Saturday, July 7, 2012

Naomi and Phil

I hugged a lady in the Walmart parking lot the other morning.  It was one of those long hugs that you don't want to let go of, a kind of holding on to memories, good and bad.

I have never not known this lady.  She tells the best stories, about ghosts, about Indians, of which she is one, and about saints, of which most people say she must be one. Her name is Naomi.

She was married to Phil and they were friends of my parents before I was born and our families were intertwined throughout my childhood and then some.  She and Phil had thirteen kids, ten of them living   Two of their baby girls are buried next to my baby brother out in our hometown cemetery.  My dad was godfather to a handful of their kids, and their daughter, Mary, was my best friend in grade school. We suffered together, hands clasped, heads bowed, and knees shaking, through years under the benevolent tutelage of the Sisters of Perpetual Rigidness and Fright.  My mother, took in their baby brother one winter when Naomi fell and broke her arm crossing their icy street, Naomi taught me to make deviled eggs and fried chicken for my Girl Scout father and daughter box dinner banquet one spring when my mother was in the hospital.

Phil was a scrappy, scrawny, red-headed Dutchman.  And he was the town drunk. I'm certain, back in the day, that you could have asked any citizen of our town who the town drunk was and they would have readily identified Phil.  He might have fallen out of the top spot a year or two, but he was always in the running.  Not many of those same citizens would have many kind things to say about Phil, but my dad loved him.  My mom tolerated him, sometimes barely.

Even with ten kids to call his own, he loved me.

"Little Girl, come hug my neck."

One year he took Mary and me to the seediest bar in town, the Red Carpet, to sell Girl Scout cookies.  We did pretty well, as I remember the Go-Go Girls, who danced in wire cages, were very fond of the Thin Mints.  My brother likes to tell the story of when Phil was his Boy Scout leader and he took the pack to earn a merit badge watching some new houses that were being constructed.  Phil had to run a quick errand and left the boys there for just a minute and, of course, he forgot to go back and get them.  Good thing our town was small and most everything was walking distance back then.

Once when I was in high school, I went to a party that Phil's son, also a good friend of mine, was throwing and Phil was right there among all the high school kids, drinking and smoking pot.  He saw me walk in.

"You don't belong here, Little Girl."

Phil was one of those drunks of which it was often surmised, "He can't quit drinking.  It would kill him."

But he did and it didn't.

My oldest brother was his sponsor in AA, he said he had never seen anyone tackle the 12 steps with the ferocity that Phil did, that he paid back every penny that he ever owed anyone.  And that was a lot of copper.

Phil died several years after he sobered up.  I fried chicken and made deviled eggs and took it over to Naomi and the family.  At the funeral, Phil was lauded in his eulogy for turning his life around and then turning around and helping others, I recognized at least one of his pallbearers as one of the men that Phil, himself, had sponsored in AA. The eulogy also mentioned that Phil had guided one of his own sons, the one whose party I had seen Phil at when I was in high school, back to sobriety after years of alcohol and drug abuse.

After the funeral I invited that son over to my house and we got drunk. Boy, did we get drunk. Sick drunk.

Phil's role in my life didn't end when he died. Many times when I contemplated sobering up I thought, "If Phil could do it...."  And his name featured prominently in my litany of saints and redeemed drunks and deviants on those nights when I was pleading for help from anyone that might be listening.

"Little Girl needs some help here, Phil."

He must have been listening.

The other day when I hugged Naomi's neck I thought, "If Naomi could do it...."

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