One Christmas day a few years ago, she began to talk about meeting my dad and this new tale sounded nothing like the old. She told me, almost laughing, that he had run in to her, literally, in a crowded hotel lobby, somewhere near Disneyworld, where she was enjoying a girl’s night out with a friend. After my dad fell into them, they all headed over to the lobby bar where they proceeded to have even more cocktails, the image of my father shifting from that of an officer and a gentleman clad in dress whites to that of a highly inebriated sailor on a three-day pass. “What do you mean you met in a hotel bar?” I asked. “What about the officer’s club? The little black dress?” I was visibly upset, my voice shaking. In my mind I was trying to calculate how long I had believed the officer’s club scenario.
“Oh, well. Maybe I wore that the next night. If I recall correctly, he took me to The Palms on for our first real date, he was remorseful and charming. Kept apologizing for his behavior the night before. He told me to order anything I wanted. I had the most perfect lobster.” She scratched her head, as if to conjure up the details, seemingly unaware of the affect her words were having on me.
“But that first night,” she continued, “your dad was three sheets to the wind. He couldn’t stand up straight, let alone drive back to the ship, so I let him sleep on my sofa.”
“You what?” I shrieked. “Mom, are you telling me you let a total stranger, a drunken sailor you just met, sleep on your sofa? Are you nuts?”
“It wasn’t like that. Times were different then,” she retorted and drew her knees up to her chest, making her 5-foot frame even smaller on my couch. “He was a naval officer. Done with college. He was going to start practicing law soon.” She spoke in a tone that suggested I was daft for even questioning his integrity or hers.
“So, Mama, let me get this straight because I want to make sure I have the family history correct. You met dad, drunk out of his mind, he almost knocked you over but you continued to drink with him until he couldn’t stand so you let him sleep it off on your sofa.” I paused to breathe, to study her face before I continued. “ And you were so enamored with him, with his uniform and his career potential, that you went out with him the next night?” My jaw hung open, my mind reeled.
In the few moments it took for her to reply, I flashed through dozens of scenes from my childhood, scenes were my father was tipsy or outright drunk. Days when he came home from work and fixed several martinis before anyone could speak to him. Nights at the dinner table where he would rant and rave if someone put her elbows on the table, talked with a mouth full of food or used incorrect grammar. The way he’d mix a stiff highball for a drive to the club or a restaurant and Mom would hold it for him as he steered. The smell of Scotch and the clink of ice cubes in a glass permeate my memories of childhood.
“Well, I don’t know why you have to put it like that. Don’t make it sound so sordid,” she said. “You always exaggerate things, you really do. He treated me like I mattered, at least at first, and he didn’t care that I already had two girls. In fact, he said that he loved the idea of a ready-made family.”
“And you married him after only three months of dating?” I asked. “Mom, is the wedding chapel in Las Vegas true?”
“Oh sure. Sure. He was very romantic that way, your father,” she said, a small smile crawling across her face. “I was dating another man for a bit, a Colonel, and one night I came home after a date to find your father curled up on my front porch, waiting. He cried when he saw me, wrapped his arms around my knees, and begged me to be with only him … A few weeks later we eloped. You know, he treated M. and M. like they were his own, at least until your sister and you were born. I admit, things did change a bit then.”
“But Mom,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice steady, “you had two kids at home. He was drunk when you met him and then you found him lurking on your porch one night. Was he drunk? I bet he was drunk.” I slapped my knee for emphasis. “Mama, why did you marry him so fast? How could you bring him so quickly into your daughter’s lives?” My voice was thin, bordering on hysterical. I got up and sat closer to her chair to search her face for some affirmation that I wasn’t crazy, that she had thought about the risks.
“Baby. You have no idea what life was like at that time. I was a divorced woman, 31 years old, with two kids to raise. I didn’t have many choices and your father was a good man, a man with potential.” She unraveled herself from the fetal position and leaned toward me, speaking in an almost whisper, the lights from the tree blinking merrily across the room. “Sure he drank alot, but who didn’t. It was the early sixties. You ask me ‘How could I marry a man like that so quickly? How could I bring him into my girls’ lives? My answer to you is ‘How could I not?’”
And that was the end of that conversation. She shut the door on the past and I was left to sift through my emotions, my faulty memory and begin to reconstruct a new story about how my parents met. A few days later I was on the phone with my sister so I decided to ask her what she knew about our parent’s courtship.
“Hey, what do you know about Mom and dad’s first meeting? About their first date? I heard a strange story from Mom the other day.”
“Well,” she answered, “I think they met at a bar. Mom was out with a friend…maybe Disneyworld, and dad was pretty drunk, flirted with Mom and then, I think, he may have slept on her sofa. I’m not certain but I think that’s what happened.”
“So you knew?” I asked. “I just found this out. All this time I thought they’d met at an officer’s club, mom in a little black dress and dad in an officer’s uniform. I had this whole scene imagined in my head and it turns out it was all fiction. Just something I imagined, I guess.”
“Hmmm. Don’t know where you got that one. Maybe you watched that Richard Gere movie one time too many. Or maybe they actually went to the naval club while dating and got dressed up. Who knows?? Who cares? It was almost 50 years ago.”
“I care. I wanted them to meet in a romantic way, a meaningful way. I wanted to try and understand how they ended up together despite so so many differences,” I explained, my voice trailing off into the mouthpiece.
“Poor Carole,” she said, “you always did have an overactive imagination and unrealistic ideas about love.”
I hung up the phone and sat down, hard, on the floor. The knot in my stomach cinched itself even tighter and I cried for my mother, a beautiful woman who felt as if she had no choices in life, my intelligent father who depended on a bottle of alcohol to allow himself to feel and for myself, wondering how many other stories I had been told throughout my life that would turn out to need revision.