Smells bring out the strongest memories. Deeply buried and almost forgotten, a smell, a faint odor can bring back a flood of memories.
It happened today, sitting in a church I’ve never been in before. The old pews smelled of old polish and in the draft from the windows I could smell stale cigarette smoke – the deep, very old smell of smoke that had settled into fabric. Then I remembered all those years ago – those old rooms with rickety furniture, worn carpets, and the deep smell of cigarette smoke, fresh smoke rising and overpowering the background smell of musty stale smoke. Mingled with these remembered scents were those of coffee, the occasional whiff of unwashed bodies, stale beer and the sharpness of alcohol biting the air.
Two people flooded into my mind, my father and her – Helen. Their memories competed for space in my consciousness. One dead and one dying. Two people who influenced my growth from child to adult. Two people who’s view of religion, spirituality and morality still inform and guide my steps today.
There is no way to completely frame the scenes or explain the importance of the ghosts I saw. Perhaps it would be better to leave the ghosts and memories buried and leave the past to the past, but today that smell…
I went to this downtown church to attend the ordination of pastor I barely know at a church I’ve never been in. I’ve driven by it a few hundred times but it’s not near my house and not my denomination so I’ve never stopped in. I know that they minister to the homeless and downtrodden population of the inner city. On Tuesday and Thursdays you can get a shower there, on other days meals and other programs that reach out to those who are in need.
It’s that kind of place.
As Heather and I walked in, the difference in situations could easily be seen – in some rows sat neatly dressed people in their Sunday best, while in other rows sat people who’s last shower was last Thursday and their last meal was sometime yesterday. I caught the eye of one man in a back pew who looked like his last drink was late last night and whose body language suggested fear – fear that he’d get thrown out into the cold of the morning rain.
He is one of my father’s people – a nameless alcoholic who fights daily with a bottle and has lost everything.
In 1972, my father admitted his problem with alcohol and joined AA. He stopped drinking and tried as best he could to help others stop. When I was 13, I started attending meetings with my father – not because I had a problem, but rather it was my father’s idea of a “Father-son activity.” After all, you should share something with your child that you find important. We went all over town to AA meetings at community meeting rooms, back rooms of restaurants, but mostly in churches, old churches in their old rooms with bad lights and ancient furniture. At the time the churches let the ‘alkis’ smoke in the rooms and let them make big pots of coffee. Amongst the cigarette smoke and with a cup of coffee, men and women read the AA book, learned the 12 steps and tried to put their lives back together.
The stories I heard in those rooms. Some so sad they still break my heart. Some so joyous it was hard to believe that the well dressed and together person telling it, had ever fallen so low. My father always spoke. He was a bit of a philosopher and a good public speaker. He could inspire and always seemed to have a story to fit the occasion.
Outside meetings, father did what he could to help. He’d talk for hours to anyone who needed help. He helped a few get into housing and find jobs. He often took me along to some of the more seedy parts of town to pickup someone who’d just fallen off the wagon and needed a ride out of hell.
Father did all he could right up to the end of his life. After strokes and illness ravaged his body, he couldn’t drive, or do much. The retirement home he lived in was near the Salvation Army and they had an afternoon meeting he could walk to. The men in that program are required to attend, 90 meetings in 90 days – a meeting a day and have to get someone at the meeting to sign their card that they were there (often this was also a condition of the men’s probation and kept them out of jail). Father found out that some of the guys were having trouble finding a Friday meeting they could walk to. There was a meeting room at the retirement home, so father went to the office, signed up for the room and invited, as my father said, “the drunks from the army to come over.” And show up they did. The men did everything, set up the room, made the coffee, cleaned up, led the meeting and father did the only thing he was able to, he signed all the cards.
On family day at the Salvation Army, he’d walk over and if any of his “drunks” didn’t have family, he’d sit with them and say, “I’m your family.”
All these things my father did, led me to another place, Alateen and Helen. Alateen is a group for the children of alcoholics and I found a group of them at an AA meeting. I started attending and found it to be a refuge from adolescence and the problems of growing up in a dysfunctional home. Helen was one of the adult sponsors of the group along with her husband.
Helen was the first person who was able to force me to be honest with myself and face the real problems I had. She and the group taught me about life, love and God. I learned so much there. Some of it the grand knowledge of the universe and some of it mundane, like which fork to eat your salad with and how to fill out a job application. She was a mix of compassion and task master.
I remember having a fight with my parents one day, being angry, storming out of the house and getting on my bike. I rode to her house. At first she listened, fed me lunch, and the we talked. She gave generously of her time and that day gave me one of her husband’s old shirts because mine was worn. Then after I was feeling good about life and had forgotten about the anger of the morning, she said, “Now, you were quite the ass with your parents today. Time you went home and apologized.”
The thing that upset me the most about that statement was – she was right. It was tough, but I did it. I thought father didn’t know where I was and thought I might be in real trouble. Turns out father knew where I was all day. Shortly after I arrived at Helen’s home, her husband, Gordon, slipped into the house to get us all a cold drink and had called my father.
In time she and others coached me in public speaking and I went with various groups to speak about alcoholism and the family at schools, churches, juvenile hall and even to a couple of judges in the family court. Our group even wrote and presented a couple of plays about alcoholic families. I wish I had held onto those scripts.
As I grew into adulthood I moved away from being involved with those groups as I moved on and as alcoholism became less of an impact on my life. Still from time to time, Helen would still call saying she needed a speaker at a school or somewhere. In time my life moved so far away from my father’s people, that the only voice that could call me back, was Helen’s.
She was sixty when I first met her and I’ve stayed in contact with her over the years, sometimes a phone call, a letter, a card, or speaking engagement. In time she slowed down with age, but still managed to have a blow out 90th birthday party with at least 100 people at a local hotel. Last month she celebrated her 100th birthday. As she has aged, she’s reduced the number of events she organizes speakers for and I’ve gotten fewer calls. In the last 10 years she has only been organizing speakers for the monthly family meeting at the Salvation Army.
Yesterday, I did get a call from a mutual friend. First he told me that he was helping Helen look for a speaker and second that Helen’s health is worse. She might not be with us much longer.
So this next week I’ve got two important things to do: visit Helen and get ready to speak at the Salvation Army.
Till next week,