The year I didn’t exist… by my name anyway.
My parents had moved to Burbank, California after leaving the house in Topanga Canyon where the basement was inhabited by some who would become to be known as Manson Family followers, friends, and “family” members… Not all of them lived there, only about five with others coming and going. One of them had gotten the basement rental and moved the others in. My parents had been friendly with them at first… then they weren’t. They used to invite me downstairs and marvel at my dime bag weighing and rolling abilities. They would smoke a lot of weed and blow it in my face. They thought it was funny to get me high. My mom told me to stop going down there at some point… she said one of the guys gave her the creeps. Then they killed our dog and had a physical altercation with my parents. My parents started sleeping with guns beside the bed because the basement people were not safe shortly before the fires broke out that caused all of us to have to leave that house. It was a pretty house with huge windows and very sleek design – Frank Llyod Wright style… with lots of natural wood and built-ins. You could see for miles out the big windows and it backed to huge thick trees. I would sit and look out across the valley and mountains while Joni Mitchell songs played and mom sang along. The day of the fire, I was in kindergarten but had reading with the first grade. I could see the smoke from school. Then I saw the fire on the top of some of the mountains or hills. They closed school early. I got a ride home from one of the neighbors… which was good. My parents never seemed to know when school was cancelled or there was an early release. I was prepared to just sit and wait until they figured it out, but my teacher said I couldn’t. The neighbor told me everyone was being evacuated and my parents and I would be leaving when I got home. I didn’t really know what that meant but asked about the horses that bordered our property. I spent a lot of time with them, watching them, petting them, and trying to draw them. She told me they had all been moved. When I got home all the doors and windows were open and the firefighters had hoses running through the front door out the back. My mom was very upset – not as much about the fire or the house or our things but about a deer. A deer had been scared by the fire and ran toward our house – she saw it coming. It ran right into the slider door and hurt itself and died. She was upset she hadn’t thought to open the door.
We moved to Burbank after the fire. I think we lived there almost a year… maybe 9 months. The elderly neighbors had a pool and taught me to swim. The lady said she used to be a teacher. We lived in a brick one story with an olive tree in the front yard. The backyard was grassy and had a lemon tree and an orange tree and a row of enormous sunflowers along the fence. This was where I started learning to do yoga. Mom and I did yoga while Indian ragas played for my dad’s meditation time which sometimes lasted for hours… he liked to meditate on LSD. I wasn’t able to go see the nice people anymore after they called the police on my parents a couple times for child abuse and neglect. It pissed my stepdad off and he said they needed to mind their own business… they didn’t know us… and it had caused some drugs to be flushed. In the middle of the night one night, kilos of marijuana were delivered to our family room. So many… some wrapped in pink paper, some in blue, like flat bricks in brightly colored paper. I built a fort out of them. My dad said it was okay for me to do that as long as I didn’t break the paper or hide any or move them to a different room. Every so often he restacked them and counted them, explaining they didn’t belong to us… we were holding them for a while. He and my mom had hushed conversations about the kilos – she was worried, and they both seemed very stressed. One morning I woke up and they were all gone. Shortly after that my parents said would be moving to a farm in Tennessee. They put all their things in storage while I was at school, sent the dogs we had at the time to boarding, and when I got home from school, we walked through the empty house to gather last things and left. We went to a Chinese restaurant and had a Poo-Poo platter – I thought that was a terrible name for food. They explained to me over dinner we were taking a trip. The final destination would be our new farm, but we would travel around before then. And for this trip, our names would be different.
