What kind of shadow does a family secret cast over the child?
Mark Aherne is a middle-aged, married man living in Chicago. He’s estranged from his parents in Boston, his father having bullied and belittled him throughout his childhood.
One Sunday he receives a desperate phone call from his sister who has been caring for their parents for many years. She needs help: his parents are sick and have started drinking again. Mark soon finds himself back with his sister dealing with their parents’ loss of independence.
While caring for his parents, he remembers the past when he dealt with his father’s emotional effect on him and the family. His memories include many childhood events that filled him with guilt and a sense of separation.
As he slowly comes to understand his family’s dysfunction, he discovers secrets in his parents’ lives that led to their own unhappiness. With his mother’s dementia and his father’s stubborn isolation, Mark fears his own aging as he learns to lay to rest the experiences of his childhood.
Chapter 1: "Come as Soon as
I've come indoors after four hours of weeding the garden on Sunday afternoon, and although I’ve left my dirty clothes on the porch, my face, hands, and knees are filthy. Rachel stands at the front door, ready to leave for her evening shift at the hospital. “Don’t touch anything on your way upstairs.” I wave to her when she backs out of the driveway.
I’m shampooing my hair when the telephone rings. I stick my head outside the curtain to hear the message. No luck. The voice is too low. Probably one of Rachel’s neighborhood friends. I forget the call once I’m out of the shower and in bed, absorbed in a new book.
An hour later, the phone rings again. Leaving the book on the bed, I stand at the head of the stairs and listen to the caller’s number as the answering machine clicks on. Why are my parents calling? I talked to them less than three weeks ago. Then I hear my sister’s voice.
“Mark, it’s Leslie. Call me as soon as possible at Mom and Dad’s house.”
Leslie never calls me from our parents’ home. Doing so now can only mean one thing: one of them has died. I grip the railing and struggle to slow my heart. When she hangs up, I run downstairs. Was it Leslie who called while I was in the shower? I listen to the previous message. Leslie.
I dial my parents’ number, but I can’t admit I disregarded her earlier call. “Leslie? I just came in the door.” I speak as if out of breath, which isn’t difficult since I’m prepared for bad news. “What’s happened?”
“It’s Mom and Dad.”
Both of them? The phone is shaking against my ear. Her voice is low as though other people are in the house.
“I drove over to visit them around noon and found them in their nightclothes sleeping in the living room. They’re sick—”
My words come out in a rush. “Oh, thank God.”
“Mark? Did you hear me?”
“I expected terrible news. How long have they been sick? Have they called the Quack?”
The Quack is Leslie’s nickname for Dr. Madison. She’s never been satisfied with him as Mom’s doctor. “First of all, he’s too old,” Leslie has told me several times. “He’s never acted like he wanted to find out what was wrong with her. Just prescribes pills to keep her quiet.” Our attempts to convince my father to get Mom a second opinion have failed.
“Of course they haven’t called him,” Leslie says. “They’re drinking again.”
“Damn.” Although relieved they aren’t dead, I can’t help being angry at this news.
“I know. I’ve been suspicious lately but hoped it wasn’t true. I don’t think they’ve had a decent meal in days.” She stops speaking for several seconds.
“Leslie? Are you still there?”
“I can’t deal with them by myself anymore.” She sounds exhausted. “I need help. Can you fly here tomorrow for a few days?”
My mind quickly reviews my appointments at work for the week. Nothing critical. “I’ll take a morning flight.”
“I’m afraid to leave them alone. Before you arrive, would you pick up some food? There’s not much in the house. I hate bothering you—” She sounds on the verge of tears.
“Don’t worry. I’ll come tomorrow. Hang in there.”
The earliest flights from O’Hare are booked, but I reserve one of the last seats on the 10:15. Rachel drives me to the airport, only to be caught in the tail end of rush hour.
“Aren’t people at work by now?” Having had little sleep, I’m nervous about the delay. Rachel was late getting home from her shift, and we talked for an hour about my parents. She tried to mask her irritation at my abrupt departure but agreed I had to help my sister. Nevertheless, she wasn’t happy.
The traffic clears as we near the airport. Rachel continues to ask me questions I’ve already answered last night, perhaps hoping I’ll have a better answer this morning.
“How long do you expect to be away?”
“I should be back by the end of the week.”
“And why are you staying in a motel? Didn’t Leslie offer to put you up?”
