My dad was an alcoholic with a tendency to violence, a gambler, a womanizer, who was frequently unemployed or reluctant to work. My mom, on the other hand was a gem. Her name was Florence, but everyone called her Molly. She had a hard life of poverty and betrayal and illness, but she retained her optimism and her dignity.
Growing up in a small town where everyone knows of your father’s misadventures can be endlessly humiliating. In fact, only in the last few years have I come to realize that humiliation was the most constant and formative experience of my childhood and adolescence.
Sometimes we would get a post-midnight phone call from a barkeep who would tell us we had to come collect my father because he was either unconscious or too drunk to drive. He had the only car, so we would walk a couple of miles to wherever he was, get him into the car, and drive him home. I can recall moments like this from when I was five or six until I was well into my teen years.
My mother was well aware of how much this embarrassed me. In the most gentle and confident way, she would tell me that I had no reason to be ashamed, that it wasn’t me on the tavern floor, that I wasn’t the one who had thrown up on himself, and that in time I would come to understand that enduring such moments would give me the strength and the character to handle those times when people proved unreliable, as many would throughout life. Strength and character? I didn’t believe a word of it! And yet I loved her enough to hold my head up during those trips to rescue my dad and during many other dark experiences. She taught me that life was hard for everyone, regardless of our station in life, but that all of us have reasons to be happy, too, and even joyful.
She died at 53, too young, before I had any success as a writer. But every time I write a strong woman character, it’s based in part on my mother, and in part on my wife. I’ve been a lucky man to have such women in my life.
Happy Mother’s Day!