Why do the Browns look across the table at me with wide smiles when they could be massaging self-pity?
The Browns are a San Marcos family: Vanessa, 43, Mekenna, 16, and Hannah, 11. They’re a tough bunch. They battled through the gambling activity of their husband and father by hating the hardship it caused but not hating him.
(The father and ex-husband, who now lives out of state, said: “I acknowledge I had a gambling problem during my marriage and regret the effect it had on my children. I am striving to be the father I want them to have.”)
The family crisis also gave challenge to a teenage girl of remarkable fortitude, but that comes later.
Vanessa was raised in Fallbrook in a family that stayed together with a father who was a reliable provider. At 18, she started to sell Mary Kay cosmetics full time and attended Palomar College for two years.
The problems in Vanessa’s life started on her 1993 honeymoon in Las Vegas. She knew her husband had an issue with drinking and that the marriage was a gamble, but she didn’t know she was playing with loaded dice.
“On our honeymoon, he was gambling, and I didn’t realize that it was not normal for someone to gamble all night long. I guess I thought that’s what you did when you went to Vegas. When you’re dealing with someone who has that (problem), or any other, you just don’t know unless you’ve had experience with it before.
“He was a server at a hotel restaurant, and I thought we would live happily ever after,” she says. The reality, though, was 13 years of wondering where her husband was, when he would return — sometimes after months — or ever.
A daughter, Mekenna, was born in 1996. Vanessa had a savage attack of postpartum depression that required six months of medication. That was followed by a miscarriage.
The small family lived modestly in San Diego, and although her husband would go on occasional forays to Nevada, his gambling was more of a nuisance than a problem.
The rut she was in deepened in 1998 with the emergence of the Indian casinos, Vanessa says. “When he had to go to Nevada to gamble, it was pretty manageable. But with the Indian casinos just down the road, it spiraled out of control.”
In 2001, Hannah was born, followed by more postpartum depression. “We were living in San Diego in a two-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood. It was either move to get away from the casinos or get divorced. I was trying to be supportive and not be naggy, but …”
In 2004, she persuaded her husband to move to a suburb of Boise, Idaho. The hope was that a change of scenery would change the marriage. As usually happens, the only thing that changed was the scenery.
Instead of improving things, Idaho turned into a prison for her husband. After a year, he announced he was going to Reno to find work. He left and didn’t return for six months. “He came home, then after 11 months, said he was returning to Reno. He said, ‘I’m going, and I don’t care what you say.’
“He had been financially abusing us for all those years. One day he said, ‘Well, I’ve decided I’m not going to pay the mortgage anymore,’ and it was already two weeks late. He left us with absolutely nothing.”
Despite all her denials and hopes and enabling, she knew the end had come. In 2006, she permanently separated from her husband and found herself on her own with two children, which was nothing very new for her. The divorce was made final in 2010.
During the next few years, the small family scrapped to hold their lives together. Vanessa battled depression after her marital breakup but still managed to drag herself out of bed to at least work her Mary Kay business and other jobs she picked up. She went on welfare, and the house was on the verge of foreclosure.
And along came Mekenna, who with her little sister trying to help, showed how grown-up a middle-school kid could be.
“The girls were super in everything they did,” Vanessa says. “We had a beautiful cherry tree in the backyard, and they’d set up a cherry stand, and we’d make cherry jam and they’d sell it. They would get jobs around the neighborhood and rake leaves and walk dogs. They were real go-getters.”
With her mother struggling to work full time, Mekenna became the junior partner of mothering. She watched over her little sister, fixed dinner, earned money from her kid-type jobs and, when needed, would turn it over to help with the bills.
Vanessa relied on the girls, and they responded. “They made me laugh, and they encouraged me to do things and to get out and to sell my Mary Kay, and to look pretty. Mekenna became a great cook.”
In 2010, Vanessa happened to make contact on Facebook with a friend from high school, Court Caldwell, 44. Over the following months, she developed a relationship that was as solid as her marriage had been shaky.
In 2011, after Mekenna’s freshman year, Vanessa moved to San Marcos and merged families with her new love.
She receives partial payment of child support, and then only because her ex-husband’s wages are garnished by court order.
During the years in Boise when the tension between her mother and her father became most stressful, Mekenna grew from grammar school to high school. She watched in sadness, not fully understanding the mean world of adults.
“I was always very angry with my father, because I blamed him for a lot of the struggles we went through. When he wouldn’t come home at night, I remember sitting at the table and crying because I wanted him home.”
She says she learned not to complain and to quietly do what was necessary to help her mother.
When she was entering her teens and needful of her father’s affection, Mekenna received presents from him, but the significance was blunted because she recognized that he had gone to the dollar store and chosen things with little thought. It wasn’t the lack of money spent, but the lack of caring.
“I would hear about the money that he was spending: Well, why aren’t you spending it on us? Why are we struggling and you’re not? I wanted him to stop (gambling) because I wanted him to just be healthy. He has a girlfriend who is almost 30 years younger. She was the one that was saying, ‘Oh, it’s OK. It’s OK to gamble. It’s just fun. This is what we do.’ ”
How are you doing in school?
“I’ve always done well and always worked real hard. I never slacked off. When I was younger, I did it to gain my dad’s approval because I felt like, well, he left and so I have to try to do something. I just buried my head in my studies. I was always working, and I didn’t have any fun time.”
Do you go to school activities, proms and games?
“No,” she says with a laugh.
“It’s not that I don’t have friends. It’s just when I have a goal, I put everything into it.
“In school, I was doing really well, and I wanted to give back. My chemistry teacher asked me to tutor a girl. I love science, and I’m good at it. I really enjoyed helping her.” Mekenna also baby sits and tutors younger children in math for pay.
Do you worry about not having a balanced life?
“No, because ... well, sometimes, sometimes I do, but ...”
“I’ve never worried about that, and I always knew that the time is going to come where I would meet Mr. Perfect, but now is the time to work.”
Mr. Perfect may not exist.
“I believe he does. I know he does.”
When she was a sophomore, some friends invited her to the City Church in Rancho Bernardo, where “I was really able to find God. He was able to find me and really just rescued me from my depression. That helped me connect with all the students there and make friends.”
You didn’t say anything about your depression.
“That started in my freshman year in Idaho. My dad wasn’t there, and my mom wasn’t really there to emotionally support me, even though I know she did her best. I felt like I had to do everything on my own.”
Mekenna has thrived at San Marcos High School. She won a sought-after Simon Family Foundation scholarship and is entering her senior year aiming for a full-ride university scholarship.
She is also helping guide her little sister, Hannah, along the same path of accomplishment that she has followed. Hannah earns $5 per hour tutoring a 9-year-old in reading. Both girls play musical instruments, and neither is addicted to endless cell-phoning.
Mekenna has faced up to one other important thing: her father.
“I sent a letter to confront him about all of my feelings. I needed him to know so I could let it go and forgive him. Before that letter, I never told him how I really felt. By forgiving him, it was a huge step in freeing myself. However, forgiveness is not a one-time deal. It’s a continuous choice that I have to make on a daily basis with my dad.”
It’s awkward to be a cheerleader for a high school girl; that’s what they’re supposed to do. However, who cannot applaud what Mekenna has done so far with her young life? I only hope that, while she’s still a teen, she also has a chance to be a kid.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is this year’s runner-up Print Journalist of the Year for Southern California, an honor from the Los Angeles Press Club. He invites comments and ideas; email him at [email protected]