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This Black Sheep Learned to Bleat Life's Tune in Her Own Key

July 09, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

For as long as she can remember, Cheryl has been the black sheep of her family.

"Why can't you be like your sister?" her mother would ask. Her brother, "who was the only boy, seemed to be admired for no other reason," she says. That left her, the middle child, odd one out.

Cheryl's own contrariness didn't help matters much either. From the time she was a toddler, she seemed intent on breaking every family rule she encountered. If her mother told her to play with dolls, she picked up her brother's truck.

"I had no intention of playing by the rules," she says. "Instead, I felt things out, experienced things, and made up my own rules.

"I felt that I did not necessarily need to believe anything that anyone at home had to say to me, or to advise me about, as, in my opinion, the things that they did seemed wrong. Early on, I began formulating my own values and sticking by them, regardless of the consequences."

Now 41, Cheryl lives in La Habra, quite deliberately more than 2,000 miles from the small town in Illinois where she grew up, where most of her family still lives. Her father has officially disowned her. When her mother died of cancer a few years ago, Cheryl had to accept that their rift could never be healed.

"Being the black sheep was the best decision I ever made," she says, but in the same breath, she admits that it was also "the hardest thing I ever had to do."

The decision was hers . . . and it wasn't. In this story, the question of who rejected whom is like the chicken and the egg. No one can say which happened first. What matters is that ultimately, Cheryl accepted herself.

Despite her inherently rebellious nature, Cheryl tried in her early adulthood to meet her family's expectations: "I did become sort of a puppet. I tried so hard to please them. I tried to kiss up to them. I baked cookies at Christmas, I called them all the time. But they really shunned me."

"I had my own apartment, and I always invited (my family) over for dinner and things like that," she says. "They would just say, 'I don't really care to come over there.' That hurt me a lot. When I asked them why, they would say, 'We don't like the people you hang around with.'

"But they didn't even know any of them. They just assumed. I became more and more miserable."

Finally, Cheryl accepted that she would never be able to please her family. She attempted suicide and wound up in a mental institution, where she stayed for three months.

"The doctors told me that it was trying to be what they (her family) wanted me to be that was driving me crazy," she says. It was a line from a movie that summed it all up: "I don't have anybody. But I've got me, and that's not a bad start."

When she checked out of the institution, Cheryl was determined to be herself, no matter what her family thought. She tried a series of jobs, from waitressing to telephone soliciting. She chose to see a black man (she is white) who gave her an out-of-wedlock daughter. Her family was appalled.

She stopped seeing her family, although she did run into her mother in a local department store one year just before Christmas. Her 2-year-old daughter, who had never seen her grandmother, kept interrupting the chilly conversation by asking, "Mommy! Mommy! Who's that?"

"She invited me to Christmas dinner," Cheryl says, remembering how she immediately began hoping all over again for her parents' approval. But then her mother said, "Of course, you do understand you can't bring that baby."

Cheryl didn't go.

Shortly after that encounter, about 10 years ago, Cheryl moved to Orange County. She had never been here before. "I just wanted to get very far away from them and that whole society. I had to come to a place with a reputation for being much bigger, much different."

She attended college, got married twice and had a child by each husband. Now she is divorced again. She worked in real estate, continued her studies part time and bought a condominium.

When she found out from her sister that their mother was dying, Cheryl tried to make peace: "I was really torn. I told myself, I should be there, but then, she was never there for me. She disowned me every other day. Once again, I had to ask myself, 'What do I believe in?' And I decided that regardless of whether my mother was right or wrong, she's a human being. So I tried to do what I could for her."

Cheryl's mother tried to close the gap, traveling to California to meet her grandchildren. "I remember, we went to Knott's Berry Farm, and we were walking along, and she grabbed her chest. I thought she was going to die right there. I told her, 'Mom, you don't have to do this.' And she said, 'No, no, I promised the children I would take them here, and I'm going to do it.' I felt so deeply sorry for her."

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