A Conversation On Wine Writing, Mothers and Family

Last Wednesday morning I spoke with Ronni Bennett, my birth mother. Almost since the day we discovered each other over two years ago we have either spoken on the phone or sat together each week and shared our thoughts. This last Wednesday I was relaying to Ronni a somewhat intense discussion of the use of the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in the service of wine that had resulted from an article I posted here on why I believed these terms ought not to be canceled from the wine lexicon.

I relayed my argument for the continued use of these words in wine despite a rising pushback against them. I relayed the arguments being made for their removal from use. I told her of a couple vile emails I received concerning the matter and how my position appeared to some to indicate that I hate women and want to foil any agency women may possess.

Ronni listened to me closely as always. This is a woman who spent her entire, long career in media and communications and developed a reputation as a wonderful writer with a large and devoted following for her interest and research in aging, and had never succumbed to moderating her opinion after she had thought it through and tested it against counter-arguments.

Ronni replied to me, “Well, you’ve thought about this a lot, Tom. Why are you doubting yourself? Don’t second guess yourself if you are satisfied you’ve thought it through.”

Two days later, on Friday evening, Ronnie had thought it through and decided she was done fighting the pancreatic cancer that had invaded her body nearly three years ago. On Friday she consumed the Oregon-approved cocktail for ending one’s life. Just prior to departing Ronni related, “”When you get here, it is really nice. I am not afraid.”

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Ronni is the second mother I’ve lost. Not many can say that. It’s a circumstance that draws me to the question of “family”.

From a very young age, I’ve firmly embraced the idea of family…in many forms. In George and Alverna Wark, to who Ronni handed me over on the day of my birth, I was granted the core of what I understand as “family”. They, combined with my sister Karen, always cloaked me in that primitive notion of “tribe”; that group to whom you belong, in whose presence we learn to be social beings; the small group of intimates who will always have your back…no matter what. This conception of family could never be more important to me today in light of the arrival of Kathy, her own family and Henry George in my life  Never have I more completely understood the importance and meaning of “family”.

But then there is that small group of true friends who by virtue of a cultivated love and intimacy represent another kind of family—different from our core family, but family nonetheless. Always ready and willing to come to your aid, this family of friends will stick with you regardless of your failures. They are irreplaceable.

The family of professionals inside the wine industry, a group to which I’ve belonged for three decades, is another form of family that can’t be denied. Another form of “tribe”, my industry family makes me a better professional and makes demands of me that can’t be ignored. Many become friends, but on the whole, they are an undeniable influence on the course of my life.

But then there is the most basic form of family that for the vast majority of my life I lived without—blood relations. Here, Ronni comes in. As my adoptive experience taught me, blood is not the defining feature of family. However, it is a component of family that 99% of people on this earth understand intuitively. Not I. Until Ronni.

I’ve written about our discovery of each other and the genetic information that Ronni Bennett provided me. Our initial discussions upon the discovery of each other revealed my Ashkenazi genetic heritage. She revealed to me the nature and fate of those on her side of my family (I learned for example that two of my biological grandparents died of liver/pancreatic cancer, and now so has my biological mother). And it was revealed to me that my biological father, upon learning that I was on the way, decided that skedaddling out of town was his best option.

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When I received word on Friday that Ronni had decided it was time for her to move on, I was taken back to our last conversation Wednesday: “Don’t second guess yourself if you are satisfied you’ve thought it through.” It struck me that what Ronni brought into my life was something much more than genetics.

In the two and a half years that I had with her, I was given another, a second, chance at receiving the kind of tough love that only a mother can provide. In fact, after our initial conversations two and a half years ago, Ronni and I rarely discussed our blood connection. Instead, we most often discussed and debated everything but this unique connection we shared. Instead, it was politics, culture, literature, ethics, home, family, responsibility, friends and history. She never took it easy on me. She never let me off the hook. She always required that I think it through.

While she agreed with me that using terms like “feminine” and “Masculine” to describe a wine or any other inanimate object, could not possibly be so offensive as to justify the words’ removal from usage, she was more concerned that my opinion and conclusion were mine and were reached through reason and good thinking and that once this had been done, that I have the convictions to stick with them. It became clear that she lived and died by this very same rule.