“If I stay with her, we’ll do nothing but talk about Mom and Dad. I need some quiet time to log into work and keep tabs on things. This isn’t the best time for me to be away given the problems we had last quarter-end.”
“Do you think they’ve started drinking again?”
“Leslie said nothing about it,” I lie once again, not wanting to tell her the truth. Growing up with parents who didn’t drink, Rachel has no sympathy for mine. I don’t either, but I usually find myself defending them whenever we discuss it. Referring only to their illness helps to lessen Rachel’s irritation about my sudden departure.
The flight is uneventful. I haven’t flown into Logan for at least fifteen years. As the aircraft banks in a wide circle over Boston harbor to line up with the runway, I look out at the familiar landmarks, somewhat disoriented by the new buildings going up everywhere. Boston is having a real-estate boom similar to that in the Chicago area, with office buildings and condominiums opening every month. Just last week, someone on the news said the economy in the last half of 1998 will continue to improve.
The plane flies low across the harbor. Boats that were barely dots only minutes before are now the size of children’s toys. Flying lower still, the plane almost skims the surface of the water. A pier flashes into view, a pile of rocks. Finally, the runway. I always hold my breath, expecting that this time the plane won’t reach land.
I rent a car and drive out Storrow Drive toward Route 2. After passing the MBTA car garage at Alewife, I recognize several abandoned buildings with parking lots growing weeds. One boarded-up building with shattered plate-glass windows boasts thirty bowling alleys; another rundown complex has an oversized neon arrow that once beckoned motorists to pull into a dance club. These buildings have been vacant for as long as I can remember.
I make a quick stop in Arlington center. Not knowing what food they have in the house, I buy a three-day supply of groceries and, for tonight’s dinner, a chicken pot pie—one of Mom’s favorites.
Driving down the hill to the homes built around Mystic Lake, I’m reminded of returning home after a year studying abroad in England. The happiness I felt was tempered by my nervousness about the future. My senior year would be overshadowed by the intensifying Vietnam War lying impatiently in wait for a fresh group of men graduating from college.
Before I ring the bell, Leslie opens the front door, her coat on, ready to leave.
“I was worried. I expected you earlier.”
I suppress a flash of irritation. “I forgot about the time difference.” I’ve also forgotten that Leslie told me she had a meeting with clients this evening.
After putting the shopping bags down on the staircase leading upstairs, I signal to Leslie that I’ll be with her in a minute and walk into the living room. “Hi, guys.”
“Well, if isn’t the prodigal son,” my father says.
I ignore his tone of voice. “That’s my middle name.”
I bend over to kiss Mom. She beams and, pulling me closer, kisses my cheek. “Leslie told us you were coming. I’m so glad. I’ve missed you.”
When she hugs me, I’m surprised by her strength; I reach out a hand to steady myself on the arm of the couch. “You’ve had your hair done. It looks nice.”
“Her hairdresser came to the house last week,” Leslie adds. “They had a nice visit.”
I sit beside my mother and take her hand. “How are you doing?”
“Not so good, but I think I’m feeling a little better—”
“Oh, Mark, can you—” Dad interrupts.
I keep my attention on Mom. “That’s why I came. To help you get back on your feet.”
“—close these windows?”
They’re wide open, the summer breeze lifting the curtains like party streamers. An unpleasant odor lingers in the house. “It was the devil getting them open,” Leslie explains.
“I’ll close them in a minute. Let me speak with Leslie so she can leave.”
We each carry a bag of groceries into the kitchen. “Thanks for coming.” She kisses me. “I’m sorry I was abrupt when you arrived. I’ve been so upset. When I walked in yesterday, there was a terrible smell.” She grips my arm. “I thought one of them had died.”
“That’s what I thought you were going to tell me on the phone.”
“They were asleep on the sofa. I woke them and struggled to open the windows. I got Mom into a clean nightgown. Dad wants to take a shower this afternoon, so I’ve left that for you. Remind him to use the rubber mat.”
Leslie is always organized. That’s why she’s successful in public relations, but she can be overbearing at times.
“You don’t mind staying tonight? I have a dinner with potential clients that I need to win over. I’ll be back first thing in the morning.” She looks around the kitchen. “I’m sorry to leave you with these dishes. I rinsed them, but they need to be washed. And I haven’t tracked down this smell yet.” She frowns and bites her lip. “There’s something else I wanted to tell you, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, here’s the story on her meds…”
Leslie kisses Mom and Dad goodbye. “See you in the morning.”
