The Power of Resilience

by | Apr 12, 2024 | My Wild and Precious Life

 She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.

Elizabeth Edwards


Cross country treks, multiple school changes and always being the “new kid” characterize my childhood. On one hand, it was character building; on the other hand it was a constant source of anxiety. I choose to acknowledge the latter but focus on the former because, as a result of this experience, I am now comfortable with any person, in any group, at any location. That ability has served me well over the years.

I was born in Selma, Alabama to a single mom and we lived with my grandmother in a large white house with a wide veranda. My grandmother wasn’t particularly wealthy, however many houses in that area looked like this. It was a little run-down, but looked beautiful from the street. Not that I remember the house, but I traveled to Selma to see my hometown when I was 60 years old.

According to my mother, a black nannie would rock me in a rocking chair on most days—once again, not because my grandmother was well-to-do, it’s just the way things were done in the Deep South at the end of WWII.


My grandfather died when my mother was only eight years old. So my grandmother was raised her six children alone for many years, with my mother being the youngest. I learned that just before I was born, my grandmother left the family home in Pensacola to marry a paint salesman named Roy Harris who had left his wife with five young children. The marriage didn’t last long and soon my grandmother divorced the paint salesman and moved back to Pensacola. My mom and I moved with her. The paint salesman returned to his wife and five children. Interesting stories like this seem to be relatively common right after the war.

When I was a year old, my mother married a man named Raiford. They had one child, my brother Kipling West. As the story goes, my mother left him while my brother was only a baby because Raiford was a mean man with a hot temper. I have no memory of Raiford. When I was two years old and Kip was about a year old, maybe younger, my mother married Douglas Fouse, whom she met in Pensacola. Doug was an officer in the Navy and Pensacola was a big Navy town. As it turns out, my mother and her sister, Margaret, were very popular with the naval officers.


Doug was the only father I knew as a little girl. I called him Daddy. He was born and raised in Ambridge, a small steel town near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was finishing up his engineering degree at Dartmouth and living with his parents. By now, my grandmother had moved to Miami, Florida, so my mother, brother and I moved in with my grandmother while Daddy finished his schoolwork.

After graduation, Daddy moved in with us in Miami and he got a job at Foremost Dairy delivering milk and other dairy products. In those days, milk came in glass bottles and was delivered right to a family’s front porch.

One of my fondest memories is when Daddy let my brother and me ride in the back of the milk truck while he was on his route. This, of course, was not allowed by the dairy officials. My brother and I were so worried because someone would see us that we hid in the back of the truck squealing with excitement as we took turns peeking out the small oval window in the back door as we drove along.

One day Daddy’s boss invited me for a tour of the Dairy. I was thrilled as he escorted me through the immense freezers filled with ice cream and dry ice. I felt like I was the luckiest girl in the world.

Foremost Dairy’s main competitor was Borden’s Dairy. Daddy would often tell us kids about how Foremost was far superior to Borden’s. One day when I was about four years old— dressed in a frilly white polka dotted dress my grandmother sewed for me and sporting the long red curls reaching past my shoulders which she carefully curled every day – the boss asked if I wanted some ice cream. Of course! I was tickled at the prospect of enjoying my favorite dessert.

He sat me on a chair at a small round café-type table and sat a dish of vanilla ice cream in front of me with a spoon. I was relishing every bite, when Daddy, who was standing by a large camera off to the side, asked me, “Susie, what kind of ice cream are you eating?” I looked up and enthusiastically replied, “Foremost.” Even though this television commercial did not have sound, Daddy and his boss were thrilled that viewers could easily read my lips. I continued to finish off my delicious treat.

Even though I was young, I have several memories of the strange racial times back then. I remember one time my mom, my brothers and I were walking along the side of a road. I saw several Black children playing in the grass near us, so I ran over to play with them. My mother was not happy and gave me a spanking for playing with “those children.”

I also remember feeling puzzled whenever I saw the “white only” and “colored only” signs by the bathrooms. One time we got on a public bus with my mother holding my hand and carrying my baby brother, Rick, who had dark skin because he tanned easily. The bus driver made us sit in the back of the bus. We were all quite confused.

