After my father went through treatment the first time, he started going to AA meetings, while my mom went to Alanon and I attended Alateen. I’m guessing I went to Sunday evening meetings with them for a year or more, but the timing is hazy in my memory. I do recall an interesting dilemma that surfaced in our sharing: If I have to tell my parents (and mostly I meant my mother) that I want her to pay attention to me—to love me—then if she does, I won’t want it because I will never know if she means it. It will only be because I said something. So should I say anything? The group leader didn’t know either. In the end, I never said anything.

We endured through four years of my dad’s slipping and sliding, with lots and lots of relapses and another round or two of treatment programs. After a while, the entire mess runs together in my mind as one long roller coaster ride where the twists and turns kept blindsiding me. Every relapse was a blow to the gut, accompanied by a house filled to bursting with tension. Over time, I learned to feel them coming.

It was crazy-making, for sure. Not just the drinking, but also living with my mother. She held the lock that fit the key of my dad’s alcoholism; her issues matched his, tit for tat. Crank that machine up and it generated a powerful storm. As we turned the corner into those tumultuous teenage years, she turned her manipulative, controlling vengeance on her wobbly children, lashing out with lectures that ended up as mind games in which she twisted our words and shoved them back down our throats. She was skilled at the maneuver and I loathed her for it.

I ended up an A student all through high school, but apparently not a perfect one. Halfway through ninth grade, my chemistry teacher sent my parents a deficiency notice, saying I wasn’t working to capacity:

“Jill’s grades are not deficient at this time, but yet, I feel she is not working to her full capacity. Jill, I feel, has great abilities, but it is now that she must develop her capabilities. Jill’s sometimes slightly arrogant attitude tends to hinder her from working to her full potential.”

I don’t doubt that what Mr. Schaffer was saying was true; there was a pattern I can see looking back. It’s just that I had no sense of it at the time. Many years later, when I stepped into a position managing people, I was at a mentoring seminar when I heard this nugget: “If you fire someone and they are surprised about being fired, you have failed as a manager.” The corollary here was that if you are a teacher and you send a deficiency notice to a student’s parents and that student is surprised—shocked was more like it—you have failed as a teacher.

Once again I felt thrown under a bus and worked to lay low in class. I suspect this had the desired effect of seemingly tamping down my arrogance, but really it just amplified my sense I don’t belong in the world. Fortunately, it did not later discourage me from studying chemistry. Who knows, maybe he saw something positive and, like he said, wanted to help me course-correct. But neither I nor my parents were inclined to take it that way.

My parents would finally divorce in 1979 when I was halfway through high school. The relapsing was over at that point as my dad had returned to drinking fulltime. He moved to a small house in Dobie, a crossroads about ten minutes north of town. Jeff was just starting college at UW-BC and lived with him until it got to be too much and he returned to live with my mother and me for a time.

During all that time, my dad continued to lead the Lutheran church choir—Mom, of course, kept playing the organ—and Jeff and I kept showing up to sing in it. Pete too, until he fled the coop. Both my brothers have beautiful singing voices and every time my family’s sung Happy Birthday in five-part harmony, it has been a delight. The sung meal prayer on special occasions is another winner: Be present at our table Lord // be here and everywhere adored // These mercies bless, and grant that we // May strengthened for thy service be. Amen.

During those years, there was no love lost between my mother and me. But living with my father, who was active alcoholic, would have been no better picnic. I saw my dad regularly at Wednesday-night choir practice and Sunday-morning church service, and a couple times he took me out for dinner. Once was after a Friday-night football game, with him and his girlfriend. He was drunk, both at the game and while driving us to the restaurant. So custody was likely joint but I never stayed over at his place.

One day during my junior year of high school, I walked into the Navy recruiter’s office downtown and asked, “If I sign up, can you take me now?” In other words, how can I get out of being here for one more year? The recruiter gave me a nice poster and a bumper sticker and sent me on my way. I told one of my brothers about this and his eyes got really big: “You did what? Are you nuts?”If I had been a boy, I just might have ended up in the Navy.