At the door, she wishes me luck. “We’ll talk tomorrow. Oh, now I remember. Get the clean clothes from the dryer and make sure I haven’t left anything in the washer.”
She closes the door. I take a deep breath and return to the living room.
My father is struggling with one of the windows. “Dad, I said I’d do that.”
“We’re catching our death in here.”
Why is Dad so cold? It’s the beginning of July. The breeze makes the weather ideal for sitting on the back porch in the fresh air.
I need to put all my weight on the windows to close them. They stick from accumulated paint.
“I’ll boil some water for tea while I put away the groceries.”
From the kitchen I can hear Mom talking, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. Neither can Dad because he keeps asking, “What, dear?” and “Say again?” He’s going deaf in one ear, but even with perfect hearing, I sometimes can’t decipher her words. How on earth do they communicate? They’re like two people living alone in the same house.
I put the milk, ice cream, and frozen food in the fridge but leave the rest on the counter, no longer remembering where everything is stored.
“I made peppermint tea.” I carry in the tea tray, trying to sound cheerful. “Leslie says the doctor wants you to drink eight glasses of water a day.”
“Ha!” Dad grunts. “If I did, I’d be on the pot all day.”
Mom laughs in agreement. “Me too.”
“You don’t want your kidneys going on the fritz.” I pour tea into the mugs. “Sugar?”
Dad stirs in two teaspoons, spilling a few drops on his bathrobe. He places Mom’s tea on the end table beside her and then finds a straw in the drawer. “It’s tea, Kat.”
“I know that,” she snaps.
“It’ll warm you up in no time,” I say, offering a plate of cookies I hope aren’t stale.
Dad slurps his tea. “Ahh… hits the spot. Kat and I came down with a bug this week.”
“Why didn’t you call Leslie? She would have come to help.”
He shrugs. “Thought we’d feel better in a day or two. She’s busy with her own life—”
“She’s told you to call her whenever you need help. She’s practically around the corner.” I exaggerate. With traffic, her trip from Wakefield can take forty-five minutes. There is no quick way into Arlington.
“We can’t call her every time there’s a problem. It’s not like you’re around to help.”
That subject didn’t take long to crop up. Once Rachel and I moved to the Chicago area after my military service, we’d only returned east at Christmas, and on half of those visits we’d stayed with Rachel’s parents. I’m happy we decided to live half a continent away. Over time, I grew tired of my parents’ drinking and my father’s aggravating bullying. Chicago provided a refuge. I promised myself I wouldn’t grow old and be like them.
Mom tries to cover up the awkward silence. “We thought we were getting better.”
“Have you been taking your pills?”
Dad speaks before she can respond. “Of course. We might have forgotten once. Or twice.”
“Has Dr. Madison prescribed anything?”
“You’re not listening. We thought we were feeling better.” Dad’s annoyed under my cross-examination.
So, they never called the doctor. While preparing the tea, I found a vodka bottle in the trash bin. Why ask for a prescription when you have liquor?
“When you’ve finished your tea, I’ll help you with your shower.”
“The hell you will. I’ll help myself. I didn’t add those bars on the wall for nothing.”
Mom is laughing. “He doesn’t want you to see his…” But she doesn’t pronounce the last word clearly. Sounds like she said…
“His ‘binky’?” I ask, before I realize she’s making a joke.
“I said dinky.”
I play along. “I hope his dinky isn’t a binky.”
“I’ll never tell.” Mom gives Dad a dark look. Closing her mouth, she pretends to lock her lips, then tosses the key over her shoulder.
“I should wash both your mouths out with soap.” Dad’s never appreciated Mom’s off-color joking.
Where did she get her bawdy sense of humor? Her mother was not one for risqué repartee. She’d become angry with me as a child if I said anything to displease her. Even “Oh, my God,” earned a stern rebuke.
“I’m off to take a shower.” Dad carries his mug out to the kitchen. He’s tall, almost my height of six feet, but walks with a stoop. One tie of his bathrobe drags on the stairs.
“Let me fix this.” I kneel to adjust the tie. I hope he’ll shave. He’s never missed a day unless he was ill or camping. Now, not shaving tells me he’s not been well.
I sit on the coffee table and hold her mug, so Mom can sip the tea through a straw. Her hands shake, and if she tries to hold the mug, she’ll spill it. She needs one of those hats with a tube that frat boys use to drink beer.