My stepdad tried to make it fun by asking me what I had always wanted my name to be. I told him “Cherry”. He wanted to know why and seemed surprised. It’s my favorite flavor and it’s a pretty color, I explained. (Note – this is the same child who named her dog “Flower” – go figure). My mom objected to the name “Cherry”. He said I needed to be able to remember my name no matter what, so we would come back to that. He asked me if I remembered the record he liked to play with the man on the front. I said I did. He asked if I knew the name of that man. I said “Yes, Leonard Cohen.” He said, that’s right. That will be my name for our trip. He was a Canadian Jew also, he explained, so they looked similar. He reiterated, “Your new last name is Cohen”. I asked why I couldn’t keep my name. He asked me if I knew what my name used to be before he married my mom. I said I did. He explained that I used his last name even though no paperwork said I could – I just did. We would do that again, just for a little while and it was very important. I said I still wanted to be Cherry. My mom said absolutely not. He finally said I could keep my first name, but don’t forget your last name or your parent’s names. Leonard and Marianne Cohen. He quizzed me periodically through dinner to make sure I kept answering correctly. I had been told not to lie. I had been punished harshly every time my dad decided I was lying about something (even if I wasn’t) but had told me what to say to police about many things if they ever came – those were lies. I had been taught to lock myself in the bathroom and flush drugs down the toilet, but I wasn’t allowed to lock a door ever growing up unless the police came. Now I was supposed to lie to everyone… except my parents. What a crazy world.
We drove somewhere and stayed in a motel. We looked at maps… they showed me where California was and where Tennessee was. They studied the map and talked about places they wanted to go. Mom wanted to go through New Mexico. The next morning our trip was officially underway. I read in the backseat, looked out the window, as was occasionally quizzed some more about my name. I think it was around May. School wasn’t over yet for summer break. My dad decided I would learn other things – like reading a map, telling him what exits were coming up, telling him the names of towns, and doing math and spelling questions while we were driving. My mom was pregnant with my brother and car sick. She couldn’t read very long without feeling sick, so I read to her sometimes. I also learned to drive. I sat on my dad’s lap and steered on the freeway if there weren’t too many cars. We talked about lane positioning, what the lines meant, and how to pass. I learned to count money on that trip. I also learned about the mint marks on coins and what they meant and read all the years off and put them in order. We stopped at truck stops and Stucky’s where I got long flat taffy. My mom had apples for me and peanut butter along with saltines. Sometimes I said I was hungry because I wanted to get out of the car… so they had snacks for me instead.
We stayed in motels as we zigzagged up and down the United States. I marked our route on the maps with a marker and marveled at the way trees and landscape looked so different in different places. One motel we stayed in, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man sitting at the desk at the end of the room looking at us. I was terrified. I was afraid to move. I laid awake, pretending to be asleep for hours… every so often peeking to see if he was still there. I eventually fell asleep again for a little while and when the sun started to rise and it got lighter out, I woke my dad up and told him about the man and how scared I had been. I explained although there were colors in the room, orange carpet, etc., the man was in shades of grey and I didn’t understand why. After checking the door and locks and looking around the room, he told me I had been dreaming. I explained, I had been awake all night since I woke up and saw the man. He told me if it ever happened again, to scream and wake him up. I told him I was too scared to say anything… or scream. My mom took me aside and said to just drop it because I was annoying my dad, but it was most likely a spirit. Spirits won’t hurt you. My dad said that was bullshit and I was picking up on their unconscious thoughts and fears.
We went to Texas on my 7th birthday and saw my grandma. On the way I was reminded not to talk about our new names or anything grandma wouldn’t understand (drugs, etc.). We stayed there for a few days until my stepdad got into an argument with grandma and we left. Grandma lived on Lake Worth in a house she and my grandpa built. He was an architect and they not only designed the house, but built it mostly themselves. My mom grew up there. There was also a guest house and a bomb shelter. The bombshelter grandpa had put in when mom was a kid. It had a musty smell but grandma let me go down there and explore. They walls were lined with these canvas beds that I imagined were like beds on a submarine because the bomb shelter had the same long cylindrical shape. I couldn’t imagine why she ever wanted to leave as much as she always said … the lake was so pretty and there was a dock and a boathouse. One of the things they argued about was that she thought my bio dad had a right to see me while I was in town. Grandma made it clear she didn’t approve of their hippie lifestyle and my dad kept saying how uneducated and ignorant my grandma was. Later we found out someone who said they were an official from the State of California had called her because stepdad made calls from her house on someone’s card (not sure what that means – were phone cards a thing back then? Or maybe you could give credit card numbers to an operator?) and they wanted to know who made those calls. Grandma never got over that… decades later she was still pissed off he had done something that might have gotten her in some kind of trouble she thought.
