www.RemarkableCars.com Copyright 2006 www.RemarkableCars.com (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.


-Goethe