Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
August 1963. The Leskiw family is going to party. Our parents had just moved into a new home in the Bay Area’s Santa Clara Valley. The subdivision was carved out of cherry, plum, and apricot orchards that stretched to the horizon. Although my three siblings and I understand that the orchards belong to someone, their vast acreage—ripe for exploration on foot or by bike—retain an air of unkempt mystery, of wildness.
Even a nine-year-old like myself senses the transformation—renters buying a dream home. Long into the night, my mom and dad discuss plans for home improvement projects: a sidewalk to connect the front yard with a soon-to-be enlarged back patio, landscaping that will include fruit trees, a series of stone planter boxes slated to zig-zag across the entire width of the back yard. These new surroundings—from front and backyard crannies to bike treks further afield—all seem to symbolize a new beginning for our family. Settling into our home gives us a sense of security, palpable and positive.
So, we head to a pizza parlor to celebrate. My dad orders two pizzas and the first of several pitchers of beer. I don’t remember how many pitchers my father drinks, but Leskiw-lore holds that it was several and that my mom abstained from drinking.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
We finish our dinner and leave the pizza parlor, all four kids in the back of the Pontiac Catalina.
We begin a right-hand turn onto Homestead Road, but my dad is slow to react and the driver-side tires carom off the curb of the pedestrian island. We four siblings come to attention.
“Give me the keys, Walt,” says my mom. “I’m driving.” In a slurred voice, my dad replies that he doesn’t want to give them up. There’s more verbal thrust and parry between my parents, until, finally, my mom commands, “Just get out. I’m driving the kids home.” The door opens and, into the darkness, with cars whizzing by, my dad gets out. Mom slides over behind the wheel, puts the car into gear, and drives off. We are stunned. Long moments pass before anyone says anything.
Ellen, the eldest, speaks first. “Mom, it’s a long way home. How will Dad get there?”
Silence. Then my mother says: “I don’t know. He’ll probably take a cab.”
I dared to speak up. “Should we go back and pick him up?”
“No. Even if he has to walk… he’ll get home.”
Given the distance—over two miles—it occurs to me that, should Dad have to walk all the way home, he is going to be pissed. However, tension fills the air, and one look at the expression on my mom’s face, makes it clear that this is an opinion best kept to myself. Once at home, we siblings are too amped up to even consider sleeping, but my mom insists. “Off to bed you go.”
I awake to my mom standing over me, shaking my arm. Downstairs, pounding at the front door, my dad is shouting. “Eileen! Ei-leen!!” Mom, her voice quavering, speaks to us. “Tom, Larry, get in the bathroom.” We do as we’re told, encountering Ellen and Beth who are already there. My mom joins us, locking the door behind her.
I really don’t know why I’m telling you this.
I hear sounds of the front entry hall door being opened and an unsteady clomp of feet up the stairs. Dad continues his bellowing, “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!” Huddled together in our jammies, we look to our Mom for an answer.
Bam. My father tries to kick in the bathroom door. Bam, Bam, BAM! The hollow-core door reverberates like a kettledrum, the percussion pounding at my inner ear until I think I’ll pass out.
“If your dad gets in, he’ll kill us all,” cries my mom. We know the lock could be picked with a hairpin. That, combined with the splintered shards of the hollow-core door giving way beneath my dad’s kicking, petrifies us. Mom slides open the tiny bathroom window. Climbing out requires a drop of several feet onto a sloping roof. “Beth and Ellen, out,” she commands.
Bam, Bam, BAM! “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!”
Larry and I join our sisters on the roof. I wish I could say that our shivering is due solely to the cold night air. Stars must be blazing in the inky darkness, but we have no time for that.
The events of that night grow hazy at this point, but I think my dad passes out. Neighbors must have called the cops. They arrived to escort him away.
At our new house, my siblings and I build a fort in the back yard. A month or so later, our dreams of adding a second story to our Children Only—No Adults Allowed refuge are put into action. My parents had replaced the shattered bathroom door, so we claimed it for our fort. The door served—not only as the floor for the entire top story, but also as a reminder of that chaotic night.
Several years later, my parents divorced again—the second of three from each other—I moved in with my dad. By this time, he was consuming a half-gallon of bourbon every three days, and my mom had remarried. The judge in the custody suit was aware of the toxic relationship that had formed between my stepfather, my mother, and me, and decreed that I’d be better off with my dad.
Although I was intensely curious about my dad’s side of the story, I avoided bringing up the topic of “What the hell happened that night?” for several years. Finally, one weekend afternoon, when I was about sixteen, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Maybe it was a question I should never have asked, because I wasn’t prepared for his response.
“Tom, don’t ask me why, but I just felt that night like your mother might harm you kids.”
“You were trying to protect us… from Mom?”
“Yeah, I thought she might try something.”
Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if there could have been a way for my mom to get my dad to relinquish the car keys without forcing him to walk home. However, since then, I’ve encountered enough drunks to realize that the answer is most likely no.
Maybe now I know why I’m telling you this.
I’m the only one of four siblings who chose not to parent. Even after I told my mom about the vasectomy I got in 1986, she continued to confront me about the need to “Grow up and raise a family.” Over the years, I’ve cited the standard litany of reasons that people give for not raising a family. “The organization Zero Population Growth had a big impact on me. The planet—with its finite resources—isn’t able to feed an ever-expanding population. ” Or, “Who would want to bring a child into this messed-up world?” Or, “Being a parent has its drawbacks, such as loss of freedom and a financial sacrifice I don’t want to make.”
I knew that no matter how valid these points might be, they weren’t the real reason. Even when I was four, in the Chicago courtroom where my parents’ first divorce took place, I could see how they used us kids as weapons against each other. I remember the pressure I felt when the judge asked me which parent I wanted to live with…while both parents waited for my response. Like my three siblings, I elected to live with my mother. I’m confident the judge felt that taking my preference into consideration was the right thing to do. And maybe it was. But the judge lacked the backstory. He was unaware of the lengths my parents had gone to win our favor. They even enlisted both sets of grandparents in their game, catering to us for several weeks—trips to the park, buying copious amounts of baseball cards for my brother and I—to tip the scales in their direction.
Finally, I know why I’m telling you this.
Did I mention that my mom was a nurse? Long before the term codependent was coined, my parents found themselves ensnared in those dynamics. Nurse and patient. Bad-boy drinker and his good-girl savior. Although each of my parents had a good side, the genes I inherited from them terrified me. And the only way I could ever positively, absolutely know that I’d never wield my kids as weapons against a spouse was to never have them in the first place.