We also stopped in Kansas and visited my Aunt and Uncle and their fainting sheep for a while. My Aunt played cards with me and I helped her in the barn. I thought it was funny to make the sheep faint. She explained to me that could kill them and I shouldn’t do that… besides Uncle Calvin would kill me if one of them died because of me. He was so grumpy I believed he might. I didn’t tell her but I already thought several times I might die in my life. My aunt and all her kids played musical instruments and sang. I thought that was amazing. My parents got into a really bad argument there (usually those were reserved for at home – just us). It upset my Aunt – the things they were saying and the names they were calling each other. She woke me up and asked me if this was normal for them. I shrugged my shoulders and said “yeah, kind of…I guess” and she told me she thought I lived a scary childhood and I would never be alone if I remembered Jesus was with me. She taught me how to pray. She also asked if I would like to live with her. I said I would. I also told her according to my parents, there was no guy in the sky to listen to our prayers… we are on our own. God is just the energy in everything not someone who can save you from bad stuff. That fact made her cry and promise to pray for me every day. She told me she had a vision in the cornfield and Jesus is real and she was saved. I didn’t care if he was real or not or who anyone prayed to. I fell asleep thinking about what it would feel like to live in the same place as long as Aunt Betty had and how nice it would be to have someone like her looking out for you and making you food to eat. When she suggested to my parents that I should stay with her “while they got settled”, they were angry. We hit the road again.
I liked when we stayed at motels with pools now that I knew how to swim. I would watch the billboards and point out the Holiday Inn and Ramada Inn exits coming up if they advertised they had a pool. We arrived in Tennessee in January. They woke me up in the middle of the night and told me we were getting gas and to go use the restroom. I was in a summer dress and there was snow on the ground. It was shocking to see the snow. I had seen it once before when we went hiking in the Redwoods but I didn’t know it would ever be somewhere else. I was half asleep and accidentally walked into the men’s room instead of the ladies’ room. I had never seen urinals… I was shocked about that too. I was confused and got back in the car vowing to ask for explanation of what I saw when we were back on the road – which I did. We ended up at a motel where we planned to stay a while waiting for the paperwork on the farm to finalize.
My mom went into labor early – with complications – and they left me at the motel while they dealt with that. I wasn’t allowed to go outside or open the door to anyone. One of them would call me every day. My little brother was born with a collapsed lung and had to be airlifted to Nashville. They came and got me at some point and we drove closer to Nashville were they left me at another motel. He had to stay after they fixed his lung because he was born premature. We would camp out at the motel until he could leave. It was cold outside so there was condensation on the windows. I started drawing on the windows with my finger. My dad got upset and freaked out thinking I might be writing my real name on the windows. I had to explain I was just drawing horses and flowers.
Then we moved into a travel trailer on someone’s property for a little while. I wasn’t really sure who I was supposed to be… the real me or the new me. So I was just very quiet and didn’t really talk to anyone. The first night we were there, I couldn’t sleep. I had anxiety about the farm we were moving to. What it would be like… what about school… what about friends… what did it look like… At some point my parents noticed I wasn’t sleeping and started talking to me from where they were laying. It seemed like a friendly conversation… I asked them questions… they gave me answers (they had been to the farm several times when I was alone at the motel, they knew what it was like)… then I heard a rooster crow. I didn’t know what it was and asked. My dad came flying out of his bed charging at me saying “That is enough!” and started hitting me. I curled up in a ball and tried to roll away. He had always said he didn’t hit out of anger. He was mad and clearly hitting me out of anger… breaking his own rule. Normally he would tell me I was going to be punished for something and I would have to wait… wait for him to decide when and how and how long it would last… all of me filled with dread and fear… making me wish I could disappear. I didn’t expect this. No matter how much I tried to roll up and disappear he just picked me up and moved me where he wanted me… hitting me over and over saying “If you can’t sleep you will just lay still and be quiet so other people can. You don’t keep talking all night and asking questions. ” When he was done hitting me he said “Go the fuck to sleep.” I layed there crying trying not to make any sounds, that might make him come back over… wishing I was with Aunt Betty or grandma instead. The next day my mom was hanging laundry on a clothesline and I asked her where the road went. She didn’t know. I thought about walking away while drawing in the dirt with a stick. Walking down the road and never coming back. My dad had already told me if I ever ran away, I couldn’t ever come back and I would never see my mom again. She needed me. I had to stay. The people who owned the property had cows and I was bored so I learned to milk the cows, feed them and asked way too many questions about everything surrounding horses and cows. I wanted my own horse someday. My brother came home to us the first time there.