I miss my Ronni. I miss my mother. And I miss my friend.

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28 Responses

  1. Lisa Denning - November 2, 2020

    It sounds like your Ronni was a beautiful, intelligent and strong woman. You must be so happy for the 2.5 years of knowing her — while woefully brief, a wonderful gift for both of you. And she gave great advice.
    Sorry for your loss, Tom.

  2. Charlie Olken - November 2, 2020

    It impresses me that you, and our mutual friend, Steve Heimoff, had today penned essays about loss of loved ones. In the days when we “knew” what masculine and feminine meant, or thought we did, men did not do these things.

    One of the most important changes is our time has been the extension of “freedom of men to show weakness, concern, caring, hurt”. It is no longer a masculine trait to not feel.

    Thank goodness that the meaning and expectations of words like that no longer turn us into sissies when we hurt.

    And my condolences on this difficult occasion. I found today’s essay especially moving.

    Charlie

  3. Marcia - November 2, 2020

    I was waiting for your post. I am so sorry for your loss, but I am sure you are profoundly grateful for the time you had with Ronni. What good advice she gave you. You’ve done well by both your mothers. Thank you for sharing with strangers.

  4. Jim ruxin - November 2, 2020

    Tom—

    Thanks so much for sharing your most personal story. It is very touching and how great it was for you to know her these last few years.

    Obviously her analytical skills and thoughtful were added those who nurtured you to adulthood. And all your readers benefit. That’s a fine legacy.

    Thank you, Ronnie and the others in Tom’s family and extended circle, for all the ways you have touched is via Tom.

  5. Jeff Kralik - November 2, 2020

    A very personal, poignant, and powerful post, Tom. I am very sorry for your loss.

  6. Jim Bernau - November 2, 2020

    Thank you Tom. Powerful and helpful in many ways.

  7. Jim Gordon - November 2, 2020

    I appreciate your and Ronni’s thoughtful insights here Tom. Condolences on your loss.

  8. Tom Wark - November 2, 2020

    Charlie:

    Your point concernng men’s freedom is a very good one. It had not occurred to me, but of course you are right.

  9. Dianne N - November 2, 2020

    What a wonderful later-in-life gift for you both. Thank you for sharing this moving tribute. I can only imagine the vacancy that they’ve left. Tonight we erect an ofrenda for Dia de Los Muertos and I will send a special thought your way. Take good care of each other, Wark family.

  10. George Ronay - November 2, 2020

    Tom:
    This column deserves a spot on your title page right next to “Of memories of broken glass and Mothers.” Both are very moving tributes. So sorry for your loss but glad you were able to share 2 1/2 years…

  11. Tina Chase - November 2, 2020

    Hi Tom,
    What a beautiful tribute to your Ronni! I remember so well our dinner together when you announced finding her. Your precious time with her was shorter than you wished for but I have no doubt you are incredibly grateful for having. You shared so much with each other, learning, growing, opening up to the tenderness which grew within the special relationship of a mother and her son. You were lucky to find each other even though for this brief moment in time, Tom. My deepest condolences to you as you mourn this loss.
    With love,
    Tina

  12. Sandra McIver - November 2, 2020

    Oh, Tom. This is lovely, and inspiring, and heartbreaking, and wise. Makes me want to wrap you up in one long hug. Hope one day, post-Covid, I get to do just that.
    Much love,
    Sandra

  13. Rebecca Stamey-White - November 2, 2020

    Tom, this is a great essay – from a member of your wine family, I’m glad you’re here and appreciate the way you build empathy with the reader through sharing your experience. Ronni is right. You have an unpopular opinion, and you might not convince most of us to see your way, but you’re welcome to have it, as long as we are welcome to have ours. I bet Ronni would agree. I’m sorry for your loss, but happy you had her for the time you did.

  14. Snoskred - November 2, 2020

    I am so sorry for your loss Tom. I have been a reader of Ronni’s blog for a long time now and even knowing this was coming does not prepare one for the event.

