My Mother the Alcoholic

Living a lie about who you are has never made anyone a better parent

We are living in the suburbs outside of Boston in an eerie little New England town called Waban. It is probably 1960. There is a local library where Deborah and I check out books every Thursday, a drugstore with a soda fountain, an A&P, an elementary school, a post office and a hardware store on whose back wall a large poster of a scantily-clad, busty young woman leaning seductively against a bicycle is festooned.

It is late afternoon, bordering on evening. It is getting dark. We are all at home, all four of us, four little kids between the ages of one and six years.

My father calls my mother from the office. She sits down at the rosewood escritoire she and my father bought in Denmark before we were born. She lights a cigarette and drags on it ferociously, the phone wedged between her raised left shoulder and her ear. With her free hand, she writes on a pad. My father is telling my mother he is inviting home some guests. Important people. She knows what this means. She will become the happy hostess and serve drinks and hors d’ouevres. She has a PhD in child psychology. She worked as a social worker for a while. My parents waited for seven years after they got married to have kids. Then my mother produced four kids in five years. Pregnancy suited her, I think. The hormones. Motherhood was a different story.

Josh and I are playing with my mother’s Bakelite phone and address organizer. We are pretending the organizer is a foot measure like the ones they use at the shoe store. We step on it and slide the plastic slider on its top against our toes to measure the length of our feet. Deborah is upstairs; Andrea is in her playpen, where she spends too much time. She is crying because she wants out. Her nose is running and the strap of her pink overalls is hanging off her shoulder. There is greenish mucous residue on the front of her cotton T-shirt, the one with the yellow ducks embroidered around the neck. We are between au pairs, of whom we’ve had several, the most recent a German woman named Babs who taught Andrea to count to five in German.

Fünf, ” I say to Andrea. She stops crying for a moment.

Drei fünf,” she replies. My mother slams down the phone and stands up. Andrea raises her arms and whimpers so my mother will lift her out of the playpen, but my mother ignores her and storms through the swinging door into the kitchen.

When my parents lived in Cambridge, my mother sometimes shopped at Savenors, the original urban gourmet market, made famous by its most redoubtable customer, Julia Child. It was there my father trained my mother to buy Camembert cheese, which is unavailable at the local A&P. The local A&P carries Velveeta, iceberg lettuce, tinned fruit cocktail and cans of Dinty Moore beef stew. Even if she has time to go to the A&P, she could not have bought the right food, the savory gourmet assortment my father equates with social status.

My mother stubs out her cigarette in an ashtray. She opens the fridge, pours herself a glass of orange juice and splashes bourbon from a cabinet into the glass until it is almost overflowing. She gulps down half the drink with her first swallow. In the dining room, Andrea has resumed crying. Now she is wailing. Deborah comes downstairs and into the kitchen, sucking her thumb.

“Andrea is crying,” she says around her thumb.

“Tough,” says my mother.

She opens the pantry and removes a selection of ingredients: a can of minced clams, a box of Ritz crackers, a tin of paprika. From the fridge, half a block of Philadelphia cream cheese, a jar of green stuffed cocktail olives, a little jar of sliced pimentos to be used as garnish; finally, the bright yellow package of Velveeta that has lived on the bottom shelf of the fridge since the Pleistocene. She opens the box, peels back the tin foil exposing the cheese. The end of the loaf has hardened into a brown rectangular lump that she hacks off with a butcher knife, exposing the neon orange surface of the cheese underneath. She sets to work, opens tins of clams, mashes cream cheese, grates an onion, which makes her cry. She assigns Deborah and me the job of placing Ritz crackers in rows on a serving tray. She slices Velveeta. I put slices of cheese on the crackers. I arrange a decorative pimento on the glossy surface of some of them; on others, a cocktail olive. I enjoy helping in the kitchen. In the kitchen when she’s occupied with other tasks, my mother is less likely to fly off the handle.

My mother dumps the clam dip into a glass bowl and sets it on the dining room table. She opens a bag of potato chips and deposits its contents into another bowl. She carries the cracker-and-cheese tray into the living room and places it on the mantelpiece. Then she unties her apron — salmon pink — throws it on the counter and heads upstairs to change.

A few minutes later I hear my father’s key in the lock. My parents’ standard poodle, Franqui, runs to the door, barking. My brother crowds beside him.

“Where’s your mother?” asks my father as he pushes open the front door, pulling off his gloves and scarf.

“Upstairs,” says Josh. “Changing.”

