By Doris A.
I turned fifty-nine last summer, the same age that my mother was when she died, thirty-six years ago. I don’t have the number of years sober under my belt as she did when she died (fourteen), but I am working on it.
My mom had a friend named Natalie. I was in high school when they met. Natalie became a friend of our family, then she became my friend, and as of two years ago, she became someone very special in my life. Natalie died six months ago. She was eighty–five and forty–four years sober.
Before I tell you more about Natalie I need to tell you about my mom; she is essential to the story. My mother was an emotionally troubled woman, a severe binge drinker who drank through all her pregnancies and a good chunk of my childhood. Only with the help of AA did she finally get sober in her mid-forties, when I was about nine. Sobriety and the fellowship defined the last fifteen years of her life—it was a gift. But it didn’t solve her emotional difficulties; today she would be considered to have both a borderline and bipolar disorder. Neither was ever treated. At times her behavior when sober was as crazy-making as when she was drinking.
Dagny was my mother’s name, she went by Dee. She grew up in Chicago during the depression, one of four children, with working class parents from Norway who spent a lot of time at the tavern. Family legend has it that during the War my mother drove with her sister to California on a motorcycle. She worked as a waitress most of her life, getting married in her early 30s to my immigrant Slovakian father—six months before my older brother’s birth. I suspect they met in a bar, I am pretty sure they did not know each other well.
“Traumatic childhood” is so cliché, a bit hyperbolic, but that is what it was. I had a drunken mother who raged at her family for the slightest infractions. She broke treasured toys just because they were dusty. Cold water was poured over the top of one’s head, for who knows what. My mom, the lady who locked herself in the bedroom for days on end, who swallowed a bottle of aspirin while we were young and dad was at work, the mom who screamed at neighbors from the porch and got in fist fights with her sister on the back steps. Few things were normal, everything was stressful, and the stress was relentless.
But there are also good parts inside me that came from my mother; they are part of my character and personality, things that I like. I have sweet memories of my mom embedded in my psyche. She was the daffy den-mother who turned our basement into a haunted house and threw the best birthday parties ever. In my head, I can easily hear her Chicago sounding voice and her hearty way of laughing. I have vivid memories of sitting in her lap, head against her housecoat, finding the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee oddly comforting. She made me strawberry crepes for breakfast and sang songs to me that she made up in her head. The crazy making part was that I never knew who I would come home to, which version of my mother would be waiting for me when I opened the door.
Sobriety didn’t quell all my mother’s demons, but it sure changed her life. She loved AA, really loved it, it was her life-raft. It was the one place she found unconditional acceptance. A call from an AA friend or sponsor always set her mood in a better place. Sobriety brought so many people into her life, and into our home. She sponsored other women and made good long-term friends. Natalie was one of her dearests.
I met Natalie when I was about fifteen. She spent time at our house playing Scrabble with my mom and younger sister. They both loved liverwurst sandwiches with fresh tomatoes from the yard. My mom talked Natalie into buying a bicycle, which soon became a focus of their friendship. We lived near the lake, so it was easy for them to take long rides up the lakefront, riding their old-school three-speeds equipped with bell, basket, and a picnic lunch. Sometimes my little sister went with them.
My siblings and I found Natalie intriguing. She was younger than my mom by maybe ten years – but at the time we just had to guess. My mom used to say “Natalie will never tell you how old she is, so don’t ever ask.” Natalie was single but often had a boyfriend in her life. She sold shoes at Marshall Field’s, and later at Nordstrom’s, she had a cute apartment, golfed on a regular basis, occasionally traveled, and had a parakeet named Senator Percy. As a true urbanite, she never owned a car.
Natalie got to connect with the best of my Mom—and for reasons I am not clear on, my mother never turned on her in anger the way she did with others. They had an “almost like family” friendship, a one-alcoholic-helping-another-alcoholic type bond. In fact, my goofy mother created an “adoption” certificate for Natalie declaring she was kin. It entitled her to at least one Scrabble game and one bike ride a year, a promise to always stay in touch and to care for her if she was sick. Natalie, my mom, and my younger sister all signed it; they then burned the edges with a match to make it look old.
When I was twenty, away at college, my parents divorced. My mother moved to a studio apartment in the same building as Natalie. At fifty-six she finally learned to drive (poorly), bought a car, and stuck an “easy does it” sticker on the bumper. She began to cobble together a new chapter in her life, relying on the fellowship for support and meaning.
