A FEW WEEKS ago I went on vacation to Delaware. To swim and laugh and fight with my crazy as hell family. We ate barbecued chicken. We got sunburned. We threatened to kill one another over a game of cards. We passed wine around, and played hide and seek after dark like kids at camp. We grew fat and lazy and content as cats in each others company. Our parents, who started these traditions when we were mere embryos, would have been proud. When we were kids, running through a backyard in Revere, or Stoughton, Or Roslindale, We hated each other. Or thought we did, like the careless children we were. We didn’t appreciate our parents loud brand of love With their cigarette ash, Jell-O cake, and raspy invocations of our full names. They were a trial to us. With their sticky lawn chairs, and endless games of horseshoes. Being children gave us a small measure of luxury. A tiny window of ignorance. Some of us would become parents before we were ready. Some of us would grow up and be nurses, secretaries, firefighters. Some of us would never grow up at all. All of it we did because of our parents. All of us did it under the shared, multi colored tent of our history. We became responsible, compassionate, adults with only our parents to show us how. We embrace what we hated in childhood. We feel complete in each others arms, and messes. Even in a time when most of our parents have had the nerve to grow old and forget, or die. We are home, my cousins and I, when we are together. We pass the wine, and swap the stories. The stories of corporal punishment via a bedroom slipper are inevitable when the sun is going down, and the wine is on its third trip around the table. Before somebody throws down a sword, and starts dialing DCP. Let me assure you, most of us grew up to become mandated reporters. The time we’re talking about here happened in the days when dinosaurs still walked the earth freely. AKA: the 60’s and 70’s. When you’d never heard of cable. It was politically correct in those days to smack a kid on the tender side of his hide, for getting out of line. It wasn’t really a lie, when the question came my way. “Come on, your parents never smacked you with the paper for talking back?” It was a half-truth when I answered: “No, they never laid a hand on me”. They were too busy. Destroying each other for things beyond control.
My Father is on his knees. He’s begging. Crying. Swearing. Drunk. My Mother’s face is a mockery of her younger self. The self that believed in white horses, and happily ever after . She’s a ruin of mascara and liquid. Her hair is hanging across her face. In a manner suggesting it’s been pulled. I can smell beer. I smell sweat, and blood, and anger. Anger has a smell all it’s own. Bleach, and piss, and fire. The fat policeman with his shiny handcuffs, has cruller crumbs stuck to the front of an un- ironed shirt. He’s not gentle with the shiny handcuffs. Not gentle, when he hauls my Father to his feet. There’s a crushed lucky strike left behind on the floor. A puddle of beer. The can forgotten carelessly on it’s side. My Mother’s hand smooth’s the back of my head. She holds me too close, too tightly. The denim of her pants feels rough against my nose. She’s trying to shield my eyes. Trying to protect me from the sight of my father being pulled down the stairs like a rusted slinky. I’m too frightened to explain to her that I’ve already seen far too much. I’m too young to tell her I’ve seen things it will take me years to process. The raised voices after dark. The broken furniture. The tense silences served with coffee and corn flakes. These are all snapshots of my childhood. A sad history. A montage. There’s no place to glue them into a book. These aren’t the things anyone wants to look back on 30 years down the road. They stayed with me uninvited. Like an internal bruise. Soggy cereal drying in my throat. My Mother’s face wrinkled, and red from a sleepless night. My Father’s downcast eyes. The sharp snap of a Budweiser top at 8:10 am. Where do you go in the cold light of day? After the neighbors have called the police for the 8th time in a month. When you’ve still got toilet paper to buy. Hamburger to burn. When you see your crying baby, and your 5 year old choking on her cereal? When you watch your husband drinking his breakfast with shaking hands? Maybe you scrub the red lines furiously off your face with Noxzema. You take your children. You slam the door. Leaving your husband alone. With his shame and his Budweiser. This is what my Mother did in 1970.
My Mother was a Juvenile Diabetic. Dependent from birth on her parents and fate. The way children are. Children never ask for the things that happen naturally. Like the common cold, and disasters. Dependent later on insulin and needles, paramedics, and my Grandmother. She grew up rebelling. Craving the chocolate shakes and French fries that should have been her right. Diagnosed at 14, while she was living in a state home for orphans and other kinds of lost children. She’d earned her bitterness. Her father punched her in the stomach when she was 11. Leaving her on her side, gasping and vomiting. Her mother took one look at the ring of bruises, and kicked his ass to the curb. She got herself a divorce in 1949. Divorce wasn’t what was done back then. You slept in the bed you made in those days. Even if the sheets were ripped, and your skin was torn and bloodied by a man who had promised to love and protect you. My grandmother got her shit together. Then reality came along like cold water, and she lost her shit. She had herself an inconvenient nervous breakdown. She climbed into herself. Where it was quiet, and there were no judging eyes. There were no landlords refusing to take a chance on a single woman with five tearful children. There were no children to feed. No future to worry about. There was just a white void where her mind once stood. She might have stayed there, with the quiet, and the dented cans of government soup. With the nurses passing Thorazine, like M&M’s through her slack lips. If it weren’t for the basic strength we’re all somehow born with. If it weren’t for the love of children waiting to be fed. If it weren’t for the letters written with stolen crayons. My grandmother stood herself back up on shaky legs. She brushed her hair by herself for the first time in months. She could have gone all “Cuckoos Nest”. She could have had her brain zapped into another dimension. She could have been mercy killed with a stained pillow. If she’d wanted that to be her story. If she’d wanted that to be her children’s legacy. She got back on her feet. That’s what we do in this world we’re handed . We stand back up after a knockdown. Nothing standing between us and the gutter but a handful of defiance, and a thread of dignity. My Grandmother got herself a divorce in a day when that wasn’t done. She went back to school in a day when all women were expected to learn was how to iron with enough starch. How to boil an egg, and how to diaper a bottom. I always wanted to high five her for that. Still, my Mother had seen things she shouldn’t have seen. She’d learned things she couldn’t unlearn. She was dependent in ways she didn’t want to be dependent.