My father glances into the living room. In the semi-darkness, I see his eyes land on the mantelpiece, on the tray holding the Velveeta and crackers. He walks over to it and looks. Even in partial darkness, I can see his face go red, then black. He can create an atmosphere of darkness in the twinkling of an eye, gathering a storm so acute and all-powerful that the air around him becomes a vacuum. I am paralyzed; I almost wet my pants. Josh runs into the dining room and hides under the table. Deborah sits down on an ottoman. Of us all, she is the least scared of my father’s rages. She’s the Daddy’s girl, the add-a-pearl girl.

“You can’t serve that crap to guests!” he shouts from the bottom of the stairs. “What the hell are you thinking?”

My mother appears on the landing, barefoot, wearing a white nylon slip. She clutches a lipstick in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Her eyes are ablaze; her mood has been stoked by the whiskey sour. My father takes the stairs three at a time. They are both shouting. They disappear into their room. Someone slams the door. We can’t make out words during these altercations, which my parents always describe to us as “discussing” — as opposed to “fighting,” which is how we identify them.

A few minutes pass. My father emerges, fussing with his cuffs. My mother is saying “…if I can get a sitter, maybe Barbara Rice, across the street.”

Then the doorbell rings. More barking, more emotion, and from my father, who now catapults himself down the carpeted stairs, more fury, this time accompanied by an attempt to calm down. He waits a decorous moment to answer the door. He stands as if at attention. He dons coat, scarf, gloves. Then he opens the door. There is a little mudroom between my parents’ front door and the screen door. The door closes behind him, then the screen door slams. He doesn’t invite the guests in — he is too humiliated. He hurries them out, down the front path between the privet hedges, back to their car. He has generated a plan B — a restaurant somewhere in West Newton. He doesn’t want them to know about his life, his wife, who he is, who she is. I imagine they go to an expensive restaurant where my mother is supposed to join them. If she can find a babysitter. If she can make everything go according to the way he has it in his head.

I stand in the foyer and gaze into the living room at the Ritz crackers, the Velveeta cheese, the little pimentos I’ve so carefully arranged on the slices. My mother, clothed now in a bathrobe and terry cloth scuffs, comes down the stairs. She is crying. My brother starts to cry too. Andrea — still in the playpen in the dining room — is sobbing so hard she can barely catch her breath. My mother goes to the dining room and lifts her out of the playpen. Her diaper needs changing — it is so overdue there is a wet spot on her bottom despite rubber pants. Deborah and I hold our noses. Josh gags. My mother carries Andrea into the darkened living room. She doesn’t bother with lights. She sits down on the gray Danish love seat with the curving arms she and my father bought on their last trip to Europe. She holds Andrea on her lap. Josh, also crying, climbs onto the sofa beside her. Deborah thoughtfully carries Mom’s whiskey sour in from the dining room. She hands the glass to my mother, who takes it and gulps the last of the drink. Eventually Deborah asks if she can have some clam dip. I stand uncertainly in the front hallway, fingering the latch on the sliding pocket door between the living room and front hall, watching, trying to figure out what is going to happen next.

I have started kindergarten, and Deborah has started first grade. I fear sleep. I have terrible nightmares. Sometimes I sleepwalk and awaken elsewhere in the house. In the living room. In my sister’s room. I often force myself to stay awake, drawing or making up stories under my blanket. Sometimes, when I am really scared, I walk down the hall to my parents’ room as quietly as I can and stand next to their bed. Sometimes, they wake up and take me back to bed.

Sometimes, not.

My mother’s eyes float open, and she sees me.

She throws back her covers and leaps from their bed. The smell of adults in the nighttime is both pungent and malodorous — familiar, yet infused with the sour smell of something unknowable. My father leaps to his feet too, and strides around the end of the bed, over to her side. He hoists me to his shoulder. Barefooted, he descends the stairs to his in-home office. I gaze upside down at the backs of his bare heels as he hurries into the office. My father always wears jockeys to bed. My mother, wearing a thin nightgown — I can see her breasts through the diaphanous cloth — follows, then closes the doors, two solid wood doors, built back to back, the way all psychiatrists’ doors were built back then to attenuate sound. My father deposits me and I tumble with as much resistance as a sack of flour onto the black-and-white wool-covered couch. He switches on the buzzing fluorescent light over the room desk. To this day, I cringe whenever I see lights like those, relics from the era of the nuclear family: brown oblong metal things emitting a chemical smell along with their unnatural bluish headache-inducing light.

