Photo via Wikimedia.org: The 30-30 Cal. Marlin rifle is engraved with scenes from American history commemorating America’s Bicentennial. The engravings include scroll work and dogwood blossoms over most of the steel components. The butt of the gun is engraved with “Gerald / Ford / The 38th / United / States / President.” – Engraving done by Fredrick Dale Henderson.
In this memoir, I decided to share a two-year slice of my life about how stress played a significant role in having an alcoholic mother. Both my parents defected from Hungary separately in 1957 but met in Detroit Michigan in 1959. We were your average middle-class family but were going through a troublesome time in the mid-1970’s. All of us were in a state of confusion and embarrassment. I was a young adolescent teen trying to figure things out. To some degree, I took on the role of protector, provider, and parent, at a very early age without knowing I had assumed this responsibility. I was afraid, confused and afraid to talk about it with anyone. We all came away damaged emotionally from this toxic ordeal. However, I will only write my individual account of this period.
My intent is NOT to villainize my mother in any way because I have a compassionate heart for those with addiction problems. I’m sure my mom loved us, but something internally set her off. She never shared what was wrong. We often would ask her why she was so destructive. Her standard mysterious reply was always, “you just don’t understand.” Maybe something from her upbringing or spending two years in a refugee camp in Austria, I just don’t know. I do know living in Hungary during that period caused a lot of terror because of the communist’s oppression. I can only speculate the impact of living under theses conditions. What I am sure of is that she had an obsession with alcohol that gripped her so severely that she crossed the line of being rational. I started noticing from an early age something was wrong with her behavior. Sadly, as her addiction progressed, it led to combining alcohol with prescriptions pills, and liquid codeine, and, finally, death.
I’ve written a three-part story to create a timeline of how living in stress clouded my good judgment. I was pushed to a breaking point over a two-year period because of a situation my mother placed on my family. My life would have altered drastically had I followed through with a regrettable action. We just never knew what was going to happen at any given moment. We were always on edge waiting for the next odd situation to occur. I always worried my parents would divorce. Eventually, my father had no choice
My hope and prayer for anyone battling this unhealthy family lifestyle, or if you suffer from addiction, is that you will seek help. I beg you, don’t be ashamed and embarrassed. It may cause you to do something you will regret, or worse, lose your life. I’m still a work in progress. Writing to you helps me. Thank you, John.
“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.” ~William Zinsser
MY THIRTEENTH BIRTHDAY
Saturday morning, November 10th 1973, my birthday! I finally became of age to sign up for “The Michigan Hunter Safety Course.” Oh, how I longed for this day to arrive! Why was this day so important to me? Reaching the age of thirteen meant you could legally hunt deer after you sit through a four-hour workshop; then, you must pass a test to get your certificate. But not only that, My father promised me I could go to deer camp with him in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the November 15th opening day. To the obscure little town of Paradise, to be exact, near the upper and lower Tahquamenon Falls.
That particular morning, I was laying on my side in my bed; my eyes popped open, immediately glancing at my radio clock to see what time it was. I was elated to see I beat the clock by two minutes. “COOL,” I said to myself. It was 5:28 am. I was glad I went to bed early. I reached to slide the button to the “off” position on my clock, and I laid back down on my back to go over my mental checklist before getting out of out of bed.
I started to think about making sure I ate something nutritious so I could pay attention in class. So I decided a bowl of Tony the Tiger frosted flakes would be the ticket (Yes, back then, that was considered a well-balanced diet). Then my brain shifted to worry. I did this a lot growing up. Unfortunately, I still do, but I have better control over it now. You see, my mother had an issue with drinking too much. So my hope was she did not stay out too late the night before. She randomly would come and go or make excuses why she had to be someplace. It never really added up. One good sign was I did not hear any arguing or fighting. For my sister and I, this tension was always a big part of our lives. My dad had to deal with some pretty crazy severe stress himself.
My father had been working some extra Saturdays to help pay for our hunting trip, and a special present for my thirteenth birthday. I would receive that gift later that evening. So my mom was responsible for my transportation to the workshop. My dad left for work by 3 am. I quietly and carefully climbed out of bed and walked towards mom’s room and peeked in. Whew! She was still sleeping. Next, I checked on my four-year-old sister. She was ok. Then I proceeded to the living room, tiptoeing quietly towards the picture window to look out and see how mom’s car was parked. If it was crooked, it meant it was going to be a BAD day. If was parked straight, I had a good chance of success, at least part of the day. “COOL, It was straight,” I thought to myself as I peeked through the curtains and out the window. This type of behavior was everyday living for my family. So I showered, dressed, and ate my breakfast before anyone awoke. After I had finished, I got my sister up and fed her. I made sure she got dressed, and I helped brush her hair before mom and I left. Grandma was going to babysit for us.
At the time, my Grandparents (Mother’s parents) occupied the basement while their new small, two-bedroom-ranch home was under construction. They purchased an empty lot earlier in the year across the street from our house. My parents thought it would be a good idea to have my Grandparents live close. However, as the years past, not so much.
Mom woke up. She seemed to be in a jovial mood. She freshened up and dressed. We laughed and joked a little bit about my special present. Mom teased and taunted me. I didn’t mind. It was nice to see her in a good mood for a change. She sang this to me, “You’re going to like your gift.” She often harmonized her words, a fond memory I have of her. She had an angelic voice when she sang.
