Thursday, December 30, 2010

A glass of red


A few weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about wine. All of us have children, and drink wine at dinner. In our conversation, it came out that most of us have had to think seriously about how much we drink, and how much is okay. The more children we have, the more serious the discussion became. As one woman said, the recommended daily allowance of alcohol should be indexed to the number of kids in your house.

I certainly never drank so much before I had kids. It used to be an occasional thing; more on weekends and holidays. But after breastfeeding the third, around about the time she got stubborn, I got in the habit of having wine most nights. Sure, I have an alcohol free day about once a week; sometimes even twice. But for the most part, by five thirty or six, when everyone's getting ratty and I haven't had a moment to myself all day and dinner's almost ready and someone's just slapped someone else and as I'm taking a hot thing off the stove I stumble on a small rolling toy that someone has snuck into the kitchen... well, you get the picture. A glass of wine is welcome.

More than welcome. Anticipated, longed for, and finally enjoyed with dinner. I rarely drink to excess; I hate feeling tipsy. I usually have only a glass. But without that glass, and the calming effect of red wine seeping into my system and soothing my frazzled nerves, we'd all be a screaming heap by bedtime.

Sometimes I decide not to; then I shout the kids into bed. Sometimes I have a glass, and the kids are so ornery that I shout anyway. But for the most part, a glass of wine lubricates everything so that I can trick, wheedle and charm them into bed; any urge to shout becomes a spontaneous operatic recitative, sung heartily up the echoing hallway: O! Teeeeeeth and toilet! Right now! Get your pyjamas on, pyjamas on my darling. Put them ooooon!!!! Right now!

The problem is that while I love savouring wine, I hate knowing that I often drink it to ensure that I'm expansive rather than brittle at the end of the day. It doesn't stop me from savouring it, but the experience is tainted by that self-knowledge.

I want to be expansive without the wine, but I worry that I can't be. By the end of the school year, when everyone was exhausted and everything was hard, the idea of getting three young kids bathed and fed and into bed without a meltdown was unthinkable unless I had a bit of red sloshing around my system - especially those several nights a week when my husband was at end of year functions and I was doing it alone. Even worse, it breaks a taboo. An adult drinking by herself, even when it's a single glass of wine with dinner, sets off alarm bells.

If I lived elsewhere, I imagine it wouldn't be such an issue. My European friends certainly snicker at any suggestion of a night without wine. But I'm not European; I struggle to separate how I feel about the abusive swilling of alcohol from the enjoyment of wine. It's made trickier by the fact that my glass is often a coping mechanism.

In my family history, alcohol was the demon drink; it was the catalyst for family violence. A few stories have surfaced: a mother flits between safe houses, her children posted as lookouts for their drunken dad who rages around the suburb terrorising the neighbours as he searches for his punching bag. Alcohol is associated with humiliation and shame. It has taken three generations for it to be rehabilitated back into wine, that is, a simple fermented grape product to be enjoyed with food. In my family there is still, and perhaps always will be, ambivalence attached to any alcoholic drink: some fear, some guilt.

For all that, I'm beginning to realise it's an ambivalence I can live with. I need my dinner to have some dignity, especially those nights when it's just me and the kids at five thirty. The meal may be kiddie pasta, and I may just be eating with little people, but that doesn't make me an infant. I'm an adult, and the wine reminds me of that. It helps create ceremony and mark the occasion. We take our time, use our manners and chat about the day. The wine also soothes my nerves, and saves us from the screaming which doesn't do anyone any favours: not my kids, not my neighbours, not myself.

This week my husband is home from work and has taken charge of the kids. I've had hours to myself to write and to garden, and to enjoy the company of one child without two others competing for attention. I've had another adult around while preparing food and, to my surprise, it hasn't even occurred to me to open a bottle. I'm calm, we're all enjoying each other's company, and bedtime with two relaxed adults guiding the process is nothing more than a quick wrangle.

So perhaps, too, the problem is not the wine itself. With another adult around, I don't seem to need its medicinal effects and it returns to its rightful place: something to grace a meal. The problem is this nuclear family structure, these small gardens and busy streets and hidden neighbours, in which one adult looks after the kids and they're all underfoot and everyone's sick of each other by the end of the day.

Dead sober, I close my eyes. Before me floats an image of houses set around a village green. Children flow between the households; and as dusk falls, the workers return and everyone gathers for dinner. I see a long table, and there we sit – my kids and your kids, and you and me, sharing food and telling stories. As the evening passes into night, we pour out the good wine, and this time it feels like a celebration.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

French Salt


Last week, my two younger daughters had a fever. The fever would rise and rise, then break for a couple of hours before building up again. Four days it rose and fell; four days they perspired and grizzled and napped on my body; four days they woke at midnight, and two, and four in the morning; and on the fifth day, they were well.