“I bought a chicken pot pie for dinner. Your favorite.”
“Sounds good.” She licks her lips.
I want to ask when she last had a decent meal. This is Dad’s fault. When Mom cooked less and less over the years, Dad assumed cooking and cleaning up. After fifteen years on the wagon, their situation will be dire if they’ve started drinking again.
Mom probably nagged Dad to get her a “drinky”—a sherry or a gin and vermouth. In the past, he’d give in—not that it would be hard to convince him. He’d mix himself a drink “to keep her company” and then inevitably switch to vodka or Scotch.
If not for Leslie’s visit, we’d never have known they’d broken their promise to stop. Social drinking was always part of their lives. How naïve Leslie and I were to think one conversation with them fifteen years ago would solve the problem.
When Leslie comes tomorrow, we must sit down and have that conversation all over again. So much harder confronting parents than a teenage child. What if they don’t stop? Can we trust Dad with the keys to the car? I can’t think about this now. One day at a time.
“I’d better put the chicken pie in the oven. It takes an hour to cook. Back in a jiffy.”
In the kitchen, I place the frozen pot pie on a cookie sheet and set the timer. The rinsed dishes from dinner and breakfast are piled beside the sink. Opening the dishwasher, I groan and turn away. That’s the odor. I load the washer, add soap, and turn it on, then I wipe down the counters, stove, and table with Lysol.
Crossing the hall, I hear the shower upstairs. Dad closes the shower curtain with one swipe, the hooks rattling in protest. “Damn!” I forgot to mention the rubber mat, but I don’t hear him slipping in the tub. He’s just getting started, so there’s still time. I immediately feel guilty to even think of him falling, but Dad’s constant needling drives me crazy.
Mom hasn’t moved since I left her. She’s the shortest member of the family. With green eyes and high cheekbones, and with her teeth in, she’s still pretty at eighty despite the wrinkles. I remember her when she was thin and wore high heels. As a child, I cracked my head on her bureau trying to walk in her heels.
“How about some TV before dinner?” I ask.
“It’s Monday. Nothing good’s on.”
I look for a decent movie but with only basic cable, there’s nothing. As a Christmas present two years ago, Leslie and I gave them a subscription to HBO, but I doubt they ever watched it, and after a year the subscription expired.
While I worked on my homework after coming home from high school, the quiz shows’ theme songs, Mom’s laughter, and the emcees’ voices were a familiar backdrop. Her favorite shows were Password and Hollywood Squares. She always watched them with a glass of wine. Taking a break, I’d join her for the show’s final challenge. She was disappointed when I left and returned upstairs after the show ended.
I sit beside the fireplace across from Mom. She stares at me, waiting for me to speak.
“We got a letter from Jon. He’s traveling in Japan. He’ll study in Tokyo for a year.” I drop breadcrumbs, waiting for her to pick up the trail.
She twists her earlobe between her fingers as if trying to find a station on the radio. I wait for my information to catch hold. But she looks at me as if I’m speaking Japanese.
“He wants to learn Japanese, doesn’t he?” She remembers. Maybe she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s after all. Leslie suspects Mom is too lazy to try to remember the past. More likely, having difficulty making herself understood, she’s given up answering.
“He’ll attend the American University in Tokyo for a year, starting this fall.”
“Will he come home for Christmas?”
“No, the flight’s expensive, and it’s such a short time, I told him to travel. Jenn said—”
So much for There’s no dementia.
“Jennifer. Your granddaughter.”
“I know that. You shortened the name. She’s in Ireland.”
“That’s right. She married Declan.”
“Did I meet this… Declan?”
“Remember you and Dad came to the church in a limo? You met him at their wedding.”
Sometimes talking with Mom is like rehearsing a play by Harold Pinter.
A car stops in front of the house. Are Leslie’s dinner plans cancelled and she’s back? But it’s only the mailman. At this hour? A moment later the truck moves to the next house.
I stand. “The mail’s late today.”
“Don’t bother. Nothing good comes in the mail.”
Outside, I stoop to look in the mailbox. A loud voice startles me. “Are you their son?”
The mailman’s truck is on the other side of the street now. He leans awkwardly across the front seat. “I was worried. They haven’t picked up their mail for days.”
“They’re sick. I only found out yesterday.”
“I thought they were away and forgot to put a hold on their mail. Hope they’re feeling better.” He takes his foot off the brake, and the truck rolls toward the next house.
