My daughter drops by the house whenever she wants. We could be in the middle of dinner or watching a television program. She comes in the door and says, “Hello, family.” Sometimes she lumbers through the house with a basket full of laundry. Laundry or no, she looks in the fridge and rustles through the cookie jar. With glass of milk in hand, she takes her place in the living room.
I like that the kid feels she can come over unannounced. I don’t know what other families do with their kids, and I don’t really have the childhood experience. My parents moved out of Kansas City about the same time I got my own apartment. Maybe, it was because they were relocating out of town that I moved out. I can’t remember anymore.
But I never did have the chance to pop over to mom and dad’s whenever the urge struck me. And it’s just as well, as I wouldn’t have done it anyway. When I moved out of my house, I vowed to cut off all contact with my family. Period. They gave me a lifetime of embarrassment and bad feelings. Every time I was around them, I felt that they were holding me back.
They tried to get a hold of me from time to time, but I’m pretty sure that my parents, who had moved to Reno to live in a hotel parking lot in a fifth-wheel trailer, didn’t care too much that I had disappeared from their lives. I didn’t give them an address or phone number. They didn’t ask many questions and only began looking for me around Christmas time.
They caught up with me through the few friends I kept in the transition from high school to college. After that, I talked to my parents and grandparents only infrequently and only for short times. I could say that I was busy, I had to go to work, I had an appointment, I was going out with friends. I kept them at a safe distance and never, until I sobered up, tried to keep much of relationship with them.
Soon, I had outgrown all my high school mates. We connected less and less. They called me a “college sissy” and shamed me when I didn’t respond to their insults. I had moved from the suburbs to the city, and my old friends hated the city for the spics, niggers, and whores.
Soon, new groups of drinking friends, one that spoke of higher learning and things of the mind and another that moved through the darker underbelly of drunks’ bars and late-night eateries, replaced the old crowd.
There were times when I wanted the comfort of family but understood that I was in love with the idea of family and not my own. One night, when I was living in Trier, a sinus infection set in a pain so deep in my ear that I walked to the hospital late in the night. As I trudged along, I noted the warmth coming from house and apartment windows. I wanted my mom. It was the only time I ever felt that and the only time I ever said that out loud to myself.
I see now that I wanted was a safe place to be physically ill, not my mom so much. I do remember getting comfort in the arms of my mother when I was a kid but never since I had grown up enough to wander the neighborhood on my own. Wanting my mother was a joke anyhow. The milieu of family was always a dangerous place of arbitrary commands and feelings, and of violence and drunkenness.
I look back on that now and see that separating myself from my family wasn’t a bad impulse. As an alcoholic fleeing alcoholics, I found it best to isolate myself. Not that this represents good and healthy behavior. It does not. But it was the first step in a seven-year process of isolating myself to the point where I didn’t have anyone to talk to. That isolation led, even more than the bulging liver and aching kidneys, the constant hangover and physical illness, to the point where I had to choose: Drink and die or quit and live.
I remember the closing days of my drinking life well, drunk as I was. I don’t recall the details or many of the events. But the feelings come back. I was resentful at a world that I thought owed me something. I hated my family for all the shame and embarrassment. I was alone in my universe and, worse, lonely. I drank away all my friends and relationships.
If I had not spent high school and early college drunk all the time, if I had been a healthy person with decent self-esteem and self-confidence, then severing family relations would have been for the best. It turns out, however, that I went off on my own so that these crazy people would not bother me when I drank.
I learned a lot from my family. Many times, life’s negative lessons are more effective than the positive ones. I learned how not to be parents from my parents. I learned how not to conduct relationships from my family. When I got sober, I thought a lot about these things. In my drinking life, I was doing things the way my parents always did. As a sober person, maybe, I thought, I ought to do the opposite.
I was soon a father myself. Just four months after sobering up, my girlfriend called and told me we were pregnant. I determined from that moment to be present, to be the best father I could be. Syd’s young life was twisted up in having two houses, two sets of rules, and two parents who didn’t think the same way except about one thing: We ought never use the child as a tool in an argument or disagreement.
Over time, Sydney came to live with me half of the time, then, after a short while in high school, full time. As she grew into young adulthood, she became a terrible roommate, incorrigible at home and slack in school. But I took it on the chin and remained dedicated and stoic. Virginia, too, stood next to me and was the best stepmother she could be.
We did not indulge in Sydney’s bad behavior, and she moderated for long periods. She acted out from time to time but understood fundamentally that she had a better gig at our house than at her mom’s (and God bless her).
She moved out when she was 18 and had her troubles. But she always came around. She called home often for no good reason at all, which is why all kids should call their parents.
Then, she lost her job and was picky about getting another. She wanted to move back home. I didn’t allow it. This is your time, I told her. If I let you back in, you will waste more time. She protested. I’ll be homeless she said. I told her I knew where we could get her food, clothing, and shelter until she got on her feet. She wanted no truck with homeless shelters, however, and had a job and a roommate within ten days.
She called me about six months later and thanked me for not letting her move back home. She had tasted independence and liked it.
Since then, she just comes by. She can be on her way home from work or roller derby practice. Sometimes she wants to watch television with her family. She likes being in her family’s house. Staying over some nights, she returns to her apartment the next day happy that she has a family to go to. And a life of her own.
I speak to my parents now about twice a year. It’s never a bad experience but we really don’t talk about anything. We never really had much to say anyway. When I talk to them, I’m reminded that it really doesn’t matter that I didn’t have a family house to stop in at. What’s important is that Syd does.