“An alcoholic is someone you don’t like
who drinks just as much as you do.”
— Dylan Thomas
My grandmother, like my own mother, had divorced early and remarried. But her second marriage had likewise fizzled and was over long before I was born. Wilbur was in a sense my step-grandfather, I suppose, though he was not technically a part of the family any longer after he divorced my grandmother. But he and my Mom had been close, and probably bonded over avoiding my grandmother’s manipulations. So we’d have him over for dinner from time to time, though expressly without my grandmothr’s knowledge. My mother took particular care that she not find out. Until, that is, he moved in with us and began sleeping on a cot in our basement. Then she could no longer keep secret the fact that she had maintained a relationship with her mother’s ex-husband for many years. I never heard how my grandmother took the news, but we didn’t see her nearly as much for a while, and the house was much quieter for a time.
Wilbur was a recovering alcoholic and in the process had managed to alienate himself from virtually everyone he knew. But one of mother’s few real virtues was that she had a strong instinct to help and care for people. It’s the reason she became a nurse, and its the reason she loved her job so much. For her it was more like a calling, something she was born to do. So Wilbur came around, sheepishly asking for her help, she did not turn him down. I think he was genuinely surprised that she not only agreed to help him but allowed him to live with us until he was back on his feet, even though everyone knew how my grandmother would react.
It may be that my mother’s drive to help others was even stronger than her inability to make peace with her mother. I saw her go out of hr way many times to help friends and relatives who nowhere else to turn, and it always filled me with admiration for her. She was so genuine in her desire to help that so many other decisions she later made to not help herself seemed all the more bewildering.
During the years before Wilbur came to stay with us, when he’d come to dinner, he and Eddie got along famously. They were two drunks with similar backgrounds swapping stories. They were thick as thieves. And I imagine the notion that his mother-in-law hated Wilbur wasn’t lost on Eddie, and that fact alone probably helped endear him to my stepfather, at least a little bit. Wilbur’s drink of choice, beyond straight whiskey, was Carling Black Label. My mother usually kept a few of the red cans with the … well, black label on them in the downstairs refrigerator in case he dropped by for a visit.
Wilbur in some ways was a bit of a sad sack. He was not a lucky man. I don’t know what drove him to drink or why he was unable to control it but it certainly didn’t do him any favors. He apparently had and lost a series of menial jobs. He almost always wore a plain white t-shirt and dark work pants, the kind made of thick canvas material before denim jeans became ubiquitous, with simple steel-tipped leather work shoes. The t-shirt always had a soft pack of Pall Mall cigarettes tucked into the sleeve that created a boxy bulge against his upper arm. Perhaps because I was too young to be judgmental, who knows, but whatever the reason he spent a lot of time with me from around the time I was seven until he left us to begin his new life three years later.
To me, Wilbur was a gentle soul who was almost always very kind to me. I say almost because he mercilously criticized the paint jobs I did on the model cars and airplanes that I liked to build. He was right, of course, my paint jobs were horrible. I could work the glue and build the models with little trouble. They usually came out looking like they were supposed to, at least. But when it came to painting them, I was completely inept, and it showed. He tried to teach me how to do the painting better and although I never succeeded like he wanted me to, I did improve. Most importantly, though, it created an affectionate bond between us that I always cherished.
I think his criticism of my painting was the only way he knew how to relate to children. He didn’t have any kids of his own and seemed generally uncomfortable around them. I noticed this a lot when friends and neighbors would come to my house after school or on weekends to play. He didn’t dislike kids like some adults I knew, but it seemed like he just didn’t know how to act around them or what to say. It was a shy awkwardness, and I think it embarrased him. But we were thrown together and so he got better at spending time with me, at least, though we never stopped laughing about my painting abilities, of lack of them. It used to bother me at first, until I realized he almost never laughed otherwise. He’d sometimes watch sitcoms with us after dinner and I started noticing he would watch them almost silently while the rest of us laughed freely at the humor. So I stopped caring about the little hurt I felt. It was a small price to pay to see Wilbur laugh once in a while. I may even have continued to paint badly, just to keep that little bond between us, at least that what I’d tell myself everytime I botched another paint job.
I never knew what he’d done or what had happened to make him so sad all the time. He never confided in me and adults, in our family at least, never shared details of the adult world they thought we shouldn’t know. Why they kept information from us, even when we asked, I never understood. I guess they thought they were protecting us, I don’t know. But I always knew that however much they did tell us, it was either hopelessly simplified or an outright lie. How that did me any good, I couldn’t fathom.
So during that three years, he seemed to just stay in the basement, lost in thought. He was like a troll who inhabited the space under the stairs, and indeed that’s where his cot was set up. He had few personal effects; some clothes, shoes, a few books and a few boxes stacked in a corner. But I think that was all he had left in the world. My mother put our small, portable television on a folding table downstairs for him, but it only got a couple of channels. More often, I’d hear him listening to the Phillies game on the radio. Wilbur loved baseball, it was really the only thing he talked about that he did seem genuinely fond of.
