family insight

A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.” ~Buddha

12.4.03                                                                               new port richey, fl

THE FAMILY MY AUNT SHERI GREW UP IN PROBABLY LOOKED LIKE A BIG, FAT SLICE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM TO THE REST OF THE WORLD. 

Her parents—who met after my grandpa rode his motorcycle during the Depression from LA to my grandma’s hometown of Springfield, Mass.—never fought. The family—comprised of 5 kids, my dad being the oldest—lived in a comfortable house in the booming San Gabriel Valley ‘burbs of Los Angeles. My grandpa had steady work as a motorcycle mechanic. My grandma was a stay-at-home mom. Taking care of a healthy brood of attractive kids who never got in trouble.

My dad raced motorcycles. Brother Bill was in the Junior Marines. Sheri, 13 years younger than my dad, was 3 when she became a mascot for the Monterey Park Girls Drum & Bugle Corps, a local group that marched in the Hollywood Christmas Parade each year. My grandma was a chaperone for the girls. Middle sister Carol played snare drum. Oldest sister Betty played tenor drum. Eventually, Aunt Sheri moved up to soprano bugle.

Then at 16—13 years after she’d become a mascot—Aunt Sheri quit the squeaky-clean band. That same year she quit high school, too.

By the time she was 17, Aunt Sheri was arrested for having a joint—1 fucking joint!—and placed in juvenile lockdown for 4 1/2 months.

At 22 she was a junkie with a dead husband. Locked up for writing bad checks to support their heroin addiction. Doing time at Sybil Brand, the same LA jail holding a couple of the Manson family girls.

A few days ago, I found out that during Aunt Sheri’s 72-day jail stay—a time when she also got the news that her junkie husband had just OD’d—not a single person from our family came to visit.

* * *

This afternoon before her meeting with the bastards who’ve turned her down twice for disability, Aunt Sheri poked her head in the spare bedroom where I’m writing this week. I was asking about her many health issues and the abuse that led to it when she casually mentioned: “I’ve pretty much been in a mind-alterered state, 24/7, since the late ‘60s.”

There are people in our family who might scoff and roll their eyes upon hearing such a statement. I’d rather listen and try to understand WHY.

Aunt Sheri doesn’t play the victim. She doesn’t blame anyone for her fuck-ups. During the last few days she’s told me things that made my jaw drop. Things that never got discussed in our family. Stuff I’d never probed too deeply into. Then again, that’s the way it goes in my family. And so many other families out there, from what I’ve seen.

Things I’ve found out about Aunt Sheri: After she dropped out of high school she discovered whites, which got her jacked up—without the alcohol hangover. Then it was pot. Heroin. (Which she vowed she’d NEVER try.) Reds. Mescaline. And acid. Lots of acid.

“I used to LOVE to blaze,” she told me the other night. “And I’d do a LOT.”

She used to sell drugs to get enough money to DO drugs. She told me how she once got away with stealing $600 from an auto body shop she worked at. She remembered going to the Colorado River to sell acid…and eating all her profits.

“I got FUCKED up,” she said with a gravelly, chain-smoker’s laugh.

For 24 years—after she got out of jail and tried to commit suicide twice—Aunt Sheri actually was responsible enough to hold down a full-time job at a mental institution. Over 2 decades of steady employment while being in various mind-altered states. During the last several years she was drinking vast amounts of champagne…BEFORE work. And more at lunch. Plus doing cocaine.

Then, in 1998, Aunt Sheri met a truck driver in a Yahoo! chat room.

Which led to e-mails. Phone calls. Until finally, exactly 5 years ago Monday—the day I got here—Aunt Sheri flew to Florida and met Loren in person.

It’s been almost 2 1/2 years now since they decided to move to the East Coast. The first time in her life that Aunt Sheri’s lived away from Southern California. To live in Florida with the man she met in a chat room—which had become yet another one of her addictions.

And for the first time in her life, Aunt Sheri got religion. In a big way. Although she’s not pushy or preachy about it. She’s even been sober for 2 years.

The ‘60s are finally over for Aunt Sheri.

* * *

At our family functions there’s always lot of talking. But not much is actually said. Too many distractions. Too many short attention spans. Too much apathy. But lotsa laughs.

My dad’s side of the family gets together every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Plus usually one summer birthday/graduation/anniversary party a year. And the occasional wedding or funeral. There’s always lots of cute kids running around. The alcohol’s flowing. And some kind of sporting event is usually blaring from the TV.

I’ve been seeing Aunt Sheri at these thoroughly enjoyable events all my life. I’ve always thought she was great. The cool aunt who actually seemed willing to have an open, 2-way conversation.

