Serenity's Story

by Kathy Coogan

Author's Note: From the following random words, highlighted in the text, came this story. If you don't believe in the power of the Muse, try writing to these words and experience the magic. Notice that the words are not carved in stone - use a derivation of any of them if that works better for you.

summer, connection, extraordinary, girls, silken, self, spirit, away.


My mother told me that I was conceived when she was in rehab at The Institute. That would have been sixteen years ago. The addicts and drunks who came and went called it The No-tell Motel, playing on AA’s anonymity rule and the building’s origin as a Travel Lodge. I suppose she named me Serenity for luck, or wishful thinking. That's not worked out so well.

Mom still claims that Elizabeth Taylor was her sponsor there. She tells me with a straight face, “She came when she relapsed on pain pills after Betty Ford. Didn’t want folks to find out so her agent found The Institute. Elizabeth asked us to call her Elizabeth. She hated being called Liz.” I don’t even roll my eyes. I let her have that sad little pretension. The connection seems to make her happy.

I ask her all the time, “Who was my father?” I never ask, “Who is my father?” since he’s been out of the picture since forever and doesn’t deserve the present tense. She just says, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions.” It infuriates me! Anonymity means shit to her. She tosses off the names of everybody she sees at AA meetings, to just about everybody in her narrow little world. Anonymity, my ass!

Mom used to be pretty selective about her drinking, believing that she was controlling it if she just drank one thing. Stolichnaya Vodka. Gilbey’s Gin. Gallo Chardonnay. But her “Beverage of Choice” has spiraled downward through the years to her “Beverage of Convenience,” since that’s where it’s sold: the convenience store at the corner where she can still walk - though just barely.

Right now her favorite beverage is Australian Merloh, whose marketing slogan is “The Biggah the Bottle the Bettah,” playing with all those H's and whose misspelling she fails to recognize. The walk is really hard for Mom, I know that. Her alcoholism has denuded her muscles and depleted her stamina.

She mutters epithets all the way out the door, decrying her selfish daughter ruined by that fucking Al-a-teen-cult. As she slams the door, she hollers, “You selfish little ingrate, refusing to run this simple little errand for your mother, who asks so little of you.” By the time she gets home, she’s more mellow having stopped in the ladies’ room to screw off the cap and chug a refreshing inch or two.

Mom says, “Dr. Oz says red wine is full of necessary amino acids and omega threes. Or is it omega acids and amino threes?” I simply nod. I’m a realist. I learned to be one in Al-anon, where we’re told “What is, is,” I long ago ceased challenging my mother’s broad, bold statements. My only hope for my ebbing mother is that the light bulb comes on and some little speck of illumination shed at all those meetings enables her to die sober.

It’s not that Mom hasn’t absorbed all the leads and sharings done at the hundreds of AA meetings she’s attended. She can spout the sayings and acronyms with the soberest. One Day at a Time. KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid. Though her success has been limited, she sees no reason not to share her expertise about the Twelve Steps even as she holds a Styrofoam glass of red wine up to the light.

Styrofoam solved the problem that tall-stemmed wine glasses caused and Mom was enormously pleased when I presented her with the pack of 16-ounce hot and cold cups. Mom had gushed, “Oh Honey, great idea, those tall skinny glasses are so fragile, they can be dangerous.”

This she said while holding up her right hand as evidence; the hand that I had bandaged after she nearly cut off her thumb trying to reattach the last wine glass to its broken stem. You’d think I had invented a cure for the common hangover, my mother was so pleased.

Mom calls AA and its steps The Program, familiarly and a little arrogantly, the way some people call their country club, The Club or New Yorkers called Manhattan, The City. There is a pride of ownership and collegiality that’s exclusive. There is no need to qualify it as an AA meeting. If you don’t know, you are an outsider, a lesser being without the panache addiction bestows.

Mom doesn’t have much but her collection of coins and chits and tokens emblazoned with the AA triangle have pride of place in the jewelry box on her dresser. They represent consecutive days of sobriety and if all added together the number would be impressive, though that isn’t how it works.

