I was seven when I realized there was something different about my mom. The other mothers talked to each other after school, picked their kids up early. My mom screeched into the parking lot at a different time every day and yelled at us to get in the car. But that wasn’t it. The other kids came to school with combed hair and neatly ironed uniforms; we came to school having combed each other’s hair, yielding variable results, and with clean but rumpled uniforms. But that wasn’t it either.
My mom had a big plastic coffee mug she took everywhere. It was tall and white, and had a wide-mouthed red lid. It rattled with ice in the morning when she dropped us off and sloshed lazily in the afternoon when she picked us up. One day after First Communion class, Sister Mary Christina suggested that this cup was what made my mom different. She kept me behind and told me that our mother’s drinking was a real blessing because we could offer it up to Jesus for the souls of the little dead babies in purgatory; Father Tom said Sister Mary Christina was an idiot. He told me that, while our mother needed a little more help than did other mothers, she loved us and that we ought to trust that God would keep us safe. Safe from what, I didn’t quite know, but I nodded and piously accepted a mint out of the cut-glass dish on his desk. He paused, then told me that sometimes God also needed a little help, so I should call Aunt Bev or the police if God was busy somewhere else when we needed him.
Up until that day with Father Tom, I guess I had figured that Mom was an adult, and adults got to do what they wanted because they were grown up. So if Mom wanted to drink in the morning, that was perfectly normal behavior. If drinking in the morning meant she was meaner to me in the afternoon, well, I was a just a dumb kid and there was probably something I had messed up; if she was being mean to me, there was definitely something I’d done to deserve it. I’d just have to be better, work harder.
I resolved to get rid of the cup, since it was clearly the source of Mom’s trouble. And it was down to me to do it, because my siblings didn’t have the secret information from Father Tom about God needing help. Only I knew that, so only I could destroy the cup and save our mother.
One evening after school, after dinner, after dishes, after Mom kissed us and went to sleep, I went back into the kitchen and grabbed the cup off the drying rack. I stuffed it under my T-shirt and ran back to Lucy and my room. She was eleven and up late reading as usual. She looked up inquisitively, since I’d come into the room quietly for once.
“What you got up under there?” she asked. I didn’t answer. Lucy closed her book with a humpf, hopped out of bed, and looked hard at me. She grabbed the scruff of my shirt with one hand and reached under it with the other, pulling out the cup. Her face softened and fell. “You were gonna hide it? From Mom?” I nodded defiantly. She sighed and said, “You can’t hide it from Mom. She’s a grown-up.” She told me to go put the cup back on the rack, that it would be harder tomorrow if I didn’t. When I got back to our room, she hugged me once and turned the key in the special porcelain ice-skater music box Dad got her that I wasn’t allowed to touch. I got into bed and tried to fall asleep to its tinkling. I could tell Lucy was awake too, but we didn’t talk about the cup again.
Lucy was the smartest person I knew, smarter even than Sister Mary Christina, a grown-up, so if Lucy said something couldn’t be done, I tended to believe her. I had just assumed that Father Tom had entrusted me with this special secret mission to help my mother, but maybe he’d given the same speech to Lucy, even to TJ and Mikey. If even my brilliant sister and my gentle older brothers couldn’t solve Mom’s problems, who did I think I was to be able to? I was just being a stupid baby again, assuming—as mom liked to remind me—that the world revolved around me, when it clearly did not.
By this time, I was eight, and TJ was in high school at St. Cecilia. So now, he drove us around in a battered Malibu he’d bought with the money he’d earned doing yard work around the neighborhood. He’d take Lucy, Mikey, and me to St. Martin’s extra early and then drive crosstown to get to class on time. We’d wait for him in the afternoon at the afterschool program where Mrs. Salinas, the wrinkly old teacher’s aide, gave us lukewarm milk and stale crackers. Then we would do our homework sheets and play with the old kickballs in the shed, throwing them at each other’s heads, and examining each other’s scabs when we got tired of that. TJ would show up around five, after hockey practice, and we’d go home together. Sometimes he’d stop at McDonald’s for us and we’d share fries or an apple pie.
We loved driving with TJ because he let us listen to music without the bad words bleeped out, and we’d all merrily scream along with the dirty lyrics. But I started to dread coming home. Holding my breath, I’d hold my hand on the front doorknob for a second before opening the door. Who would she be today? Good Mom or bad Mom? Would I be allowed to tell her what I’d learned about snails in science, or would I get yelled at for leaving my sneakers at the door?
And every time I heard her key turn in the lock, my heart would stop and my stomach would tighten. I’d drop what I was doing and make myself busy with homework or chores, preparing myself to pretend that I hadn’t heard her coming, so that I could be surprised by whatever mood she presented me with. If it were a good day, she’d come in, arms full of groceries, whistling Dolly Parton and give each of us a sloppy kiss. She’d bustle around the house and ask us about our days and help us with unfinished homework. If it were a bad day, she’d slam the door, drop her purse on the coffee table, and tell Lucy to brush her filthy hair, goddammit––we weren’t raised in a barn. I couldn’t stand to talk to her like that. She wasn’t my mother when she was like that. But after a while, even on the good days she couldn’t hide it. After a while I didn’t know which person I’d be talking to. I didn’t know my mother at all.
On Mikey’s fourteenth birthday, we were gathered, all five of us, around the old honey-colored breakfast table, specially decorated with cards and balloons. In the middle was the cake mom had made for him the night before; it had been a good day. It was a Dr. Pepper cake, rich and luscious, off of which I had tried to sneak fingerfuls of chocolate frosting. Mom had swatted my hand away, but later she called me back into the kitchen to lick the spatula. She stroked my hair and called me her little Baboo like she used to when I was really young. I stood there, holding tight onto my mother, trying to breathe in the true essence of who she was, trying to burn into my heart the real mother she was trying to be so I could hold onto her for safe keeping when the other mother lashed out.
We were gathered around this beautiful cake, all of us singing as Mikey sucked in his chest, preparing to blow out the candles. He closed his eyes tight. And we all wished for the same thing.