Strangers Reach Out With a Story of Kids and Anguish

Lynn Smith is a Times staff writer.

I first met the couple over hors d'oeuvres at a party. They looked about 50, salt-and-pepper hair, pleasant, unpretentious but comfortable in the old-money, California-style home.

We chatted about our hosts, their neighbors, and moved on.

I had meant to leave early. But as it turned out, a friend and I were lingering in a cozy sitting room, away from the chatter and the crowd when the husband walked in, and later the wife. Soon we were all sitting on wicker chairs or the flowered sofa by the hearth, eating, drinking and talking aimlessly.

Then, she mentioned her children, two boys and a girl. Her daughter, she said, was lovely but felt she didn't fit in with the cliques at school. Her second son had moved away in his senior year to live with another family.

My friend and I--both mothers of school-age children--became intrigued, and then, as she began to discuss her first son, horrified.

In softly spoken words, the woman slowly told us a story that seemed to have taken place light-years from the stable neighborhood, yet also seemed unsurprisingly common, as disaster stories such as hers filter back from the front. Runaways. Alcoholics. Suicide.

Frequently, there appears to be no reason why some families are chosen for sorrow and others escape. It is like those neighborhood fires whose sparks are spread by Santa Ana winds, skipping some houses but landing on others, destroying the structure and all of its contents.

It began, she said, when a blizzard locked them inside their East Coast home for five days. As soon as they could, the family moved to California, settling in Orange County. In the process, they traded a fairly homogeneous, traditional community for a disparate one, marked by freedom and materialism.

In junior high and high school, their children had trouble adjusting to public school. The other boys had their own cars and even their own boats. Their oldest son complained because he was different.

Parochial school didn't work out, either.

She always dropped off her son at school, she said, but then he would spend his day drinking in a nearby condo that belonged to one of his friends. It had been bought for him by his parents.

None of his friends went to school. They drank. They drove their cars and boats around. If they crashed them, their parents bought them new ones.

"Were there any signs?" my friend asked.

"We had no idea, no idea," she said evenly. Her son had stayed out of school for 50 days before someone notified her. The school official said they had tried to call, but the boy had given the number of a private phone he had in his room. When they called, there was never any answer. Couldn't they have called the husband at work, we wondered.

For four years, she said, when the son was 16 to 20, she and her husband spent much of their time looking for him in police stations and hospitals. After being out with friends, he would sometimes disappear for days. The couple asked the police for help. But when they heard the word runaway , they just laughed at her, she said.

Of his group of friends, four are dead, she said. All of the deaths were probably related to alcohol. One killed himself.

"Weren't they thinking about their future? What was in their heads?" I ask.

She shrugged. Besides, she said, nothing went on in the classroom anyway. The teachers were afraid of the students.

Who knows what goes on inside other people's homes. I looked at them. He owned his own business. She didn't work. They went to church.

Their son was likable, they said, and apparently told his side, convincingly, to other parents who were sympathetic. One woman, ("Bless her soul," the husband said) yelled at him for the way he treated his son. What did she know, he wondered.

An acquaintance at the country club scolded him for being too strict. "I said, 'Just wait until your boy gets to be 16,' " he said. "Now, he's having even worse problems."

"Much worse," the woman nodded.

We were silent. A caterer brought in a pot of coffee. The husband went for plates of cookies. What was making them tell this story to us?

"How did you handle it? How did you react to him?" I asked her.

"I cried for four years," she said.

Looking back, would they do anything differently?

No. Who knows who or what to blame? Three of her four sisters still live back East, she said. They have alcoholic sons, she said. Many of their own friends on the East Coast have similar stories.

I knew what she meant. I have some distant cousins who are twins--one was lost to addictions, the other became a doctor.

Her children are fine now, she said.

Her oldest is 27. He never finished school but has his own business. He has been sober since he was 21--the year, ironically, that the law allowed him to drink. The other son has finished school and has a stable job.

It seemed time to leave. Most of the others had. We wove through the stragglers, who were starting to dance, and into the damp night, which smelled slightly of brine.

Quite likely we would never meet again. But their problems had, in a few short hours, become ours. Ours, theirs. Without community, strangers must reveal themselves to one another when and where they can. This is how we live now.

We shook hands, said goodby, good luck, and returned to our own homes to hold our children close.

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