I am paralyzed with fear. My mother’s blows descend on me — randomly, haphazardly, now on my back, now on my bottom, now on the back of my neck, on my forearm, which I have managed to twist around behind me in an attempt to protect the bare small of my back. My pajama top is rutched up around my chest, and my skin is exposed. Her closed fist thuds against it. Then perhaps because he sees her not being effective, not making the difference a real parent should make, my father pushes her aside. He grasps my arm above the elbow, forcing me face downwards against the sofa. I can barely breathe. He pounds on my bottom and thighs and the small of my back first with his open hand, then with his fist closed. My father is not one of those men who limits his outward expressions of anger to shaking his fist at the sky and railing like Job about his victimization by the universe — although he does that too. When he hits, when he yells, he means to inflict pain. Because he is stronger, his blows are harder and they hurt more. My mother’s blows and chastisements are haphazard. Often when my mother hit me, I felt she didn’t knew whom she was really mad at. Hands that ought to stand for comfort — mother’s hands — that have held and rocked four children by then, are able to extinguish trust in the time it takes to draw a breath.

Suddenly, outside myself, I start screaming: “I hate you I hate you.”

Everything halts. My father’s blows stop. For a moment, I have stopped life — I have interfered with the parental dynamics as I know them.

My mother sits down on a chair.

“Do you really hate me?” she says.

My father looses my arm so I can move. I do not move, and I do not answer. My face is pressed into the woven wool strands of the sofa cushions.

“Answer your mother,” says my father. He waits, a WWII first lieutenant, standing in readiness against the enemy. I feel him waiting for me to turn, to look at them, to reply.

“Answer your mother,” says my father again. Turning the slightest bit, I can see him now. He stands now a foot or so away from the sofa’s edge with his arms folded.

“You don’t really hate us, do you?” asks my mother.

“Look at your mother.”

I don’t move.

“Turn over and answer your mother.”

I turn, hiccuping. Tears streak my mother’s cheeks. She pulls a tissue out of her nightgown sleeve — she always stuff tissues into sleeves — and dabs her eyes. I try not to look at her.

My parents have a phrase with which they ridicule me whenever I cry. “Crocodile tears” they say, “you’re crying crocodile tears.”

Who is crying crocodile tears now?

“Answer your mother.”

“I want to go to bed,” I say.

“Tell your mother you love her, and you can go to bed.”

Silence. A few remaining tears, spasmodic hiccups on my part.

“Did you hear me? Tell your mother you love her or else I’ll really give you something to cry about.” He unfolds his arms; and he shifts his weight, and I know there will be another pounding, another onslaught of fists against my skin.

I make my first survival bargain with the devil. I decide the only way to get away from them is to lie.

“I love you,” I mumble.

“What was that? Say it so your mother can hear you.”

Years later, in my early thirties, when I finally had the courage to open the door in my head where the memory of that night and others like it lived, the thing that upset me most was not the violence. Nope. It was my complicity with my parents against my four-year-old self. I called my old boyfriend from Brown, someone I had really loved but been too scared to marry. Long before I encountered the screeds of psychoanalytic theory, I intuited them: my biggest secret fear was that if I got married and had children I would turn into my mother. I would be an alcoholic. I would abuse children.

Rick had spent a few vain years during our twenties trying to figure out what was wrong when it came to trying to love me. Eventually he gave up in frustration and married a girl he’d known in high school. At the age of 32, I recounted my long-closeted childhood story over the phone to him on the other side of the country, sobbing inconsolably because I had aided and abetted. In the strange compression and inversion of time that happens when I revisit trauma, I was possessed of the idea that somehow my adult self ought to have had the wherewithall to protect and save the four-year-old. I had shirked my responsibility.

“But sweetie,” he said, “you were a baby. You needed your parents to survive. What the hell else were you supposed to do? You can’t judge yourself as an adult. You were a baby, for christ’s sake.”

In the days and weeks that followed that fateful beating, my parents kept me home from school, locked in the office. I heard my Deborah outside asking if I were going to get to go to school. I was allowed to come out for meals, to go to the bathroom.

My parents took me to a progression of shrinks — all with sound proofing and double doors. They settle on one Dr. S. Joseph Nemetz, in Brookline.

On our first meeting, my mother explains to Dr. Nemetz that the real problem with me — and the reason we were in his office — was that, simply put, since I was born, I had been an out-of-control child. I didn’t behave the way other children behaved. I didn’t sleep much and I kept my parents and siblings awake. Furthermore, I was violent. I hit my brother, who was a few months shy of two years my junior. This made her furious. She told Dr. Nemetz she feared I’d harm him.