And still…

I’ve learned more about Aunt Sheri in the last 3 days than I did in 40+ years of seeing her at family functions.

Maybe that says everything you need to know about our family. Nobody is all that interested in anybody else’s life. Or at least it SEEMS that way.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself. I know in my heart that I’d like to hear every delicious detail about the lives of the people in my family. But in the Era of Convenience, we seem to have time for everything BUT listening.

And when the need to talk isn’t reciprocated with a desire to listen on the other end—when the scales of conversation are almost always tipped in their favor—who wouldn’t shut down under these circumstances?

Is it so surpising that Aunt Sheri ended up on the road she did? Raised by disinterested parents who, after 4 kids, were tired of parenting. In a household where she was never hugged. At Christmas a couple years ago she told me she couldn’t remember her mom or dad ever saying “I love you.”

She does, however, remember my dad’s teasing and temper. “Your dad was MEAN,” she’s told me a couple times since I’ve been here.

In my dad’s defense, he’d been emotionally ignored at home while getting teased mercilessly at school for years because of his stuttering.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I felt like I understood all that pent up rage he must’ve felt.

I had my dad over for dinner one night when I was working on “the book.” I wanted to hear all the stories he’d never offered up over the years. I wanted to have the conversation I’d had with dozens of friends and strangers. A conversation where my genuine curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm had gotten so many people to open up and share their stories.

A conversation I’d never had with my own father.

After that night, though, I felt like a dirty window had just been cleaned. I saw things in my dad I never did before. When that conversation was over, I’d never felt such compassion for my dad. For years I tended to dwell on what he DIDN’T have. That 4-hour talk left me full of respect for the man he’d become and for what he’d overcome to get there.

After these last few days in Florida, I feel the same way about Aunt Sheri.

Aunt Sheri is a survivor. Still diving headfirst into life with a laugh and a cigarette. When it would be so easy to just give up.

At 52 she is also the physical embodiment of the consequences of partying too hard for too long. Among her MANY ailments: hepatitis B & C (from shooting up), work-related arthritis in her neck and shoulder (from subduing patients at the psych ward), the onset of osteoperosis and arthritis in her hips and hands, a leaky bladder, cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia and a near-constant headache. She’s also had a hysterectomy, her gall bladder removed and has been on anti-depressants pretty much since my grandma died in 1980.

Now all the drugs Aunt Sheri takes are state-approved and taxed by Uncle Sam.

Through it all, she is upbeat and optimistic. “I’m not ready to check out yet,” she told me before going to have a Marlboro on the patio. She loves her 2 cats (Budhe and Quasar), volunteers once-a-week and loves the music at her Methodist church. She’s got a network of friends — the family that LISTENS to her — thanks to a Yahoo! chat room. (Aunt Sheri and about 20 other chat friends from all over the world actually hooked up in Vegas not too long ago.)

And for the first time in her life, she’s in a stable relationship with a man for longer than a year-and-a-half. At 52, she’s found love with a good man who she calls “an absolute blessing.”

I love hanging out with people like Aunt Sheri. People who keep getting off the mat when life bitch slaps them to the floor. People who’ve felt lost, ignored, unloved — yet somehow found the fortitude, the grace, to keep going.

* * *

Aunt Sheri told me a great story 2 nights ago that sparked a pang of recognition.

After she’d gotten out of jail, lost her husband, went through rehab and tried to kill herself twice, Aunt Sheri decided she wanted to go back to school. At 25, she was going to study to become a psych tech — the mental hospital equivalent of a registered nurse. She was a little nervous about the whole thing. She hadn’t been in school since she was 16.

But Aunt Sheri was determined to complete the year-and-a-half program. Even though, as she recalls, “I had never finished ANYTHING in my life. I quit high school. I quit the Monterey Park Girls Drum & Bugle Corps. I quit the jobs I didn’t get fired from. I quit my marriage.”

While Aunt Sheri was in jail, her husband Greg came to visit. Angry that her years with him had led to a junkie’s life and jail, she told him she never wanted to see him again.

It was the last time she would ever talk to him.

Weeks later he OD’d on heroin.

So when Aunt Sheri showed up for the psych tech program, she came with just a little baggage. And a history of not finishing things.

Well, not only did she NOT quit, but Aunt Sheri got straight A’s. Made the dean’s list. And finished in the top 95th percentile in the national certification tests.

When she told me this I was aghast. “Why haven’t I ever heard that story before? Did anyone in the family know about this? Did anyone show any interest in what an amazing thing that was?”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Not really.”

“Well, I hope it’s not too late,” I told Aunt Sheri as we sat surrounded by cats and clutter on her screened-in patio. “But I’M proud of you.”

Advertisements