If I live to be a million, I won’t forget the two miserably long years I tried, and failed, to quit drinking on my own. Too proud to seek therapy or ask for help, even from Ethel, who had beaten that devil, I slugged along alone. Ethel would have turned herself inside out to help me. I know that. But I used the excuse that we weren’t the kind of people that needed help.
We weren’t the kind of people that preceded any prohibition uttered by my mother of which there were legions, believe me! There were so many things outlawed by my mother that I wonder if anything short of sitting up straight with my knees tightly together was acceptable behavior. Needing help to quit drinking would have fallen into my mother’s category of airing our dirty laundry in public; a prohibition started at the cradle. In my mind, so utterly filled with what kind of people I wasn’t, I would have sooner cut off my right arm than to air my dirty laundry in public.
My mother’s multiple interdictions carried enough guilt to keep me from besmirching my people, no matter how much I might have longed for help. That most of ‘my people’ had done a stunning job of blooding their own noses never occurred to me. Meanwhile, a very loyal Ethel stood by, ready and willing to guide me to sobriety only waiting for the slightest encouragement from me. None came because being a drunk was definitely dirty laundry, and there was no way I was going to give the world a view of my failings or a chance to ridicule me. Sure that I was doing my familial duty, I climbed on the wagon, only to slip right under the wheels at the next test. Every day presented a new test.
Most of my friends had moved on. My ex-husband Joe was such an easy target for my hate, and so seemingly immune to any despair, what with his swarm of lady friends. I understood my friends’ dilemma. I had made a similar decision myself when once confronted with a friend’s divorce. Lucky for her, she moved out of town. A divorcée in the late 1950s was a strange and frightening beast, connected or not. Lines demanded drawing, decorum insisted on maintenance. I knew that no self-respecting hostess had time for a woman that couldn’t keep her man—the circumstances mattered not a wit. A single woman made dinner parties so impossibly awkward, while in the social economy of my world; a single man was money in the bank. I just never saw myself as that woman.
As I discovered, my self-worth amounted to my social status, money, and my husband’s standing in the community. What little I had disappeared right along with the husband and the money. My only activity amounted to watching my life circle the drain and making sure that I had a new bottle of Jim Crow, just in case. Just in case of what was a question I had not thought to ask.
Even thinking of asking the nature of our kind of people, filled me with dread. Until I dared to confront the hollow tenants of my life, my days were as empty, as the bottles, I had thrown in the trash from the night before. Had my fear of the emptiness not driven me to question further, I might have given up. There was something to be said for having faith. It took suicide off the table. I couldn’t risk that emptiness was all there was.
It was late afternoon when it occurred to me to wonder where were the children? They must have come home from school by now. The house’s deathly quite answered, until I stood out in the hall and heard the joyful sounds coming from the kitchen. The children up until that moment had been part of the problem. At every turn my weakness, my pettiness, my inability to cope reflected back at me in those withdrawn little faces. I couldn’t stand being in the same room with Ethel and the children. To see how their eyes came to life when they saw her, or how a smile would creep across a face when she spoke, it ripped me in two. As if they put on death masks when they looked at me. On a good day, their faces were blank. On a not so good day, there was contempt and resignation.
My lowest was a cold gray January day. I had decided that Ethel had to go. She was a constant reminder that my children loved her and hated me. I fired her. She was vacuuming the parlor when I did it. The noise that vacuum made served to feed my hostility toward her. “Turn that damned thing off.” I shrieked.
The machine stopped. “I sorry Miz Ginny I didn’ hear ya. What was dat you said?”
In my hung over, self-absorbed insanity, I was sure that Ethel, had plotted to wrest my children from me and nearly succeeded. “How dare you speak to me like that! Get out of my house.” I commanded pointing to the door. “Now!” I stormed to my desk, wrote her a check for her wages, and ripped it from the checkbook. Then I stomped back into the parlor where she still stood frozen to the spot. I threw the check at her and screeched. “And don’t you ever try to get in touch with me or any of my children again.” With that, I retreated to my room, to wait for her to relinquish her hold on my home.
As I waited for her to leave, I hid in my bedroom. Suddenly, all I could feel was terror and dread. What if she did leave and never looked back? What would I do then? Tears welled up at the realization of what I had done, not to Ethel, not to the children, but to myself. If Ethel left, who would be there to pick up the pieces of my life? Certainly not me, I had abdicated long before. Too ashamed to go downstairs and ask her to stay I spent a miserable few hours in my room bouncing from the panic that she would leave to the anger that had not yet done so.
Finally corralling enough indignation, I marched downstairs to confront her effrontery. To my absolute horror, in the kitchen stood Ethel, her sister Alberta. A half a dozen people I had never seen sat around the table. “Miz Ginny,” Ethel twisted the corner of her apron in her hands. “You know my sister Alberta.” Nodding toward her sister, Alberta smiled a greeting at me. By then it was too late for me to run.
Alberta took over. “Afternoon Miz Ginny. We’s here because Ethel called me dis mornin’ an’ asked me t’ come by. She say she thought I might be able t’ help. I brought some o’ my AA— dats fo’ alcoholics anonymous friends wit’ me. If you don’t mind, we’d like t’ invite you t’ join us in a meetin’ righ’ chere.”