Jerry's View: We never died a winter yet
By Jerry Robinson
(an excerpt from LISTEN TO YOUR FATHER) a book by Jerry Robinson on sale through this newspaper. Apply for details)
NO wonder Dad was a certified alcoholic. Looking back, I can't blame him too much. He just got hooked on the stuff trying like hell to feed nine kids.
What a gang. George was the eldest; then Evelyn, Marion, Albert, Doris, Bernice, Russell, me, and lastly Norma. Well, not quite last. I had a little brother for a while. Six months, in fact. His name was Lowell. He was injured at birth by a careless doctor. Brain damage made his left arm useless. But Mom believed that if you moved his tiny arm up over his head and back down often enough, eventually he could do it himself. That was a job for older brother Russell and me.
We worked his arm back and forth hundreds of times each day. I was only six,
but I knew it was important to have two arms, so I never resented it. Sometimes it looked like his arm moved by itself. I'd go running to tell Mom. She'd drop whatever she was doing and go have a look. The flickering gleam of hope in her soft brown eyes would fade and she would say, "You may be right, Gerald. Keep moving his arm, son."
It was a sad day when we buried the little guy, but Mom convinced us God had a good reason.
I don't remember Dad being a mean drunk, but until I was sixteen I rarely saw him sober except on weekends. Many's the time he came weaving down the street after a day downtown.
We lived at 116 North Russet Street on the northern outskirts of Portland, Oregon the first ten years of my life. The streetcar came within half a mile of our house. Dad would come home at dusk, wobbling down the middle of the street (there were no sidewalks), ignoring the occasional auto or truck. The whole neighborhood could watch his unsteady progress. We'd watch him from a block away, peeking through the curtains so Mrs. Cooper across the street couldn't see us. He'd stagger, catch himself, throw his chin out, head up our walk and come in the door.
Many times he wouldn't eat, just stumble into the downstairs bedroom he shared with Mom, crash onto the bed like a falling tree and pass out. Then the dismantling crew went into action: Russell on one leg, me on the other. Shoe, sock, garter, loosen the belt. Then, each grasping a pant leg, off came his trousers. Next the suit coat, necktie, collar -- studs into a little box on his dresser -- and last the shirt. Then, while I held the blankets open, Russell rolled Dad's snoring, snow-white, inert body onto the sheet and we covered him up. He never did ask how he got there. I guess he thought God did it.
When Dad did eat, we watched in fascination as he struggled to get the food first on his fork, then, after several misses, up to his mouth. He may have been drunk, but he was still loquacious as he tried to spear his macaroni. He would slur unforgettable lines, lines that became part of the family lexicon: "Had a dollar and 'pished' it against a wall". Or, "Don't worry kids, we never died a winter yet".
In the morning he always wanted what remained of his bottle. Not a chance. IfMom found it she poured it down the sink. If one of us kids got to it first, we poured it in the fireplace and lit it.
Dad (his friends called him Robbie or A.J., after Albert James), the third of four boys, was born in Severn Bridge, a little town near Toronto. His father owned a general store and Dad grew up lean and hard from lifting iron stoves, sacks of oats and heavy bolts of cloth. Like many Irish, A.J.'s parents migrated to Canada to escape the Great Potato Famine. I know little else about them except that Great Grandfather Robinson was a wine merchant in County Galway, Ireland.
Dad was one of the best-educated men I ever knew, though he never got past high school, which he completed in two years. Teachers were in short supply in his little town, so he applied for credentials and taught English and mathematics. A.J. was 25, a dashing, handsome, smooth-talking salesman when he met Eva May Scott in New Jersey. She was 23, still innocent and dazzled by this music man.
The courtship lasted six weeks. The marriage, thanks mostly to Mom's patience, courage and love of family, lasted 60 years.
Though Dad was never much of a provider, my memories of growing up are all positive. I had a great youth. It was largely a happy time. I can't recall ever not feeling loved by either parent, or by the other members of the family.
Dad had one unfailing quality that never left him. In his cups, or regaling my boyhood friends with his mini-lectures on getting ahead in this world, he never lost his spirit of optimism.
A week before he died, I visited him in the Kaiser Hospital in Portland. He was 86. His strong body had turned senile and gaunt, but his mind was alert. There was no talk of death, only of when he would be released to go home and start another career. His heroes were Grandma Moses, who took up painting at the age of 80, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, octogenarian poet who wrote Crossing The Bar at age 84.
I held Dad's flimsy hand, conversed gently with him, knowing, as he must have, that his time was nearly up, and choked back tears for a man who had much more to give than a craving for alcohol allowed. Still, in spite of his weakness, what would we have done if he hadn't indoctrinated us with his "never say die" attitude?