Gallo by the Gallon

Gallo by the Gallon

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April is Alcoholism Awareness Month

By Gweneth Hawes

Life was normal on our street in 1968 in a small sleepy suburb of Boston. Every family had secrets. My mom's secret was her love of alcohol and its effects. In those early years, we paid little attention to it. She didn't beat or neglect my younger brothers and me. She didn't even find everything we did irritating ("You are getting on my last nerve!" was a favorite expression of mom’s at that time). Who could blame her for drinking? She started having kids (me) when she was 21-years-old. It was the early 60s and society dictated that her destined profession was a homemaker. Alcohol helped soften the blow. She drank Gallo by the gallon and smoked Pall Mall cigarettes end-to-end. We didn't know any different. Besides, she made life interesting.

All the neighborhood kids spent afternoons trying to keep my mom entertained. She was the pied piper of the neighborhood.  No other adult enjoyed talking with us and listening to our stories, encouraging us to spy on neighbors or create huge neighborhood water balloon fights in our backyard. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. “Nextdoor” she treated us like our opinions mattered. The neighborhood kids were told to call her by her first name, Bobbi. “Whatever you do, do NOT call me Mrs. Hawes! That is my mother-in-law’s name.” 

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She was good at the 60s housewife thing though far too intelligent and well-read for the job. She was a Girl Scout leader, volunteered at church, and drove us to various lessons in the VW Beetle with the top down and the Beatles playing at full blast. We were left to our own devices with few rules and no direction. On the days we were told to get out and stay out until she called for dinner you could be sure the bottle would be empty. Other afternoons she delighted in her antics and our reports on the next door neighbors. By the time I was in high school my parents had grown apart and were divorced.

I used to tell people half-jokingly that my father got older while my mother got younger.

They lost sight of what they liked about each other and the blow out fights were more frequent. When the divorce was final, Mom moved us three kids to New York City so she could be near her punk rock friends. But being broke, saddled with kids and without a job, she fell into a depression and the drinking got worse. I learned to eyeball the level of liquor in the bottles at night. When I checked them in the morning, I would know if I needed to get my brothers off to school or if mom would be mothering today.

I didn't realize that my life had become about managing an alcoholic. "If only" might be a favorite cry of children with an alcoholic parent. If only she would stop, if only I could run away, if only I was more lovable. She'd spent all those years trying to give us the childhood she didn't have, and here it was being smothered with alcohol. Why couldn't she see that?

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I left for college and lost sight of mom's daily life. I enjoyed my mother through her letters. My friends would gather around me in the dining hall to hear my mother's latest story of life in the City.

There was one story about the New York City blackout of 1977 when everyone was civil to each other for one night, Thanksgiving in New Jersey at Aunt Helen's house when her apron caught on fire, or the story about discretely trying to remove her girdle while on a promising date. After graduation, I moved to Los Angeles for a paying internship at a theater. My father and his 3rd wife were living in L.A. and living with them made it easier to transition into adulthood, though I think, like my mother before me, alcohol had forced me into adulthood too early.  

Working my first real job at the theater where I interned, I got a call from my mother's friend that she found mom in her apartment barely coherent. She was now in the hospital gravely ill. I flew to her bedside not knowing when I would return to my life in L.A. Seeing my mother so sick, so unavailable – she had lung cancer and a metastasized brain tumor - a tsunami of tears washed away all her imperfections.

Two surgeries later, we had some time together, the tumor on her brain had been reduced, and she was coherent again for a while. Living in a hospital creates a funny new relationship, a new normal, and we navigated it the best we could. But her damn doctor was right, and she died a year later.

I was tasked with cleaning out my mother's one-room "apartment" at The Markle, the Salvation Army women's housing in Greenwich Village. She had moved to there from Brooklyn after I left for college. The Markle was affordable and while she couldn't cook in her room (she was a really great cook) her friends loved to have her over to cook for them. Cleaning out mom's one-room apartment was a surreal experience. I was a mess of memories and emotions. But I signed up for the job. I was the obvious one to do it. I wanted to have this extra opportunity to be close to her, to spend some private time with her.

While sifting through boxes of her writings and letters, I found one titled “My Autobiography.” She started it off “Dear Lance”.

I knew it was written for her best friend, a gay punk rocker. I always knew he was the real reason she'd moved us three kids to New York City from California in the mid-70s.

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The history I learned that day gave me insight into why she did what she did. My mother was 12-years-old when her mother fell ill and became bed-bound. Her father was a larger-than-life Irish American with a beautiful baritone voice trained for opera. But he was a mean drunk. He would come home drunk, yell at her mother and then find her and beat her for the life they had to live.

She was not quiet while being hit and the whole building knew what was going on. As my mother described it in her autobiography, "Most of the people in the neighborhood felt sorry for me, and let me know it, which almost killed me. The only people who had any empathy, or any feeling for what I was really going through, were the gays in our quad of buildings. And it was Ted and Ralph who did the thing that really made my life bearable. They had always liked me – I never knew why – just knew they did. They treated me like a real honest to god worthwhile person, not someone with a home life that couldn't pass any censor, and always made me laugh.

One day Ralph came to me and said, in some way that made it all perfectly acceptable, that they thought I should have a key to their apartment so that I could come up and play their records while they were at work because I was such a goddamn nuisance to the rest of the neighborhood or something. I was so grateful, not just for the key, but for their incredible sensitivity in knowing that the only thing I couldn't take was sympathy. I used to go up there every day and I never, and for a girl as sneaky as I was this is saying a lot, looked in one of their drawers or read or letter or anything. I used to dust things secretly for them. For me, their apartment was reassurance that the world wasn't at all like it was in my family."

Reading about the history of violence my mother experienced made me realize that the drunken fist fights between my parents may have been started by my mother, or at the very least she had equal responsibility. I had always assumed it was my father’s fault because he was prone to rages at the strangest things (dinner not being ready on time was the usual one). Now I understood this is how she’d been raised. This is what she thought she deserved. Who could blame her for self-medicating with alcohol. I used to blame her for raising us kids in a home where our parents beat each other up. Didn’t she know better?

Maybe she thought, “My kids aren’t getting beaten. I am doing better than was done to me.”

After reading and thinking about this new information in her autobiography, my anger softened. Knowing my parents were reacting to their histories gave me compassion toward them. Compassion for their knee-jerk reactions, for their emotional reactivity, for their need to replay violence without foresight into its effects on us three kids.For two such intelligent people, I realized in many ways I was much smarter, certainly emotionally, than they ever were.

I realized I was going to have to parent myself the way I wished they had done. My parents really did do better than was done to them and I have done the same for my children. Because of my childhood (and my husband’s) we have given our children tools for living, like understanding that therapy is a helpful and necessary part of life, and that if you find yourself slipping into excess (with alcohol, food, nicotine, the need to control everyone but yourself) there is a program for that.

I forgive my mother for not being super-human, for making mistakes, for not always being the mother I wanted. We loved each other very much and really enjoyed each other’s company.  Our time together, though too short, has come to mean everything to me.   

If you are worried about someone with a drinking problem, help and hope are available at: Al-Anon

If you need help with a drinking problem and in you live in Los Angeles: LACOAA

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