Years later when I was a junior in high school in upstate New York, the teacher gave the class an assignment of writing an essay about segregation. Even though in my heart I didn’t believe it was right to separate people according to the color of their skin, I wanted to get a good grade on my essay. While growing up I always heard my parents, my grandmother and my aunts talk about how the “colored” should stay away from us because they were dirty and messy and didn’t take care of things. So, my essay gave all these reasons for why segregation was good. I was sure my paper would earn me a good grade even though I didn’t believe it myself.

Imagine my embarrassment when my teacher held up my essay in front of the class and said I was the only one who said segregation was good. I was confused and mortified. Looking back, I realize how the values were so different in the south and the north. I was glad to discover that others shared my secret instinct that segregation was wrong, even though I was afraid to voice my real opinion in that essay.

I guess I was always trying to keep everyone happy because I knew there would be terrible consequences otherwise.  So I wrote what I thought was the “right answer” based on my upbringing. I learned an important lesson that day.


After a couple of years living with my grandmother, who I called Nannie, my mother and Daddy bought a cute three-bedroom house in Miami, a short bus ride away from where Nannie lived. Since she didn’t drive, Nannie often visited us by bus. She doted on us kids, especially me. She loved sewing frilly dresses for me and wrapping my long red hair around her fingers with a wet hairbrush to make long ringlets. When we lived with Nannie in Miami, I got to sleep on her big Murphy bed in the living room. I was always intrigued and a little scared of the big dark closet we pulled the bed out of each night.

Sometimes my parents would be angry with me and send me to bed without supper. Whenever that happened, Nannie would sneak in with some treats and say, “Shhh, don’t let anyone, Susie.” I always felt like I was her favorite grandchild.

Nannie was a great cook and a hard worker. I remember her spending long hours in the kitchen preparing meals for us. One of my favorites was chicken gumbo. I remember trying unsuccessfully to make it for my family years later. I didn’t know much about the ingredients, but I wanted to get some of those round green vegetables I remember being in it. So I went to the grocery store and asked the clerk where I could find gumbos. When he looked puzzled, I said, “You know—gumbos—those round green things in chicken gumbo.” He laughed and took me to the produce section where he pointed out okra. The end result wasn’t even close to my grandmother’s version.


Three years after I was born, my mother and Daddy had a son, Frederick Ernest Fouse. Daddy raised “Rick,” Kip and me as if he was our father. And, in fact, we didn’t know anything different for many years. He was a very good father to all of us—an excellent provider with a great sense of humor. He and my mother were very affectionate with one another.

Over the years, he took great pride in my high grades and generously helped me with my homework. He would also time my 60-yard dash practices with his stopwatch when I was in junior high school. I ended up setting a record at that school for the 60-yard dash.

Unfortunately, my dad also had quite a bad temper. It seemed that my brother Kip and I got the worst of it. When he was angry, his face would turn red and he would pull his belt off of his trousers and yell at me to come to him. Whenever I saw his face get red, I knew I was in for trouble. I never knew what made him angry, I just figured it was my fault somehow. He would hold one of my wrists with one hand and beat me on my bare bottom and legs with his belt. Always yelling angry words.

One time I overheard Nannie tell my mother that she had taken the bus to visit us but she turned around and went home because when she walked up to the screen door, she saw him beating me with the belt and she didn’t know what to do. Nannie had a thing about never interfering. Eventually, I got pretty good at always reading Daddy’s nonverbal mannerisms so I would know when to stay out of his way.  

Every afternoon, when we lived with Nannie, I would watch expectantly out the front porch screen. As soon as I saw a certain twosome, I would call out to my mother, “My lady friends are here and they need me to walk with them!” I would hurry across the street to the sidewalk where my two friends stood waiting for me. I always thought of them as older women, but they were probably in their 30s or 40s. They seemed to love having me walk around the block with them. I felt special—almost like my presence made them happy. Actually, for me it was a welcome respite from the unpredictable environment at Nannie’s house.


