This essay first appeared in Essence. When I wrote it, my mother signed a waiver for it to be published. I also checked some of the facts with my father. He had no objections because what I wrote is true. As the New Year draws near, please be careful. I want to see all of you back here in 2011. – Honeysmoke
“What will you have?” the bartender asks.
“A Shirley Temple,” I shoot back.
As always, I receive an odd look.
“How do you make one of those?” he wants to know.
When I go to my favorite watering hole, I always order the same drink. The sparkling ginger ale with grenadine and a maraschino cherry allows me to pretend, to fit in with my journalist friends, to cast aside the hurt of my childhood.
I don’t drink, and I’ve never been drunk, but now and then I do wonder what it would feel like. I’m afraid, though, that one sip might lead to many more, and that one day I might become an alcoholic.
That’s what my mother is.
The sweet Shirley Temple hides a bitter past, a picture etched in my memory. Mom is sitting on the couch, legs crossed, drinking Schlitz malt liquor. I tend to forget I was the one who grabbed it from the refrigerator for her. I tapped the top, even tilted the glass and poured it for her. At 5 years old, I was my mother’s bartender.
When I was a little girl, I had long hair, and I thought that made me pretty. “More hair,” Mom would say as she plaited the last of four ponytails. “Grow longer,” I’d answer, while she wrapped yellow ribbons around my hair. But we didn’t have our little ritual on weekends; Mom got drunk. She was a mean drinker. She would refuse to cook dinner, clean the house or comb my hair. She broke lamps, cursed Dad and even threw melted butter at him.
The arguments always ended the same way: She’d leave, dressed to the nines in high heels and a sleek dress that showed off her long legs. I cried when she left. She would be gone for one, sometimes two, days at a time, partying. I would wonder if she was every coming back.
She always did. Groggy, tired. I didn’t care. I was just glad Mom was back. I hated her drinking, but I didn’t hate her. I loved her then, and I love her now. I separated my mom from the alcohol, decided the liquor was the monster. When I grow up, I vowed to myself, I won’t curse out my husband or act mean to my children. I won’t drink.
The message never rang so loud in my head as it did when I was 16. When most kids were circling the local McDonald’s on Friday and Saturday nights, I was out cruising the city streets with my dad, looking for Mom’s car. Dad, a career military man, searched for hours, fearful she would drive home drunk, get a DUI or have an accident.
But when he found her in a club, she would refuse to leave. So, I’d slide over into his seat and put the car in gear. He’d slip into the parking lot and drive out in her car. I would follow him home, pull into the driveway behind him and slam the door, thinking about Mom out there stranded in some nightclub. It didn’t make sense: Mom would get drunk; Dad and I would leave her. I didn’t think either one of them was right.
My mother had been raised poor in the Deep South. She had been shuttled from house to house until she was a teenager. She had no idea who her father was—these were her demons, and she was unable to drink them away. So she tried again and again to rehabilitate herself. Once I even spent a week in rehab, telling my side of the story, trying to help. The scene always played out the same: She would enter an angry woman and leave as my mother, the woman who had tied yellow ribbons in my hair. But soon the demons would find a home in her again, pushing her down those 12 steps she had so painstakingly climbed.
They say alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they can change. Mom didn’t land there until after she divorced my father. I headed off to college, and my father left, taking my little brother with him to South Carolina. Alcohol had won, and she had lost everything—her marriage, her children, her home.
My brother and I had never truly bonded with our father, whose work took him to Korea and later to participation in Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East, but we decided to live with him anyway. Even after everything she had was gone, after the divorce, Mom continued to drink for seven years.
Mom doesn’t drink anymore. “I just got tired, Boo, ” she told me. “Getting up drunk, going to bed drunk. I got tired of living that life.”
Nearly three decades after she sipped her first rum and Coke at a military dance, she stopped. No more Schlitz, no more Hennessy, no more whiskey sours. She’s a faithful adherent to the 12-step program and hasn’t had a drink in nearly five years. Meanwhile, I kept my promise. I didn’t drink. I stepped outside my mother’s footsteps and walked in another direction. It took me, literally and figuratively, to a sobering place. Occasionally I get an urge to leave there. But when I do, I grab something sweet—a Shirley Temple.
Mom was sober for the rest of her short life. She lost her battle with lung cancer two years after this essay was published. She was 53.