Personal stories about my life, starting at 12 years old.

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The Hollywood Tropicana


The Hollywood Tropicana

It was another late night, Justin and I had worked our 3pm-11pm shift. After cleaning the pizza ovens, mopping up and getting everything in order, we caught the bus back to Hollywood from Century City. We usually got back to Hollywood somewhere between 12:30 am- 1:30am.

It was dark as we entered the apartment and we were both quiet as we  went in. I tiptoed and didn’t see mom in her bed, which was snuggly located next to the refrigerator, but saw the bathroom light on through the cracks of the closed door. I could hear a fuss and crying behind it.

I pressed my ear to the door and listened for a few minutes. I could hear my mom crying and whispering, “Damn, damn!” Listening for a couple more seconds, I put my mouth as close to the door as I could and whispered, “Mom, are you in there?” She replied, “Yes, I’m doing something.” Concerned, I asked, “Are you ok, is anything wrong?” Mom said, “Hold on.” She opened the door and was standing topless with only jeans on.

She said, “Come in.” and then quietly closed the door behind me. She said, “I’m scared, Elena, I think the girl I was wrestling tonight may have burst my implant, and if it’s leaking, it could be poisonous.” Mom asked me if I thought it had ruptured. I said, “I have no idea. I have no way of knowing. I don’t even know what an un-ruptured implant feels or looks like.”

Mom was clearly scared and went on telling me that this girl wasn’t supposed to hurt her. She was just supposed to act like it was real. The mud wrestling is supposed to be for the men to see the girls in sexy-skimpy clothes, rolling on top of each other in the mud. But, the dingbat girl was really going for it and beat her up.

Of course there wasn’t anything that I could say that would be helpful, nor did I want to risk insulting my mom, by asking her not to work at the Tropicana. It was a sleazy mud-wrestling bar in Hollywood. I know she did it because we so desperately needed the money, but I hated it. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream, “Please, stop working in that hellhole!!” But, my mom didn’t know of another way.

She wanted an education, but the fact of the matter was, that she was an uneducated, damaged woman born into poverty. She had big dreams for herself, but her first mistake was getting saddled with four kids at a young age. Her dreams had been replaced by the reality of living an ugly life on the margins of society.

Instead of stating anything that could be taken the wrong way, I just said, “I’ll get you some ice and maybe you should see a doctor.” Mom replied, “No, no doctor we can’t afford that.” I said, “Agreed, we can’t afford it, but what if your implant is ruptured, are you going to let silicone migrate into your system and poison you?”

Mom pale as a ghost said, “Do you think this is going to kill me?” I said, “I don’t know, but at the very least, it has to be unhealthy for your body.”

I went to get the ice, came back to mom and gave it to her. As I was walking out of the bathroom to go to bed, she stopped me. Holding back tears, mom said, “Elena, will you sleep with me in my bed? I’m scared of dying in my sleep.”

I reassured her, saying, “You are not going to die in your sleep and I’m more comfortable alone.” Mom stood in front of me continuing to look petrified, so I said, “Ok, I will lay with you, until you fall asleep.” She hugged me and said thank you.

I laid next to mom, listening to the hum of the refrigerator motor and the crinkling of the ice bag. She had closed her eyes, which gave me a chance to study her face. We typically didn’t spend much time together. She was always working and rarely home. Her biggest fear was that we would be taken away from her or that she would have to give us up because she couldn’t really afford to keep us. In her resting state, I was reminded of how beautiful she was; her skin, eyebrows, nose and hair.

Once I felt that mom was asleep, I slowly crept out of her bed, back to the bedroom Anna, Justin and I shared. Still in my clothes from the day, I put myself to bed. I had grown up sleeping in my clothes and felt most comfortable this way.

Out of the darkness and half asleep, Justin whispered, “Is Mom, alright?” I didn’t want to get into it and replied, “Yeah, she’s fine.” Justin said, “Goodnight, I love you, sis….”

I was becoming an expert at not feeling and tried my best to stick to thinking, which took less out of me. In an attempt at being prepared for the next shoe to drop, which was routine for us, I thought about what would happen if my mom didn’t wake-up in the morning. What would we do? How would we manage to stay together and not get separated by Child Protective Services?

In an attempt not to get myself worked up, I started thinking about modeling and how, if I could get an agent and make a lot of money, I could fix all of our problems that stemmed from being poor. I hated that my mom worked as a part time mud wrestler. I hated it because it was so degrading. This is what hurt me the most. She wasn’t a perfect mom by any stretch of the imagination, but I loved her and wanted better for her.

Next Day.

I made my way into the kitchen the next morning and my mom was still sleeping. I walked towards her hoping she wasn’t dead. I thought since my dad had died less than a year before in his sleep, it would be mathematically impossible for my mom to also die in her sleep.

I put my hand on her shoulder, nudging her and said, “Mom, are you up?” She was groggy, but she responded and said, “Yes, I’m up.” I asked, “Are you ok? Half out of it, she responded, “Yeah, I think so, but, I’m sore.” She stopped herself mid-sentence and said, why haven’t you left for school? You better go, Anna and Justin already left.”

I showered, changed my filthy clothes and passed mom one last time to check on her and she was already dressed and on her way out the door. She said, “Run to school, you’re already late.”

I walked out the door pretending that I was headed to school. Mom didn’t know that I had stopped going. Instead, I spent part of the day in the basement-laundry room of the apartment building we lived in reading, writing and enjoying being alone. No one really used it during the week. The machines were often broken and it gave me somewhere safe to be until it was time to go to work at the Cultured Cow again..….

Memory 13 – Hollywood Meets Century City

I had to stop thinking, but I couldn’t. All I did was think, and I was absolutely the most unqualified person for the job.

It was the same series of self imposed thoughts that brought me back to asking the ultimate question: Why was it that some people didn’t have any struggles whatsoever and lead perfectly happy lives, while others suffered miserably?  Who or what decided each person’s fate? I thought maybe it was God who decided, but I didn’t know who, where, or what God was, outside the fact that my mother was a Catholic-atheist.

We didn’t grow up going to church and Mom said, “All religion is bullshit.” When I asked her questions about God and why she had us baptized as babies she got annoyed, so I stopped asking.

I reasoned that I must have been a bad person, or God wouldn’t have sent me to this life; it wouldn’t be logical to send a good person to be beaten, poor, and helpless unless they deserved it, so I must have deserved it. The confusing part was that I didn’t know what I had done.

The thing is, deep down inside I didn’t feel that I was a bad person and, when considering my brothers and sister who shared the same fate, it really didn’t make sense because I knew for a fact they were exceptionally good people.

So maybe God, if he existed, made mistakes; nothing and no one is perfect and that had to include God as well. But it didn’t matter: it was my life, and if God didn’t like me and my mom didn’t like me, I would just have to accept the fact that I was on my own.

I made friends with most of my deficits; the only thing that made me feel horrible when I thought about it too much was the last report card that I brought home before dropping out of school. It had straight F’s on it. I felt so ashamed of myself that I used whiteout to remove the F’s and took a black pen and hand wrote A’s in their places.  Before doing so, I shared the report card with Anna and Justin.

Justin asked, “How did you manage to get an F in P.E.? That should be an easy A!” I said, “I don’t like changing in front of everyone—I don’t feel comfortable taking my clothes off. The teacher said he was going to flunk me because I was never there, and when I did show up I didn’t get my P.E. clothes on or participate.”

As school faded out of the picture entirely and months passed while living in Hollywood, I drew further into myself through reading and writing. I liked being alone because it allowed me to think and dream in quiet.

In the beginning, my dream was fairly simple. I wanted to become a model, make a lot of money, and then go to the grocery store and buy whatever we wanted to eat. I thought about cupcakes, candy, cookies, hamburgers, potato chips, pizza, fruit punch, Top Ramen, and steak. That was basically it, and of course, a safe neighborhood to live in was included.

As my dream list refined itself, over time, I started to write things into the plan that I had never thought about before, which came out spontaneously.

The first of which was that I wasn’t going to love anyone except my sister and brothers.

I wasn’t going to get married or have kids–I wanted total freedom. I wrote that I would never put myself in a position to want or need anyone or let anyone want or need me.

I wrote it all out on paper and thought it was odd how certain it felt and that it wasn’t a decision that I had made so much as it was a decision that had chosen me.

Having a childhood was something that had apparently been omitted from this life, and whatever hopes I had of a parent helping me dissipated with finality, as my future began to consume more and more of my thinking.

It was as though one world had to fall away so the next one could emerge. In my mind, I could see where I was going to end up–it was as clear as a picture. I didn’t have any doubts that success as a model was my future, even though I didn’t know how it would unfold yet.

However, until my dream showed itself, I worked for my brother at The Cultured Cow in Century City, continued looking for an agent, and read as many books as I could get my hands on.

Becoming a model didn’t seem like it was going to be half as difficult to accomplish as my brother Justin giving me a job, which took quite a bit of begging on my part.

Justin was the assistant manager and he worked his shifts from 3pm to 11pm. He took the bus from Hollywood to Century City and back 5 nights a week. He worked the night shift to accommodate his school schedule.

