“The thing about gifts is that there’s always a person behind them.” This was the kind of thing my mother would say. The thing about my mother and her proclamations was that they could mean anything. Not that I knew what she was talking about most of the time. And, that winter day of my fifth birthday sitting in the kitchen with her, I can remember the package sitting on the table with a large red bow – and silver foil paper. There was snow falling outside, the pretty kind, fat wet flakes that were hiding the cars parked across the street and making the stick of the tree outside the apartment sparkle.
I wasn’t sure when the package had arrived but it was clear it was for me. What wasn’t clear was whether I would get it or not. It depended. I watched her face. “Yep, there’s always somebody behind a present.” She looked at me then, flushed and her hand holding her hair back from her face. Of course, then I could see, by the glitter in her eyes, that it was not going to be a happy birthday. I just didn’t have any idea how bad it was going to get.
She wasn’t always like this. It had something to do with when she drank, or what she drank. Because even that didn’t have any sense to it. Sometimes when she drank red wine, so dark it was almost purple she’d cuddle and smile in that sleepy grin she had and we had some great nights. On one of those nights I slept in bed with her all night. “A pajama party.” She called it. In the morning, she told me she had no idea why I was “such a little shit, that I had to ruin her sleep by coming into her room.”
But, that was my mother. The really bad, times were when drank vodka. I think that was the first word I could read. She kept it in the freezer so it was nice and cold, and she always started out happy – sometimes she even sang – more than three times she danced and once with me in her arms. That morning of my fifth birthday was a vodka birthday and the only thing that could turn my mother faster was the mention of my father. I don’t know why he came that morning, what made him think that anything would be any different, but he did. I was just getting to the point of deciding that the glitter in her eyes and her face getting red was all adding up to trouble. I was trying hard not to give her any reason to turn the anger that I knew was boiling up in her onto me. I kept my eyes away from the package, even though she had put it right there in the middle of the table. And all of sudden there was knock on the door – a hard knock that sounded like a drum beat. I can tell you my heart was beating hard, anyone’s would be beating hard if you saw my mother’s face.