My Mother was tired of dependence on that morning. Her own fractured childhood. Her bastard of a Father, and her own frightened Mother. Her Diabetes. All of it came to a head with a slamming of the door. Somehow she found the energy after another night without sleep, to tell my Father he had to choose. He could have the booze that stopped his shakes. He could have the booze that made him feel stronger, braver, taller. Better. He could have the booze that lied to him and seduced him with it’s foam, and it’s illusion. He could have the booze with all it’s fake grandeur. But he couldn’t have both the booze, and what was left of his family after a night with the booze. There was no mercy on my Mother’s face that morning. She was worn out from broken promises. She’d had her fill of cleaning up beer cans, while juggling insulin injections and bills with a bright red “Past Due” stamped on the envelope. She decided the welfare people, waving a promise of food stamps over her head, was less of an embarrassment than the neighbors stares in a close stairwell. My Father had outgrown his Irish charm somewhere between the promises, and the puke, and the police. They fought after dark. Like dysfunctional vampires trying out for daytime talk radio. They fought like pros. They fought like they had been born hating each other. They danced like boxers on the balls of their feet. They each had their own demons cheering them on. They fought while I stood forgotten in a corner. They fought while I saw things I shouldn’t see. While I learned things I couldn’t unlearn. They fought until I peed in my new Cinderella pants from a fright I couldn’t name.. They fought until the neighbors called the police. They fought until the fat policeman came. With his crumbs and his handcuffs. He carted my drunk father down the stairs, like garbage.
They’d grown up on the same Brookline block known in the 50’s and 60’s as “The Farm”. A cluster of cold water flats. Just enough food to go around. But never enough food to satisfy. Radiators full of wet wool mittens, and hand me down underwear. Fighting for the last piece of bread. Fighting to be heard. Fighting for space in a bed overcrowded with growing bodies. They always kind of knew about each other. In the vague way people do when they’re growing up with their own problems. My Dad had already had his heart broken and handed back to him in pieces before he set new eyes on my Mother, across a smoky dance hall. He’d already been married. If that’s what you want to call it when 2 children cross the state line in the middle of the night, and come back embarrassed and giddy. Man and Wife. My Father stood his new bride in my Irish Catholics Nana’s kitchen at 2 am She was a girl none of them knew. A Jehovah’s Witness, if you can imagine. She wore lipstick three shades too bright for her, and had BO. My bevvy of loud, confident, aunts stood there in cotton nightgowns. Uncharacteristically silent. Their mouths open. Their aqua net and attitudes hanging like a heavy gravy in the air. I was years away from being born . I wasn’t even a whisper in the dark on that uncomfortable night in my Father’s history. But I still like to think of this period as “The Revolution Of The Communion Wafer.” It’s bad enough when you get woken up in the middle of the night to discover that your child has married a stranger. Worse when you are expected to meet your new Daughter In Law in your robe and curlers. Throw in dueling versions of Jesus, and you’ve got yourself a bona-fide crises. Or a Movie Of the Week. The marriage lasted as long as it took to file some paperwork. Microwave popcorn takes longer. But my Father still came out of it a little sadder. He got his heart broken by a girl with BO. It was difficult to imagine my cocky little bull of a Father laid vulnerable by a girl with poor hygiene. Years later, when my aunt told me this story over a box of Krispy Kremes, I’d like to say I didn’t laugh myself into incontinence. I’d be lying. Wouldn’t it be nice and tidy to blame my Father’s Alcoholism on a girl with hideous lipstick, and a poor sense of hygiene? It would wrap my heritage up with a decorated bow to point to that one thing, and say: THAT was it. It would be wrong. It would be human to want to believe that my Father self soothed with alcohol because he had his heart shattered by a girl who didn’t know her way around a bar of dial soap. The 12 steps, and years of AL Anon, tell me that isn’t the way this shit rolls. I owe my life to a girl with BO. I owe my life to an abusive Grandfather. I owe my life to a pack of matches found by a dumpster. I owe my life to the scars across my Father’s torso. I owe my life to a smoky dance hall .I owe my life to beautifully imperfect, human parents. At the end of another day, when the lights are turned off. When the pictures and stories are packed away, I owe this life to myself.