Mom Drank Too Much - Page 2

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

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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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