Sometimes, when the alcohol makes her melancholy, Mom says, “Hold out your hands Serenity,” making me receive the coins, as she tries to total up the sober days they represent. She places marks and numbers on a scrap of paper, the way I imagine some parents keep score in card games with their kids.

“Let’s see, Honey, this one’s for a month; this one, too. Here’s the year I was carrying you. Well, you know, not the whole year but – whew - that was a tough one to get. But worth it. Here’s twenty-four hours; I think you went with me that time. What’s that make in days?”

She looks up at me with tears flowing down her cheeks and begs, “I’ve been a good mother, haven’t I?”

I say, “Yeah, Mom, real good.” What else can I say? Sobbing, Mom moans, “My Serenity, my girl, the only serenity I’ll ever have.”

God, I hate my name.

Just as often she runs into the bedroom, picks up the velvet box and flings across the room screaming and slurring, “Goddamn cheap pieces of shit. I’m throwin’it all away!”

I wait for her to pass out; then boiling in a rage that bubbles up through the empathy, I crawl around on the floor searching for the precious symbols. We used to have seventeen but one has disappeared in the fray. I always keep my eye out for it as if it will make a difference.

Don’t think Mom has given me nothing of value. There is one thing. She told me to make a gratitude list. In The Program it is said to stave off depression and sadness and the coming drink. I do this and it helps, though craving alcohol has never been an issue for me – yet – the ominous modifier that I’m saddled with as the daughter of a mother and perhaps a father with this genetic disease. My list makes me feel lucky in some ways and reminds me that things could always be worse.

Tops on my gratitude list is the supposition that Mom got pregnant with me when she wasn’t drunk. She says she was at The Institute. When discharged, she went to a sober-living step-down house in the countryside just in time for summer. As the tomatoes and cucumbers, watermelons and pumpkins ripened all around her, she must have plumped and colored and bloomed. I was born at a nearby clinic which had also dispensed my mother’s prenatal care.

That little window of time had allowed me to incubate in a womb untainted by booze. The only acid I absorbed was of the folic variety, ensuring normal development. The umbilical cord that connected me to my mother dispensed more gentle fluids than the usual high-octane stuff. And maybe the little swimmers that had punctured the egg that split a million times to become a little girl had also been 99 and 44/100 percent pure.

I count that as extraordinary. Of all the days in all the years with all the skanky men who helped turn my mother into a booze-bloated crone before her time, I had been born clean, with silken cheeks and an undamaged brain. Number one on my gratitude list, absolutely. Most kids have baby books and stuffed animals to tell them how they began. I have Mom’s only One Year Coin – a superior gift which gave me the foundation of a healthy self.

I took a risk writing down the second item on my list: Learning My Father’s Name. If my name is mom’s form of wishful thinking, then this is surely mine. I’ve been told that gratitude is a form of prayer. So I’m just being proactive, praying to my Higher Power for info about my father and thanking HP in advance for his good work in helping me find him. Makes sense to me. And it can’t hurt.

The prayer thing’s sticky for me. I often pray franticly for her to get well. But those prayers come with doubt that anyone, even the Almighty, can make that happen. The doubt taints the prayer. My mother is embedded in alcoholism and it is embedded in her: a parasite and a host.

But you know what? Unlike Mom finding long-term sobriety, finding out who my father was seemed possible. So I listened for the clues that HP would provide. Almost every day I sat silently listening for just a little while. Prayer and meditation. Asking and receiving. Then when I wasn’t in school or at work at the deli, or keeping watch over her, I pursued the clues.

I started at The Institute but because anonymity is the closed door of AA, the people there couldn’t or wouldn’t reveal the names of other patients who overlapped my mother’s time there. They only obliquely acknowledged her time in residence.

I made a pest of myself. I called the number over and over, hoping to catch someone in a weak moment, someone who would take pity on a poor kid searching for her long-lost daddy. Boo-hoo. It finally happened. Whoever was on the phone that day passed me off to somebody named Rob, because “He’s been on staff forever.”

