red, red wine - week 2 of 52 stories

red red wine

I’ve joined a flickr group called 52 stories. We’ll all tell a story a week for a year, with picture. Week 1 can be found here. Subsequent weeks will go here.
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My grandfather was big wine drinker. A wine connoisseur, he was not. Just a drinker. He kept his wine in jugs; glass, gallon sized jugs that he hid all over the house. My grandmother would snoop around each day, opening cabinets and moving books to see if she could spot the hidden wine. I think almost every fight they had - and we are talking daily - was over the wine. Grandpa drank it morning, noon and night. Before lunch, with dinner, sitting in the yard, watching Lawrence Welk - any occasion called for glass of hearty red wine.

Grandma hated the drinking. She hated the singing that came with the drinking. At about seven o’clock every night, you could stand on the corner of Kingston and Ramona and hear Grandpa sing “When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie…..” followed quickly by grandma screaming something in Italian, words that I didn’t understand but my mother told me to never repeat.

Grandpa shared his love of wine with his grandchildren. He’d pour a bit into our glasses during dinner, mix it with Coke, and then whisper in our ears to never ever tell our grandmother. We drank the whole glass down each time (”whole glass” being about one ounce), and even though there was barely enough to get us the least bit tipsy, we would run around for the rest of the evening like we were drunk.

Insert some wavy lines here as we go back to the early 70’s.

We’re sitting at Grandma’s table; there’s me, my sister and six or seven cousins. Grandpa has his jug out and, per usual, pours us each a small glass of wine. Grandma walks into the kitchen and sees us sitting there, in Alla Salute! pose, ready to drink. She glares at grandpa, a long, evil stare, and you know that she’s silently damning him to hell or conjuring up evil curses.

Grandpa snickers, doesn’t even give Grandma the satisfaction of acknowledging her evil stare. He just picks up a peach and pairing knife and starts slicing. He drops one slice into each of our glasses and then looks at grandma, smiling.

“It’s just fruit. They’re just having a treat,” he says.

He gives us a nod and we all follow his lead; we dip our fingers into the glasses, pull out the wine-soaked peach slices, and slide them into our mouths as if they were the greatest treat on earth. Which they just might have been at the time.

Grandma goes ballistic.

“You dumb bastard!” And now it’s not even a matter of Grandpa giving wine to us kids, it’s that he defied her with the wine drinking at all. She lets loose with a string of unintelligible Italian curses (though I do recognize one that was loosely translated as “go fuck yourself”) and for some reason I notice that it’s 6:50 and Grandma is ten minutes ahead of her screaming schedule. Grandpa hasn’t even started singing yet! This is both shocking and unnerving. The routine of the 7:00 Sing and Yell Show is shot to hell and we all - me, my cousins and my sisters as well as two aunts who come running into the kitchen - know that this isn’t going to be an ordinary five minute tirade.

Grandma reaches across the table and grabs the jug of wine before Grandpa can react. We watch in horror-movie vision, with our hands over our eyes, peeking through the web of our fingers, not wanting to see, but having to see, just so we can tell the story to all the other cousins later.

In one deft, practiced move, Grandma swipes the jug away from the table, leans toward the sink and pours the wine down the drain. It’s like watching blood being poured from a wound and one of my aunts screams, as if it’s the blood of Jesus Christ himself being spilled, which is when I have the absurd vision of my grandfather as a martyr, hanging on a cross, sacrificing himself for Italian grandfathers everywhere who aren’t allowed to drink their wine in peace. It’s not even the loss of the wine that’s so horrifying; there are a hundred more jugs just like it hidden away in the garage. It’s the act of draining the wine from the bottle, the balls of my grandmother to take that one thing, that one joy my grandfather has and discard it like that, right in front of him, while muttering “Va fa’nculo!” in a voice that’s a close imitation of a snake hiss. We’re freaked out and Patty whispers that maybe we should make a run for it, but then Grandma stalks back to the table and turned on us.

She waves her hands at us and I focus on her skin, the way it dangles from her fingers in fleshy folds. I tune out the tirade and instead wonder if Grandma’s bones are shrinking or if her skin is growing. I tune back in just in time to hear her say:

“Now you will drink every bit of that wine in your glasses!”

Huh? Was she talking to us? After all her bitching and screaming about Grandpa giving us wine, now she’s forcing us to drink it? From the sound of Grandma’s voice, it’s supposed to be some sort of punishment and I wonder if it’s directed towards us kids or towards Grandpa, whose empty wine glass has zero chance of a refill and he’s now being forced to watch all of us drink what was left. I look to my aunts for help, but they’ve already scuttled back to the living room, away from the maddening scene.

