I’m sitting with my mom at a tiki bar overlooking the waves in Pompano Beach, Florida. Sweet, cheap cigar smoke and round, leathery midwesterners eddy around us. The air is humid and smells slightly of beer, and the music is too loud. This is the combination that screams LEISURE to the primal part of my brain; growing up, being bellied up to a bar next to a mediocre body of water while people drank cheap beer in the bright sun and bad, steel-drum versions of Jimmy Buffet songs played meant we were officially on vacation.
But it has never been just me and my mom. Even when family vacations ended, with the death of her second marriage, we always traveled with my sister, and usually my mom’s new boyfriend. But not this time. Seven mudslides into our first night together, things are getting real.
Even though I know our lives would have been different, I still don’t think it was worth it, I tell her.
Really? she replies. Even if you would never have had Guess jeans, or Reeboks, or any vacations, ever? You would have been okay?
Yes, I tell her. I’m pretty sure that, on balance, living with a man who hated us was worse than not having Esprit sweatshirts.
I thought it would be worth it, she says, toying with a paper straw wrapper. He was on the road three or four days a week, and then we could be ourselves and have fun, and we had some breathing room.
I know you did, I tell her. And I do. If I were a young woman with only a high school education, two small kids whose father was a deadbeat, and no prospects for relief in sight, what bargains might I have made? He loved her, that much everyone agrees on. The fact that he didn’t like us, and we loathed him and his awful kids, and they disliked my mom and he treated them like crap… well, I guess from certain perspectives it might have been reasonable to expect that those things would work themselves out. However, not all reasonable expectations in life are met, by a long shot. At 36, I can attest to this.
But still, it wasn’t worth it. He was a mean man and a meaner drunk, and if the explosions didn’t happen every day, that only meant they were that much more surprising every time they did. My sister and I were sweet and sensitive kids, and before he came on the scene we expected that every adult we knew loved us. Even after we became used to being constantly sneered at and belittled and insulted and demeaned, we were shocked every time he really crossed the line. I used to fantasize that he would die in a car accident, and daydream about how happy we would be if we heard that he wasn’t coming back through that front door. I hated him — deeply and steadily — from the day he married my mother when I was eight.
There are a million similar stories children of alcoholics tell, about being terrified and walking on eggshells and keeping secrets and begging your mom to take the keys, please, even if it pissed him off, please please please. But part of it, as I recall when my childhood vacations rise up before me like they have this week, was fun. I liked being in bars when I was a little kid. I liked the way the adults forgot we were there and let us hear secret things. I liked it when everyone started dancing, and when they gave me quarters for the jukebox. I liked being up at 2 a.m. I loved Shirley Temples with extra grenadine, and dinners comprised of potato skins or nachos. While everyone was happy, these were good times, so it’s complicated to try to recall the happy days when they are nestled up so close to the dark times.
I forget what started the final ugly scene. I’d lived in DC for years by then, but it was Christmas, so we were home. It was the usual stomping and yelling, though more simply embarrassing and irritating to me as an adult than it was when I was a kid; I had my own car, my own house, my own life to which I would be returning shortly. The next morning, however, when we should have been opening presents and instead were being treated to a weepy, shaky apology in the kitchen, I was furious. Leaning against the kitchen counter, refusing to make eye contact, feeling like the seething 14-year-old I used to be, I thought I am never coming home again if he is here. After 22 years, my mom left him the following month. I was 30 years old.
I knew that you would do it, and it was the final straw, my mom says, on the beach six years later. Sometimes, I think I’d be in Ohio still, seeing my mom every couple of days, if I hadn’t been fleeing him, but I keep that to myself. There is a lot of water under that bridge, and it is far too late for that particular what if to be fruitful. Maybe chasing me out was the biggest favor he ever did me.
I knew I would leave the day he took you and your sister out past midnight with his drinking buddies, and I had no idea where you were and no way to get in touch with him. I was calling the hospitals, the police… her voice trails off. She’s not talking about my stepfather now, but my dad. In this story, my sister and I are six and four. I don’t remember the day in question, but I remember enough about that period to believe it.
My dad was a different kind of drunk than my stepfather. On one hand, he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, drunk or sober. On the other hand, when he had us after the divorce there were no other adults around to protect us from his faulty judgment. He was a bartender, and sometimes one of the waitresses would make sure we got out of the bar early and into bed, but more often than not the worried adult role was played by me. Being at the bar late was even more fun with my dad, because everyone loved him and we were cooed over and cosseted, but he was a much less proficient drunk driver than my stepfather. The rides home were always absolutely terrifying, with me trying to both distract my scared little sister and make enough noise to keep him awake behind the wheel. When noise failed, and he began to nod, I would pinch him. At his house, I cooked and cleaned and made my sister take a bath. At our house, I bribed her not to tell my mom what went on with him, because I knew that he would get in trouble and be sad, and that it would be our fault. I was seven.
All I ever wanted was someone to take care of things so I could have babies and stay home with them, my mom says. And I tried to be so strategic about it… with your dad, I thought he was smart, and ambitious, and had a great relationship with his family, who I really loved, too. She shakes her head. But then he just never grew up. They married when they were both 18, and had me at 22.
I know this, too. That she has also been betrayed by every important man in her life. She loved my dad, and he broke her heart. She married my stepfather because her heart was safe from him, and she thought the benefits outweighed the risks. She tried her hardest to give us what she thought would give us a leg up — good genes, a higher standard of living. It’s an object lesson, really, about unintended consequences. The men she chose to shelter and support us all failed us all instead. It’s not really that mysterious that my sister and I don’t exactly thrive in the dating department. You grow up being exposed to danger by people who are supposed to protect you, and being hated by people who might reasonably be expected to love you, and you internalize messed-up lessons about your own self-worth and how you deserve to be treated. That simple truth is sending therapists’ children to college across this country.
And yet. On the other hand, my sister and I are successful people leading successful lives in the city. We have good jobs and excellent friends. We have been smart enough to duke all this out with various mental health professionals. We are unfailingly considerate. We have robust 401(k)s and stamped passports. We know how to act in a bar. Our relationships with each other and with our mom are superlative. It’s a hell of a lot more than most people get. And that is not a throwaway statement — it really is so much more than so many people could hope for, even on the days when it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.
My mom and I wander off to dinner at a mediocre seafood restaurant on the beach. Later on, we will give each other the shiny new things and half-used ones we’ve amassed since the last time we were together; earrings for me, perfume for her. These baubles are tangible reminders that we are never far from each other’s thoughts, even if we are often too far from each other’s company.
Florida is good with my mother in it, leathery midwestern snowbirds and vacationing Jersey Shore extras be damned. The overwhelming majority of the time we spend together is light and easy. We scheme ways to see each other more, to live closer to each other. She is happily ensconced in a stable relationship with a nice man — the women of my family, save my sister and me, are never single for more than five minutes.
What I’ve figured out, she tells me long after I think the conversation is over, is that we are all responsible for our own emotional and financial well-being. You can’t count on anyone… well, except for you and me and your sister; we can always count on each other.
It’s a good place to start.