A year later my father retired and moved to Idaho, dragging along my punk-rock, acid-dropping fifteen-year-old sister (my dad had custody of my sister, which is its own painful story). Both my brothers had already left home, one moving out west. The thought of being left behind by all of us must have been devastating to my mother. Shortly before my father and sister left for Idaho, my mother literally packed everything she owned into her car, with her three-speed bike on the back, and drove around the country aimlessly. I think it was for a few months, maybe just a few weeks. I don’t remember.
She eventually arrived in Spokane, Washington, which was thirty miles from where my father had settled. In a disconnected, muddled-up state of confusion, I decided to skip graduate school and live there as well. Essentially my fractured family “dislocated” itself across the country. And here is the hard part: three or four months after moving there my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and died within a year. I don’t remember how much contact my mother and Natalie had during that time, but I am sure there was some.
My sister and I called the year in Spokane “our own private Vietnam.” I worked in a tavern and drank like a barfly. I spent a lot of time with my mother that year, but we barely talked about the fact that she would soon be dead. There were some tender moments, but also some crazy ones. Like the time she kicked my sister and me out of her house for eating cake for breakfast. What I wanted that year, what I needed so badly, was to put my head on my mother’s lap and have her tell me how I would cope when she was gone.
My mom did not die in peace. She was anxious and afraid; cancer was in her bones and her brain, the physical pain was unbearable. And sadly, she was cut off from her AA fellowship in Chicago that last year. She died in early November of 1980. The week John Lennon got killed, Ronald Reagan was elected, and I became “orphaned.”
Six months later I was the one packing everything I owned into my mother’s dented-up ”easy does it” car. In a fugue, I hit the reset button and moved to Seattle. It was there that I slowly began to heal my psychic wounds, putting myself together from the outside in.
For the next thirty years, Natalie and I exchanged a few Christmas cards and letters. Her letters were wonderful accounts of her day-to-day life: bike riding, meetings, lunch with friends, telling me about cross-country skiing on the waterfront of Chicago. It was very much like the type of letter my mom would have written.
I also saw her in person a few times while visiting Chicago. The most memorable occasion was in 2007. My now ex-husband and I had lunch with her and another friend of my mother named Mary. At lunch, I learned that my mother, still in early recovery, did a twelve-step call on Mary. Mary happily described how my mom came to her door forty years ago and took her to a meeting. Upon seeing Mary dressed in a fur coat and jewelry, my mother exclaimed, “Oh, no need to wear all that, we’re going to a smoky church basement.” It was a speaker meeting which Mary recalled in precise detail. This story crystalized something about my mother, and about so many people I have known in AA. That despite her struggles and the unhinged behavior my mother was an AA warrior. She helped so many people, especially women, in the program.
As for me, it wasn’t until my early thirties that I decided to do something about my drinking. Yet for the next few decades I could only manage to stay sober for a few years at a time, sometimes longer, but sometimes for just months. And all through those years, I had a love/hate relationship with AA; I knew I needed the fellowship, but so much of it reminded me of my mother’s erratic behavior both before and after she got sober. There was a touch of PTSD in just hearing all that “program talk,” and of course there was also the god bit.
When I was fifty-one, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, something I had feared for years. Contrary to my mother’s situation, it was detected very early, and after a year of treatment, I was given a clean bill of health. Shortly after, I decided to drink once again, and that was just one too many relapses for my husband. We separated and eventually divorced. I moved back to Illinois to live closer to my oldest brother in a town three hours south of Chicago.
A year or two after I moved Natalie found me on Facebook, and we started connecting again by phone and email. Two years ago I finally went to visit her in Chicago. I wish I had gone sooner. She looked much older than when I had seen her last but remembering what my mom said years before I did not ask her age. I suspected she was somewhere in her eighties.
By then Natalie was living in a senior citizen apartment building in Lakeview, a very trendy Chicago neighborhood. Despite weighing about 90 pounds and looking very frail, she was leading a remarkably active life. At her apartment she proudly showed me her newest bike, that was equipped with a radio for her rides along the lake. She said she still golfed at a nearby public course and that she went to the gym around the corner and especially liked the Zumba class. I learned about her long-term companion who lived in Arizona–she spent winters with him every year. She said the arrangement suited her well. Natalie wasn’t trying to be cool, she just was.