When he came on the line, I gave my mother’s name, Julia Willoughby. I rambled for all I was worth to keep him on the phone, describing my mother as she looked sixteen years ago at age twenty-three: a beauty with her fiery red hair and masses of freckles which overran each other when she was in the sun.

He finally said, “Are you Irish’s kid? We called Julia, Irish, back then.”

I breathed then almost cried. “Yes, I’m Serenity.”

He whooped, “Well lucky you, kid.”

“I know. It’s pretty awful but I’m stuck with it.”

“How’s she doin’? She still okay? I heard she had a kid, after. So here you are.”

“Yep, that’s me. And, no. She’s not okay. She hasn’t been okay as long as I’ve been alive, except for a few months here and there.”

“Sorry. That’s how it is for lots of us. You sound okay, though.”

“I’m fine. I just need something to help me find my father. For medical reasons, you know?”

“Fine, huh? You know what we say about Fine? Fucked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. F-I-N-E.”

“Yeah, yeah. Heard it a million times in Al-Anon. Hah, Hah. Very original.”

“But true. Glad you’ve been to Al-Anon.”

“Yeah. Me too. Can you help me, please?”

“What’s your Mom say?”

“She won’t give me anything. I want to throw up when she spouts anonymity at me. And now her mind’s all messed up. She can’t remember stuff anymore. ”

“Ah, God, this is a shitty disease. How about the halfway house she went to? You know which one?”

“Just that it was in the country, not too far.”

“Okay, I’ll give you this. Maizie’s Place is the only place that’d I’d describe as in the country.”

“Maizie’s? Can you check your records to see if that’s the one?”

“Look, this is all on me. I’m on my dinner break. I’m sitting here with my feet up on my desk with a chicken salad sub half eaten in front of me. I’m speaking to you as a former acquaintance of your Mom, not a staff member. Call information. Bentley’s the town. Call ‘em. Ask for Suze. Maizie’s gone. Died sober about six years ago.”

“Thank you.”

“Tell your Mom to keep coming back.”

“I do. I will. Thanks again.”

Maizie’s Place was about sixty miles away from The Institute so about two hours away from home. I skipped school, took the keys to the car that I baby and use infrequently because of gas prices. I hide the keys from Mom and pay Safe Auto minimum coverage insurance for only myself, forging Mom’s signature on the policy.

I walked the block to the carport where I park the car, a good deal all around. I have a place for the car and Mrs. Spenser has someone to check in on her. She’s like a grandmother and she praises me to the moon. Imagine that.

I let myself into Mrs. Spenser’s house, calling “Yoo-hoo, it’s me,” and explained to her that I’d be using the car for a few hours. Then like usual, I quickly fixed a sandwich for her, placed it by her chair, helped her to the bathroom and got her resettled.

I checked which of the prescriptions needed refilling, saw that there were only a few Hershey’s Kisses left in the candy dish and wrote myself a reminder to get some more. I took the exact change for the medicine and candy from Mrs. Spenser’s wallet and promised to come in for a visit when I brought the car back. I drove back to our apartment and parked out front.

Mom was dressed but dozing when I went in to get her. “Come on Mom. Time to go.” She was jittery, checking for her purse and her emergency supplies. I handed her the shoe bag which exactly fit a bottle of Australia’s worst. Never leave home without it. “I don’t think I’m up to a drive, today Sweetie,” Mom said.

“Nope, we’re going. It’ll be fine,” I said, thinking F-I-N-E. I helped her down the steps with as much care as Mrs. Spenser, who at eighty-two is forty- two years older than Mom. I can never think of her as forty. That’s younger than Sandra Bullock. My mother’s body had skipped the easing in of gradual aging from the thirties and forties and slammed right into the chronic conditions of an eighty year old.

The town of Bentley may have been country seventeen years ago but now it is strip malls and light industry. Maizie’s however had maintained about two acres of grass and fields surrounded by old oaks. There were two houses on the property and as we drove closer, I saw the sign on one that read, Office – Sign in Please. I looked over at my mother who slumped against the window, snoring quietly. The half-full, or was it half-empty, bottle lay between us on the seat.

