Wednesday, June 22, 2005


In Which We Live In Denial...

Alcohol has always been a part of my family's life. It was my grandmother's first defense against infection. You had a cut, or a rash or a pimple or athlete's foot, her answer was to pour on whatever alcohol was handy, whether it was rubbing alcohol or whiskey. "If it stings, you need it," was her byword.

Evidently, it was a philosophy my father took to heart at an early age. He got into the whiskey one Christmas when he was 3 and though it stung his throat, he must have decided he needed it, and consumed enough to get drunk and dance on a table. To the delight of his assembled family, who were also probably half in the bag.

On my mother's side, booze paid the bills. Her father was a bartender at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Boston for decades. He brought bottles home by the crate and embraced every cliche of the drunken Irish bastard that he could. He was a mean drunk who beat his daughters and his wife. My grandmother found it was easier to cope with his abuse if she drank right along with him, so she did, becoming such a terrible drunk in her own right that she was an actual hazard to society, especially when she got in the car. I don’t have all the details--to this day my mom won't talk about it. But I do know that when my mom was in college, my grandmother ended up in a sanitarium for a while, where the prescribed treatment for alcohol addiction was electroconvulsive therapy. It wasn't too long after that that my mom dropped out of college and moved up to a lake resort town in New Hampshire, where she and her sister had enjoyed going to camp as kids. She got a job as a waitress and chambermaid at one of the hotels there and ended up rooming with a girl who was good friends with my father. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although you'd think with that kind of history my mom would take a dim view of anyone who drank as much as my father did (although even then she had no idea how much he was really drinking). But if you hear enough of the private histories of children and spouses of alcoholics, you find that many of them have an unerring ability to flee the frying pan and end up in the fire. In my mom's case, she knew my father's propensity for drink, but she also saw what an ambitious guy he was, putting himself through engineering school while still working on the farm. She saw potential. And I'm sure that in him she naively saw a chance to fix him, to change him in a way she could never change her own father.

In the end, of course, she wasn't able to change him very much, not when it came to his drinking and certainly not when it came to his desire to teach his children about guns.

Despite my mother's protestations, my brother and I learned to handle every kind of firearm we could get our hands on. We moved to the Midwest where it seemed everyone had a pistol or rifle. And when friends and neighbors showed them to my father, he always made us learn how they worked. Revolvers, automatic pistols, shotguns, rifles, even a replica muzzle-loading musket. I learned how to load, unload and fire all of them.

When I was 9, my father enrolled my brother and me in a hunter safety course. I didn't want to go hunting, ever. But it furthered my education about rifles, and I discovered to my surprise that I was a pretty good shot for a kid with glasses. At the end of the course, we were given a chance to fire at some clay pigeons. I was the only one in my age group to nail all three. My father was particularly proud of that fact and made a deal of it to friends and neighbors. But it was also the beginning of a schism between us, because I wouldn't use that skill to go hunting with him. I'm sure he was just trying to be a dad who wanted to do something with his son, but when I would refuse to go hunting, he would become offended, then insulting. It was the beginning of my hatred for guns. And maybe even for him.

At the same time, I saw the value of the knowledge my father was trying to instill in us. When my brother was in high school, he was over at a friend's house and the friend was showing off his father's shotgun. My brother immediately grabbed the rifle and cracked it open. It was loaded, of course, something his friend didn't know. My brother pocketed the shells and brought them home to show my father, telling him, "I made it safe, Dad, just like you showed me." He worshiped the man and always craved his approval, so it was a validating moment. For both of them.

And there weren't many of those. My father was a terribly erratic fellow. Sometimes he could be a very attentive, caring, affectionate father. But lots of times, especially right after work and on some evenings in the weekend, he could be a real bastard. I've written elsewhere about his clandestine trips to the sheds in the back of our house. We never knew what he was doing back there, but he was almost always meaner when he returned. And you never knew what would set him off. Once, after a perfect, Norman Rockwell-style family dinner, I got up to go the bathroom and my father began yelling at me for not taking my dirty dishes to the sink. Before I could say anything, such as the fact that I would have removed them when I returned from the bathroom, my father reached across the table and backhanded me in the mouth. I was 10 or 11 and a small kid. My father was an enormously strong guy. The blow really rang my bell, sending my glasses flying and knocking me flat onto the floor. He and my mother got into a furious argument about his behavior, but sadly none of it was new, not the fighting, and not events leading to glasses flying.

