family portrait, with bottles (# 9)

During my entire childhood, my parents rarely drank, to my knowledge at least. I remember once tagging along at a holiday party. My mom drove home, which was remarkable to 7-year-old me because she never drove when my dad was in the car. And, yes, my  dad was a passenger on this occasion, but he was otherwise occupied by disgorging the liquid contents of his gut out the window, while the cold night air rushed the stench of it into the backseat where my brother and I pretended to sleep.

The next morning, my dad matter-of-factly hosed off the bespattered car in the driveway before squiring my brother and me to some kids’ class at museum and then to a coffeehouse for chocolate cake. It was a Saturday almost like any other.

I eventually came to understand that my dad’s father had “the Irish curse.” He was gregarious,  clever, jolly, sentimental, but. . . there was a big, big but.

My grandpa was an excellent letter writer and raconteur with a bottomless store of tall tales about his obsessions: bears, trains, Paul Bunyan, Irish history, baseball, and old Chicago. He was at his best with his grandchildren. I loved him.

When I was around 30 I learned that when he was nearing but not yet at retirement, with one child, my aunt, still at home, he got canned from his job as a vice-president for a foundation for showing up drunk, often. He then tried to launch a new career as a realtor, but he lacked the focus to make a go of it.

I learned from my aunt that my grandpa used to lock himself in his bedroom for days on end with nothing but a black mood and a bender’s worth of whiskey, leaving my aunt, who then in high school, and my grandma tiptoeing around saying prayers and pretending everything was as it should be.

Thus it was that my dad (although clearly capable of a binge) made a conscious effort in adulthood to gain the upper hand over his family history, largely avoiding but never entirely renouncing alcohol. Meanwhile, my grandpa sealed his unraveling by falling and hitting his head during a boozy fishing trip, while in his late 60s. He was never the same: It was as if he’d had a stroke. My grandma couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of him. Though a devout Catholic, she legally separated from him, probably for financial reasons, so he could get set up at a nursing home.

My grandpa stayed there, permanently brain-damaged, until he died a few years later. My dad took me to visit him once, I must have been about 12/13; it may have been in 1985. Disconcertingly, he was ranting about the White Sox losing the pennant to the “damned Yankees”. . . which occurred in 1964. I never saw him again.

My grandma kept up her pattern of dutiful visits to the end, but mostly she got on with her life, playing bridge with friends, working part-time at a dress shop, and going to church. She got an apartment and reupholstered her favorite chair in pristine white fabric, simply because she could finally control her environment enough to keep a pretty white chair white. She actually told me that.

Skip ahead two decades, back to my parents.

My mom and I have never had a close relationship. Early on, she tried too hard and was too nosy with me. Her efforts to bond with me, her eldest daughter, were awkward and didn’t go over well. I do credit my mom with giving me a childhood as happy and secure as a shy, perfectionistic bookworm could have. Family dinners every night, freedom to roam around a safe neighborhood all afternoon with a pack of kids, lots of books to read and creative projects to do, encouragement to find and follow my interests, healthy structure/rules, the whole bit. Given my mom’s depressive tendencies, I really don’t know how she summoned the energy for all those years of hardcore stay-at-home parenting, when her natural state is curling up on the couch with a book. I suspect that those years gave her real purpose, and once they were over, she floundered.

She did not drink when I was growing up.

Problems emerged started in 2002 or 2003. By then, my dad had had a quadruple heart bypass. At some point his doctor had suggested that my dad drink an occasional beer to help keep his arteries smooth. Around the same time, my mom, who was very overweight and somewhat depressed her whole adult life, had a gastric bypass surgery. She shed pounds and started to feel more active, cheerful, and social. When my parents were meeting friends for dinner, my dad would nurse a single, modest, medicinal beer, while my mom ate a golf ball’s worth of food and developed a taste for liquid refreshment like Manhattans and martinis.

I lived far away by then, so I had only an intermittent window on what was going on, but I could see my mom was drinking with gusto. My now-ex-husband thought the new habit agreed with her. Typically tense and snappish, my mom became expansive, humorously opinionated, and playful under the influence. Still, there were warning signs. It must have been 2005 or so when my parents came to visit us. That Friday night, we headed to a popular restaurant. The wait was horrendous, and we had a toddler in tow. My mom had several drinks while we waited. Finally, after about an hour, we decided to leave. On the way out the door, my mom took pains to inform the hostess in slurred, but no uncertain terms that “the shervice was very shoddy.” Jeez-us! With that, I was out the restaurant door and halfway across the parking lot propelled by the rocket fuel of pure embarrassment.

My mom’s doom was assured and rapidly attained when she discovered two-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s, and began marinating in goblets of cheap red wine every night at home, instead of occasionally over-indulging in strong cocktails. Up and down the stairs she’d trudge, from kitchen to upstairs TV room, refilling her glass to the brim each time, sloshing it on the carpet (since replaced, thank god). Eventually, she’d conk out snoring in her chair, shake herself awake, and drag herself up to the third floor to bed. The situation was becoming alarming.

I never said anything to my dad about it—my family members were never ones for frank communication about our failings when we could let unpleasant things fester in silence. Still, I often wondered what my dad thought about this new chapter in his life. My dad spent his entire adult life trying to be the responsible opposite of his alcoholic father, only to watch his wife, who had never been a drinker, become a lousy, stinking wino inside five years.

Once, I caught a part of an “Oprah” episode about people who had bariatric surgery and wound up replacing their food addiction with another addiction—to booze, drugs or sex—because the underlying emotional hole had never been treated or filled. I speculate that this is part of what happened to my mom.

Visiting my parents was a real treat for few years. All my life, already, I had passionately resented my mom for being overweight and not taking more control over her life and health. And now this! I became a silent ball of fury. I could scarcely look at her. I also realized that I really couldn’t leave young daughter in my mom’s care at night, so that meant my now-ex and I were trapped around the house, instead of availing ourselves of grandparental babysitting. For the most part my dad acted oblivious to the situation, but late one night I did overhear one brief, bitter, and pointless (because my mom was so loaded) fight between them.

The worst, for me personally, was when younger daughter was born. My mom came out to stay for three weeks to “help.” She did help some, with cooking,  shopping, etc., but not like she had helped when my older daughter was born, six years earlier, before her drinking started. This time, she was entirely preoccupied with not running out of wine, white-knuckling through each day until the hour when she could reasonably uncork the first bottle. With a new baby in the house, my ex and I weren’t drinking a drop, so it was painfully obvious how much drinking she was doing.

Late one evening, with a wholly unnecessarily nightcap in her wobbly hand, she splattered wine all over the wall next to our stairs on her way up to bed. My 6-year-old pointed out the mess to us in the morning. You see, we had just repainted that wall before the baby arrived. My ex hastily touched up the paint before my mom resurfaced that morning. No one said a word. I was hugely relieved when my mom left.

About eight months after that, my dad called to tell me that my mom was in rehab. It was the first and only time my dad and I had an honest conversation about what had been going on, and how we felt about it.

My mom has been sober for about ten years now. My ex used to joke that it’s too bad my mom had go and piss all over what could have been a beautiful relationship (in moderation) for her twilight years.

Yes, my mom is back to being her tense and snappish self, but there is more lightness of spirit there. I feel respect for her, and I no longer feel viscerally angry in her presence.

My mom did/does AA. I can see that she has been learning to be less reactive.

She’s still very prickly and private, though. Always has been. I suspect she and I will never discuss what happened with her, never mind why it happened and what it all means. I know the steps require my mom to make amends in some way. Maybe she will with me someday; I hope she does, if it would be helpful and necessary for her.