**Content Warning: Alcoholism**


          It’s 1971. I’m twenty-three and a junior at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I’m
living on grants, loans and part-time jobs. I’ve been financially independent (poor, but
independent) since my parents left Milwaukee and moved to Northridge, California. I didn’t go
with them.
          This first year, with my parents 2,000 miles away, is, for me, a year of intoxicating
freedom. I share an upstairs flat in an old duplex with three roommates who are rarely home.
Because I’m the one who put my name on the lease, I got the best bedroom, a room that used to
be a front parlor. I love my room and everything in it: the red iron bedstead and red dresser, the
red tie-dyed sheet I tacked on the wall above my bed, the way the sunlight streams through the
bay window in the mornings. I feel it filter through my eyelids before I’m fully conscious, and I
wake happy. Aware of all the wide-open space around me. The double bed with just me in it.
My life with just me in it. As untethered as a fugitive kite.
           In early spring that year I injure my left knee when I slip on a puddle in my bathroom.
The knee swells up and aches. I get an x-ray and the doctor tells me I’ll need an operation to

clean out the crushed cartilage. Afterward, my leg will have to be splinted, unbendable for
several weeks. I schedule the surgery date. Now I have to figure out how I’m going to get around
for two weeks with a bum leg. I live a mile from the closest edge of the University where I’m
taking summer classes. I also have a part-time job on campus. I do not have a car. The closest
bus drops me off within a few blocks of the classroom building with another half mile to walk to
get to my job. I usually travel on my bike or my little Honda motor scooter. Sometimes I
hitchhike. None of my roommates have cars, nor do any of my friends. I can’t afford to miss
work or classes, so in a haze of idealism, I call my mother in California.
          “After the operation, when I feel a little better, maybe we could do some mother-daughter
things,” I suggest to her after I explain my situation.
          “Mother-daughter things?” My mother sounds cold, put off, definitely not jumping at this
bonding opportunity. “What kind of mother-daughter things?”
          “Shopping? Going to a movie?” The phone line goes silent for maybe twenty seconds. It
feels like 120.
          “I’ll have to think about it,” my mother finally answers. “It would be hard for us to swing
the airfare. I’ll talk to your father.”
           In hindsight I should have stopped right there. Looking back at it, the signs were clear.
Right then I should have said, “No, never mind. I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course,
you can’t do this.” I should have resolved to get very good with crutches and managed on my
own. What I do instead is tell myself that it’s all going to work out fine. My mother just needs a
day or two to get over the shock of my having asked her for something for the first time in many

          She calls me back the next day and says, yes, she will come. And suddenly then, it occurs
to me that I have no idea where she’s at with her drinking. She’s been attending AA meetings for
at least thirteen years and has maintained her sobriety intermittently, sometimes only for days or
weeks, once for eight months in a row, never longer. She’s been in inpatient treatment twice. I
don’t know her current status and I don’t know how to begin a conversation about it. My mother
and I have never discussed her drinking.
          Later I will realize that the lack of discussion was a bigger problem than my mom’s
drinking. She drank a lot during most of my childhood. She eventually got sober, supposedly for
good, but she never talked to me about how her drinking affected me.
          The AA Twelve Steps include making amends to people your alcoholism may have
harmed. Maybe my mother didn’t realize her drinking had harmed me. I don’t know how she
could have missed it. Except I didn’t bring it up either. Not naming it didn’t neutralize it. Quite
the opposite. When something is so powerfully present, so irrevocably interwoven into your
family’s life for so many years, but is never directly acknowledged, it becomes almost
unspeakable. Without realizing, you come to believe that naming it might unleash something
malevolent that, once out, could never again be contained. I didn’t know what that malevolence
was exactly, but I certainly sensed it. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t have the courage, and
didn’t believe I had the right, to name it.
          So, my mother arrives the day before the surgery. We don’t talk about her drinking. I am
admitted to the hospital at three that same afternoon and under general anesthesia by six the next
          Two days later, my mother drives me back to my apartment in a rented blue Ford. My