    Sitting here on the other side of the world somewhat in dread at the coming week of what may or may not happen in America, I feel that the last comment from Rebecca says it all particularly this –

    “You have an unpopular opinion, and you might not convince most of us to see your way, but you’re welcome to have it, as long as we are welcome to have ours.”

    I am so scared for you all. I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t even know how so many people in the USA got to this place where other opinions are not welcomed, heard, respected, or appreciated.

    I hope for better times. I wish for them with every fibre in my being. I will keep a good thought for you all. 🙂

  15. karin l bendel - November 2, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your part of the Ronnie Story. I am a long time fan and admirer of hers. She will be missed. No one will be Ronnie. She was unique. As are you.

    Thank you,
    Karin

  16. Tom Wark - November 2, 2020

    Rebecca,

    Ronnie surely would agree with you.

    Thank you,
    Tom…

  17. Joared - November 2, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on mothers, family and your relationship with Ronni. Sorry you’ve had to experience this most recent loss, but glad you could have what time you had together.

  18. Helene - November 3, 2020

    A moving ‘snapshot’ of a sage woman. We could all take her advice to heart and abide by it. Please take care.

  19. Robert - November 3, 2020

    Tom, Beautifully written, wonderful piece; my condolences for your loss. But I am also in awe of the miracle of you being able to spend and share the last of her years with her. All the best. Robert

  20. Leslie Gevirtz - November 3, 2020

    Tom, I’ve been reading you for ages. And while I don’t believe we have ever met, I do feel like I know a part of you, the way one knows a writer. That is a lovely piece. And you are a lucky man to have not one, but two mothers, to mourn, May each of their memories be a blessing for you.

  21. Blake Gray - November 4, 2020

    Tom, I’m sorry for your loss.

  22. Gerald D. Boyd - November 4, 2020

    Emotionally touching, Tom.

  23. Dan Tallman - November 8, 2020

    Tom, I never had (never will) the neural horsepower for words you possess. Your post reminds me of the Aunts and Uncles that were never bound by blood. As to masculine/feminine I see it as the beginning of more to come in struggling to describe a multitude of wines along side their counter parts when it comes to human sexuality.

    Keep them (mothers) close is the best I can say,

    dan

  24. Shirley Thompson - November 23, 2020

    Mr. Wark, I only know of you as a result of you and Ronni finding each other late in life. As a long-time reader of her blog, it was fascinating and exciting to read her story of you. I am truly happy that you and your family had some time with Ronni.

    I miss receiving her always interesting emails. She was so direct, brave, and funny. I appreciate her decision to share honest details about the aging process and about her cancer and COPD diagnoses and treatments. Though all of us who followed her blog knew what was coming, it was so very sad to receive the notice of her death.

    You have my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your Ronni, your mother, your friend.

  25. Tom Wark - November 24, 2020

    Shirley,

    So kind of you to comment and thank you for your thoughtful message. Yes, Ronni was direct. I don’t think she had another speed. I miss her writings, but I most miss our regular chats and visits. I even miss her chiding me, which she did whenever she thought I got something wrong or could do better. I was very lucky to find her. And I think we are all, her readers and her family, much better off for the time she gave us.

    Best,
    Tom…

  26. Helen Horwitz - December 1, 2020

    My sympathy on your loss of Ronni, your birth mother. For 15 of the 16 years she wrote Time Goes By, I was her devoted reader and fan. Thank you for honoring her so beautifully.

  27. DELAINE ZODY - December 2, 2020

    My condolences on the loss of your birth mother and friend. I had been a reader of Ronni’s blog for over 10 years, finding her just before I retired from teaching. I miss her wit and wisdom, as I’m sure you do, too. I’m sure she would have been quite pleased with the post you wrote and shared with the rest of us. Thank you.

  28. Katie - April 7, 2021

    Hi. I just wanted to raise a glass to Ronni on what would have been her 80th birthday.

    Like many of her other blog followers I’m sure, I’ve been thinking about her today and pondering all that she gave us.

    Thanks Ronni. We miss you.

    Cheers,
    Katie

    PS I still argue with you in my mind, over subjects we disagreed on. “Heh” (as Ronni would write, when amused).


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