When I was in third grade, we moved to Southern California, landing in a small coastal town called Manhattan Beach. I know it’s very upscale now, but it was quite humble in the 1950s. Most of the houses were small single story homes made of wood. Kip, Rick and I used to love to play on the nearby sand dunes.

We rubbed surf wax on big pieces of cardboard we found in the trash, climbed all the way to the top of the dunes, squealing with delight all the way on our fast descent. We didn’t have a television set yet, so my brothers and I would walk to the nearby appliance store and watch their TV through their large front window. I remember that being pretty exciting.

One time when I was about 11 years old, I decided to make my own skateboard. Back then, roller skates had two parts that slid together to make the skates, and we used a special key to tighten them to fit. I found just the right size of wood, pulled one of my skates apart and nailed one part to the front and one to the back. Then I told Kip to go down to the bottom of a steep hill that emptied onto Manhattan Beach Boulevard and yell if he saw a car coming.

I would climb on the skateboard and ride it all the way to the bottom of the hill, usually falling a couple of times and skinning my knees. I sure had fun and, thankfully, there was never a car coming when I got to the bottom of the hill.

My dad was happy to put his engineering degree to use in his new job as an aeronautical engineer with North American Aviation, which years later became Rockwell. When I asked about his job and where his office was, he always replied with a finger to his lips, “Shhh, it’s top secret.” Of course, that made me even more curious. Years later, after his death, I was sorting through his work papers and came across several folders with documents that used to be top secret but were now declassified.

I wouldn’t say my dad was a hoarder, but he sure didn’t like to throw anything away. After he passed away and I was going through some of his things, I found a black marker pen in its original package. But it had obviously been opened. There was scotch tape holding the plastic piece to the cardboard backing. Looking closer, I noticed that the marker was dry. And then I saw he had written “dry” on the outside of the cardboard. He just couldn’t bring himself to throw it away.

When we first arrived in California and I went into my third grade class in the middle of the school year, I remember being very embarrassed. My classmates had heard that the new girl had come from a school called Little River School. They wanted to know what kind of a fish I was. I don’t know why it embarrassed me so much, but I sure remember the feeling as if it just happened.

But I also remember my mother bringing homemade cookies into my third-grade classroom for all the kids to enjoy. She had a cute dress on with an elastic belt tightened at the waist. All of the kids said I was so lucky to have such a pretty mother.

There was a big difference between my life in Miami and in Manhattan Beach. Miami felt like a little cocoon with Nannie always doting on me and some of my aunts and cousins also living nearby. I loved being a Brownie Girl Scout, with my mother serving as our troop leader. I especially enjoyed wearing my special brown beanie, uniform dress and even special dark brown shoes and socks.

But when we moved to California, everything was different. Everything seemed bigger and more spread out. There were just my parents and brothers and we didn’t know anyone else. Being the new kid in school—the one with the bright red hair and freckles—I was pretty self-conscious. Eventually I made some friends but it took a while.

I joined Girl Scouts in Manhattan Beach and my mother again was our leader. I have so many fond memories of that time period. My friends all thought my mom was cool because she took our Girl Scout troop camping all the time. She also helped each girl work on the badges we chose as a troop. Two of my particular favorites were the outdoor cooking and camping badges.

I remember one time when my mother took our troop camping over the weekend at nearby Alondra Park. She showed us how to collect pine cones and put them under our sleeping bag to make a mattress (this was before the days of blow up mattresses). Then, after erecting our tents, she showed us how to dig a ditch around the outside of our tent so the inside didn’t get wet if it rained (this was before the days of “leave no trace”). We made a big campfire and cooked our one-pot dinner over it.

The next morning, it started to rain. A Boy Scout troop was camping near us and when it started to rain, they quickly packed up everything and left. My mother, however, said, “Now you girls can practice all we’ve learned from working on our outdoor camping badge.” She was pretty proud of us and we all laughed at the scurrying Boy Scouts.

I especially liked selling Girl Scout cookies because I noticed everyone was always happy to see me. I became quite the successful salesman. In fact, I was so good that when my brother Kip wanted us to get fishing poles so we could fish at the pier, I decided to sell the all-occasion greeting cards that were advertised on the back of the comic books we read. I said, “If I can sell Girl Scout cookies, I’ll bet I can sell these cards so we can get the prizes.” We set our sights on selling enough cards so we could get two fishing poles, two reels and a sinker maker. In no time, I sold enough cards.