“I have to discipline her,” she said. “If she’s bad I have to spank her.”

Dr. Nemetz asked me that day whether the family had rules. I cheerfully told him that we didn’t have any rules because my parents did not want to be strict, like some parents were. He asked me if I thought this policy were fair. Both my parents were quick to intervene, to qualify, to rationalize. They followed the the child-rearing advice of Dr. Spock, they explained. Dr. Spock advocated against rules. Later I came to understand my parents relationship with rules: they believed in rules for everyone else. They did not believe in rules that were inconvenient to them. They themselves existed above the plane of rules.

In that first session, with my parents, Dr. Nemetz imposed a rule: there was to be no hitting in the family. My father, who already knew on some level that family life was entirely out of control, agreed it would be adhered to. My mother must have agreed in principal, perhaps with her fingers crossed underneath her purse.

From then on, I visit Dr. Nemetz twice a week. We play pickup sticks, Chinese checkers and marbles. Playing games with a grown man is the stupidest activity I can imagine. I’d rather be at home with my sisters.

It is a late spring afternoon. I have been seeing Dr. Nemetz for several months, maybe a year. For a few hours a week, life is stable. I know what to expect.

I have awakened early from a nap and have crept down the stairs. My big sister is in first grade and not yet home; my brother is still upstairs napping. Andrea’s playpen is set up in the dining room. She spends way too much time there. A substantial yellow swinging door separates the kitchen from the dining room. Andrea sees me and pulls herself to her feet. She has only recently started walking. She starts to say something to me in baby talk. I want her to be quiet. I don’t want my mother to know I am awake and downstairs. Andrea fusses, then squawks, her chubby round fingers clutching the bars of the playpen. Her blonde head barely reaches the top of the rail. I go the teak sideboard, stand on tiptoe and reach up for a little carving — a wooden statue, maybe five inches high that my father bought in Germany on some trip — of a bespectacled doctor in a white coat holding up one finger as though admonishing a patient. A little caption in black writing on the carved pedestal reads: Einer von uns ist verrückt.

I go over to the playpen. I propel the little statue along the rail. I tell Andrea the little statue is taking a walk along a road with a little girl named Andrea. They are taking a walk along a forest road, Andrea and the dwarf, the man in the white coat, whom I have not yet named. Andrea listens attentively for a few moments. Then her hand darts out and before I know it she has snatched the carving from my hand and is sticking its head in her mouth. I am flabbergasted. I reach between the bars of the playpen and grasp the carving, now gummy with saliva. Andrea lets out a shriek and tries to pull it away. I reach the other hand through the bars and try to peel her fingers away. Like all toddlers, she has a terrific will matched by an equally terrific grip. I manage to pull the statue towards the bars, and have almost extracted it — she is now gripping it in both chubby saliva-covered fists — when she leans forward and bites my hand. I pull away, though I still have hold of the carving — we’re both gripping it with determination. I reach over and grasp her wrist with my other hand. She emits her signature ear-shattering shriek.

My mother bursts through the swinging door from the kitchen. She spots me kneeling beside the playpen, yells my name at the top of her lungs and storms over. I realize now, although I could not have articulated it then, that she was drunk. I didn’t understand ‘drunk’ until much later. She drank, and there were always gallon bottles of scotch in the cupboard.

I let go of Andrea’s wrist. Andrea drops the carving. My mother descends upon me, grabs my forearm, wrenches me to my feet. I resist, shielding my face with my free hand. I start to explain, as best I can, that Andrea was fussing and I was entertaining her — a task my two other siblings and I had made into a sort of contest because Andrea fussed a great deal — but my mother is not interested. She slaps my face and hauls me in the direction of my father’s office. I know what is in store — but today, the precipitating event is unusually egregious. I glance back at Andrea, who is now standing, holding onto the bars of the playpen. Her face is an astonished blank.

My mother kicks closed the doors of the waiting room. She throws me across the room onto the couch. She pounds on me with both fists. I am crying. She has neglected to close the doors all the way, and I can hear Andrea wailing.

By itself, the beating differs little from any other beating I’ve received from my mother — not, in other words, meted out as logical consequences of misbehavior. She is violent when she is drunk and when she is in a rage. Her rages have become more frequent since Andrea was born.

Later that afternoon, my mother drives me to my appointment with Dr. Nemetz.

That day, as she drives me through the rainy Boston streets on the way to Brookline — by then a daytime housekeeper has arrived to look after my siblings — my mother determines it is necessary to make sure everything in my universe continues to be internally consistent with her unique brand of logic. She informs me that I am not to say anything to Dr. Nemetz about the earlier incident.

