How I Learned To Forgive And Let Go Of My Alcoholic Mother

by Kemari Howell

As I sit here, sorting through boxes, I come across a stack of pictures I don’t recognize.

It's tied with a thin, yellowed ribbon that was surely white at some point.

Most of the pictures are relatives I recognize, but whose names I don’t remember. There is a baby picture of me and a picture of the grandmother who died before I was born. I don't even know her name.

At the bottom of the stack, there is a picture of my mother I’ve never seen; it's a Polaroid without a date.

Veins of oxidation and age break through the glossy finish, slashing her throat and limbs as they thread over the photo. It's a mosaic of her youth, when she still smiled.

The Polaroid is different from other pictures of her. It’s the only one where she seems truly happy, free of the ugliness I have come to see in her.

In the picture, she is straddling a gray leather stool. She smiles at someone behind the camera.

Her teeth are still white, untouched by nicotine.

Her smile is of a woman unhindered by adult responsibilities and domestic obligations that will one day cause her to drink her misery away. She is small and thin; her breasts are triangular points, pressed against the bodice of her v-neck sweater.

The picture was taken before I was born. I know that, even though there is no date to pinpoint this fact.

My father has told me often that those were her happiest times, before she transformed into the monster at the bottom of the bottle.

Before they split up for good, my parents had a volatile relationship that bordered on spousal abuse.

I once saw my mother punch my father in the nose and shove him into a hall closet like it was a normal, everyday occurrence. Afterward, she made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and painted her toenails with her feet propped up on the kitchen table.

My mother has been an alcoholic for as long as I can remember. The moments of joy in my childhood can be measured by her absence.

I am sure there was a time when she didn’t drink so much, or when it didn’t cripple her logic and turn her into a raging demon, but I don’t remember those times. They only exist through stories and photographs.

There are many things I don't know about my mother.

I don't know what her favorite color is. I don't know if she loves or hates the smell of gasoline. I don't know what makes her truly laugh.

I don't know where she grew up, or where she met my father (though I’m prone to believe it was while she was working in a strip club).

What I do know is that she lies. She lies to me, to other people and to herself.

I know she will never stop drinking, no matter how much I wish she would. I know her children, or grandchildren, will never be more important than the booze.

One year, when she was working a retail job she loved, the three of us (my brother, father and I) went to pick her up from work. In my memory, it is a special occasion, her birthday or Mother’s day. We planned to take her to dinner as a surprise.

Only, she wasn’t there. Too many of her coworkers refused to look my father in the face.

We didn’t hear from her until she showed up at home a few weeks later. She assured us the affair with Jimmy (or whatever his name was) was finally over.

When she came home, she and my father renewed their vows.

Once, shortly after they’d renewed their vows, I was playing at a neighbor’s house across the street. When we got bored, we walked a few houses over, to another friend’s house, and climbed his tree.

We must have stayed in that tree for hours, enough for her to notice. I heard my mother’s shrill voice screaming my name as she hung out of the side of the car, my father driving at a crawl.

I climbed down the tree just in time for my mother to snatch me by my hair and throw me into the car.

When we got home, she punished me with the metal end of a thick, leather belt. It went on for a long time, so long that at some point, I didn’t even feel the pain.

My father stood at the door, crying, unable or unwilling to stop her from her belt-wielding rage.

When she finally stopped, I rolled off the bed, onto the floor and stared at the ceiling, counting the little dots that looked like stars. She leaned over me as I lay there.

“Don’t you ever run away from me again,” she said, but I don’t think that’s what she meant.

Still, I listened to those words for a long time.

When my parents finally divorced, I was more relieved than sad. At 7 years old, I wished my father freedom from her never-ending storm. But in the mangled aftermath of their marriage, I was left to fend for myself.

My mother drowned herself in the bottle; my father drowned himself in women. I became my own parent, sorting through morals the way other kids sorted through crayons, picking and choosing those I needed to learn.

There were times, whenever we weren’t living with her boyfriend or anyone else, that she’d bring home random men she met at bars. I had to lock my door on more than one occasion to keep them from wandering in.

Other times, her binges were careless to the point of endangering both our lives.

When I was 12 or 13, she took a friend and me to the movies. We were in the theater; she was in a bar, getting drunk. After the movie, she drove us home.

A mile or two from my friend’s house, she started driving on the wrong side of the road.

I was able to take the wheel and reach my foot over to brake before the next car came careening around the corner. We missed an accident by only a few seconds.

After we dropped my friend off, she smacked me in the face, hard enough to leave a mark the next day.

“Don’t ever embarrass me like that again,” she said.