The box is stuffed. I pry the mail out, one magazine at a time. Letters fall to the ground. I attempt to carry it all in a single trip, but a catalog slides out, pulling a stack of envelopes with it. I stumble on the stairs. More mail scatters across the porch.
Damn! I’m angry with Dad. What were they doing besides drinking? I open the front door. The shower is still running. If he doesn’t turn it off soon, I’ll need to check on him.
“What was that noise?” Mom asks from the living room.
“I dropped the mail.”
I sit on the front steps, sorting the mail in the sun. During my early teens, I sat here reading mysteries. Neighbors called, “Hi,” or waved as they drove by. Forty years ago! Gone is my dead self—the boy I used to be. So too is every neighbor I knew—dead or moved away.
Only my parents are still here.
I’ve forgotten what’s become of all the kids on the street, except for the Robinson boy, two years older than me, who lived on the corner. He died in college. Fell from a dorm window. Drugs. I remember his father walking home from the bus stop in his trench coat and hat, staring at the ground. The family moved away the next summer.
I separate the mail into piles—advertisements, magazines, bills, junk. The shock of time passing claws at my throat and I close my eyes. The neighborhood as it was years ago appears fully realized in my mind. The houses are smaller, without the rooms and dormers added since then. Two oak trees stand in front of our house. The hedges planted between the Waters and the McGhees are only a foot high. I hear the shouts of kids in someone’s backyard, Ronnie Stevenson practicing the piano, the clicking of a bike at the end of the street.
I lived in this house from nursery school until college and only returned for holidays and the summer before I enlisted in the Air Force. Those years are a lifetime ago, and this house is no longer “home” for me. Do I feel sadness for the passing of time, or is it for the childhood I wish I’d had but didn’t? How cruel to be given life to enjoy, only to lose it, both good and bad, piece by piece as we grow old—
“Thanks for getting the mail.” The screen door squeals as Dad pushes it open. “Aren’t you uncomfortable sitting out there? Here, I’ll take the bills.”
I hand them to my father. I don’t look up, fearing my eyes are red. I clear my throat, which aches painfully. “I’ll bring in the rest.”
I stand, and the sadness drains away as fast as it came. It’s all chemicals in the brain. I’m healthy and happy, but I’d never relive my life if offered the opportunity. Ready or not, the future is waiting for me in the living room.
Dad is dressed in slacks and a long-sleeve shirt. He’s shaved, his face shiny, his wet hair plastered against his skull. I smell the shampoo from where he sits at a card table by the fireplace, wielding a letter opener shaped like a Turkish scimitar. With a swipe, he slits open each envelope, reads its contents, and then tears it up or adds the letter to his to-do pile.
The card table is his “desk” with checkbook, receipts, stamps, and stapler organized by an engineer—everything efficiently aligned without sacrificing geometric symmetry.
“Can I help? Oh!” Something brushes against my leg. It’s Snowflake, their cat of dubious lineage, pitch black except for a white spot beside her nose. She jumps onto the card table, landing on the pile of bills. When guests arrived, Dad always enjoyed calling “Snowflake” and watching their expressions when a black cat streaked between their legs into the house.
Mom laughs. “She wants to write the checks.” I wish she’d put her false teeth in.
“Say what?” Dad cups his hand around his good ear. Amazing how often he positions himself with his deaf ear toward her. He’s examining a bill and hasn’t noticed the cat.
“Snowflake wants to write the checks,” she repeats.
“I’ll write the checks later.” Dad raises his voice as if Mom is hard of hearing.
“No, Snowflake wants to—oh, never mind.” Mom clamps her mouth shut, glaring at Dad, her joke ruined by his inattention. She’s testy when he doesn’t appreciate her stories.
I pick up the cat and place her on Mom’s lap. Snowflake turns in a circle, pushing at Mom with her paws, claws picking at her bathrobe.
“She’s trying to soften you up,” I say.
Mom twists her mouth to one side. “Dad’s too bony. The cat can’t get comfortable on him.” She strokes Snowflake, who arches her back. Her purr roars like a jet engine. I want to lie on the rug and close my eyes, soothed by the sound.
“They’re charging me interest?” In disbelief, Dad throws the bill onto the table. “I paid this on time, dammit.”
He searches through his checkbook. Mom and I watch in suspense. “Here it is.”
I look over his shoulder and see a carbon copy of the check with a date of two months ago. This will obsess him until it’s straightened out. “You finish opening the mail. I’ll call the company and find out what’s up.”
