“No! Please!” Mother’s panicked pleading broke into my sleep and drove me into the corner chair where I huddled miserably, eyeing the door. It was all that separated me from the muffled voices and anguished protests coming from the living room. As I sat in fear, even that imaginary barrier evaporated. A policeman stood in the doorway, appraising the messy room, my scrawny 8-year-old form, and my brother Billy and sister Trudi still cocooned in sleeping bags on the floor. The officer seemed startled to find us.
“Stay here!” he ordered, and withdrew.
A car drove up outside, the gate banged and I heard insistent pounding on the back door. Then I heard my father inform the policemen, “I’m her estranged husband.”
“What’s ‘estranged’?” I wondered, not knowing it meant divorced. But with his presence a tiny tendril of hope emerged. Daddy was here.
Daddy had always been my rescuer, like in the fairy tales. He was my Prince Charming, arriving on Saturdays in his emerald green Porsche, whisking us kids away from our erratic life with Mother, and taking us to the small but orderly home he shared with my grandparents in Santa Monica. He would take us to the park or play records on his phonograph for us, nothing that unusual…but it was a glimpse of a different life. There we were like a normal family. At dinner my frail but dignified grandpa presided at a table adorned with candles and a pristine linen tablecloth, while my grandma bustled about heaping it with wondrous things: pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, jello and black bottom pie piled high with whipped cream. Dinner at home was the contents of a can dumped into a pan and heated: spam or stew or ravioli. Mother would eat perched over the stove, while our stools at the counter faced the wall. Somehow I was never that hungry at home.
How can I describe life with Mother? She was moody and unpredictable. But she could be capable and resourceful. Loving to sing, she’d line us up on stools to dry dishes, and teach us songs to sing in rounds as we worked. Those were the good days. She built a brick barbecue in our backyard and taught us the science of roasting marshmallows. Not stopping there, in a manic mood, she constructed a concrete block wall around our corner lot, mixing the cement in my little brother’s red wagon.
We’d go on adventures in the car. If it didn’t stall, we’d drive to Big Sur or San Diego before our money ran out and Mother had to call Daddy for money to get home. If it did stall, we kids would push from behind, while Mother steered with one hand and pushed with the other. We didn’t get far that way, but usually the sight of three kids under eleven pushing our faded green heap of junk would induce someone to stop and help. If not, we would hitchhike home. Mother taught us how to stick out our thumbs to get rides. Nothing seemed to faze her. Not even when she rolled our new car coasting down a big hill. Miraculously, none of us were seriously hurt, though we were bruised and bleeding in spots. Then, in spite of the shattered windshield and chunks of glass here and there, we all just got back in the car and mother drove to the next town!
But though courageous and determined, Mother embarrassed and confused me. It wasn’t poverty itself that was humiliating, it was Mother’s ways of dealing with it. She made me do things that felt shameful. I dreaded going on shopping trips downtown when she would refuse to feed the parking meter. She would give me one penny and leave me in the car, an unwilling sentry. My orders were to watch the sidewalk for the approach of the meter maid and when I saw her coming, jump out and put the penny in the meter before we got caught. We couldn’t afford to get another parking ticket, but Mother didn’t want to spend money on a parking meter if she didn’t have to. But I hated it. The whole time she was gone the red flag on the meter accused me that we were lawbreakers. And my heart was in my throat fearing that I would fail…that I would not spot the meter maid in time. Then we would get the ticket we couldn’t pay and Mother would blame me. Other times she demanded that I lie—once to school officials about why I missed school, once about my age, to get a cheaper ticket at the movies. I even remember once at the drive-in movies, she made us kids crouch down in the back seat until we were safely past the ticket booth, so that she would only have to pay for one person. Yet she taught me that lying, stealing and disobedience to authority was wrong.
There were more disturbing things too. Once, uncharacteristically curled up together on the couch, she confided unfathomable things. Shock treatments. A hospital. She was afraid. Something had happened in the past that she feared would happen again, but I didn’t understand. I just listened silently, trying to make sense of my world.
I hid from the outside world as much as possible. It seemed dangerous. Painfully shy, withdrawn and acutely aware that my family was “different,” I felt lost at school. Afraid to ask questions, I obeyed the rules and tried to be “good.” At home, because budding friendships with neighborhood kids were quickly killed by Mother’s paranoia, five imaginary friends substituted for real playmates. Each took their turn bouncing the ball against the garage door, while I meticulously kept track of who was winning.
