It was dark, cold and a little rainy — they were all sitting in the car at the end of their main street where it met the highway, waiting for a bus to come. They were quite early, trying to make sure that the father wouldn’t miss it. The three little girls in the back seat were trying to content themselves. One of the girls was huffing on the window so that she could create a fog and watch the oncoming headlights create a dispersed orange glow. One of the other girls joined her in the activity. When the condensation started dripping, they’d wipe it off and huff again — sometime writing words first.
The mother and father were fairly silent. Not much was being said. Cold shoulders might have shrugged a little. He was headed off to a military post where he was currently stationed — quite far from them but close enough to ride the bus even though it might be a long, miserable ride — he probably had plans to drink along the way to keep himself content.
He came home sometimes on weekends and this had been one of those times. He didn’t always show up — sometimes he stayed on the base where he was stationed, claiming he’d missed the bus but they all knew he’d stayed so that he could get drunk with his friends instead of showing up for them. And even though they longed to see him, by the time he’d been home very long, they were all wishing he’d leave again as soon as possible. He was often gone, sometimes overseas so they’d gotten fairly used to living without him and it seemed even harder to have him home, yet they were very mixed about their feelings. They thought they loved him, but it was more the way a victim stays attached to the one who’s victimizing — they kept hoping that he’d change — but they knew all the while they were hoping, things were really hard on Mummy. It just seemed easier all the way around if he’d stay gone.
They weren’t an affectionate family so there were mostly more shrugs or subtle body messages as they sent him off on the bus.
“Come home on the weekends if you are able”, the mother said and the girls responded favorably all the while wondering if they really meant it or if he could tell by the way they turned around so quickly that they might prefer he didn’t. Things were so peaceful when he was away but they missed him just the same. He was a part of them. He was Daddy.
They had all driven together one long weekend, up to where he was stationed, scouting around, thinking they’d get a house nearby so they could all stay with him and together. They stayed in billeting on the base while they were there looking and had a really nice room until an officer came and needed it and then they were booted out into a smaller one. They all hung out on the swings while a new room was made ready for them. It was a little embarrassing to be at the bottom of the totem pole.
They tried to make the best of things. Daddy played a line game with whoever would play with him while they were in their small room waiting for the next day to go out and look again. Several rows of dots in lines would be put on a piece of paper and then whoever was playing, any number of players, would take turns connecting them trying to complete a square so that the square could be claimed with an initial and whoever got the most squares at the end, won.
There was the smell of Palmolive soap in the air and that would be a memory that lingered for a lifetime — Palmolive soap recalling one of the few times Daddy took the time to play.
Palmolive soap changed their fragrance somewhere along the way so it was harder and harder to remember — but that line game stayed the same. If they ever played it, one of them would say, “Remember that time we stayed in billeting looking for a house and Daddy played this with us?”
There was one house with stairs and gold veined mirrors on the wall the stairs went up and there was some talk by the parents with the realtor about buying it. They all got so excited about the idea and could imagine that it would be a new start and a big step up into another way of living. The mother got cold feet, knowing full well, by then, that the father wasn’t very likely to change and then she’d have even more to try to manage. That idea fell through. It might just have been that their credit wasn’t worthy — the mother was still relieved at the same time disappointed that things couldn’t be the way they all were dreaming that their lives could be.
It’s hard having hope for an alcoholic. He did manage to get through the service, twenty years, and retire with an income. He lost one stripe along the way but because he was so handsome and charming, he almost always found his way back out of trouble — just long enough to get the twenty years in.
They’d take one more trip in that same 1950s baby blue Buick with its continental kit, the one they’d waited for the bus and looked for the house they didn’t get in. When Daddy retired, they took a trip to Canada to visit the mother’s family there — Daddy driving all the way to and back and staying sober the whole trip until he thought they were fairly safe in the mother’s hometown where they would be for an extended time visiting one relative or another.