“What about the rule?” I ask. “The no-hitting rule?”

The rule, she says grimly, has not been broken because the incident did not fall under the umbrella of occurrences to which it can be applied. She is sucking on a cigarette as she shifts the wheel-shaft gear lever, dripping ash onto the turquoise vinyl seat and the floor. The rule she explains through cigarette-clenching lips, applies only to situations involving me and my brother. Ergo the no-hitting rule does not apply today.

It was Gloria logic. Dent-proof as fog.

I watch brick and limestone buildings fronting Beacon Street whiz by. The windshield wipers make uneven streaks across the glass windshield. Large drops of rain plop on the car roof. Sycamore leaves cling wetly to the windshield and the curb. The car’s tires splash in and out of puddles on the rutted street.

Before I get out of the car, she extracts a promise that I will not say a word about the day’s events to Dr. Nemetz.

Half an hour later, I am sitting in Dr. Nemetz’s office. I sit in my chair across from him limply, looking out the window, hoping the hour will be over soon. He asks if I would like to draw today. I demur. He asks if something is wrong. I look past him to the far side of the room — where the signature couch rests on an oriental carpet disconcertingly similar to the one in my father’s office. I can tell time. He has a clock on his desk. The second hand moves abysmally slowly. He addresses me. I don’t answer. After a while, he leaves me alone.

Next week, next visit, same scenario. I refuse to play checkers. I won’t draw. I won’t do anything. He offers red lollipops — my favorite color. He suggests pick-up sticks. I stare out the window at the rain.

He stands, goes to the closet, pulls out his jacket, suggests we go for a walk. He needs some tobacco. Would I like to come along? I don’t care. He suggests it would probably not be good for me to wait alone in the office. I shrug. He holds out his hand. I put on my jacket, and for some reason I reach up and take his hand. We make our way down the shallow steps, out of the building, across the street, across the greenbelt in the middle of the boulevard, across the street opposite and into a tobacconist’s. He buys tobacco. I look at the stationary in the case. He asks me if I would like something. I say no. He looks around. He points to some staplers on a shelf.

“I’ll take a stapler,” he says, “and a box of staples.” He pays for the tobacco and the stapler and the staples. He takes the paper bag and we head out of the shop. At the curb, he takes my hand as we cross the street. Back in the office, he opens the bag, takes out the tobacco and gives me the stapler. He shows me how to open the little hatch where the staples go and insert the staples. I spend the rest of the hour stapling pieces of paper together. He asks me what I am making.

“Books,” I say.

Another week passes. Finally, exasperated, he asks me if something happened at home.

At first, I can’t tell him. It is Bart Simpson’s paradox a generation before Bart. Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t. If I tell, I will incur my mother’s wrath. But as it is now, I am not any safer than I was before the institution of the rule. What is more, now my mother believes she has me under her thumb; I am as tractable as putty in her hands. She can beat me with impunity. On the other hand, if I tell Dr. Nemetz, and he says something to my father, well, then something may change. I know my father has agreed to the rule, and I also know he believes it is being followed.

What do I have to lose?

First I make him promise he will not call my mother. He promises. I tell him what happened. He listens intently. Then he stands up and goes to his desk. He picks up the telephone handset and dials.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling your mother. I want her to come in so I can talk to her.”

I feel as though I will lose control of my sphincter. “You can’t. You said you wouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

“She’ll hit me.”

“No she won’t.”

I sit down, stunned. Now what? The possible ramifications flow out of me in a morass of unnamed fear. I don’t know what to say. I chose to tell him. Now I would face the consequences.

He reaches my mother at home, tells her to come in early to pick me up. Then he calls my father at work.

When she arrives, I am paralyzed with fear. She comes into the office, says, “Hi, Sweetie,” smiling excessively. Dr. Nemetz asks me to wait in the waiting room. I go out and wait. I can hear their voices dimly but I can’t tell what they are saying. I pick up a book. The waiting room is a dark, windowless narrow little room. I think about walking downstairs, out the door, and away.

On the way home in the darkness my mother is thin-lipped, silent, smoking ferociously. Finally as we approach our house she offers these words:

“You’ll live to regret this.”

