Paula was my landlord for three years when I lived on 84th street in Dyker Heights. At the time she was in her late 70’s and smoked no less than a pack of cigarettes a day. Her fingers were long and gnarled, her skin the color of white porcelain and mottled with various shades of scabby brown liver spots. She had fluorescent blue eyes that demanded attention and whenever I saw her combing through the weeds in the front yard or dragging a broom through the hallway, she always had a nest of soggy food crumbs clinging to both corners of her mouth.
The apartment that I rented from Paula was massive. The bedroom alone had enough room to comfortably fit two king size beds. When I first moved in, I most definitely did not have enough furniture to fill the place and Paula wasn’t shy about trying to pawn her things off on me to help fill it up. One day I came home from work to find a crooked bookshelf at the bottom of my steps next to a half-dead potted plant, with a note taped to its base asking me to stop by to see a dining room table she had. I held off my visit for as long as I could until she cornered me in the hallway one day when I was picking up my mail and I couldn’t avoid her any longer.
I followed Paula down into her basement where, in the middle of the room, under several saggy brown boxes, a dusty rolled up Oriental rug and a set of nicotine stained lamp shades, was this chunky, 10-seat wooden table that looked like it belonged on the set of Lord of the Rings. And although it would have fit perfectly in my kitchen, as a single girl living with just a cat that weighed less than six pounds, I truly had no use for it.
“Paula, thanks for thinking of me but really it’s just too big,” I said with a smile and a sigh.
I could tell from the look in Paula’s eyes that she was switching into saleswoman mode. “But what about when your family comes over for dinner?” she asked while stepping closer to the table, spreading her bony, translucent arms open wide like Vanna White.
When I initially applied for the apartment, I was careful not to divulge too much information about my family for fear that their drug and alcohol issues would reflect poorly on me and I wouldn’t get the place. I hadn’t had contact with my family in years but how would I explain that to Paula without cracking open Pandora’s box? “They live too far away for a visit, Paula,” I lied. “Really, I can’t use it now.” That was the truth.
Paula persisted. “But what about later, when you have children?” she asked. Her teeth were stained with the red wine she had been sipping earlier that day and her lipstick had seeped down into the deep grooves etched around her bottom lip.
I was growing increasingly annoyed with our tedious back and forth and I thought for sure that what I blurted out next would have killed the conversation. “Well Paula, I don’t want kids,” I said. “So, there’s that.”
All 90 pounds of her frail frame went stiff as both of her eyes melted into weepy, thin slits and her face went gray. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Why on earth wouldn’t you want children?”
The answer that Paula was looking for wasn’t a simple one and unless she grew up with parents who were raging alcoholics and as a result was forced to grow up way too fast then she simply wouldn’t understand my reasons. And I’ve found that, unfortunately, not many people do.
If I could tell them all this story, it might convince them: Ridge Ave is a major, often congested, roadway in Philadelphia that runs parallel to the Schuylkill River. Most parts of it are fairly decent, surrounded by red brick houses, gray business campuses and shopping centers. But there are other parts that aren’t nearly as nice and certainly not as safe. In these areas, the street is cradled on either side by shady abandoned parking lots and crawling with tipsy homeless men looking to score loose change from the cars idling under the traffic lights. This part of the street was dangerous and certainly no place for a seven-year-old girl with yellow butterfly barrettes in her hair to be after the sun went down. But that’s where Mom and I ended up one night after my stepfather, Joe, tried to choke her in the car.
The car was parked and turned off when Joe leaned over from the driver’s side and went for Mom’s throat. Somehow, even though she was drunk, Mom reacted just in time and flung her door open and fell out onto the curb.
“Get out Dawn!” she screamed. “Get out now!”
She and I jumped out from the back seat panicked, scared and confused. Mom grabbed my hand and we took off, disappearing into a dark and desolate patch of overgrown brown weeds and God knows what else on Ridge Avenue.
I kept looking back over my shoulder to check and see if Joe had followed but I couldn’t see him; though I was relieved, I knew we weren’t in the clear yet. I found a well-hidden bench and pulled Mom down to sit. She was hysterically sobbing and so I wrapped my arm around her and leaned her head towards my shoulder.
“Shhh, it’s okay Mommy, we’re safe now,” I told her. “It’s okay.”
Mom lay down on her side, using my legs as a pillow, curled her knees into her chest and passed out while I gently stroked her head and willed my body to stay awake. I had to stay up to protect Mom. I had to stay up to listen for Joe. I had to stay up and be brave. I had to stay up because somewhere between the car and that rotting bench I found on the side of Ridge Avenue that night, I had switched roles with my mother and become the parent while she became the child.
In my alcoholic family, there simply wasn’t enough room for me to be a kid when I was supposed to be one. And as a result, I ended up not only practically raising myself but also trying to manage the irrational, drunken behaviors of my parents—especially my mother’s. If I wasn’t physically protecting my mom from Joe—his verbal threats and flying punches—then I was busy protecting her from herself when she became too drunk to function. And it wasn’t until I became an adult and was relieved of those responsibilities that I found freedom and solace from the burden of having to grow up way too fast.
When I’ve tried to explain my decision not to have kids to other women my age that either have children or are trying to, they look at me like I’m crazy. While trying to mask the horrified looks on their faces, they usually say, “But you would be a better mother than your mom was!”
I know they’re right but I also know that I’ve done enough parenting for this lifetime. And even if the average person can’t possibly understand that, at least I know that there are other adult children of alcoholics that will.
[This essay and the accompanying image were originally featured on After Party Chat]