Friday, November 24, 2006

Let There Be Sunshine (Chapter 1)

There are two reasons for drinking:
one is when you are thirsty,
to cure it;
the other, when you are not thirsty,
to prevent it.
     — Thomas Love Peacock
          Melincourt, 1817


Whenever I see a bright golden pilsner standing tall in the glass, it hearkens me back to my very first memory of beer, of being aware of its existence. The golden hue of my mother’s beer — who was the only one in the family to pour it into a glass — reminded me of a blazing sun at noon. It sparkled in the glass, especially outside on the back porch of our new home on State Street. This first recollection of beer bathes me with warmth every time I walk out into the sun, and her beer of choice was a local brand called, fittingly, Sunshine Beer.

I was five when we moved into the new house. It’s when all of my life’s memories begin. Before that time, almost nothing exists. The only reason I know that I really was born five years before are the grainy black and white photographs, a few faint images of memory, and my family’s stories of what I was like as a baby. Were it not for those, I might be tempted to believe I was born a five-year old, walking and talking.

Prior to that we lived with my grandmother in the next town, Mohnton, a speck of a town, even then. My mother had the unseemly temerity to buck the conventional wisdom of the day and get divorced at the tender age of 22. This was in 1960. I was one. I’ve never been sure of what prompted so rash a decision on my mother’s part, but I never saw my father again until the week he died, 42 years later. Even then, I never learned the true reasons for their marriage’s demise.

But according to the stories which are supported by the photographic record, we lived high on the hill of a dead end street. Only three or four houses separated my family from a forest of nothingness. The macadam of the road just stopped past the last house, followed unceremoniously by a dirt path that wound its way up to the top of the hill. I know the area well — now — from subsequent stays at my grandmother’s house when I was able to retain my explorations of the neighborhood.

My grandmother’s house was old, even by Mohnton standards. It was built around 1910 or so, just a few years after the town was established in 1907. It was a simple wooden clapboard house, two stories tall with a long front porch that afforded them a view of the forest across the street, at least until another house sprang up (but that wouldn’t be for decades). My grandparents bought the house at a sheriff’s sale for $1300 when they married in the 1930s. For an extra $100 they could have had an acre of forest behind the house, but they shortsightedly passed. Of course, a spare $100 was undoubtedly a lot harder to come by three-quarters of a century ago than today so I probably shouldn’t be so hard on them. Besides, there’s plenty more they’ll have to answer for later.

The house sat comfortably on Main Street, a mis-named street name if ever there was one. It seems hard now to understand why you’d name a street that dead ends at the top of a forested hill so grandly. Perhaps it was a display of pure optimism on the part of the town leaders. But the main street had been Wyomissing Avenue at least since the mid-1800s and it that cut through the middle of town on its east-west axis. It was met in the dead center of town by Church Street, on which no less than four churches sat cutting the north-south axis of town in two. Main Street intersected Wyomissing Avenue at the old pretzel factory that straddled the creek that had once fed Lake Valmont, a failed attempt to make Mohnton a resort town shortly after the turn of the century.

This was the house my mother grew up in, where she first met my father, just up the block from her best friend’s house, the wonderful woman who is my godmother. After the divorce, my mother retreated to the safety of that house. I suspect it’s familiarity made it the obvious choice but it must still have been a hard one to make. She and my grandmother were close in my grandmother’s mind, but my mother spent her entire life trying to unsuccessfully separate herself from her manipulative tentacles. It was easy to see why my mother drank. She could not escape and like so many before her sought temporary solace in a glass of beer.

She began to date. Again, I have the photographic record to thank for the images of a seemingly endless parade of would-be suitors. In many of the pictures, perfect strangers can be seen pretending to care about a towheaded toddler so they could get closer to my mother. There are photos of me on their knees, throwing a ball, hugging in front of the Christmas tree, and trying to curry my favor in the midst of grand parties. And in some of them, forcing a smile in the background is my mother, a Sunshine beer in her hand.

It’s a little sad to see these now. I don’t know a single person in any of the photographs. The men seem so earnest in their attempts to woo a single mother by appealing to her son. Maybe they were decent men. Maybe they really did care for her. But for several years, they came and went. Until she met Eddie, that is, who would eventually become my stepfather and later legally my father when my biological sperm donor signed away his rights as a parent.

They met a mixer at the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse that curiously were a common fixture of the local medical community in the early 1960s. Eddie had a thing for nurses, apparently, and took an immediate shine to my mother. He was an ex-marine and worked in a tire factory, a big, strong man who must have seemed like he could protect her from anything life could throw their way. That she’d need protection most of all from him was still years away from being revealed and she seemed genuinely happy in those days, a marked detour from the sourness of life under her mother’s roof.

They were an item in short order and a wedding was quickly set for the summer after my fifth birthday. I remember nothing of their courting or indeed the wedding itself. I do recall being upset that I was not to accompany them to the Pocono Mountains for the honeymoon. But no amount of tantrums on my part would change that.

When they did return, we moved into the new house my mother had bought in Shillington, a town away from her own mother but closer to where both she and my stepfather worked. It was on a non-descript tree-lined street in the heart of town. A semi-detached two-story brick house, it was one of a dozen exact copies that lined the street. The inside of the house was unremittingly dark because the previous occupants apparently hated light. They had painted every single room in dark burgundies, dull grays and even black paint. So the first task my parents undertook was to repaint the whole house, with my grandmother’s meddling assistance setting the tone for the rest of our lives there on State Street.

It’s odd how I can remember every detail from that point on as if it just happened, while events from the week before that day are so impermeable that they might as well be from the Jurassic period. I can still all but smell the paint mingling with the stale beer that littered every surface as the week-long project progressed. If I had know what beer was then, I might have started drinking then. Because it was immediately apparent that my grandmother and my stepfather were not getting along, and it was obvious even then that they probably never would. My grandmother was used to getting her own way and my stepfather seemed determined to assert his own and his new family’s independence over what I’m sure he viewed as the wicked witch of the north. So the two of them argued every step of the way while my mother and I could only watch, although she retreated into drunkenness as often as she could. In those days, it was harder to choose sides. And so I think that’s the reason I clung to the familiar, taking my grandmother’s side. In hindsight, my stepfather seems almost innocently sympathetic — something you could never say about him in later years. I did not yet understand the complexity of human relationships and especially her extraordinary ability to manipulate and undermine them for her own purposes.

Eventually, we did get the new house to ourselves and things settled into a kind of normalcy, at least for a time. This was indeed the proverbial calm before the storm that would mark the next fifteen years of my life as I tried my best to make the painful climb to adulthood. Along the way, my family put some formidable roadblocks in my way and I often look back at these years, from about 1964 to somewhere in the late 60s — when life flew apart and expanded like my own personal big bang — as idyllic by comparison. They weren’t, of course, and it’s a wonder I never picked up on the signs along the way that should have warned me to what was coming. But I was young and prone to cluelessness, and in any event didn’t know the signs of alcoholism, psychosis or the theory of group dynamics anyway.

All I saw was the golden brightness of my mother’s Sunshine beer gleaming in the sunlight. And it seemed to say that the future was going to be just as sunny.

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