I don’t remember the exact sequence of how things fell apart. I remember brushing up against my best friend in the servant’s stairwell that led from the kitchen to the second story of my parents’ home the night of the party. I was headed upstairs and she was on her way down. I’ll never forget that “I have no idea why I just fucked this guy”-look on her face. Or the morning after, all the cigarette butts stuffed into potted plants in the sunroom overlooking the lake, or resting on the kitchen sink, bleeding brown stain onto the butcher block countertop. I remember the burn hole scarring the sable patina on the seat of an antique bistro chair.
Before that, I remember notes to the cleaning lady left on the kitchen table on cleaning day: “My daughter is sleeping in the second-floor bedroom on the right. Please do not disturb her.”
Please do not disturb her.
Or the sight of the woman who wrote that note and who–for a while, called me “daughter– picking up a penciled sketch I had drawn and signed “Lilly Ruh.” She rescued the drawing from my closet floor, handling it with the same delicacy as the Matisse that hung on the wall above her bed. A pocketful of potential: call it “Still Life with Lilly.”
That much I remember. And I remember Roger.
Roger the cat–the anti-Garfield, not a cynical bone in his blithe body. He loathed nothing and no one, loved only luxury and leisure. He was living his best life. He knew how to appreciate finer things: belly rubs, drowsy strolls down the planks of a redwood dock jutting into Lake Monona from the brick-pavered patio of his pet parents’ home in the 1100 block of Rutledge Street in Madison, Wisconsin. Roger had it good, and he knew it.
Roger was a rescue cat, and for a brief period, he was mine. We lived together on that lake with people who called themselves my parents–Richard and Pamela Wegner. There in a mini-mansion unassuming façade concealing the impeccable taste that was Pam’s trademark and the unlimited budget that was Richard’s. Red brick pavers and redwood timber steps sloped from the house on the hill to the lakeside patio and dock below.
I’d never seen anything like it, and even after I’d moved in, it didn’t feel quite real. The sprawling spiral staircase alone—one of two, it turned out, the other having been built just for servants, as my new parents had to explain. My modest-sized bedroom was carpeted in lush maroon with matching blackout velour curtains and a queen-sized bed. On the third floor was my private suite with a picture perfect Better Homes and Gardens gloss–a mini-studio, complete with private bath and hand-carved teak wood desk.
Today, fifty years later, I still remember the self-evident privilege of the millionaire class. The scent of Rive Gauche on articles of clothing left at the dry cleaners. Casual drop-offs at Badger Tailor to sew up hems, take in shoulders. The privilege of the perfect fit. Of perfect comfort. These are the things that can shatter my sleep.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Everyone does. Just like everyone wants to have parents. And, for better or worse, most people do. For those who have them, terms like “mother” and “daughter” can be blown around carelessly as leaves on an autumn lawn. But for those of us who don’t, such words are weightier, and absences linger longer.
Before I was placed with the Wegners, the Department of Children and Family Services was skeptical. Was it right to pair a child from the welfare class with two-percenters like Pam and Dick Wegner? What if they were just too wealthy to understand the situation? On the day of the site visit, though, the social worker noticed a bowl of cat food—Roger’s—sitting on the kitchen counter. And that’s how Roger came to be my golden ticket. Anyone who lets their cat eat on the kitchen countertop must be down-to-earth , the social worker reasoned. And this is how Roger became my golden ticket.
But this was old wealth, the kind of wealth where the usual rules don’t apply–a trouble-free insouciance that takes some getting used to for anyone not born into it. It was going to take some time and training for me to find my way around this place. I was at once terrified and transfixed. Richard hailed from a long line of Harvard grads: his brother Art was a Navy man turned aerospace exec, and there was an aunt named Newt who smoked like a chimney and cruised around in a first-generation orange Karmann Ghia. Most of their friends lived in the elite Maple Bluff area of Madison and were members of the exclusive Madison Club, where we dined frequently. Richard Wegner held a high-level post in the state governor’s office. I never quite figured out what Pam did. I only know that my parents left for work in the morning and, during the summer months, I was left to my own devices to figure out what to do in my new house on the hill.
By a relatively young age, Richard and Pamela Wegner had amassed more than enough wealth to last a lifetime. And, just as they had with Roger, they went in search of some deserving soul to share it with. Much in the same way they took Roger in, let him eat on the counters and rule the roost, they wanted to do this for me. They wanted to make it work. But they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Neither did I.
The Make or Break Moments that Broke Me
Those middle school years were an inflection point for me. I had friends—lots of them. Was “popular.” “Pretty.” I was at the top of my class. Most of my friends didn’t have a clue about my history as a foster kid who’d been jostling from one place and one set of parents to the next all her life. They didn’t know that even my name “Lilly Ruh” was new to me—the result of a prior aborted adoption. They had no way of knowing that I’d only met my parents a little over a year before the first day of class in the seventh grade. They assumed I was just like them.