Needless to say, things weren’t happy around the house and so at some point—probably around the time of the divorce—my mother gave away our dogs. We had gotten Maggie as a puppy when I was in fifth grade, and a few years later Maggie was joined by an adorable white fluff ball named Sammy that Pete brought home unexpectedly from a pet store in Eau Claire one night.

Dad had strung a wire from the back door of the house to the bird pole holding a martin house—think: double-decker bird hotel—for putting Maggie outside on a leash. But with two dogs tied onto it, they would get themselves so completely wound around the pole that it was no small thing to go sort them out, especially in the dead of winter.

Sammy went to a family that lived across the street and Maggie went to a convent of Catholic nuns. Many years later, my brother Peter would be working at a Rice Lake lumber yard when a nun would come in looking for wood to make a coffin for a dog. Pete says he just knew he was helping them create a final resting place for Maggie. She had clearly finished life on a high note.

Me with Pete, Jeff and Maggie as a puppy, in 1975.

But my mother didn’t always make the best choices for lightening her load. In all honesty, sending the dogs off to better homes was for the best (especially for the animals). But the decision to put in a wood-burning stove as our only source for heat—in Northern Wisconsin, where winters were anything but mild—was, in my opinion, out of bounds. I am sure my mother was looking for ways to save money after the divorce, but it meant we received a load of wood that needed stacking in the garage, and then she had to wake in the middle of the night—every single night during the winter—to stoke the fire. The wood stove was located in the basement, so now I had heat ducts in my upstairs bedroom but still no heat.

Did every pie baked for any holiday really require a homemade—from scratch—crust? Actually, as the years wore on, life must have worn her down, because one time when Grandma made her predictable comment, “This pie is just delicious. And you made the crust yourself, didn’t you?” my mother admitted that “No, this one came out of the freezer.” Good for you, Mom!

My mother has always been a master gardener and a master canner, along with becoming a very good cook. But she didn’t have the wherewithal to do all that gardening herself. Bursitis in her hip was part of the problem. But to be fair, having been raised on a farm, she had grown up working the land at a very young age.

It wasn’t so unusual then that she would task her young kids with doing the manual labor of tilling and weeding her garden. (“You can’t go swimming until the garden has been weeded!”) The boys got the shortest end of that stick, but they’d figured out how to use the rototiller to weed a garden. (“Jeff, hold back the plants, I’m coming through!”)

When my parents got divorced, the boys weren’t there anymore to do the heavy lifting, but it simply wasn’t an option to not have a garden. I can still see my mother walking the rototiller down the street toward the garden area, the wheels wobbling like crazy because they weren’t on right. I think a neighbor finally came to her aid. I did not. As I’ve said, we weren’t that close.

In fairness to my mother, the late 1970s was not an easy time to go through a divorce. Today we hardly bat an eye to hear that someone is an alcoholic, and being divorced is about as common as being married. But back then, there was a stigma attached to both. Revolutionary authors like John Bradford (Healing the Shame that Binds You) and Melody Beattie (Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself) were just coming on the scene and their books were turning up in our house.

People were floored to read the first three words of Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Travelled: “Life is difficult.” Seems up until then, everyone thought they were the only ones who felt that way. And yet, it’s as true today as it was back then: When alcoholism and codependency collide, no one really knows what’s hit them.

Although his battle with alcoholism would rage for another decade or so before he finally stayed sober, my dad has gone to AA meetings for the better part of his whole life. At times he has taught DUI courses for the county, and he still goes to meetings at the Barron County Jail, extending a hand to men who are willing to reach out for help. As they say, AA is not a program for people who need it, it’s a program for people who want it.

