My Childhood Home

I drove by my childhood home today.  I only get back to California every few years or so these days, and in the years since my mother’s death and the sale of that house, part of my pilgrimage to the Golden State typically involves a drive by check in on the old house.  It’s not a remarkable house by any means, but it was the house I grew up in so it maintains a special place in the nostalgia of my past.

My parents split up when I was in my mid-20s as a result of my mother’s drinking.  My dad found Al-Anon, and my mother found that rock bottom wasn’t actually rock bottom.  My mom was supposed to be sobering up, so when she seemed to be subconsciously flaunting her cup full of vodka, my dad moved out, leaving her alone in the house.  After that, things quickly deteriorated.  Although they both tried half-heartedly for a reconciliation, my mom’s disease made it very clear that there was no way the marriage would survive.  My dad bought a new house, took half the furniture, and moved on with his life.  And my mom withered away in the house that once helped raise a family.

During that year after the break up and prior to the official divorce, my mom spent Christmas in rehab.  I had gone out there for Thanksgiving, and my parents came together for a pseudo-family holiday, but when I spent the following day shopping with my dad, I came home to a mother who could barely stand up.  She was so drunk that she could barely speak, and when I finally called her on it, she broke into hysterics, crying, “Please move back home!”  The next day, she agreed to go to rehab.  I got her checked in before I went back to Massachusetts, and I was there waiting for her when she got out.  We went out for a special dinner that night, and she ordered the steak with a wine reduction sauce.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Oh please, all the alcohol cooks out.”

I ignored the obvious signs and left a few days later.  We talked on the phone regularly, and she did a great job hiding from me that she was still drinking.  My uncle found her one day a few weeks later passed out in her bedroom.  He walked out, vowing never to find her like that again.  Part of my mom’s exit strategy from rehab was that she enter a halfway house if she fell off the wagon, something the social worker wanted her to do anyway when leaving and something my mother was vehemently opposed to.  She simply wanted to go home.  The three of us signed a totally-not-legal contract agreeing that we would try it my mom’s way, and if she failed, she’d try it the social worker’s way.

After the incident with my uncle, I worked as hard as I could from 3000 miles away to get my mom into the halfway house she promised she’d go to.  She wasn’t ready to stop drinking though, and rather than admit that, she convinced me that she was attending an out patient rehab program at the local hospital.  For the next several months, she lied to me about the days she hadn’t actually spent at the hospital, making up stories about working with counselors and other addicts to kick her disease.  At the time, gay marriage had just become the law of the land in Massachusetts, and I was admittedly too preoccupied planning my wedding that summer to question the validity of her story.

When the truth did finally come out, it was only a few weeks before the wedding.  I didn’t know if I could stand to have my mother at what was supposed to be the happiest day of my life after she had been lying to me so blatantly for months.  “Well, I’m coming to Boston even if you don’t let me in,” she said.  “I have my airline tickets, and I’ll just sit on the curb outside while you two get married.”  In the end, I yielded, and I made sure she knew that I had informed the staff at the wedding venue to escort her out if she was seen drinking.  Thankfully she made it through the day totally sober, and because of that, it really was the happiest day of my life.

Then she went home and things got worse.  She got into more than one car accident, and spent a few weekends in jail to serve time on a DUI.  For our next trip to California, I chose to stay with my dad.  We visited my mom, and the house was in shambles.  She’d accumulated several pets over the previous year, including a big Maine Coon cat, two Golden Retrievers, and a canary.  All of the animals were getting fat, and the smell of pet urine hung in the air.  My mom had never replaced the furniture my dad took with him, and the house was starting to look like a drug flop house.  It literally brought me to tears.  I vowed to my husband that I wouldn’t set foot in that house again while my mom was sick.

During the next few trips, the standard protocol became meeting my mom at a restaurant for lunch.  She usually took a cab, and had the driver keep the meter running while we ate.  The year before she died, we took a trip to California with our new baby daughter.  I wanted my mother to meet her new granddaughter so badly, but I couldn’t bring our baby into that house.

When my mom stepped out of the cab at the agreed upon restaurant, I was shocked by how frail she looked.  She couldn’t walk on her own and took steps so gingerly that it was clear she could barely stand up straight.  She wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t herself.  Her hair was thin and sickly, and her hands shook uncontrollably.  She was 57.

A few months later, I couldn’t get a hold of her on the phone and sent local police to check on her.  They found her barely responsive and called an ambulance.  She spent a few hallucinogenic weeks in the hospital while they weaned her off the alcohol, and then we transferred her to a skilled nursing facility where she would hopefully regain her strength.  I was flying back and forth from Massachusetts to California to make these arrangements, including going to court to become my mother’s conservator, and I spent hours on the phone each day when I was home on the East Coast.  Some neighbors had agreed to take the animals, and I finally prepped myself to re-enter the house.

It wasn’t pretty.  It was clear that my mom had been living in some pretty awful conditions.  It wasn’t the type of squalor you see on an episode of Hoarders, but the evidence of the animals run amok was still there and I could tell that my mom spent just about every hour of the day plopped on the sofa in front of the television.  I cleaned up a little bit, finding strength in the reality that my mom would likely never return to this house.  The plan at that time was that if my mom got better, we’d move her to Massachusetts.  It was still very difficult being in that house, but it seemed like we’d hit rock bottom finally, and maybe the house would finally return to the happy childhood home it once was for me.

Then a few weeks later, she was gone.  She had a medical emergency that sent her to the hospital, and she faded incredibly quickly after that.  Thankfully, when I got the call in Massachusetts that things were falling apart and that I needed to get on a plane, her brothers came to her side so she wouldn’t be alone.  I bought a plane ticket and headed to Logan Airport.  I was in the parking lot when my uncle called me to tell my mother was dead.

My husband, my aunt, and my dad helped me go through the house.  We packed up what little there was and divided things into piles: one for shipping to our house in Massachusetts and the other, far larger pile, for donation.  I spent the next week or so planning and executing the funeral and tying up loose ends.  I found a realtor who would take on cleaning the house up and getting it ready for sale, and I prepared for my return trip to my new home where my husband and daughter were waiting.

The day I was scheduled to fly home–to my new home on the East Coast–I sat in the house where I grew up, the house where my parents’ marriage fell apart, the house where my mother slowly drank herself to death.  I couldn’t believe I would never again set foot in this house without being invited in by a stranger, and I savored the moment in tears.

It’s been nearly seven years since that day, and I still feel a pull towards that house whenever I’m in town.  I need to see it, and when I drive by, I secretly hope to see some happy family playing in the front yard so that I can know that someone’s new story is being written there.  I’ve never seen anyone there, but the house looks great, well manicured yard, great paint job.  Some day, I plan on knocking on the door with my own kids so that I can politely ask the new owners if I can show my children my old bedroom.  Maybe that’s creepy, or maybe it’s just what people who come from broken homes do to show their kids where they come from.


4 thoughts on “My Childhood Home

  1. Johnny,

    This is a heartfelt and authentically written piece. I am only sorry that it is your truth. I am confident that the day will come when you’ll be able to enter the home w/ your own family and revisit a happier past. There is nothing creepy in that. I just sold my childhood home, one flooded with over fifty years of memories. I take those memories with me, along with the cement slab containing my 8 year old hand prints.

    My father in law died from the same disease your mother suffered from when my husband was just fifteen. Fortunately your own family will, as has mine, know the joy and peace that was missing from yours, just as ours has. We live, we love, we learn, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

    Liz Neipp

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