But on the fifth day, my husband was headachy. Then his forehead became hot and he began to sweat. After three days in bed, hot and delirious, with headaches and muscle aches and nausea to boot, he went to the doctor. Unlike the kids, he was diagnosed with strep throat, and is now on antibiotics.

The next day, my oldest complained of a sore tummy and a pain in her throat. And my youngest started sweating again. So we went back to the doctor, and the oldest has strep throat; but my youngest just has a rotten cold.

It's now Day Ten of illness. Two members of the family are on penicillin, a third has a hacking cough and is pouring snot, and a fourth still has the pale face of fever. And this morning the fifth, the well one, that is, I, woke up with a sore throat and a bad taste in the back of her mouth. But I am determined not to be ill; I don't have time. In desperation I quaffed scalding hot drinks, and then I remembered salt gargle.

The only salt we have was a gift from a friend, who brought it with him from Europe. It's an unrefined product harvested from the salt marshes of GuĂ©rande. The crystals are large, damp, and blue-grey. It may be artisanal, it may be precious, it may be highly desirable, but it does not look like something I want to put in my mouth – I usually throw it onto my food without looking too closely.

But I had to make gargle. So I dumped some into a shallow coffee cup and dissolved it in hot water. Clear against the white cup, residues floated: black and brown specks suspended in a grey solution.

I sighed, took a mouthful and threw back my head. And was immediately thrown into the waves at Port Beach in Fremantle, where we used to swim as children in a landscape of container ships and silos. I remembered the slow rollers pushing my body, and the elation the first time I managed to leap up at just the right moment, paddling frantically until the wave caught me and I bodysurfed into shore.

The salt water pushed at the back of my throat, and I recalled hot nights and burning vinyl car seats and the way my thighs would stick to the seat so that I'd have to peel them up one by one. Going home from the beach, I'd sit on my wet towel and feel the weight of my hair hanging in a heavy rope against my back. My bathers would be full of sand; my lips, delicious with salt.

We lived in a narrow terrace on the hill overlooking the jail. The tiny front garden was filled by a single small tree, a frangipane, and the terrazzo veranda was heady with its scent. I'd pick a creamy white flower and sink my nose into its golden throat; my sister and I would pin the blossoms in our hair.

As my breath petered out, I spat out the first gargle and looked at the water in the cup. Small grey filaments were forming; they looked like little sea worms. I shut my eyes and took another swig. I felt the salt water hit the back of my throat, clearing out the passages, opening it up just as sea water channels through a limestone cliff.

And remembered a day long ago spent playing in a deep rock pool. Long straps of kelp were rooted to the ocean side. My sister and I swam across and clambered up the rough wall of rock, fighting the waves. At the top, we grabbed the kelp as the water roared over us, pulling and sucking at the heavy strands and at the girls wrapped around them holding on for dear life, hearts pounding, heads ready to explode for lack of breath. The kelp forest was filled with a golden light, and lime green and pink seaweeds drifted past. My body rolled with the kelp and scraped against rock, and as the current surged I heard the rattle and clank of rocks tumbling across the sea floor. Short of breath in the here and now, I opened my eyes and spat.

I took a third mouthful, and remembered sitting outside away from adult eyes and gargling. My sister and I would tip our heads back and gargle until we giggled so helplessly that we choked. I remembered hacking away, great strands of mucus and water shooting out of my nose and mouth, and the two of us howling with laughter, sides aching. And when we'd recovered, we'd wipe our faces, and do it all over again.

I couldn't remember the last time I had gargled, or blown bubbles with a straw, or laughed until something went nasal. I felt the salt water scouring my tonsils, and my throat relaxing at the thought of old laughter. I smiled. Water sloshed out the side of my mouth; I spat, and wiped my chin.

I took the last mouthful and as I tipped my head back I thought of my friends in Berlin who had given us this healing salt, this key to old memories. I recalled the friends this week who had phoned or dropped in to see how we were; the friends who took two daughters for the day; the friend who wanted to cook us a meal; and all the other offers of help. As water tumbled around the back of my mouth, small rivulets breaking loose and trickling down my throat, I felt myself floating on an ocean of friends and family and memories.

My eyes pricking with salt tears of gratitude, I gave the water one more swirl, leaned into the sink, and spat.

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