left leg, wrapped in thick cotton batting and covered with layers of tape and Ace bandage, is, as
promised, unbendable. The dressings extend from my hip to the base of my puffy toes. Unable to
pull on shorts or jeans, I’m wearing a black calico granny dress. My bare left foot, suspended at
the end of that stiff leg, pokes out from under the hem and bounces with every bump in the road.
Like one of those spring-headed dogs that sits on the back shelf of certain cars.
          The leg throbs quietly. A muffled sensation like the pulse of far-off drums. I’m high on
painkillers, enjoying the flow of houses and cars, the blur of color and light filling the side
window. In fact, I’m intoxicated by how beautiful it all seems. The tree branches that arch over
the road, the children playing on the green lawns, the street signs, the stoplights, the street
covered in leaf shadows. I turn and smile at my mother. She’s looking straight ahead, watching
the road. The radio, its volume turned down low, mumbles and hums.
          My mother is forty-eight and in spite what must have amounted to thousands of nightly
Manhattans, she looks more like thirty-eight than forty-eight. Her face is tanned from afternoons
spent sitting poolside in her California backyard, her hair dyed blonde, beauty parlor curled and
backcombed. She wears a pale turquoise sleeveless blouse, cotton turquoise pants and yellow
sandals. Big turquoise hoop earrings. Two plastic, turquoise bangle bracelets on her right wrist,
one yellow one on her left. She is in one of her thin phases.
          “My mom has come to take care of me,” I tell myself, marveling. The thought, and the
painkillers, make my heart swell like a loaf of baking bread.
           It’s a hot day; a mist of perspiration glistens on my mother’s cheeks. Her lips are plump
and moist. She looks, in a word, dewy.
           I am not my usual myself. Not the emancipated post-adolescent me, glorying in my

capacity to run my own world. I’ve reverted to a four-year-old, in love with my mommy. My
mind is fuzzy with drugs and need. As much as I love my independence (and I truly do) I also
once in a while long for a parent to take care of me again. Just for a little while. Like when I had
bronchitis for a whole month or when my financial aid dried up before the end of the semester
and the only food on my shelf in the kitchen was a box of Minute Rice. I’d have loved it if a
parent had taken care of me then. Not that I wanted either of my parents, you understand. No, I
picture a magic parent, one who provides whatever I need without question or expectation of
payback. A parent who sees me, keeps track of me and never gets lost in depression or too many
          Driving home in the rental car on this steamy morning, it isn’t just the landscape that
captivates me; it is also my mother. She is so beautiful. I can’t get my fill of looking at her.
          “You know, Mom? You look really great these days,” I say.
          “Oh? Well, thank you. That’s nice.”
          “I’d be real happy if when I’m your age, I look as good.”
          “Really? What a nice thing to say.”
          “I mean it.”
           I love the color of her Frankly Scarlet lipstick, I tell myself, as I shift on the hard car seat.
My leg feels alien and heavy, like a canvas bag filled with sand and attached to my tired left hip.
Doesn’t matter. I am with my mom; everything is cool.
           I will realize later that my regression didn’t just spring up, fully formed, that morning. I’d
been investing in a fantasy of how my mother would be ever since she called and told me she
would come. In the weeks since, I’ve been remembering the best times of my early childhood,

like when my mother read me bedtime stories and cooked my favorite foods: chili with ground
beef in it, tuna salad sandwiches on Wonder Bread. I’ve juxtaposed that version of her, the
younger, good mom, onto my current life. I’ve imagined her in the grungy kitchen I share with
my three roommates, wearing this red-checked apron out of the past, pulling a tray of chocolate
chip cookies out of the oven. I’ve anticipated leisurely afternoons in my sunny bedroom, playing
Canasta or Monopoly with my mom, drinking Tab. I’ve called up memories of the Friday nights
we—my parents, my brother, and I—spent hanging out in the family room, watching
Frankenstein, The Blob, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf on Channel 18’s “Shock Theater.” I
couldn’t have set the stage for disappointment more perfectly if I’d been trying.
           With this illusion of unconditional love and middle-class family-ness running in the back
of my mind, it now seems possible to tell my mother what I need.
           “Mom,” I begin, not looking at her. “I need to ask you something kind of important…” I
steal a quick glance at her to see how she is taking this generic intro. If the muscles in her neck
tighten up, I don’t notice it. “You’re probably already planning on not having cocktails while
you’re staying with me.” I forge on. “I just want you to know that I’d like it if…um…”
           The car rounds a corner a little sharply; the right rear tire nicks the curb with a dull
           “Damn,” my mother mutters. She shows no sign of having heard me. Except—do I
imagine it—is there a deepening of the furrow between her eyebrows, a tautness in her chin and
            A little jolt of adrenaline makes its way to my brain. Like a foghorn. My heart begins to