The more I experienced it, the more the Wegners’ subdued life felt like being let off a short leash. I was like Dorothy, stepping out of the house that’s fallen on the wicked witch into full, living color. There was a new, unexpected kind of freedom in that house.
And outside of it. Because I was invited to parties—many of them wild, unsupervised gatherings that took place when parents were out of town. The booze flowed freely, as did the sex and smoke. It was early 1970s Madison–a progressive hotbed, home to Ben Masel’s “Weedstock,” to smoke-outs in Brittingham Park and to an American Cannabis Society that told us: “Thank you for pot smoking!”
Pam and Richard bought me the best of everything. I had the best bike. The best wardrobe. The best house, by far. I remember traveling to Washington DC to attend for the annual meeting of the National Governors’ Association. Dick took me to Capitol Hill, Pam and I visited the Hirschhorn Museum. Together we went to Washington National Cathedral. While Richard attended meetings, Pam took me shopping for clothes to begin the school year. Saks. Bloomingdales. Nieman Marcus. I never wore the same outfit twice in my freshman year at Madison West.
The sketch that Pam picked up off my closet floor was one I had completed in 7th grade. It was a 48” X 48” close-up of a woman’s face, hatched, burnished, blended and cross-hatched in graphite. It was something of a self-portrait. My art teacher said it showed promise, and included it in his student exhibition. Pam decided to take it with her on an upcoming trip to Door County, to show some of her gallerist friends, I suspect. Door County was a sort of Berkshires of the Midwest, a haven for the white, wealthy and gifted, known to insiders as an elite literary and artistic destination.
That weekend was the make or break moment that broke me.
What could’ve become of that portrait versus what actually did is another thing that haunts me. Because a few years later, my birth mother, in one of her out-of-control drunken episodes, tore the picture off the wall in my bedroom at her place and shredded it. Then she dumped all my belongings on the front porch and called the police, telling them to get me the hell out of there. What set her off, I believe, was that I had signed the picture “Lilly Ruh.” If that is right, the name cost me a two-week stint in the county jail as a juvenile, and every attempt I have since made to engage with the visual arts has been overshadowed by this one memory. I cannot bring my hands to draw anything—not on the right side of my brain, and not on the left.
I was just doing what the a lot of my friends did when their parents left them home for a weekend: I invited everyone over to party. It’s what teenagers did. At the time. Nowadays? Billie Eilish talks about being home alone at eleven years old, distracting herself and “destroying her brain” with internet porn.
But the party got out of control. When it was over, the house was trashed. Every bed had been fucked in. Cigarette butts, beer cans, brandy bottles littered every level of the house. It was more than a mess—there were damages.
The Crash Landing
The difference between me and my friends who hosted wild parties came down to one thing: they didn’t end up on the street. After the last cigarette butt was snuffed out and the sheets on the last fucked-in bed had been changed, their worlds remained intact. Mine was shattered.
Maybe if things had stopped at the party, my fairytale could have been salvaged. But I was scared to death of the consequences, and ashamed, so I did the only thing I knew: I ran away. As an adult looking back, I wonder about Pam and Dick: I mean, what were they thinking? What did they expect to happen, leaving me alone in that house for the weekend? Was it a set-up? Sometimes I ask myself. Did they want me to do something so over-the-top that they’d be justified in getting rid of me? Were they having “buyer’s remorse”? Is that why they left me behind?
Whatever the case, I went in short order from my mini-mansion on the hill to a maximum security juvenile detention facility in Milwaukee called “Cedarcrest Home for Girls.” My attic retreat with its en suite and pristine lake view turned into a 10 X 10 space that I shared with another girl. It was a glorified bathroom stall, really, with vinyl foldout beds and partition walls that reached neither floor nor ceiling, all the better to surveil the inmates. With the other girls, I lined up Gilead-style 10 times a day, to smoke the KOOL 100’s we were rationed; not smoking was hardly an option. We were locked into the place, our every move regimented.
Worse than this, though, was the “psychiatric care” provided by one John P. Kaye, a pedophile who groomed us girls through our teenage years, stayed in contact even after we were discharged and, as soon as we turned eighteen, conned us into “consensual” sexual relationships. Kaye had a shoe fetish: he got off on us licking his shoes and jacked off to pictures of our feet clad in the expensive footwear he bought us. I was especially vulnerable to these manipulations, having developed a taste for fineries at the Wegners’. Kaye bought me the sorts of things I had grown accustomed to having, and I was attractive to him because he could dress me up and take me out: I knew how to hold a fork.
