Today I stood in the sun on the green grass, with the gentle breeze flowing off the hill. From my mother’s headstone you can look up and see the east foothills that my mother so loved to look at. Today was the day my brother and I went to visit the gravesite – this month marking the seventh year she has been gone.
On the way home I remembered the kitchen of my childhood. The frilly curtains had yellow trim. The cabinets were old pine, faded with age and turned to a golden honey color. In the morning the rising sun shone through the southern window and reflected off the yellow tiled counter tops, flooding the yellow walls with a golden glow. It was my favorite time to be in the kitchen – before the family was up and before the noise and tension of the day started.
I wish I could say that I had fond memories of that childhood kitchen, but not all the memories from there are good. The warmth of the yellow glow hid the harder edges of an alcoholic home. Before my parents were awake there was a brief time when all things seemed right in that little kitchen.
There was never any drinking in the house, father did that in the bars near his office, and we children never suffered physical abuse or neglect. However, my father was emotionally – and mother claims even physically abusive to her (although I never saw it), but on the surface we seemed like a normal family. Underneath were the fights, the yelling, the arguments, the tension and the fear that something worse could happen.
Father joined AA just as I was entering high school and stopped drinking but my parent’s marriage didn’t survive the trauma of years of alcoholism and co-dependancy. They were divorced when I was just leaving high school.
My relationship with my mother suffered during this time. She coped by leaving a lot – long visits with friends, vacations, jobs, etc. Father ended up doing most of the domestic chores at home and I was in his care most often. That coupled with the fact that I am nearly a duplicate copy of my father – intellectually, emotionally and physically we were nearly identical (Look at a photograph of us in our twenties and you’d be hard pressed to see a difference). It made it difficult for mother not see my father in me and react to me the way she did to him. Such are the scars of the disease.
These and other factors strained the relationship I had with mother her whole life. Somehow she and I managed to hang on to our family ties and later in life we were able to move past some of the old pain.
This last week I was reminded of another important person from that difficult time growing up and another point of tension between my mother and I. Helen, was one of the adult sponsors of an Alateen group I attended. She was a strong women in her mid sixties when we first met. In that group I mostly learned about dealing with alcoholism and life in general from the other teens in the group, but Helen and her husband, Gordon, were a special breed of people. Loving, caring and willing to do almost anything thing to help.
Helen was also a strong-willed woman with a willingness to call it as she saw it and a great ability to force people to be honest with themselves. Sometimes she came across as hostile, unfriendly and uncompromising, but I always knew her intent was to help.
And help me she did. It would take a great many posts to list all the life lessons I learned listening to her stories or having conversations or just watching her help others. I’ve lost track of the number of times she’d call a bunch of us teens to say someone needed help moving or cleaning, or needing a ride. She never ask for help herself – it was always, “Mary’s car is broken, could you go over and see if you could fix it?” or “Dave has to move this weekend when can you come over with your truck?”
She was a kind of one woman welfare organization. Need clothes? Food? A job? Call Helen she’d fix you up. She had extra clothes in her garage, would give you a meal and always seemed to know how and where to get a job. She was also willing to discuss problems, talk through problems and suggest ways out of the messes we all got ourselves into.
I remember once when I was about 15 that I needed some new clothes. My father was clueless and my mother was off touring Mexico at the time to run away from the terror that was my father. At a meeting I mentioned that I didn’t know how to get my father to give me the money and wouldn’t really know how to go buy any clothes even if he did.
Helen didn’t even bat an eye when she said, “Your a size 16 collar right? Stop by my house on your way home, I’ve got a few shirts I can give you and I think a couple of pairs of pants. And when you get home just tell your father you need $200 for clothes, for God’s sake, how hard can that be? Call me when you get the money.”
That was Helen. She was also a very religious and spiritual person. Well, and a bit profane too. One of the few people I know who could motivate you into prayer by saying, “Well I think you should get off your god dammed ass and pray about that one. The only one who will get you out of the crap you’ve gotten into, is God.” and that’s the toned down version… It might be odd to say, but much of what I know about God, prayer and spirituality I learned in smokey 12-step meetings preached by foul-mouthed ex-drunks. Helen was just one you knew had a deep connection with the spirit. She never said it in so many words, but by the way she lived her life you just knew.
During those difficult years Helen became something of a mother figure to me and gave me the love, teaching and care that my mother was unable to at the time. I recall sending Helen a mother’s day card and publicly calling her my ‘second mother.’
I know that my mother was aware of this relationship and resented it, but mother couldn’t find a way to be there for me.
In time I moved on with life. Helen’s brand of tough love got me past the rough bits of growing up, but in time I realized that I needed to move past that. Over the years, I talked to Helen from time to time, exchanged Christmas cards, met her for a meal and ten years ago was privileged to attend her 90th birthday. I tried over the years to tell her how much she helped me into adulthood and how often I still used her lessons. I never did a good job of that but I hope what little I was able to express did find a way to her heart.
Last December Helen turned 100.
This month she died.
I attended her funeral this week and saw some old friends and was reminded of the difficult times when Helen and Gordon were my support and guides through life.
Today as I stood by mother’s headstone, looking to the hills, I remembered my mother – the bad times and the good times and all that she gave me.
How could I not remember two women who gave me so much in this life.
Till next week,