Sunday 27 April 2014

Thief of Love

Grapevine June 1986 (thanks Ronny H)

I grew up in a lake resort town north of big, bad Chicago. Our house was as good as anyone's and better than some. When you walked in the front door, you saw the bathroom. It was a mark of distinction. No hiding that bathroom down the hall for us.

In our town, there were three churches and seventy-three taverns. In the basement of the church I went to was the seventy-fourth tavern. We had a bar, a juke box, draft beer, and slot machines. We had fish fries caught from a cold lake and served hot for one dollar. From the age of six, I knew which beer belly at the bar was likely to hand a cute little kid a nickel to play the slot machines, and it was likely to be the same one who lost his false teeth throwing up later on.

I learned about life on my parents' knees as they hung out on the bar stools. Lots of it was fun. At my favorite bar, a place called "Hello Folks," a red-faced, red-haired, boisterous lady played the piano and everybody sang and my parents were happy. They drank shots and beers and my father swept the ladies around doing the polka and my mother was the prettiest one there and everybody packed up all their cares and woes and took them to "Hello Folks" every night.

Somehow, it began to change. The man who gave me the most nickels died and after his funeral everybody got drunk because that's the way he would have wanted it. The jolly lady who played happy music cried into the glass on her piano because she had loved him. My parents began to argue, first with words, then with fists. Another baby was born and she wouldn't stop crying at night and my mother wouldn't wake up to take care of her. My parents were passed-out drunk while the house got colder and the nights got longer and the baby cried harder.

I was ashamed of our house now. It was a mess when I got home from school and my mother told me to clean it up before my father got home, and when my father got home he looked at my work, but he didn't look at me. At twelve years old I was held responsible for the havoc created by four younger children and, by God, I had better get the job done and keep my mouth shut, or else. Once I stamped my foot and yelled, "Unfair!" Once.

I missed my loving parents. They didn't look at me anymore. They avoided me or glared. Once upon a time, I was a feast to their eyes, and when they gazed at me it was like sunshine enveloping me and I felt wrapped in their arms. I was bursting with love at those moments; at six, I knew I could move mountains.

When I was old enough to drink, I did my folks one better. I arrived at the lakeside taverns courtesy of boyfriends with brand new rip-snorting powerboats. In the winter, it was by snowmobile or ice skates and I always had a wonderful time. No shots and beers for me. I drank like a lady. I drank martinis. Lots of them. If I got home at five in the morning, I'd merely say, "Hello Folks."

Three husbands and seven children later, I was still drinking martinis. I drank them until 4:30 in the morning the day my youngest daughter was born. By three years old, she was begging me to stop fighting with her daddy. Before she was ten, I didn't want her to look at me anymore because I didn't want her to see what I was doing. I was killing the joy of life, killing her love, and killing myself. She was too young to understand that I needed those martinis to fill the empty, hungry, gnawing void. It was later that I realized I was using alcohol to replace the love that was stolen from me by alcohol in the first place. The first few drinks gave me back a touch of that sunlight, and I wanted that so much I paid the price of the blackness and cold that inevitably followed. I would lie on the floor by my bed and cry in anguish while my daughter listened, and the look on her face was a mirror image of my own face at the same age.

I tried to stop for her sake, but I couldn't stop for anything or anybody, until one morning when I got up with a pounding head, exhausted and depleted from the previous night's drinking. Bent and aching and sick to my stomach, lackluster, weeping outside and inside, beaten and alone with my clutching devils that gave me no rest, I had a vivid, terrifying thought. "What if she turns out like me, as I and two of my brothers and sisters turned out like our parents? How long can alcohol keep a family whipped?"

I went to Alcoholics Anonymous and I shared at my first and second meetings. I saw the love I'd been missing in the eyes of those people. I felt something I can only describe as a wave of love sweeping over me, and I was relieved of my obsession to drink.

For five months, I have felt the arms of love around me, and I know I need never again let alcohol--cunning, baffling, and oh so powerful--steal any more love from me or my folks.

H. H.
Costa Mesa, California

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