I phone from the kitchen. As I suspect, he missed a month. “My father is eighty-two and gets confused. Please set him up for automatic bill payment.” I give her Dad’s checking info. “Will you also reverse the penalty?”
A moment of silence. “I’ve posted the credit. I see your father is eligible to upgrade and earn travel awards—”
“My father isn’t going anywhere. Thank you.” I hang up before she asks me to take a quick survey.
After checking the pot pie, I return to the living room. “It’s all straightened out. You missed a payment, but they waived the fee and interest.”
Dad slumps in his chair. I’m about to say I’ve signed him up for automatic bill payment but decide against it for now. His pride is hurt, but it’s not like he designed a bridge that collapsed. Cold comfort for an engineer to whom accuracy to the tenth decimal is second nature. He takes these episodes to heart and will be withdrawn for the rest of the day.
I’m in the kitchen when the telephone rings. Dad answers it on the living-room extension. “Mark, it’s for you.”
“I’m on my dinner break.” It’s Rachel. “How’s everything going?”
“I’m holding down the fort.”
“How sick are your parents?”
“They’re over the worst of it, but they’re dehydrated and have lost weight. I hope they don’t have a relapse.”
“Have they seen the doctor?”
“That might be a good idea, don’t you think?” The nurse has spoken.
The timer on the stove buzzes. “Time to get their dinner on the table. I’m pulling the night shift. Gee, that reminds me: I should cancel tonight’s reservation at the motel.”
“I’ll let you go. I’ll call tomorrow.”
After I serve Mom, Dad cuts her chicken into smaller pieces. “Make sure you chew it,” he warns her.
When I return from the kitchen with my own plate, she’s eating like she hasn’t seen food for days. I’m pleased I bought something she likes.
During the meal, I reassure Dad that having his bills paid automatically from his checking account isn’t a scam. “You won’t need to write a check every month. The company will withdraw the exact amount.” It’s my idea, so he remains suspicious.
Mom drops her fork on her plate. When she gags, Dad jumps up to pound on her back. Her throat heaves, she takes a breath, and the food slowly overflows from her mouth like a student’s volcano project. Dad grabs a napkin to keep it off the rug. He hustles her toward the sink in the pantry and talks over his shoulder. “We’ll be back.”
Dinner is over.
The evening is golden. The top of the maple tree is on fire in the remaining sunlight, but the porch is in shadow under the canopy of leaves. Dad plugs in the bug zapper and returns inside to get Mom’s sweater. Finally, everyone is seated with coffee, but no one speaks.
These long intervals of silence are not unusual. Dad isn’t much of a talker unless the subject is woodworking, camping, model railroads, or sailing. I never shared his interests. Instead, I read novels, acted in plays, and listened to classical music. We lived parallel lives, intersecting at meals, on family vacations, or when I had a question about math or physics.
The breeze picks up, and leaves twirl at the end of their branches. “Looks like rain,” Dad says. Mom pulls her sweater closer. “Are you cold?”
With her nod, Mom and Dad return inside to watch TV; I remain on the porch, enjoying the anticipation of rain.
After an hour, they decide to go to bed.
“I’ll be up in a sec.”
In the basement, I empty the dryer into a laundry basket. The clothes in the washer smell of mildew. I dial a quick cycle to refresh them. Coming up the stairs with the dry clothes, I hear Dad cursing. Mom has stumbled going up the stairs, and Dad can’t manage to help her up.
It’s not the first
time it’s happened.
When Leslie and I were children in the fifties, every grown-up we knew—parents, relatives, and the parents of friends—drank. Seen through the eyes of a child, mixing a drink was a fascinating ritual.
Dad was an expert, measuring each ingredient for a bourbon old-fashioned with a maraschino cherry, double martinis with gin and dry vermouth and a green olive or pickled pearl onion, rye whiskey manhattans, sidecars, Tom Collins, and white and black Russians. Leslie and I knew all the names.
At first, our parents drank socially, but after Dad’s service in the war and we were born, they started having a drink in the living room before dinner: a martini or a double martini. Dad arrived home from the office and prepared the drinks. Leslie and I were not to disturb our parents during the next hour.
Sometimes, if we weren’t hustled out to play, we asked Mom if we could have a sip. She’d laugh. “It’s a martini. You won’t like it.”
“Yes, we will,” we’d say in a chorus.
“All right, but just a taste.”
