In June 1964, my mother took my sister and I out of foster care to live with her. We went from living in a private house on the east side of the Bronx, to the South Bronx. I was used to living in a close-knit neighborhood where we played in the street, or each other’s backyards. I hated the apartment buildings. I liked the openness of the private houses.
We arrived at our mother’s apartment in time to prepare for our trip to Puerto Rico. We stayed with relatives for the entire summer. By the first week of September, we were back with our mother. As we settled into our new life, I began to notice that my mother, along with our stepfather Nick, smoked and drank often. It seemed to me that they drank almost every day. I remember the first time I heard him say, “Irma, you want a little taste…just a little taste?” I thought he was talking about food, until I saw two glasses appear with ice in an amber-colored liquid.
I don’t remember a time when my stepfather was not eagerly pouring himself a drink, or smoking. He would get home from work and sit in his chair in the living room with a smoke, and a drink. We never sat at the dinner table as a family. We didn’t have family conversations. My stepfather was in front of the TV, and my mother at her sewing machine. You could hear the familiar sound of ice clinking in glasses from our bedroom. He was always having “just a little taste.”
At times, we’d go with them to visit their friends in Manhattan. Once my stepfather was inebriated and sat behind the wheel to drive us home. I was about 10-years-old. I remember knowing that he was drunk and announcing it in the car. My mother shut me up with a quick slap. He was so drunk that he was laughing the entire time he was driving. Somehow, we made it home safe.
By the time my sister was 13-years-old, she was hanging around with a rough group of kids, and drinking. Because she had run away several times and been thrown out of public and Catholic School, our mother placed her in a correctional home for girls. I don’t remember her being around much after we moved with our mother. But then, my memories are a bit convoluted.
Our mother and stepfather had partying friends who drank and smoked just as often. One day, one of their friends was visiting; and my stepfather was replenishing his lighter with lighter fluid. He had been drinking. All of a sudden, his hands became torches. My stepfather grabbed a cloth, or maybe it was his jacket, and began to smother the flames. He suffered two-degree burns on both hands. He wasn’t able to work for a few weeks. But that didn’t stop him. He was back to drinking and smoking, as soon as he was comfortable enough, to hold a glass and a cigarette.
By the time my sister was 16-years-old, she was pregnant, and married. Altogether, she had five children with her abusive husband. Alcoholism reared its ugly head soon afterward, along with anorexia and bulimia. The doctors said that her habit of preparing fruity alcoholic drinks kept her alive. By the time she was in her mid 30s, she had moved to Florida, and was divorced. A few of her children were scattered among relatives.
My sister and I did not connect again until she was about 40-years-old. I barely recognized her voice. She started to reveal the painful events of her life. I learned that she had had a car accident in her late 30s. A car struck her as she rode her bike. She was in a coma for several weeks with debris lodged in her chest, fractured ribs and pelvis, and other injuries that would not be determined until she awoke. “I can’t taste or smell anything,” she said. “And I have to wear glasses now.”
As we continued our conversation, her thoughts returned to alcoholism. “You want to talk about an alcoholic,” she said. “Let me tell about Nick. He’s the worst I’ve ever seen.” She told me that when she was in the hospital recuperating, our mother traveled to Florida to spend time with her. Of course, our stepfather was with her. She told me that on their final visit to the hospital, before leaving for the airport, my stepfather pulled a bottle of liquor from his pocket. He turned to my mother and said, “Let’s have one for the road…just a little taste.”