Mom Drank Too Much

By Samantha Dunn 01/20/13

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

The mother lode Photo via

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. 

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