Mom dropped me off around 8:45 a.m. at the Allen Park Community Center. I asked her to come in and wait. She said, “I would, but I have a little bit of shopping to do. I’ll pick you up at 1 p.m.” I begged her to come in – “Please mom,” I said. I wanted her to stay. I knew if she didn’t stay, she would be out shopping as she said; however, this kind of shopping always ended up more like sloppy shopping. Thank God my Grandparents were at home taking care of my sister. I would have dreaded the thought of my little sister going with her.
Reluctantly, I went into the classroom. I focused on the training as best I could. Not passing the test was not an option for me. Of course, I was worried about Mom not coming back. You see, I needed her to sign some paperwork at the end of my class session for parent verification. To my surprise and delight, I turned and saw my dad come in for my last hour to wait. I now felt relieved and calm about taking my written exam, but I wondered what happened to mom?
Dad and I left the community center. He was very pleased I had passed my test. Honestly, so was I! We sat in the car to go home. I asked him, “Hey, dad, what happened to mom picking me up?” He told me,” Don’t worry Johnny. It was all planned. She had to purchase some wrapping paper, get a cake and some ice cream.” Looking back now, I think he just appeased me.
We turned up our driveway so that we could back up and pull forward to park in front of our house. To my dismay, I noticed the car was parked crooked. Grrrrreat, (learned that phrase from Tony the Tiger) I thought to myself, this is gonna be fun, NOT! We both walked in the house and noticed mom had that familiar look we were all so used to seeing. Droopy eyes, droopy face, and the smell of alcohol, yippy! We didn’t say anything. It wasn’t worth upsetting the rest of the evening. My grandparents were doing a little social drinking with her at the kitchen table anyway. Their beverage of choice was Highland Mist Scotch Whiskey. So we just acted like everything was smooth sailing. No need to rock the boat. My dad had a couple of beers too.
My birthday party consisted of my grandparents (Mom’s parents), mom, dad, and little sister. I did have friends, but I preferred not to have them over. I did not want people to see my mom intoxicated. I hid it pretty well from them. I knew when it was safe, or not, to bring them around. Plus, if adults showed up, that only meant party time for them, not me. As the years past by it didn’t much matter anymore. Her problem escalated to catastrophic proportions.
I remember sitting at the dinner table finishing up my meal. I happened to glance up and out the kitchen window. It was the fullest and brightest full moon that evening, staring at me. I have always had a fascination with the moon. I would notice, at least it seemed to me, people became abnormally goofy on full moons. Tonight proved that theory. This observation I have shared with my children; they have since become believers. This phenomenon is commonly known it as the “The Lunar Effect.”
After singing happy birthday and eating cake and ice cream, the moment of excitement arrived. The special gift my parents would bestow upon me was finally here! My present was a little heavy, relatively long, with a rectangular shape wrapped in Batman and Robin gift paper. I wondered what this could be? So, I tore it open; I was elated beyond measure! I was speechless. I had the biggest smile on my face. It was priceless. I looked up at mom and dad. They had a smile looking back at me. It was a brand new Marlin 30-30 caliber lever-action hunting rifle! My father said, “what do you think?” I said, “I THINK IT’S COOL!” That was the word for awesome in that era
My little sister and grandma were clapping their hands for me. My grandpa was sitting quietly on a kitchen chair with his leg crossed, smiling and taking long drags off of his Parliament cigarette, and had his shot glass within reach. I always thought to myself. “Man, you won’t ever catch me drinking.” Sorry to say, I failed at that personal goal two months later. All in all, the day did not end badly.
By this time, it was well into the evening. I asked my father if I may have permission to sit outside in the backyard behind the house with my new rifle. He chuckled at me and wondered why. I said, “Dad, I want to know what it feels like sitting outside in the dark. I want to practice up for hunting; please let me.” He said, “before you do, show me how to make your rifle safe.” I agreed and showed him. He approved of my demonstration and allowed me to proceed outdoors to the yard.
So there I sat, in the backyard on an empty upside-down five-gallon bucket, pretending I was out in the woods waiting for my trophy buck. As I sat there, the brightness of the moon continued to grab my attention. It was beautiful that night. I guess maybe I paused long enough to take notice of it, more than I had in the past. Nonetheless, it was hypnotizing. My imagination ran wild-looking at it. I was always labeled a day dreamer.
When I finished, I went inside to my bedroom and checked my rifle to make sure it was safe again. To a thirteen-year-old teen, the sound of a lever-action rifle was exhilarating. I then went to get ready for bed after telling everyone good night. My little sister was already cleaned up and in her pajamas. So, I took her by her precious little hand and put her to bed. I knelt down by her bedside to pray with her. We always recited a child’s prayer in Hungarian together asking God for our family’s protection, almost every night, until I left home to join the Marines later at seventeen. We always giggled because my sister would pronounce the words silly.
I then moved to my room to retire for the evening, but before I did, I grabbed my rifle and held it in the dark across my lap. The moon followed me to the back of the house where it poured its light through my bedroom window. I felt as if the moon showed favor to me that night. It allowed me to enjoy my new responsibility and see the inscribed writing on the barrel, Marlin 30-30 rifle. I just stared endlessly at my new present in disbelief that this rifle was mine. Then my imagination consumed my thoughts of how much destruction this weapon could cause if one were not careful with it. I wondered how I would react if I had the opportunity to harvest a deer when the moment arrived. Or what sort of harm could this weapon cause towards a human being? My mind always turning, never stopping; it’s just how I am wired. I thoroughly exhausted myself in all the fascination of this new object. I fell asleep with my rifle at my side. Little did I know that two years later, on my birthday, I would be using it for another designated purpose because of stress.
To be continued in Part two…