Patience is a Virtue

My father was an accomplished alcoholic in a town that considered this more of a career than a crime.

Until I entered high school and gained some independence, I spent most of my days in the same routine, helping my mother keep track of my father’s behavior.  When my sister and I got home from school, my mother would hurry us into our faded green Buick Special and wind up the steep hills of Butte to the Stewart copper mine where my father worked as a boilermaker.  We’d arrive just as the shift whistle was blowing then spend thirty minutes or so with my mother waiting “on pins and needles” until we saw my father cross the mine yard on his way to the showers.  

On the nights when the thirty minute wait turned into an hour, and that was more often than not, my father left work early and went straight to his favorite bar.

On the good nights, though, we’d go directly from the mine yard to visit my father’s mother. Our grandmother wasn’t a cruel person, but her life had been hard and she resented us for taking her son.  Widowed at a young age, she worked as a cleaning woman in local Catholic schools for less than a living wage while her two small children were raised by her mother. She never had the privilege or understanding to see life from a gentler point of view. My mother, younger sister and I would spend a tense hour at her house every night while my father drank a quart of beer and secretly finished off a pint of whiskey that she’d plant for him in the bathroom.  

Sometimes my sister and I would pass the time pretending to cook in her large, but barren, kitchen pantry.  Our concoctions, which could probably have passed for a meal in many local households, always involved a boiling pot of water, salt, pepper and whatever stale bread was on the shelves.   Hidden beneath the shelves, behind brown paper bags filled with other brown paper bags, were my father's empty whiskey bottles.  His mother put much more effort into supporting her son’s habit than objecting to it.   She believed he was all she had left in the world and she was keeping him with her however she could.

From my grandmother’s house, we’d head down the hill toward town where we’d park in front of my father’s favorite haunt, the Atlas bar.  The Atlas had a tarnished black and chrome Art Deco exterior that was out of tune with its current clientele. Filled with patrons after a shift change, its narrow, black tile interior resembled a mine tunnel.  This was where my father felt most at home. Without us, it probably would have been his home. So it was a daily struggle to pull him away from it.  

No matter the season or time of day, we never knew how long we’d be parked outside the Atlas.  After an hour, especially during the winter, my mother would start honking the car horn which, of course, did nothing other than vent her frustration.  After confirming yet again that the horn had absolutely no influence, she’d send me in to get him.  

I was about eight years old when my mother first insisted that I go.  She encouraged me by saying he would only come out because I was asking him, quite an ego trip for an eight-year-old so I went without hesitation.  As I got older though, the reality of my role got clearer to me and I began to hate the smell of stale whiskey. My mother began plying me with guilt by paying my father a back-handed compliment.  “Well, at least he’s not a mean drunk”, she’d say, implying that if I were a grateful daughter, I’d care enough to get him home.  But I knew by then, as I attempted to separate him from the thing he loved most, that my father had only one care in the world and it had nothing to do with us.  Usually he’d just tell me to tell my mother, “to go to hell because he’d come out when he was damn ready.”   So, I started refusing to play bouncer and instead would start an argument with my mother about more effective solutions such as divorce or, at least, leaving him at the bar.  All this accomplished was to convince my mother that I was just as stubborn as my father, and that she now had two renegade pig-heads on her hands.   

Often during the horn-blowing segment of the script, one of my father’s friends would stumble over to the car just to spend time further impressing us with the loveliness of Ireland and the holiness of the Catholic Church.  Jimmy Harrington, one of the oldest cronies, had a brogue so heavy that we often didn’t understand what he was saying. My mother just nodded her head in agreement at appropriate intervals and he never seemed the wiser.  One very cold evening in January through a small opening in the car window, he told us we all had the patience of a Saint and the Lord would richly reward us in Heaven for our willing acceptance of Hell on Earth.  Then he smiled broadly, tipped his cap as a tribute to the virtues of martyrdom, and proclaimed what a lucky bastard my father was to have us.  Although it wasn’t clear what this would be worth on Judgment Day, I did feel like someone had finally noticed that this was a lot to ask of a child.