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Swan Dive Out

I’m just going to say it upfront, my sister jumped off a bridge on Christmas day in route to my mom’s for our traditional big turkey and dressing meal. She left her nine-year-old Boston Terrier, Ruby, in the white Toyota Land Cruiser and leaped.

Nothing would ever be the same.

But Christmases had already had an earlier crucifixion when my father was booted from the glass house. Oppulence and massive hauls of loot were over for all of us. But as a kid in an affluent elementary school, the fall was hard. Fuck Santa, I want Dad back. The living room that once housed two massive Gatsby-era parties (4th of July and Christmas) was no longer a joyful place. My mom withered in fear and sadness.

In the present world, yesterday, I had to sit for three hours in the Social Security Administration office. There was some sort of mix-up with my birthdate. Probably some system update ten years ago prevented me from e-filing my taxes. The instructions said I’d have to apply for a replacement card. Oh boy, errands and certificates, and forms, website security that’s so good I never get in, and wait wait wait in the packed waiting room for someone to assist you.

I had two versions of my birth certificate. One of them was a certified copy, I think I retrieved it for my Apple Store experience. I also had the original, yellowed version with my feet inked along with both thumbs of my mother. I’m going to have to go get it now and show it to you. Just a second.

And the big ah-ha moment for me: my mom was twenty-nine, my father was 33. I tried to imagine my mom, the southern belle, educated at Ward Bellmont a famous Southern finishing school where she learned to paint (still life, landscapes, and one magnificent schooner painting I think my ex-wife still has) set the table, and behave like a member of the “Daughters of the Confederacy.”

She and my father met after high school, old Austin wealth met new Austin real estate wealth. The images and stories created a mythic quality to the early years of my life. But the part that awakened an interest in me was imagining a young debutant meeting and marrying Prince Charming and all the early dreams bloomed and flourished beyond their wildest dreams. There was plenty of dark tragedy lurking in under the surface of an idyllic childhood, but by the time I was awakening to my own biographical consciousness, we were living in the glass castle on the lake.

The rocket ride for my mom and dad would fit well in a Bas Lerman biopic, from 19 when she had my sister to 29 when she had me. They traveled from an early “base life” in Houston where my Dad did his short time in the Air Force as part of his medical training. I’ve been told that the early times with my dad were the best. The wealth and alcohol hadn’t warped their two individual ideas of happiness, yet.

Then there was a two-year stint in Galveston where my dad absorbed his Machiavellian training from a world-famous physician with a heart clinic in his name. This is the moment of inflection that my mom would often point to, when my dad turned his anger into a tool and a weapon. His potency was unlimited. Now, he was given the strategies and dark arts that would bring him back to Austin as a hellion.

As I’ve outlined his Oedipal legacy in an earlier entry, I’ll jump to a slightly different track.

The timing of my dad’s arrival in the number one city for seasonal allergies was part of the royal flush power move he had in mind. I suppose he hated his father’s control of his early life and this path that led him back to Austin, to join his family practice. The dark prince waited just long enough to manipulate his ultimate victory over his father, but the initial success must have been breathtaking.

From a traditional two-story colonial in Tarrytown, my dad bought a property on the lake, about a mile upstream from my father’s house. I was too young to remember the Summers at the lake (I thought they only did this in the East.) but I have some photos of the happy couple scraping open the hillside to build their testament to prosperity and greed. So, a house in town, a lake house, and now they were building another house, a grand house on the front of the lake house. My father’s house was meant to show his father how much more successful and tasteful my dad was.

And the money just came pouring in. A minor hitch when my dad’s dad committed suicide on his second honeymoon with his wife, who he understood would never give up booze after his son voted him out of the family medical practice he had founded.

Something serendipitous happened yesterday. I sent my sister a text with one of the photos I’ve been digging up for this spelunking expedition I’m writing, and she responded with this, “Do you remember the street address of the big house? I think it’s up for sale.”

And indeed it was. Sold in 1977 by my mom, this property, a bit pasted over by a Californian remodel aesthetic, was exactly the sad-filled space I still haunted. Vivid moments awakened. Synapses and neurochemicals refired and aligned. I’ll let you know how it goes, but we’re arranging a walkthrough, forty-seven years later. “Incoming data,” my hungry brain shouts, delighting at the prospect.

There are still a few people alive today that I can access to help me illuminate old narratives, but this would be a return to the scene of the undoing.

Once the glass castle was taking guests my mom, rising to the occasion with the energy of a grand dame a this point. Money, beauty, and now a growing renown and social status, as the papers would cover the house and the ragers that would take place across the sprawling grounds of the old lake house and the new cathedral.

It was a church of wealth and early Austin affluence. There’s a photo I can share that reveals my father’s architectural flourish and narcissistic drive. The master bedroom, with a California king bed, opened like a loft to the massive picture windows of the two-level living room.

Funny aside, both Christmas morning present opening and boisterous playing in the living room required some dramatic orchestration. I was a child, but it must’ve been agony for my two sisters and brother, mid-high school, to wait “until Mom and Dad are up” until we could storm the goldrush that awaited us around the two-story Christmas tree, symbolizing both wealth and the baby Jesus.

