A side note: this doesn’t have to happen to you or yours

The worst years with my mother were from about 1965 until her death in the spring of 1970, just before I graduated from grade school. I know these memoir entries give the sense that I felt isolated and without resources, which is true. I didn’t know about AA or any of the related organizations for the children of alcoholics. I wish I had.

Today those resources are very much present. Even for kids who are too frightened to go to meetings, there are on-line resources that can be accessed from (for example) a library. If you’re reading this because you see similarities to your own situation, these sites might be of more use to you than my ramblings:

al-anon and al-ateen

why do I need help? he’s the alcoholiic!

al-anon diary

online al-anon outreach

I’m just F.I.N.E.

what an al-anon meeting is like

community forum: living with an alcoholic

the inbetweens

This entry is part 18 of 19 in the series Memoir

For the last two years of my mother’s life, she got into the habit of disappearing. She’d go off and we wouldn’t hear from her for days, sometimes weeks. Then one day she’d come up the stairs and walk in the door, matter of fact. Somewhat sober. For a long time I didn’t know, and I didn’t care to know, where she went or why.

I thought of these periods as the inbetweens. Three or five or ten days of peace. We went to school, we came home, dad came home from the restaurant and fed us, I read or watched television for the next couple hours, and off to bed. For that period of time I should have been at ease, but in fact I could hardly focus on anything beyond the question of when she’d come back. I didn’t allow myself to believe that she wouldn’t, that it could over so easily. Sooner or later, when she couldn’t find anybody to buy her drinks or put her up, she’d be home. Dark rings under her eyes, hollow cheeked. So thin, I could pick her up. Or, I told myself many times, knock her down.

I never touched her. I felt the need sometimes like an itch deep in the bone, but I couldn’t touch her. I turned away, walked away, sometimes I ran.

In addition to the inbetweens, there were two or maybe three hospitalizations. I can’t remember if my father had her committed as a direct result of a suicide attempt — of which there were three or four — or if something else that tripped the wire that landed her in a psychiatric ward.

It’s hard to imagine, but alcoholism wasn’t even recognized as a disease until the mid-sixties. The American Medical Association adopted the concept in 1967, just three years before my mother’s death. There were few if any treatment facilities for alcoholism, because there were few or no treatments. Big cities might have a few halfway houses, but that’s as close as it came.

People like my mother were sent to jail, if they had caused enough damage, or to psychiatric hospitals because they had no idea what else to do with them. Apparently they hoped that alcoholism would respond to basket weaving and meditation.

The facility I remember best was a good hour’s bus ride away. It wasn’t uncommon to be sent on errands half way across the city on a bus. The instructions went like this: Get on the Irving Park, number 32, be sure to get a transfer. You don’t get a transfer, you won’t have enough money to get home. You hear me? So you get off Irving Park and Western, and then you get on the 133, goes all the way down to Stony Island. Get off at Oakley. You know your way from there, right?

So for four or five Sundays in a row, while our father was at work, we got on a bus and got off an hour later in an unfamiliar neighborhood, walked six blocks to a psychiatric hospital and signed ourselves in for a visit. I have absolutely no memory of talking to my mother during these visits. I remember the chair that I sat in, the nubby texture of the upholstery, the maroon and evergreen color scheme, the nurses’ station. I remember some of the patients. A boy of maybe eighteen who would pound his head against window glass until a nurse stopped him, an old lady who would burst into tears at regular intervals and then just go quiet for five minutes before she started again.

I enclosed myself in a bubble during those visits, and I refused to be drawn out. My sister went around dutifully and saw the art therapy room, the music room, my mother’s little room, but I stayed where I was.

Then they called us in for a family therapy session. A windowless conference room, doctors, social workers. The adults sat across from each other. My father was brusque, exasperated, desperate. My mother, perfectly sober, sat straight in her chair. Her answers to their questions were calm, agreeable in tone. Yes, she said, she could remain sober this time. She was sincere; she had got over the worst of it, and she would never drink again.

Eventually the doctor seemed to remember us at the far end of the table. He looked right at me and asked me how I felt about my mother’s drinking. And I laughed.

Sitting there listening to my mother lie — because I knew she was lying, and that she’d be drinking within an hour of getting out — I had to wonder that they were so unable to see what I could see. These were supposed to be intelligent people but they couldn’t hear what she was really saying. Let me out of here. Let me out of here right now. Let me go. I’ll say whatever you want to hear, just let me go.

So the doctor’s question caught me off guard and in that awkward moment, I laughed. I saw my mother jerk as if I had slapped her, but the doctor was already turning to her. He said, your kids seem to be doing okay.

