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.