Nora Lago

Getting to Synanon

I was born to Carmen and Frank Lago on June 24, 1958, at Bellevue Hospital, NYC. I was told I was born there (best known as a nut house) because, at that time, my mother was a raging dope fiend pregnant with a child. Later, she was handcuffed to the bed and my father was banned from Bellevue due to the fact he was sneaking drugs into her. Needless to say, I was born addicted to heroin.

In 1959, my father’s parents gave my father a one-way ticket to Santa Monica because they heard of a place called Synanon that might cure him. He then sent for my mother a year later. In the meantime, my mother’s parents were taking care of raising me. My earliest memory of my dear grandmother (I don’t think I could even walk yet) was sitting on the floor at my grandparents’ apartment in Spanish Harlem. My mother was dressed to the nines getting ready to go out on the town, and my grandmother was arguing with her and crying at the same time. I remember crawling to her and trying to dry her tears.

After my mom left NYC to join my father, my grandparents did their very best to care for me. It became too overwhelming, and my grandmother, who was a very religious Catholic, put me in a Catholic nunnery on Long Island (I think I was there for about a year).

Baby Nora with Mom

Lou and my dad stayed friends until the ends of their lives.

Little did I know, but behind the scenes, Chuck and Betty Dederich met with Lou Yablonsky and asked him to help reunite me with my parents. I don’t know the legalities of it all or if it even mattered then. Lou came through and arranged for his FBI brother to fly to Long Island and pick me up to later join my parents.

Mind you, I had not seen either of my parents for a few years. I did not recognize them. I was told that when I got off the plane I immediately held Jimmy the Greek’s hand (my mom told me he looked a lot like my grandfather), and I would not go near my parents. It broke their hearts. But my mom told me years later that in the car on the way to the Armory, someone said the name “Cucha” (my mother’s family nickname) to me and my little head perked up as I was smiling, and I looked everywhere for her. She was so delighted.

In time, of course, I grew to love them both dearly. They became my best friends and the best loves of my life.

The Santa Monica Evening Outlook reporters were there that day to do a story on a Puerto Rican child being reunited with her dope fiend parents in Synanon. Apparently, it was a big deal. While I was in L.A. for Mama Lena’s 90th birthday bash, Billy Jay drove me to the Santa Monica Public Library. I was on a mission to check their archives for the article but was not successful. I was told those archives might be at UCLA. I’m still searching, but no luck so far.

My mom, during my time at the Catholic home, married a black man in Synanon with the last name Armstrong (can’t remember his first name). He was a lovely man and was very kind. My mom said I loved him, and he was very attentive to me.  Later, my mother confessed to me that she used him: She didn’t love him and only married him to make my father jealous. Well, It worked, their marriage only lasted about 6 months. She divorced Mr. Armstrong and the beautiful, wonderful Dede Harvey officiated my parents’ wedding. 

From Facebook Interchange: Oh Nora girl… His name was Moses Armstrong.  And I remember putting tights on your three years old legs one night so you wouldn’t scratch at the mosquito bites. They loved your sweet skin. As you know, I wasn’t living with you guys, but I guess I was there helping with bedtime or something. I only 12 or so. Jady

Yes… Moses Armstrong. Thank you for remembering. And to this day I can’t forget those damn tights you and my mother put me in. The mosquitoes and sand fleas feasted on me constantly. You guys tried everything so that I wouldn’t scratch. Never worked to tell you the truth. To this day I still struggle with those vampires. I remember you put some sort of witch hazel to help soothe the itching and that helped me for a while.

Part #2 San Diego and the “F” word

I think shortly after I arrived at the Armory, my mother, father, and I moved to San Diego. This was total bliss for me growing up there. We lived in a beautiful home, I eventually went to public school. There was an attached garage and my dad made this his art studio. When I watched him do his magic, it had to be in total silence, or else he would yell at me. I was so inquisitive,  I got yelled at a lot. Didn’t care…I always got my answer. So, I remember a conversation with my mom while she was driving me to school…I was 6 or 7 .

Me: Mom is God a man or a woman?
Mom: God is whomever you want him/her to be.
Me: God is a woman!
Mom: grinning from ear to ear.
Me: Mom why does the sun come up every day?
Mom: well Nora, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west as the world rotates.
Me: what if it doesn't rotate?!
Mom: total silence...
Me: Mom, who put salt in the sea?
Mom: Nora will you go to fucking school already!!??? Sheesh

I was persistent..I begged them for a dog, I really worked at it! Finally at dinner one night, my dad looked at my mom and said ‘would you get her a fucking dog already?!’ Bam! It worked. I loved my little dog Pica.

My parents bought me my first Sting Ray bike. It was so baddass and I became popular in my hood.

But, then my badass ways backfired! I think I was 6 or 7 and invited some of my little pals to our house (my parents were at work helping to save lives) and I lured my friends to my parent’s bedroom to jump on their king-size bed. I had learned some great swear words and as I was jumping by myself…my back to the doorway, I was saying to them..in a sing-song way “fuck you little fuckers, fuck fuck fuck”.

Suddenly,  I saw terror in my little fucker friend’s faces.