            What have I almost done? I would never, unmedicated and in my right mind, choose this
moment (or any other) to discuss my mother’s drinking. I can’t take my opening words back, but
I hope we can both pretend I haven’t said them. A minute passes, then another. I begin to relax.
           Then, this new image enters my mind: my mother in my kitchen, this time no apron and
no pretty sweetness. This mother is the one I had when I was a teenager, when her drinking was
at its worst. She is overweight and bedraggled, unsteady on her feet, her arms tightly folded,
mouth tight, face flushed. No cookie smell this time. Instead I imagine the faintly putrid odor of
my roommates’ unwashed dishes mixing with the alcohol seeping through the pores of her skin
and on her breath.
           I can’t bear the thought of that drunken version of my mother, the one I hoped to never
see again, appearing in my apartment. If that does happen, and I realize now that I expect it
might, I know exactly how I’ll react. Even if I don’t see my mother actually drink, I’ll know
right away if she has. I’ll know from the tone of her voice, the look in her eyes. I’ll know and I’ll
react as I did as a teenager; I’ll go numb. I’ll shut down, get away from her as fast as I can,
retreat to my bedroom and close the door. It will take hours, maybe days, for me to feel fully
alive again.
           I realize at this point that my defenses are way more flimsy than I thought; there is still so
much from my past that I haven’t come to terms with. My most reliable protection has been my
geographical distance from my mother, and I have dismantled that by inviting her back into my
life. It’s a little late in the game to understand that the only part of me that actually trusts my
mother is that sappy four-year-old artifact. It was she who invited our mother. Now the grown-up
me is going to have to lay down some rules. My mother can’t be allowed to bring that thing, her

drinking, into my house.
           My mother takes another corner too fast, intentionally, it seems. The car sways and I
bump against her shoulder. I right myself, put a few inches’ distance between us again.
           Because of the way I’m wedged into the car, I have to turn my head hard to the left in
order to make eye contact with my mother. I turn but she doesn’t contact.
           So I blurt. I string the words together and get them out of my mouth fast, as if they taste
bad. “I-don’t-want-you-to-drink-while-you’re-in-my-house.”
           My mother’s eyes are locked on the road. Her jaw, even tighter than before, looks like
flesh-colored steel. I recognize that look. The air in the car is thickening. I begin to feel a little
           “That’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, it is my house.” My voice comes out at half its normal
volume. I feel myself shrinking.
           “I …can’t believe…” she gnashes the words between her teeth, “you would DARE…to
talk to me…like that.”
           We come to a red light. She smashes her foot down on the brake; my body lurches
forward. I hit my hands against the dashboard, trying to spare my leg. My kneecap begins to
ache. I exhale in a fast hiss. My mother acts like she doesn’t hear it. She yanks the steering wheel
to the right and speeds the last two blocks to my house.
           She pulls over, steps hard on the brake again, and jolts us to a stop. Turns off the engine
and sits motionless, her hands planted on the steering wheel. She’s breathing hard. I am barely
          “I didn’t think you’d be angry,” I manage, almost in a whisper.

