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My Rum-Soaked Birthdays

It’s sorta in our nature to expect grand things of our moms. We all tend to succumb to this errant way of thinking, and not just on a certain Sunday in MayChances are you’ve long attributed impossibly unrealistic, superhero-like traits to your mom in your own childlike way. Thing is, when mom, mere mortal that she is, eventually fails to live up to expectations—as she surely will, seeing as she is, after all, human—dealing with the disillusionment can be tricky. No matter how she may have disappointed or devastated you, one’s instinct can be to hold her forever liable. Though some of us have far, far more reason for grievance than others, the answer seems to be the same for everyone—even for those who, like Leah Odze Epstein, grew up with an especially challenging mom. And that answer is to see the offending parent with compassion and understanding for how heart-achingly human she really is, faults and foibles included. It can take years, as Epstein explains in the following excerpt from the book Drinking Diaries, to master an acknowledgement such as this. It isn’t easy. But it is necessary.—Renee Schettler Rossi

At my sixth birthday party, my mother got drunk.

We’d recently moved to a new house, a new town, and a new school, so I invited all the girls in my class to the party. I had planned for weeks, and even had my mom style my hair in two curly pigtails like my idol, Cindy Brady. All I ever wanted was a Brady Bunch family. The Bradys had one problem per episode, which by the end was neatly resolved. Unfortunately, that wasn’t how things happened in my house.

There we were at my birthday party, all ten of us, sitting around the dining room table in our fancy dresses as my father lit the candles on my cake. My mom had bought it at her favorite bakery. Fancy and expensive, the Black Forest Cake had shiny maraschino cherries floating on top of whipped cream sprinkled with chocolate shavings.

My mother stood over me and then stepped up on her chair and climbed onto the table. I was too young to articulate how embarrassed I was by my mother’s outfit, but years later I still remember every detail: the beaded Indian headband—not one of those preppy Pappagallo hair bands so popular at the time, but one that stretched across her forehead. The denim shirt, open so you could practically see her boobs. The bell-bottoms, popular in Vogue but not among the housewives of suburban Bethesda, Maryland, where we lived. My mom’s straight, dyed-blond pageboy cut set her off from the other moms, who all wore their hair in short poufs. And she wasn’t “mom-ish.” She was thin—too thin—from the many packs of cigarettes she smoked each day. “Happy birthday to you,” she sang, waving her arms like a conductor. I opened my mouth to say something, darting a glance at my friends, and then closed it again, trying to make myself small. My new classmates, eyes pointed upward, mouths barely moving, sang along, practically in a whisper.

When Lauren, queen bee of the prissy, perfect girls, bit into her slice of Black Forest Cake, her mouth turned down at the corners. What could be wrong? I wondered.

“Ewww!” she said. Her pronouncement spread like a chorus as the girls at the table all tasted my birthday cake and then mashed it silently with their forks. My father, as puzzled as I was since my mother had bought the cake, took a bite and set his fork down in disbelief. “There’s rum in the cake!” he announced.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother said, savoring her slice. “It’s cooked in.“

I ate my slice, trying to pretend it tasted good, but the cake was unmistakably rum-soaked.

Up until my sixth birthday party, my mother’s drinking was our family’s secret (or so I thought). I noted the nervous smiles and darting glances of the moms when they picked their daughters up at the end of the party and my father greeted them at the door. Where’s the mother? they must have been wondering. Luckily, my father had enough sense to send my mother to their bedroom to sleep it off. I pictured the girls telling their parents about the terrible birthday party, the weird mom, the disgusting cake. Afterward, in my mind everyone knew. And that’s when I started to feel something else altogether: shame.

After my party, I developed a dread of my birthday and birthday parties in general. Eventually, my mother’s drinking—her irrational behavior, her sorrow, her rage—got so bad that my father had to padlock her liquor in a trunk. Finally, after he threatened to leave her, my mother went to the hospital to detox and dry out.

The problem was that even after my mother stopped drinking, things were hard for her. Harder, actually. It wasn’t like her whole personality magically changed once she gave up the drink. She didn’t scream and yell as much, or get red in the face or throw things, but she still couldn’t seem to manage most things. “I can’t take it” became her refrain.

As fragile as she seemed, I was scared of her. I tiptoed around her, nervous that she would start drinking again or embarrass me in front of my friends. She hadn’t magically morphed into the typical suburban mom. She still wore a black leather jacket, cursed and smoked, and ranted about the typical American mom. Without the alcohol to help her cope, things seemed to freak her out even more. Like my birthday. Especially my birthday. The cake seemed to trigger it, even though the rum-soaked Black Forest Cake had been replaced with my mother’s special Swedish cake. My favorite.

She had started with the best intentions. Not for her that fake American whipped cream in a can, that too-sweet frosting, or those processed cake mixes—everything had to be made from scratch. She stood in the kitchen, whisking and beating and whipping, making the two layers of cake, the vanilla cream for in between, and whipped cream for the top. Next she washed the berries, sliced the bananas, and then started with a circle of strawberries on the outside, working her way in, with blueberries, raspberries, and bananas.

And then I asked the fateful question: “When will it be ready?”

Maybe my mother saw the expectations in my eyes and worried that she couldn’t live up to them. Whatever the reason, my mother threw up her hands and said, “I can’t take it anymore.” Then she grabbed her car keys and slammed the door behind her. The car screeched out of the driveway. I didn’t know where she went, and I never asked—I was conditioned not to ask questions. She was gone for hours, and I was scared. Terrified, actually. What if she really couldn’t take it and decided to drive her car off the road?

It’s possible that my mother walked out on my birthday only once, maybe twice, but in my memory it happened every year. My birthday became a cursed event.