I pleaded with Justin to give me a job, but his reluctance was due to the fact that I had to come home on the bus late at night. He said that The Cultured Cow closed at 11:00 pm and by the time he cleaned up and closed out the receipts, he didn’t get home until 1:00 or 1:30 pm and there was no way I should be on the bus that late in Los Angeles because there were dangerous weirdos on the streets, and he added the fact that I had to be 16 years old to work and I was barely 15 years old.

After endless begging on my part, he finally caved and agreed to give me a job, but said I had to pass the scrutiny of Mark, his boss, and that if he brought me to Century City all the way from Hollywood to have the interview, I was going to have to sit and wait for his shift to be over because I couldn’t go back home on the bus myself. I agreed to all the conditions he put forth.

Century City was a combination of entertainment and business— it was clean, modern, and beautiful. The Cultured Cow was located in between The Shubert Theater, restaurants, private clubs, and The Twin Towers, which were filled with law firms, Hollywood production companies, and corporate businesses.

The employees poured into the restaurants at lunchtime and at night it was theatergoers. Everyone was well dressed, the men wore suits, the ladies dressed for business during the day and elegantly at night. It was my first exposure to being around so many smart, busy, and cultured people.

The excitement, energy, and happiness that I felt from being near a world I had never seen before, was eclipsed by thinking about how educated and important everyone was, and wondering if they could tell I was neither.

When we arrived at our destination for the interview, Justin introduced me to the people he worked with, who were all very nice. Mark wasn’t ready to meet with me when we got there, so Justin fed me pizza and let me have a coke and a frozen yogurt for dessert.

Justin told me that the employees ate for free. I could hardly believe my ears. In disbelief, I said, “Are you serious? Everyone that works here gets to eat for free? Why haven’t you been bringing food home?” Justin said, “I can only eat on my shift; if anyone gets caught taking food home they’ll be fired.”

I thought the first part of my dream was coming to me. I promised myself I would get the job and then I’d be able to eat all of the pizza, salad, chips, candy, and frozen yogurt that I wanted over the course of an eight hour shift.

Then it was time for us to go into Mark’s office, which happened to be the size of a small closet. Justin introduced us and then went to get ready for his shift. Mark stayed seated at his desk and started by saying, “Justin told me he had a sister that wanted to be a model. So that’s you, huh?”  As soon as the words came out of his mouth, a feeling came over me, that he was a bad person. When Mark continued by saying, “So tell me about yourself”, the feeling came through again.

Nervously, I replied, “I’m 16, but I don’t have any I.D. and I would like to have a job here.” Smiling, Mark asked, “Are you sure you’re 16?” I said, “Well, I’m almost 16. I’ll be 16 in 14 months.”  He laughed and said, “So you’re not 15 yet?” I said, “I will be soon.” I added that I really needed to work, at which point he asked about my school schedule. His question hung in the air, waiting for me to answer, but I didn’t because I thought he might report me to a truancy officer or have me taken by CPS, and I already knew not to trust him.

I looked at Mark’s photos on his desk and trusted the feeling that he was bad, but I didn’t know why yet and understood not to give him any information. Looking at me, he broke the silence by saying, “Does everyone say that you look 21? I mean seriously, you could easily pass for a 21 year old. How tall are you, 5’10?”

I really wanted the job because I wanted to have access to food, so I tried to be nice and talkative, but it was hard. I didn’t know what to say. Mark asked me what kind of experience I had. I paused, thinking about the cigarette shack and feeding Clyde’s pit bulls and cocks in Banning, and responded by saying, “I don’t have any experience but I will work very hard, I promise.”

Mark stood up from his desk, held out his hand, said, “You’re just the kind of young lady I need around here”, and gave me the job on the spot. I asked when I could start and he said, “You can start now. Work this shift with your brother and I’ll have a couple of my people behind the counter start training you and on your break you can fill out the paperwork.”

I was thrilled that I had my first official job and was going to get a paycheck, plus all the food I wanted to eat. I felt that life was going my way.

As I stood up to thank Mark and shake his hand, I remembered my lack of ID. Apprehensively, I asked, “Is it a problem that I’m not old enough?”

He smiled warmly and said, “Don’t you worry about that, I’m the boss here; I’ll take care of everything.”

The work was strenuous, but I liked being in Century City. The hardest part was mopping up at night—the mop felt like it weighed 30 lbs and the restaurant had a big floor to clean.
It was also a part of my job to clean the pizza ovens, which were quite hot after cooking pizzas at 500 degrees all day.

Justin showed me how to take the big metal scraper and reach all the way to the back of the ovens to scrape off all of the charred leftovers that were stuck to the oven walls.

The first day on the job ended at 12:30 am, we were done and ready to lock up. I was exhausted and in pain. We made our way to the bus stop just off, Avenue of the Stars, back to Hollywood. Justin put his arm around me and asked, “Are you tired?” I said, “I didn’t think this would be such hard work, but I love being around all the people and activity– everyone is extremely nice.  I wish we could live here.”

Our bus pulled up, we got on, and Justin reminded me to put my sweatshirt on and to cover my head with the hood, and when I told him I didn’t want to put it on he said, “You have to, especially as we get closer to Hollywood.” I reluctantly replied, “I can’t because I hurt my arms.” “What do you mean you hurt your arms?” Justin asked.

I said, “I burned them cleaning the ovens.” He took my arms in his hands to examine them and said, “How did you do this?” In pain, I responded, “I wanted to do a good job so you would be happy that you hired me, but the ovens are so deep and narrow that I kept hitting the sides as I scraped all the junk off.”

He said, “Why didn’t you come and get me? I would’ve cleaned the ovens!” In misery, I replied, “It’s not fair if you have to do my share of the work, especially after working on you so hard to give me the job in the first place. I didn’t want you to think you had made a mistake by appearing weak or complaining.”

Justin said, “I knew I shouldn’t have given you the job, but you’re relentless! You shouldn’t be on the bus this late, it’s dangerous and now, on top of it, your arms are burned. You can’t tell Mom or let her see the burns or she’ll kick me out. It’s my fault, I knew I should never have helped you get a job, you’re too young.”

The bus was approaching a stop and we could see a bunch of teenage hoodlums waiting to get on; Sharply, Justin said, “Put on your sweatshirt and get that hood over your head!”

Whining, I said, “I can’t, my arms are killing me.” Justin said, “I don’t care, put your hood on now!” I did as I was told and it was agony. The sleeves of my sweatshirt rubbing on my burns were torture—I kept my head down and didn’t make eye contact with the guys that got on the bus. There were four of them and they were cussing, listening to music, and talking really loud.

Justin had on a look that I never saw before; his jaw was clenched and his eyes looked mean and dead—he just looked straight the whole time, ready with his hand on a switchblade in the pocket of his jacket.

I was exhausted, in pain, and scared of the guys on the bus and worried that Justin was going to make me quit working at The Cultured Cow. I leaned my head against the window and watched the promise, hope, and ambition of Century City fade as the bus continued to head East on Sunset Boulevard towards Hollywood.

I liked the people in Century City and didn’t like the people in Hollywood.  The dread of going back into Hollywood after being on the West side of town was partly due to the buildings. The demeanor and tone of the buildings in Hollywood reflected their own history and time spent standing. They stood back in jaded cynicism—jaded by so many people just like Justin and me who had come to the city with hopes and dreams for a better life.

I couldn’t help but feel the unarticulated questions they posed, such as, “Who do you think you are and why do you think you’ll be any different from all the other failures that walked and dreamed on these streets?”

So many had come before us, only to fail or be sidetracked with drugs, the wrong people, bad choices, and ultimately chased by their dream right over the edge of a building or into a seedy hotel room, working in prostitution.

I promised myself one day this life would feel like a distant memory, a bad one that I would bury and never think about or speak of again. This part of my life would remain an ugly, well kept secret that would never be shared with anyone.

When we arrived back to our one bedroom apartment, Mom was asleep in her bed next to the refrigerator where a table should have been, Anna was in her bed, I took the other, and Justin unrolled his sleeping bag on the floor. I slept in my clothes because my burns hurt, and I didn’t have the courage to attempt removing my sweatshirt.

Dawn of a New Day

I woke up the next morning to the smell of mold and brown sunlight trying to make its way into the dilapidated atrium of our apartment building. My arms still hurt, and I was hungry. Mom, Anna, and Justin had already left for the day.

I heard the old Yugoslavian man next door yell at his wife, slam the door, and exit the building. Then came the weeping. I went to the paper thin wall in the living room, put my ear against it, and listened to his wife cry. I felt sorry for her and hoped that she wasn’t crying because he hit her.

Our apartment doors almost touched and, while I only greeted her in passing, I liked her. I decided to knock on her to door to see if she was ok.

As I knocked, I heard a frail female voice ask, “Who is it?” I put my mouth as close to her door as I could without touching it and replied with a whisper, “It’s Elena, your neighbor.” After a long pause she cracked the door and peeked out with one eye. “Are you ok?” I asked.

With a thick Yugoslavian accent and tear filled eyes, she whispered, “Yes.” I stood there for a few minutes, hoping she would invite me in because I smelled toast and coffee. In an attempt to give her some time to check me out and decide to open the door I just stood there. She asked, “Why are you not in school?” I answered, “Because.”, and turned to walk away, when she opened the door all the way and invited me in…

  • Date 06/10/2013
  • Category Story
Frontside of Post Card Sent From Donny

Memory 12-Hollywood, California

Out of one life and into another—how many lives are there for one person to live within a given life time? No matter which life or town I was in, it didn’t seem to take any effort to be popped into the next existence.

