The Family That Drinks Together

by guest on September 26, 2009

Granny and GrandpaBy Sara Eckel

A few years ago, I went to an artists’ colony in upstate New York. I was excited to spend August working on my novel in the lush countryside and looked forward to quick day trips to a nearby swimming hole and to long summer nights chatting and drinking beer by the bonfire. But at dinner that first night, one of the residents complained about her awful stay at a nearby residency. “It was a cocktail party,” she said. The others quickly agreed that that was not what they were into.


I had every intention of working hard on my book, but I didn’t see how that precluded having a little fun. This was an artists’ colony, not a convent. And anyway, aren’t artists supposed to be deviants and derelicts? Isn’t being a screw-up kind of the point?

These ladies—and they were all ladies—were true to their word. They were no fun at all. As I went to bed at 9 p.m., with a glass of wine and a book, I started looking forward to Labor Day, when my family and two others would meet up in Lake George. It was a decades-old tradition, spending the last weekend of summer at Julie’s beautiful house on the lake. Days were spent lounging on the dock and bobbing in big black inner tubes, cold beer in hand. Evenings were spent playing cards and petty gambling games. And drinking—lots and lots of drinking. One lonely night in my studio, I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait to see my parents. Then I can party.”

That stopped me cold. Parents? Party? Wow, I was having a bad time.

Since then, I have accepted the slightly unsettling truth: My parents are fun. Not only that, they are oftentimes more fun than my peers. My friends in New York City are delightful, nothing like the dour artist-colony ladies, but I have noticed a disturbing trend in my social circles: People are drinking less. No one has quit drinking all together, but I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of times a dinner companion says “just water for me” or requests a Diet Coke instead of that second Pinot Grigio.

Normally, I would chalk this up to maturity. My friends have grown up, and maybe I should too. Age and sobriety are inextricably linked, right? Then I visit my 64-year-old parents, and I’m offered glass after glass of wine. Actually, I’m not even offered. My father simply refills my glass each time the bottom threatens to make itself visible. When the bottle is kicked, he asks if anyone would be interested in a Scotch.

When I’m with my friends, I often feel like a lush when I order third beer. When I’m with my parents, I vigilantly space my drinks with water, and frequently put my hand over my glass. What’s going on?

My family’s cavalier attitude toward alcohol is a definitely a product of good luck— none of us have suffered any grave consequences as a result of drinking. When I was growing up, Dad never started yelling after his second Manhattan, and Mom never fixed herself a tearful vodka tonic in the middle of the afternoon. I can only recall a few times in my life that I’ve seen my parents visibly drunk—usually at weddings or Christmas Eves, in the midst of having a wonderful time. For my very, very fortunate family, the most severe repercussions of having one too many are hangovers and mild embarrassment.

So, yes, we appreciate a good buzz-on. And sure we love the taste—I enjoy identifying blackberry mixed with cedar on the side of my tongue or what-the-hell-ever. But I don’t think this is what our drinking is about. Whether I’m sitting on my parents’ back porch or barbecuing on our building’s roof deck with my boyfriend, I will contend that kicking back with a cold white and good company is one of life’s greatest pleasures. The fact that I don’t want to stop at one glass has less to do with my need for an altered state than it does the simple fact that I don’t want the evening to end.

But couldn’t I keep rocking on with herbal tea and sparkling water? In theory, yes, but somehow it doesn’t work like that. I’ve noticed that people who stop at one glass of wine are also the first to look at their watch at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and state that they’ve got an early day tomorrow.

This, I think, is partly a hazard of living in New York City. Contrary to its never-sleeps reputation, I have found that my very ambitious crowd of novelists, journalists and filmmakers are pretty vigilant about getting their seven hours.

My parents and their friends, by contrast, are not striving for any top 40 under 40 lists, nor do they have small children to care for (though in my completely unscientific study I have not found a relationship between the existence of offspring and the desire for another round). Age has, in a sense, freed my parents from worrying about the future. As my dad says as he uncorks yet another bottle, “What am I waiting for?”

Last winter, my parents and two other couples took a trip to China. After showing me the pictures of the locals he met in an open-air market (while blowing off the silk-rug factory tour), he proudly informed me how he smuggled beer onto their coach bus.  “We were the party bus,” he said.

When I am 64, I certainly hope that my beloved will continue to need and feed me. But mostly, I hope we’ll be on the party bus.

Sara Eckel’s short fiction has been published in Speakeasy and Sanskrit, and her essays and reported pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Nerve, Glamour and the Village Voice. She has just completed her first novel.