It never occurred to us that my father had a bottle (or two. Or five) hidden in the sheds, because he always drank in the house. Every night he had a couple shots of blackberry brandy. He nearly always had a couple of beers with dinner. Any time someone stopped by the house, it was a good excuse to open the liquor cabinet. In that kind of environment, why would he need to have a secret bottle?

It just goes to show you what a powerful force denial can be, but my family had a whole battery of ready-made excuses for my father's behavior. Mostly it came down to work stress. My father worked in construction, a notoriously precarious job situation. He would work a job for six months to a few years at a time, then the job would end and he'd be laid off with the rest of the staff. As a result, he moved around the country a lot, following the big constructions jobs. Sometimes we moved with him, living at various times in Maine, Kansas, New Jersey, Canada, and other places. But eventually, about the time my brother and I were both in high school, my parents decided that we should stay put, finish high school in one place, while my father worked elsewhere.

During those years, he went to Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Louisiana, California, Iowa, back to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and more. I was grateful not to have to uproot again, and I have to admit it was more peaceful not having my father around. We would see him at Christmas and for a week in the summer, maybe one other week sometime during the year, but that was it. My brother missed him a lot. If my mom missed him, she never let on. At that point, she and my father got along better by phone than in person, and my mom was enjoyed being self-sufficient, forced as she was to take on many household tasks that would have ordinarily fallen to my father. (When the water pump broke, she replaced it single-handedly. When the furnace conked out one winter because the oil line from the tank froze solid, my mom came up with the idea of running a series of hair dryers on an extension cord out to the pipe and crouched there in the frigid cold, holding the dryers at full blast while I held a spotlight on her from the laundry room window.)

I was somewhere between my mother and brother in my feelings. Sometimes I missed my father, especially at baseball games or during other events where my friends' dads showed up. Other times, I was just as glad not to have him around. My father thought I was lazy, and used to be annoyed to find me holed up in a room somewhere, reading or writing. He saw it as goofing off. He thought I wasn't of much account.

So by the time I was 16, we were pretty much strangers, and I was filled with apprehension when he called one day to tell us he was coming home. The job in Washington had ended and there was no further work to be had, so he was going to be unemployed for a while, maybe a month. Maybe more. It was the first time he'd been home to live with us in three years.

He would be driving cross country in an old beat-up Ford Galaxie, and expected to be home in about one week. It was the beginning of my senior year in high school, so I had lots of things going on and didn't really have time to think about what his coming home would mean for me. But as the day of his arrival grew closer, I actually found myself excited to see him again, which both pleased and relieved me. After all, a lot of time had passed, and our brief visits together over the years had been relatively trouble-free. Maybe he was different. Maybe he had changed.

Then the day he was supposed to arrive came and went. And he didn't show up.

Two days passed. No word. We had no way to reach him. There were no mobile phones, and the last we'd heard from him was just before he embarked on his trip. We had no real idea of his itinerary or where he'd be staying.

On the third day, my mom called the police to file a missing-person report. But after a few hours, they called her back and told her the report wasn't necessary. The police already knew where my father was.

In fact, they had him in custody...


oh how I hate when you leave us hanging .... Can't wait to hear about the next installment on this chapter!!!!
You know, I'm kind of hoping that you've adopted the Tony Pierce "nothing in here is true" style of blogging, but I suspect make me appreciate my relatively crisis-free upbringing.

That being said, I'm with Rose with anticipating the rest of the story.
I'm coming to this post late in the game, as I've only recently decided to read all your archives. All of your stuff is brilliant, really, and I've considered commenting on everything, but I wasn't really compelled past my "oh it's so long since he posted this he won't see my comment anyway" reluctance until this post (aside from the few posts you've linked from Art Lad).

This story is really powerful to me because I can relate to a lot of it. The details aren't all the same, but certain situations and feelings definitely are.

I'm glad to see the person you grew up to be reflected in this blog, in stories about your life and your wife and children. I'm amazed and gladdened by the goodness that can come from a troubled background. And, of course, I'm glad that you and your father have the relationship you have now--just as I have a new, better relationship with my father.

I'm glad that pain isn't fixed and absolute, but can be transformed. I'm glad that such strength as yours exists.

Thank you for writing.
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