Dad was dead and all we had left of him was a monthly check for $150.00 that Anna and I each received from Social Security. It happened to be the exact amount in rent we paid for the one bedroom apartment in Hollywood.

These and other thoughts continued to run through my mind as I sat in the waiting area of The Select Agency for my brother Justin, while he met with his new acting agent. It was a good agency located on Sunset Blvd near Doheny in Los Angeles.

The waiting area had a large floor to ceiling window and I was high up enough to see where Santa Monica Boulevard met Beverly Hills. I occupied myself by watching buses travel up and down Santa Monica Blvd along with airplanes cueing up in the distance, waiting to land at LAX.

Holding my thumb and index finger up to my eye, I noticed cars and buses all measured to be about an inch long from where I was sitting and it made me wonder why objects of such different sizes measured the same from a distance. It occurred to me that proximity affects perspective and I’d hoped that it applied to the rest of life, because it would be a good thing if it did. No matter how sad or painful a person, place, or situation was, if, with distance, it became small, it would be easier to stay hopeful about the load not getting too heavy to carry.

Life picked up speed after moving to Hollywood, which kept me too busy to feel and I considered it to be a gift of sorts. I didn’t cry or have much emotion about losing my dad. I didn’t spend any time looking back, as to what was or could have been and didn’t look at my favorite picture of him holding me on the hood of his car anymore.

After dad’s funeral, my big brother’s Donny and Justin packed us up and moved us from Palm Springs to Hollywood.  Donny stayed living with us for as long as he could, but it didn’t take much time for Mom to resume her old behavior.

She started dictating his every move and used him as an emotional punching bag, which drove him to join the Navy sooner than expected. It was obvious that he had to go and we wanted him to because we couldn’t take watching him suffer.

Frontside of Post Card Sent From Donny

San Diego, CA where Donny trained at boot camp.

I was sad when he left because he was the most decent and caring person we had in our lives, but I was happy that he was following his dream of serving in the military and at the same time getting some much deserved peace.

Donny On Graduation Day.

Donny in his dress whites on graduation day-San Diego, CA

When the time came, we all went down to The Navy Recruit Training Depot in San Diego to attend his graduation from boot camp. Nearly three months of marching and training left him slim, tone, and tan. He was so happy when he first laid eyes on us that he cried and gave each of us such big bear hugs, that he lifted us clean off of our feet. Donny was our hero.

Mom came too–when it was time for her and Donny to say hello, he was respectful but aloof, giving her a distant hug.

After boot camp, he was assigned to the USS Constellation in Coronado, California and sailed to Hawaii and the Philippines and wrote post cards to us regularly.

Post Card From Donny at Boot Camp

One of Donny’s notes home while in the Navy


Pulling me back to present time and away from thoughts of the past were the voices of Justin and his agent, Gary, coming down the hallway. I could hear them discussing Justin’s school schedule and availability for auditions. They made their way over to me, at which point Justin introduced me.

Gary was in his early 50’s with gray hair and dressed more like a teacher or principal than an agent. He had on a gray sweater vest and corduroys. He shook my hand and immediately turned to Justin and said, “You didn’t mention you had such a beautiful sister.”

Justin put his hand on my shoulder and said, “This is Elena; she’s my baby sister.” Gary’s eyes widened and he said, “Baby sister–she looks like she’s 21.”

“I know, everyone says that but, she’s only 14.” Justin said, protectively.

Gary smiled and said, “You better keep an eye on her”, and then asked, “How tall are you, sweetheart?”

Nervously I replied, “I’m 5’9 ½.”

“Do you want to act?”

I said, “No, I don’t….”

Justin interrupted saying, “She wants to be a model.” I turned beet red and couldn’t peel my eyes off the floor from embarrassment.

Looking at me, Gary said, “Don’t be shy about it. You better state what you want if you expect to get anywhere. Hollywood is a tough town and if you have any ambition to model, just remember: so does every other pretty girl. There’s a whole bunch of competition. The first thing you need to do is get yourself a modeling agent.”

“I don’t know how”, I said. Gary suggested I go to Screen Actors Guild and get a list of registered agencies and just start making the rounds. “Don’t stray off the list. There are a lot of creeps out there claiming to be agents, but if they aren’t on SAG’s list then I recommend you avoid them.” He warned.

I thanked him. Justin said, “Good-bye”, and we both exited the agency and headed back home to Hollywood.

Hollywood was visually about as far as one could get from Palm Springs. Beautiful streets lined with palm trees that reached up to crisp blue skies were replaced with lost souls, failed dreams, and runaways that fell victim to drugs, prostitution, and the under world.

The buildings, businesses, and people changed with every passing block as our bus continued to head East on Sunset Blvd. My heart and spirit automatically shrunk the deeper into the bowels of the forsaken we climbed. I was petrified of becoming like the people I saw standing on the street corners, as there was nothing separating our paths. I knew it was possible that I too could end up the same way.

I ran cold thinking about being an 8th grade drop out. I searched my mind trying to find a differentiating factor, as to why I wouldn’t be a statistic, but there wasn’t anything solid separating me from the broken people we passed—only a promise to myself that I would never be a drug user or sell my body or soul to anyone.

Arriving at our stop, Justin reminded me to put the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, to tuck my hair away, not to make eye contact with anyone, and to hold his hand. If anyone tried to jump us, Justin carried a switchblade with him at all times and I knew he would use it if necessary.

We lived on Alexandria Street between Hollywood and Sunset Blvd near Vine. The building was dingy and old and the apartment was tiny. Mom’s bed was next to the refrigerator in the space meant for a kitchen table and the three of us slept in the tiny bedroom.

The apartment manager didn’t know there were four of us living together, so we had to avoid being home at the same time to keep from being caught and evicted. We all tried to stay busy and out of the apartment, but it was hard because Hollywood was not a place for kids to be hanging out.

Arriving back to the apartment, I scoured the list of modeling agencies and started circling the ones that I had heard of or that sounded professional. I circled Nina Blanchard, Elite, Wilhelmina, and a bunch of others. When my mom got home, I asked her if she would take me around to the agencies and help me get an agent.

I told her that I would make a lot of money and we wouldn’t have to worry about having enough food to eat and that we could live in a safe area and be happy, if she would help me find an agent.  I kept to myself that I so desperately wanted to be in charge of my life; I wanted to live on my own and have the ability to take care of my siblings. I didn’t want to see anyone suffer anymore. It was my dream and I didn’t know how, but I was determined to find a way to make it happen…..

  • Date 01/22/2013
  • Category Story
Dad's Passport Photo (19 yrs old)

Memory Eleven: Dad’s Funeral

I returned to Sacramento, this time to bury Dad. Anna, Donny, Justin, Mom and I attended the funeral at G. Cuigis and Sons Chapel of The Valley with a gathering to follow at my Dad’s house.
Dad's Obituary

Dad’s Obituary

I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel anything. The only thing I remember about the actual funeral service was my Uncle Tom becoming so distraught during the open casket that he tried to physically pull my dad’s body out of the coffin. If it hadn’t been for my uncle’s emotional outburst, I would have no memory from that part of the day.

My dad was Uncle Tom’s only brother and they were as close to each other as Anna and I. They had survived WWII, famine and coming to a new country to build lives for themselves. Now he was brotherless.

Everyone returned to the house after the funeral to visit, eat and console each other. I felt compelled to go into my dad’s bedroom. I wanted to see his bed to make sure that he wasn’t in it, even though I knew he was lying in a coffin on the other side of town.

His bed hadn’t been made since the paramedics removed his body. His shoes were on the floor, pants draped over a chair and family photos delicately placed on his dresser.

Anna (2) and Me (3) Last Childhood Picture At My Father's House

Anna (2) and Me (3) Last Childhood Picture At My Father’s House

The pictures consisted of Anna and me, a family photo from Greece and a wedding picture of him and my Mom.

I walked into Dad’s bathroom and saw his personal items waiting for him; toothbrush, Lava soap, razor and towels in the exact positions in which he had left them.

I picked up his bottle of cologne, and put some of it on my wrist, hoping it would move me a little closer to him. The bottle read, “Devil–For The Devilish Man Inside You”, and then it hit me. I was never going to see or speak to him again.

The combination of his cologne and the distant echoes of crying relatives saturated me with the realization that he was gone for good.

I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t see the person I was before losing my father. I was different somehow, but I didn’t know what the difference was other than asking myself questions that I had never asked myself before. Questions such as, who or what decided when a human heart took its first magical beat and who or what decided which beat would be its very last?

Memory 11 - Dad's Funeral - My Father Antonis Christos Statheros

My Father- Antonis Christos Statheros

Where do we go when we die? Is there a God? What was the voice that whispered “Dad” to me 12 weeks prior to him dying in his sleep? I thought if there was a God, that he must not have liked me very much. Even though I did feel lucky that Anna, Dad and I got to share our birthdays together.

Three birthdays and a funeral in three months spoke to carrying life and death in the same hand. There was nothing I could do to bring my Dad back and understood that what claimed him was the impermanence of life.

Continuing to look at myself through my Father’s bathroom mirror, I spontaneously accepted impermanence as my theme for life. Death merely offered a new perspective on a word that I had without consent already grown very familiar with.

