Sunday, August 22, 2004

Families, cont'd

1968 was a year of huge changes in our family. My oldest sister got married (Joyce, three years ahead of the pack, bought into the "perfect 50’s/60’s family" aspect of our early lives, and married at 21.) Donna, the second oldest, graduated from high school and got her drivers’ license. My parents began a search for a new home (after fifteen years in the house in which we were all raised, they decided, on the basis of their status as a "two-income household," to go for an upgrade.) And my mother began her journey into thirty years of alcoholism.

I have always seen my mom’s drinking problem in terms of how it related to ME. How it robbed ME of the "normal" teen-age that my sisters had. How it cut ME off from her, and put ME out on my own, far before I was ready. How it made ME grow up much faster than I would have liked to. Yes, in my mind, it’s been pretty much about ME.

I’ve made one or two half-hearted attempts to "understand" why Mom started drinking, why it became such a problem for her. When I was growing up, my parents rarely ever drank. Only on special occasions, and then, only with very strict limits. In our old neighborhood, there were several couples who used to sit around in their back yards on hot summer afternoons/evenings, drink copious amounts of beer, and get totally blasted. Mom and Dad were summarily disapproving. They let us know in no uncertain terms that this was completely unacceptable, and only "PWT" (poor white trash---though they didn’t use THOSE words…) engaged in this type of behavior. I was young…I was only thirteen when Mom started drinking in earnest. I have to ask…what was I supposed to think?

It’s only now, this very minute, while I’ve been assembling my thoughts and history for this narrative, that I’ve had an "ah-ha" moment about Mom’s drinking.
I had been ready to blame Mom’s drinking on the times. On the fact that she had mothered a brood of young, rebellious, do-your-own-thing hippies. But, the truth is, as hippies go, we were really pretty tame. My older sisters, Donna and Chris, smoked a little pot, went to some concerts… Agitated to go "downtown" during the Democratic National Convention; hoping to be maced, I suppose, by Mayor Daley’s police, in solidarity with thousands of their peers. (They were not allowed to go…) Ditched a lot of school based on the credo of apathy toward (or rebellion against) "the establishment." (Donna graduated anyway. Chris….didn’t.) They were about as rebellious as suburban kids got. But I don’t think that is what drove Mom to drink.

It was the change. I started out enumerating all the changes that came about in my family during that year. Joyce getting married. Donna graduating high school. Parents looking for a new home. And I realized…Mom doesn’t DO change. Never has. She wants her comfortable routines. Wants all her ducks in a row…in the same row they’ve ALWAYS been in. We joke about that, now, my sisters and I. But I have to think…maybe that was, that ALWAYS was the reason she took to the bottle. Too many changes. Too much uncertainty in her life. It could be argued that this is what life is all about…change and uncertainty. Forward movement. But there are people out there that just do not handle change well. And my mother is one of them. Of course, it’s only been in the last ten years that I have realized this. Precious little good that did me, thirty years ago.

Mom’s drinking should be put where it belongs, in the past… The sticking point for me is, she started drinking at a time in MY life designed to have the maximum impact…I was thirteen. Poised on the edge of womanhood. Teetering on the precipice of puberty. A time when a girl needs her mother to be there… (Hah! Mom wasn’t "there" for any of us when we reached puberty. Our story is much like many of our era…when we started our periods, Mom was "there" with a pamphlet about menstruation, a box of "Kotex" and a sanitary belt. In fact, I didn’t even get that much…I guess Mom figured that my older sisters would educate me. They didn’t….but I figured it out somehow…)

I have to wag my head at how personally I take my Mom’s alcoholism. What a "poor me" attitude I have about it. How I feel like I was cheated out of the "perfect" childhood that my older sisters---especially Joyce---got. At the same time, I have to have a little sympathy for myself, seeing that it all went down during a very impressionable time for me. I will leave this---the issue of my Mom’s drinking---here. It won’t be the last time I will think about it, or wonder how much it changed (ruined?) my life. But families are about more than that…

To be continued....


  1. These have been some really good, reflective entries, Lisa.  I have always wondered what family was like through the 40s,50s and 60s and what happened that changed our culture from Mayberry to Married.. with Children.  Your last few entries are giving me some insight.

  2. Yikes! Now, it has changed to sound more like my life. I'm sorry to hear that. If it's any consolation, at some point in my life I realized there were just somethings I would never understand about my mom but I really believe she didn't make the decisions she did because of me. And, yeah, like you, like all children it was about me. And, I'm sure it was the same for your mother. She loved you the only way she knew how at the time. :-) ---Robbie

  3. These are very gripping memoirs!

  4. Gillian Anderson commented in an early interview that she was hitting puberty when her folks up and added two more kids to the family. She made the comment that trrying to go through puberty and suddenly not being the center of her parents attention was not a good thing.

  5. I always wondered what it would be like it if was your actual mom who was the problem, instead of a step-mom -- I wondered that on behalf of my stepsister and stepbrothers.  Growing up with an alcoholic in the family is a fairly bizarre experience, but I'm sure it's much worse if it's someone you love and depend on (my stepmother did not fall into the latter categories).  Now that I'm a mom to a teenage daughter, though, there's no doubt in my mind that the mothers in question lost far more than the daughters.  Of course, maybe that is just my own warped little view, as seen from the much later persepctive of an adult.

  6. I can't imagine what it must have been like for you as a young child to have to deal with a mother who has a drinking problem.  I imagine it must be a contributing factor in determining the kind of person one becomes.  I'm glad that you had your sisters, and that you survived the turmoil.  And thank you so much for making the font a little bigger.  You are the BEST!!!

  7. Well Lisa, I think it's normal to take your mother's drinking issues personally.  You were 13! At that age, you're naturally thinking of how things affect you more than how they affect others, because you haven't matured enough to even realize how others are affected.  But, that doesn't mean you aren't concerned about it now.  I don't think you should feel bad about focusingf on how it affected you.

    I think you might be very close to right about the change causing stress for her.  Believe me, it's very hard for lots of people to deal with huge changes in their life, and sometimes you find an unhealthy way to cope. :-/

    PS. So sorry I've been away from journal reading. ::sigh::  I don't know where to start with all the reasons, so I won't.  Just didn't want you to think it was because I didn't care! I've felt guilty about it lots, and worried about when I would ever catch up.  Today it just occurred to me that I could start over.  I don't have to read every single thing I've missed, right? But I am sorry I might have missed out on some important things.