by Guest Columnist, Alan Gauvin
HOULTON, Me—(Weekly Hubris)—11/22/10—My mother, Catherine Elizabeth Crosby, grew up in North Carolina one of two daughters and six sons of an Episcopal minister. In her teens, she became pregnant and her father, an exceptionally stern and maniacally religious man, saw fit to cast her out as punishment for her sinful transgression. While in a home for similarly burdened young women, she gave birth to a son who was named Edward and placed in an orphanage. Fleeing her stifling up-bringing, she found herself in New York and, after a series of jobs, settled into one as coat and suit buyer for the J. Thorpe Department Store, at which work she apparently excelled.
A couple of years after meeting and marrying Dad, he adopted Edward and brought him to New York where, by all accounts, he proved to be the Devil’s own from an early age, in and out of “kiddy” jail, routinely persecuting his siblings, and spending much of his time on parole. Our parents were beside themselves, especially Mom, perhaps wracked with guilt over having left him in the orphanage. She was a social drinker by this time but, as Edward’s problems intensified, so too did her drinking. By the time he disappeared from our midst for the last time, her drinking had progressed way past social into the out of control. Naturally preoccupied with her problem, Dad decided one of them had to stay sober and, suddenly, without ceremony, he ceased drinking and remained sober to the end of his days.
Charmed by the parachute ride at Coney Island, Edward enlisted to become a paratrooper. Sadly he didn’t consider that there was more involved than merely jumping out of airplanes. Being thoroughly belligerent, it was only a matter of time before he ran seriously afoul of his commanders. Refusing to subordinate himself, he was sent to the slammer and, upon release, vanished.
Since the Army frowns on unscheduled leaves they tracked him down and once again incarcerated him. Having learned absolutely nothing from his experience, he attempted to bust jail, beating a guard half to death. Big, big mistake. My half-brother was summarily court marshaled and sent to federal prison, namely Alcatraz. At that point, details become sketchy but the basics are he continued to behave badly and, after one of several stays in solitary, another deranged inmate stabbed him to death.
Upon hearing the news, Mom made a “ten point” swan dive into a vat of gin and for many years rarely came up for air. Until her death of a stroke well into her 80’s, and despite repeated and exhausting attempts by Dad to help her rehabilitate she never stopped drinking.
Dad was basically a good-natured, life-of-the-party, more or less responsible drunk, but booze removed any trace of my mother to some unknown realm and replaced her with a vicious, slobbering monster. The wonderful parties ceased after a series of disasters starring “The Creature.”
The house I lived in in the sixth grade through high school (which father, brother Peter, and I came to refer to as “The Lair”) was a 145-foot-LONG ranch on two and a half acres of what was once orchard next to an old estate house. The homestead was divided by split rail fence into front and back yard and a back lot. The front and back were grass with a dozen fruit trees interspersed with nut trees, evergreens, Forsythia, and grape and raspberry entangling the fencing. Beds of pachysandra lined the walls the length of the front and back of the house, the greenery punctuated by flowering azaleas with four o’clock and ivy vines creeping up the walls. The apple and pear trees were old but shady and still fruitful.
The back lot was where I spent most of my time. It was an unruly space overgrown and full of “nooks and crannies.” Just the sort of place a growing boy would favor. I constructed an elaborate, hidden, mostly water proof underground lair of my own outside The Creature’s domain, with a supply of critical provisions for those nights when no peace could be found elsewhere. Dad and Peter built an A-frame tree house for me as well in a big apple tree overlooking the large walk-in pen which housed my raccoons, Max and Suzy, who lived in a small tree house like my own. We had a mutt named Frisky, and a cat named Piddy.
Dad had a sizeable garden in the lot where he grew organic vegetables, no small thanks to the boy who toiled to move horse manure from the stable next door to the garden, a weekly ritual for which I received modest financial compensation. The garden was Dad’s retreat where he recharged. The Creature often as not took most of a day to fully wind her spring so, if he were lucky, he might be safe until dark, when things began to go “bump.”
Nasty altercations with “it” in my teen years are too numerous to list, the holidays being particularly awful. It’s no wonder I loathe Christmas.
One day, when I was 14, The Creature came careening out of its lair armed with a cast iron skillet, determined to bash my brains out for some exaggerated infraction. I’d just fired up the engine of our 40-inch industrial rotary mower. At first, all I could think to do was lever the handle bars, keeping the spinning blade between myself and the flailing skillet. It then became obvious that should The Creature stumble, this could get very messy, so I killed the engine and sprinted for the back lot, where Dad was laboring in his garden. I buzzed past him as he went about hoeing weeds from between the tomato plants, The Creature in hot pursuit. As it approached and passed by his side, he hooked its arm, swung it about, whacked it stoutly with an open hand, and then calmly resumed hoeing, leaving it momentarily stunned on the ground.
