Chapter Five – The Domino Effect
I remember my grandmother, Ardist, on my mom’s side as an elderly woman with a gentle smile and an unmeasurable heart filled with love. Simply put she glowed kindness and love that would turn the darkest night into day. When we would visit she would take my brother, Brian, and I to the kitchen and ask, “Honey, ice cream or cream pie?”
My eyes would burst with excitement as I would beg, “Honey! Honey Grandma, please!”
Grandma would open one of her wooden kitchen cabinets and pull out a fresh honeycomb wrapped up in wax paper that my Uncle Len had pulled from one of his bee hives earlier in the day. She’d set it down on her kitchen table, which I now own and am using to write this book on, and cut a monster piece off and let me devour it while Brian would chomp down some Breyers ice cream drenched in Hershey syrup. While we ate she would sit beside us and ask, “Have I ever told you the story about your crazy Uncle Louie and the roller coaster manure cart?” Even if she had we would listen intently like it was the first time. Her brother Louie had been a legend of mischief in our family for years and we loved her stories about him.
Many of my favorite childhood memories happened in that old white house on College Street in Austinburg, Ohio. Then there was my father’s mom, Viola, the polar opposite. She was a selfish radio actress from the 1940’s and 50’s who was obsessed with everything that brought her happiness. When something or someone no longer pleased her she would toss them aside and drown herself in a fury of booze and pills. She even tossed off her only son, my father, by leaving him in his grandfather’s capable hands before running off to New York City to follow her dreams of stardom.
That would have been a good place to have left my father because his Grandfather loved and doted on him. They would spend hours together on the farm during the summer and then go fishing in the Keys during the winter. But sadly, Viola would have a moment of sobriety and decide her life wasn’t complete until her little Bobby was by her side in New York City. She would call up her father and demand that he ship her son off to her on the first available train to the Big Apple so she could play the role of the good mother. Unfortunately, that role would end as quickly as one of her parts on a radio drama once the top of the hour hit.
In the 1950’s doctors would treat alcoholism, which my grandmother suffered with, with mood altering drugs instead of telling their patients to simply sober up. This popular cocktail if not monitored would have interesting results in their subjects as it did with Viola. She would either be on the verge of death or flying off on a delusional tirade. Neither of these situations made for a stable home life for my father as you can imagine and explains why he was so emotionally damaged.
There are three stories my father told me about his relationship with his parents that just broke my heart. The first was when he was five years old and living in New York City with his parents. Viola had drank herself senseless and to help battle the effects of the booze downed a fist full of pills. This as you can imagine put her in a serious medical state.
After discovering Viola convulsing on the kitchen floor my grandfather, Edward, quickly called an ambulance for help. When they arrived and loaded Viola up for transport Edward jumped into the ambulance with his wife and rode off to the hospital, leaving his five year old son by himself for hours sitting alone on an apartment stoop crying for his mother’s safety.
About five years later my father was awoke by sheering pain in his legs. Viola had again mixed up her favorite whiskey and medication cocktail and started to hallucinate and attacked my father with a steak knife stabbing him in the legs several times.
Finally in my father’s late twenties Viola sent him a telegram on Christmas morning that read, “I wish I had ripped you from my womb before you were born. I hate you and I disown you. You are now and forever not my son.” I was told my dad sent a telegram back to Viola that said, “Merry Christmas to you too.”
These are only three of the major blow ups Viola was prone to have on a regular basis. It’s no surprise my father decided to start drinking following a childhood filled with chaos such as that. However I wonder how our lives would have been if she had never picked up her first drink. The Bible speaks of how the sins of the father will follow his children for generations. Looking at the mistakes in my life I have to say that passage is quite accurate.
But those stories at the time didn’t help me understand my father any better as I quickly walked into his ICU room at Ocala General where he lay dazed after waking from his coma. I was filled with a mix of emotions. I was thrilled he was still alive because the little boy inside me still loved his daddy. But the man I had grown into was angry that his drinking had brought us to this point. It was only years later that I truly understood how Viola’s actions had launched a decades long domino effect that reached far beyond her years. However there has to come a time when someone is brave enough not to be the next domino to fall, and my father was not that man. I just pray I can be. I hope the love my mom and her mother taught and gave me will give me the ability to push back. So far I have teetered several times but I am still standing.