Beside me my little sister sat utterly still, her eyes fixed on our mother.

Your children kids daughters little girls seem to be doing okay.

That afternoon she was released, and within a few days she was gone again. That time it was almost two weeks. I came home from school and she was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking, with a glass of orange juice and vodka in her hand.

After a long moment of silence she got up, straightened her clothes as if she were about to make a presentation, and announced that I had to come with her to run an errand.

I was twelve years old, a fifth grader in Sister Peter Joseph’s class. A diligent student, I volunteered for anything that would keep me at school for as long as possible. I adored the sisters for their calm certainty, their absolute confidence in the goodness that came of routine and organization, their kindness. From the sisters I learned about working toward a goal, about moderation and restraint, about modesty and obedience. From my father I learned to never be late, to never turn a bum away without something to eat, to ask questions, to be respectful. But no one had taught me how to say no to my mother. I didn’t know how to make the word come out of my mouth.

We took the bus to a seedy neighborhood, and then climbed a flight of stairs to an apartment over a corner tavern. The room was very light, bars of sunlight coming through the venetian shades to made patterns on the floor. There was an unmade bed that smelled of sweat and booze from across the room. The floor and every surface was crowded with newspapers, empty bottles, filled ashtrays, clothing, take-out boxes.

My mother haded me a paper bag, and I started sorting through the mess. When I found something of hers — a blouse, a pair of nylons, a hairbrush I recognized, I put it in the bag. I did not touch the men’s clothes, but I remember still what was there. A few shirts, some underwear, a pair of corduroy pants. My mother stood at the window and watched the traffic, her own paperbag tucked under one arm.

On the way home she sat looking straight ahead, her hands folded in her lap, the paper bags at her feet. Not a word was spoke on the whole long bus ride.

Over the years I have thought of that ride home far more often than I wanted to. The memory rises up sometimes when I am very tired or weighed down with worry. The same questions always come with those images: Why she chose that particular way to punish me, what she meant to happen next, if she counted on my fear of my father’s temper to keep me from telling him about that outing, those were the questions that occupied me, and still occupy me today.

On a spring day with the remnants of winter snow like lumps of coal on the curbs and a chill in the air, my mother had declared open war. Why, I will never really know, and I hope never to understand.

the anniversary of my mother’s death

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series Memoir

On April 9, 1970 at about 3:30 in the afternoon, my mother took my father’s hand gun, shot once into the wall and then she put the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. My father found her just shortly before four, when he got home from work.

I was babysitting for the neighbors, as I did every day after school. He came running up the stairs and pounded on the door. He was very pale and breathing hard, and he just said what there was to say. I don’t remember the exact wording anymore. Something like, your mother’s dead, she shot herself.

The next part I do remember: I remember exactly what went through my head. Where were you? Are the police coming? Will they arrest you? I thought those things, but what I said was, Will the police see right away it was a suicide? Almost forty years later and I can still call up that moment with almost perfect clarity, because he looked at me with surprise and something like hurt.

He said, I didn’t shoot her. She shot herself.

We never talked about that short conversation, ever again, but I often wondered if he remembered it. If he understood what I was feeling. It wasn’t a matter of guilt or innocence, suicide or murder, it was far more elemental than that: my mother had finally set me free; she was gone, and this time she wouldn’t come back. But with that last gesture, maybe she took my father away too. I was afraid he’d be arrested, and I’d have to go back to the apartment alone. That was my one, my over-arching fear: being without my father, alone in the apartment.

For a long time I did nothing but pace the length of the flat, from kitchen to front windows and back again. I couldn’t help looking. There were police cars, and people standing around. It looked like a foreign landscape, unfamiliar to me.

My territory ran from Belmont to Lawrence, from California to Clark. I knew my stretch of Lincoln Avenue as well as I knew the three bedroom flat above Byron’s Photography Studio where we lived, and where my mother died. There were many, many times when I was so desperate to be out of the house, away from my mother, that I set off with no idea of where I was going. Anything was better, anything felt safer, than to be in the apartment when my mother was drunk and my father was mad because she was drunk.

I wandered around Goldblatt’s and Woolworth’s, I looked in windows I can recall now in detail. Pink polyester pants suit, straw purse, Jackie Kennedy pageboy behind glass protected from the sun by a thick nicotine-yellow see-through shade. Ernie’s television repair shop, a heap of dusty spare parts. The orthopedist with plaster models of club feet, malformed hands, in a forest of leg braces hung from the ceiling. The butcher’s window filled with trays of pork chops, pale as human flesh in neat rows around meandering hills of sausage.

