Of Memories of Broken Glass & Mothers
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.