I remember how excited we were the day the fishing poles arrived. We put them together and then went up and down the alley looking in trash cans for bits of lead so we could make weights by melting them in our new sinker maker. Happy was the day when we proudly marched down to the beach with our poles in hand. We actually caught a fish off the pier that day and cleaned it in the special sink.

But when we got home, our mom said we were too stinky with a fishy smell and she washed us off outside with the hose. Still, it’s a wonderful memory!

My brother Rick was not as adventurous as Kip. He was quiet and sort of kept to himself. So my escapades usually included Kip. Rick was usually too young to go. Kip and I loved to go up and down the alleys behind our house picking up pop bottles we could turn in at the neighborhood market for cash. He also liked picking through everyone’s trash for “treasures” which earned him the nickname of “trashpicker.”

We got a nickel for every large size bottle—just enough to buy a piece of chunk chocolate at Joe’s Candy Cottage. When I saved up enough, I would spend it on Elvis Presley’s latest 45 speed record. I had quite the collection.

I loved Elvis! I had full page photos from his fan magazines plastered all over my bedroom walls when I was a teenager. We had a rumpus room behind our house in Manhattan Beach that was “my room.” I had the kind of record player you had to wind up. I would wind it up with gusto and dance by myself to the songs like “Dance with me Henry,” “Rock Around the Clock” and “Jailhouse Rock” for hours. Of course, after a song or two, I had to hurry over and wind up the record player again. But then I would go back to my dancing. What fun that was.


Unfortunately, my dad continued to abuse me not only physically, but also sexually. I don’t remember a lot of detail from this period, but my mother says that when I was four years old I came into the living room of my grandmother’s house and announced, “ We have to go to Burdine’s to get a new daddy because I have a bad daddy.” And then when I was in fourth grade, I am reported to have said to my mother, “Please don’t leave me alone with Daddy because when you’re gone, he breathes real hard and he scares me.”

It’s interesting that my mother remembered these instances, but nothing ever changed. I learned to live with the ambiguity not understanding the significance of it all.


When I was in the sixth grade, my dad announced his job was requiring us to move to New York. I felt like my world was collapsing. I finally felt like I fit in at my school in California, and now we were moving away—away from all my friends. Kip and Rick were pretty upset too—they were in fifth and third grades.

It turns out that North American had a contract with IBM in upstate New York and my dad was the representative for a project to build bombers for the Air Force. So, they loaded our belongings and all three kids into the family station wagon and we headed across country to a very small town near Binghamton, called Vestal.

This was the first of several trips across the country from California to New York and back the other way. Each time it was a terrible disruption of my childhood. Every time we traveled across country we would stop in Ambridge Pennsylvania so we could visit my dad’s parents, Grandma and Grandad Fouse, for a week or so. Ambridge was the small town near Pittsburg where my dad grew up. I learned later that Ambridge was short for The American Bridge Company, which built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Back then, steel mining plants employed most of the work force in that town.

My grandparents lived in a large brick house with a wide swing on the front porch. I always looked forward to these visits with them because my grandad loved fudge cycles. My grandma didn’t like him to eat them because she said they made him fat. So my grandad and I would sit outside on the front steps and whisper, “Susie, go in and tell grandma you want two fudge cycles.” She always gave them to me, although my guess is she probably knew one was for my grandad.

And then I would walk with him around the corner to downtown where he would introduce me to all his friends, all the while eating our fudge cycles. I felt so special.

I would sit for hours with my grandad listening to the Pittsburg Pirates play their baseball games on the radio.

One time I heard an advertisement on the radio about something called Man Tan. Supposedly it would give you a beautiful golden tan in just a few hours. I was so excited because I had always been embarrassed that my skin was so white, when so many of my friends at the beach had nice, tanned skin.