It was obvious to me that he adored my mother. I think he would have done anything for her. The one thing he could not do, and I believe it ate him up inside, was stand up to Eddie during those times when he would come home drunk and looking for an excuse to fight with my mother and, as a consequence, break up our house. Wilbur was not a very big man and phyisically no match for Eddie. And there was no amount of reason or logic that might keep him from exploding into a rage. Eddie came home looking for a fight and would seize on the tiniest slight to uncork his rage. It took me years to figure out that there was not a way to stop him, that it was preordained. If a reason — if that’s even the right word — did not present itself then Eddie would just make one up, no matter how ridiculous. And if we made the mistake of questioning his excuse, our punishment would effectively double. At those times, Wilbur shrank into the basement and hid. Sometimes, when I was lucky enough to be out of the way when he got home, I stayed down there with him and other times I cowered in my room, as fearful as ever.
This was the time when Eddie’s drinking started becoming a real problem for our family, or at least for my mother and me. The rest of the family either did not see it or turned a blind eye, believing it was up to my mother and her seven-year old to deal with it on our own. This was also the time period when I lost — or frankly, had stolen from me — the innocence of my childhood. I didn’t become prematurely mature, though. In fact, I think I more often retreated into childishness whenever I could precisely because it was not really permitted or possible at home. It made weekends at Bushie’s all the sweeter because they represented a temporary escape. School was also a welcome relief and I made a point of being very active in extracurricular activities, because they, too, kept me away from home hours after the regular school day ended. Perhaps that was a side benefit of a miserable home life and I should be thankful. Because otherwise I might not have been so involved. I may have been a poorer student. I may not have taken up a musical instrument or been in band, chorus, chess club, pinochle club, the tennis team, the spring musical and on and on. I might not have been active in my church’s youth groups or visited my relatives at old folk’s homes or been a Boy Scout. So it’s hard to say that everything I went through was bad for me in the end. I’m not thrilled about how my life growing up was and how it made feel but at the time but I didn’t know any different. For all I knew, everyone else felt the same way, however unlikely that seems to me today. So I just did what I felt I had to do to get by — to survive — knowing that some day, unimaginably far in the future, I would be an adult and be able to walk away and never come back. And that fact alone kept me going because, as they say, “hope springs eternal.”
After Wilbur left our home, sober and apparently cured, we didn’t see him very often. Once in a while I’d run into him and, less often, he’d come by for a quick visit when he knew Eddie wasn’t home. Once he’d stopped drinking, it was harder for him to be around Eddie, and I think he was a bit afraid of him, just like the rest of were. I heard he got a job that he liked and even remarried. I like to think he was happy in the remaining years of his life. I attended his funeral years later, which was the only time I got to meet his knew wife. She seemed pleasant enough but I think she was confused as to why I was even there, because I suspect he never told her much about his former life or the people in it. I always imagine that was what he needed to do to move on, and I didn’t begrudge him his second chance.
The last time I saw Wilbur alive was at my own mother’s funeral in 1981. It’s a haunting image that I’ll never shake, nor do I want to. Surrounded my friends and family, we all watched as my mother’s coffin was being lowered into the ground. The crank they used to lower it squeaked and later my friends and I all agreed it sounded eerily like taps. It was unusual that they’d lower it at all with people still at the cemetary, but my grandmother had insisted. She claimed she wanted to be sure she was buried and that they didn’t steal the coffin after we’d gone. Needless to say, she didn’t take her only daughter’s death very well and at the viewing she even tried to climb into the coffin, wailing the whole time. Her need to be dramatic and the center of attention never missed a beat as she manipulated the event to her own purposes, just as she’d done her whole life.
But while the coffin was being lowered, I looked up and over the people surrounding the family plot at Gouglersville Cemetery. It was a blustery day, with the wind whipping through the trees that surrounded the graveyard. There, almost hidden by a group of tall, thick oaks, was a lone figure. It was Wilbur and I was close enough that I could see his shoulders convulsing as he fought to contain his tears. It was the closest I came to crying throughout the days surrounding her death. I had so much to do and had so suddenly become the one to make all the decisions after Eddie disappeared that there hadn’t been time for grief. That would have to wait, I told myself. I can only assume he knew that he would not be welcome with his ex-wife, my grandmother, calling the shots as she always did. He knew she would make a scene, but he also couldn’t help but pay his respects to the woman who had helped him turn his life around when he had no one else to turn to. When they were done lowering the coffin the ceremony was over and I was surrounded by friends and family offering me their condolences. By the time I was free of the pack and I made my way to the trees, Wilbur was gone. I never saw him again.
On to Chapter 6