I took one last look at Dad’s room, pictures and belongings before quietly walking out and closing the door firmly behind me.

I avoided going back into the living room, I didn’t want to talk, console or be consoled. I looked for my siblings and thought to myself how I had pined for the day the four of us would be back together again, but not like this.

I found Anna and my two brothers sitting in Anna’s bedroom, while she enjoyed her last few hours with her rainbow sheets and the rainbow clouds that Dad painted on her ceiling, which still had a fresh paint smell. I sat down and joined their circle on Anna’s bed.

Justin and Donny were not very happy with my Mom after the earfull they got from Anna. My brothers had been living in San Francisco together working and going to school. They were busy making their way in the world and had been out of the loop for the last year and a half, except for infrequent phone calls.

Justin immediately asked “Why didn’t you or Anna call us and tell us what was going on?”

I said, “ What were you two going to do about it?” Justin logically responded saying, “For one I would have threatened to report her.”

Feeling frustrated, I said “To who, the cops?! Anna already called the cops on her for beating me senseless with a wooden spoon. The cop told me that he couldn’t arrest her unless she broke my head open or broke a bone. His solution was to leave Mom to cool off, send Anna to the neighbors and take me on a 45 minute ride into the desert asking me stupid questions about school and if I had a boyfriend, as a way to cover for staring at my breast and hair the entire time.

“He tried stretching-out our time together by asking if he could buy me a donut or take me to lunch. All I could think of was grabbing his police radio and screaming into it for someone to save me!! Save me from this creepy cop, save me from my mom, from Chris, the lies, the moves, the poverty, the beatings, the hiding, the fear, the violence, and violence and violence…!”

“The officer that was suppose to protect me gave me his card and told me I had to call him everyday for several weeks, which made me petrified, because every time I called him to check in he kept asking to take me out. You want to call the cops? Go ahead call the cops! Neither one of you know how bad it’s been. If she doesn’t kill us then the creepy people and places she exposes us to eventually will.”

Justin and Donny sat silently with tears in their eyes as I let loose the pain that resided in the pit of my stomach. Anna already lived through it all with me, so it wasn’t news to her.

I started sobbing, but insisted on finishing what I had to say, “It’s been nothing short of a damn miracle that we haven’t been raped or molested. She has no fear for our safety and I can’t live like this anymore.”

I pleaded with both Donny and Justin not to leave us. I said “Mom is going to be mad at us for the time we spent with our Dad and on top of that, I know she’s seeing Chris again.” Anna’s eyes widened and filled with fear.

I continued pleading, “Can’t you guys come home? We’ll be safer if you’re with us, she won’t treat us badly if the two of you are there, because she knows she won’t be able to get away with it.”

Donny interrupted me and said “That’s not true; she didn’t want us around anymore and kicked us out before we had anywhere to go. Anna started crying and said, “It’s going to be really bad for us after we leave here.”

They both looked at each other sweating over what they were going to do to help us, Donny said, “Look, neither Justin nor I want to live with her, but we’re not going to abandon you guys, not after everything you’ve shared. Justin will go back to Palm Springs and stay as long as he can, but he’s been accepted into a Repertory Theatre for actors and will be moving to L.A. at the end of August.”

Anna and I were excited and proud of him, “Really Justin? Are you going to be an actor?” He smiled and said “Yes, I am, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. It’s a hard company to get into, they only take a handful of people every year, but I’ve been invited to join after several auditions. I have to move to L.A get a job and be ready for the fall start date.

As Justin was sharing his good news an overwhelming feeling came up through my center and washed over me without thinking I said, “Take me with you.” Anna said, “Mom is never going to let you go to L.A. and what about me…?”

Justin cut Anna off and said, “Elena, I’m going to be living in Hollywood, I’m broke and it’s not a place for 13 and 14 year old girls.”

“We can take care of ourselves, we have been for a long time now. We know how to stay safe and I promise, I’ll watch Anna, we’ll sleep on the floor and we won’t give you any problems. I’ll get a job and help pay for food and rent and do all the cleaning. You’re 19 a legal adult, you can take us.” I said.

Justin looked conflicted and I was fearful that he was going to say “No.” Begging I said, “Please Justin, please take us with you, I have to move there with you.”

Feeling torn and pressured he said, “Now all of the sudden you HAVE to move to L.A.? Has the idea ever crossed your mind before?” “No, but now that I’m hearing you say it, I can’t explain, it, I just know I’m supposed to be there too.” Relentlessly, I pleaded, “Please Justin, please, I’ll do anything, please take us with you.”

Donny’s eyes welled up with tears at my desperation–looking down at the floor searching for a solution, he said, “It’s clear that you guys can’t go back to living with Mom unsupervised.”

He paused, looking down again grappling with his thoughts and slowly continued by saying, “I guess I’ll tell you both now, that I was going to join the Navy when Justin moved to L.A. I’d be in for two years. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time.”

Justin already knew about Donny’s plans, but Anna and I were taken aback hearing that by moving to L.A he was putting his dream on hold for us.

Stepping up to the call at hand Donny turned to Justin and flatly stated, “Both of us will move to L.A. and stay with the girls until they can get out on their own–away from Mom.”

He then turned to Anna and me took our hands and gently reassured us by saying “Justin and I will do whatever we have to do to keep you both safe—starting with Justin escorting you back to Palm Springs.”

Justin anxiously reiterated, “I just want to make sure I stay on track with my plans. I’ll travel back to Palm Springs with you two and Mom, but I don’t want to get stuck there.”

Donny looking at all of us said, “This is the plan. I’ll come down, we’ll rent a U-Hall, pack it up and all drive to L.A. Don’t you girls forget that Justin and I have packed up and moved as many times, if not more than you two. We know the drill.”

Anna asked, “Is Mom allowed to come?” Donny said, “As long as she doesn’t pull any crap, she can come. But, I’m not putting up with any BS from her; I’m doing this for you guys and by my rules.”

Anna and I hugged our brothers and said thank you and I love you repeatedly. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. It was going to be the way it was back when Anna and I were younger—Donny took care of us and made sure everything was okay. I was beyond relieved and grateful to be in the company of my brothers again and knew Mom would have a harder time pushing them around now that they were older.

We all walked back into the living room Justin holding my hand and Donny holding Anna’s. The three of us sat on the couch and watched Donny walk across the room to Mom and proceed to take her outside to talk.

  • Date 12/28/2012
  • Category Story
My favorite picture-Dad, Justin, Donny and me (9 Months old) standing on the hood of dad's car.
Sacramento, CA

Memory Ten: First Summer With Dad

The end of my first visit after 11 years of not seeing my father was drawing to a close, Anna had planned a birthday party for all three of us because our birthdays were all in a row.

Mine was June 7th, Anna’s July 6th, and Dad observed his on July 21st. He didn’t know when he was born because he was born in Greece and didn’t know the exact day. So he used the day that he first came to the United States as his birth date.

Anna was turning 13, I was turning 14, and my dad was turning 47. For Anna and me, this was the first real birthday party we’d ever had, complete with food, balloons, friends, presents, and a whole celebration.

Mom made sure we had a cake to share, but we never had a party or a celebration with friends. Part of the territory that comes with transience and living on the fringes of society is not having roots that are anchored in routine, tradition, and community.

The birthday party that Anna planned was so thoughtful and perfect that it left me with an overwhelming sense of death and loss. I wanted to be happy because that’s what a normal person should feel on a happy occasion such as this. But I couldn’t escape the fear and sadness that I had accumulated over 14 years and knew it would be a futile attempt to be happy for myself. I could be happy for Anna and my dad, so that’s what I did. I smiled and participated in their happiness.

All of the same relatives from our initial family reunion were there: Kerry, Mike, Jerry, Eliza, Uncle Ted, Poppy and our brother Donny. We had a pool party with a BBQ, and danced, sang, and opened gifts.

My dad was completely exhausted by the end of the evening and excused himself around 9:00 PM to go to bed. He needed to be up bright and early the next day for work; I admired his discipline and work ethic. The only thing that he wasn’t disciplined about was smoking. He loved to smoke.

After the party, Anna, Donny, and I stayed up late talking as it had been a long time since we had been able to spend time with our big brother.

Anna and I updated Donny about some of the things he had missed since moving away from home. We told him about creepy Chris and the Indian reservation, not attending school, and having to escape in the middle of the night.

Donny felt horrible, and said, “Why didn’t you call me and tell me?” Anna replied. “What would you have been able to do about it? Mom has never listened to you, or anyone else for that matter!”

He said, “It’s illegal not to send your kids to school! I’ll call the damn truancy officer on her. She pulled that same crap with Justin and me because she made us hold down so many paper routes. I’m not going to let her pull that with you two! You’re going to school.”

I explained that it’s easier in Palm Springs for us to get to school because the school is literally just across the street and the kids are nice. They didn’t try to beat us up like they did in the other schools we attended.

Anna changed the subject by asking Donny to tell me what he had learned about our dad. Donny lightened his demeanor, as he carefully chose his words and said, “Tony needs to have a bypass surgery.” “What’s a bypass?” I asked.

“It’s heart surgery and he’s been putting it off because he says he can’t take the time off of work, but I told him I’ll run his produce business for him and help him out while he recovers.”

I thought that was a very nice offer from a step-son to his step- father, but that defined Donny. He was selfless, which was why we hadn’t ended up in an orphanage home before now. He was used to making great sacrifices; it’s just what he did and who he was.