The next time I saw her was a year ago. I decided to visit as I was approaching my fifty-ninth birthday, the age of mother’s death. I wanted to learn more about Natalie’s life and more about her friendship with my mother. I was so grateful that Natalie had an impeccable memory and was sharp as a tack. That day we went to a meeting. In my share, I talked about how I had become friends with Natalie and about the friendship she shared with my mother many years ago. It was hard not to cry.
Later in the day, Natalie took me on a “walk and talk,” showing me the interesting gardens in her neighborhood. While we walked, I learned that she was the only child of a cold and distant mother and that my mother was nurturing to her in a way she hadn’t experienced before. She commented, “I wasn’t used to that.” I got the sense that she understood my mother’s emotional burdens, but she made it clear, “I would never let anyone say a bad word about your mom.” We humorously compared stories about my mother’s bad driving, and before I left, she took out the “adoption” certificate which she had saved for so many years.
Until that afternoon I had not grasped what an impact my mom had on her, nor did I understand that Natalie herself thought of me “as kin” all these years.
I last saw Natalie last July, shortly after my birthday. I could tell she wasn’t feeling well; she said it was hard to eat and that she was tired. We spent part of the morning just reading quietly in her apartment; she paged through The New Yorker, and I paged through her stack of Grapevines.
In the afternoon we decided to go to the movies. She picked out the animated movie Finding Dory. I was so happy that another adult wanted to see that movie. She loved the idea of taking an Uber there since she had never used it before. The day ended with a dinner at a place down the street, where the owner and waiter knew her name and what she liked to order. We talked about the funny scenes in the movie. She was going to see the doctor that week, and I asked that she keep me updated on any news, and said that maybe we could see each other before she left for Arizona.
A week later she wrote an email saying that the doctors had not found anything seriously wrong with her, but were still trying to figure out why eating was so difficult. She promised to keep me in the loop. A few months later I emailed her and got no response, and when I called, I found her phone was no longer in service. I knew what this meant.
It took me many weeks to track down any information. Finally, one of her Facebook friends confirmed that she had died. The woman gave me the contact information for a gentleman named Dan who had driven Natalie to a meeting every week for 28 years. From him, I learned that she did not die alone and that she left specific instructions that there was to be no memorial service and that her body should be donated to science. He said that this was “tough on many of us.” He suggested that we have lunch sometime and tell Natalie stories. He also got me in touch with a lady named Sue.
Sue sent me an email at the end of January. She said Natalie was born in 1931, and that she died on September 6th shortly after being diagnosed with throat cancer, a few months after I had last seen her. Sue spent the last week with Natalie at the hospital and was there when she died. She said she had known Natalie for 40 years. “It has been an overwhelming loss for me, as she was both sponsor and friend for so many years.” She also kindly mentioned that “Natalie spoke of you often and she valued your friendship.”
Sue also wrote that she had met my mother before she moved to Spokane. She and Natalie were the first passengers in my mother’s car shortly after she had gotten her driver’s license. How funny is that? Someone else on this planet had ridden in my mother’s “easy does it” car.
I am so sad about Natalie’s passing. I wanted us to have a few more years of friendship. She offered an emotional bridge to my mother. Natalie lived an interesting and spirited life which was embedded in the fellowship of AA. I am so grateful that she made sure we would stay connected over the decades. I am touched that she held me in high regard and thought I, too, had an interesting life. She was an independent woman who loved life and embraced sobriety, what better role model could I have?
Sue, Dan, and I are having lunch in April. We will tell Natalie stories, and I will have two new friends. Sue suggests we go to Dairy Queen for desert, just as Natalie liked to do. I will learn more about Natalie, who I painfully miss. Perhaps I’ll hear another funny story about my mother.
About The Author: Doris A.
Doris lives in Champaign-Urbana, a lovely university town set amongst the cornfields of central Illinois. For the past year, she has served as Chief Editor of AA Beyond Belief. Her day job is managing a lending library at the county jail through Urbana-Champaign Books To Prisoners. Her home group is Many Paths—a thriving secular AA group that recently celebrated its two-year anniversary.
The featured image for this article was created by Kathryn F.
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to email@example.com.