In 1952, my family moved to the upper floor of a house at 1412 North St in Beaumont, Texas. As was common in Gulf Coast homes of the period, the house had ceiling fans in every room (except the bathroom), and a screened-in sleeping porch at the front. My four-year-old sister and I were given beds at either end of porch, and our parents had a bedroom at the back. It wasn’t much, but it was all a Professor of Mathematics with a family could afford in those days. Almost every night, after my sister was asleep, and I was tucked in for the night, my mother used to come, and sit on my bed, and sing to me.
Her singing set off a complicated set of reactions in me. I liked the attention, but even as a child I could tell there was something wrong. Part of it was that she couldn’t carry a tune, but there was something else, an odd sensation that she was not really in the same room as me.It was many years before I realized that she was drunk.
My mother was many things: a talented actress who could command an audience even in minor roles, a splendid card player who was also the best chess player in our family, and a hopeless alcoholic who gave herself over completely to the bottle as she entered middle age. The following poem is about this last aspect of her character, but my memories of her better side linger as well.
“Is your Mother home?”−
I want to please -− always, always.
So I agree to look.
My Mother’s bedroom door is open wide;
From the hallway,
I see her asleep upon her bed,
Her hair and clothes in disarray.
I step inside and glance around –
An ashtray with a butt still smoldering,
Empty wine bottles lined up neatly on the bedside table,
An alarm clock ticking mercilessly.
I sigh, and breathe the smoke-stale air.
Outside, a branch scrapes against her window.
I find it comforting.
For a while, I listen to her gentle snores.
Then I return to my Mother’s bridge class−
Four bewildered women
Standing by the oil stains in the carport.
“She’s not feeling well,” I tell them with a grunt,
And close the door firmly, to their dismay.
I am only fourteen;
They will forgive me.