I said, “I don’t understand and have never heard of this before, but he should do what his doctor tells him to do and I’ll come back and help as well. We can all help.

Returning to Palm Springs
It was time for me to go back to Palm Springs. Anna was sad that I was leaving, but I promised her that if Mom wasn’t nice or did anything to hurt me, that I’d come back to stay.

I continued packing up my things into the piece of luggage that my dad bought me. It was nice not using a paper sack like I had in the past. He came and sat on the side of my bed, looking sad, tired, and worried. I stopped packing and sat down next to him and asked, “What’s wrong?” thinking that he would share the news about him needing heart surgery, but he didn’t.

Instead, he said, “I’m a little tired and I have to say my heart is heavy that you are leaving.” Feeling torn and knowing that he wasn’t well, I said, “I will come back to see you again before the summer is over and if things are not good with my mom, I promised Anna already and I’ll make the same promise to you, that I will call you and return right away.”

With a long face and an even longer pause, he said, “You must be careful with the people that your mother brings around; you are a young beautiful girl and need to know the world is a very hard place for the innocent. One’s life can change in an instant; you must take care and remain aware.”

I was relieved that my dad didn’t put down any barriers or ultimatums about my going back, because he certainly had the right and power to do so. In a sense, I was born in the wild and any feeling of being trapped would have sent me running; his wisdom of letting me choose ensured my return.

Anna, Donny, and Dad drove me to the airport and walked me in. Anna and I held hands and talked as we walked. She said, “We’re not keeping the promise we made to each other because we are not staying together.” I couldn’t explain the sense of responsibility that I had towards my mother to anyone, and that was because I didn’t quite understand it myself. But the fear that she would die or disappear, never to be heard from again, was at the core of it. I gave Anna a big hug and said, “It’s just for now.”

Donny gave me a hug and, in his burly voice, said “Be good, kid. I love you” and then it was Dad’s turn; he gave me a hug and started to cry. “Dad, please don’t cry; I’ll come back.” I said.

He started speaking to me in Greek and held me for a long time. I felt every piece of his broken heart in our embrace. I knew my dad was crying for me and not himself, and in this I could feel the truth of his love. Mom didn’t cry or worry for us; she only cried for herself. The depth and emotional tone of her tears revealed the distinct difference.

The mystery of not knowing my father left a void that made knowing myself impossible, and now I finally had the other half of who I was right in my hands. I was like him even though he hadn’t raised me. I had his blood, his resilience, and his loyalty to family, and now a bond that gave me an inner sense of legitimacy.

The hardest part was that I didn’t know how to say good-bye. I had never learned. I only knew how to leave, never to look or turn back.

Palm Springs
Our neighbors Kelly and her daughter Jennifer picked me up at The Palm Springs Airport because Mom couldn’t make it. Kelly had dinner ready for me when we returned home. They were excited to hear all about my visit with Dad, because they too were Greek.

The birthday party was easier on me as a memory and in sharing each moment with Kelly and Jennifer I got to enjoy it in a way that I couldn’t when it was actually happening. I relished sharing the details about my father: how he cooked for us every night, his will to work and take care of his loved ones, and how much the people around him loved and admired him. It made me proud that he was my father.

Hours passed, darkness fell, and I slowly said good night and walked across the courtyard to our apartment. It was dark, which told me no one was home and that was fine because I was a little scared to see my mom after being gone for a couple of weeks.

I showered, brushed my teeth, climbed into bed, and fell asleep thinking about how strange life was and how it didn’t feel real at times. I had spent so many years loving and looking at the picture of my dad holding me on the hood of his car, and now I actually knew him and he knew me. After so many years of pining, it was a gift to finally meet the man responsible for giving me life.

Life Has a Life of Its Own
It was early, maybe 7:30 or 8:00 am, when the phone rang. I slowly grabbed it and, half asleep, answered, “Hello?” It was Anna, hysterically crying and trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t understand or make out what she was saying through the tidal wave of emotion in her voice.

A shot of adrenaline started coursing through my body and I began to shake, and I said “Anna, slow down, I can’t understand a word you are saying!” As best as she could, she tried to calm herself by taking deep breaths, but continued crying. After a few failed attempts at speaking, painfully she whispered, “Dad is dead. Dad is dead. Dad is dead.

Donny went into Dad’s room looking for him when he didn’t come to the kitchen for breakfast and found him. He died in his sleep…..”

Dad and I celebrating my 14th Birthday.

Dad and I celebrating my 14th Birthday.

Anna, Dad and Me First Few Day Of Being Reunited- Palm Springs Ca

Memory Nine: Summer Trip To Sacramento

Day 1: Anna had been in Sacramento for almost four weeks by the time I made the trip north from Palm Springs. It was the first time we had ever been separated. Dad and I pulled in the driveway from the airport and Anna came running out to greet me, bouncing with excitement.

It hadn’t been long at all, but she already looked different: a bit taller, tan and wearing clothes I hadn’t seen before. She looked beautiful. Dad took my bag out of the car and they both led me inside the house. Anna said, “Wait till you see my room; you’re not going to believe it! Dad bought me rainbow sheets and painted rainbow clouds on my bedroom ceiling! He’s the best dad ever; you’re not going to want to go home after being here.”

Anna showed me her new clothes and gifts while filling me in on the details of her new routine. She said, “There is always food in the refrigerator, he cooks at night and takes me to work with him during the day. It’s fun because I get to work the cash register, spend time with him, and eat candy. Dad is just so completely different from Mom that it seems impossible that they could have ever been together and from what I can tell he hasn’t been serious about anyone since.”

I asked Anna, “Are you going to stay living with Dad or come back after the summer?” Without hesitation she said, “I’ll do whatever you want to do, because we have to stay together. She then asked me, “Can we stay and live here?” I said, “What about Mom, I don’t feel like I can just leave her and how could we live a normal life after the way we’ve been raised? But I don’t want us to be apart; I was really sad without you.”

Anna said, “I’ve missed you too, but not Mom though. And you’re right, it is strange sometimes being in a normal house with a normal responsible parent. I mean he checks on me, he asks me if I’ve brushed my teeth and stuff like that, it’s weird. But if we did move in with Dad full time we’d definitely be safer, we wouldn’t have to move from town to town anymore, and it would give us both a chance to go to school regularly.”

We could hear Dad calling us from the other side of the house. We left Anna’s room and followed the yummy smells and his voice until we found him in the kitchen, cooking dinner. My dad smiled a lot, which I found soothing. It made me feel calm and that everything was okay, which was exactly how I liked everything to be: happy, calm, and okay.

With much pride in his thick Greek accent, Dad said, “We are going to have a feast with the entire family tonight!” He waved me over to the stove, inviting me to taste something he was stirring in a big pot and asked, “Elena, would you like to take a swim and relax before everyone arrives?”

I said, “Actually, I would much rather help you cook and prepare for all the guests.”

He smiled and said, “Okay, you can help, but not now. Nowww you must rest and swim. Then later you can help me, is that our deal??” He gave me a hug and in agreement, mocking his Greek accent, I answered “Yes, that is our deal.”

Anna and I put on our swimsuits, ran out to the pool, grabbed a floatie, and jumped in. The temperature difference between the water and air was perfect.

As the sun started fading out of our day, the trees, house, and swimming pool were cast into different colors starting with pink, and then changed to shades of orange and then red the closer it got to setting.

Drifting around the pool together, I said to Anna, “I really love Dad; I think he’s a good man. What do you think of him–what is he like so far?” Half hanging on her inflatable raft, she answered, “He’s perfect! He sings Greek songs to me when we drive in the car and he buys me presents and candy whenever I want. He wakes up at the crack of dawn everyday and works really hard. And I don’t think he has a girlfriend, because all he does is work and at night he’s here with me. He really cares about being a good dad and I think he feels bad about not being around for us.”

Anna continued, “Your timing with looking for Dad was perfect! Did you know we all have birthdays coming one right after the other over the next 7weeks? Yours is June 7th, mine is July 6th, and Dad celebrates his July 21st. He doesn’t know his real birthday because he was born at home, but celebrates it on the day he first came to the United States. Isn’t it wonderful, Elena, that we all get to celebrate our birthdays together after so many years?”

Dad came out of the house carrying a plate of snacks and catching the tail end of what Anna was saying and added that he wanted her and me to plan a combo birthday party for all three of us. He asked me, “Would you and Anna like this?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond but, accepting his graciousness, I simply replied, “Yes.” He handed us our towels and offered us some fruit, cheese, and crackers.

We sat together talking and I noticed that while Dad was happy and clearly relishing his fatherhood, he seemed slightly subdued, perhaps tired. I told him after I got showered I would help him and if he wanted he could teach me how to cook.

Dad’s house slowly started filling up with our extended family and everyone came, carrying gifts in celebration of Anna and my arrival.

It was amazing to think we had this family all along that we didn’t know existed, and yet here we all were together, laughing, hugging and feasting. It was a stark contrast to how we had lived prior to this night. It felt like being in a dark room and having somebody open the curtains to allow the sunlight in; it was wonderful, and an adjustment.