Driving all across America, on turnpikes and highways, they slept in the car most nights but once or twice they took a room in a little motor hotel along the way. Even though he didn’t drink while he was driving, he was somber when he was sober and not a lot of fun and always in a hurry to get to the next time he could drink again. He drank in Nova Scotia but not so much that he made any kind of fools of them — just enough to calm his alcoholic nerves some. And all of their mother’s relatives thought that he was handsome and charming too — even though he got a little drunk — his good looks and charm appeased them.
They stayed in a big house that Grannie owned and rented rooms to student surveyors. It had two sets of stairs, one in the front and one that went up the back from the kitchen. Those stairs were very steep for little 8, 9, and 10 year old legs to manage, but they were the fun ones and the three girls took them the most to get up to the big room that they all stayed in.
There was another good memory of Daddy playing. He put them all in a sleigh and pulled them in it himself with an uncle helping. They laughed and laughed and Daddy looked so wonderful having fun that way. Mummy was doing her regular thing, making a movie of every move anyone made. For some reason, she wanted to remember these things — the good times and fun things they did — Mummy loved Daddy a lot, but he just wouldn’t or couldn’t quit drinking.
Their shoes all got wet from the snow and had to sit on the oven door to dry out. Daddy carried the littlest girls on his back to get them back in without getting their feet any wetter. The oldest was too independent. It was the first time any of them had seen snow so they had to play some in it but they didn’t have snow shoes. They were from California.
They met all their cousins and aunts and uncles and then it was time to go home.
The Grand Canyon had to be missed on the way that he was racing back home so he could finally drink the way he wanted. “We don’t have time”, he said. They did see a giant meteor crater — it must have been in the straight line along the route that they were taking. And each got a piece of asbestos before it was well known how bad it was to have it — some rose quarts and Apache tears as well — some memorabilia to recall the trip later in their lives.
They had been taken out of school for a whole month and were supposed to be taking notes along the way to inform their classes about the trip once they got back — a way to please the State most likely. They brought the rocks instead.
It wasn’t very long after that trip, a year or so about, that they shipped Daddy off to live with his mother and father hoping he would find a way to recover from the alcohol — they couldn’t think of another single thing that they could say or do to help him. He never came back the way they planned, but they decided it was better that he hadn’t if he’d never change — and he never did. The next family he devastated told them all about it, a long time later.
Poor Daddy. But he didn’t really try. He was from a drinking family with several brothers that struggled too. Most of them not as bad as he did. One of them managed to quit and the story was that one of his daughters had said some words that did the trick and he quit, just like that. One of Daddy’s daughters tried to find the words that would be a trick too — always looking for just the right ones to say that would shake him at his core. She never did and Daddy never looked back much after he left so there weren’t any chances to hope to change him, even if she had managed to find them. He would call once in awhile — only when he was drinking or drunk — to tell them that he loved them. None of them were very convinced and started trying to be busy if or when he bothered.
They called themselves Little Women, the three daughters and the mother after Daddy left. Everything they did, they did the best they could to try to be a family. There were a lot of struggles but none as hard as dealing with a man pouring beer over kittens in a box, staggering all over falling all the time and the police coming, always sleeping off a hangover, yelling at their mother or pounding on her with his fists or wrecking the blue Buick — pawning all their things that he had bought on credit to get more money for drinking.
The mother got a good enough job and got a Rambler car that was considered a compact then and they would all take turns learning how to drive in it. “A lot easier than driving that big tank” the mother said, “but Daddy always wanted Buicks”. She’d had to learn to drive in it and she did with the help of a friend, because Daddy was away again when the writing on the wall got crystal clear and she knew she’d have to step up and take charge from then on.
“Daddy Dear, oh Daddy Dear. We wanted you to be a hero. You were only human and did the best that you were able. We tried to love you harder than you tried to be our Superman.
Daddy Dear, oh Daddy Dear, we know of all the values that were hiding in plain sight of you. We missed you when you went away but you knew too, it wouldn’t work the way it wasn’t working.”
Daddy called Mummy all the days of their lives. And Mummy always felt sad, but she did have all her movies and her three girls all grown up and happy for the most part. Mummy had made sure of that.