Mating, Dating, Relating, Medicating

Nov 15

The Examined Life: Tipsy Floribbean Edition

I’m sitting with my mom at a tiki bar overlooking the waves in Pompano Beach, Florida.  Sweet, cheap cigar smoke and round, leathery midwesterners eddy around us.  The air is humid and smells slightly of beer, and the music is too loud.  Everyone is white.   This is the combination that screams LEISURE to the primal part of my brain; growing up, being bellied up to a bar next to a mediocre body of water while people drank cheap beer in the bright sun and bad, steel-drum versions of Jimmy Buffet songs played meant we were on vacation.  Usually at Lake Erie, but once in a while in Florida or the Carolinas.

But it has never been just me and my mom.  Even when family vacations ended, with the death of her second marriage, we always traveled with my sister, and usually my mom’s new boyfriend.  But not this time.  Seven mudslides into our first night together, shit is getting real.

Even though I know our lives would have been different, I still don’t think it was worth it, I tell her.

Really? she replies.  Even if you would never have had Guess jeans, or Reeboks, or any vacations, ever? You would have been okay?

Yes, I tell her.  I’m pretty sure that, on balance, living with a man who hated us was worse than not having Esprit sweatshirts.

I thought it would be worth it, she says, toying with a paper straw wrapper.  He was on the road three or four days a week, and then we could be ourselves and have fun, and we had some breathing room.

I know you did, I tell her.  And I do.  If I were a young woman with a high school education, two small kids whose father was a deadbeat, and no prospects for relief in sight, what bargains might I have made?  He loved her, that much everyone agrees on.  The fact that he didn’t like us, and we loathed him and his awful kids, and they disliked my mom and he treated them like shit…well, I guess from certain perspectives it might have been reasonable to expect that those things would work themselves out.  However, not all reasonable expectations in life are met, by a long shot.  At 35, I can attest to this.

But still, it wasn’t worth it.  He was a mean man and a meaner drunk, and if the explosions didn’t happen every day, that only meant they were that much more surprising every time they did.  My sister and I were sweet and sensitive kids, and we expected that every adult we knew loved us.  Even as we became used to being constantly sneered at and belittled and insulted and demeaned, we were shocked every time he really crossed the line.  I used to fantasize that he would die in a car accident, and daydream about how happy we would be if we heard that he wasn’t coming back through that door.  I hated him, deeply and steadily, from the day he married my mother when I was eight.

There are a million similar stories children of alcoholics tell, about being terrified and walking on eggshells and keeping secrets and begging your mom to take the keys, please, even if it pissed him off, please please please.  But part of it, as I recall when my childhood vacations rise up before me like they have this week, was fun.  I liked being in bars when I was a little kid.  I liked the way the adults forgot we were there and let us hear secret things.  I liked it when everyone started dancing, and when they gave me quarters for the jukebox.  I liked being up at 2 a.m.  I loved Shirley Temples with extra grenadine, and dinners comprised of potato skins or nachos.  While everyone was happy, these were good times, so it’s complicated to try to recall the happy days when they are nestled up so close to the badness.

I forget what started the final ugly scene.  I’d lived in DC for years by then, but it was Christmas, so we were home.  It was the usual stomping and yelling, though more simply embarrassing and irritating to me as an adult than it was when I was a kid; I had my own car, my own house, my own life to which I would be returning shortly.  The next morning, however, when we should have been opening presents and instead were being treated to a weepy, shaky apology in the kitchen, I was furious.  Leaning against the kitchen counter, refusing to make eye contact, feeling like the seething 14-year-old I used to be, I thought I am never fucking coming home again if he is here. After 22 years, my mom left him the following month.  I was 30 years old.

I knew that you would do it, and it was the final straw, my mom says, on the beach five years later.  Sometimes, I think I’d be in Ohio still, seeing my mom every couple of days,  if I hadn’t been fleeing him, but I keep that to myself.  There is a lot of water under that bridge, and it is far too late for that particular what if to be fruitful.  Maybe chasing me out was the biggest favor he ever did me.




I knew I would leave the day he took you and your sister out past midnight with his drinking buddies, and I had no idea where you were and no way to get in touch with him.  I was calling the hospitals, the police…her voice trails off.  She’s not talking about my stepfather now, but my dad.  In this story, my sister and I are six and four.  I don’t remember the fateful day in question, but I remember enough about that period to believe it.

My dad was a different kind of drunk than my stepfather.  On one hand, he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, drunk or sober.  On the other hand, when he had us after the divorce there were no other adults around to protect us from his faulty judgment.  He was a bartender, and sometimes one of the waitresses would make sure we got out of the bar early and into bed, but more often than not the worried adult role was played by me.   Being at the bar late was even more fun with my dad, because everyone loved him and we were cooed over and cosseted, but he was a much less proficient drunk driver than my stepfather.  The rides home were always absolutely terrifying, with me trying to both distract my scared little sister and make enough noise to keep him awake behind the wheel.  When noise failed, and he began to nod, I would pinch him.  At his house, I cooked and cleaned and made my sister take a bath.  At our house, I bribed her not to tell my mom what went on with him, because I knew that he would get in trouble and be sad, and that it would be our fault.  I was seven.

All I ever wanted was someone to take care of things so I could have babies and stay home with them, my mom says.  And I tried to be so strategic about it…with your dad, I thought he was smart, and ambitious, and had a great relationship with his family, who I really loved, too. She shakes her head.  But then he just never grew up. They married when they were both 18, and had me at 22.