We had several cousins our age and they asked us lots of questions such as, “What grade are you in? Who’s your best friend? What school do you go to? What’s your favorite subject? What sports do you play? Which clubs at school are you in?” Followed by, “I bet you guys are the most popular girls in your grade. You must have been voted prettiest hair, smartest and most popular.“

I hated to disappoint and I didn’t want to lie, but Anna and I both looked at each other knowing full well we couldn’t answer their questions honestly without creating more questions to answer. So, I took the lead and knew Anna would follow. Instead of lying, I just answered all their questions with a question. It worked out well. I felt like I didn’t sully our relationship with our new family and I learned a lot about them in the process.

The evening had been a full one and was slowly coming to an end; everybody helped clean up and started to discuss a plan for the next day, factoring in a repeat for dinner the next night. I told my dad that I wanted to go to work him, and outside of that I didn’t care what we did.

Day 2

Statheros Produce Co.

Dad's Co Truck-Antonis C. Statheros Eventually Became T&T Produce.Dad's Co Truck-Antonis C. Statheros Eventually Became T&T Produce.

Dad’s Co Truck-Antonis C. Statheros Eventually Became T&T Produce.

Dad and I woke up for work at 4:30 am because he owned and operated a produce business and that was the time he woke up 6 days a week. The day was intensely busy and went by fast. There were still about 45 minutes left before we could close, but there was a lull in customers that gave us a chance to take a break, so we sat on a couple of orange crates together and talked.

Lighting a cigarette, Dad asked, “Where did you learn to work like this?” I said, “Like what?” He said, “Like a man.” Laughing, I replied, “I don’t work like a man.” He smiled at me and said, “You look like a lady and you work like a man.” I said, “Well, I don’t know; it’s just the way I am. Maybe I got it from you.”

Noticing him light his second cigarette using the first one, I said, “You shouldn’t smoke; it’s really bad for you.” He simply responded, “I know, that’s what my doctor keeps telling me.”

Changing the subject, Dad said, “I feel like I have a second life now that you and Anna are with me again. I thought about you every day and every minute and hoped that one day we would be back together.” His eyes got glassy with emotion and his voice carried a little resentment, which I assumed was for Mom.

He continued saying, “Anna says that you’ve missed a lot of school, and things have not been easy. I want you to consider moving here and letting me take care of both of you. You two are young and I know your mother will never make her job as a parent and your care a priority.”

I said, “I love my mom; I know she’s not a good mom, but she’s my mom. I really want to go to school and we do kind of go, but we move so much that it makes it hard for me to focus and I feel like I’m starting over every time we arrive in a new town. And I worry about Anna a lot and I’m scared most of the time in general. I have to stay on guard and take care.”

I tried hard not to, but I started crying and said, “I have a dream to become a model, but I think it’s mostly because I don’t know what else I would do and I don’t want this life when I grow up and modeling could be a way out. I want to be smart, I want to go to school and be like other kids, I want to feel like I belong. I’m going to be 14 years old and I’ve never been to a dance, or a school party or football game. It feels crazy to me that the places we hide are the very places that we should be hiding from, and the people that are good we have to keep at arms distance because we live in the shadows.”

My tears were unstoppable now and I started to worry that I was opening up too much and giving too much information, but I had opened a door that I couldn’t close….

Looking straight into my eyes, Dad emphatically said, “You and Anna have to stay; you don’t need to go back to Palm Springs. You can live here and I will take care of you. You have cousins, aunts, and uncles, and you’ll make friends at school. I’ll buy you a pretty dress and you will go to a dance and live a normal life. I want you to accept this from me, Elena, for both you and Anna.”

Our break turned into an hour and a half heart-to-heart discussion, after which I felt better for having. It was a gift to be able to confide in my dad; I knew he loved me and that I could trust him. And that was the gift because I didn’t trust anyone.

When we slowly packed up and started our drive home, I had a lot to think about and it was as clear as ever that my choice not only affected my future, but my sister’s as well.

We got back to the house and Dad looked especially worn out, but I didn’t know if he felt upset by our conversation and the things I shared or if he was just tired.
In passing he said, “I’m going to go lay down for a little bit before we start cooking dinner.” The energy and tone of his words made me pause and turn to look at him before answering. I walked over to him, gave him a hug and said “Okay, I love you Dad….”

Anna, Dad and Me--The first time seeing our dad after an 11 year separation. Palm Springs, CA

Memory Eight: Palm Springs – Dad Arrives

The morning of my Dad’s arrival, I could tell mom felt concerned about what might come of his visit, because she sat quietly looking at the floor in deep thought. Throughout our childhood we were told several stories, as to why she could never let us see him, one of which was, “He told me, he would take you away to Greece and I’d never see you again.

The real truth I believe, was that if we bonded with him, she risked us wanting to be with our Dad instead of living with her which was an unpredictable life of transience, poverty and insanity. If we had another parent in our life Mom wouldn’t be able to do whatever she wanted and at the very least she’d be required to feed us and get us to school.

I wasn’t use to seeing mom pensively sitting in one spot for this long and what I liked about it most was that it gave me a chance to actually see a side of her that was otherwise hidden.

Mom’s emotional fragility was tangible on the backdrop of change that wasn’t initiated by her. She was calmer and more considerate for the time being, which allowed me to see the difference between her and the behaviors than ran her. Mom’s childhood wounds in their natural state felt cleaner and a lot less scary.

Dad knocked and Anna jumped up from her seat announcing, “He’s here!!”

Mom slowly brought herself back to present time, smoothed out her clothes and cautiously followed behind Anna, who opened the door practically removing it from it’s hinges saying “HI, DAD!!” and giving him a wholehearted hug.

Mom was next. They just looked at each other for a moment, and then mom said “Oh my goodness, Tony. Wow, I haven’t seen you in so long!” Every word was delivered on a nervous laugh and trepidation.

Then my turn came. Feeling overwhelmed, I stood looking at my Dad, afraid to hug him; everything felt too real or not real enough and I couldn’t tell the difference between the two. I was afraid to wrap my arms around him for fear that it was just a dream, and that upon waking I’d be left empty handed and empty hearted.

I stood looking at my dad’s face, which was very tan from working outside, his eyes were big and brown like mine, but permanently bloodshot reflecting fatigue from years of hard work. However, his ear to ear smile was from being reunited with Anna and me. He looked exactly like the pictures that I stared at from mom’s picture box over the years. Just older and more weathered.

He reached out to touch my cheek with his overworked calloused hand and said in a low heartfelt voice, “Hello, Elena.” Looking down, unable to handle his open heart and the reality of him actually standing in front of me, I quietly answered, “Hi, Dad.” And gave a hug.

Then, came Mom, “Gee, Tony, I bet you didn’t realize how grown up and beautiful the girls are….” She kept talking to my Dad, but her words fell silent to me.

I had conflicting thoughts that stemmed from years of false information coupled with dreams and hopes I had invested in the photos; all of it was real to me after so many years. Not necessarily the truth, but real nonetheless and now I was going to have to figure it out for myself.

Dad stepped into his parenting role pretty quickly. We were only 15 minutes into our reunion when he interrupted Mom’s conversation to ask Anna and I, if we were hungry. Of course we were and nodded, yes. He turned to mom and said, “The girls are hungry we should take them now and feed them.” Anna and I looked at each other in disbelief. Mom paused and seemed a bit caught off guard, but then recovered and said, “Oh, yes, yes of course, I’ll get my purse.”

We all went to an early lunch and then for a walk on Palm Canyon Drive. We passed a couple of clothing stores and Dad offered to buy us clothes. Anna leaped with joy and said, “Really??” I was happy to see Anna so excited, but felt uncomfortable letting him buy anything for me, because we were just getting to know each other and it was the same as having a perfect stranger buy me something even though he was my dad.

We went into a store and dad wouldn’t take no for an answer, so Anna and I shopped while he and my mom talked. I heard my dad say to mom that he wanted to start spending time with us now. Mom’s just listened…

What I knew about my dad was that he was raised on the Greek island of Syros, during World War II. He had a very difficult upbringing because of the war, and only went as far as the 5th grade.

Mom told us that he became a Greek Merchant Marine as a young man because it was the only way off the small island that he was born on.
His first voyage was to the United States, and when the ship came to port in San Francisco he stayed behind after it set sail again. He had friends that hid him in a cabin in the Lake Tahoe area and helped him get to Sacramento where he permanently settled. He married a very nice Greek-American lady and built a successful life.

Then the transient orphan from Memphis, Tennessee with the face and body of a movie star moved into town, and that was it—my mom and dad met and shortly thereafter, came me, a wedding, then Anna.

Watching the two of them together talking, I couldn’t help but wonder how different things could have been had their relationship worked.

The fact of the matter was; there was no way Mom would ever be able to stay in one life, in one house, with one man, in one city, living the same life day in and day out. Sadly, my father had to learn this painful fact from the tail lights of her car in the middle of the night with my sister and I in tow.

It wasn’t that my Mom was a bad person, she just couldn’t attach or bond and that was from growing up in an orphanage home, and losing her parents at a young age. At this point, I could see that it was rather remarkable that she had kept us.

We made our purchases and continued walking, eventually settling at Swanson’s Ice Cream Shop. We all got ice cream cones. Anna and I got the same thing, which was our favorite; chocolate chip ice cream dipped in chocolate that hardens and rolled in nuts.

Spending time with dad, being indulged with gifts and ice cream cones was pure heaven!