I was suddenly free, but I could not imagine ever going out onto the street, ever again. Years later, talking about this to my therapist, she asked me about that moment when I feared my father would be arrested. Could I go a little deeper there?

No, I said at first. Nope, no interest in going there. That door is closed, padlocked, bricked in, and it’s best that way. But she was a good therapist and she kept coming around to this question again, until little by little the door opened — until I opened the door of my own free will –and when I was as ready as I ever could be, I went back, and I followed myself through that day, from the time I got home from school, until it was over.

And here is what happened: I watched from the window while the police stood around and the crowd gathered on Lincoln Avenue. My two older sisters appeared out of nowhere, my younger sister wedged between them as they walked her away, down the street. That is a very clear image in my mind still almost fifty years later. A thirteen year old  bracketed by two young women, all of them going someplace else.  They never looked up to the window where I stood watching. They didn’t knock on the door to see about me. Somehow they were a complete unit of three, getting out. Getting away.

I went home. The police were gone, and the apartment was empty but for my father, who was sitting on the couch in the dim of the living room. He was pale and quiet, but he had a pile of bedding in his lap. I realized what he wanted almost right away.

The idea of cleaning the room where my mother killed herself didn’t shock me, exactly. It would have been shocking to see him do it himself; in my father’s world men did not do housework.  I was female, and so it fell to me to fill  a bucket with hot water and  Mr. Clean, to find rags and the scrub brush, and go to work so that when was finished he could go to sleep in a freshly made bed with clean sheets, walking across a floor that was scrubbed clear of blood and bone.



tell it slant

Wolfy posted a comment asking how a person goes about writing a memoir, if the process is similar to the writing of fiction. The question can really be extended to any kind of creative nonfiction, a term you may not be familiar with. I’ll cut to the chase: if you write about something real (WWI, dog breeding, airline safety, Winston Churchhill) that has no personal connection for you, that’s plain old nonfiction. It can certainly be creative nonfiction, which means that the author has taken pains with content and style so that the reader is drawn in. A newspaper article may read

A two story flat burned down last night after an electrical short ignited a stack of papers in the cellar. There were minor injuries to three persons, including one firefighter, who were treated at County Hospital and released. The owner of the building could not be reached for comment.

Or, somebody may decide that the story is bigger and give it full investigative journalism treatment, in which case it will become creative nonfiction. If the journalist knows what s/he’s doing.

A sixth grade book report is nonfiction about fiction. So is a review in the New York Times.

I read a lot of creative nonfiction. It’s a genre I really love, for the care and thought that goes into sharing esoteric knowledge or stories that otherwise go unremarked.

[asa book]0375760393[/asa] A title that jumps to mind is Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire — which is where I got the idea for the Wilde’s apple orchards). Here’s the PW review:

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan’s fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature.

Memoir is a very different undertaking. You are contemplating your own being and history. You feel your way along as you write. There’s very little invention here — unless you happen to be the putz who wrote the fake memoir that Oprah bought into — but a great deal of room for style and presentation. The process is so very different from fiction writing that it’s hard to even compare the two, at least for me.

And now I contradict myself: there is, of course, no such thing as a factual memoir. Everything is reshaped by memory. Goethe called his autobiography Wahrheit und Dichtung (truth and imagination, for a loose but colloquial translation) . Because the two are indistinguishable from each other. [asa book]1206577296[/asa]

My friend Suz wrote a memoir called Body Toxic, a truly masterful piece of work that is a hybrid — memoir, yes, but also a look at environmental mayhem in her native New Jersey from various angles. The research is there, and so are the personal memories and the re-imaginings. Terrifically difficult to pull off, but she did. Body Toxic evokes tremendous reactions from people who read it, especially people from New Jersey. Such emotion doesn’t come out of nowhere. The anger some readers pointed at her as the author makes it clear that her memoir tapped into a greater consciousness and a great deal of conflict and pain.

If you’re writing a history of gardening in Japan, you may love your subject but still approach it with some degree of objectivity. It’s next to impossible to be truly objective about your own history.

Writing about my own history is something I’ve been trying to do for all my adult life. If I’m writing fiction I may ask myself: what does this character want right now, and why? But when I think about writing memoir the questions are more complex and far harder.

What was she thinking? What did she want that she never got, and why?

[asa book]0072512784[/asa] Tell it Slant is (a) from a poem by Emily Dickinson; and (b) the title of a book also written by Suz and Brenda Miller, a colleague. ((Suzanne writes her creative nonfiction under a penname, you may have noticed.)) The book was designed for students of creative nonfiction, and attempts to demonstrate the idea of Dickinson’s poem: you can’t run at the truth head-on. If you approach it at the right angle, your story will not only be told, but heard.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–