That evening, after my father comes home, Josh and Andrea are in bed, Deborah and I are upstairs brushing our teeth. Downstairs, there is a screaming match between my parents. High-decibel swearing. My mother, for her part, is in favor of firing Dr. Nemetz, since he is clearly not doing his job: I still make her furious so she still has to punish me. Her violence is my fault. She does what she is being driven to do. My father is enraged that my mother cannot follow instructions given by a professional — a real shrink, no less, like him. Harvard trained and everything. My father prevails. For me, a pyrrhic victory. No hitting.

In relatively short order, my mother figures out other means to torment me. She can control me with the threat of revelation of my ugly secret: There is no other child in my class that needs to go see a psychiatrist, she points out, is there? I am different from other children. I am poorly wrought. I am bad. The visits to the psychiatrist are to fix my defective self. If other children were to know the truth about me, there will never be another child who would want to be my friend.

Another evening. My parents are preparing to go out and I am in the front hall crying. I don’t want them to go out, although the reason I don’t want them to go is not the obvious reason — because I will miss them — but because of the transformation that takes place when they go out in the evening. When they return late at night they are not the same. They change, they are outsized, out of proportion. They are monstrous. In my mind, I attribute this metamorphosis to gorging on Beef Stroganoff and Baked Alaska. I was too young to understand alcohol.

“You don’t stop crying, I’ll patsch your bottom,” threatens my father. He wears a dark suit and a red tie. He is slim, more or less, and still has most of his hair — later he developed a gut and grew a beard. He does not want the friends who are coming to pick them up to see me hysterical. Somebody named Finegold, or Fineman — somebody, in any case, important. He lives a lie. He isn’t who he says he is. He wants to be someone else, so he puts on airs. He dresses to impress. No one must know what is really going on in our home. They mustn’t see, they mustn’t guess.

My mother is still getting dressed, then she comes out reeking of perfume.

“What’s going on, Rica?” she snarls. It is a rhetorical question, my mother’s characteristic rejoinder to childhood pain; and I don’t answer because I can’t. I am sobbing and hysterical. The doorbell rings. My father grabs my arm and drags me up the stairs. About half way up I work my way out of his grasp and run into my room. I crawl under the bed. Because he has guests, he turns and goes back down the stairs. Normally in this situation, he would have followed me into the room, reached under the bed, grabbed whatever limb he could get his hands on and yanked me out and beat me. I have learned to clutch the leg of the bed in the far corner — which makes the extraction more difficult. But instead he goes down the stairs, and I hear him in the hallway, greeting his friends in the broad, expansive voice I know denotes generosity and fellow feeling. With other people around, he fluffs his plumage. He fakes being a real father. I’m safe.

I do not know where my siblings are.

I tiptoe from my room into the hallway, to the top of the stairs. I kneel down and press my face in the gap between the turned wood ballusters near the top of the stairs and watch them leave. My mother is putting on her coat. Mrs. Finegold wears a gorgeous black gown with narrow straps. Her husband drapes her coat around her shoulders. Then my mother turns, and spots me.

“Good night honey,” she says, “be good. I’ll look in on you when I get home.”

“Bye bye chicka-rick,” says my father, turning his face up toward me, a look that says: say a bad word about us and you’ll live to regret it. He turns, opens the front door. There is a blast of cold air from the darkness outside. The outer screen door slams tinnily and they are gone.

They always offer to come in and look in on us when they get home, so we know they are home. Then we can say good night, in case we are awake. I don’t want them to come in, and I am unable to say so. Not that it would make any difference. The point is that I don’t want them to come in because they are not the same when they get home from parties. They are not the same people when they are drunk. I never believe they will return to normal the next day. Each time they transform, it is for good. They are different, they are terrifying: my mother becomes the Gorgon Medusa, the Greek demon goddess with serpents for hair. Just seeing her turns me to stone.

For my fifth birthday, my mother gives me a present: a little illustrated volume called Mommies Are For Loving. It is a picture book about a family — mommy, daddy, sister, brother and dog — who shower each other with love and affection in the form of hand-drawn swarms of butterfly-shaped kisses. I cannot figure out what she intends for me to make of this gift.

She reads the book aloud to us that same evening, sitting on the grey loveseat — Andrea on her lap, Josh beside her sucking his thumb, Deborah on a chair pretending to read a book of her own. I lean against the corner of the sofa away from the bundle of my mother and younger siblings.

“You see?” says my mother, making deliberate eye contact with me, then pointing to a picture of Mommy clutching a vacuum cleaner and smiling while Daddy plays on the floor with the dog and the brother, “this is how families are. Families love each other.”

Writer for NYT, Sci Am Nat‘l Mag Award. Climate, mental health, wild things. Newsletter

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