I was three years old. My parents sat quietly, hunched at the kitchen table in the late hours of the warm summer day. They partly blocked the arched entry to the unfinished living room where I was playing. My child‘s mind didn’t register whatever they had been discussing, but I knew something wasn’t right. Mother seemed different, her eyes red and droopy. She was drinking an amber liquid from a tall iced glass that she refilled from a bottle. Dad didn’t have a glass. He sat facing Mom, his voice soft and cajoling, but Mom clumsily waved him off.
Wham! Dad’s fist slammed the table, rattling the house and shocking me out of my reverie. He shouted harsh words as I watched his face turn deep red, transforming him into a monster before my eyes. I hadn’t experienced such anger before, nor been so afraid. This was scarier than the shrieking locomotives that rumbled through crossings and sent me into uncontrollable screams of my own. This was the safe and familiar becoming as terrifying as the strange.
When Mom didn’t respond he snatched the bottle and began pouring it out on the floor. Mom shrieked and tried to wrestle it back. The violent scene frightened me. I had to get away, but I was afraid to squeeze passed him. Screwing up my courage, I ran for it.
Whoa! I was in flight. My feet skidded on the lake of whiskey. Mom reacted with surprising speed, letting go of the bottle she reached for me. She caught me by the roof of my open mouth. Her fingers tasted like the whisky smelled, acrid and sickening, as she swung me by my head up onto her lap. Technically, I was safe, cocooned in her arms, but nauseous from the aftertaste. As each blamed the other for my near accident, I tried to hide from the rowdy chaos by jamming my face into Mother’s bosom.
That’s my earliest memory of Mom drinking and Dad’s yelling tirades. I don’t know when she started, but it couldn’t have been too long before that episode. Although I never saw her quite so drunk again, a stiff iced tea was never far from Mom’s hand. Only a few months before, they had moved my younger sister and me into that house that smelled of sawdust and fresh paint. It was outside of Chicago, where we had been living. Our new house was in the semi-rural village of Wood Dale.
Move-in day was March 15, 1955. As she brought in a box, Mom suddenly went into labor. Dad had to drive us all to the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. We waited for her outside the delivery room. Susan became my second sister.
Darlene was nineteen months younger than me. Sisters Joy and Debby followed in close order. Amy came much later, in 1964, giving Mom a welcome break from the maternity ward. Our growing family kept Mom busy. Dad commuted to work. When he got back he slaved to finish our home. It took years before a stairwell replaced the roughhewn ladder to the upstairs bedrooms. That was for the girls. As the only boy, I had a bedroom all to myself downstairs.
At first the new house unsettled me. It was a messy place, tools and piles of lumber everywhere, quite a transition from where we’d came from. Grandpa and Grandma’s two-story Chicago apartment building had offered snug comfort. They owned the building. Grandma’s sister lived on the lower floor. She had two daughters a few years older than me that I liked to play with. I looked forward to visiting them in the city.
If squalling sisters in an unkempt house was hard on me, it was harder on Mom. In a time before disposable diapers, she washed out shitty cloth diapers in the toilet before dumping them in the antique washer. It had a hand crank wringer. On sunny days, she hung the laundry out on the clothesline. Keeping an immaculate home was beyond her and she made no such pretention. It galled her, however, to see the showcase, well kept homes of other wives, especially that of her sister-in-law, Lorraine.
Lorraine had married Dad’s twin brother two years before her own wedding. She had an equal number of children and vibrated with nervous energy. Mom asked her the obvious question.
“How do you manage to keep up with the kids and do all the dusting and vacuuming?”
“Oh, I don’t get to it very regularly.”
Her pretense at effortless housework irked Mom, because Loraine had a wall full of Hummel figurines that never showed a speck of dust. A competitive rift developed between the two women that prevented our families remaining close. Mom threw a fit whenever Dad suggested visiting and they almost never came to our house. After about age nine I no longer saw my cousins on Dad’s side.
Mom was born in 1930, the start of the Great Depression. As an only child, doted on by her father, she never went hungry or wanted for clothing. Her father scrambled for odd jobs after each lay-off, but they always had a roof over their heads. Her mother insisted that she’d been overprotected, spoiled by my Grandfather.
Straight from high school, she’d gone to nurse’s school. Living in a dormitory with a strict dress code—no lipstick, rouge or late nights. The student nurses had to be checked in early, so she hadn’t dated, or gotten out much before she met Dad. She met him a few months before she graduated.
Dad was fresh out of the Navy and her flirty patient, in for routine tests. Would she like to go out with him? She hesitated, unimpressed. He was an old man in her eyes. The six years age difference seemed too much, but she finally agreed. He had a car. She saw him as a ride, a chance to get out of her narrow confines.
Mom had another suitor, who was technically her boyfriend. He came by her house with roses and sweets, but he never won over her mother. She disapproved of that “dumb Polack.”
My dad, however, impressed her mom. He seemed a nice Protestant boy, beginning a career as a draftsman. Mom married him immediately after graduating as a Registered Nurse. I was born less than a year later.
Mom had gone with the flow and it all happened so fast. One day she woke up to the fact that she’d never had any independence, a life of her own. She went from a sheltered inexperienced girl, to wife and mother, without a chance to “kick up her heels,” as she put it. Some of her friends called and wrote, telling her of adventures and vacations without a passel of kids in tow.
Hidden resentments bottled up, slow cooking deep within her. She couldn’t talk about them. Of course not! There was no good reason for her ill feelings. Mother began nursing her secret rage with whiskey. Its medicinal effect may have cushioned life’s blows until the inevitable volcanic explosion set them loose from time to time.
Dad wasn’t a drinker. He had the occasional beer, but usually fell asleep if he had two. He’d emerged unscathed from the war, although he’d been through fierce sea battles. They were expendable. Off Okinawa his ship faced waves of kamikazes. As a gunner he helped shoot some down before they reached the juicer targets in the main convoy. All in all he enjoyed his time in the Navy, the most exciting time of his life.
One day he brought home our first black and white television. The best father-son bonding times we had were watching “Victory at Sea” and “Navy Log.”Dad didn’t normally watch much TV, but Sunday night, when these programs aired, he left off his busy work and sat on the floor with me in the living room. Mom and my sisters didn’t usually join us. That kind of thing didn’t interest them. They wandered elsewhere in the house, doing ‘girl stuff’ as I supposed.
The stories of desperate combat captivated Dad and me. It was the only times I saw his eyes light up. He explained what he remembered of those Pacific battles: the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the “Great Marianna Turkey Shoot,” the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which “had been a damn close thing,” as he remembered it.
During commercials he’d wrestle with me on the rug.