Cedarcrest was woefully mismanaged, with whiffs of corruption on every level. Until one day, when the staff just did not show up for work and the whole operation closed without notice. We girls were left alone in a locked building, as the State of Wisconsin raced to find us placements. In most cases, mine included, we were returned—unaccompanied, on a Greyhound bus—to the neglectful, abusive, dysfunctional home environments from which we’d come.
This was how I ended up back at my birth mother’s home in Sheboygan, now as a teenager. Post- pubescent and pretty, I was subject to the sexual advances of the promiscuous circles surrounding her. This included the older brother who came into my room one night and raped me, and the steady stream of older men my mother schlepped home from work or the bars. These men’s conduct ranged from leering looks to casual groping and outright sexual assault and/or statutory rape.
Later, social services placed me in the care of my eldest brother (not the rapist) and his then girlfriend. There, I was passed as a sex toy from one of my brother’s friends to the next, men who ranged in age from 20 to 50. How I came out of this with my wits even half-intact, I couldn’t tell you. But the steady diet of gratuitous sex, boozing, coke, acid, weed and cigarettes surely fed my self-hatred and deepened the well-worn grooves in my cycle of self-destruction.
All of which seems like a pretty hefty price to pay for throwing an out-of-control party and running away out of fear. Oh, and for stealing a few of Pam Wegner’s scarves. I am sure these events left her and Dick feeling violated, and in ways they had never expected. They had poured their passion into that home on the lake, preparing it for the daughter they welcomed with open arms. Years later, as I was painting walls and decorating the home my husband I purchased on Chicago’s southside, I thought about Pam. It must have been awful, a devastating blow for them both to recover from.
Problem is, I never did. The fallout from that one weekend changed the course of my life.
By the time I aged out of the system and worked my way through my senior year of high school as a waitress, I’d lived at sixteen different addresses, had called three sets of parents “mom and dad,” had skidded through a mosh-pit of foster- and group homes, multiple residential treatment centers, and a stint at the county jail. I’d gone from being Lilly Friedberg to Lilly Ruh to Lilly Friedberg and back before reaching the age of consent, and somehow I was suddenly supposed know how to “adult”?
“Adulting 101” was not on offer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where I completed my undergraduate degree. And when I earned a scholarship to Germany in 1984, I packed my bags and ran away again, this time from the entire United States.
I can’t recall what brought me back into contact with Pam and Richard Wegner. In 1986, I met them for coffee at a café in Madison, not far from the house on Rutledge. It was the only time I returned to the US to visit from Germany in the decade I lived there. They had since adopted another girl—Sudha, an orphan from India. I sensed that they felt badly about the way things turned out, even though I never shared with them the details of the way I was delivered from their home straight into a glitchy matrix of sex, drugs and statutory rape that forever destroyed any sense of sexual “normalcy” for me, and with it, any hope of ever starting a family of my own.
Later, after I relocated to the US in 1993, our visits became more frequent. Pam and I regularly exchanged letters and the occasional phone call. There were dinner dates, and gifts exchanged at Christmas
“Dick and Sudha send their love, as do I. Peace, Pamela.”
“Love, Pam, Dick, Sudha, [and the pets].”
“Love, Pam, Dick, Sudha and the puppies.”
“Love, Pam and Richard.”
These letters are the last vestige of my fairytale, full of things a real mother would say. I keep them as mementos: “Once upon a time,” they tell me “there was a family that loved you.” But what if the truth was that I was turning out to be more trouble than I was worth? That I wasn’t worth their time, or their effort. That I was disposable.
Whatever the case, it seems that’s a lotta love to throw down the insinkerater.
In 2003, the University of Wisconsin invited me to perform with my drum group and to speak on the subject of genocide against American Indians. My lecture was scheduled for the big auditorium in Bascom Hall: the school’s most hallowed hall. Posters for it went up all around campus, on buildings, lampposts and activity boards.
For someone with my history, this was a big fucking deal. And for Pam’s parents, who’d always dreamed their children would grow up to attend and graduate from the feted UW-Madison, it would have been a really big fucking deal, a thing to write home about.
I invited Pam and Dick to the event, and they came, sat, and listened. Then, after the talk, they handed me something deeply weird: a check for $1,000. I stood there not knowing how to react—should I return the thing, saying, “Please, but no, you are too kind”? I also wondered why they were giving it to me in the first place. Was it a payoff? Or some sort of parting gift? As in, “You done great, kid: here’s a thousand bucks, now please go away.”
To this day, I am not sure. I used the money to buy myself a winter coat from Saks: Dana Buchman, brown paisley wool with a fur collar. I wore that coat for over a decade, drawing compliments nearly every time I did. I recently sold it for $30 to a woman in Texas, throwing in a pair of matching gloves with a kind note. When I read the comment, so full of delight, that the woman left on my Poshmark page, I smiled thinking of all the mileage I had gotten out of Pam Wegner’s lessons in dressing for success.