I asked my grandma to help me get a bottle of the magic potent and she did.  I covered my body with the clear liquid before going to bed that night. The next morning I couldn’t wait to look in the mirror at my gorgeous tan. I was shocked!

Instead of seeing a nice brown tan, every inch of my skin was streaked with orange. I stayed inside and scrubbed my skin for days.

I remember one time when I was about 14, during a visit to Ambridge, I was so upset about having to leave my boyfriend in California that I moped and pouted the entire visit. Everyone was sitting at the dinner table in my grandparents’ dining room and I refused to eat or talk. Finally, I got up, excused myself from the table and walked out of the room so I could be alone with my grumpy thoughts. I overheard my grandmother asking my parents, “What’s wrong with Cindy?”

It was well into the school year when we moved to Vestal so, just like when we moved to Manhattan Beach, I was the “new kid.”  My classmates loved calling me “red” or “carrot top” which made me feel even more embarrassed and odd. Years later when a friend looked at some of my school photos from that time, he said, “You look like you could have been Alfred E. Neuman’s sister.” He was right. I had bright orange-red hair and a face full of freckles. It’s no wonder they made fun of me.

After a while, I got used to the name-calling and not quite fitting in and began to find ways of appearing to become part of the group. I got pretty good at it.

I learned to make friends easily because even though I always felt on the outside, I knew how to make it seem like I was on the inside—as one of the group. I developed instinctive strategies of becoming “popular” by watching what each person liked and trying to mimic that.

One time, I noticed that a girl I wanted to be friends with took great pride in her creative hairstyles. So I asked for her help and before long we were both known for our elaborate beehives and twisty pony tails.

Another good example of this was when I was in high school. My house was the place where everyone wanted to hang out, especially before big parties like the prom.

This was partly because every Friday before a big event my mom would send me to school with a shopping list where my friends would all write down what kind of alcohol they wanted to drink at my pre-party. My mom would purchase the booze and mixers because she said she wanted us to drink at home instead of driving around. Of course, this would not be acceptable now, but at the time I was the one with the “cool mom” and everyone wanted me to be part of their group.

High school was also when I had my first real job (besides babysitting). I was hired as the ticket taker at the La Mar Theater where I sat in a glassed-in booth near the sidewalk. I was thrilled with my job, but I would be a bit envious as my friends walked by on their way to the beach. Still, I was glad for my new paycheck. The fact is, my fair skin wasn’t suited to the beach anyway.

My friends would mix iodine and baby oil, slathering it all over their body and lying in the sun for hours. When I tried the same thing, I ended up with a terrible sunburn which infuriated my mother.

She made me wear a straw hat when she knew I was headed to the beach. But I always stashed it behind a bush because only tourists wore hats like that and I wanted to fit in. When I would arrive home after a day at the beach (picking up the hat and putting it on my head before I got home), she would take one look at my sunburned face and angrily exclaim, “Your face looks like a baboon’s fanny!” She would then proceed to gently dab cotton balls soaked in cold vinegar to relieve the pain.

High school is also where I had two teachers who made a difference in my life. Nellie was my typing and shorthand teacher. She was so strict that many kids tried to avoid taking her class. But I loved it because I was good at typing and I could tell she liked me because of it. I credit her with my superior typing ability serving me so well over the years.

Homer was my social studies teacher. Lots of kids made fun of him because he was a little different; but I loved to listen to his stories about politics and history. He taught me how to keep my mind open to different ways of looking at the world.

One day he took me into his office and with a very serious look on his face said, “Cindy, I want you to know that you can be anything you want to be because you are so smart.” I thanked him and smiled politely but I really didn’t know what he was talking about because I had no idea what I wanted to be.

During the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I had the honor of being an exchange student to La Paz, Mexico in Baja California. It’s a tourist destination now, but back then there wasn’t even a road connecting it to other towns. No one spoke a word of English, so I had no time to be embarrassed about speaking Spanish. If I wanted to communicate I had to dive in and use the Spanish I learned in high school. I caught on quickly and it was a wonderful experience. I have a couple of memories that especially stand out for me.