As we all enjoyed our treat, Dad said to mom again, that he wanted to spend more time with us. That he had missed out on very precious years. He informed the three of us that he had to drive back to Sacramento the next night, only had one more day left and wasn’t leaving until he had a schedule for the summer.

Anna and I sat back eating our ice cream, not uttering a sound, looking on, waiting for Mom’s response to his question. Mom stiffened a bit, but she tried hard to appear agreeable and relaxed.

She said “You know they’re still in school and they can’t be absent and I need them here to help me around the house.” My dad wasn’t going to accept her response, nor was Anna.

Anna surprisingly blurted out, “I want to go with you Dad!” Mom was stunned! Anna continued saying, “I want to go with you Dad. I don’t need to finish school. I don’t go half the time anyway.”

Mom cut Anna off and said, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course you go to school” My dad turned to me and said “Elena, what about you?”

Here it was at last, I was being thrown a rope that could lift me out of the internal and external pit that I lived in up to this point. The man that I had dreamed of knowing from my favorite childhood photo was here ready to assume his role as my father and all I had to do was accept.

Watching my ice cream cone start to melt and run down my hand, gave me something to think about along with my father’s offer of a stable, predictable life. My reluctance in responding was that I felt responsible for my mom. The boys were gone, and if Anna and I both left, she wouldn’t have anyone. I didn’t want her to be alone like she was when she was as a child.

Anna pulled on my arm and said, “Elena, please come. It’s only for the summer and you’ll love it, and remember the promise we made to each other to always stay together no matter what!” Feeling confused and a little numb, I replied, “I know, I remember.”

Mom sat there looking at me, clearly not expecting this day to come. I said, “ I don’t know that I can come the entire summer, but I will definitely come for part of it.”

Mom somewhat relieved by my answer, obsequiously handed me some napkins. My dad respected the compromise. I didn’t feel the slightest trace of pressure or disappointment from him. In his thick Greek accent, he said, “Elena, my house it’s your house. The door is always open to you, come whenever you want.” I said, “Thank you, Dad. I promise, I will come over the summer.”

Dad dropped us back off at the apartment, staying long enough to discuss details regarding exactly when Anna was coming to stay with him and to work out a weekly phone schedule.

He told us not to call him unless it was an emergency because he didn’t want us to run up mom’s phone bill. But, that if we really missed him or just needed to talk to call his house, let the phone ring once, hang up and that he would call us right back.

He said he would be back the following morning to see us again, before he left to go home. He was staying at a local hotel and gave us the number.

He said something to Anna and I in Greek, gave us each a hug and said, “Good-bye.”

My favorite picture-Dad, Justin, Donny and me (9 Months old) standing on the hood of dad's car.
Sacramento, CA

Memory Seven: Palm Springs – Finding Dad

Anna and I loved Palm Springs; we loved our school, friends and the distinct feeling of being normal, or at least what I imagined normal to feel like. After my first photo shoot with Rick, I was more certain than ever that I wanted to be a model.

Mom worked most of the time and in general was rarely home. When she did come home it was only to shower, change clothes and leave again. I never knew where she went or when she would come back. I told her she needed to start telling me where she was going in case she disappeared, so, I would know where to start looking.

She never told me where she went, but showed me where the food stamps were in case she was gone a long time, so I could buy food for Anna and me.

I kept the apartment clean and took care of everything, and wasn’t scared because we had nice neighbors and I felt safe where we lived.

Anna had more friends and was much more social. I had a tendency to stay home even though I did love being at Kelly and Jennifer’s apartment. They were our Greek neighbors who fed and loved on me whenever I did come over.

One day while home by myself feeling the emptiness and isolation that seemed to be a constant companion in varying degrees, I decided to look through mom’s box of family photos for some comfort. It was the box that we risked our necks to retrieve while fleeing Chris’s house in the middle of the night.
It held pictures of my grandparents, mom as a child, as well as all of our baby pictures.

I’d look through the box from time to time, because it gave me a chance to see my two brothers who I missed very much and pictures of us with our father. I came across my favorite picture of him holding me by my legs in a blue dress and white baby bonnet, smiling at the camera. I wanted to insert myself into the picture and start all over again with that moment as the starting point.

Continuing to look at the picture, I heard a soft voice say, “Dad” and felt a warm felling come over me. I stayed still and quiet and heard the voice again say, “Dad”.

Anna came home and found me sitting on the floor, with all the pictures out, holding the one of dad and me. She said, “What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?” With certainty, I answered , “I have to find dad. I was sitting here looking at the pictures and I heard a voice say to me “Dad” —I’m suppose to find him.” Anna looked at me for a few seconds and slowly asked, “What voice??” I said, “I don’t know, it was just a voice. It was soft, but clear as a bell. I heard it twice and I feel that I’m suppose to find dad”

Anna said, “How are you going to do that? We haven’t seen him in ten years and even if you could find him, mom is going to be so mad, there’s no telling what she will do to you.”

I snapped back and said, “ I don’t care, I’m suppose to find him and that’s what I’m going to do.” Anna said “Ok, don’t get all upset about it, I’ll help you.”

I asked Anna if she thought dad still lived in Sacramento and she said she thought so, but wasn’t positive. I went to my mom’s dresser and pulled out her phone book and looked up Carlton Barkley. He was married to my Aunt Marilyn, mom’s deceased sister.

I stood holding the phone book and turned to Anna and said ”So, I‘ll just call him and ask him if he knows where Dad is, right?” Anna looked at me and said, “I don’t know, you’re the one who heard the voice.”

I picked up the phone and dialed the number, a woman answered and I quickly hung up. I saved the number by writing it in pencil on the underside of a table in our room.

Later that night I rang Carlton again, and this time he answered.
I said, “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Elena, Elaine’s daughter.” With a slight drawl, Carlton said, “Well, hell, of course I remember you sweetheart! How ya doin’?” Hearing the pleasant surprise in his voice, combined with the fact that he clearly remembered me, made me want to run to him through the phone line. He continued by asking how my mom and the rest of the kids were. I simply replied, “Fine. Everyone’s fine.”

I asked Carlton if he knew my dad still, if he kept in touch and how I could get a hold of him. He said he hadn’t seen him in ages, but he would ask around and see what he could find out. I didn’t give him my number, but told him I would call him back in a week.

I called Carlton back a week later almost to the hour. He picked up on the first ring, which caught me off guard. Stuttering, trying to find words, I said, “Uh, hi, it’s me, Elena.”
Carlton said, “I know who it is! Guess what?” My mouth didn’t have a drop of saliva in it and the blood drained from my head and heart. Barely answering, I replied “What?”

In a voice filled with so much compassion, Carlton said, “I found your dad for you.”

Silence, silence and more silence…

Carlton said, “Elena, are you there?” Heart pounding, I replied, “Yes.”

He continued telling me that he had tracked my dad down through the social security office in Sacramento, they had already spoken on the phone and that my dad wanted to see us right away. My head was spinning!

I said to Carlton, “I can’t believe you found him and that you went to so much trouble to help me. I don’t have words to thank you for what you have done.” He said, “You know what, Elena, your dad has been looking for you guys for a long time.” I was shocked, I said, “Are you kidding me?” Carlton continued by saying, “Your dad said he’s been trying to track you and Anna down for years and couldn’t find you girls or your mom.”

I believed what Carlton was saying and it made complete sense. I’m sure our incessant moves coupled with the fact that we weren’t enrolled in school half the time made tracking us down impossible.

I wanted to see my dad as soon as possible. I explained to Carlton that we lived in Palm Springs and there wasn’t any way for me to get to Sacramento. Carlton said, “Take your dad’s phone number, call him, he’s waiting for you. Elena, you don’t need to worry, your dad will take care of everything.” I wanted to cry, but didn’t let myself. He ended by saying “Now you take care darlin’ and remember everything’s gonna be alright.”

After hanging up with Carlton, I waited a minute to collect myself and then dialed. I realized after the phone started ringing that I didn’t know if I should call him Tony or Dad?

Like Carlton, he picked up on the first ring and with a very thick Greek accent sweetly answered, “Hello, Elena?”
“Yes, it’s me. Hi, Dad……”

  • Date 12/21/2012
  • Category Story
My first photo shoot- 13 years old-Palm Springs CA

Memory Six: Palm Springs: Our New Life

We settled into our new life in Palm Springs, the Morongo Indian Reservation was quickly fading into its proper place, oblivion. I was halfway past my 13th birthday, we had nice friends, Mom got a job cutting hair downtown, and I loved our new school Raymond Cree. I even had my very first crush: his name was Jimmy Lindel, and I thought he was the most handsome boy I had ever seen, but Anna said, “He was homely and a geek.”

Mom came home from work one day and told me she had passed a photography studio named Richard Anderson. She said that she stopped in and met the photographer Richard and his wife Sheila and had set up an appointment for me to see him, and that I had an hour to get ready. Panicking, I said, “It would’ve been nice if you told me before you made the appointment.” She said, “I know” in total agreement, but went on to say “I was driving and something said to me in my head, this is going to be Elena’s big break! So, I just went for it, he really wants to meet you.”

I said “How can I get ready? I don’t know what to do!” Mom just laughed at my panic. However, an hour later to the second, we were at Richard Anderson’s studio.

