I grew up surrounded by drinkers. Drinking was what grownups did. I never thought of them as alcoholics, and despite whatever reading I’ve done about hard-core imbibers, I will never be sure if my parents fit the description or not. Did they drink in the morning? No, though they sometimes joked, especially on summer weekends, that it was “close enough to noon” to start. Did they ever pass out in the evening? No, but once I woke up to hear them returning from a party, my mom angrily shushing my dad as he let go an unfamiliar drunken laugh.
Though the kitchen liquor cabinet held all sorts of bottles – port, crème de cocoa, Bailey’s, scotch, gin, wine – whiskey was their drink of choice. Mom liked whiskey and water, Dad preferred whiskey and Squirt. (Dad had a sweet tooth) As I recall, Mom would never start until Dad got home, and there was never any big rush to get that first drink ready and down the hatch. Dad would come in, put his lunch box next to the sink, give his wife a kiss, and check out what was for dinner.
Then the bottles would come out, the ice cubes fall into the glasses, and the conversation begin. That was the soundtrack of my childhood – my parents talking easily with each other, accompanied by the happy clinking of ice cubes. I had no idea anything could be wrong with that.
Everyone in Mom’s family drank, while Dad was the only Kress who openly imbibed. We grew up Presbyterian. Presbyterians did not drink. For years, once I was old enough to take part in Communion, I thought the Welch’s grape juice we imbibed once a month was real wine. Why not? It was awfully strong. It wasn’t until I had a taste of a Catholic friend’s real stuff – a vile, overly sweet potion – that I realized my mistake.
My mother’s side of the family made no bones about enjoying their beer and cocktails. More than one family unit, including my own, had a bar in the basement, built just for the parties that grew progressively louder and, from my perspective as a child, surely more fun for the adults, as the night went on. And yet my father’s family had a lot of fun, too, just minus the alcohol.
As for me, I never drank. Although I would occasionally taste the dregs of an almost-empty bottle of Schlitz after such a party, it was flat and weird and not at all seductive. The first time I tried my own concoction of booze, at the age 15, someone had mixed orange soda with sloe gin, maybe thinking if it tasted like candy, I could get it down. First I found everything hilarious. Then I started weeping uncontrollably. Once I got home, I snuck into the dark, sleeping house and quietly threw it all up. I made only one more attempt, this time sampling some pure, clear gin, because it smelled so good. The taste, however, was nasty.
To this day, I love the scent of juniper berries, but have no desire to down any drink made with gin. I like a few wines – Pinot Grigio, a good Cabernet – but my neurologist has forbidden me from imbibing, due to the number of prescription drugs I take to fend off my migraines. I confess to taking a sip of whatever my husband orders, the rare times he does, but otherwise I behave.
And yet, if I could, would I? Recently I read a pair of books, both of them memoirs, both of them by women who became falling-down drunks before they found their way back up. The first was Gail Caldwell’s “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” about her best friend Caroline Knapp. The second was Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story.” Both explore honestly both the allure and the dangers of drinking.
It was the latter, the enjoyment, that I wasn’t expecting. Here is one excerpt from Knapp’s book that I found especially compelling: “My father had a particular fondness for martinis. He’d come home late after seeing patients . . . then go into the living room and make up a pitcher. My mother set up the cocktail tray every night – a small bowl of raw carrots, a small bowl of unsalted peanuts, a tiny glass dish with his twists of lemon – and they’d sit together on the sofa and he’d drink the first one. He never got ugly, not even once; he never even seemed to get drunk until later in his life, when he’d sometimes fall asleep on the couch after dinner. But you could tell, watching him sip those martinis year after year after year, that there was something central about the ritual, something deeply soothing and needful about it.”
I wrote in the margin, “So what?” meaning, What’s wrong with this ritual? I wish I had a soothing after-work ceremony as dependable as this seemed. Then I remembered my first husband, how he’d lug home a 12-pack of beer every night, arriving with two or three already emptied. He only seemed drunk if he followed them with a scotch and water, or two, although he still smelled like liquor in the morning. That was his ritual, plus the optional beating of his wife.
TV’s “Mad Men” both glorifies and degrades the downing of liquor in the home, the office, the hotel bar. I find it amazing that Don Draper and the rest can even function while so highly lubricated. Are they alcoholics? I think so. Was my family? Some of them. Would I drink if I could? Maybe not. Let’s hope we can all find a better “Hi honey, I’m home” ritual than that.