It was another Thanksgiving – they all flowed unremarkable into each other then, much the same way they do now. Another turkey, another go at a new stuffing recipe, another sweater that is too warm, really, for the balmy Southern California late afternoon. But this Thanksgiving, my mother and I were alone together in a car, driving to visit my father. I don’t remember if we were driving the turquoise blue egg of our Ford Pinto, or the later, brown version of the same car. I do know it was before the Pinto that had its passenger door lashed on with rope to hold it in place. That was following an accident that wasn’t either of my parents fault, but since the other minor dings, scrapes, and metal-on-metal “kisses” our cars endured were all at the hands of my father, that more serious injury was just another to be absorbed and dealt with, no need to get insurance companies involved.
So, a Thursday in late November, after the buffet dinner at my aunt’s house. My little sister wasn’t with us, but as a preschooler, she wouldn’t be. We were to going to visit my father, because it was a holiday, the most family-oriented one of the year. My dad hadn’t been with us for the dinner, but we knew where he was, a marked improvement over most of the spells when he wasn’t living with us.
My mother and I were driving the brief route from my aunt’s house in Santa Fe Springs to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk. The Met hospital was a locked down facility for the state’s mentally challenged and incapacitated citizens. My dad wasn’t one of these, no matter how often my mom might hiss late at night that he was sick, crazy. And unlike the overwhelming majority of residents at the Met’s main campus of buildings, my father was not in lock-down, or held against his will. Rather, he had enrolled himself for a volunteer stay into a building on the outer edge of the hospital’s grassy, tree-filled acres: a place deemed Cider House, for men struggling with addictions, namely alcohol. The Cider House building was an actual house, a tall two-storied, flat-fronted sort of saltbox, with a peaked roof of dark wood. There was a fire escape of stairs from a second story door, but the house looked charming to me, old-fashioned, compared to the pastel stucco houses of our own neighborhood, and it seemed homey, especially in the twilight hours of this Thanksgiving, when there was finally a slight chill in the air and even a hint of woodsmoke.
Inside the Cider House was a men’s world as manly as any exclusive club lounge. It was dim and there were televisions on, and already someone had tacked up a hopeful string of Christmas lights around the doorway between one sitting room and another. For that was evidently the main occupation of the men at Cider House: sitting around, waiting. Hours to spend, without a drink. One Day at A Time, and all that. I already knew about all that. There was cigarette smoke in the high rafters, smoke in the tattered tired sofas, cigarette burns in the massive console television in one room, burns and coffee cup rings on the low table before the portable TV in another. The men were polite, the men were quiet and respectful and seemed not a little abashed to be seen here on this holiday by an attractive mother and her adolescent daughter. The same could be said about my father, himself.
Still, there was a sense of openness, of generosity, queries if we were hungry, for there was still plenty of food to be had: coffee, pumpkin pie, the rich dark brown aroma of long-simmered barbecue baked beans. There was a brief tour: here, the sitting areas and their motley TV’s, here was the dormitory, rows and rows of plain beds where, like the famous little girls in the French convent, they brushed their teeth and went to bed.
There was alone time, precious on this day. Hello how are you, how is school, how is work, your little sister. Perfunctory words to to glaze over moments, chafing all of us in the worn leather chairs. A joke: my dad handed us a cup, a coffee mug that he had molded, painted and glazed in some unimaginable Craft Hour, some therapeutic working of clay by men unable to quite make the shape of their outside lives fit the mold, take a sturdy and useful permanent shape. The joke, from me, the smart-ass cracker of jokes learned at the knee of the professional wise-ass himself: What’s next, Daddy? Basket weaving on the lawn? And then the sought-after chuckle, the wry twist, as another cigarette was lit. Everyone in their places, everyone in their roles. All is right after all, within our small unit, behind a chain-link fence and the guard booth at the parking lot entrance off Bloomfield Avenue. Not many years later, my dad would work as a bartender again right down the same wide, industrial road, driving past the same long chain link fences each late afternoon and later evening, going to and from another job of pouring drinks, being a wise-ass. Decades later, the mug with its painted desert sunset glaze remains in the hall closet of my parents home, holding dry pens and lost keys.
On this Thursday evening, the twilight giving way to the sudden dark of late autumn, my mother and I said our goodbyes and crossed our arms for warmth as we returned to the Pinto. Into a crack on the dashboard, my mother had stuck a metal button: I Used to Be Disgusted, But Now I’m Just Amused. I don’t remember the words we spoke as we passed by the guard, passed through the gates and sat at a traffic light. But, this: the oldies station, K-RTH, playing the Beatles “All You Need is Love.” Right, my mother breathed out slowly, as we merged back into the sparse stream of holiday traffic.
By Kelly Shire
So great to read your writing. I've been inside that hospital, too, visiting abused teen girls whose wounds had either created or enhanced their poor mental states. I am proud of your dad for checking himself in. Not easy to do back then, with no open therapeutic culture as we have now. Hope to see more memoir from you.