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Mom Drank Too Much

I always knew alcoholism would kill my mother. But that hasn't stopped me from trying to understand why.

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By Samantha Dunn

01/20/13

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Mom drank too much.

When I say that I don’t mean she got tipsy on one-too-many martinis at the country club. I don’t mean she downed a few extra glasses of merlot while she was cooking meatballs in the kitchen. What I mean is she poured the kind of scotch that comes in plastic gallon bottles into an iced tea tumbler. She took the iced tea tumbler to her thin lips and drank in gulps, as if it were water and she had been trekking the Sahara. The contracting muscles of her neck always reminded me of the way a snake moves, and it seemed she had to have scales lining the inside of her throat. She never coughed or sputtered, never grimaced at the raw burn of all that ethanol. 

She drank like that every day I remember, every day from five o’clock until she was so drunk her green eyes filmed over, fish-like, as if she were looking up at the world from under a great sea. 

At some point she would stand up, sway slightly, and announce, “Time for beddy-bye!” in a sing-songy voice that was so at odds with the deep ring of the way she said every other thing. The fall of her feet down the hall was a thudding, heel-first series of strikes. 

Never, that I saw, did she suffer a hangover.

The fact that her drinking could outweigh the absolutely magnificent brilliance of her mind and her encyclopedic knowledge and her nuclear-powered charm should be proof of its magnitude. 

--Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Mom would often quote Dylan Thomas with a wave of her cigarette, and it was also true that she recited from memory vast passages from Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Rudyard Kipling. She knew what to do with a socket wrench; spoke passable Arabic and Spanish and tied knots in maraschino cherry stems with her tongue. She remembered all the elements of the Periodic Table; did long division in her head; had been an Arthur Murray dance instructor with a specialty in the rumba. She had been in the Air Force and became a crackerjack emergency room nurse who knew how to deliver babies—in fact so often did she cover for a golf-loving OB GYN who never answered his pager that, if you were born in a certain hospital out West in 1971, and you are a girl, odds are your grateful parents named you Deanne, after the woman who brought you into this world.

Yet, when anyone who knew my mom describes her, they’ll say she drank too much. Maybe, if they are being nice or if they didn’t know her well, it won’t be the first thing on their list, but eventually they’ll bring it up. Trust me. I’ve spent a lifetime listening to people trying to break the news to me. “I know,” I’ll tell them. Or even, “Thanks for the news flash.” Or sometimes, “LIKE YOU THINK I DON’T FUCKING KNOW?” 

The fact that her drinking could outweigh the absolutely magnificent brilliance of her mind and her encyclopedic knowledge and her nuclear-powered charm should be proof of its magnitude. I could talk about all the damage her drinking caused me but mostly caused herself—all the ruined relationships, the firings, the evictions, the wrecked car, the cuts and bruises, the money squandered—but now, in the months after she’s dead, these are not the things that occupy my mind. What does occupy my thoughts, in fact what has taken up residence in my head and rattles my skull late into the night, is the wondering: What, really, was she thirsting for, and how could it have been slaked?

Being Irish was a big part of her story. She did in fact look like she’d been sent over from Central Casting: wavy auburn hair, green eyes, an upturned nose, lightly freckled skin. But her mannerisms, her way of talking and walking, the way she dressed as a young woman—those were all so startlingly similar to the way Stockard Channing played the character Rizzo in the movie version of Grease that now I find myself watching that musical, over and over. See, we never took home videos.

She wore ridiculous t-shirts that said “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, They’re Up to Something” even when it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day. She would crack you upside the head first and ask questions later—which is to say she had a streak of the prizefighter in her. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers blared from our turntable on booze-soaked Sunday afternoons. A shillelagh leaned in the corner by the front door of every home we ever lived in, I kid you not. At any moment a weird-faced, dancing Leprechaun could materialize in the center of our living room. 

Okay, so there I exaggerate, but that kind of blarney is part of the package.

She spent the long afternoons and weekends of her childhood in the company of Great Aunt Ethel and Uncle Jim O’Brien. My grandmother—the one single, good-looking divorcee in a small town—had cocktails with friends or went to New York City on trips for the town’s one department store, where she was the lingerie buyer. 

