There’s nothing in my life at the moment I treasure more than the relationships I have with my kids. My daughter, now 24, rings me several times a week and spends at least one evening a week with us at home. My thirteen-year-old son loves doing things with me and thrives when engaged in activities with Virginia and me.
I am proud of the bonds that my kids and I have in particular because I don’t share them with my parents. They are dear people, probably. They worked hard all their lives to fulfill the roles they were supposed to play in the society that their parents built. They married and had the requisite number of kids their religion and their status demanded (four). When they were coming up in life, the middle class was growing, and their fortunes followed the upward arc of that lucky generation.
But what a price my father paid for living according to the whims of the society that bred him. That poor guy sat in a windowless concrete room for most of his 35 years at the National Cash Register Corporation. In part, he did this because he thought he was supposed to. His job was to fix the cash registers that technicians from all over the Midwest brought to the downtown headquarters. On occasion, the managers sent him out on service calls. He hated dealing with “customers” and complained of it bitterly.
In part, he sat in that basement because he was afraid to do anything else. What kind of a life was there except the boomer, middle-class life? Hippies? My father’s conservative, even reactionary impulses repelled such alternatives. He hated anything out of the ordinary and didn’t like much in the ordinary either. While he dreamed of being wealthy, he reviled those who had more than him. He reveled in the freedom his two-week camping vacations in the mountains but envied, even hated those who could afford to live in such environs. He wanted the middle-class home and yard but hated, avoiding until it was too painfully obvious, such chores as trimming trees, cleaning gutters, and mowing grass. He hated it so much, he made his kids from very young ages take over the work of tending house.
I never remember my father enjoying his job. A complex man of opposites, he felt a kind of fealty to the corporation. They gave him two, then three weeks of paid vacation. His health insurance covered the whole family. With the money he earned, he bought a three-bedroom ranch in the suburbs. When it came down to it, he felt trapped—by the money, his family, the benefits and pension, and the life he thought he wanted to live but could not. He didn’t hate his coworkers so much as envy them. They were happy at their jobs. They didn’t grumble. Maybe some of them even chose their careers. My dad happened into his and stuck with it because it was the best thing going.
He drank every day. Sometimes he quaffed a few beers in his special chair with the newspaper in the evening. Most nights ended quietly. Some ended in violence. He was always tired and we were, for the most part, supposed to do our duty—go to school, take care of house, and stay out of the way. When we didn’t, when we got caught smoking or
He dreamed of being free. He had undefined ideas of being a great inventor, of winning the corporate lottery with the one invention or method of making money that would, in turn, make him rich. While he fought for every dime he made, and spent it on his children’s education, he hated money for all the trouble it made. Without it, one could not be a middle-class man of means. But procuring it forced him to live the life of a slave.
What good was it to demean yourself all day and come home to an albatross of a home, a couple of cars that demanded constant attention, and a house full of needy children and severe wife?
The feeling my siblings and I got from my father’s constant complaining was that we were burdens. Here he was, a great man, capable of fantastic things held back by his family. He could have been so much more productive had it not been for us kids. He meant, of course, that he made a sacrifice for us because we meant so much to him. But that’s not what we heard. We heard in his expansiveness that we were in the way.
And things were not good for us siblings. My father’s whims ruled the house. Where we might at one minute enjoy his tender side, the next we might be whipped for doing things that all kids did. He ruled with an iron fist and generous belt. I don’t know the exact experience of my brother and sisters, but I watched them suffer blows for their transgressions. A lie brought certain punishment, but then again, so did a cookie filched from the cookie jar, a moment stolen outside away from the family when we were supposed to be with them, and a fidget during church. God forbid, you were in his presence when he grew angry about something. That wrath might just wind up in a bruised face and stinging behind.
My dad did try to connect with me, but his attempts were clumsy and almost always more about himself than about me. I became a boy scout and found that I could live a life of my own outside our house. When I was away on overnights and at summer camp, I was gloriously freed of the arbitrary and punitive nature of home life. Life in the woods comforted me and I found the chaos of nature preferable to the confusion of home.
Then, my father decided he would get involved in his son’s life. He joined our troop as one of the father/leaders. He drank too much, argued with other leaders, sought to impose his will upon the troop. My secret life was no longer my own. My father had invaded the one aspect of living that I had carved out for myself. I was driven underground to live life in the shadows along with those who smoked weed, drank too much, and fraternized with loose women.
All of my father’s faults might be forgiven, and as I’ve grown older, I chalk up my father’s failings to frustration, lost dreams, and disappointment. Even his grandiose pronouncements—“If it weren’t for you kids, I could have been a rocket scientist or an astronaut.”—I understand, now having been father twice over. He wanted to be a respectable man but didn’t know that we respected him despite all of his actions. We loved our father. But the love and admiration of his children was not enough. He wanted to ascend to the oculus of wealth and comfort. His family was often an afterthought.