I lived with a lovely family named Aramburo. They owned the local pharmacy and were considered well-to-do. Maria Elena, the daughter of the family and I were the same age, so she introduced me to all of her friends. They had never seen someone with red hair before, so they quickly took me to the nearby beauty parlor and asked the operator to look at my hair and tell them if it was “real.” They were pretty amazed at the answer!

There was a young man who took a liking to me and one night I was awoken by a guitar playing outside of my bedroom window. I immediately jumped up, turned on the light and went over to the open window. Maria Elena, my host sister, came into my room right away and told me to quickly get back in bed. She said this young man and his friends were serenading me and the proper response was to lay in bed, turn on the bedside nightlight and enjoy the music. I followed her instruction and it was quite delightful.

Another young man, Gustavo, took a liking to me and gave me a tour of his ranch. While there, he pulled up a bucket filled with water from his well. He filled a dipper with water from the bucket and gave it to me to drink. He said, “If you drink from my well, you will return some day.” Of course I drank the cool water. It was so romantic!

I spent the whole summer there enjoying every day and meeting lots of townspeople. My Spanish became very fluent very quickly since I was the only person in the town that spoke English. Every day my host family members, along with everyone else in town, took a siesta from noon until 2:00 or so. The stores were closed and no one was on the streets. I’ve never been good at napping, so I used the time every day to read the book I brought with me, The Agony and the Ecstasy, the enchanting biography of Michelangelo by Irving Stone. I was glad it had so many pages because it took me all summer to finish reading it.


In eighth grade we moved back to Manhattan Beach. There I was again trying to fit in with the same kids as before. After two more years, we moved back to Vestal where I had to adapt to the new environment. We were then back in California for my last two years of high school, where I graduated with honors from Aviation High School.

Moving around so frequently taught me how to make friends quickly, how to adapt myself to the norms of a group, how to see change as normal, how to let nothing rock my boat and how to think and act quickly. All are important lessons that I have incorporated into my life.

Life in Vestal was so different than in Manhattan Beach. The little California beach town was so casual with all the kids going barefoot and spending time at the sunny beach. My mother was constantly complaining about us kids tracking sand into the house and making us wash off with the hose before we came inside. She was good natured about it, but the sand kind of bugged her.

In Vestal, her complaint was when we tracked snow into the house. Everything there was a lot more structured and the activities were so different. I learned how to make snowmen and ice skate on the abundant backyard frozen ponds. One time my date refused to go out with me because when he came to pick me up I wasn’t wearing any socks. That was the normal way in the beach towns, but in upstate New York white bobby socks were expected at all times.


Wherever we lived, our parents always took us three kids to Sunday school while they would attend church, usually a Presbyterian or Methodist church. My mom would dress us all up in our Sunday best. And then my dad would want to take pictures of everyone. All that was very sweet, but it took a long time so we were often late to church. Once again, I was the new kid who didn’t fit in, walking into Sunday school late, and standing out like a sore thumb because of my hair and freckles.

Finally, one Sunday I hit on a brilliant idea. I told my brother, Kip (who also didn’t like being the new kid who was late) that I had an idea that would save us from the embarrassment. I said, “Here’s the plan: when they drop us off at Sunday school, we’ll walk through the halls pretending we are headed to the bathroom. Then when Sunday school is over and all the kids get out of class, we’ll meet mom and dad outside the church and let them assume we actually attended class. When they ask us what we learned in class, we simply say that we learned about Jesus.” It worked like a charm.

Later I discovered that the reason we moved so often was because whenever Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, changed his mind about how many bombers we were going to build, my dad was transferred since he was Rockwell’s lead representative on the project.

The moves were always challenging for my brothers and me because we never knew when our dad would come home and say we were moving across country again. But there were also some bright spots in the moves. We would drive on Route 66 to get from one coast to the other and always drove through Las Vegas where we would spend the night so we kids could swim in the pool. It was delicious to frolic in the cool water when it was over 100 degrees outside. My dad would carry me on his back while he swam across the pool and I would squeal with delight, afraid he would duck me under the water.


