Feeling Gravity’s Pull
In an alcoholic family system, what is escape velocity? Put another way: my dad was in a desperate state his whole life to escape his father’s gravity field, as I tried to demonstrate with his throwing down the belt. His own parents could not throw down the belt, or would not, being borne up on many hands, justified by the mouths of many neighbors. My grandfather’s uncle, by offering to pay for the college education of all the children, should any so desire, exerted his own force against that system, pulling my Uncle Forehead apart in the process.
The second of the children to take up his offer was my dad. The patron, unfortunately, died when my dad enrolled in St. Bernard College, and with the person went the promise. Dad should have steered himself away from college, then, according to pattern, according to orbit, but there was one source of discomfort applying unbearable pressure toward college. Call it an act of God, call it an act of sabotage; it was probably arson.
My grandfather died in 1967, aged 76. My dad was 26 years old, living in the old homeplace with his three younger brothers and sisters–and Mama. Shortly after the funeral my grandmother asked for an electricity upgrade from one of her sons-in-law, who was a journeyman electrician. He made the upgrade, which was by all accounts a simple one. She, being entirely ignorant of electrical wizardry, complained that very day that her son-in-law had done a shoddy job. He protested vociferously to the contrary. The household went to sleep that night.
My dad tells it like this: “The alarm went up that there was a fire in the house. I made my way through to each room to make sure everyone was safely out. When I came out the front door, there was Mama, with the baby in her arms, standing on the lawn watching the house burn down.”
The baby? How old was this baby? She must have been twenty years old at the time, maybe in her late teens. Even so, this is the way my dad tells it: “…with the baby in her arms…”
There is another question, a rather obvious one, at least to me: did Mama start that fire?
Coincidentally, my dad thought he would go to college after all. There was food there, and shelter. In order to keep living there, all he had to do was convince the Benedictine brothers running the place that he was a diligent student, working hard, and constantly paying down what he owed for tuition, room, and board.
I am prepossessed with a kind of panicked question: have I grown? That is to ask: have I escaped? I have written in a different place, long after my dad died, something like, “There is a hot wire connected to me, connecting me to my dad even though he lies in the grave. Perhaps one day I can visit his grave and throw dirt on that wire–or do something to sever this power flowing from him to me.”
It took something as drastic as the literal burning down of his homeplace to propel him a geographical distance of a mere twelve miles from the center of gravity. He made very little emotional distance otherwise.
My Aunt Mamaclone tried to escape when she was thirteen, hopping on the back of a motorcycle with a boy a little older than her. Aunt Mamaclone was like my grandmother in every way, which includes a rather robust frame, a frame which challenged the frame of the motorcycle to such an extent that my grandmother, running on foot with a wooden spoon in hand, almost caught it. Topping a slight rise in the dirt road, the motorcycle gained the momentum it needed to escape her reach, and Aunt Mamaclone was whisked to Florida, where she married and began to make family.
Some years later they were squatting in a vacant house in sight of the ashes of the old homeplace.
What is the escape velocity from an alcoholic family system? I don’t think there is one, meaning, I don’t think there is an escape, but I do think there is a distancing from the center of gravity. When Dad threw down that belt, he was, by that example, setting us one full orbit away from my grandfather. In a generation or two, perhaps if I set forth some other example with my own children, they shall be as Pluto, in the orbit of my grandfather, but only nominally, such that no one recognizes them as under his pull.
It was a fire which became an impelling force within my dad, and he never rested, as though it had been a fire hotter than the sun stoking his pieties, causing him to do wondrous things, even becoming a Lutheran pastor, completing the transference of status from Uncle Forehead to himself, disturbing the orbits of many.