I started drinking when I was eleven. I had a good role model who revered drink like it was a god. It started for me sneaking beers out of the fridge and gulps from the ever-present bottle of bourbon. As it was, my drunkenness was sporadic—there’s only so much a pre-teen can do. But as I neared the age where my friends had cars, I drove with them to Kansas joints that didn’t check IDs or found older people willing to buy drink for us kids. By the time I had my own car, I was drunk every Friday and Saturday, and when I could sneak it in, once or twice during the week.
Alcoholics have terrible relationships, and the ones I had with my parents only deteriorated during high school. I often came home drunk and my dad listened for the front door. Many a night, I stood humiliated while the old man, drunk himself, threatened and cajoled, yelled and bellowed about how I needed to straighten up. I went to bed, sometimes badly beaten, but I repeated my actions again and again. That’s the thing about alcoholism. I would go to the ends of the earth for a good drunk, and there were times that I did.
My parents moved to Reno, Nevada, in part to get away from the “stress” my dad felt from his job and family. He didn’t change jobs, he stayed with the same company and performed the same functions, but in a different place. In some ways, my dad was finally free. He lost three of four kids in the move. He moved into and lived in a fifth-wheel trailer in the parking lot of the Reno MGM Grand Hotel. It was a cramped space for three people, and I think my youngest sister suffered the most from it.
I’m sure that there are families that live perfectly happy lives in fifth-wheel trailers. And maybe they are drunks too. But the years in the parking lot must have been miserable, or, if not miserable, then confining. They had to leave for at least two days a month, according to a state law that said people can’t live in parking lots but can only stay there temporarily. Because of this, I’m sure they saw some of the state.
The reason I don’t know is that when my parents moved away, I took up into my own apartment in Kansas City. I spent the next seven years drunk most of the time. If I wasn’t drunk, I was getting ready to get drunk. I even spent two of those years in Germany, where my drinking moderated—mostly from necessity and lack of funds.
I look back on that time, and from what I remember, I had good intentions and did the best I could, handicapped as I was. I had a larger view of the world than my parents. I thirsted for knowledge and read stacks and stacks of books. Things were often miserable. I lived in poverty and squalor. I had no self-awareness. In many ways, I was a child just like my father.
When my parents came to town or I visited them in Reno, we got drunk together. We came to a kind of peace that alcoholics who don’t know each other well seem to have. We toasted each other’s good health. We didn’t disagree on anything because we talked about nothing. Our priorities were the same. We drink, we gamble, we act out. That was it. Reno was a great place for us.
I was always glad to get home, however. There was only so much of the fluffery I could stand. But then, when I arrived home, my own empty life faced me. I was deathly afraid to call myself an alcoholic. I tried all different kinds of things. I drank only every other day. I drank wine instead of beer, or beer instead of wine, or cocktails, or straight liquor. I tried all different combinations. I drank at different times of the day, mostly later and later at night. I quit drinking in bars. I was not a bar-buddy kind of guy anyway. I drank at home, alone. I was thorough. Every night I blacked out.
Seven years after my parents moved out of town, I sobered up. I was tired and sick and broke. I didn’t have the strength to keep drinking or the courage to kill myself. I started a new life. This way of living, without drink, introduced me to myself and brought me into the process of maturing. In many ways, I am still at that work today, twenty-five years since my last drink.
The relationship between my parents and me was never the same. We never really had much to talk about. I tried calling on holidays for a while but the conversations with my drunk father always turned maudlin and repetitive. He was still the greatest guy he knew. He did the most stuff, earned the most prizes, was the most unique. After a while, we hardly talked and any effort I made to contact them wound up in my father’s long diatribes over the evils of the modern world, the mess liberals were making of the world, and creeping communism.
The result is that I really haven’t spoken to my parents in years. I’ve had a few “how’s the weather?” sorts of discussions. But the reason we have any contact is because Virginia and I adopted my youngest sister’s son when she went down the meth hole. If it weren’t for that, I’d hear from them once a year when they called me. I can’t imagine calling them.
And it’s not as if I harbor any animosity toward my parents. We just have nothing to talk about.
That’s why I treasure the relationships I have with my kids. At 24, Sydney has yet to find a reason not to come around when she wants. I don’t force her. I don’t lecture her anymore on anything. She asks my advice and I give it. She wants to know something about the way her used car runs, I tell her. We have meaningful discussions over books, music, television, and movies. We have heart-to-hearts.
The same with Nick, who’s happiest doing stuff with me. I’ve been meaning to find more things we can do together that are really close-up activities—building things. I have little patience with these things, and I think he knows it. But we spend time taking pictures together with film cameras. We go hiking and backpacking. He loves road trips.
I would love all those things I have with my kids with my dad. I believe in miracles—after all, one day I was a hopeless drunk and the next day I was a drunk with a sober life ahead of him. But time is running out. The old man is losing his mind, little by little. My mom is a bundle of niceties. I will have to be happy with my kids. The time for building anything with my parents is running out.