Leslie would take a sip. She’d scrunch up her face. “I hate it.”
Then I had my turn. The liquor burned my mouth. “It’s terrible.”
“I said you wouldn’t like it.”
We didn’t like the olive or green onion either.
We learned only to ask when she drank an old-fashioned with a maraschino cherry. Leslie and I argued over who would get to eat it while Mom fished it out by its stem. If Dad was in a good mood, he’d let the loser take one from the jar. I liked the cherry juice more.
As children, we accepted the fact everyone drank. No one talked about a drinking problem. How would we know our parents’ experience was different from that of other parents?
Sometimes after a drink, when resentments boiled over, Mom and Dad argued at dinner, but for the most part they were quiet drinkers. They didn’t shout or swear or make a nuisance of themselves. In fact, Dad often became more charming. On the other hand, Mom was silent and harbored the injustices she imagined had been dealt to her since she was a child. As she drank, her eyes glazed over, which only hastened her retreat into herself.
Leslie and I never suffered physically from our parents’ drinking. But even as children, we sensed intuitively that drinking had other effects, although we were too young to put this in psychological terms. Later we understood how drinking eroded our parents’ self-confidence and belief in themselves.
Rachel and I moved to the Chicago suburbs after my discharge from the Air Force. One year into my master’s degree program, I dropped out in 1973. I was sick of school and took an entry-level position in data processing. Our daughter, Jennifer, was born in September 1975. That Christmas, we returned to Arlington, so our parents could meet Jenn for the first time.
We stayed with Rachel’s parents. Her brother was also home but without a car. When Rob had an interview in a nearby town, we loaned him our car. In return, he agreed to drop us off at my parents’. When I called ahead to say we were coming, Dad answered the phone and, after some hemming and hawing, said they’d enjoy seeing us.
It didn’t take long to realize they had been drinking before we arrived. No wonder Dad had been ambivalent about our dropping by. Rachel’s parents didn’t drink, and not having grown up around alcohol, she was unforgiving. The visit was awkward.
After dinner, Rachel said Jennifer needed a nap. She called her brother for a ride, but he hadn’t returned.
“I’ll take you in our car,” Dad offered.
Outside, Rachel said she’d sit in the back with Jennifer. We only had a mile to drive. “That’s safer since there’s no child seat.”
Dad took out his keys and opened the driver’s door. “Dad, I’ll drive.” I reached for his keys.
“Why?” He stepped back, insulted. “It’s my car, and I want to drive.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
He laughed, trying to make a joke of it. “You think I don’t know how to drive, do you?” He threw his arms wide. “In case you forgot, I’ve been driving since before you were born.”
“You’re too…” I didn’t want to use the word drunk. We had avoided the subject all afternoon. “… too tired to drive.”
My father smirked as if I were a coward. He’d dared me to say the forbidden word.
“Mark!” Rachel from the back seat. “He’s not driving. Are you willing to risk your daughter’s life? I’ll walk home before I let him drive.”
Halfway behind the wheel, Dad heard Rachel and stopped. He smiled sheepishly. “Have it your way.” Getting out, he handed me the keys and walked around to the passenger side.
Before starting the engine, I put on my seat belt and waited for Dad to do the same. He couldn’t lock the belt. I twisted around to snap it closed.
No one spoke. Dad, who always drove, looked out at the scenery as if he hadn’t a care in the world. At her parents’ home, Rachel went straight inside with Jennifer. “You handle your father.”
Dad slouched against the passenger door, enjoying my predicament.
“Dad, stay here until Rob gets back with our car. Then I’ll drive you home.”
“Nonsense.” With Rachel out of hearing, he was no longer restrained. “Gimme the keys. I’ll drive myself home.”
“I won’t let you go back by yourself.”
He came around in front of the headlights. His expression was frightening, and I was glad the driver’s door was open between us. “Gimme the goddamn keys. Go inside with your wife and baby.”
I expected him to add, “You sissy.” I tossed him the keys without speaking, then stepped aside as he got in and slammed the door. He failed several times to insert the key in the ignition. When the engine started, he turned to me with a grin of accomplishment, once again the genial drunk.
“Call me when—”
He revved the engine, cutting off my words, and backed out of the driveway without looking. He braked suddenly, and the car rocked backward. Then he sped away.
“Call me when you arrive home.” My whisper was somewhere between relief and a prayer. Where are the police when you need them? Not that I wanted my father arrested for drunk driving, but I’d hoped their driving by might have convinced him to wait.
