Usually, when someone tells you their “life story” you expect waves of episodes, momentous details and a happy conclusion that ends with a thud, “So, here I am today, better, brighter and bolder”. But this life story does not end. This story is of a typical teenager and what she goes through, as incredible (and true) as it is can happen to any teenager. It begins in the dirt, under a bush in a sandy field.
I was 16 and was hiding behind a bush under the influence of drugs and scared to death. I tried to wipe the south Florida sugar sand out of my eyes with my hair, but my face was wet and my hair kept sticking to my mouth and eyes. I didn’t know if it was because I was crying or had I splashed water on my face earlier due to the 95 degree temperature? I was only just grinding the sand in deeper anyway. There was noise everywhere because the field was a biker hangout, and people were yelling and motor cycles roared in ebbs and tides between wicked laughter. I was not clear in my head from fear, heat, drugs and the sugar sand in my mouth and eyes. I was hiding from some people who were trying to fight with my boyfriend who was an asshole. I had skipped school that day. I was only in the 10th grade. I skipped school a lot, and as far as I can remember I probably only went back to school for about another month after this before dropping out.
The asshole and I fled to Mexico and I disappeared off the radar for about 6 months. I trusted my 24 year old boyfriend. Signing my mom’s signature to the marriage license made me feel close to her for that moment in time, but when I lifted my eyes off the paper I came back to the reality of a cluttered, Mexican clerk’s office. I saw uneven stacks of papers and files on the desk. It was a dusty, smudgy store front office. There was hot white light from the sun glaring in through the window over the desk – the dust particles swirling and dancing in the sun beams. The small man sitting behind the clunky desk took my completed form and quickly lifted his head to throw me a quick, insincere smile. The asshole (I will only refer to him one more time) and I backed up a few steps to say yes to some quick marriage vows. The next morning we arrived back over the US/Mexican border, and within a few days I started working at a fast food restaurant. I thought the grease made me nauseous, but it was the pregnancy. After I was marched into a center for an abortion that week, we packed up and moved back to Miami to live with asshole’s mom. When he started punching me in the face, I called my mom; and within a few days I was on a plane to Washington DC to live with my natural father, whom I had only met one time before.
His strides were long and his gate fast as he approached me with his grey beard and big belly. He smothered me with kisses and hugs, then he stepped back to look me up and down. A huge smile filled his face. I can’t remember his first words, but he looked anxiously far off over the horizon above hordes of heads that were shuffling through the airport terminal. He zoomed in on the destination, and we started walking briskly. He was 6’4” after all, so he was able to quickly locate the escalator that lead down to the baggage handling area. Dad started talking to me about the town, his condo, a lawyer friend of his, his colleagues at his job and continually assured me that this is my home. Soon we were zipping through traffic with roads that looked so foreign to me. I was use to straight long sleepy south Florida roads. But these were convoluted, circular and lights were everywhere. People were everywhere. I don’t know for sure, but my jaw was probably dropping a little as my hands clutched my shoulder seat belt strap. That night I slept on the couch, and sometime in the night my dad slipped into the kitchen and I saw the refrigerator light silhouette a raised gallon of milk as he took a sip. I thought, “That’s cute”; and with a warm feeling I went back to sleep feeling very safe for the first time in a long time.
The next morning, my dad left for work and I shuffled down the hall to explore the high end DC condo that was my new home. It was a stale, stoic place with impeccable cleanliness. There was a guard in the lobby that walked back and forth in front of large glass windows overlooking a private street with no activity to speak of. A long sleek counter hugged the end of the foyer and was manned by one person who was busy putting slips of paper into slots, I assume for the residents. I lingered around and heard the clerks phone ring frequently. He would put calls through, and then resume his other duties. I walked to the center of the foyer and sat down on a large fluffy leather couch by a decorative table with a phone on it. I took a deep breath and called back to Florida to inform my past mistake that I was gone for good. After tears, pleas and attempts to call me back on the lobby phone several times, he finally was permanently removed from my life. My last memory was the lobby phone ringing and ringing and ringing as I walked down the hall to get into the elevator. The elevator door slammed shut during the last ring I’ll ever hear from him. A sinking feeling of regret and pain swept over me for a split second. Then, I touched the scar on my chin that I got from when he hit me with a beer bottle, and I thought how lucky I was to be here now.
When my dad got home, it was kind of early. He gave me a little bit of money and the keys to his car and told me to be back by 10:00 PM. I was deep in thought as I gingerly took the money and keys and said, staggeringly I’m sure, “Thanks dad.” I closed the door looking back at him with a smile, shuffled through the corridor and took the elevator down to the garage and found his little car, a brown Rabbit. I backed out of his spot, slipped up the sleek underground garage driveway and headed up a quiet well maintained street. I little grin lit up my face, and then I sat up straight and drove on.
My trip was a little nerve racking since I was driving around in unfamiliar surroundings, but it was fun. I stopped at a convenience store to get a snack. Everyone was dressed so nice, I thought. I was use to going to greasy little convenience stores, not at all like these. Then, I went on a joy ride for a few hours and came back. When I returned and sat down, he leaned back in his chair and chuckled, “That was a test”. “I just wanted you to feel some responsibility,” he said. This would be the first of many years of learning from my jazz piano playing, big bellied, philosophical hip old man. The next day we visited a lawyer friend of his who told me to use my maiden name now, and that my so called marriage was illegal. A few days after he signed me up at a private high school as a senior, and we went to the mall and he bought me a $60 pair of New Balance sneakers. Who spends that much money on a pair of sneakers, I thought?! They were so comfortable. It was a whirlwind of a week with many introductions, but so much more was in store. New friends, new goals, new triumphs and sharing the pains of this hip old man, who’s “War on the Needle” made him famous in DC, but left him with wounds that only a 17 year old run-away daughter, landing at his doorstep could heal.
