1981 – Mom and I. Evonne Grays was one of seven children, born in Detroit. When my grandmother finally packed herself and her seven kids up and fled from her husband to San Diego, my mother was insecure and reckless and had trouble adjusting to a new life in California. Her unique beauty—finely chiseled features, naturally auburn hair, a sweet face with freckles and dimples—made her vulnerable. Two husbands and nine children later, she would partially break free of the mental prison-tower of her fears, but they seemed to always haunt her.
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I’d learn later in life I was the only grandchild that received a dress, gift and birthday cake every year from her. Our bond was special. She and Jim would pick me up on the weekends and I would be so excited because I knew we would make our trip to thriftys for ice cream, my favorite at the time was mint chocolate chip, pretzels, and olives, and gin of course! My grandmother loved her martinis. Even though her studio smelled like smoke along with everything she cook, I cherished our time together. I know that some of the strength I have now is a direct result of my time with her.
1982 – An embrace with mom and my older brother. In a world that could be so violent and bleak, there were so many pockets of sunshine and laughter. There were bedtime stories and sibling secrets and bike rides. There were barbeques at the beach and family holidays. There were books and movies and jazz. There were my parents dancing in the living room to the groove of Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”…
1984 – Sitting on the steps leading up to the apartment with my brothers and a neighborhood kid. We were the Grays, which seems so very fitting when describing my childhood. We lived in the liminal space of gray, a twilight zone where nothing seemed to change and yet where, strangely and simply, everything was possible.
1985 – Five years old with a broken arm after pretending to be Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was all I could ever aspire to be. She was a female badass: strong, courageous, big-hearted, and authentic. She could fend for herself and didn’t need a man to take care of her, having spent her adolescence training her body and mind on an island of warrior women.
1987 – My older brother played football, so I became a cheerleader. I could count on him to be there for me even when he didn’t want to; he’d always make sure I was safe. Whenever it was in his power, he protected me and dragged me along with him so I wouldn’t be by myself. To a huge extent, he showed me what I needed to do to survive in my family and helped me break free from my cocoon.
My favorite uncle and a guardian angel. He took us everywhere my father couldn’t or wouldn’t. Every couple of years, we would do family reunions. Considering the scope of my family, those could get huge. He’d hire a huge van (or two, when needed) to load us all up; he’d coordinate the itinerary, the food we needed, and the when and where of the stops along the way; he’d pay for it all, knowing that the rest of us couldn’t really afford to chip in. I didn’t realize the extent of his generosity and sacrifice until decades later.
A familial get-together including my visibly pregnant mother.
1994 – My most suicidal year. One August afternoon when I was fourteen years old, I grabbed a bottle of aspirin and locked myself in the bathroom. I did not expect to come out.
. 1996 – Attending my brother’s high school graduation. My dad made an appearance for a little while and was around for my brother’s high school graduation. Leaving was in his DNA. Each time he left it was as if he took a piece of my mother with him, until there were only slivers left of the person she was before meeting him.
1995 – Mission beach, where I spent the day before the car crash that seemed to trigger my epilepsy. For many years, I lived in a constant state of panic, never knowing when and where I’d black out and start convulsing. My high school peers whispered behind my back and it was difficult to make and keep friends. Many of them were afraid of me. Worse, I was afraid of myself.
1999 – Point Loma Nazarene University. Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU for short) was (and is) a gorgeously situated campus with thoughtfully organized classes, enchanting seaside views, and a decent student body. My first year taught me that the college experience is something that can often extend far beyond the campus.
2003 – Graduation. I was the first and only person in my immediate family to attend college; with a purely pragmatic mindset, I decided on and earned my degree in Management and Organizational Communications.
2000 – With my sisters. During and after college, I made my own agenda and tasted freedom. I dropped by my mom’s occasionally, leaving some savings. I took my younger sisters out to lunch and I remember helping with their clothing and hair before their dances and proms, but I wasn’t around as much. In retrospect, it’s evident to me that I ran, driven by an instinctive need to get away from a broken family and a shitty apartment in a bad ghetto. I didn’t realize that they missed me as much as I missed my older brother. I’d been their second mom, practically raising them, and suddenly I was gone.
2007 – My precious Diamond. She was gifted to me as “the first diamond I would be getting” from my ex-husband; many days, she was my only reason to smile. She lives with me to this day and I adore her.
2008 – Walking down the aisle towards a huge mistake: my first marriage. On my wedding day, I cried as I shaved my legs in the bathroom of the hotel room. The road to our marriage was flanked by red flags. I ignored some and misunderstood others. Some flags cropped up before I walked down the aisle in a white satin dress. One waved at me during the wedding ceremony, reflected in the redness of the groom’s stoned eyes. Even more popped up after.
2009 – The lonely rocking chair. My ex-husband’s parents had gifted us with a vintage white rocking chair that used to rock their son to sleep. One day I pushed that chair, motionless and hauntingly empty, into a dark corner of our home. I piled blankets and boxes on it, turning it into a makeshift shelf. I ignored it until I pretended I’d forgotten about it.
2010 – This prayer, among so many others, helped me believe in the light despite the darkness. After deciding to split with my first husband, I let the rage and remorse take its course—rage at his infidelity, remorse for the future he’d destroyed and for my blindness. Perhaps deep down, I’d known—I’d sensed all of this wrongness—but I just didn’t want to face it.
Claude, the love of my life. Claude was all he said he was—and more. He loved experimenting in the kitchen, setting up Pandora and breaking out the pots and pans and letting inspiration overtake him. He enjoyed his active lifestyle and his low-key evenings; he was as happy reading a book as he was watching a movie. He knew the little things in life—a nice dinner, a fine glass of wine, a stimulating conversation, a tender kiss—are actually the big things, the important things. He was tough and smart, a software engineer who was also passionate about coaching others to reach their full potential.
Claude fell in love with me, unafraid to take another chance at life. I fell right along with him. Realizing our similarities in our harrowing pasts yet also in our current perspectives on life, we also realized that we were at a point in our lives where not only did we know what we truly wanted—we knew better than to take it for granted. Life had molded him, giving him enough pain and uncertainty to ensure that he built thick armor. His heart had guided him, giving him the tenacity and trust to emerge from his cocoon better rather than bitter, a man who was brilliantly and beautifully made.
2013 – My fourth and most heart-wrenching loss of a child. I’ve been haunted by three devastating miscarriages and one tragic abortion. The hospital gave me a footprint of the daughter I never met; it was the closest I ever came to holding her.
2014: Claude and I exchanging our wedding vows on the beach at St. Lucia. “In it to win it”; no matter what happened, I knew that we could look into each other’s eyes—tearful yet trusting—and keep going. We’d been through Hell. We would try to be each other’s Heaven.
2016 – Claude and I founded Elevate Foundation. Our purpose is to help rebuild communities, uplift individuals, and inspire others to do the same. For us, success means that we’ve changed other people’s lives through our acts of giving. We know we’ve done well when we see someone seizing those opportunities, succeeding, and then paying it forward in turn.