“We are in awe of your intellect,” she wrote a in that year’s Christmas card.
At one point, as if to explain “what had happened” from their perspective, Pam told me: “We wanted someone who could appreciate the things we had to offer.” Thinking back on this statement can still gut me, partly because it is so brutally true. Inviting all those kids to trash the Wegners’ house turned out to be the biggest fuckup of my life. Fifteen-year-old Lilly Ruh simply had no idea how valuable the things her new parents were offering could be. And by that, I don’t just mean money: I’m speaking of support. Of networks. Stability. Connections. Consistency. Being in it for the long haul, unconditionally. Plus, all the Christmas cards, the Thanksgiving dinners, the birthdays and anniversaries. The sorts of forever things families share. A safety net to fall into when the tightrope snaps.
In that same conversation, Pam also said, “We had no idea how bad it was.” Meaning, I guess, that no one had told them how much I had been through, or prepared them for the potential pitfalls. Although to my mind, the statement sounds too much like “We had no idea how bad you were.”
Richard and Pamela Wegner retired and moved to Door County sometime around 2006. But they quickly grew bored with retirement and embarked on a new project: they purchased a retail property and in 2008, opened Liberty Square—a boutique shopping and restaurant complex at the center of Egg Harbor in Door County. My husband and I soon began receiving gift boxes at Christmas. Cheeses and crackers and jams.
The last box showed up in December 2011. It was chock full of merchandise from Liberty Square, more than the usual edibles. The accompanying card showed Pam playing in the snow with her grandson, Wesley Wegner. We were delighted and sent an enthusiastic thank you note, but it came back, marked undeliverable.
I never heard from Pam and Dick again after that, and I have no idea why. For the longest time, I was sure they were pissed because they hadn’t gotten a “thank you,” but I don’t believe that is the case. When I double-checked the address on my note, it was correct. I even blamed myself for not calling them about it, though I suspect their number had already changed. Finally, I reached the conclusion that the box was simply goodbye. They had already moved and left no forwarding address. I had been ghosted.
Parents. The irony is that I need the things Pam and Dick Wegner had to offer now more than ever. Support—emotional, physical and financial. It’s been five years since the tightrope snapped. Five years since my oncologist told me I had six months to a year to live. Five years since some compassionate and competent stranger cracked open my skull to remove a malignant tumor. The “stragglers” were later removed by gammaknife radiosurgery, while the primary cancer, in my left lung, was treated with chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy.
Five years, in and out of the hospital, in and out of treatment.
And yet. I am still alive.
That I have lived to tell about any of this is a miracle, but the truth is that my husband and I cannot afford me. Cancer has been kind, but it hasn’t been cheap. And so now I live with death breathing down my door and creditors at my heels. With the stress of a terminal cancer diagnosis, with the loss of my income combined with the expenses of cancer treatment—all of it magnified to the nth degree by the constant distress of the poverty and deprivation that surrounds us here in the ghetto environment of the southside of Chicago. With all of this on my plate, having any sort of parents would be wonderful.
It is not safe to walk in my neighborhood. I live behind a wrought iron fence, with a garden that was once a refuge but now feels like a prison yard. And even if the neighborhood were safe, it screams deprivation and neglect. Trash lines the streets, alongside the board-ups, vacant lots, and dilapidated properties, never mind all the broken people. I have seen enough of these things to last a lifetime, and as much as I don’t want to live here, I want even less to DIE here. Barring some miracle, though, that is going to be the case. This time, it isn’t a mother I need: it’s a fairy godmother!
Parental love is supposed to be unconditional, but Pam and Dick Wegner loved me only as long as I showed appreciation for what they offered. In this way, I wasn’t as canny as Roger, who must’ve known the good deal he’d walked into. People in the cat rescue community often talk about how the animals they save have an awesome sense of “gratitude.” I have three rescue cats of my own now, and a husband who has loved me unconditionally—in sickness and in health, through thick and thin—for the past twenty-five years. For all this, I am eternally grateful. If there is one thing I have since come to appreciate, it’s the miraculous power of unconditional love.
But sometimes, when it is 3AM and I am awake, thinking of Roger, living out his years in that house on the lake, I resent that some stranger once dared to tell the cleaning lady that I was her “daughter.” In those moments, all the nestling and nudging of my loving familiars recedes, and I think again about how that one woman sent me away. How she dared to claim me as her own, then dumped me when the ease of her own life got in the way. People who abandon pets are universally reviled. Humans, not so much.
My daughter is sleeping.
Please do not disturb her.
And on nights like these, I am equally shattered for my husband, whose job has been made so much harder by the way that these people, who live rent-free in my head, still keep me from appreciating the unconditional love that surrounds me.