Things changed when I went off to college. The best birthday I ever had was the one I spent far from home in Ithaca, New York, where I was in summer school. I lived in a beat-up apartment with no telephone. I had to rely on mail, and I was pleasantly surprised to get a birthday card from my parents, right on the day. How perfect that card was, with its bouquet of flowers on the front. How easy to convey just the right emotion in a card, which was frozen in time and not subject to fluctuations of stress and mood. That night I spent my birthday with new friends. No baggage. Just fun.

I finally figured out the solution to my birthday problem: As long as I stayed far away from home, birthdays could be okay. Good, even.

But my mother longed to spend my birthdays with me. She wanted to make it right. When I grew older and had kids of my own, my parents traveled the five hours to the suburbs of New York to spend my birthday with me. And it was usually miserable. Not because of what anyone else did or said, but because of what I did to myself. In my head. I’d wake up with a feeling of dread and expectations that could never be fulfilled. In one photo, I’m blowing out the candle on flan at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant while my parents, my husband, and my children look on. I’m gamely wearing the sombrero they had given me at the campy restaurant, but I look like a sullen teenager, wishing everyone around me, including the roving mariachi band, would disappear and leave me the hell alone. “I hate my birthday,” I’d say to friends if it ever came up in conversation. It never occurred to me to plan something nice for myself. I’d just wait till someone else suggested something and then follow along.

One year, long after I’d lain on a therapist’s couch three times a week, read The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, and vented my unconstructive rage to all my family members, I decided to hell with it—I was going to ask for what I wanted. The cake. My mother’s Swedish cake— without the drama and the walking out.

As soon as I called my mother, I started to regret it. I could hear my own voice and it sounded small, like a child’s—even though I was nearly 40 at the time. They don’t call us adult children for nothing.

I listened on the phone as my mother drew in her breath and sighed. Was it a burden for her to make the cake? Or was she sighing with relief that I’d finally asked again after all these years?

Maybe she was tired of feeling guilty for her past behavior, even if that burden was partially self-imposed. She’d been bending over backward for years to make it up to me, ever since she got sober when I was nine. That’s a lot of years of penance.

“Yes. Of course I’ll make you the cake,” she finally said. “Anything for my little angel.”

I wondered if I should tell her not to bother, that I would make the cake myself, that it would be fun for me and the kids to learn. I feared there would be a cost—to her and to me. Maybe she could just give me the recipe.

But what if she really wanted to make the cake?

It’ll be okay, I told myself. I’m an adult now, and I have my own home, far away from hers. I want my children to taste that cake, to know how delicious it is. Maybe some part of me wanted to resurrect the good parts of my childhood, to remind myself that, despite the crappiness, there was sweetness there. Even though my mother had walked out on my birthday, eventually she’d pulled herself together and come home and made the cake.

I told my kids about the cake. “You’re going to love it,” I said. “Just wait till you taste it.”

And then the worry set in. What if they don’t like it? What if she doesn’t make it after all? All my old fears and disappointments. But my mother pulled through and showed up with the cake. She beamed when she placed it on my kitchen counter and carefully pulled the plastic off the top. The kids oohed and ahhed, but when they heard me draw in my breath and when they saw the look in my eyes, my nine-year-old, ever observant and sensitized to my emotions, said, “It’s just a cake, Mom.”

Want it? Click it.

It looked exactly as I remembered it, with perfect circles of raspberries—extra raspberries because my mom knew how much I loved them. I would have been happy just staring at that cake, but my mother insisted on cutting me a slice, the first slice, because I was the birthday girl.

The kids got their pieces, took bites, and mashed them around, just like the girls at my sixth birthday party. “They’re used to everything having so much sugar,” my mother said. “Americans always overload the sugar—they like everything too sweet.”

I nodded and bit into the cake. Yes, my kids were used to frosting made with mounds of confectioners’ sugar, not a Swedish version with a more subtle whipped cream, a touch of sugar and vanilla extract, plus the tart flavor of lemon. My mother watched as I took a bite. I expected nirvana, remembering the cake’s sweet sponginess that was light as air. But the cake was dry, and the whipped cream wasn’t as sweet as I remembered.

“I didn’t want to add too much sugar, so I cut the amount in half,” she confessed.

“You shouldn’t change things,” I snapped, immediately wishing I could retract the words when I saw my mother’s mouth slip into a frown. “Sorry,” I said quickly, wanting to mop up her disappointment. “I appreciate that you made me the cake. And it’s delicious,” I said, pushing down my own disappointment and producing a smile. My children were watching, and I thought about how they didn’t like it—how let down they probably felt after all the hype.

I was so busy monitoring everyone else’s emotions that I had trouble feeling my own. “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” my mother was fond of saying. And in that moment, I knew. Once the daughter of an alcoholic, always the daughter of an alcoholic. I remember hearing that addicts are emotionally stunted, stuck at the age when they first started using. I think the same might be true for the child of an addict. Every year on my birthday, part of me is still sitting at that table, waiting for my slice of cake with a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach.

Birthdays will always be tough for me—they’re all about expectations and hope and being the center of attention, which counter everything I’d learned growing up with an alcoholic. Don’t get your hopes up or you might get hurt. Staying out of the way is safest; make yourself invisible. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t stress your mother out—she might drink. Don’t cause problems for your mother—she has enough as it is.

The memories of my sixth birthday party, and the birthdays that followed, remain. What function they serve, I’m not yet sure. They’re not like the candles on my cake—memories whose burn I can simply extinguish. They’re more like the rum—cooked in, but still the taste remains. Like that cake, I’m rum-soaked. And maybe—just maybe—I’m okay with that, because just like the rum was part of that cake, being the daughter of an alcoholic is part of me.

“Rum-Soaked” by Leah Odze Epstein has been excerpted from Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, edited by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

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