My mother kept our apartment perfectly arranged and very, very clean. It was part of her rather compulsive nature. At home as a young child, I silently followed and watched her as she performed what I later realized was a self-inflicted penance. Although I did not speak until I was three, I was an observer of details. Today my memories of that time produce vivid images because as a child I observed without the encumbrance and filter of internal or external words. I still relive in detail those memories, replayed like movies on my mental screen.
Until I was eleven years old, my housewife mother, my brewery-working father, my older sister and I routinely ate meals at the kitchen or dining room table. We watched TV together in the evenings. My parents frequently took my older sister and me to fine restaurants to practice good table manners. We visited or were visited by relatives during holidays. We went on vacations to parks, to movies and many other interesting outings. We were routine occupants of the outfield bleachers where we cheered the Milwaukee Braves during the 1950s.
When I was eleven, I clearly remember one very hot day at the Braves stadium. I was a little surprised when my father returned to the bleachers holding two cups of beer. I saw my mother look at him quizzically as he coaxingly nudged the cup toward her. I had never before seen either of my parents drink any kind of alcohol. Unbeknownst to me, before that day’s first cup of beer, they had steadfastly been sober for about 15 years.
For those 15 years, my mother and father had both soberly and steadfastly tried to repent for and return from their past shortcomings and failures due to severe alcoholism. They had sincerely attempted to reclaim their lives from their wasted pasts. They had remained sober until I was eleven. Until then, my childhood had seemed almost idyllic. Until then – until my family was let down by a sudden, enormous, body-slam known as alcoholism.
After that day at the Braves stadium, my parents both began to drink alcohol occasionally, but over a few months their shortcomings and past failures resumed. After a few months, their “social drinking” became daily, which soon became always. Soon “always” for them became dead-drunk for days.
Our previously perfectly arranged and very clean apartment became routinely cluttered and dirty. Family meals, outings, Braves games, evening TV together and vacations ended. With the occasional exception of brief holiday displays of kinship, our family of four became four people alone spending our time in different rooms.
I lived alone with my parents during my teens. It was sadly fortunate that my parents’ binges could last only about three or four months at a time since one of them, especially my dear mother, would time and again reach death’s door.
I still relive memories of one such occasion when I was about 16. I remember sitting on the edge of my mother’s bed as her body involuntarily convulsed with the symptoms of withdrawal. Her clothed body was white and cold, and she sweated profusely. Her hand was cold and clammy as she tightly gripped my hand. Her hands, arms and legs trembled and jerked as I sat numbly watching. I held her hand and silently waited. Then the doorbell chimed; and as he had before and would again, the family doctor arrived. He sedated my mother and, yet again admitted her to the hospital. He took me aside and asked me kindly, “Are you doing okay?” I replied only, “Yes,” and was once again silent.
Many times my parents stopped drinking alcohol, but they seemed only able to endure six months or so of sobriety and healing before they resumed drinking. They could never stop once and for all.
For about twelve years during my teen years and early adulthood, I witnessed extreme, clinically compulsive urges for alcohol by my parents, especially by my dear mother. It still confounds me how my mother could experience the failures of a very deep alcoholism, maintain sobriety for 15 years, reclaim her life from her wasted past and then ultimately relapse over and over again.
My mother was 5’7” and weighed about 120 lbs. A month or two after she would resume alcohol use and take an “occasional social drink” she thought she “could handle”, she would be drinking more than a quart of scotch a day.
I try not to think bitterly and say that my mother and father both should have known better than to try to return to The Days of Wine and Roses.
I try not to linger on the fact that my mother and father both should have known the door was marked “Nevermore” for a very good reason.
I try not to so clearly remember one very hot day at the Braves stadium when I was eleven and he coaxingly nudged the cup toward her.
Donald George MacDonald was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI. After completing military service in 1972, he majored in psychology at the University of Florida. He then worked for the next decade or so providing mental health services. In 1990 MacDonald became a probation and parole agent with the State of Wisconsin and also supervised a department of agents for many years until he retired. He is tolerated by his wife, two adult children and two grandchildren.