Lyman and Charlene Smith’s Secret Christmas Wedding, December 12, 1975

In our family, we celebrate any holiday that involves presents and candy. Gotta say I truly appreciate that about my mom. She made sure we had traditions and celebrations and good memories. I think that’s why I love fall so much. It would start with the Ventura County Fair that used to be in late September. Then it was Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember thinking January was about the worst month in the whole year because nothing happens in that month (except maybe rain) and we all come down from the high of December.

We had been invited to a Christmas party. My dad called and told my mom there was a very fancy party and he needed the kids cleaned up and looking nice because it was going to be in Santa Barbara. He also said Charlene would take us shopping for new outfits, so we’d be holiday-ready for the big event.

We were so excited.

Charlene took the boys shopping without me. Thank god. They got pants and Jay got a camel jacket, Gary a sweater and they spared me the hell of watching them try on clothes. I went with Charlene on our own trip and we found, if I do say so myself, the coolest dress. I didn’t really have boobs yet, well not of any significance and it was a little easier to find things that fit. This was a cool sheath dress that was holiday plaid with a deep emerald green apron that went over the front. I felt amazing in the dress.

Ready to go.

On our way to dad's wedding, only we didn't know that.We looked good. Mom took our photo and even our hair was perfect. I mean damn. For three kids who were constantly on the move and negotiating everything, this level of cooperation was a cool 10. Dad finally pulled up in his leased Thunderbird (leased from Coco Corral for those of you in the weeds), we climbed in and made our way to Santa Barbara. He told us Charlene had driven herself to the party and we’d meet her there. All good with me, that meant I got the front seat (because I was both the oldest and the girl – suck it!). In those days this kind of road trip was still a big deal. Santa Barbara was about 40 minutes away. A gorgeous drive, it snakes up the coast on Highway 1 and then transitions to a tree-filled corridor displaying this lushness of Montecito.

Kids have a way of remembering drives based on landmarks and we passed a few. The oil derricks just past the state beach at Mussel Shoals. Santa’s Village in Carpenteria. It was already shut down but there were buildings left as evidence of the good time had in earlier years. For me, I was always intrigued by the Summerland sign because I had heard there was a nudist beach there (still have no idea if that was true). Then we’d pass the Big Yellow House (a family style restaurant) and before you’d know it, we be at the infamous traffic lights which meant we were in Santa Barbara. And it’s possible we did that whole drive without any fights.

We arrived at a very fancy hotel.

“We’re here,” my dad announced. It was the Santa Barbara Biltmore (now the Four Seasons). Of course, that brand name meant nothing to us, we were young kids. We walked inside, and I remember poinsettias everywhere. They grow amazingly well outside in that area and it’s no surprise the hotel was loaded with them. Not long after we got there, dad handed us off to the Barkers, and he disappeared. That’s when Elaine Barker, my mom’s best friend, told me what was going on. She pulled me aside and first apologized to me.

“Jenny, you need to know I tried several times to call your mom today, but Harold knew that’s what I was going to do, and he refused to stop anywhere with a phone.” She looked honestly perplexed. She would have had to use a payphone, so it would be easy to keep her away from them. “Harold only told me what was happening today. TODAY.” Now she was starting to get upset. I was 13. I knew something bad was going to happen but still didn’t know what.

“Your dad and Charlene are getting married today,” she finally blurted out. This was the worst news I could have heard. The. Worst. I started crying. Elaine held me. There was no way he was going to marry her! No way. Not Charlene. She wasn’t right for him. She hated me. She barely tolerated my brothers.

Funny story: on one of the very first times Dad brought Charlene with us to Thursday night pizza, Charlene was sitting in the front seat with us in the back. Seatbelts weren’t mandatory then so that’s when kids always hung over the middle, so we could participate in whatever was happening in the front seat. Anyway, Dad had to run into Sav-On to get something and we were left in the car with Charlene. Suddenly, one of my brothers grabbed the headrest (I think it was Gary, but I just texted both Gary and Jay and Gary says it was Jay. Gary is also known for blaming Jay and I haven’t heard from him yet so I’m going with “one of my brothers” here). When he did, he pulled Charlene’s wig off. She screamed and all three of us fell out. We didn’t know she wore a wig and so we thought he’d pulled her hair off! For anyone with kids, that’s a totally normal event, but for Charlene it was a no-go. She flipped out. My poor dad returned to a car full of people who didn’t know what was happening!

I was mad my dad married Charlene but it wasn’t why we struggled.

Elaine stayed with me that night. The wedding was a blur. I’ve never tried so hard not to cry. I don’t know if I was all that successful. I had never felt more betrayed. We went shopping. It was supposed to be a holiday party. I looked great. And my poor mom! She still had no idea what was happening. I felt incredibly protective of her and convinced she was also being betrayed. My brothers didn’t seem to care at all. Being younger, they were likely able to accept things at face value. Dad had someone take us back to Ventura that night – he stayed in Santa Barbara with his new wife. Of course my next thought was, he’s going to replace us with new kids. Doesn’t every kid think like that?

If possible, our relationship got worse after that. I had a new stepmother. I had no idea she’d only be around for five more years.

4 thoughts on “Lyman and Charlene Smith’s Secret Christmas Wedding, December 12, 1975

  1. Oh, man. I’m so sad and mad on behalf of young Jenny. I have my own complicated feelings about my dad and stepmother—also involved before he divorced my mom.

    His passivity let her limit the quantity and quality of time he spent with me and my twin from age 5 through adulthood. He’s in his 80s now and can’t speak due to a neurological condition. (Mind-body connection, anyone?) I live in the same town as they do, though I can’t bring myself to help my stepmother in his care. All this to say: I understand having a conflicted relationship with a father.

    Your writing is giving me so much to think about. Thank you for sharing. I’m encouraged by your resolution to transmute your painful childhood and unimaginable experiences into knowledge and kindness for the rest of us.

    1. This made my night. It helps ME to hear from other people who also got through this yucky, miserable stuff. Here’s one thing I can’t do that you can. If you can muster it, go give him a kiss. I feel like my dad is finally on my team. It’s weird. It’s woohoo I know, but it’s important. It’s why I’ll go listen to the trial. For them. Even for her. Of course, it’s ultimately for me. All you and I really have is our humanity. It seems to sometimes be in short supply these days. Let me know if you do.

  2. What was your dad thinking, not letting you know the real purpose of the party? My heart goes out to you.

    1. I think he knew I would have flipped out! But he also liked to control all the variables. This was so him. Alas, I was hoping when I was an adult I could talk to him about these things…

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