          “Then you just didn’t think, did you?” She opens the car door, steps out so fast you’d
think she was escaping a wasp. She leaves the driver’s side door open, hurrying up the sidewalk
to my front porch. The back of her turquoise blouse is dark with sweat in a long oval where her
back has pressed against the car seat. I can see the outline of her shoulder blades under the damp
cloth. For a second, I feel protective of her. Then, her yellow sandals bang against the concrete
steps; she opens the door with my key, walks in and lets the screen door slam behind her.
           I stare at the black rectangle of the screen. My house looks startled, as if it has just been
broken into.
           I’m now alone in the car without a clue how to get inside the house. I’d expected, but
don’t have, crutches. I’ve been instructed instead to stay off my feet as much as possible. I can
put minimal weight on the repaired leg, but I’m supposed to try not to. They told me to hop from
chair to bathroom to bed. No one covered the question of how to get from the street to the second
floor where my flat is. How am I even going to get out of the car on my own? Should I wait for
my mother to come back and help? Surely, she will realize I’m stuck. But, what if she doesn’t?
The sun is beating through the windshield, soaking down into the black background of my dress,
scorching my right thigh, heating the bandages around my left knee. The innermost layer of
gauze is stuck to my skin. The pain medicine they gave me has begun to wear off and a dull ache
radiates from my kneecap to my toes to my hip. I lean my sweaty face against the car seat and
indulge in a few minutes of self-pity.
           And then I pull myself together and think about what to do.
           Leaning to the right, I can reach the door handle. The door clicks open a fraction of an
inch. I kick it open the rest of the way with my good right leg and scoot myself to the edge of the

seat. Holding onto the car door, I drag myself upright and stand in a narrow space between the
curb and the car. I shift my weight, as briefly as possible, to my left leg, praying it won’t buckle,
and step up the curb with my right.
            Five careful, awkward minutes later, I arrive at the foot of my front porch. My left leg is
trembling with fatigue, but it doesn’t give out. Leading with my right foot I hop up the five porch
steps, holding the iron railing in a death grip. The key I gave my mother when she arrived sticks
out of the lock like a rude tongue. The key is still warm and damp from her hand.
            Inside the lower hallway the air is suddenly quiet and cool.
            Because I live on the second floor, I face twelve more steps. I’m already tired. Even with
two good legs, the residual fatigue from general anesthesia and from lying in bed for two days
would have made the trek up to my flat a little daunting. As it is, with one leg out of commission,
I feel like I’m facing Mt. McKinley.
             My mother, meanwhile, hasn’t even poked her face out the door on the landing above to
see if I’m okay. I can hardly believe it. She really cares that little about me?
             Risking the stairs is preferable to lingering with that unpleasant thought.
             As I make my methodical way up, one careful, heart-stopping hop at a time, I hear my
mother’s voice. She’s talking to someone on the phone, I’m guessing from the pauses. I can’t
make out her words, but she sounds agitated. Her unintelligible phrases come in bunches that rise
and fall and come to abrupt stops, reminding me of the way she stomped on the brakes in the car
a little while ago.
             I make it to the landing, limp through the door and across the living room to the shabby
red velvet living room couch. I sweep my arm across its cushions, knocking several textbooks, a

TV Guide, a dirty sock, and a paper plate with a crescent of pizza crust stuck to it onto the floor. I
drop my tired body down. I check my watch. It has taken me a little over twenty minutes to get
from the car to the couch.
             My mother is standing across the room, tethered to a red dial telephone that usually sits
on top of a small wooden table, a table that came from the hallway of the house I grew up in. She
gives no sign that she has seen me.
             “All right, then,” she says into the phone receiver. “I’ll let you know my arrival time.”
             Then, she hangs up and without looking at me, turns her back and goes into my bedroom.
She pulls the pocket door shut with more force than it requires. It makes a loud “thunk” as it hits
up against the frame.
              I sit on the couch and stare at my bedroom door. My leg itches and aches. I feel sad and
ashamed. As if I somehow deserve this treatment.
              It has always been hard for me to sort out when my mother’s anger at me is justified and
when it isn’t. I always imagine I’ve done something wrong. This time is no exception. I should
have known when to shut up. Or, if not, how to undo the damage I’ve obviously done.
              I struggle with the urge to lie down and curl up in a miserable ball (one leg would stick
out straight from this ball, like a stem) and cry. But whoever was at fault here, I am pretty sure
curling up won’t fix anything.
              A useless hot breeze blows over me from the window next to the couch. My sweat-
soaked bangs stay pasted to my forehead. I think of the four big windows in my bedroom. There
is great cross ventilation in that room; I want to be in there, lying on my bed. I hobble over to the
bedroom door and tap it.

