When Leslie and I were children in the fifties, every grownup 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, precisely measuring each ingredient for bourbon old fashions 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. We argued over who would eat the Maraschino cherry.
At first, our parents drank socially, but after Dad’s service in the war, they started having a drink before dinner: a martini or a double martini. Dad arrived home from the office and prepared the drinks. Leslie and I knew not to disturb our parents during the next hour.
As children, we accepted the fact that everyone drank. No one talked about drinking problems. How would we know that our parents’ experience was different from that of other parents?
Sometimes after a drink, Mom and Dad argued at dinner when resentment boiled over, but for the most part, they were quiet drinkers. They didn’t shout or swear or make a nuisance of themselves. In fact, Dad became even more charming. On the other hand, Mom became silent and harbored the injustices 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 it in psychological terms. Later we understood how our parents suffered from their drinking, sapping their self-confidence and a belief in themselves.
Our daughter, Jennifer, was born in November 1976. We lived in Durham, North Carolina where I worked on a government project at Duke University. For the Christmas holidays, we returned to Arlington, so our parents could meet Jennifer for the first time.
We stayed with Rachel’s parents. Her brother was also home but had no car. When he had an appointment in a nearby town, we loaned him our car. 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 for us to realize they had been drinking heavily 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 back with Jennifer. We only had a mile to drive. “We’ll be safer there 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 pulled away as if 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’ve forgotten 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 dared me to say the forbidden word.
“Mark!” Rachel in 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 into the driver’s seat, Dad heard Rachel and stopped. He smiled sheepishly. “Have it your way.” He handed me the keys and walked around the car.
Before starting the car, I put on my seatbelt and waited for Dad to do the same. He couldn’t get the belt to lock. I twisted around to snap it closed.
No one said a word. 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. “You handle your father.”
Out of the car Dad hung onto the passenger door.
“Stay here until Robert 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 the front of the car. I was glad the driver’s door was open between us. “Gimme me the goddamn keys. You get inside with your wife and baby.”
I gave him the keys without speaking. He got into the car and slammed the door. It took him several attempts to insert the key in the ignition. When the engine finally started, he turned to me with a grin of accomplishment, once again the genial drunk.
“Call me when—”
He backed out into the street without looking. He braked too suddenly, and the car dipped forward. Then he sped away.
“Call me when you get home.” My words were 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 presence on the street might have convinced him to wait.
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. “I made it home.” Before I could reply, he disconnected.
After we returned to Massachusetts from North Carolina, Mom had her first fall going up the stairs to bed. She lost her footing and fell forward. 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 to help her. 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 drinkie.” I didn’t believe him for a moment.
When Mom’s lab work came back, the doctor said her values were off the charts. “I’m surprised she isn’t dead.” He insisted that 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.
It lasted much longer than we expected.
Children want to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. We hope that 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, Rachel and I noticed over time that Jennifer and her brother Jon didn’t act excited when they visited my parents. They didn’t rush into their arms, but instead, acted standoffish and amused themselves in another room. It was pleasant to have the children playing quietly, allowing us time to talk. But an incident opened our eyes.
I was outside with my father looking at the vegetable garden he grew against the back fence. Rachel was upstairs in my old 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 onto the carpet.
“What happened?” Dad pulled his 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 get down.” Mom spoke directly to Dad as if he was 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. When I once mentioned to Rachel that Jennifer wasn’t the easiest child to contend with, she turned on me with impatience. “She is only five years old.”
“She wouldn’t sit still, and she wasn’t listening. So, I asked her to get down.”
“She pushed me.”
“All right, Jennifer,” I said. I picked up the children’s book opened 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.”
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 barely convinced 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 try to 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.
Jennifer 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. She and I had to speak to our parents. This would be the second time.
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