In all my whining about my alcoholic dad, my mom must’ve contemplated the swan dive several times as the “Austin Gold Coast” dreams began washing up on the private beach like empty scotch bottles. There was no message inside. No hope coming. No help from her mother-in-law, just down the lake. Her dad, the once happy gangster, helped her unload some of my dad’s “depreciation” properties that lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. On paper, they were worth something, but the sale of each of them, two large apartment complexes in East Austin, actually cost my mom money, the partnerships were all underwater, on purpose.

The Camelot narrative was corroding into a nightmare before her very eyes. She moved to protect me, somewhat from the coming storms, “her baby,” but what could she do? It would’ve been my sister’s job, to comfort me emotionally like she had when I was a baby, but she was off acting up at Hockaday in Dallas.

There were screaming matches. A lot of slammed doors. A lot of my father blasting off in some fancy car burning tires up the long sloping driveway or the fancy ski boat. I don’t know, but today, I imagine that my dad drove up the lake or up the hill to drink with his mom.

Flashback to my early struggles with employment and marriage with two kids, I drove home from Dell one day and stopped at my mom’s rather than go home. I was losing my shit. My wife was not a comfort but an antagonist. I needed to spill.

I texted my wife from the car. “I just stopped by my mom’s house for a bit. Home in an hour.” My commute was 40 minutes with no traffic, so I was often either bringing or missing dinner on most weeknights. This was a Friday. I didn’t want to begin the torturous weekend with my wife. The kids I adored, the dad-life I depended on, and my marriage was falling apart. I thought my mom would understand. She supported me bravely through my starter marriage and subsequent divorce.

I needed an emotional connection.

A connection with someone who understood me and could understand my struggle with marriage. I didn’t know it then, but it was an echo of my father’s behavior but with a different dependency. I didn’t want to drink with my mom, we were both fairly non-alcoholic, and I wanted to console her. I wanted to hear her ideas and strategies about dealing with a tyrannical and domineering spouse.

Back in the childhood bio-neuro-reconstruction my little boy was losing his optimism and running out of tricks to perform. I danced and sang as a hero child would, as an only child would, as a fractured mind would, but nothing was working. My dad was still drinking, yelling, and becoming more like a boogieman than a real person. Mom compensated in the other way, with overabundance, overeating, and oversharing. At the height of Camelot, she could not figure out how to make her husband value FAMILY OVER ALCOHOL.

I know that seems a bit dramatic, the all caps and such, but this is the message you need to hear. No matter what you take from this book, take this.

The other person is not going to change for you. Ever.

Having had some terminal discussions with my ex-wife I can empathize with my mom’s struggle to stabilize the disintegrating kingdom. But, like me, she was dealing with an emotionally crippled partner.

What I may never resolve and accept is my father’s black streak. He didn’t lighten up he doubled down on his drinking and staying later and later at his mom’s house for cocktails and bitching. (Ah, crap, different vice, but same motion for me with my mom.) Furious that he could not threaten or yell his wife into sense, he raged. He burned all his boats on the shore of that lake house. And when retreat was no longer an option, he impaled himself on his own empire.

All the money in the world would not have stopped my dad’s descent. Like my son today, it has to be “their plan.” Like my son, I’m sure my father did not like the ultimatum. “Choose me or the bottle,” my mom would recount.

“He chose the bottle.”

Over my life, that’s one of the mysteries. Alcholism, that cunning and baffling disease both brought me to this moment but also provided me the way out, the way to recovery, the way to not repeat the mistake of our parents. That’s what most of us are trying to do in life.

Measure up to the success and expectations of our parents. Not make the same mistakes. Learn to “break the chain of alcoholic abuse.”

The black dog is known and respected in my life. For my father it was scotch. Me, probably hyper-emotions, the highs and lows of bipolar depression. (“Hi Dad!”) For others, like my son, it’s something else he’s struggling with. We all have our own journey. And if you’re a believer, we all have our own higher power.

Life goal: Be honest about your feelings and make better choices. How am I doing?

How I watched this kingdom catch fire, I know that my mom stood in the center of the collapsing church and put her arms around me, the baby, to protect me from the storm. Her loss and oblivion were comprehensive. Nothing would remain from the war. In my mom’s stories, for the rest of her long life, were about her “prince charming getting sucked in my that Macchaveli in Galveston, and the bottle.”

She never remarried, though I understand she had some opportunities. There’s a big purple painting hanging in my house today, that was apparently a lover. I’m sure she had some flings, but she stayed committed to her tragedy.

From these ashes, however, emerged a positivism that kept all of us alive during the culling.

“Turning X’s into plusses.”

My mom was an early advocate of positive thinking. Sure, she had Jesus in the boat with her, from her Catholic elementary school, but she did not ultimately give up. She nearly gave up, she ran to Mexico to escape, leaving me alone in the shitshow, but she always returned. She tried to protect me from my dad. And she alone, gave me my HOPE, all caps.

For me, in my personal struggles with the dark side, hope is the feeling you lose. At my low points along the way, I finally unlocked an inner truth for me and my own recovery. My focus? Adding anything that offered a glimmer of hope.

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