Mom buckles me into the backseat of our 1979 station wagon, fastening the seatbelt snugly. She is thirty-seven, young-looking, pretty. She wears a belted sweater in a rusty shade of orange — just slightly outdated and out-of-season for a July morning in 1982.
We are going blueberry picking.
My mother died when my son Isaac, was six weeks old. By that time her face was prematurely aged from years of drinking. Her hair, like her personality, tended to be unpredictable, frizzled, choppy. Though it was 1999, Mom still wore the circa-1979 belted-orange sweater, still drove old cars, and still earned a 1979 living wage. It was as though at some point Mom’s connection to the outside world just stopped.
I sat nursing my new baby at the memorial service, listening numbly as the pastor spoke, then a few of her friends. Gee, isn’t it nice that they’re all saying such good things about Mom, I thought to myself as I casually adjusted Isaac’s latch on my nipple. Out of the corner of my eye I saw others — more distant relatives, acquaintances of Mom’s — watching me. “How brave she is,” I imagined them murmuring to each other. In truth, I just wanted to get home and get back to life.
When your mother is an alcoholic, you learn how to detach.
“We’ll have to drive a little further this year,” Mom says, gripping the burnt-sienna steering wheel, squinting as she anticipates her turn. “They took down most of the woods to build more holes for the golf course.”
I am only five, but the disdain in her voice at the words “golf course” carries with me to this day, a lesson in conservationism from my non-political-minded mother.
I clutch my bucket with excitement as Mom pulls up to the edge of the dense northern Michigan woods.
The next day, we made the three-hour car trip to Cheboygan, where Mom’s ashes were buried in the plot next to my would-have-been big brother, Patrick, who’d died suddenly, in 1970, at six weeks old — the same age as the fat baby I held football-like under my arm as I stood next to her grave. His death was when Mom’s drinking began, so my older sister tells me.
It was a mild November day and I felt uncomfortable, like I wasn’t doing the grieving-daughter-thing quite right. Her death felt, to me, less like a loss and more like a release — a reprieve from that sinking feeling that somebody you love is going downhill, and there’s nothing you can do but try to keep yourself from going down with them.
Later, on the car ride home, I glimpsed at the death certificate and saw the cause of death: cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism. I felt a momentary surge of anger at the faceless coroner for his diagnosis.
When your mother is an alcoholic, it’s hard to get past the impulse to cover up.
“Look over here!” Mom says. “I found a patch!”
We pounce on the blueberries, dropping them into the buckets as we work our way, crouched low, around the plants. Wild blueberries don’t plunk into the bucket the way the ones at the grocery store do. They’re small and firm, and they plink.
They don’t taste like grocery store blueberries, either. For every berry that goes in the bucket, one ends up in my mouth, tangy-sweet. “Remember to leave some for the gnomes,” Mom says. “They don’t need too many, though.”
“Gnomes must have small bellies, right Mom?” I ask, carefully avoiding a few of the lowest, best-looking berries.
It wasn’t until later, much later, when I was able to remember not just Mom-last-month but also the Mom I knew when I was five, eight, ten, that I began to grieve. Easier to cry for the loss of the mother who made Christmas ornaments with you every year than the mother who showed up drunk to your wedding and attempted to dance Latin-style with your new husband’s crazy uncle. Her death made everybody’s job easier. Now we could just remember Mom the way we all wished she’d always been.
I think it took me a long time to accept that Mom was an alcoholic because her usual behavior didn’t fit with my childish definition of “drunk.” I’d seen drunk in the glassy eyes of my boisterous uncle as he swung me dangerously over his head, laughing at my delighted squeals as the sober adults in the room nervously watched on, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice to rescue a catapulting child from going through the front-room window. I’d seen drunk in the loud but good-natured political debates around the table of my aunt’s house: die-hard liberals, right-wing conservatives, political scandals, and a couple bottles of good liquor. That was drunk, not Mom’s bitter, angry irrationality that just happened to be combined with a sizeable dose of Ernest and Julio.
And drinking wasn’t the entirety of what made Mom difficult — it was simply the factor that could take her from slightly manic to something more, something harder to explain away. Sober Mom might nag me to do the dishes, but only drunk Mom would add, “You’re just like your father, you think only of yourself, and you’ll always be selfish.” Sober Mom might sternly chastise my friend and me for trying to leave the house wearing too much makeup, but only drunk Mom would tell us we looked like a couple of two-bit floozies, her hands clenched, tears in her eyes: angry, but more than angry — threatened. Sober Mom welcomed debate, seemed to encourage my spirited side. Drunk, she seemed overwhelmed by the fact that I had opinions of my own, wounded by the force of my preteen will, and unable to cope.
