Wednesday, April 01, 2009

What Mom Left Behind

I submitted this a while back to check it out...


It's fascinating to read a love letter long after a breakup, or to hold the boutonniere from my prom tuxedo in my hand 15 years after I wore it. I stash mementos like these in a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet and look at them sometimes; they make my history seem more real.

Buried in the box, under an old deck of playing cards and my first camera, is a black silk scarf that my mother used to wear in her hair. It's a relic of the 70's, full of trippy, swirling designs; I remember staring at it, mesmerized, when I was four.

Silk was new to me. Whenever mom wore the scarf, I would climb on the couch and reach for it, delighting in its smoothness as I rolled it back and forth between my fingers. "Steve!" she would giggle.

But my mother was hardly the Carol Brady you are probably imagining. When I was ten or so, she began a long battle with alcoholism, and though some part of her still cared about her family, her true love was the nasty stuff in those fancy bottles.

Mom loved Southern Comfort. She was obsessed with it. Like a clingy girlfriend, she constantly kept a bottle close by her side, and stacked cases of it in our storage room as if our house were a prohibition-era speakeasy. SoCo was her lover, her priest, her therapist; it preoccupied her enough to forget my birthdays and to mortify me by staggering into the middle of the street in her ratty bathrobe, puffing on a clove cigarette, shrieking at me to come home for dinner.

The liquor made her unpredictable. Sometimes I would break a glass or a dinner plate, and she'd just smile warmly as she swept up the mess; other times, I'd drop a fork on the floor during dinner and she'd rip out a clump of my hair. Dad stuck up for me when he was home, but he worked 12-hour shifts at a factory, and most nights he came home after I had gone to bed.

She got worse. By the time I was 11, I dreaded holidays and family get-togethers. For some unfortunate reason, my seat at the table was right next to mom's, and it was guaranteed that, at some point during dinner, she would find a reason to crack me across the mouth in front of my aunts and uncles.

She beat me, and my two brothers. She called us every name on the bathroom wall, smacked us with wooden spoons, clawed us with her fingernails, and then kicked us when we covered our faces and dropped to the floor in the fetal position.

One day, when I was 12, mom told us that she was leaving for a while. We pleaded tearfully for her not to go, but she didn't listen. She had to be alone for a while, she said. Yeah, I cried too, but I remember how quiet the house got after the door closed behind her. A week later, I was thrilled to be rid of her.

She came home from time to time, usually to borrow money from dad. If he could spare it, he would surreptitiously hand her a folded-up wad of bills and make her swear that she wouldn't spend it on booze, a promise they both knew she wasn't going to keep.

To his credit, dad never complained. He never decried the injustice of his wife simply erasing herself from our lives, leaving him with all the responsibility. He never complained about money, though in retrospect I have no idea how he kept us fed and clothed on the salary he was making. My brothers and I never wanted for anything; we had bikes and videogames, just like the other kids. Dad could have used that money to go on dates, or for guys' nights out. But he sacrificed those things so my brothers and I could be happy, and I love him for that.

Dad never divorced mom. Though she had been out of the house for years, he left her on his health insurance, and always referred to her as his "wife", graciously making excuses when people asked where she was.

I'm supposed to say that I outgrew my mother's influence as I became a man, but I didn't. I grew up fearing for my personal safety, largely keeping quiet in case some random word sent mom over the edge. The best way for me to get by was to silently observe my surroundings, cautiously avoiding trouble, trusting no one but myself. For a long time, that's how I lived my life.

My grandmother used to say, "You can't make good cookies with a bad cookie cutter." I built relationships with women the only way I knew how, trusting them inch by inch, suspicious of every promise, doubtful of their affections.

Getting a girl to date me was a thrill. Getting her to have sex with me was a bigger thrill. But what satisfied me most of all was walking away from her. I got what I wanted, and left. And why not? She was going to do it to me if I stuck around, right?

It was something of a rite of passage the first time my mother asked me for money. My heart swelled with pride; now I held the power, and could deny it to her if I wished.

I had dreamed of this moment for a long time, the confrontation in which I would dump a truckload of my suffering back on her. In my fantasies, I screamed in her face like an angry baseball manager, barraging her with accusations for which she could manage no reply. Of course, I would not attack her physically, but if she dared take a swing at me, I would catch her scrawny little arm and snap it like a toothpick.

In the end, I only told her no, that we both knew what the money was for, and that I refused to contribute to the destruction of her body. "It's already destroyed," she replied.

She would come by my college apartment every few weeks to wash my dishes and do my laundry, and once I was good and buttered up, she'd ask for cash again, "so I can buy something to eat".

Despite how it sounds, mom wasn't homeless, and she wasn't starving. She bounced from one friend or relative's couch to another, sponging off them for as long as they would let her.

I wanted to help her, but instead of giving her cash to drink away, I took her shopping. Smart, right?

I thought so too, until a neighbor saw mom at the grocery store, returning a big pile of food. She left with a nice wad of cash, I am sure, and it's no mystery what she did with it.

I screamed at mom for that, swore at her, completely lost my temper, like she did to me. And she shriveled in terror, curling into a little ball, just like I used to. Was that what I used to look like?

It felt good to unload on mom, but only briefly. Despite the history between us, revenge seemed wrong. I wanted to be happy, and normal. I didn't want to be filled with the horrible hate that she was.

After I graduated from college and got my MBA, mom didn't come around much. She came to see me one Christmas, drunk at 10am, and empty-handed because she was "in between jobs". I had a gift for her, though—a framed picture of her three sons. Even mom wouldn't be able to get cash for that!

On September 23, 2004, mom suffered a severe stroke and never regained consciousness. She died with her three sons, two daughters-in-law, and husband standing around her hospital bed. She was 56 years old.

It was sad to see mom in her coffin, but in a way it helped me. She was finally free of her addiction, and she looked at peace, far from the monster she had become.

I have a great job now, and I married a beautiful girl named Tim last fall. Later this year, we're going to try for a baby. It's been a long road for me, but I've finally forgiven mom. I can't tell you exactly how I did it, because it was really just a million little steps, with plenty of wrong ones thrown in. If you're in the situation I was, the worst and only mistake you can make is giving up.

When I think of mom now, I don't think of the sad, hopeless drunk that she turned into; I think back to when I was a little boy, when mom would ask me what I did in Kindergarten that day, then pick me up so she could look in my eyes as I answered.

But I didn't want to talk about Kindergarten. I didn't want to go to school at all. I just wanted to stay with mom forever, playing with her black silk scarf.