Of Memories of Broken Glass & Mothers

Alverna I’m fairly certain my mother never imagined me growing up to be a PR Guy in the wine industry.

That kind of career wasn’t on her radar for her son. Both her husband and her father made livings in construction, the former building high-end homes in Marin County, the latter building most of the homes in Kentfield and Greenbrea. The fact is, my Midwestern mother, a daughter of the depression who watched two boyfriends die in World War II before marrying a World War II prisoner of war, never could tell sherry from syrah (she still can’t) and never really understood the first thing about Public Relations (she still doesn’t). But, there was no one happier for me when I told her I got a job working in wine PR: “Oh, congratulations, Tom. I’m so happy for you. You’ll do a great job!”

The fact that by the time I received her congratulation on breaking into the wine industry I had already accumulated a good deal of knowledge about wine, was in no way a result of my upbringing or my mother. In the 17 years between my birth and the death of my father, I don’t recall a single, ordinary day when my mother didn’t have dinner waiting for my father upon his return home from the office. She was that kind of wife: a traditional, stay-at-home, care-for-the-husband-and-family, meal-on-the-table kind of woman. I can’t remember a single meal where wine was placed on the table. In fact, as I reach back and think about it, I don’t have any memories of our home stocking wine glasses.

That’s not to say that my mother was an abstainer. Alverna made a mean highball and could whip up a pitcher of Manhattans at a moments notice. Every single work day, within 20 minutes of my father’s arrival home from the office and about 30 minutes before dinner was served, my mother brought my father a highball: Bourbon and soda on the rocks. Every day. She’d then fix herself the same and my mother and father would take their appointed seats together in the living room and my mother would ask, “How was your day George?”

It’s quite amazing I wasn’t nicknamed “Beaver”.

My mother did keep wine in the home. But it wasn’t for drinking. On the top shelf of the pantry in the kitchen of the large Ranch-style home my father had built for my mother sat a gallon jug of Sebastiani “Burgundy”. It was there my entire life. It was for cooking. That was the extent to which wine was a part of our lives and a part of my mother’s. I have no idea in which recipes my mother used the wine. In fact I never recall seeing that jug of wine anywhere but on the top shelf. But it was there.

It turns out my introduction to wine came when I was six years old and wanted to see just what was in that jug on the top shelf. Hoisting myself up on the lower shelves I was barely able to get my hand on the heavy jug while I hung on to a lower shelf with one hand. It came crashing down, broke around me on the floor spilling red wine and glass across my mother’s kitchen. It was a beautiful sight and I can still hear my mother after her romp into the kitchen: “Thomas, oh my God, are you cut, Honey. Don’t move.” I remember standing in a pool of glass and wine crying.

After my father died my mother went to work in a semi-conductor plant in Marin County that no longer exists. When she came home from work she never fixed herself a drink. After my  father’s death, highballs were no longer on the menu, confirming what I always thought—she drank because her husband drank and only when her husband drank. And there was never a jug of Sebastiani Burgundy or (by that time) Zinfandel or Cabernet in the house.

After I found work in the wine industry, I would occasionally bring wine to her home when I was there for holidays and celebrations. The blank stare that is now a permanent fixture on my mother’s face whenever I visit her in the assisted care facility made its first noticeable appearance during those times when I’d haul out the wine I’d brought to her home, poured her a glass and told her about what she was drinking. She’d sip the wine a little because she was always polite and happy to see me. But she’d never finish the glass and had no interest in the wine’s origins, its producer or what I was doing to promote its sale. Eventually, I’d always make her a high ball. That she would eventually drain, but not too quickly.

Wine did play one important role in my relationship with my mother. The first time I noticed that something might be wrong with her, the first sign I ever saw of the dementia that would eventually take partial control of her life, was when I went to visit her one day, politely poured her one of my clients’ wines, naturally began to school her in the wine and the client, then watched her drain the entire glass in a single movement.

I’d never seen my mother drain any liquid in a single movement, not even the tepid coffee she’d come to like. It was really one of the most shocking and disturbing things I’d ever seen since I had no frame of reference for seeing my mother’s head tilted back as alcohol streamed down her throat. Had you asked me, I would have told you my mother was probably incapable of chugging any form of drink. It’s not what Midwestern, prohibition-daughters, and good wives did. At least not this one.

Within a year of that moment she was no longer able to care for herself. The dementia made such an idea too dangerous.

I don’t bring wine when I visit my mother these days. I bring flowers or new blankets or the chocolates she loves so much. In her lucid moment we usually talk about her late husband or vacations we all took as a family or how my hair has “become so gray, Tom.”

 About a year ago I visited her and was greeted by her now normal blank stare. So, as I usually do, I went about feeding her and just talking about things that might spark a memory. I told her that from time to time now I liked to fix myself a Manhattan like she used to for my father and that I wasn’t drinking as much wine as I used to. I figured I was, as I normally do with her, having a conversation with myself when she looked up at me and said, “you almost cut  yourself with that jug of wine, Tom.”

