My relationship with alcohol started years before I took my first sip of beer as a teenager, before I ever got drunk and threw up, before I blacked out and hid bottles. It started when I was a little girl, and it is etched onto all my memories of being with my daddy. Charming and funny at times I mostly remember daddy being mean and scary. The difference was alcohol.
As the children of divorce, my brother and I lived with our mom but spent every other weekend and all summer with daddy. He drove up from San Antonio on Friday afternoons, collected us at our mom’s house in Austin, and drove us back to San Antonio for our weekend visits. Saturday nights, we went to one of my dad’s siblings’ houses, either to my Aunt Josie’s or to my Uncle Fred’s. The grown-ups, my dad and aunts and uncles, played nickel poker and drank. They let us kids, 7 of us all within 3 years of each other, run around fairly unsupervised. We played the Bay City Rollers or Stevie Wonder on the stereo and choreographed dance routines for our parents to watch. We stayed up late watching movies on TV and drinking Big Red. In the background, our parents joked in Spanish (their first language but not ours). It was family time, and it was great. Until it wasn’t.
Every high has its low, and that was never more apparent than over the course of a Saturday night with daddy. At some point, after a certain number of Pearl beers had been drunk, the whites of daddy’s eyes changed from clear and bright to red and bleary. His jokes and playing around became mean and hurtful.
Around midnight, the poker game ended, and everyone got ready to leave. This is when things quickly fell apart. My brother J and I hugged our aunts and uncles, and walked outside with daddy and our stepmother. J and I stood together, next to the car, while daddy shattered the stillness of the night (it was usually past midnight when we left), arguing with our stepmother about who should drive home. What was to argue about? She didn’t drink, and he was drunk. But this was years before Mothers Against Drunk Driving. There was no such thing as a DUI in those days.
Daddy was intimidating. “I’m not giving you the keys,” he would say. “This is my car, and I’m going to drive it. Now get in.”
Ten years younger with a sense of subservience I never understood, our stepmother was no match for him. Sometimes she cried. “Frank, let me drive. Please. Think about the kids.”
When she mentioned us, my brother and I just kept silent. We eyed the interaction with resignation, because it always ended in the same way. We never said anything to either one of them. Getting involved meant having daddy’s wrath turned on you. We were young but we weren’t stupid.
On the drive home, daddy grew angrier, insulting our stepmother, before finding my brother’s face in the rear view mirror. Seeing my brother turned a switch in daddy. He forgot about my stepmother and turned his attack onto J. Nothing was ever good enough. My brother was never good enough. I tried to close my ears while dad berated J for the length of his hair, his sensitivity, his clothes, or his lack of interest in sports. I wanted to protect my brother, my oldest friend, the boy who stood up for me at school, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to say or do anything, because if daddy was yelling at J, then I was safe. So I said nothing. I did nothing.
Driving back to Austin on Sunday afternoons was always a roll of the dice. Because it was late in the afternoon, and the weekend, daddy typically had already been drinking. He wasn’t drunk when he started the drive, but these were the days of open containers, and naturally he had them with him, so he was drunk by the time we got to New Braunfels or San Marcos, halfway to Austin.
My brother and I sat in the back as the car careened down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but the horns of eighteen-wheelers blared, and I always looked, fearing we were about to be killed. My brother and I would have felt better sitting next to each other, but we sat glued to the opposite sides of the backseat. If we were closer together, that meant someone would be sitting in the middle seat. Daddy had a habit of reaching back, taking his hands off the wheel and his eyes off the road and pinching whomever he could reach. His hands flew out of nowhere and attacked you.
When we finally got to our mom’s house, where we had our own rooms (unlike my dad’s house where we slept on the couch or a cot or the floor), when we finally got home, after what seemed like an eternity, we stumbled out of the car and raced into the house. We didn’t look back and we didn’t say goodbye.
But fleeing to safety was all for naught. Two weekends later, there we were again, sitting in his car at the end of a weekend of daddy’s drinking, waiting for the long drive home.