One of the earliest memories I have of my mother involves her hanging me upside down. While I hung there, twitching in mid air, my shoulder-length hair tickled the creases between my biceps and forearms. My mother’s hands were wrapped firmly around my anklebones, crushing the delicate band of lace that trimmed my pink socks. Initially the only thing I could see were her knees, each one bending quickly in my face as she marched over to the open window in our living room and swung my entire body over its paint-chipped frame. In a chaotic instant, I was dangling parallel to the bricks on the front of our three-story building above a beer distributor. Below, on the gum-speckled slab of sidewalk, was my nanny. Just as she was reaching up for me, screaming in a wild panic, I was reaching down for her; it was as if we were two amateur trapeze artists setting up to perform what would hopefully be a successful catch. Mom was plastered, maniacal and severely detached from reality. To this day I have no idea what a puny six-year old kid could have possibly done that triggered that level of insanity.
I’m the youngest of three and rumor has it that Mom started boozing while she was pregnant with me. In all my memories, she is loaded, hung-over and dangerously unpredictable. That’s not to say that she didn’t try, on random occasions, to show up and be a mother. For my seventh birthday, her plan was to throw a showstopper party featuring a kick-ass candy buffet that would have made Willy Wonka jealous. Every kid in a five-block radius was invited and as each one arrived, the pile of presents in the living room swelled at a mind-blowing rate. I have no idea when things started to unravel but before I knew it, Mom was wasted and hollering about a “Birthday for a spoiled rotten bitch.” The party ended abruptly and all that was left, hanging next to the barely touched kick-ass candy buffet, was a plastic poster of a grinning, bucked-tooth donkey missing his tail.
I know that addiction casts its darkest shadow on the relationships it destroys. Having to cut my mom completely out of my life as a result of her intense 30-year obsession with alcohol was something that I decided to do, at the age of 12, for both my physical safety and mental wellbeing. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Recently, watching a mother and daughter sit next to me at Starbucks, hugging mugs of frothy, white cappuccinos while sliding a summer fruit salad back and forth to each other, I was riddled with envy. Their conversation was simple—even downright drab—but watching them in that moment, and watching other mothers with their daughters in similarly mundane situations, stirs a longing in my bones that over the years I’ve tried to ignore. But it’s always there.
I didn’t believe it when I first heard it from my oldest brother that Mom had finally kicked her habit. “What do you mean she’s sober?” I asked. “For how long, exactly? Are we talking eight minutes or eight years?” Several decades had past since we’d last spoken. I didn’t even know her phone number. Shit, I didn’t even know how tall she was or if her eyes were blue or green. But I got her number, took a deep breath and gave her a call. Our conversation was littered with awkward silences; in between those pauses, she nervously babbled about how she didn’t really believe it was me and how she was convinced that someone had stolen my identity. While she rambled, I picked apart every word and inspected every syllable that fell from her mouth. I was drunk hunting, listening for the slightest indication of intoxication, my finger resting on the “end call” button on my phone. But I detected nothing. Before we said goodbye, she announced, “I’ve been sober for 10 years.” I clenched my fist, squeezed my eyes tight and tossed back a forced “I’m happy to hear that.” That was two years ago this November.
The windows in my living room today are white with wood framing. The paint on the ledges and around the edges of the molding is chipped and the gray slab of sidewalk below is studded with black gum. I no longer live in Philadelphia with my mother, in a brick building three stories above the beer distributor. I live in London above a coffee shop with my husband and my cheese and my ice cream-loving calico swirled kitty. I’m safe. But there are memories of my mother and her addiction that casually show up, uninvited, when I least expect them to, no matter where or how far I go.
Photo courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones [CC by 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr (resized and cropped)