The best year of my life

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In the year I turned seventeen, my mother left my father again and this time their separation lasted an entire year.

We were used to weekends away during which my father binged to the point of eruption.

It began on Friday nights when he came home from his work in the city night with not one brown paper bag but two or three, a bottle of brandy per bag and he proceeded to drink them all one after the other until he became alternatively comatose or volcanic with rage.

By Saturday morning it wasn’t safe to stay and my mother bundled the last of us who lived at home, my younger sisters, brother and me onto the bus and we took off to Ivanhoe to stay with an uncle and his family or to Brighton to spend the weekend with another uncle.

Once my other brothers were old enough we might go to stay with one of them, but only for the weekend.  Rarely did it lapse into the week though there were times when my father extended his bender, beginning earlier in the week, missing work and forcing us out before the weekend had even begun.

For all these reasons, my second oldest brother who by then showed the makings of a successful businessman, with a wife, children and home of his own, organised for my mother to rent a house on the beach so we could stay away for good.

I think of this year, my final year at school, as the best year of my life.

We lived away from my father, so things were predictable. We had next to no money; I was used to that, but we could sit up late at night in the kitchen or living area and read or talk or listen to music without any fear.

My mother had told me she married our father because he looked marvellous in his uniform, as if these things mattered to her. She mattered to him more it seemed in so far as he had agreed to become Catholic to marry her and went through hours of religious instruction to pass the tests necessary before baptism.

He proved himself that way at least, but even in their early days, my mother described times when he would become moody, when he refused to speak to her for days. She’d done something wrong she could tell, but he did not say what and she had no idea what caused the distance and subsequent cruelty.

You couldn’t have known what was to come from their wedding day.

1942-7

As Alain de Botton argues, we need to be pessimistic when it comes to our choice of partners. My parents were no exception.

Whenever I see YouTube clips about domestic violence, stories that warn people of the tell tale signs, the possessiveness, the wish to isolate a partner from her supports, the slow insidious march of invective that stirs up within the abuser who in time comes to undermine everything his partner stands for, I think of my mother.

I have no memories of my father speaking to my mother in anything other than the negative. She was dumb and stupid, a whore, a terrible cook, a worthless piece of junk. His insults were endless and predictable to the point my mother believed them.

Perhaps that is why she went back to my father time and again. Perhaps that’s all she thought she was worth. Perhaps even after we had lived in the house by the sea for many months and she took the bus to her work along warrigal Road and saw our father in the front garden watering his plants she forgot his past cruelties and her heart rushed out to him.

He had lost weight she told me, as if to justify her nightly visits while the rest of us slept. When unbeknown to us she took taxis all the way back to our family home to visit our father who by then had sworn off drinking – again.

My mother lost weight, too. The two of them, slowly disappearing without one another and yet we all knew and perhaps she did too, should she go back to our father and drag the rest of us still living at home along with her it would only be a matter of time before his benders began again.

A miracle she said whenever our father was able to stop drinking for more than a week or two, a miracle a sign from God that all would be well now. My father had changed. He would no longer hurt us or criticise her or give us grief. He was a changed man.

It never lasted until that last stretch when only one child was left at home. It was only after all the children were gone that my father was able to give up drinking altogether and only then five years before he died.

Was it our fault he drank? He said as much often, nine bloody children, as if we had appeared on his doorstep like a load of debt that someone else had run up against his name.

As if it had nothing to do with him.

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4 Comments on The best year of my life

  1. Jim Murdoch
    May 31, 2016 at 12:10 am (1 year ago)

    My father wasn’t a nasty drunk and he didn’t need to have a drink in him to be argumentative if he thought he was in the right and he invariably did. (I think he only ever apologised to me once in his life.) Mum and he should never have married. But it was wartime and that was true of so many. My dad was good-looking, broad-chested and that’s all Mum saw. By the time the war was over she’d moved in with another bloke and that should’ve been that if my dad hadn’t been my dad and come to claim her. Like a fool she went back to him but he never forgave her for being unfaithful despite the fact he’d not exactly kept it in his pants either: double standards. Mum was always saying, “I should’ve married Robert F. or someone like Robert F.” and maybe she should have only I suspect if she had married Robert she’d’ve ended up bossing him around because my mum could be bossy too, it was just my dad was bossier. He was never violent—drunk or sober—but he was sexist and women were supposed to know their place—most of the men in our congregation had little time for the way he spoke to and about his wife (he was demeaning)—and yet he was still mostly well-respected by both men and women because this was just one side of him. He wasn’t a bad man. But he wasn’t a perfect one either.

    He started drinking when I was about thirteen. He’d been made redundant from the cotton-spinning mill and had found a job in a wool mill. To my mind it was much the same job but apparently there’s the world of difference. The catch with the new job was it was constant nights and until he retired that’s what he worked and frankly we were all surprised he survived. There was a genuine feeling held by the family during the weeks leading up to his retirement that he wouldn’t make it, he’d drop dead on the job or fall asleep at the wheel of his car. But he survived. To help him cope with the night shifts he’d started to take a sip of whisky before going to bed—one of the guys at work could get his hands on cheap stuff—only after a few years it wasn’t a sip any more and he was hiding bottles around the house.

    Getting Dad to admit he had a drink problem was not easy. He genuinely couldn’t see it. He never got blootered or mirawculous or any of the many colourful words we Scots have for being blind drunk. He was never three sheets to the wind but he was always one if you catch my drift, always a little foggy, pretty much how I am every day but without the drink. What was amazing was how he got away with it outside the home but he somehow managed to. It fell to me to put him straight and that was not an easy job but somehow I found the words and—typical Dad (he was not without willpower)—he quit overnight. I never saw him take a drink again until my sister’s wedding and even then it was only a drink.

    Reply
  2. Elisabeth
    May 31, 2016 at 9:24 am (1 year ago)

    Good grief, Jim. I had no idea your dad went through such a significant drinking phase, for all that he didn’t become violent. It sounds as though he was a man of his times: misogynistic, if that’s not too strong a word, and underneath it deeply vulnerable but having to come over as tough and strong. If only we could talk to our parents now as adults. We might get to view them differently and they us. Thanks, Jim.

    Reply
  3. Karen C
    June 2, 2016 at 9:53 am (1 year ago)

    Elisabeth, my Mum was a functioning alcoholic all my life. We lived in the ‘sherry belt’ (you would know where I mean) and she could cash a cheque at every licensed grocer across 8 suburbs. Our home was picture perfect, our meals were healthy and our family were well respected, but the tension between my parents was paralysing and it took me until my teenage years to put the patterns together. Without realising it, I split my mother into 2 people. They even had different names. Sober mum was warm, witty, wise, loving, perfect. Drunk Mum was insensitive, attention seeking, careless, distant and not to be trusted. I knew the minute they switched and also knew I could not trust drunk mum with the conversations I had with sober mum so I became devious, secretive and defensive. Now, in hindsight, I do regret my behaviour and insensitivity towards an addiction I am now only just beginning to understand but for years I believed that if I had been more loveable, maybe she would have wanted me more than alcohol.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      June 2, 2016 at 12:59 pm (1 year ago)

      I have long thought it’s worse to have an alcoholic mother than an alcoholic father, Karen though that might not be the case when I think of it. I suppose it depends on the actual parents. It must have been ghastly for you though having to split yourself in two as it were to accommodate the different moods of your mother drunk or sober. And like you, I can now appreciate as an adult how complex such things as addictions are, but still when you’re little they make almost no sense at all. Thanks, Karen.

      Reply

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