On days like those, my best friend wouldn’t commiserate, “Man, your mom’s being a bitch,” but would instead pretend — badly — that she didn’t notice, perhaps imagining the conversation her parents would have over the dinner table when she told about what she’d seen: It’s sad, isn’t it. I wonder if we can do anything?
Sometimes when I’ve had a glass of wine and I lean in over my children to tuck them into bed and kiss them good-night, I wonder if they smell the wine on my breath and if that memory will be forever etched in their memories, and if they’ll one day associate me with that smell the way you associate pine needles with Christmas and melting candle wax with birthday cake. The smell of certain kinds of alcohol — particularly when covered up by a dose of mouthwash — jolts me into the past.
When your mother is an alcoholic, it can really take the fun out of drinking.
We’re home. Mom is probably having a glass of wine, and we’re sorting and cleaning the berries, then divvying them up into individual containers — some for freezing, some for snacking, some for baking. We’ve decided to make blueberry muffins today; blueberry pancakes tomorrow.
“What can I do?” I ask, pinching a blueberry from the empty Cool-Whip container we’ll use to freeze them in.
“You can get out a mixing bowl, the measuring cups, and a wooden spoon,” says Mom. “Thanks for being a great helper.”
I jump to the task, glowing.
My challenge becomes determining which of my mother’s behaviors were damaging (because, certainly, many were) and which were enriching. How can I separate the good from the bad? How can I take the person I am today and decide which parts Mom helped develop (so to emulate) and which parts she just messed up (so to avoid)?
It would be easier if it was as simple as “alcohol = always bad” and “no alcohol = always good.” But it was my mother who, though most likely three sheets to the wind at the time, introduced me to Harry Chapin and the original Broadway recording of Fiddler on the Roof. It was my mother who, while accusing me of doing things that my older brother actually did (thereby causing me to question my own sanity) and handing out irrelevant punishments, also encouraged my writing, praised my singing voice, and cuddled with me on the couch while watching TV.
I have moments with my own children that scare me — moments of disproportionate rage, violent urges that come and go so quickly and sharply they leave me breathless Sometimes my own (sober) voice seems to morph into the scary tone of drinking Mom — shaming, irrational, cruel, the sound that can make my children wither before my eyes. Other times, I hear the gentle, low humor of Mom on her good days: clever, quick-witted, fun. I’m not sure which I find more unsettling.
Mothering, for me, isn’t just a matter of following what feels right. What feels right, I’ve been told by therapists, books, and armchair psychologists, is skewed — based on an upbringing filled with uncertainty, dishonesty, and blurred boundaries. I am not allowed to trust my feelings because they will mislead me. At first, I dealt with this uncertainty by mothering in ways that seemed socially acceptable — the hope being that using society at large as a mothering litmus test would keep me from screwing up. Yet my ever-present urge to rebel (thanks, Mom) against much of what is considered “good parenting” has led me to make up my own rules as I go. An absence of predictable bedtimes — neglectful disregard of security-building routine, or that much more quality time to spend with Mom? I’m not supposed to worry my kids with my problems, that much I know — but how much does a thoughtful parent hold back? What’s healthy?
I find myself thinking about my parenting goals not in terms of “most wonderful,” but of “least harmful” — when my kids look back on their childhood, I don’t want them to remember a few really great moments amid a bunch of purposely forgotten black X-marks. My hope is not that the once-in-awhile good will be so outstanding that it blots out the bad, but that the bad will be infrequent enough that it fades away naturally. I wonder, sometimes, if I’m succeeding. I also wonder just how screwed up that kind of outlook is.
When your mother is an alcoholic, you learn to doubt yourself.
Mom and I have just finished the last of the golden-brown muffins. We put our empty milk glasses and plates (mine licked clean of crumbs) into the sink, then head upstairs to bed.
Mom sits on the edge of my bed and reads me a chapter of Little House on the Prairie. I can read it myself — she taught me how — but tonight, I’m only too happy to hear the steady, even tone of her voice as she reads the story of Laura and Ma baking sourdough biscuits.
“Did you have fun today?” she asks when she’s finished, tucking the covers carefully in around my shoulders. I nod yes, my eyelids heavy. I’m exhilarated by our venture through the woods, lulled into sleepiness by Mom’s gentle movements. Mom drops a kiss on my forehead and I drift off to sleep.
I dream of Ma Ingalls in a belted orange sweater, holding a fat, happy gnome in her hand.