Mom and I let ourselves in. I could see from the photographs that lined the walls of the reception area that he was very talented. He did desert landscapes, models, actors, and advertisements. I felt really good being there, but was also very nervous. I didn’t think I was pretty or model material but Mom had a differing opinion.

We sat in the reception area for about 10 minutes when a petite blonde came out wearing tight size zero jeans, high heeled sling-backs, and looked to be about thirty-five years old. Her name was Sheila and her voice was as tiny and high pitched as she was. She warmly greeted me saying, “Hi honey! Your mom has told us so much about you!” I said, “Thank you,” and followed her lead. Through the darkened studio, I saw a backdrop and lights set up. I also saw someone who turned out to be Richard Anderson; his back was to us as we approached him, he was hovering over a light box editing photos.

Sheila said, “Rick, Elena is here to meet you.” He didn’t move right away. He finished viewing the last slide that was under his loop, then, in his own time, shut the light box off and turned the overhead lights on, which was a piercing adjustment to everyone’s eyes. He was in his mid-thirties, tan, sporting a big friendly smile and a calm demeanor. He strode a couple of paces in our direction in an effort to meet us partway.

My mom and Sheila did all of the introductions and were speaking over each other, Sheila telling Richard about me, and Mom telling me about Richard. As Mom and Sheila were talking, Richard was studying my face, my height, my hair, and my body, as though assessing whether I was worth taking time out of editing film. When he finished scanning me, he reached his hand out and said, “Hello, Elena, I’m pleased to meet you.” All I could manage was a whisper of “Thank you.”

Sheila and Mom did not stop talking, but Sheila was no match for Mom in the talking department. Mom spoke ten words for every two of hers, and was filled with a lifetime of desperation and drive that was a match for no one. Slowly, Sheila’s voice started fading and just disappeared as Mom took control of pitching her vision and dream for me right there. Not only was I hearing this for the first time, but I was hearing it for the first time in front of two people whom I had never met. I was so embarrassed. Richard sensed this and said to Sheila, “Why don’t you show Elaine photos of the younger models that I’ve shot while I visit with Elena for a few moments.”

The good thing about being able to hear Mom rambling was that I could gage how far away she was. I didn’t know Richard at all, and the environment I was raised in gave me a good, healthy fear of men, so I kept my distance from him which was just out of arms reach. I had already scoped out the closest exits: it was something I did automatically whenever I entered a place I had not been before and was with people I didn’t know.
Richard started off trying to make me comfortable by telling me to call him “Rick” and then went on to ask me if I wanted to be a model. I said, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a model, didn’t know what being a model meant besides getting pictures taken, and I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to take my picture.’

Rick was a smart man, good with people, and could see that I didn’t think much of myself. He said, “Let me tell you what I think. I think you have a good commercial look and I think if you decided to, you could be a very successful model.” Looking down, I said “Thank you”. He continued by saying “I would love to take a couple of shots of you now, I have lights set up for a shoot that I’m doing tomorrow and you’d actually be helping me out because I need to test the lighting.”

He called for Sheila and directed me to the make-up-dressing room, told Sheila what to do, and then left.
Sheila applied some light make-up and gave me a Danskin bodysuit. I put it on, went out to the backdrop, and waited for Rick to place me. He turned on music and a fan to blow my waist-length hair and that was it. I knew from the first frame that I wanted to be a model.

I could hear my mom whispering incessantly through the dark studio trying to make sure that Rick and Sheila didn’t miss one shot. Every time I moved my head or shifted my weight, I could hear my mom’s voice rise above the whisper and say, “Oh, oh look, get that, that’s a shot!” As much as my mom annoyed me at times and as crazy as I thought she was, I felt grateful that she saw something in me that I would never have seen in myself…

Memory Five: The Escape

We pulled up in front of the house where we saw Chris standing, barefoot, holding a belt in his hand and a look of fury on his face.

The modeling brochures I had been reading on our drive back from Palm Springs started uncontrollably shaking in my hand, my mouth went dry, and the air left my lungs.

We continued to sit in the car for a few moments, trying to figure out what to do and wondering why Chris was angry. We were back on time as planned from our trip. Mom told Anna and me to stay in the car and lock the doors. And I said, “Mom don’t get out, just start the car, let’s go, let’s get out of here!”

Mom said, “I can’t Elena, all the pictures of you guys as babies and what little money I have are in the house. Just stay here and lock the door”

Mom proceeded to get out of the car and slowly approached Chris asking him what was wrong. But it wasn’t two seconds before he grabbed her by the hair and she disappeared into the house.

Anna and I started crying for fear of what he was going to do to Mom.
Neither Mrs. Morgan nor Lee, Chris’s brother, were home. It was just Mom, Anna, and me with a crazy person out in the middle of a reservation with the closest neighbor a mile away.

Anna was pale as a sheet, and all I could think about was all of the places Chris could bury our bodies to never to be found again. We sat in the car until our fear of what he was doing to Mom outgrew our fear of getting hurt. Mom wasn’t the best mom in the world, but she was the only one we had, and we needed her.

As I proceeded to unlock my car door Anna grabbed my hand saying: “Don’t get out of the car Elena, Mom told us to stay here with the doors locked, hands trembling and my heart pounding against my chest, I said, ” I’m afraid he’s going to kill her, I have to go.”

Anna and I agreed to go together. We clutched hands and slowly walked through the sliding glass door into the kitchen. We could hear Chris yelling obscenities at Mom, and Mom screaming.

We stood frozen for a second looking at each other trying to make out what Chris was yelling about and to trying to gage whether this was a situation we were going to survive.

Without speaking, we simultaneously looked over to the set of butcher knives sitting on the counter and each took one. Slowly, slowly we walked to the hallway leading to their bedroom, my whole body was cold and trembling, but the hand that was clutching Anna’s hand was sweaty and numb.

All the drapes were drawn in the house; I could see an orange cast of a dying sun outside highlighting dirt and dust trapped in the curtains. Everything looked and smelled like death and failure.

We finally arrived at their bedroom door and heard the unmistakable sound of leather and flesh coming together with such force; I could feel the pain of every blow. We tried the door knob, but it was locked, then weakly, I said “Mom, are you ok?” But she didn’t answer. Trying to force my voice to be louder, I repeated myself and knocked on the door at the same time. Mom shot back screaming, “Elena, get out, get out!!”

We ran into our room locked the door and barricaded it with the dresser.

We sat huddled together crying and wishing that we could do something to stop Chris, but we couldn’t. Instead we sat listening for what seemed an eternity to Chris taking his rage for life, his failures as a human being and hatred for all of humanity out on my mom.

Eventually the yelling and screaming died down, and everything grew silent. So silent, that it seemed, Anna and I were the last two people on earth. My mind wondered as I started thinking about the modeling brochures that I had looked through on our drive home and thought if I could become a model and make a lot of money, I could take myself and my family out of the darkness that we called life. It seemed like an impossibility considering our current situation.

Anna and I fell asleep on the bed clutching hands and our knives.

It was maybe 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. when I heard a subtle tap on the bedroom door. I jumped up and ran to the door and whispered, “Who is it?” A broken voice on the other side of the door whispered back ”Mom”.

I got Anna up to help me move the dresser in front of the door, got mom inside, and then locked and re-barricaded the door again.

Mom was so beat up and exhausted. We hugged her and said it was going to be alright. I said “We are leaving and we are leaving now. He is going to kill us if we stay here, he’s crazy!”

Mom crying asked “How? I have to get the pictures of my babies and money or we won’t be able to put gas in the car.” I asked, “Where are the pictures and money?” Mom replied “In the bedroom with Chris.” We all fell silent for a few moments and then I said “Then let’s get them and get out of here.”

Mom said “He was asleep and she thought he was out pretty good because he drank a lot before he went to bed.” And I said “Tell me where everything is, I will get it and then we are leaving.”

I took my knife and slowly walked into Chris’s bedroom; he was so huge lying in the bed – he looked like a downed elephant. He was snoring and seemed like he was in a pretty deep sleep, so I continued on. I went to the places my mom told me to and got her pictures, money, and as many of her clothes as I could, all while hanging on to my knife.

Anna had gotten our few belongings together, and we all quietly made our way through the living room, into the kitchen, and finally out the door.

We loaded everything into the car, and Mom handed me the keys and said,”You have to drive, I’m too beat up.”

The dogs must have heard us because one by one they started barking, until they were all barking. My hands started shaking as I feverishly tried to get the key into the ignition as fast as I could, for fear the barking dogs would wake up Chris. As soon as I got the car started, we saw the light in Chris’s bedroom go on.

Mom said “Go, Elena, now, go!!” I couldn’t see because it was pitch black in the desert night and Mom told me not turn the headlights on until we got away from the house.

I felt like I was going to vomit. I let the car roll away from the house, turned the lights on, and made my way to the main road, off the reservation and onto Interstate 10.

Mom was afraid that he was going to come after us in his truck, and I was too because he was a better driver than me. We made it all the way to the windy part of the Banning Pass and I asked Mom if I could pull over because I was too scared to drive the car in the wind. I felt like I was going to lose control and be swept off the road.

She said “You can’t stop now, you have to keep going. You’re doing a good job, just hold the steering wheel real tight and keep us on the road.”

I focused every ounce of myself on staying in my lane and making it to Palm Springs.

We arrived safely minus Mom being beat-up and Anna and me scared and tired. Fortunately, we already had the keys to our new apartment so we went straight there….

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