Uncle Jim indeed had come straight from Dublin; he was for my mom the practical father, the man who did all the things her own father didn’t do after he left to start another family in another town.

I wonder now what it was like for her to be a forgotten only child, sitting in that careful house with two aging relatives, lace dollies on the furniture and a framed picture of the pope staring down from the wall.

Did Mom listen to Uncle Jim talk as he nursed his Jameson’s, telling tales about the emerald place he’d left in that sentimental, morose way of the immigrant idealizing the motherland, and did the deepest part of her resonate with the feeling of exile? Exile if not from a place then from the mother and the father for whom she longed?

Did the thirst start there?

Mom had her first drink at the age of 14, a cocktail called a Pink Lady (that’s gin, grenadine, light cream—any kid raised like I was has the equivalent of a bartending school education by age six). The picture of the portentous occasion was snapped at a touristy bar in Manhattan in 1952. Mom, face shiny, baby fat straining the seams of her nice dress, sits next to my exquisite grandmother, who looks like a movie star in a pillbox hat and Mona Lisa red lips. Gram looks like she should be accompanied by Rock Hudson, but instead it is just some dumpy Irish guy named Patrick with a bit of a gut and a wife and five kids back in Pennsylvania. Who takes her teenage daughter on a date with a married man she’s having an affair with, and also buys her a drink? Gram did, that’s who, but that’s maybe another story. 

I wonder if Mom was sizing him up, if she was imagining this Patrick walking through the door after work every night, smiling at the sight of her, saying, “How was your day at school, macushla?” I see her eyeing him and putting that Pink Lady to her lips, the grenadine sweetness and the gin burn mixing with the desire for something she did not have, conflicted feelings fusing in that moment, alcohol and wanting now confounded in the pathways of her brain for the rest of her natural life. 

Then again, maybe she’d been feeling awkward and uptight sitting there with her mother and old Patrick (didn’t she go to school with his kids?), but the second the gin hit her system all tension melted, the moments becoming somehow manageable. Maybe even pleasant.

Somehow I got the idea early that maybe if I were successful enough, I could kill this quenchless thing.

Of course, drinking killed her. The byzantine epic of her death goes something like: broke a glass in her kitchen; stepped barefoot on a shard; tried to treat the cut at home; it became infected; her foot went gangrenous and half of it had to be amputated; emergency surgeries of all manner were required; she comes home, a secondary infection sets in; she goes septic; dies.  

Still, during all of that, the thirst.  

I want to be clear here: I know about drinking. I have a veritable black belt in Al-Anon. Disease, genetic predisposition, environment, psychological factors—yes, yes, I know. I know it all, and yet none of it seems enough to explain that quenchless thing of my mother’s. Maybe biology and psychology and sociology and whatever other -ologies we invent can explain and contain the addictions suffered by some. For others, the immensity dwarfs our science. 

Somehow I got the idea early that maybe if I were successful enough, I could kill this quenchless thing. I hoped—hoped in secret, because I knew better by then—that the birth of my son, Mom’s beloved grandson, would finally make the thing evaporate. Even that, no. Over the course of my life I have raged at this thing and run away from this thing, I have screamed at this thing and beat up this thing, I have tried to intellectualize, and ultimately to accept, this thing. Now that she is gone, what I have come to feel is a strange sort of objective curiosity, perhaps even a bizarre kind of reverence.  

A little story to illustrate: She returns to our home after having been in the hospital for two months. She hobbles up the steps—half her foot amputated —and goes straight into the kitchen. I’m in the living room with my son when I hear her rummaging around in the cupboard. 

--Mom, what are you looking for? 

--Where the hell’s the vodka you had in here? 

The next day, when the ambulance came, she’d downed more than half a  liter of booze. See, the thing is, I knew she’d do that. I knew it from a lifetime. Yet, I still cried.

This essay is excerpted from a longer work originally published in the anthology, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up. Samantha Dunn is the author of several books, including the novel Failing Paris and the memoir Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life. This is her first piece for The Fix.

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