My aunt and her husband were home builders—their house was like a mansion to me. Their walkout basement to a lake was the go-to party place for my dad’s side of the family.
In the basement there was a second kitchen, an in-home theatre, slot machines, pool, darts, a full bar (including a large bar top and stools), a gaming room and indoor/outdoor dining. It was always a treat to go to their house for a party.
My aunt also loved to cook for the family and usually had a buffet line of hors d'oeuvres at her parties. Since we hadn’t had Christmas dinner, my brother and I made a dash for the food while my dad made a dash to the bar—even after his drunk driving escapade and the gift-giving Christmas nightmare.
As we munched on bacon-wrapped meatballs, my dad already had a drink in hand while socializing with my aunt and uncle (who love to drink as well.) In hindsight, I’m certain they knew he was plastered, but I was unsure if anyone could tell how bad the evening was so far.
I avoided my dad most of the night, knowing he was frustrated with me and he knew I was upset with him. I played with my cousins, opened presents and played outside.
At some point later in the evening, I approached him to ask a question. I could smell the alcohol on him as he leaned against the bar for support.
Being in late middle school, I was at that awkward smart-mouth stage where parents were embarrassing even when they weren’t drunk. It was especially awkward to kiss my parents on the lips at this age. But both of my parents were kissers, especially for goodbyes.
I asked him whatever I needed to ask and then likely in my teenage ways, didn’t give whatever respectful response he was expecting in return.
As I turned to walk away from him, I felt a hard grip on my arm, tugging me back toward him hard. I remember in a loud and irritated voice saying, “Oh my GOD! Whaaaat?”
He let go of my arm and said, “You didn’t give me a kiss.”
Awkward. Weird. Out of place. It wasn’t a time or place I normally would have. Usually that was reserved for when I was saying goodbye to him at the end of a visit or at home.
I thought, “Does drinking that much make you confused about what time it is or what’s going on?”
He could read the confused look on my face and leaned down to kiss me. I shied away and turned my face, opting to barely kiss his cheek.
In addition to it being really embarrassing, I was also still really pissed at him and didn’t want to give him a kiss. My repulsion of the moment must have felt tangible to him. As he straightened up, his hand raised and he smacked me, open handed, fully across my face.
In hindsight, that Christmas was one of the defining moments where a light switch went off.
Crying essentially stopped. Attaching and feeling a need for people stopped. And this was the first time I experienced dissociation in a moment (that I’m aware of).
The moment of shock was just too much for my brain to comprehend, too many emotions flooding at the same time. My cheek instantly felt hot as I held a hand to it. I switched off all the strong emotions I was feeling all night. It just stopped.
I couldn’t feel the embarrassment, even though I knew the situation was mortifying. I couldn’t feel the pain of the slap, even though I was felt the heat of it against my hand and the tears in my eyes. I couldn’t feel the anger and sadness of the wrecked holiday and my dad’s actions toward me.
It was almost a floaty feeling. Foggy. I don’t remember who was around. All I remember is him saying, “Give me a real kiss.”
He still wanted me to give him a kiss on the lips even after all of what happened that Christmas.
Everything after that is a blur to me. I can’t remember what else I did, what Christmas presents I got, where I went. I don’t even remember the ride home when I should have been terrified again the entire way. Or at least I didn’t remember most of the ride home at almost 11 p.m.
The second drunk drive to my home—my real home
I was jolted out of my distant state when my dad pulled up to my mom’s house and crashed his car into her garage door. She came running out—checking on us—and talking to my dad as he played down what had happened, “My foot slipped, it’s no big deal. It barely got hit.”
Things then got even more weird for all of us, as he began to unload our Christmas gifts and bring them into the house. My dad didn’t step one foot inside of his old house for years.
Seeing it happen was kicking up competing thoughts and emotions. He dropped off presents in the living room.
As the last present was brought in, I suspected he would be on his way. Instead, he closed the front door and said, “Let’s set up your stereo.” (That was my big gift from him that year.)
My mom shot me a very confused look. Once again, I tried hard to communicate what an awful night it was. Over the next hour or so, he settled in as if he forgot he no longer lived in the house anymore. He wandered the house, wanted to play a board game with me and my brother, set up Christmas gifts.
As an adult, I look back and wonder, “Did he know he needed to wait things out a bit after hitting my mom’s garage door? Was he scared to go home to his wife in this state?”
I still don’t know the answer to that question and doubt he remembers his state of mind that night to be able to answer it.
My mom was always insecure and nervous around my dad. He wouldn’t allow her to access their the bank accounts. He would tell her she was too stupid to handle the finances or bills.
He would do things like buy a package of cigarettes (they both smoked) and only leave one for her. She was not comfortable challenging him or kicking him out of the house, so we all waited him out.
I remember her trying to hint at it, telling him it was past midnight and we needed to get to bed.
He responded, “It’s CHRISTMAS! For God’s sake, lighten up.”
She then pulled back into herself, sitting on the floor playing board games with us “as a family.”
I suppose the one saving grace is that there was no alcohol in the house for him to continue drinking. At some point over the next hour, he finally left on his own accord. I was afraid of the kiss goodbye I would be expected to give him. What if it wasn’t the “real” kiss he was expecting?
Luckily, the second kiss of the evening passed the litmus test and off he went.
My mom, clearly shaken by what had happened, interrogated me about the evening. I remember her being enraged that he drove in the car with us to my aunt’s house and back.
She was even more angry when she heard my stepmom didn’t come with us because of her “headache.”
“Well, no shit,” my mother said. “She didn’t want to get in the car with him in that state. But she was fine allowing two children to get in the car with him. What kind of bullshit is that? She could have called me. She should have called me. As a woman and a mother, I can’t believe this.”
My mom was a swearer, but I think I heard a lot more liberal cursing that night than any other time.
She was so upset about the garage, the drunk driving and my stepmom that I didn’t even go into the face smacking and other details that night. I was already worrying about the conversation she was going to have with my dad. The more I told her, the more likely he would be angry with me for “telling on him.”
To this day, I think back to that night and wonder if my aunts and uncles knew all of what happened. Why did they allow him to drive us home? Why did my stepmom allow us into the car? How much does my brother remember, and was it traumatic for him? Does my father remember any of it, and what was his version of that nightmare Christmas? More importantly, why weren’t we important enough for my dad to remember we were coming at all?
To this day, I still let my dad peck me on the lips (at nearly 40 years old) because I feel that discomfort and fear stir up inside of me. I usually fixate on the dread of the impending moment.
My dad was always my most favorite person, but this Christmas night did a lot of damage to our relationship that has lasted decades.