My mom came home early..and when I turned around and saw her face, standing in the doorway I fell on the bed. My mother grabbed me by my long hair like a Cave Woman, dragged me to the bathroom, and scrubbed soap across my teeth. I literally blew bubbles out of my mouth for 2 days thereafter. And my little fucker friends dispersed so fast, like cockroaches when you turn on the lights. Do as I say but not as I say it? Sheesh!

The part that is hard to talk about

My mother left Synanon and my father for a Puerto Rican newcomer when I was 11 years old. I was devastated. It was the only time in my life that I saw my father cry so hard as we were going through her belongings. I cried for him. There is way more to this story, but I must stop now…I’m a little emotional. To be continued…..

After Synanon

In 1990, I moved from Laguna Beach, California, to New Jersey to get to know my mother. My father thought it was a fantastic idea and, to my pleasant surprise, encouraged me. He said to try it out, and if I didn’t like the East Coast, to come back after one year. Well, I fell in love all over again with my mother and stayed until she passed away in 2006.

I couldn’t bear New York and New Jersey after she passed away. In fact, I kind of flipped out. Everything reminded me of her, and it put a deeper hole in my heart

I packed up everything, gave up a “cush” making $75,000 a year and traveling the world on business. I didn’t care. I needed my sanity and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

I had to change careers, which was very scary, but I persevered.

Fort Lauderdale is the yachting capital of the world, and I landed a job in this field. I work now for National Marine Suppliers. It is a worldwide premier yacht and logistical support group providing any and every need a yacht might have. Anything. The rich can be very demanding, and I do love the hustle.

In my spare time, I enjoy kayaking, gardening, the outdoors, water sports, and my Lago family, who all live north of me. COVID-19 has put a damper on things … but this too shall pass.

As time goes on I hope to write more about my life and my family. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

26 replies »

  1. It’s difficult to express the profound impact that you and the orders had on my life. You were essentially my parentials or way older siblings, even though this might not be the role you chose or considered, this was my reality. I appreciate your story. It makes me realize that there was a whole unknown dimension of life for those around me and especially those I looked up to and emulated. Reading your story and seeing the pictures brings a whole flood of memories about you and your family. One enduring memory was of your brother spending time with me and Nicole (?) and teaching us the song, “Yellow Bird.” I still break out this one to the youngers around me. Thanks for opening the flood gates of fond memories. Stoked that life is fulfilling.

  2. Carmen, one of the women who welcomed me when I first came around Synanon. Became a friend in San Diego. Really enjoyed your story, and the photos, and you. More please!

  3. Nora…that was lovely. You’re a fine writer too. Please, when you feel like it, tell us more about your young teen years.

  4. Loved the history and historical photos. There was a lot of research you did and then compiling it into a heartfelt story. Very well done. And so refreshing to hear a positive perspective on our childhood lives.

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful and enlightening story. I would like to do one, but it wouldn’t be nearly as colorful!

  5. It was wonderful reading a bit of your story. So sorry your heart got broken, but such, it seems, is life. I think it happens to everyone and the more it happens, the more compassionate it can make us. Hoping that heart is healed/healing as time goes on…

  6. Loved your story hopefully you will write more. We still have one of your Dad’s paintings hanging in our living room which I enjoy everyday.

  7. Dearest Nora, I love the story, you have a great way with words and are so open about your life.. You are one of “my not for real” daughters and I love you so much. I stayed friends with your father and Lou until they died. There is a huge Lago painting hanging in my living room; God knows what I will do with it if ever I should have to down size or when I die. But it brings Frank into my life every day and that plus all your Facebook posts brings you into my life. XXOO Miri

  8. Thank you Nora was being so personal and sharing parts of your life. It was very reflective for you and the reader!!! Sending you appreciation. Phyllis Shacter June 24, 2021

  9. Although our paths did not cross much back at the Homestead, I was always enamored of your bright energy. Your storytelling skills and ability to connect allow me to know you as an adult and feel the warm glow of family and pride in YOU. You are living proof that the Beat Goes On! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻❤️

    • Yes, the beat goes on. I used to think the corporation destroyed the community. I was wrong, thank goodness. The community lives — in ways as a better community now than it was when dominated by the corporation. Whatever the case, the community lives and the corporation is gone.

  10. Thank you for writing this about your life Nora!
    You went though a lot more than most people from the day your birth.
    But your enthusiasm and zest for life has always been with you.
    It is one of the qualities I most admire in you.
    I am so grateful for the friendship that we’ve developed over the last few years.
    You light up my life with your amazing sense of humor ~ even when the going gets rough ~ it remains intact.
    Bravo, my friend. Your writing is beautiful and I look forward to reading more.
    I love you, my sister and dear friend!

  11. Thank you Nora for a wonderful introduction to Nora’s life as she lives it. It has been an exciting one and I have been happy to consider you a friend in Florida.

  12. Oh dear Nora…. I so enjoyed your memories that you shared…. Most of them I didn’t know about particularly your early days with your parents in Synanon…..and more….happy to be reconnected with you… Michele

  13. I am enamored with your story and so happy to know more about you my sweet friend. Thank you for sharing and I hope you’re able to unpack more of the deeper emotional things. For me, the unpacking gave me new places to store things that made them more accessible and was deeply cathartic. Always with love, me.

    • I remember your parents very well and you as a young girl. Before Synanon, I was a New York Mambonick and remember dancing with Carmen at the Santa Monica house. I was also very fond of your father.

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