My parents bought the travel trailer and it was moved to the farm for us to sleep in while my dad made improvements to the house… it had no running water or even a bathroom. There was an outhouse. They got a couple rooms fixed up enough to be habitable pretty quickly. There was no kitchen. The main room you walked into had a woodstove and a long wooden table with benches on each side (that would be where I first learned to meditate later) and a couple rocking chairs. There was a room to the right with a beautiful handmade door, my mom called that “the parlor” – it would eventually be the family room once we were able to get electricity to the house and a TV. My mom took me to a K-Mart where we bought kerosine lamps to use in the house at night. They moved into the house and had me stay in the travel trailer beside the house. There was another room that was supposed to become the kitchen and another room beyond that that would be my parent’s bedroom. The kitchen room had stairs to the attic – which was supposed to become my bedroom. There was a big front porch and the roof extended over it. My mom was super excited to have rocking chairs out there to watch fireflies and listen to the rain on the tin roof. Acres and acres of land… we owned as far as my eyes could see. The road was made of dirt and it made a cloud whenever someone drove on it. My dad installed a mailbox that said “Genesis Farm” and was very excited to open the handmade, embroidered bean bags that had seeds hidden them. His sister had sent him seeds from a kibbutz in Israel mixed with beans in the bean bags to get through customs. He was going to plant some special things along with feed corn and tobacco. The farm had an old barn, a pond, a chicken coop, the house on stacked rocks (which used to be a sharecropper shack), a fruit cellar dug into a hill with a house door on it and the little travel trailer. On one of our first days there, my dad made a bonfire. We gathered around it while he cut up IDs and credit cards and announced we were having a funeral for those temporary personas. I was allowed to be “me” again. Although I didn’t know the rules of this new environment … and I missed all of 2nd grade and would be starting school again in 3rd grade… (I wonder why it wasn’t an issue with the school… of course they never asked about my name being different than my birth certificate either.)
After that, my last name always felt like a lie, but I couldn’t use the original one I was born with, without upsetting someone… and there was always a promise he would adopt me some day. It almost felt like I had to prove I was “worthy” enough in some way before he would actually do it. Sometimes over the years he would say he had decided he would and would start the process. But he never did. The last time he said it I had already taken a married name… it didn’t mean anything to me anymore.
I still can’t listen to Leonard Cohen songs without thinking about the time I was a Cohen. (Maybe I should have changed my name to that after my divorce – that would have given him heart palpitations… and told him I still remembered that – although we never spoke of it after the “funeral”. )
One thought on “What’s in a name?”
This is an incredible piece of narration. You write beautifully, make it all come to life. I can “see” you with the horses…such beautiful animals. They were very important to me too. Riding horses was the most therapeutic part of my childhood, and I was very drawn to the women who ran the stables (early kink!). I recently had a moderated psychedelic experience and as I was tripping and having a full on experience of my own femininity, I was riding a horse, a suggestion of the therapist who was leading the session…and it was incredible–naked, galloping, at one with the horse, at once in submission to the dreams, but also guiding the horse through the pathways of my heart and mind–an incredible experience.
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