When does forgetting become repressing? A year or so after my father died I was talking to my sister on the phone. I still lived in Fort Lauderdale, where we grew up. She was in Tennessee. Talking on the phone was new to us. We hadn’t been especially close once we’d left home but had lately discovered something we had in common: bitching about Mom. There’s never a shortage of material.
Today I was complaining about Mom’s constant harping Dad’s phantom alcoholism. Mom loves playing the victim—not just any victim, but the heroic victim. “I’m so tired of hearing how she suffered, but persevered. I’m tired of hearing about her damn AL anon meetings. I’ll tell you the truth. The one I feel sorry for is Dad, being slandered this way. It was one thing for her to go on and on about him being an alcoholic when he was alive, but to do it when he’s dead and can’t defend himself, really pisses me off.”
I waited for Glenda to agree with me, and to add her own complaints about Mom being posthumously mean to Dad. That’s the way our conversational ping pong was played.
“She’s right. Dad was an alcoholic.”
“What are you talking about? He drank beer once in a while. That doesn’t make him an alcoholic.”
“He drank beer all the time.”
“No he didn’t.”
“Don’t you remember? Every night when he came home from work he brought a six-pack with him.” As soon as she said that, memories of Dad walking in the front door carrying a paper sack played in my mind. When I was younger the sack held a six-pack of beer and three candy bars, one Glenda, Joe and me. As we grew older the candy stopped but he always had the paper bag with him. He came in, kissed my mom, took the beer out of the bag, took one from the plastic rings holding them together and opened it. The rest went in the fridge. By the end of the night the empty plastic ring was in the garbage can.
But that’s only six beers. He never passed out drunk.
Glenda didn’t wait for me to make that observation. “Don’t you remember when he missed going to church we had to tell people he was sick, even when he wasn’t?” Well, he acted sick. He had a headache. A sour stomach sometimes. I’ve been hungover a couple of times and I sure as hell felt sick.
“Don’t you remember how mad he got when you found that empty whisky bottle on the way to school?” I’d forgotten all about it until she mentioned it. I was in third grade, Mrs. Gaddy’s class. Walking to school there was an empty booze bottle next to the sidewalk. I picked it up and took it to school with me. I’d thought of a funny joke I could tell and during class I asked Mrs. Gaddy if I could tell the class. I stood in front of everyone and first pretended to be a TV commercial spokesman, saying that (whatever the brand of booze) will make you think you’re in heaven. Then I acted like a stereotypical drunk, pretending to drink from the bottle. After a final swig I fell over dead. Haha, I drank myself to death and now I’m in heaven. I didn’t know that Dad passed me that morning driving his Southern Bell truck as I carried the empty bottle down Prospect Road. That night at dinner he asked me about it. He was furious, asking me what I was doing with the bottle. I assumed he was angry because he thought I’d drank from it. I told him how I found it, and what I did with it, laughing as I told him. Instead of diffusing his anger, he snatched me from my chair, yelling, “Don’t you know everyone will think you were copying what you saw at home?”
“But I didn’t see it at home!”
“It doesn’t matter! They’ll think you did!” I’d been spanked before, but always for things I’d done wrong, and always on my behind. Now he was slapping me blindly, uncontrollably. I screamed, cried, ran from the room in terror. He’d never hit me like this and I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was so confused, so scared.
Glenda jerked me back to the present with another “Don’t you remember?” question. And every time she asked if I remembered, I did. And I wondered why I hadn’t remembered until she asked me. If these memories were truly repressed, then I wouldn’t have so easily remembered them just because she’d asked, would I?
We talked for hours that day. When we hung up I felt as if I didn’t know who my father was. He’d been dead just over a year. I thought I was over the grieving process and I suppose I was, but who had I grieved? I couldn’t remember feeling so lost. The next day I opened the yellow pages (this was long before the Internet) and looked up psychologists. This is probably the absolute worst way to find a therapist, but I got lucky. The one I selected was a perfect match. I started seeing Molly Snell two days later. She directed me to Adult Children of Alcoholics, an Al Anon group. I saw Molly once a week for nearly a year and continued going to ACoA meetings until I joined the Navy. The two of them helped me reconcile the forgotten Dad with the whitewashed Dad. When I think of him now it’s as a bad drunk, but a good dad, if that makes sense. Do I remember? My god, how could I forget?