The expensive private school was incredible and unique to say the least. They were very attentive to my emotional needs. Being a Quaker School we sat quietly as a group for 10 minutes every morning which was awkward at first, but you got used to it. Our school building was an old farm house, and the group of about 25 students ranged from 9th – 12th grade. The days were filled with independent study guided hourly with support group meetings and lots of bonding. I graduated with straight A’s. My current circumstances could not compare to where I was a year ago.
The next few years were very eventful. My dad met a woman in a group called Parents without Partners, and we bought a house in Rockville, Maryland. I started college, and began a deeply rooted hobby of singing, songwriting and guitar. I shared my love of music with my dad who was an accomplished jazz piano player and a former Harmony Major at Catholic University. He would teach me the cycle of 5th and use his brushes on the coffee table whipping and swooshing them around to accompany me when I sang a song for him. I remember meeting with him and some of his musician friends one night who I played several original songs for. His friends commented on how talented of a song writer I was and that it was so refreshing and unusual to see so much original material. You see, I did not know that the normal progression for musicians was to learn to sing others’ created music first, and then write an occasional original song. My dad smiled, looked at me then back and them and said, “Yes, it’s unusual, but I did not want to tell her that because I thought she might stop creating!” Everyone in the room laughed. He also paid for a few formal voice lessons and I became very accomplished at writing, playing and performing for many years.
In December of 1977 I made a decision to go to church, a decision my dad thought was a cop-out and a weak person’s crutch. He scorned me, calling me a titty-sucker. He was disappointed, angry, disgusted and skeptical as to the direction of my life. Needless to say, he did not like organized religion, but he was a very spiritual man. This event though was a spring board for me into a life of faith and newfound joy as I realized that I, who deserved nothing good, especially because of the hell I put my mother through, deserved of all the blight and guilt of my stupid decisions. But nonetheless, I was forgiven of every dark deed. Whew, is all I could think! My joy grew as my new group of church going friends took me in.
My dad and I eventually made amends, and we remained very close. My dad’s favorite song that I wrote was “The Reality of His Love” which talks about mistakes we make, but how we can still find grace. We both had experienced this. He shared how without me arriving exactly when I did; he would have probably died from returning to a life in the fast lane. He had started drinking again and had just left his 2nd marriage when I arrived, and that condo was really his play boy pad. My arriving saved his life because he made the choice to straighten up quickly and begin to proudly take on the saving roll of a dad coming to the rescue of his troubled teen. He did though succumb to health issues related to a sorted lifestyle of drug abuse and alcoholism when he was younger and died at the early age of 54 of cirrhosis of the liver. Nonetheless, he was a champion against the drug abuse culture and worked for the Veteran’s Administration to develop drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. He became very well- known and was sent to Pakistan and Ireland to set up programs there too. I remember frequenting events with him with political figures and they always called him Sammy. Rest in Peace.
I started to live on my own in the DC area and worked part-time and went to college part-time. With my music abilities and being marrying age I was on constant duty interacting with performances and the frequent interested suitors. Then, I made a break back to south Florida after a frustrating break up from an engagement. I was going home after almost 5 years! I’ve always loved Florida. What a night and day difference a few years makes. I was 21 now, feeling pretty good about myself, and I had my priorities right. It was time to reevaluate what I was going to do with my life. One good thing about bad times is that you can learn what not to do if you pay attention to life’s lessons.
My mom and step dad, Mike lent me their spare room and I signed up for my final semesters at a local south Florida college to earn my first college degree. I enjoyed music and office work, so I became a performer earning a fair amount playing at weddings, youth camps, women’s conferences, and churches and volunteering to play in the women’s prisons. I also worked full-time as a legal secretary and really enjoyed that. I have to tell you, I was so happy. Little did I know that my step-dad, Mike was getting very bothered by my transformation, but in a good way because it led him down a path of faith that serves him well to this day. He said that when I first returned it bugged him that I was so happy and he could not understand it. He really thought I was just going through a phase because he only remembered me as a moody, sad, withdrawn, unloving, rude, prideful girl; and not a daughter he could be proud of I’m sure. He and my mom were great parents as I was growing up in the 70s. They even bought me a pony for Christmas when I was 13. Who does that! I have a love for horses to this day. Looking back over the bad years, I think my down fall during my teen years was a product of societal failures of our civic leaders, such as allowing increases in crime and drugs, exploiting ignorant masses with handouts (causing people to lose a solid work-ethic). Parents and civilian leaders were hoodwinked into timidity so they did not fight the evil in the streets as much as they could have. So, girls like me would be caught in a net of consequences.
An interesting thing began to emerge through my evolving maturity. The contrasts haunted me: such joy – such sorrow; such revelation – such manipulation; such purpose – such despair. Nowhere in society was there not a reminder of need! And, nowhere in society was there not every opportunity to fix it! As the contrasts reviled me I found a common theme for a life’s purpose. It was the very thing stolen from me at a young age, my education! I can learn if I pay attention to life’s lessons. I know I can because I learned to trust and appreciate others. I learned my love of music and how to practice it. I learned about faith, and I learned of forgiveness. I learned the value of becoming educated and the value of helping others benefit from being educated. At first, I did not know how to step into this newly found role as a champion and advocate for education, so I began my education to find out. I started out by admitting to myself that many times just achieving some set goal is not always the greatest asset of any given experience. In other words a “life story” is not the life you lived, but the life you will live.