My earliest remembered taste of alcohol is of a sip of Black Russian given to me by my mother at a relatively early age — say, ten. Thinking of it brings to mind an old “Calvin and Hobbes,” in which Calvin’s mom lets her boy take a few her boy take a few cigarettes out to the back porch so he can learn to smoke. The first drag nearly levels him. I think my mom had the same thing in mind when she let me swig her drink, and I remember it produced the desired effect. It wasn’t until the hurricane gale of adolescence kicked up that I found my interest in booze renewed. Even so, I never learned to like beer, probably because of the trauma associated with forcing down Milwaukee’s Best — “The Beast,” as it is so affectionately and appropriately known — from a keg.
Not so, my son Finian. On the mantel in my living room, framed in burgundy and gold, stands a photo from last Easter, taken during the champagne toast that precedes all my family’s holiday feasts. The photo shows Deirdre, seated, glass in hand, an expression of careful concentration on her face. On the index finger of her other hand is Finian's mouth, clamping and sucking the precious drop of champagne left there by Deirdre's dipping only moments before. His face is turned away from the camera, but his posture — head back, neck arched, arm resting on Deirdre’s thigh for balance — indicates that he is on his tiptoes, straining for even a taste of bubbly.
That photo is dated now — drops have been replaced by sips, sips he demands with all the insistence he can muster. He owes what may have been his first use of the possessive to his desire for wine. The early words “Mommy” and “juice” were strung together into what sounded like “Mommy’s juice,” by which he meant the red stuff in the stemmed glass. When he gets his hands on said glass, we have to keep a firm reign on it, lest he tip it back and chug away.
Fin has been around wine from the beginning, and though he slept through his first tasting, he was awake for my friend Gary’s tour of old Madeiras. When he is of boasting age, he will be able to proclaim that he sampled something good from the 1864 vintage, though he will probably have no memory of it.
When people see him at these tastings, when they marvel at the zeal with which he attacks a wine glass, seizing the bowl with both hands and pressing it to his face so that the circular rim paints an enormous red smile on his cheeks, they smile. They laugh and exclaim, “You can’t start him too young!” I don’t think any of these people imagine that I am getting Fin drunk, or that I am instilling in him a habit of alcohol dependence. What I hope they mean, what I intend, is that I am incorporating him into a culture that has a right view of alcohol.
The Bible is full of warnings about drinking and the dissolution of drunkenness, but it also says, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do [Ecclesiastes 9:7]” and “Thou dost cause grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man.... [Psalm 1-4:14-15]." Wine goes with food in both cases — a lesson I want Fin to learn.
I also want him to learn that alcohol is not properly glossed with the sheen of the forbidden and the taboo; that its place is not in orgiastic partying — gettin' loaded! blitzed! bombed! hammered! smashed! wasted! ad infinitum, ad nauseum — but firmly in civilized life. It completes a meal, stimulates conversation, and does indeed gladden the heart of man, and perhaps if he grows up seeing it enjoyed properly — not as an end in itself or as a means of getting laid — he will not stray too far into bacchanalia when the storms of adolescence hit him. Also, he likes it.
Not to say that wine is the only alcoholic beverage worth enjoying, nor that it is the only one that Fin enjoys. Margaritas are a favorite — does his cry of “Ma” after Mommy gives him a taste mean he is addressing her in a plea for more? Or that the word for Mommy, giver of good things, has come to mean any good thing? Or is “ma” short for “mas,” as Fin intuits the Mexican nature of what he’s after?
A lesson learned about baby equipment and margaritas, taught by an old friend of Deirdre’s: for a perfect slushy consistency, fill a large Playtex sippy cup up to the second dotted line with tequila, pour into blender, then add two similar measures of mix. Fill with ice and blend. How this system of measurement was discovered, I don’t know, the same way I don’t know how anyone figured out that separating egg whites, beating them, and folding them into cake batter improved consistency.
A further association of booze and sippy cups: we never put anything stronger than grapefruit juice into the cup for Fin to drink, but when he takes a swig, he hurls his head back and tips it high, as if he’d been studying Westerns full of men taking snootfulls of bourbon straight from the bottle. After he drinks, he grins and lets fly his loudest “Ahhhh,” and sometimes punctuates it by hurling his cup across the room, like a shot glass against a barroom wall.
That fondness for tequila and lime juice (okay, tequila and margarita mix) may be a geographical inheritance — the region pulling on Fin’s tastes like the moon on the tides. The region has certainly affected his name.