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. “I made it home.” Before I could reply, he disconnected.
Two months after that Christmas, Mom fell for the first time going upstairs to bed. She lost her footing, but the stairs were carpeted, and she was unhurt. Dad tried to lift her up, but he was also inebriated and didn’t have the coordination. He called an ambulance.
She was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s and held for observation. Dad stayed with her all night and took a taxi home in the morning. That evening, he called to tell me what happened. “We only had one drinky.” I didn’t believe him for a moment.
When Mom’s lab work came back, the doctor said he was amazed. “Her values are off the charts. I’m surprised she isn’t dead.” He insisted she remain on the ward to attend the alcoholic treatment program. It wasn’t AA. If it had been, Mom and Dad would have had nothing to do with it. They weren’t alcoholics; they just drank too much.
Dad visited every day and took part in the program. To everyone’s astonishment, they dried out and quit drinking cold turkey. Leslie and I were hopeful but realistic enough to wonder how long it would last.
They remained on the wagon much longer than we expected.
Children want to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. We hope certain behavior is nothing more than a one-time failing. Even when it becomes more evident, we justify it by saying our parents have the right to live as they see fit. This all changes when it affects our children.
In the early eighties, when we visited my parents, Jennifer and Jon, her brother born in 1981, acted standoffish and amused themselves in another room. We assumed they were shy around Mom and Dad and, frankly, we enjoyed having the children play alone, allowing us time to talk. But an incident opened our eyes.
I was outside with my father, looking at his vegetable garden growing against the back fence. Rachel was upstairs in my parents’ room, putting Jon down for a nap. Dad and I heard Mom shout and Jennifer crying. Dad ran into the house. I was close behind.
When we came into the living room, Jennifer was already in Rachel’s arms. Mom sat straight up on the couch, her eyes blazing. A children’s book lay on the floor, and Mom’s wine glass had tipped over, the wine dripping on the carpet.
“What happened?” Dad pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket to mop up the wine.
“The damage has been done,” Mom said. “We’ll have to send the rug out to be cleaned.”
“Never mind.” He was brusque, turning aside any distraction. “I want to know what happened.”
“Grandma said she didn’t want to read to me. She pushed me, and my hand hit her glass.”
Mom bristled at Jennifer’s accusation. “I told her I wouldn’t read anymore and asked her to go play.” Mom spoke to Dad as if he were the only person she had to convince.
Rachel soothed Jennifer. I hoped she’d say nothing, concerned that words spoken now could never be unsaid.
“She wouldn’t sit still,” Mom added, “and she wasn’t listening. I asked her to get down.”
“She pushed me.”
“Okay, Jennifer.” I picked up the book, open face down on the rug, and sat on the couch next to Mom.
Dad finished patting the carpet. “I’ll put some cold water on the stain.”
“Jennifer, come here,” I said.
She looked up at Rachel, who nodded. I lifted her onto my lap.
“Grandma didn’t realize she pushed you. And you didn’t mean to be rude when she tried to read.” I didn’t believe it myself, so how could I expect to convince my mother and daughter? “The best idea is for you two to give each other a big kiss and be happy.”
I waited for one of them to say something. When they didn’t, I tilted Jennifer toward her Grandma, making sure my daughter wouldn’t press her full weight against her.
She gave my mother a peck on the cheek. “I’m sorry, Grandma.”
Mom kissed her on the forehead. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, dear.”
Jennifer slid off my lap and took the book into the dining room.
The rest of the visit was uneventful. When Jon woke up, Rachel changed his diaper and we left.
“We’ll be revisiting this sometime in the future,” Rachel said while we got ready for bed.
“You mean what happened today?”
“I mean your parents’ attitude toward our children. Your mother’s behavior is too erratic. The children don’t know how she’ll react. It has everything to do with her drinking.”
Unbeknownst to me, Rachel talked to Leslie about what had happened. Leslie had noticed the same behavior with her children. Our parents were drinking again, and she was afraid they’d have a car accident. I flew to Boston in the fall, ostensibly for a business meeting, so Leslie and I would have an opportunity to speak to our parents. This would be the first time.
The story has moments that are touching…which leads readers to an unexpected revelation. –Kirkus Reviews
The story…captured family life experiences in an enchanting way. The characters are well developed and the book has a good plot that centered on interpersonal relationships within the family. — Official Review, ILoveUniqueBooks.com