I was 16 years old when I discovered my dad was not my father, nor was he Kip’s father. I’ll never forget the Saturday my mom was getting ready to go to the store. She had her back turned to me as I sat on her bed. She was reaching into her closet for just the right purse to go with her outfit. I asked if I could go with her to the store. She said, “No just stay here.” I asked again and when she said no again, I said, “Please don’t leave me home with Daddy.” She immediately turned around with a look on her face I’ll never forget and asked why. I remember being so afraid that I had said the wrong thing and now I was in big trouble. I tried to change the subject but she insisted I tell her. So, I said, “I don’t like what Daddy does to me when you’re not here.”

The fact was my dad had been molesting me for several years. I had tried to tell my mom from time to time but I was too afraid of getting in trouble and it seemed like she didn’t really want to hear it. I didn’t want him to be angry with me, wanting to avoid a beating with his belt.

I didn’t want any of my friends to ever find out what he was doing to me because I was too embarrassed. I thought it was my fault. So I made sure our family always looked perfect to anyone looking on from the outside. I became a master at this deception. Actually, I felt that since I was the oldest, it was my responsibility to make our family look good to others.

My mother’s response to me on that Saturday morning was, “Oh well, he’s not your father anyway.” Which is how I found out he wasn’t my birth father.

I was stunned but I knew better than to comment or ask questions because it would set off my mother’s temper (which I always tried to avoid). But if he wasn’t my father, who was my father? If he wasn’t my father who was I really? I always had a feeling there were lots of secrets in our family, I just didn’t realize I was one of them.

My mother was obviously the keeper of this secret, yet I didn’t see even a glimmer of remorse or any sign of concern for me. She only seemed upset that now a big secret was out in the open.

She made my dad leave the house and move into a motel, but after a short time he returned. Thankfully, he never touched me again.

Daddy passed away from a heart attack in 1998. When I think of him, I am thankfully able to hold both realities simultaneously: he was a good father in many ways; he also did some things to me that were absolutely not good. I guess one thing I learned from that experience is that people can have both positive and negative aspects to their personality and behavior. It’s always best to focus on the positive.

My memories of the sexual abuse are pretty foggy. In fact, I didn’t even remember it at all until I was in my early 40s. Like many victims of abuse, I had blocked it out completely. Thankfully, once the memories started to return, I was able to get some counseling and therapy to deal with it. There I learned that it was not my fault. He had a severe character flaw and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But it has definitely had an impact on my life as an adult. For years, I had no self-confidence. I didn’t often voice an opinion about anything unless I thought it would be accepted by others. I never wanted to rock the boat or be around anyone who had a temper. I knew that anger meant I would get hurt. I’m sure another significant impact is that I’ve always had trouble establishing genuine intimacy, especially with a husband. Thankfully, I think I’m now past that.


So there I was without a legitimate last name. I was raised believing Fouse was my last name. I never knew what name was on my birth certificate because my parents always made up an excuse to the school authorities who asked for it. I guess they wanted us to think Daddy was our real father. When I did find out the name on my birth certificate from Selma General Hospital was Horten, but I also discovered this was the name of the man my mother married when she was 16 and that they divorced after two years, which was two years before I was born. She probably used Horten on my birth certificate because she really didn’t know who my birth father was. She told me a long, convoluted, and (as it turns out) untrue story about how my “father” had died in a fiery plane crash in the war.

Eventually, I figured I would never know my real birth name so I made up my own last name, Sinclair, because it was of Scottish origin and was an alliteration with my first name. My mother says she named me Cynder Sue because my hair was bright orange and reminded her of red, hot cinders. As a kid, I was embarrassed by the name Cynder and wouldn’t let my parents tell anyone my name. Instead I went by Susie, and then Sue, and then Cindy. I finally grew into using Cynder when I was in my 30s.


While in high school, my best friend was Julianne Gillespie. She was cute and fun and we always hung out together. In our senior year, she asked me if I wanted to go to college. I had never thought about it and my parents had never mentioned it. So, I said, “Sure.” She said her sister was going to college and that I would like it.

