This entry is part 10 of 19 in the series Memoir

have a first cousin on my mother’s side, a few months older than I am.  Katie (that’s what I’ll call her for now) was a nervous, energetic kid always up for an adventure. She had a tremendous imagination and a dramatic streak a block wide. Katie loved to tell jokes and stories, especially family stories that often left me puzzled. Did I know that we were direct female descendents of Pocohantas?  Did I realize that calico cats were always girls, but her calico cat was a boy, and how valuable he was for that reason? Her cat, the coin she found in the grass, a comic book — some one thing was always right there, promising wealth and good fortune. Wasn’t I aware the the State of Virginia was named after one of our great grandmothers? How about the fact that the grandmother we had in common had invented apple butter? We were an important family in the history of the country; we were intelligent, exacting, uncompromising visionaries. We spoke proper English. We had a flair for color. We made good lawyers and judges.

When I expressed doubt — even at that age was a bit of a cynic — some of the other cousins would jump in to testify on Katie’s behalf. Of COURSE we were direct descendants of Pocohantas, and how sad that nobody had bothered to tell me before.  I learned to listen to the stories and keep my doubts to myself.

Of all the cousins,  Katie adored my mother most.

In the days after  my mother committed suicide, the cousins were around the house a lot, as family will be when there has been a death.   Katie was there when my older sister brought home new clothes for my mother to be laid out in. I don’t think I had even heard the wordcremation at age fourteen; it was just a given that there would be a wake and at the wake you would have a chance to see the dead person’s remains, carefully made up.  There would be gladiolus and mums and maybe lilies or roses. There would be organ music, and everybody we knew would troop in and out of the funeral home to file past the coffin in a single line, whisper among themselves, and sign the guestbook.  All the kids from my class, all the nuns who had taught me, all the neighbors.

After so many years of trying to keep the secret of my mother’s alcoholism quiet, I hated the idea. But there was no escape. Having the cousins around was comforting, but I avoided Katie because I had no idea what to say to her.

We were fourteen, a difficult age in the best of circumstances, and we had a long history of competition which didn’t stop with my mother’s death. In fact, it seemed to ratchet up a notch. Katie loved her Aunt Mary and wanted everybody to know she was in mourning. I agonized over the need to appear in public because I had nothing to show except relief.   I hated the very idea of having to see my mother laid out. Her hair would be carefully styled and she would be wearing new clothes, but I had done my time and I was shut of her, no need for long goodbyes. I just wanted to move on.

Katie spread out the clothes on the dining room table with great reverence. They were nice things, as I remember. Apricot in color, the underwear silky to the touch.  Katie folded and refolded them. She said, “If only somebody had bought her such nice things when she was alive, maybe she wouldn’t have killed herself.”

My anger at this was so large it seemed to come up from my heels to fill every cavity. I remember still how my body first flushed and then went cold. I don’t remember what I said to Katie, but to this day I can call up the anger of that moment when she wiped my mother’s history clean on the basis of insufficiently pretty underwear.   Because she knew. Katie knew. She lived in an alcoholic household, and she knew what it meant. And somehow, in spite of her knowledge, she was taking the other side.

It was at that moment that I came to understand some things about Katie. She had constructed a world view in which my mother was a victim, and it was a world she was trying on for herself.  I couldn’t have put it in those words, but I knew, deep down, that Katie had chosen that path for herself. I did not and I still do not entirely understand how she came to that place.

For the next ten years I didn’t see much of Katie, but I thought a lot about her.  Then in my mid twenties I began reading about the psychology of alcoholism and alcoholic families, and how grandiosity becomes a bulwark in the face of shame and insecurity. Gradiose plans fail, and the cycle perpetuates itself.

Katie has been in and out of rehab and treatment facilities for many years. I haven’t spoken to her since the early 80s, when she called to talk and spent a good amount of the time screaming insults at her husband. She sounded, just then, so much like my mother. I had no choice but to let her go.

Lincoln Park Zoo 1959

This entry is part 7 of 19 in the series Memoir

On Monday the restaurant was closed, and on those days, especially in the warmer months, my father would take my younger sister and me out for the day.

I remember going to the movies. He sat us down in front of westerns, musicals, murder mysteries and then spent the entire time pacing back and forth at the rear of the theater. Never out of sight, and never still.

He took us for long drives out into the country, sometimes as far away as Wisconsin where he’d find a tavern on a lake. Hamm’s: the beer refreshing. Pork rinds, Jay’s potato chips, a huge jar of pickled pig’s feet on the bar, cheeseburgers served in baskets with soggy fries, wedges of iceberg lettuce doused in Thousand Island dressing. Coke in small glass bottles that fit the curve of a child’s hand exactly.

I remember outings like this where a whole caravan of his friends would come along and he would cook for them all on one of the grills provided by the tavern. I suspect to this day that he bullied people into coming along simply so he’d have somebody to feed. The grownups would sit in the shade and drink and tell jokes I wasn’t supposed to hear, or understand if I did. My sister deposited herself next to the prettiest woman present, the one who smelled nice, and stayed there for the duration.

There were many trips to Lincoln Park Zoo. I remember those drives down   Lincoln Avenue very clearly. All the windows open in those days long before air conditioning.

And I remember this unfortunate stuffed bear. The rough feel of his fur and the smell of dust and camphor. I don’t remember this particular day but I know that I was looking at my father. I can see it in my three year old face. I can almost see him there, hands clasped behind his back as he paced back and forth. He wore a short sleeved shirt and a bow tie, and sometimes a porkpie hat. In 1959 other men wore suits and ties as a matter of course, but six days a week my father lived in the costume of his trade: wide trousers in a small black check and a white tunic. On his day off the closest he came to a suit was that bow tie.

A solidly built man, short by most standards, his dark hair cropped marine short, the tattoos on his arms already so faded they were hard to read.

It was important to him that we were happy on those Mondays. He took us places and showed us off to his friends and fed us. He bought us ping-pong paddles, balloons, Barbie dolls, and he fed us. Egg and pepper sandwiches, roast pork, spaghetti and meatballs, barbeque ribs, minestrone, icecream.

It was what he knew how to do. It was the best way he knew to take care of us.

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.