Grandpa Norris Had Two Last Names

According to my research into my ancestry my grandfather appears with different last names on the 1920 and 1930 census. In one case he uses his mother’s maiden name. I suspect he alternated between them as necessary. He and his brother appear in the 1910 census together listed in an orphanage in Bangor, Maine. I’m not even sure if they had the same father. Rumor has it that their mother was an alcoholic who placed her boys in the orphanage when she couldn’t take care of them herself. I have the impression that her marriage was also on and off again. Norris was handsome, slight of build, with a swarthy complexion. It is possible there was some Portuguese in his ancestry, but not officially. I guess I am implying that my great grandmother was a “woman of ill repute.” It would fit. My apologies: I could also be completely wrong about this. However you cut it, life was difficult for young Norris.

I am told that he was charismatic and charming, good with the ladies, and addicted to gambling. He also had a volatile temper, especially when drinking. As I described in an earlier post, my grandmother never forgave him for his abandonment of her and their baby son. Throughout her life she showed many signs of severe trauma. She received shock treatments in the 1950s for her depression. Given the way both my dad and I took after him, not just in appearance, but in personality as well, she seemed leery of both of us at times. She seemed much more comfortable with her second son, my father’s half-brother. When she remarried, her husband adopted my father and we all have his last name. My biological grandfather, my father, and I all seem to have been cut from the same cloth, including the reaction to alcohol and the temper, but also the charm. One story about Norris that stuck with me is how one time when he was hungover he threw his entire breakfast, plate and all, against the wall. I know that my temper was a problem for my family when I was growing up, and I am sure my dad was no different.

The last thing I will say about Norris is how he came to play a direct role in my recovery. In the final two years of my drinking I lived in San Francisco. As I got closer and closer to the edge my life began to fall apart. Eventually I stopped communicating with my parents entirely. My world was getting darker. Shame and guilt grappled with rage and confusion as I thrashed about pursuing momentary urges, continuing my deliberate slide towards death. I had decided during my first year there that I would not overtly commit suicide, but I was convinced that I would die drunk before I was twenty-five and I didn’t mind the thought. I found out later that both my father and my mother, long divorced, had each lifted me up in prayer: she in her church prayer circle, he in his Al-Anon group. He had started attending Al-Anon because of me. They both came to accept that they were going to lose me to the disease. But just a few weeks before my recovery began, unbeknownst to me of course, in a state of desperation he began to pray to the spirit of Norris, the father he never had the chance to meet. He said something like, “Hey, we both have suffered from the affliction of alcoholism. You died young, but I was lucky enough to recover. Now my son is fighting the same battle and it looks like he’s not going to make it. Wherever you are now, is there any way you could maybe put in a good word, pull some strings, help him?” He persisted in this prayer daily for several weeks until, out of the blue, I called him one evening, reaching out for help. Now, is any of this real? Ancestor worship is one of the oldest human expressions of religion. Who knows? What I do know is that during those final weeks of my drinking there was a series of weird coincidences, spooky experiences, and seemingly miraculous encounters the accumulated effect of which led directly to the breakthrough that reversed the course of my life. I guess I choose to believe that grandpa was indeed able to pull a few strings and call in a few favors. Why not?

My Lineage

Content Warning: frank discussion of alcoholism and recovery, with family details

I am third in a direct father-to-son line of alcoholics. Not people who “drank too much,” but alcoholics of the “hopeless variety” –those whom alcohol affected in a crazy way, who never took a “normal” drink in their lives. My father hit bottom when he was thirty-two, soon after the birth of his fifth child when I was two years old. I have no memories of his drinking, but I suppose my older siblings might. I do have many vivid memories of attending AA meetings with him from an early age. My dad never met his own father.

Grandpa Norris died when my father was ten days old. At that time they lived in East Los Angeles. While my grandmother was still recovering from childbirth my grandfather was partying in the little town of Mojave. This was 1932, before Las Vegas was a thing. I am told that in those days Mojave, about one hundred miles north of LA, was the place to go to play cards. Norris got lucky and won big. He was drunk when his car crashed, killing him and his passenger, who happened to be his brother’s wife. This is what I recall being told growing up. My father believed that his tires had been slit in revenge for winning at cards, but however you slice it, the circumstances of his death are compromising. My grandmother never forgave him.

My dad was a “periodic drunk,” which means he was mostly sober, but occasionally, perhaps every ninety days or so, he would go on a binge. During these binges he would lose all control, black out, and come to after about three days. He told me the last time it happened he came out of a blackout while on the road to Susanville, where he and my mother lived some years before, many miles from the town of Woodland where we lived at the time. He had no idea what day it was or why on earth he would be making that drive. He pulled over, found a pay phone and called my mother. The last thing he remembered was partying on Friday night. It was now Monday, and the local high school had been calling the house to find out why he had not shown up to teach his classes. It was a very sobering situation. He sought out the local fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and began his recovery. He had thirty-five years of sobriety when he passed away of lung cancer at the age of sixty-six.

Despite having grown up surrounded by sober alcoholics and receiving education and warnings about the danger of inheriting the malady, I developed a drinking problem of my own. It was apparent even at fourteen that I didn’t process alcohol in a normal way. I partied a lot in high school, and by the time I was nineteen I went to AA myself to get sober. I will be writing a lot about my experiences in future posts, but for now let’s just say that I was given an ultimatum by my then girlfriend and future ex-wife that I had to choose her or the “cult” of AA. I chose her and drank for another four years. Eventually I hit bottom at twenty-three and have been sober ever since.