              “Mom? Can I talk to you?” I feel her in there. She is sitting on the white chenille
bedspread on my bed, staring at the door like a sulky child. I just know she is.
              “Mom, I really don’t want you to misunderstand.” I direct my words to the crack where
the door touches the frame. I can feel that she’s listening.
              “I’m really glad you came.” A derisive snort from the other side. “I’m grateful, in fact.”
              I hear her stand and walk to the door. She pushes it open. Before she turns to sit back on
my bed, I get a look at her face. Her lips and eyes are puffy as if she’s been crying. I follow her
in and sit down on the bed a few feet from her. She doesn’t look at me.
              I don’t know how to proceed so I wait for her to speak.
              “I called your father,” she says, finally. “I’m flying home. The taxi will be here in an
              “But I need your help! Why are you going home?”
              Of course, I know why she’s going home. She’s going home to punish me for asking her
not to drink.
              “You’re fine. You don’t need me. And I don’t want to be here where…” Her voice
catches in her throat. She pulls her chin up and sniffs back tears. “I don’t want to be somewhere
where I’m treated like dirt.”
              “Mom,” I say, working to control my rising emotions, “I just asked you not to drink.”
              She jerks as if I’ve slapped her.
              “Because I love you,” I continue. “I asked you to come because I wanted you to come. I
want you to stay.”
              She turns her face as far away from me as she can.

              “You clearly don’t give a hoot about me. You are the most selfish young woman I’ve
ever known. My cab will be here in an hour.” She presses her lips together, tight as a closed
              I stand up, hesitate, and then turn to her one last time. “I wish you wouldn’t do this. I do
love you, Mom, no matter what you might think right now. I do.”
              She doesn’t respond. I hop, on the good right leg, out of my bedroom, pull the door shut
and hop into the kitchen to cry where my mother can’t hear me.
              An hour later I hear the downstairs door close behind her.
              My mother is gone. I’m stunned but I don’t shut down as I would have done in my teens.
I feel every bit of the sting of this abandonment.
              Hours later I lie on my back in my bed and stare up at the shadowed ceiling, trying to
untangle the mystery of what has just happened with my mother. I wonder what she is thinking
and feeling as she flies home to California. Is she regretting coming? Probably. Does she regret
how she left? Probably not. Maybe she didn’t understand that I truly wanted—and needed—her
help. Maybe she thought I was being a baby, that I didn’t really need help but just wanted
attention. Was it hard for her not to drink in my house? Or had she been sober for a while and
was insulted that I implied she might drink? I fall asleep feeling puzzled and slightly guilty of
doing something bad that I can’t remember.
              In the immediate aftermath of my surgery and my mom’s abrupt departure, my
roommates step up and share their meals with me and make sure that, when no one is home with
me, there is at least peanut butter and bread in the kitchen. I take two weeks off of work and my
boss decides to pay me anyway. I miss one class. I brave the bus and a twenty-minute hobble to

get to the next class. I arrive there in my worn-out granny dress, and lean, overheated and
unkempt, against the doorway of the classroom. Looking, I’m sure, pathetic. After that, several
people offer me rides for as long as I need them.
              By the end of the summer term my knee has completely recovered.

              I realize now, these many years later, that I’ve never had—and will never have—enough
information to understand why my mother acted as she did, with such rage. I will never know
what was going on in my mother’s life before she came to help me, or who she saw when she
looked at me. I can only guess. And of course, we never talked about any of it.
              The one thing that is clear to me is that the independence I was so proud of back then was
not particularly adventurous or glamorous. It was not just some exciting lifestyle choice, as I
liked to believe. When my mom walked out my door that day and left me on my own to struggle
with my post-op leg, I didn’t feel adventurous or glamorous. I felt alone. I felt abandoned. And it
was not the first time I’d felt abandoned by my mother.
              No wonder I was independent. I had to be.


About the Author

Judith Ford’s writing has been published in Better Than Starbucks Poetry & Fiction Journal, Caveat Lector, Clackamas Literary Review, Confluence, Connecticut Review, Evening Street Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Hong Kong Review, Ignatian Literary Review, Jumbelbook, The Laurel Review, The Meadow, New English Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and many other journals.