My mom stopped attending Alanon meetings after a while. I think she thought the problem wasn’t hers to contend with. Nonetheless, I see her good heart and her good intentions. A few years ago, when she gave me a copy of her own life story that she’d written many years previously for herself, she included a note that read:

“I’m not making any excuses. I truly wish I had been a better Mom to you! I wish a lot of things had been different than they were. I take full responsibility for the things I should have done, the things I should not have done. Unfortunately, there is no way to go back and start over. I love you, Jill. I can only pray that “He will command His angels concerning you, To guard you in all your ways.” Psalm 91:11

Around that same time, in 2016, my dad sent me this letter:

Dear Jill,

I was going to send this along with the cd and did not get it done. We have been swamped with many things to do lately but little by little we make headway.

As I was going through my reel to reel tapes I came upon what turned out to be a family treasure. When I heard you sing THE WAY WE WERE, I was reminded of the day we made that recording. It caused me to think about Steps 8 and 9, making amends and I don’t think I ever did that.  I don’t know if you had a good idea of what a dysfunctional life we had at that time or not.  I certainly was in the clouds about it.  You were a pretty girl with a lovely voice and loads of talent but I was oblivious to it all and I am sorry for that.

Those were dark days for your mom and me and as you say in your books, there are no “do-overs” and all we can do is go forward. I have many regrets about raising you kids and all the things I didn’t do and should have done.  I wish I had read you more books, taken more trips, and had been more actively involved with you during those precious years. But I didn’t and I am very sorry for all the hurt and embarrassment I caused you.

I have about 30 years of sobriety and my life is happy, pleasant and shows promise of good things to come. Much of this is thanks to you and your books and of course my AA program.  I am most thankful for both. One can wallow in past misdeeds but it does little good and so I pray for the change which comes slowly. You talk about this and I do think you are solid in what you print.

I am impressed and happy that you were able to move forward in your life with courage, conviction and positive energy. I know you began your career when it was not especially a pleasant time for women in the corporate world. But, you not only persevered, you did very well, and raised two fine boys along with it.  You can be really proud of the job you and Rick have done parenting them. Congratulations!

I was so happy when I heard you sing, MY FAVORITE THINGS.  You sang it so well and it was the perfect ending to the cd.  It was special to find all the rest of the tunes also, and I very much enjoyed making the cd. I am so proud of all of you.  Your talent and ambition showed through over and beyond my personal love affair with alcohol.

Thank you for all you have done in your life, your positive attitude and especially the wonderful job you are doing with your books.  I have enjoyed reading them very much. But most of all, thank you for being you!

[Addendum from my mom about “It was crazy-making, for sure. Not just the drinking, but also living with my mother… she turned her manipulative, controlling vengeance on her wobbly children…”: What can I say, except that I’m sorry it was the way it was. I was doing what I thought I could to hold things together. Ed had been in treatment four times, starting in 1975. But he kept on drinking and it got worse and worse. I really didn’t know what to do except attempt to get out of the situation. We divorced in December, 1979. He bought a house in Dobie. Another woman moved in with him, but he really didn’t stop calling me or stopping by, especially when he was drunk.

Jill and I were alone in the house in Rice Lake and I know she was unhappy. She moved her bedroom to the basement to have some peace and get away from me, I’m now realizing. We really didn’t communicate much. “Come for supper.” She usually didn’t. I should have made a better attempt to get close to her. How, I’m not sure. In the end, I failed.

“…my mother gave away our dogs.”: This is not true. The dogs were not being taken care of by myself or the kids, and Ed was unhappy about having to be the primary care giver. I have no doubt this frustration was expressed loudly by both myself and him quite often. As I remember it, I think it was Pete who knew a nun at the local convent.

One night she and another nun came to our house—she sat in the stairwell and waited for Maggie to come to her. Maggie did. It was a match. Maggie had a new home and a lady who wanted to be her friend. All five of us were there, as remember it. I don’t remember being either sad or happy about our Maggie finding a new home. Maybe just relieved.]

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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