Then she asked, “Do you want to go to UCLA? My sister is going there and you’ll like it.” I said, “Sure.” Next, she asked, “Do you want to join a sorority?” When I asked what a sorority was, she said, “My sister is in one, you’ll like it.” So we both applied for and were accepted into UCLA and joined the Alpha Chi Omega sorority (just like her sister). We lived in the sorority house for two years. I didn’t know it was considered hard to get into UCLA. I was just lucky that I had good grades.

Unfortunately, I eventually lost track of Julianne even though I tried many times to find her.

 My parents paid my tuition and the fees for my sorority house, but I felt a little bad about that (even though back then the tuition and fees were very low compared to today). So I was really excited when I happened to read that there were scholarships available for tuition reimbursement if one’s father had died in the war.

I quickly sent away for the required paperwork. I was thrilled when it arrived in the mail a few weeks later because I thought it would be a way for me to relieve my parents of the burden of my school expenses. I filled out as much of the paperwork as I could, leaving just a few blank spaces for my mom to fill in with information like my father’s date of death and place of service.

I called my mother on the phone and excitedly told her about this wonderful news. She was clearly upset. I was confused. She began to stutter and appeared to search for the right words. I had learned that this was typical behavior for her when she was about to tell a lie.

She quickly said, “We can’t fill out that form because he never knew I was pregnant with you and I never told him before he died in the fiery plane crash.” She went on to add details like my father had never wanted children but she did so she secretly left her diaphragm out one night and that’s how she got pregnant. When I asked about his parents and siblings, she quickly said, “They’re all dead.”

I had a strong feeling she was lying about some or all of this, but I was afraid to challenge her or even ask questions because I knew it would make her angry. So I just stayed quiet and left it alone. I felt betrayed and insignificant. Did I not matter enough for my own mother to tell me the truth about my very existence? I had always lived in a state of not knowing the truth and pretending to believe her stories, so I gathered the bits of myself I could find and kept moving forward with my life.


Since I had always been an overachiever, I thought it made perfect sense to take 21 units at UCLA, work part time as a salesclerk at May Company and fulfill my sorority duties. I majored in Political Science and minored in languages—taking French, Spanish, and Swahili simultaneously.

I wanted to work for the State Department so I could “save the world,” so I thought I should start with Africa. I decided that if I was going to Africa, I should know the language. This is why I signed up for Swahili. I took Spanish because my dad always wanted me to continue learning this language; I took French because I always loved it.

Life settled into a routine but very full schedule. Up early for classes, lots of time doing homework and studying for exams, dinner at the sorority house, and then I rode the public bus to May Company each evening, returning to the sorority house at about 11:00 p.m. I loved the Greek life and certainly enjoyed the plentiful fraternity parties.

I remember when I got my first tax return check from my job at May Company. It was $50 and I was pretty excited. I immediately went to town and spent the entire check on fancy undies, bras, and garter belts. Yes, we were still wearing garter belts then. In fact, sorority girls were not allowed to go out of the house with pants on; we were required to wear a skirt. Soon after I purchased the fancy undies and folded them all perfectly in my lingerie drawer, I came home from a date one evening and my sorority sisters had strung them up on a clothes line all over my bedroom. Everyone got quite a kick out of that little prank, even me.

At the end of each semester, the fraternities would host TGIO parties (Thank God it’s Over). During my second year at UCLA, I went with a date to a TGIO party at the SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) fraternity house. Like all fraternity parties, there were beer kegs galore. I walked over to a keg to fill up my cup with beer. As I leaned over to pull the lever, I looked up into the smiling, handsome face of a guy I had never met. “Hi, I’m Rick Bishop,” he said. I politely told him my name, noting how good looking and charming he was. I quickly walked back to my date.

Later I went to the ladies room. No sooner had I entered the main door when Rick Bishop appeared in the doorway holding the door open. He refused to leave the ladies room until I gave him my phone number. I was so flustered that I gave him my home number rather than the sorority number. That night, about 3:00 in the morning, he called the number I gave him. My mother answered drowsily. “Is this Cindy’s sorority sister?” he asked. “No, this is her mother,” she said grumpily. As you can imagine, my mother loved telling that story for years.

Shortly after that, Rick and I started dating. Little did I know at the time that he was not what he appeared to be. My life would never be the same.