“Now! Drink it!”

We all lift our glasses and drink the wine down, afraid of what grandma will do if we don’t follow through. You might think this is a good thing, but none of us had ever drank a full glass of wine before, with or without peaches. After three sips the wine burns my throat. One of my sisters gags and my cousin George sobs instead of drinking.

“You can’t leave the table until you are all done.” Again with the wagging skin and bones. She points a floppy finger at my grandfather.”And you, you can’t get up until they are done, either.”

I get it now. She’s punishing us for being on Grandpa’s side, for playing his little wine games and winking conspiratorially at him when he showed us how to dunk the peaches and feign nutritional content. If only I had lurched from my chair and proclaimed “Grandma’s right, wine is bad for you!” at the outset, I would be in the living room with my aunts, watching Wheel of Fortune. Instead, I swirl the wine around in my Bugs Bunny glass - formerly a Bugs Bunny jelly jar - and contemplate which grandparent should really have my loyalty in this fight. Grandma, with her loose skin and torrent of curse words and spilled blood, or Grandpa with his hanging jowls and five o’clock shadow and desire to turn his grandkids into alcoholics.

Just then, Grandpa starts singing.

When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie, that’s amore!
Patty quietly chimes in with the follow-up That’s amore!

Grandpa grins. Grandma scowls I sing:

When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amore!

We sing, sip our wine and watch Grandma turn a angry shade of purple. When we drain the glasses, we slam then down like cowboys in a saloon and head into the living room, feeling a little bit drunk for real this time. We leave Grandma and Grandpa alone in the kitchen, waging their wine duel.

A couple of months later, the whole fiasco is forgotten amid new family scandals and holidays. One night, my parents ask Grandpa to come over and babysit while they go see Chuck Berry at the Westbury Music Fair. Grandpa shows up at 6:00 sporting a jug of wine. What kind of parents let a man carrying a jug of wine babysit for their kids, grandfather or not?

Ten minutes after my parents leave, Grandpa and my youngest sister are sound asleep in front of the tv.

“Let’s taste the wine,” my other sister says.

Not having learned my lesson from the previous wine incident - which ended with me needing five St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children to get rid of the ensuing headache - I agree.

Afraid that Grandpa or Lisa will wake up and spot us stealing the wine, we haul the gallon jug into the bathroom. We attempt to pour the drink into the little Dixie riddle cups (”What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?” is a lot funnier after a few sips of homemade wine). We miss the cup often, and soon the bathroom floor is littered with used riddles and magenta puddles.

I really don’t know what happened after the fourth round of “Time to get a new fence, hahahhahh!” I’m pretty sure it involved my parents coming home to find Grandpa and Lisa still sleeping in the living room, and Jo and myself sound asleep on the bathroom floor, our pajamas stained with red spots, cups everywhere, the toilet spotted with vomit.

Of all the lessons learned through Grandpa’s drinking habit the only one that has stayed with me is that red wine will give me a headache.

Oh, and don’t let a man carrying a jug of homemade wine babysit your kids. Grandfather or not.

9 Comments so far

  1. stuff and nonsense « a big victory on January 12th, 2009

    [...] Wrote two reviews: Faith No More’s Angel Dust and Lovage’s Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By, both at This is Not Pitchfork. And I did week 2 of 52 stories. Picture here, story (”red, red wine”) is here. [...]

  2. Lisa Paul on January 13th, 2009

    I don’t know, I’m solidly on the side of Grandpa, un PC or not. I would have liked a little moderation, but any Italian Grandpa who sings “When the Moon Hits Your Eye” is okay in my book.

  3. Richard on January 13th, 2009

    I’m in love with the fact that you made a reference to the Westbury Music Fair. If it wasn’t Chuck Berry playing, it was Kenny Rogers. So say my childhood memories.
    -r-

  4. Todd Adamson on January 13th, 2009

    Drinking wine out of a bugs bunny glass is pretty chill. I remember those jelly jars. I think they stopped making them in the 70’s because there was a lead paint scare, iirc. Eventually, I guess, we just outsourced our lead paint products. Out of sight, out of mind.

  5. emmajames on January 17th, 2009

    Love the damage. Great story. Now I wanna know where Grandma got her rage…

  6. Toni on January 23rd, 2009

    This was fantastic. You are such a great storyteller. I could picture so much of this in my head. And wow, it’s amazing what was tolerated when we were kids that would NEVER fly now.

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