In today’s hyper-P.C. environment, Dad’s action would seem indefensible to some but, in the context of the situation, you can take my word: having failed to catch me, The Creature would have turned the skillet on her mate. I further assure you, my mom was undamaged when she regained her feet and, true to form, failed to remember what had taken place.
Memories of being awakened in the middle of the night are vivid, The Creature screaming and beating on me, my poor father due on the air at 4 a.m. doing battle with the thing sometimes for days on end. It was heroic.
Then, for no apparent reason, “it” would vanish for a brief while, replaced once more by my intelligent, loving mother, only to vanish and reemerge again. Except for time Mom spent in rehab, this went on from the time I was in the sixth grade through high school and on into my college years. I conspired to make certain she didn’t find out the date of my high school graduation day, for fear The Creature would show up, something for which my mother never forgave me. Her evil doppelganger did however manage to find out where several of my first gigs were and showed up thirsting for conflict. I alerted Dad and he arrived and dragged it out of the venue. On one occasion, when Dad wasn’t around, I called the cops to take it back to its lair so it wouldn’t kill my mother or someone else while driving.
Unfortunately, my brother Peter was temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with the assaults on his gigs and, as they increased in frequency and severity, he drank more and more until booze finally consumed him as well. The phone stopped ringing and he gave up playing entirely.
Peter had a sort of apartment in the lair, off the kitchen with its own escape route which was the only entrance he used. We rarely ran into one another. My bedroom was at the other end of the house, right across from “Mommy and Daddy.” I used the window.
Peter was tending bar at a small, dingy neighborhood s**thole housing a crappy juke box and dilapidated coin-op pool table with a deep gash that rendered one pocket all but useless. A far cry from his days playing trumpet at the Cork and Bib.
By this time, I’d had my first taste of college as well as piles of reefer and LSD. Back from school and determined to spend as little of the summer as possible at the lair, I called a childhood chum I used to poke frogs with. To my delight, he was smoking herb and tripping as well; eager to introduce me to his friends at Stony Brook University. The Beatles had reared their shaggy heads, and everyone was stoned on something.
Peter, however, unable or unwilling to summon the effort required to avoid The Creature, remained a target and, at the culmination of one fateful “knock down drag out,” during which they were both looped, he tossed some bedding in the closet before storming out, completely forgetting the bare light bulb burning therein; a crude installation designed to ward off mildew. A couple of hours later, his entire “wing” —bedroom, bath, kitchen, and dining room—went up in flames. I arrived home just in time to awaken the stupefied Creature passed out in the living room, and run next door to call the fire department: our only phone was melting off the kitchen wall.
This seeming tragedy turned out to be a blessing for the entire clan. Three things happened. Peter got his own apartment, my folks decided not to restore the lair but, rather, moved to a fashionable mid-town, east side apartment within walking distance of Dad’s job, and I, being essentially homeless, returned to North Texas State University for another scholastic whirl, never again to be subjected to The Creature’s torments.
By 1967, things had mellowed quite a bit. Apparently, moving to the city agreed with Mom and, although she was still drinking regularly, The Creature only reared its head one or two days every couple of months: certainly, Dad was greatly relieved. The daily commute was a thing of the past and he had ample time to devote to drawing and writing. The fruits of the latter made him the recipient of an award for a three-hour radio documentary on the Hudson River, and also led to his becoming a contributor to Audubon Magazine.
Nineteen-sixty-seven also marked the first of my three forays into the arcane realm of marriage. Mom attended that first wedding ceremony and reception with Dad and, despite a couple of cocktails, you couldn’t tell by her demeanor that she had a terrifying monster living within her. Even so, I was relieved when the whole silly thing was over with, especially since I had taken a double dose of pharmaceutical acid prior to the festivities and was fashionably antsy.
Many years after my father’s death, and a year or so before her own, I spent a few months with my mother at their home outside Bangor, Maine. Still drinking two or three days a week, but modestly, she confided, almost in a whisper, as though speaking to herself, that she was sorry for all the pain she had caused so many years before and hoped we could forgive her.
Peter, I’m afraid, will never forgive either of our parents. It’s simply not in his poor bitter nature. But Dad stood by Mom through all of it and loved her till his last breath.
As for your youngest son, Mom, all my life I struggled to keep the true you separate from the heinous grotesque that dominated our lives. Had I been unable to do so, I would most certainly have slain The Creature, and you with it. Of course I forgive you.
To order copies of Alan Gauvin’s books, The Story of Dr. Jazz, a Lurid Tale of Sex, Drugs, Jazz, and the Occasional Trout, or Change of Life: Be careful what you wish for!, from Amazon, click on the book cover below.