A Portrait Out of Focus
I was sitting in my parked car on that stuffy-hot day, waiting. Looking straight down the street in front of me, I noticed the modest older houses and tried to imagine who lived in them as a way of passing time. This little town in Yreka, California is noted for its lovely historic buildings.
Heat-waves rose from the pavement. I was reminded of miniature waterfalls as I stared through them, mesmerized by the undulating movement.
Lawn sprinklers were clicking as they swirled water on parched grass.
The sun was so bright I squinted, as I watched for her. I would occasionally
glance in the mirrors just in case she might come from the opposite direction.
My God it's hot, I said to myself, though almost as a prayer begging God for a change in the weather.
Although all the car windows were down on my little Toyota, there was not a breath of air moving. The atmosphere even had a pale yellowish cast to it from the heat waves and the glaring sun. The California Shasta Mountains have many such summer days, and on that day I was thinking a planetary heat-light must be focused on where I waited.
My daughter had asked me to meet her here, down the street a few houses from where she was staying with her friends. She knew how strongly I objected to her friends, who are referred to as 'hoods' by the police and school officials, so we agreed to this location.
I was feeling especially edgy as the hour we had agreed to meet came and passed. I was accustomed to preparing myself for problems when she wanted to see me, and I was determined I would not cry this time.
She had been on the streets since becoming involved with the wrong crowd and drug use. Hard to believe it started when she was thirteen, and regardless of my efforts, I could not prevent her from running away. So meeting her like this became my only contact.
I was watching a few people brave enough to face the day, coming down the sidewalk toward me. One tall girl stood out from the rest. She was dressed all in black, from her shoes to long black jeans to a black leather jacket. I was aware this was the fashion of the times, but nevertheless her outfit looked out of place on this summer day.
Oh my God! It's she. I didn't recognize her until she had stepped away from the others, out into the street from the sidewalk, and walked in close around the front of my car, moving up to the open window.
Her long brown hair had been dyed the flat-black color of pitch, and she obviously had not brushed her hair in more than just that day. I was so startled by her whole appearance and so unprepared for her sudden emergence, that I would forever have that afternoon etched in my memory.
Her facial features were sagging downwards; eyebrows, eyelids, even her eyes looked down toward the ground. Her mouth hung loosely open, as though she was going to speak. The skin around the corners of her eyes and mouth sagged, and the contrast between her pale skin and the smudged black eye shadow jarred me. I suddenly thought of images I have seen of vampire faces on theater displays to advertise horror movies.
When she slowly brought her eyes up into contact with mine, there was no sign of emotion. Her one spoken word, that I wouldn't have heard had she not been standing right beside the open car window was, "Hi." Her long, dangling silver earrings tinkled as she abruptly turned her head away from me and looked down the street in the direction she had come.
She rested her left arm on the open window ledge, and raised her right arm to attempt to pat her disheveled hair into place with her hand. It was then I noticed she was wearing silver rings on each finger of each hand and she wore a large silver crucifix around her neck.
I felt overcome in a nightmare of heat and black and silver images, punctuated with tinkling sounds and strange smells that I recognized, but couldn't quite identify.
I looked into the face of this tall gaunt girl whom I knew to be only sixteen, and then I remembered the smell as pot, on her hair and clothing.
I resisted the reality of this girl being my daughter. I did not want to see this image in front of me, but I could not leave.
I was to see drug-induced images of my daughter in various locations, for the next fifteen years. I visited her in 'Juvie' and collected her from homes where drugs were used and sold. Almost always she looked as she had on that day I waited for her on the street.
I saw her in rehab, jail, and hospitals, and as she grew older, it was not unusual for me to not see her at all. Although other parents say they miss their children after they have moved out of the house, not all parents have the added loneliness of drug-addiction.
She avoided me, and only a call from someone I usually didn't know, would give me an idea where she might be. I would occasionally hear from her if she needed money, or if she was in some sort of serious trouble.
Her children cried because they lost their personal belongings due to sudden moves, and as they became older, they begged their mother to not change schools again.
I'm quite certain her girls were never physically or sexually abused, but the abuse of neglect and ignorance leaves its own permanent scar.
Addiction is an insidious disease, and I enabled her addiction too many years, thinking I was helping, yet not helping her worsened her life. She began sinking deeper and deeper into a more hellish way of living.
Another memory etched permanently in my mind, is the last time she was
in jail. It is difficult to obtain a visitor pass to see an inmate in
jail. Once it is approved, one waits. Waits in line to sign in, waits
for a visitor's pass to be suddenly shoved under a one-way glass partition,
then what seems like eternity, waits for the hour hand on the clock to
The sounds of cell doors clanging open, filled me with a sense of fear. One steel door had already banged closed behind me. I could hear the voices of the female prisoners as they were ushered noisily into the visiting area, talking and cursing to each other and the guards.
The visiting area is a long narrow room, divided lengthwise down the middle by a glass wall, with tiny privacy stalls that match each other crosswise. Each stall contains a stool to sit on and a telephone. There is no physical contact.
I walked down the length of the room until I came to an empty stall on my left, and sat down on a cold steel stool, and waited. My daughter was the last one to come into the area. Because the room is so narrow, each prisoner was not seen unless she passed behide the stool facing me as she looked for her visitor. My daughter abruptly appeared and sat down facing me. We just stared at each other through the glass partition, each of us looking into the other's eyes to get a sense of feelings. She was dressed in a blue denim uniform with Prisoner printed down each sleeve in garish orange letters. She looked absolutely terrified. Her skin was pale, and her black eye make-up was in streaks down to her chin. She obviously had been crying, as her eyes were red and swollen, but knowing she was in withdrawal from the drugs in her system, I wasn't too surprised to see bloodshot eyes.
I will never forget that sight, of my child, in jail, holding the handset of the telephone in her left hand, and screaming vulgarities into it at me, for putting her in jail for neglect of her children and drug abuse.
This jail-scene took place about fourteen years after the day we met on the street.
She has been clean and sober for nearly one year now, and is such a
good mother today; attentive and loving and consistently aware of her
girls needs. The ages of her girls are now fifteen, eleven, and three.
She monitors the oldest girl's behavior, checks on her school activities,
and is a fierce disciplinarian when her daughter is late coming home.
She keeps her home clean, cooks regular meals for her family, and no longer
The corners of her mouth are frequently curled up in a smile, reminding me of when she was a little girl.
Her long brown hair is familiar, and shiny again, and when I look into her eyes I can see her emotion. My mother's heart still swells when she comes through the back door and hollers, "Mom? It's me!"
I'm so glad I couldn't leave her on that hot afternoon, to stand in the middle of the street alone. I may not have seen her portrait come into focus...
Sher Bauman has an extensive
twenty-five year background as a counselor. Her primary practice focused
on women in recovery, families in crisis,and mediation for couples.Sher
is also an ordained minister. She enjoys counseling with a spiritual attitude,and
motivating others to change self-defeating behavior from a pragmatic point
of view. Due to complicated health reasons, she closed her counseling
practice in 1997 and concentrates now on writing her autobiography. She
is also currently working on other writings for