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Remembering Mom, over a glass of wine


Like you, I honored my mother yesterday. Gertrude died 6-1/2 years ago, at the age of 90, after a brief bout with cancer. I was with her when she passed, in the hospital. It was just the two of us, at 6:03 a.m. Something very mystical and inexplicable happened to me at the instant of her death, that I will always remember, but which I will not write about here.

Gertrude came to enjoy wine as she aged, especially after she moved to California. Her son–me–was, of course, making his living as a wine writer, so there was never any shortage of wine. She preferred Chardonnay, preferably a little sweet and oaky. That was something; I don’t think she’d ever tasted a decent wine in her life before she was 75. What wine she’d had was the occasional icky-sweet sip of Manischevitz, usually for a Jewish holiday. In that she was no different from my other family members of that generation. They didn’t know about wine, didn’t care about it, probably thought it was exotic and snobby; goyisch. The only reason they schlepped out the Manischevitz was because taking a little wine is part of the Jewish tradition, especially Passover.

Mom did like her Bloody Marys, though, although she was never a big drinker when I was growing up. Too much to get done, what with raising the kids, keeping the household running and, by the way, returning to school, in her 40s, to get her teaching credential and becoming the only mom I knew, of the vast hoards of Baby Boomer kids running around the Bronx, who worked for a living. (I know, being a mom is work. In that case, Gertrude had two jobs.) I was proud of her for that.

But like I said, after she moved to California, around 1994, she started drinking more. She had come from a dry culture to a wet one, and responded accordingly. When in Rome… I never saw her drunk, but I would watch her take a third glass of wine at a family gathering, growing more animated, her eyes sparkling a little more than usual, and it made me happy. In many respects, Gertrude’s wine journey paralleled that of America’s. As wine became more and more an accepted part of the culture in the 1990s, it became a more accepted part of Gertrude’s life, too. I remember the first time she asked me to bring “a couple of extra bottles” for her the next time I visited, so she could have something cold in the fridge for when she had “the girls” over to her apartment, which was in a nice retirement community.

Mom in 2004. See her little Kerry-Edwards button.

My father, Jack, who died 30 years ago, had been a purchasing agent for a major defense plant, on Long Island. Every Christmas, he would come home laden with bottles of scotch, gin, vodka, peppermint schnapps and cognac, gifts from clients who wished to let him know how grateful they were for him buying their company’s wares. He never brought home wine. But Jack wasn’t a big drinker, either, so he’d throw all those bottles of liquor in the closet. When I was 17, and about to leave home for the first time to go to college, I determined to see what getting drunk was all about, since, I figured, that’s what college students do, so I might as well get in some target practice. I purloined a bottle of Jack’s booze–what it was I have long since forgotten; could it have have been rye?–and, with my friend Charlie, my bad boy pal from down the block, I got blind-eyed drunk. I remember stumbling home, around midnight, with my parents already in bed. I was crashing into things, knocking stuff over, making a lot of noise. But my parents didn’t wake up.

During my freshman year in college, I drank way too much. I was away from home for the first time, free, liberated, ready to be the wild party boy I’d never been before. My crowd drank a lot of cheap stuff: Thunderbird, Ripple, Bali Hai. On some days we were drinking by 10 a.m. This period did not last long, however, because I realized, in some vestigial way, that I was drinking too much–that I probably had a propensity for addiction–that I’d better cut it down. I did. Ever since, I’ve understood that I have to control my alcohol intake. I never drink during the day, not even a glass of wine with lunch. Lord knows I make up for it at night, but I don’t think I drink too much. It’s very important for people in this industry to control themselves.

Looking back over all my relatives, on both sides of the family, I don’t think anyone ever had a drinking problem. My mother’s brothers, who were from Oklahoma and Texas, were southern gentlemen who loved their “bourbon and branch water,” but I never saw them get drunk, either. I myself drink hardly any hard liquor. I do love a dry vodka martini; the taste of gin does not agree with me. I’ll have beer on a very hot day, which doesn’t occur much in the Bay Area.

So how did I honor my mother yesterday? With Champagne, of course; but that was only the outward form. I honored her with memory.

  1. Very nice photograph!
    Precious memories, many parallel my own.

  2. As the mother of a son I have to say reading this, along with The HoseMaster’s Mother’s Day piece, made my heart swell. So lovely that the two of you wanted to share your mothers with us.

  3. James Rego says:

    I enjoyed this piece. Brings back memories like the time I first got drunk (Oh, to be young again!). I don’t think I ever got drunk more than about three times. I have about fifty years logged drinking good wine and I learned long ago to keep it to two glasses each evening (one-half bottle). Of course I do stray once in a while- particularly, when I am drinking an exceptional wine. Cheers!

  4. A nice piece of writing, Steve, it brought back moving memories of my own mother’s final year with cancer, and some odd and sweet moments around wine and food that last year.

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