She said it matter-of-factly. “The harshness of her words became a daily ritual for me. The ritual was perpetual. The pattern was never broken. As sure as the sun came up in the east every morning and set in the west at night, I knew the greeting my mother would use to start my day. She would look at me and say, ‘Pretty is as pretty does and you don’t do either very well. This is your message. Don’t forget it!’”
With the exception of the General (aka – my wife), I would never use confidentially sensitive information in any story where one could be identified unless I had their permission. The General of course, knows where to find me. She also knows that I know there will be a day of reckoning if I color too far outside the lines. Consequently, I’m careful to keep my stories within acceptable limits when it comes to her. Despite what you might think, I don’t have a death wish.
In my blog yesterday, I shared the disturbing story of a young man’s continuing trauma related to the childhood scars from sharing life with an alcoholic father. Several folks reading my blog yesterday contacted me privately and confided they are in the midst of the same sad story. By happenstance, one of the dinner guests in our home last night was Cornelia England, a friend from Blanco, who knows first hand the trauma of living with a mother she describes as a “raging drunk” and sadly, also knowing firsthand the lure of an alcohol addiction.
“Pretty is as pretty does and you don’t do either very well.” When you are a five-year-old child, what are you supposed to do with that? “I know what it is like to live with an alcoholic. I know it painfully well. My mother was a raging alcoholic. She had the unique ability to present herself as the ideal mother and wife to everyone with whom she came in contact. With the exception of our immediate family, no one knew”.
Cornelia touched my arm and said, “If you want to understand alcoholics, you need to understand there are three characteristics you’ll always find. I learned them my mother. She was cunning, baffling and powerful”.
“When it came to others, my mother always put her best foot forward. She was personable and never at a loss for friends. She was respected and admired by everyone in town. Everyone wanted to be her friend. She was creative. She could take a sow’s ear and make an incredible purse. She was a master gardener. There was nothing she couldn’t do. She could charm the socks off a rooster and back on again.
As Cornelia shared her story, she described her mother as beautifully displaying the “June Cleaver” persona. Some of you may not remember or know, but Ward and June Cleaver were the principle characters in a television sitcom along with their two sons Wally and “Beaver” from the 1950s. It was entitled “Leave It To Beaver”.
“June is dedicated to her family; her interests outside the home are social events like weddings or school events like meetings and plays. She has ladylike pastimes: needlepoint, cake decorating, and arranging tea roses. She reads glossy but high-toned, tasteful women’s magazines. In one episode, she entertains the ladies in her social club only to see the event ruined by Beaver’s monkey who despoils the foods on the dining table. When the boys arrive home from school, June can be found in the kitchen chopping salad vegetables, basting a roast, or icing a cake. Her kitchen is immaculate. Like most TV middle class sitcom families of the era, the Cleavers eat breakfast and lunch in the kitchen, while their dinners are full-scale affairs in the dining room.
Cornelia describes her mother as replicating the “June Cleaver” persona, but the Achilles heel in her life was the reality that she was also a kitchen drunk. “We didn’t know it at the time, but she would drink at night after we all went to bed. In the mornings, she would slam the doors to the kitchen cabinets so hard that it would rattle the windows in our home”.
“By the time I was in the fifth grade, I begged my father to awaken me before my mother got up. I would then awaken my younger sister and get her ready for school; I’d also take care my younger brother and then put him back to bed. My sister and I would be out of the house before mother got up”.
What do you do if you live in a dry county and need a drink? According to Cornelia, there was an easy solution. The women in the bridge club figured it out. When anyone was driving from Ruston, LA to Monroe, they’d call all the other members in their group. The code word was, “Need Anything?” These ladies had it figured out. They would place an order for large quantities.
At one point, after Cornelia was old enough to drive, her mother sent her to Monroe with a list. Cornelia looked at the list and said, “Mother, if I get stopped, I’ll be charged with bootlegging. Worse yet, what if I’m in an accident and the car gets rear ended and explodes?” Her mother’s response, “It would be a waste of good alcohol.” Cornelia remembers the check she wrote for that order was over $2,000.
Cornelia’s mother first went into treatment in 1975, but there were no lasting effects. She returned and picked up again where she left off. Cornelia said a miracle took place in 1982. Her mother checked in to “The Friary” in Pensacola, Fl. She was in treatment a month and by the grace of God, came back a changed person.
In the midst of our conversation, Cornelia touched my arm and looked me in the eye. She said, “An alcoholic’s life is never simple. You are always looking for your next drink. In your mind, you live with a convoluted level of constant stress in determining how you’re going to hide that drink and the constant fear that others might find out”.
Of her own pilgrimage, Cornelia confided, “When it came to drinking, one was too many and a million wasn’t enough”. After her divorce, Cornelia found alcohol was a soothing companion to cover the pain and disappointments in her life. She was a flight attendant and very careful to ensure her need for a drink never interfered with her career. She always carved out an eight-hour refrain from having a drink before she flew. Her job was important. She didn’t want to mess that up. Of course, she’d take a cup of ice with her when she was headed off the plane after the last leg of the flight. That way, she didn’t have to bother finding ice to cool down her beverage of choice.
In many respects, Cornelia moved into a pattern of flying high whether she was on the plane or off the plane. Unlike her mother who was a raging drunk, Cornelia described herself as a good time drunk.
Like her mother, she never drank excessively in public. After she started dating the man who subsequently became her husband, she limited herself to two drinks in his presence. He didn’t drink. He was in recovery. She really cared about this man. He lived in one city and she lived in another. A late night telephone conversation with him proved to be the catalyst for recognizing the need for change. Apparently, he perceived she had been drinking. Maybe it was her slurred words; maybe it was a repetition of saying the same things over and over. Who knows how he knew, but his words were sobering. He said, “I don’t have room in my life for an alcoholic woman. In fact, I think I will hang up.” He did.
That was the moment Cornelia recognized the need for change. She fell to her knees and begged God, “If you will take the compulsive drinking from me, I will turn my life entirely over to you.” She immediately felt the presence of God. In fact, it was as if light filled the room through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
When asked If I could share her story, “It is a journey I am very proud of sharing. All the glory goes to God. I do not keep myself sober, God does. I give Him total credit for my healing. I can now look in the mirror every morning and feel proud. When I was drunk, I couldn’t do that. It has been twenty-nine years, three months and twenty-three days since I had a drink. I am now living life with a sense of freedom and joy that I never knew before. I now like who I am.
All My Best!