I know this, too.  That she has also been betrayed by every important man in her life.  She loved my dad, and he broke her heart.  She married my stepfather because her heart was safe from him, and she thought the benefits outweighed the risks.  She tried her hardest to give us what she thought would give us a leg up–good genes, a higher standard of living.  It’s an object lesson, really, about unintended consequences.  The men she chose to shelter and support us all failed us all instead.  It’s not really that mysterious that my sister and I don’t exactly thrive in the dating department.  You grow up being exposed to danger by people who are supposed to protect you, and being hated by people who might reasonably be expected to love you, and you internalize fucked-up lessons about your own self-worth and how you deserve to be treated.  That simple truth is sending therapists’ children to college across this country.

And yet.  On the other hand, my sister and I are successful people leading successful lives in the city.  We have good jobs and excellent friends.  We have been smart enough to duke all this out with various mental health professionals.  We are unfailingly considerate.  We have robust 401(k)s and stamped passports.  We know how to act in a bar.  Our relationships with each other and with our mom are superlative.  It’s a hell of a lot more than most people get.   And that is not a throwaway statement–it really is so much more than so many people could hope for, even on the days when it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.


My mom and I wander off to dinner at an overpriced and mediocre seafood restaurant on the beach.  Later  on, we will give each other the shiny new things and half-used ones we’ve amassed since the last time we were together; earrings for me, perfume for her.  These baubles are tangible reminders that we are never far from each other’s thoughts, even if we are often too far from each other’s company.

Florida is good with my mother in it, leathery midwestern snowbirds and vacationing Jersey Shore extras be damned. The overwhelming majority of the time we spend together is light and easy.  We scheme ways to see each other more, to live closer to each other.  She is happily ensconced in a stable relationship with a nice man–the women of my family, save my sister and me, are never single for more than five minutes.

What I’ve figured out, she tells me long after I think the conversation is over, is that we are all responsible for our own emotional and financial well-being.  You can’t count on anyone…well, except for you and me and your sister; we can always count on each other.

I hear you, mom, even though I hope we can expand that group at some point.

12 Responses to “The Examined Life: Tipsy Floribbean Edition”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Toddy, Hilarity In Shoes. Hilarity In Shoes said: The Examined Life: Tipsy Floribbean Edition: […]

  2. Toddy says:

    I didnt have anywhere near the childhood that you had, but I do have my own very real experience of being let down and betrayed by important people in my life. At some point or another however, fair or not, having figured it all out or not, we have to stop blaming anyone else for the things missing in our lives and stop living in the past. Sounds like you and your mom have made a valiant effort at developing a relationship and friendship when it all couldve remained broken and thats no small feat. Thanks for sharing this. Cheers, T.

  3. Miss Scorpio says:

    Well, if that didn’t leave me all choked up while drinking the morning coffee. I agree with Toddy, we all have stories of betrayal and disappointment. Thanks for sharing in such an eloquent way. It’s something how we become friends with our moms once we get older. I’m now learning about that.

  4. C_Girl says:

    Thank you, ladies. I am very lucky to have the mom that I do, and you are right–getting to know our parents as adults is one of the biggest surprises of being a grown-up.

    Toddy, I think you’re right about not letting the past control the present, but it can be a hard thing to do if the connections are obscure. Though definitely, definitely worth the effort of figuring out.

  5. The way that you expressed what must have been very difficult thoughts is beautiful. I hope you continue to enjoy your vacation with your mother.

  6. magnolia says:

    oh, growing up in alcoholic-driven homes. how many of us did this? i didn’t have quite the same experiences – my mother was the drinker, and her tendencies towards violence were psychological and aimed internally rather than at others – but i immediately recognized the sense of mastery you try to develop at a young, young age. when your adult caretakers, well, don’t take care, you learn quickly to dance, to manage, to take the temperature of a room and divine as best as you can who and how you need to be to make everything OK. the maturity you learn is an amazing asset… except when the pain catches up with you from time to time. that’s when you need the others who get you, who understand, who ache like you ache.

    this post is amazingly beautiful. thanks for sharing it.

  7. lexa says:

    It’s amazing how those of us who grew up in turbulent homes always carry a bit of that around with us. I seem to be letting go more and more though…thank goodness.

  8. Chris says:

    As I went through college and left it, I learned through hearing the life stories of good friends that I have been quite fortunate growing up in the way I did, a few friends still hold great respect in my eyes just from what they went through. But I’ve also wondered what effect such a childhood had on me growing to who I am today. I remember thinking in college how much better balanced and more mature my friends were because they were forced to face issues that I had yet to face and while I grew into the adult I am today I definitely struggled a bit and stress out a lot from being on my own for the first time. But I’ve realized that no matter how your life has played out, love those close to you, learn from your mistakes, and watch out for yourself.

  9. C_Girl says:

    Thanks for reading, everyone. It is crazy indeed how many of us grew up like this, and how quickly we can recognize each other and understand certain things. It’s like being born Catholic…only even more damaging :)

    But but! It’s a bad thing to go through, but an excellent thing to survive.

  10. […]  I’ve come to believe that there is something to this idea, for those of us who grew up in chaotic or alcoholic homes.  The idea that a kid might have to make huge emotional leaps and display maturity well beyond her […]

  11. Val says:

    I found your blog from a link over at Swistle’s a couple days ago and have been reading post after post here. You are such a beautiful writer and such a beautiful person. ‘So glad to have found you.

  12. ARH says:

    This is incredibly reminiscent of my and my sisters’ (there are 3 of them) lives. The only real difference is that none of us (yet) have a great relationship with our mom. I believe that will come with time and I’m willing to wait. Thank you for sharing.

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