I craved a mother whose touch didn’t inflict injury, and whose words didn’t instill sorrow or fear. Over time, it has become easier to accept that the bond of love born in the womb, the magic that funds the maternal instincts between mother and child, never blossomed between my own mother and I.

Promises made were always broken. Too many times, I gave in to her pleas to come back, to try again, to forgive her, to start over. Too many times I was rewarded with disappointment.

Things didn’t change when I became an adult. The only abuse that stopped was physical. There were decent times, when we got along, but they were rare. Mostly, there was a lot of anger, hatred, threats and insults.

During a heated argument, I once said to her, “I can’t wait until I move out. I’m going to leave and never come back. You’ll never see me, and when I have kids, you’ll never see them either.”

“Good. I can’t wait until you’re out of my life forever. I wish you’d just die already and leave me in peace,” she’d said. She'd spit at me as I helped her off the floor, out of the bathtub or up the stairs, fully clothed and wreaking of her own piss.

I can’t keep track. The scenarios were and are always interchangeable.

It wasn’t true, though, the part about not letting her near my children. When I was 18, we bought a condo together. A year later, I found out I was pregnant with twins.

“You’ll make a great mother. You are one of the strongest people I know,” my mother said one night when she took me to dinner, a rare occasion (the words, not the dinner).

But pregnancy didn’t bring the changes in her that I hoped for. She still drank herself into oblivion, and still hurled insults and hatred at me whenever she was drunk. The good times, already rare, became even rarer.

My blood pressure was too high, I wasn’t eating enough for the babies, and my doctor strongly suggested I take a vacation from the stressors in my life. I escaped to California for the last half of my pregnancy.

She wrote me and called me every weekend, begging me to come home, offering promises to do better, to be better, to be as a grandmother what she never was as a mother.

So, I went home. She threw me a baby shower. She held my hand while I gave birth. She bought a year’s worth of diapers and filled an entire cabinet with baby bottles.

Two weeks later, she broke her promises. She didn’t just fall off the wagon, she dove off it again and again. I took what little money I had and moved to New York, in hopes that being closer to the babies’ father would somehow make him want them.

My mother called me every other day. Sometimes, she had nothing to say. Sometimes, she cried and asked me to come home.

“You’re there as his whore, you know. He doesn’t want you or those kids. You’re stupid to stay.”

Sometimes, the words were different, but the intention was always the same.

The next day she would call, pretending nothing happened, or she’d send a letter with some money in it.

"Buy the babies something from their nana. Love and miss you, Mom."

When forces of nature proved my time in New York was over, I went home.

“I’m glad you all are back. I missed you and the babies so much,” she said.

I believed her, but it wasn’t enough. When old habits reared their ugly heads, I knew I would have to leave again.

The next time I left, I went to New Jersey, and after that, Arizona. I stayed away for a very long time.

A few years after I moved to Arizona, she and I both fell on hard times, me with money, her with another DUI. I asked her to move in with me. Time and distance had done its job in making a relationship with her bearable. I thought things were finally different.

Everything was fine at first. Four DUIs had mellowed her drinking, or so I’d thought. And before she moved in, she was attending AA. It was the first time she ever sought help, even if it was forced on her by a judge.

I thought that would make things easier, and she might finally put the bottle down for good. But when my brother came to stay with us, things changed drastically.

She wasn’t drinking openly, but she would come home smelling like wine, or she would say she had “to run to the store real quick,” only to come home empty-handed.

Too often, she walked into walls, fell down or injured herself in some odd way. She snapped at everyone and was terminally angry. I suddenly understood that saying, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”

Approaching her about her drinking was futile. Denial had wrapped itself around her like a boa constrictor. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one being choked by it.

Her side of the bills piled up, and with my brother not working, I was spreading my own finances too thin. I finally asked her to leave -- not just from the house, but from my life.

It's always been like this. We can’t live with each other, and we can’t live without each other.

I’ve spent too much time trying to save her from a fate she doesn't even know exists. I should have spent more time saving myself.

I used to say that I didn’t want to be a mom when I grew up. I was afraid that I would be too much like my own mother, filled with hate and trapped in a weakness I couldn’t get out of.

But I know now I am stronger than that. I am stronger because she was my mother.

I miss her sometimes. I don’t want to, but I do. I realize now that even if she wasn’t always there for me, she was still always there with me.

I look at the picture again. It is worn and tired, a perfect representation of our relationship. You can’t smell her breath in the pictures. You can’t hear her words, slurred and chopped.

Pictures don’t show these things, and for that, I am grateful. I want to frame the picture to keep it for the kids, so maybe they can remember her as she is in the photo: happy.