Sandy and Mark White.

Sandy Armstrong was home with a cold. It was October, and the pretty high school junior, 16 years old, was cuddled up on the couch, twirling her long blonde hair and trying to figure out how to tell her parents she wasn’t going to college.

She was a Vikette on her high school drill team in Downey, Calif.; she was student body president twice in junior high; and she was smart. Her parents were going to be really disappointed.

Sandy’s heart rate increased when she heard her mom’s car in the driveway. After a long day working as a beautician, Mom would be making dinner for the seven of them: Dad, an Archie Bunker type; her twin brothers; her younger brother; and her little sister. It was likely a bad time to break the news, she concluded.

Mom put her keys on the kitchen counter and studied her daughter for a moment, “Sandy, are you pregnant?” she asked. Well, that was easy, Sandy thought. “Is it Mark’s?” Mom asked. They’d been dating since February. Of course it’s Mark’s. It’s only been Mark.

Sandy’s mom told her something she didn’t see coming: Mom was a 17-year-old unmarried high schooler when Sandy was conceived—so her parents were a lot more understanding than she’d anticipated.

The Downey school system set up a phone to connect Sandy to her classes, which was pretty advanced for 1970. When school let out that year, Sandy went in and took her finals—and in July, she gave birth to her son, Doug. That fall, she was back in school—a senior, like everyone else. Except she was a mom.

She became Mrs. Mark White at 18. They had a daughter, Jody, when she was 21.

“City and state, please” became ingrained in her brain during her four years as a 411 operator before she began rising through the ranks.

“(GTE) was one of those companies that when you got bored of what you were doing, you could move on to something else,” Sandy says. “So I went on to clerical; sat in as a secretary; then I became a residential representative, then business, and then went on to special services.” That’s when she ended up working the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Two years later, Sandy noticed that one of her brothers wasn’t looking so good.

“He had been stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines,” Sandy says. “When they’d get off the ship, there would be kids standing on the docks selling drugs. He tried heroin, loved it and got addicted.”

But that wasn’t what was making Don sick. “We found out on Thanksgiving he had AIDS.”

Don moved into a hospice her parents found in Long Beach. Many men in similar situations were abandoned by their families—but Don was an Armstrong. Everyone visited, and something very unexpected happened.

“My dad got very friendly with the gay men who were there,” Sandy says. “He would bring meat from work, and my parents would sit down to dinner with them. It just amazed me that my dad, who was always the way he was,” was expressing such empathy.

AIDS took Don by Easter. He was 32.

In 1991, Sandy had a brush with the seedy side of Hollywood: She was a juror for nine months on the infamous Cotton Club trial.

Addiction has woven an insidious thread throughout Sandy’s life. Dad was a drinker who would disappear for days at a time; there was Don and heroin; her husband, Mark, is an alcoholic, as is Doug, who married his high school sweetheart and is currently 26 years sober. Finally, there’s Jody, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Undetected, sufferers often self-medicate; Jody was no exception. At times, she chose homelessness over giving up her “freedom” to use.

When Jody made her a grandma, Sandy took her and her grandson in for eight years. “Jody was in the picture, but we basically raised him,” she says. When his dad got clean, he took his son.

In 1991, Sandy had a brush with the seedy side of Hollywood: She was a juror for nine months on the infamous Cotton Club trial, a sordid tale involving murder and the making of the 1984 Richard Gere movie.

In 2002, Mark had two heart attacks. He knew work stress was killing him, so he retired from Los Angeles County at 50. Sandy had already left GTE and taken a job as a secretary in a psych hospital that Jody, who worked there in transportation, helped her get.

“That was a lot of fun,” Sandy says—and she’s not being facetious.

Jody relapsed and found out while in rehab that she was pregnant with twins. By that time, Sandy and Mark had moved to Indian Wells. After the twins’ birth, Jody chose to live in a woman’s shelter. The twins were eventually taken in by their father’s parents.

Sandy took a job with a corporate-event company. When that company folded, she worked retail at The Living Desert for six years.

Her dad died of brain cancer in 2009. Later, Mom got cancer, and she moved in with Sandy and Mark. Mark’s mom got sick shortly thereafter, too, but she had the means to live comfortably in assisted living. Jody moved in with them in 2019, and Sandy’s mom succumbed to cancer in 2022, six months after Mark’s mom died. Sandy was the caretaker for all.

Jody’s twins are 18 now; one is gay, and one found his community in the theater world. They are also Black. Their dad has shown them the harsh realities of the world, but Sandy worries, so Karens everywhere, beware: Family is everything.

Today, almost everyone is sober; Mark is currently practicing moderation after many years of sobriety. Sandy doesn’t seem to mind, “We’re 70 now,” she says with a shrug.

Struggle is intrinsic to the human condition; it’s how we handle it that sets the badasses apart from the rest. It takes a strong spirit and the strength of one’s convictions to keep a family together for 51 years. That’s either voodoo or badassery, and I’m going with the latter—because Sandy gave up dolls at 16.

Kay Kudukis is a former lead singer in a disco cover band who then became a Gaslight girl, then an actress, and then the author of two produced and wildly unacclaimed plays—as well as one likely unseen...