Meanwhile, reality increasingly drifted away from Mother. She fumed about the neighbors watching us, warned us the Russians were spying on us through our TV set, and that Daddy was a drug addict. Finding Billy, Trudi and I playing cowboys one day with some rope, she became obsessed with one thought. She made us practice tying the strongest knots we could. It stopped being fun when she told us she wanted us to trick Daddy into playing cowboys, then tie him up and call the police. Then he would be locked up in a place with padded walls. That thought seemed strangely satisfying to Mother. Although I was only a little kid, I knew her words were crazy and I was angry with her. What did she expect from us? And I knew Daddy was the normal parent. But Mother was the one who took care of us and anchored our daily life. Who else did we have?
Finally her delusions became visible to others. One evening she inexplicably refused to drive us home from Grandma’s house, making us walk in the dark for what seemed like hours to get to our home in West LA (My brother was only five.) Later that night, while we children were sleeping, she opened every door and window, convinced that our house was filled with poisonous fumes. Certain that our tap water was poisoned as well, she went to borrow bottled water from the neighbors. At that point someone must have realized we needed help and had called the police, who in turn had called Daddy.
But my hope in Daddy was misplaced. Daddy couldn’t fix it. The men in white coats took Mother away. And this time Daddy didn’t whisk us away to another nicer world. But that was good. God had a better plan. It was God’s time for me to find more than a fantasy escape. It was His time to find something stronger than hiding, pretending, and withdrawing in self-protection. He wanted me to find Himself: a strong deliverer both in life and for eternity, One who would save me from far more critical issues than my mother’s meltdown. See, in the world’s eyes and in my own eyes I might have been a innocent little girl suffering as the result of a family crisis. But in God’s eyes, I was a rebel and a sinner, whose only hope was in His Son Jesus Christ, and it was now that by divine initiative He reached into my life and began to pull me to Himself.
Up to this time Jesus was someone I was completely ignorant of except as a baby in a Christmas carol. I didn’t even know how to correctly pronounce His name! In eight years no one had ever spoken of Him to me. In my mother’s case this was deliberate as she was angry with God. My father was an atheist. So to me, even “God” was just a mysterious word in the pledge of allegiance all American school children recite daily. Oddly, I do remember looking up into the sky one day and crying silently for someone to love me. Why the sky? Who was I talking to? I had no clue.
But with my mother locked up in the psychiatric hospital, and my father too busy working to take care of us, and his parents too old, my maternal grandparents, complete strangers to me, were now elected to take us to live with them. Grandma and Grandpa M. were not perfect, but they knew God and they were the means of God’s merciful intervention in my life. The first thing my grandma did was teach this little red-haired heathen to pray “Lord help me to love you!” She introduced me to Bible stories and taught me to memorize scripture. From my Grandma I learned “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have eternal life!” This information was something so new, so arresting. Suddenly there was a new person in my universe, God, who loved me and who apparently loved me to an incredible degree.
But still I remained outside His love. The main obstacle was my sin, self-righteousness and pride. I believed in Jesus theoretically, and wanted His love, but there was no repentance or humility, no coming to Him to be saved. The Biblical teaching that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and that the “wages of sin is death…” had begun to be familiar to me. But it was like I thought I could just be a Christian by osmosis, without ever confessing my sin and need for a savior. I wanted to pretend that I had always been a Christian, that I wasn’t a sinner, that maybe God hadn’t noticed my years of unbelief. That way I wouldn’t have to humble myself. And for months I really kept on believing I was good. After all, did I ever cut in line at school? Did I ever smush my left-over food into my milk carton to hide it from the lunch monitors who wouldn’t let you go play until you had eaten everything on your tray? According to my own standard of goodness I was a very good little girl. Completely blind to the self-centeredness, lack of compassion, anger, jealousy, fear and pride that ruled my heart, I needed light to shine into my heart. I needed the first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…” to expose my guilt.
I was stubborn, blind, lost and almost paralyzed by fear, but God in great grace and love shattered my hypocrisy as the first step to freeing me to live for His glory. Imagine an eight-year-old girl, sitting in church by her grandma, wiggling in her chair, but listening to the minister’s voice. Suddenly she hears simple words that pierce her armor of complacency: something like, “God demands that we love Him! This is His first commandment!” Suddenly she is very uneasy. First her little brain argues, “I’m okay, I love God.” Then suddenly she feels naked before the truth. She realizes, “I don’t love God. I don’t even know how. I just now found out about him!” That was the work of God’s Spirit in my heart teaching me I was a sinner in need of a savior. And it was only a short time afterwards that I finally asked God for forgiveness and trusted Jesus to save me.
As I write, it has been 49 years since that day. The years since have brought testing and chastening as well as great joys. There have been times of sudden suffering and even terror. But in everything Jesus has been my rock, my fortress and my strong deliverer. He has met and overcome my fears. And I am no longer hiding.
By Krista Hahne