A few women sat on the porch steps of the other building, some smoking. They looked at me as I got out of the car and walked to the office. One who looked about my own age smiled and waved at me. I waved back.

Inside sitting at a desk was a gray-haired pretty woman, who looked about thirty except for the hair. I said, “Hi I called and was told to come out and to ask for Suze. I’m Serenity Willoughby.”

“Hi Serenity. I’m Suze. Did you bring your mother?”

“She’s outside in the car. She’s pretty drunk but I think she’ll wake up if we go out and talk to her.”

Suze said, “I told you on the phone that I can’t tell you anything but maybe your Mom will if she sees where she is. She must have been happy here, sober, having a healthy baby, all the love that this place represents, so maybe the good feelings will penetrate the addiction. We can only try.”

“Thanks for helping.”

“Are you afraid? You might hear some stuff you’d rather not know. One night stands, multiple partners, even rape isn’t out of the question. Or she may be too incapacitated to remember anything.”

“I’m ready. I’ve been saying my prayer all the way here.”

Suze looked confused for a second then smiled and said, “The Serenity Prayer. Good for you.”

We walked out to the car. I opened the passenger door slowly so Mom wouldn’t be startled. She opened her eyes and let herself be eased back up in a seated position by the stranger with the gray hair.

“Hi, Julia, welcome back to Maizie’s,”Suze said.

Mom let me guide her out of the car. She leaned against it and looked around, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand as a visor. She looked at me and said, “They painted the house.”

“Did they Mom? Do you like it?”

“Yes, I’ve always thought yellow was a cheerful color.”

Suze said, “Do you want to go in to see your old room. Angela said she wouldn’t mind.”

Suze turned to me and said, “I found her old file after we talked.” I nodded a thank you.

Mother said, “Get my shoe bag. I need my shoe bag.”

I glanced at Suze who shook her head, No.

I held my breath.

Suze said, “Julia, remember the rules? No alcohol on the property?”

My mother’s lips shook but she said, “Oh, yes, I forgot. Even if we don’t respect ourselves, we must respect our fellow residents.”

I breathed again.

We walked toward the yellow house. I supported Mother on one side, Suze on the other. The women sitting on the steps all rose to let us pass.

Angela led the way to her room. The residents watched. I could imagine their private thoughts about this pathetic, skinny, pot-bellied woman and me. My thoughts were of lepers, disfigured to different degrees by their disease and compared these women to my mom, disfigured by her own. Angela did not object when Mom sat down on her bed. She and Suze left the room.

“I had a pink bedspread,” Mom said. “You slept in a bassinette over there. You had red hair like mine but you had your father’s nose.” The sudden words, “your father’s nose,” said so casually, made me slide down next to her in a near swoon.

I put my arm around her and asked, “What else?”

“His hands.” She opened her hand and placed it palm to palm with mine. “See how your fingers are long and skinny – just like his.” My mother shivered and I wondered if it was a tactile memory of the route those fingers had trailed across her spine.

“Who was he?” I closed my eyes and waited.

“He was in-patient like me. But heroin, not booze and pills. He had a terrible time detoxing but later he was sweet and nice to me. We were together for 67 days. I had never been happier. He went back out on the 68th day. He was clean though when you happened.” She smiled at me as she gave me this gift.

My mother continued, “I never saw him again. He gave me you then he left. But I never blamed him. They say love conquers all but that’s a lie. I have never loved anyone like I love you but The Need wins every time. The Need conquers all. He never knew about you but he loved me for 67 days and that’s a lot. ”

“Will you tell me his name?”

Mother said, “Richard Smith. At least that’s what he told me. I think the Richard part is real at least.”

I sat very still holding her in my arms. I had the second item on my gratitude list. At least now I knew. Nothing was changed but that. And that would be enough.

I thought of something Mother had said throughout the years, “You never miss what you’ve never had.” I never expected much, I was conceived in the No-tell Motel after all. I had never expected my father to be a prince or a poet or a saint. I had hoped only for a survivor. I missed having that. I really, really did. I would have to be the survivor. I would be the survivor.

“Come on, Mom. Let’s go home,” I said as I gathered up my mother and helped her to the car.

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