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A Mother's Crime

The golden dream had become a nightmare long before Lucille Miller was charged with murder. Her daughter, Debra J. Miller, remembers the day her family woke up.

April 02, 2006|Debra J. Miller | Debra J. Miller teaches English at a private high school in Los Angeles.

On Thursday, Oct. 8, 1964, the day the police decided my mother killed my father, I woke up late, the kind of late that snaps you out of your favorite dream, the one where you're wrapped in the arms of your favorite TV hunk--mine was Dr. Kildare--and he's just about to . . . when bang your unconscious tells you the sun is out, the lights are on all over the house and you're going to be late for school because nobody got you out of bed.

We were a family of five. I was 14 and the oldest. My brothers Guy and Ronnie were

11 and 9. We had recently moved into our house, not exactly my mom's dream house but the best she could wrestle out of my father, who even though a professional, a dentist, preferred nursing his headaches to the daily task of diving fingers-first into someone's rotten mouth. We hadn't been in our house for more than a few months, and because it had taken everything we had and then some to build, the living room was bare except for a green coffee table with gold legs. The windows in the kids' bedrooms remained curtainless. I didn't care. Our new house was twice as big as our old one. I had the impression that the whole point of building it was so that for the first time, my parents' bedroom would be at one end of the house and the kids' rooms at the other. This did seem to take the edge off things. On the weekends, my brothers and I didn't have to creep around silently till noon, afraid of waking our mom and dad.

But this was a school day. No one was up. Something was wrong. I threw off the covers and looked out my window. At the top of our driveway, a police car was parked where our black VW bug should have been. I ran to the family room. Everything looked the same, except for a black leather envelope on the breakfast table. I didn't recognize it. It didn't look like a briefcase or a purse. I couldn't figure out if it belonged to a man or a woman. I snapped it open. I saw a woman's wallet. It wasn't my mother's.

Why was there a cop car where my father's car should have been but no cops, and a woman's handbag but no woman?

I have always been afraid of everything. I was afraid of my parents. More than once my mother slapped me so hard and so many times across the mouth that my teeth slit my lips. Beatings with belts hard enough to leave my bottom completely black and blue and my legs covered in welts were not uncommon. I was afraid of losing my parents. They weren't happy together and rarely seemed happy about their kids. I was afraid of everything new and anything different. We had moved too many times. In first grade alone I went to three schools in three cities in two states.

We had come to California from Oregon. We were Seventh-day Adventists. My father wanted to go to the Adventist medical school in Loma Linda. I started first grade in Oregon, in a little one-room Adventist school in Enterprise. When my parents went to California to look for living arrangements, I was sent to live with my grandparents in Portland and enrolled in a public school. Later that year we moved to Ontario. I was so paralyzed with fear by the time I was enrolled in my third school, Adventist again, that my mother had to arrange for another little first-grader, Terry Hayton, to take me by the hand into the classroom. She became my best friend. Years later, my mother would fall in love with Terry's father, Arthwell Hayton. Their affair, the mystery of Terry's mother's death and the death of my father would lead to my mother being convicted of murder.

My father was always threatening to leave. I never knew why he wanted to go, blue transistor radio and jockey shorts clutched tightly in his hand, not a word to any of us as he stumbled in and out of the house. Each time, I thought he was never coming back. I didn't understand that someone intent on moving out would need more than a radio and a change of underwear. My mother would let me sleep on his side of the bed during those terrifying nights. She would sit beside me, petting my forehead, promising, "He's mad at me. He'll come back. You watch, in the morning he'll be here."

And he was. Until the time he really did move out for a while. It wasn't dramatic. It was quieter, sadder. We all cried. Mom cried. He cried. He came back within the month. When he came back, he and my mother continued to fight behind their closed bedroom door.

She began to take me into her confidence. "Daddy wants to die," she would say. "That's what the fighting's about."

This is how I learned that my daddy wanted to take his own life but loved us so much that he wanted to do it in his car, so it would look like an accident and we would get the insurance. The details of how this was going to work were never made clear to me. As my mother's confidante, I was helping her keep Daddy alive. I felt honored.

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