I began writing letters to my grandmother. She was kind and funny and her no-nonsense relationship with God made me want the same.
That was back when we drove graded roads for hours through orange groves, pastures and cactus forests from Phoenix to Mesa. A long distance phone call on the only land line phone in the house was a costly event involving a telephone operator. Then postage stamps cost less than a nickel.
In 1965 my parents moved us from our west Phoenix suburb to Los Angeles. They called it a fresh start.
When I began writing my stories I mostly wrote fiction, so she only saw my well-crafted stories in my letters. Fiction was nice. Outside of discussing the weather and describing the nearby landscapes, truth rarely seemed nice to me. Some months in I learned Grandmother saw right through the stories in my letters to the truth – that I was miserable. I didn’t understand then how she knew, but I developed a healthy respect for the magic ball I was certain she had. I also knew I wanted to never disappoint her or fall from her good graces.
Not able to afford long distant calls, I also wrote to my former classmate Lanie about an exciting California lifestyle, most of which actually took place somewhere in books, black-and-white television, the drive-in movies and my imagination. I crafted most of them from different hiding places in my parents’ house.
Unlike my actual life, in my writing I was somebody people liked and wanted to be with. In print Grandmother didn’t notice a runny nose, pink eyelids, or dirt under the fingernails of a sad, chubby, mostly unkempt girl (except for occasional family gatherings). From describing our new home far from Phoenix, I began to write to Grandmother about the lovely sunsets over the ocean and the surrounding area (that I’d hadn’t seen except on billboards and silver screens). I described the traffic along Sunset Boulevard which was actually Leffingwell Road, a two lane asphalt stretch with no sidewalks or curbing.
Grandmother always replied with her newsy updates from her home, and encouraged me to write more about Los Angeles County and every few months Lanie would call. I’d developed a knack for writing believable stories. Years later I wondered what Grandmother must have thought when she visited California, but she never mentioned any difference between my letters and the reality she found there. Eventually Lanie stopped calling and I stopped sending her stories.
In my stories I was anyone and anything I wanted to be. I wrote about a smart, pretty, stylish, popular girl who blended into our neighborhood – not me. As the eldest girl of six latchkey siblings with working parents, in reality I could not see myself as anything but my lower-middle class parent’s stand-in cook, maid, and babysitter.
Early into adolescence I began to see myself as my characters. By 1967 people rarely spoke of the riots but the whole world began to change. At the same time I learned about cosmetics, fashion and allergy medication. I also recognized some of the advantages of serving adults at their cocktail parties. Our home became the perfect atmosphere to learn how to blend into any crowd.
As my world grew with more characters, both genuine and those I imagined, I eventually realized many other young people also felt confused and entirely alone. With that realization my awkward style became less gangly. I included memories of our homes in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago. Reading had always been a passion and writing became my touchstone.
In my early forties, after dropping out of school twice and years of misdiagnoses from health care specialists, an especially attuned practitioner recognized symptoms of a particular mental disorder. That discovery and subsequent research set my life’s course back on track. My health care team and support network pursued extensive diagnostics and research. Months later I began specific therapies and within several more years my life took off on a new, clearly defined course.
Ultimately, sharing my experiences with others and encouraging them along became my life’s purpose. It’s been an amazing adventure with constantly changing perspectives. Rather than hiding my true self in the confusion, shame and regret from my early years, I now boldly meet each new length of my journey head-on.