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.”
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.
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.