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Chickens to Mice (The Faces We Live)

 THE WHOLE FAMILY seemed excited to sell the house that had become the chicken refuge. Mother and Don were opening a new dry-cleaning store in Ramona, California. Their spirits were high; they looked forward to a new adventure. I was grateful to escape the noisy, smelly, poop-ridden chickens and the neighbors’ disgust.

Our family of six and our lovely collie, Zany, moved into a small, two-bedroom house in Ramona. We all seemed to adjust fairly well until Don met Richard at a local bar while Don was “just having a few beers,” one of his newly discovered favorite pastimes.

Our lives would be changed forever by Richard, a charming but devious man who completely took over our lives.

Richard had four children under the age of ten and a very sick wife. They were without money or a place to live, and we took them in. Being a grown up thirteen-year-old, I stayed home from school for six weeks to take care of the four children while Richard’s wife, Maria, was hospitalized.

The little house was so crowded that my brother, now seventeen, and I were relegated to sleeping on cots in the half-finished garage. What I most remember about that period, however, was the sound of the mice running around. Petrified, every night I asked my brother if the mice could climb up in our cots. He always replied, “No way, Honey, now you just go to sleep.”

I believed him. I drifted off to sleep despite the sound of their little, scurrying feet. I think I would have come apart at the seams with fear had he not been there to comfort me.

My brother avoided the insane chaos by abruptly leaving home to join the Marines, just like his father before him. He grew into a man of honor but at the time I was anguished when he left and didn’t say goodbye. My heart ached from missing him, just as it had when I was sent to the foster care home at age four.

After Mother and Don took Richard into their business, he promptly embezzled several thousand dollars—big money in those days—which resulted in bankruptcy. My mother maintained that my stepdad’s bad judgment in befriending Richard forced her to leave him. But I clearly remember seeing my mother in the arms of charming Richard, and they were kissing.

Whatever the full reason for the breakup, I missed Don and regretted not having the chance to whisper a brief goodbye. Mother went to her grave never telling Don that she had officially divorced him. Her refusal to tell him was his punishment for the “sin” of bringing Richard home.

Everything happened so fast. In the span of one week, Richard and his family were gone. Don left forever, and my brother escaped into the night. Years later, Ronnie explained that he could not have witnessed the heartache his leaving would cause me.

Soon after, I sat on the sidewalk, watching in sadness, as the movers repossessed my mother’s cherished furniture. I knew how hard she had worked to pay the finance company for that turquoise sectional couch. With the gold and black threads running every which way, I thought it to be the ugliest couch I ever saw. Nevertheless, it was her couch. What was left of my shattered heart broke further that morning when I saw her ashen face watch helplessly. In some mysterious way, the movers repossessed my mother’s soul as well, because she was never the same afterward. She now had holes deeply embedded in her core. She had lost her father when she was ten, then my father, the love of her life. Three husbands gone, along with her business; lost were hopes of financial security, and vanished was her future. Even I understood that it wasn’t about the furniture. It was about all of the thwarted dreams disappearing with the removal of each piece.

***

A few weeks later, my grandmother, mother, younger brother, and I moved from Ramona to National City, close to the Mexican border. Surprisingly, my mother had one more romantic relationship left in her. This time her lover was a late-stage alcoholic named Bill. His gravelly voice, alcoholic breath, and staggering gait invaded our lives for the next two years. A nice enough guy, but his glassed-over eyes, repetitive, stupid jokes, affectionate hugs, and unpredictable behavior were exhausting to be around. Unpredictable people still frighten me. Drunks are unpredictable.

After their breakup, we moved around the San Diego area like vagabonds several more times. Mother sank into a deep depression, surrendered to welfare, and quietly slid into the comforting arms of Valium.

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51NVdAmazon pic of RD

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