Memories are strange things. To quote the Counting Crows, “If dreams are like movies then memories are scenes about ghosts”. My mother as a strong, active, dedicated, loving wife and mother who never let me miss a baseball practice and sipped my clients’ wines out of kindness, who loved to can up the vegetables my father grew in his back yard and who mixed Highballs and Manhattans for her man is really only a faint apparition for me these days, even when I look squarely in her open eyes.

I’m tempted, however, to bring a bottle of wine when I see her Sunday, on Mother’s Day, and talk about that day 40 years ago when there were broken remains of a wine jug sitting in pools of red wine in her kitchen. It’s a conversation that might make my mother materialize in front of my eyes.

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26 Responses

  1. KenPayton - May 8, 2009

    Beautiful post, Tom. Beautiful.

  2. Tom Wark - May 8, 2009

    Thanks, Ken.

  3. MC - May 8, 2009

    Beautiful – I hope more stories emerge from your visit on Sunday. You are a fine storyteller!

  4. Thomas Pellechia - May 8, 2009

    Gee, Tom, you made this hard-ass weep.

  5. Tom Wark - May 8, 2009

    You aren’t fooling anyone, Thomas. You’re just an old softy.

  6. Jeff - May 8, 2009

    I hasten to leave a comment, Tom. As I’ve learned, the posts we’re the proudest of sometimes solicit the least response from readers, mostly, I think, because there’s not much else to add.
    Well done, sir.
    Jeff

  7. Grant - May 8, 2009

    Tom,
    In trying to think of something to say, I think I’ll just second what Jeff has said above.
    All the best

  8. Iris - May 9, 2009

    My mother is drifting slowly on the same path as yours, Tom, but it wouldn’t need that, to justify the tears in my eyes… thank you!

  9. Mark Storer - May 9, 2009

    Tom-
    When you write like this, it makes me so very happy and I get a deep sense of why I love wine and words. My own blog has become something of an amalgam of family, friends, art, politics, work-and occasionally-wine. But you have seamlessly done what really counts. You’ve combined these two passions, your family and wine, in a way that is tangible and lovely. Well done. Thanks for the gift.

  10. Bill McIver - May 9, 2009

    Wonderful tribute, Tom. Good to get to know your mom — and more of what makes you tick.

  11. Melissa Dobson - May 9, 2009

    Tom,
    It is the character and reflection of your personal posts that helped me get to know you and become one of your biggest fans. Tears ran over as I read this. I wish you and your mom a very happy Mother’s Day.
    Melissa Dobson

  12. Gretchen - May 9, 2009

    I hope that your visit with her is a happy one.

  13. about this site - May 9, 2009

    This is my first time reading your blog and I love this post. I’m a mama (who works in the wine industry) so I am extra sentimental. Thank you – and I will be back!

  14. Samantha - May 10, 2009

    Tom,
    I think you should print this out and read it to your Mother over a glass of wine today, as a Mother who was almost sobbing, (my fine young man of a son is away at college and I miss him more than my feeble attempt at verbage can explain)…by the second paragrah and finding it almost impossible to type through the tears I can assure you…..she would be very proud of her son.

  15. jane - May 10, 2009

    What a beautiful post about your beautiful Mom, Tom. I bet she’d remember the dress in that photo. Best to you and your mother; perhaps she is happily lost in her beautiful past.
    Jane

  16. Erica - May 10, 2009

    So beautiful, Tom. Happy Mother’s Day.

  17. Mesha - May 11, 2009

    Just beautiful. This should be published in a major magazine. Hope to see it there next Mother’s Day.

  18. Dylan - May 11, 2009

    You’ll find comfort through talking openly about your Mother’s story and current situation. It’s brave of you to share–it’s the same way I managed through two family members contracting cancer. Talking about it makes it real–the difficulty and the good memories.

  19. mydailywine - May 12, 2009

    Your mother has a beautiful face in the photo, one filled with such joy and mirth.
    Thank you for sharing your memories of her and your clarity about your role in her life.

  20. Chris Wickham - May 15, 2009

    Well done. A good tribute to your mother.

  21. Bernadette Maluso - May 17, 2009

    My husband forwarded me your blog-he always knows what will make me cry! Such touching words from a loving son….any mother couldn’t ask for more! No matter what, you are etched in her being and she will always live on in your spirit. Thanks for sharing!

  22. the drunken cyclist - August 31, 2012

    Tom, while I can only empathize with the pain you must feel when being met by that ‘blank stare’ your post has given me a bit of a guide to help assure that my own children feel the love that I have for them….

  23. Jo Diaz - September 13, 2012

    OMG… You’ve written about my mother, too… right down tot he Manhattans!

  24. Aaron - July 30, 2013

    I just came across this wonderfully written post. Thank you for sharing your story. So many people can empathize with the journey you are on with your mother. And many more of us can only guess who among our loved ones will follow a similar path as your mother as they age.

  25. Jo - March 26, 2014

    I just read “Of Broken Glass and Mothers” that you wrote in 2009, and I’m still crying. The narrative you created is as beautiful as the photo of your Mother.

  26. mort hochstein - September 5, 2014

    tom..i just caught up with this and am sorry I had not seen and enjoyed it earlier. well done. very moving., though it is on an altogether different topic It linked in my mind to a beautiful reminiscence by the ever masterful John McPhee in in the current New Yorker. that puts you in good company


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