This post was originally published November 4, 2015.
Sometimes I look back at my Greek family of origin and I wonder how in God’s name did I become an alcoholic? I rarely saw anyone in my immediate family drink on a regular basis. It made absolutely no sense. I have spent hours wondering about that, much like I imagine the philosopher Socrates pondered over Hellenistic philosophy and Athenian ethics.
When I was growing up in the Bronx, there were bottles of untouched ouzo, Mavrodaphne (a sweet Greek wine), Retsina (a wine made of pine resin), whisky and Scotch in my mother’s prized hutch in the dining room. Much like artifacts in a museum that are protected by glass, these bottles were meant for special occasions, including weddings, funerals and holidays, both Greek and American.
Still, when I was a kid, there were a few uncles who were lovingly known as the family drunks.
Uncle Gus would get completely sloshed at parties, and do crazy imitations of Greek political figures or Adolf Hitler while wearing only an enormous potato sack or a fishing net. Sometimes he would put one foot in a metal pail, and thump around the room while clutching a broom, which he pretended was a gun.
If he imitated Hitler, he donned a fake small moustache.
The whole thing was so bizarre.
It was the 70s, and my relatives, including my father, spent hours hashing and rehashing WWII, as well as the Greek War of Independence, which happened between 1821 and 1834.
Watergate was a current event, but did my family care?
No, they were back in the Ottoman Empire fighting the Turks with scythes.
Besides Uncle Gus, there was Uncle Spiros who, when drunk, would stalk the garbage cans in the neighborhood. He looked for treasure and sometimes he brought home the weirdest objects, including decapitated dolls, a drinking bird toy, books, furniture and other goodies like the infamous Elvis Presley bust which I imagine to this day remains perched on the coffee table in the living room of that house, as an homage to his memory.
And then there was Uncle Lazarus (yes, named after the man that Jesus brought back to life from the dead). Well, like his namesake, Uncle L. defied death quite a few times, even when he was hospitalized for cirrhosis. He managed to walk out of the hospital in the Bronx wearing only a gown and rolling his IV out with him. I think he got caught in the parking lot by security.
But he didn’t die then. He passed away several years later in that very same hospital, strapped to his bed so that he could not escape. There was a group of hysterical relatives by his deathbed, screaming and pulling their hair out like characters out of a Greek tragedy.
Aside from those colorful figures who haunted my childhood, I did not live in the presence of active alcoholics.
My mother drank once a year on Thanksgiving. It was a major spectacle, because she would announce to the entire family, which was composed of my father, my sister, my brother-in-law, my brother and I, that she was about to get drunk.
For the occasion, she poured herself half a glass of Mavrodaphne using one of her special crystal wine glasses that were safely hidden in the hutch.
After she sipped a bit of this sickly sweet wine, she sang the Greek national anthem. There she was singing, and cutting up the turkey like she was a Benihana chef.
After dinner, my mother danced, looking like a complete idiot. Then she would turn on the Greek channel on the color television, and if her favorite Greek soap opera, Sti Skia tou hrimatos (In the shadow of money), was on, she would remain fixated in front of the tube, sobbing or laughing, depending on the storyline. Eventually she would nod off and sleep.
That was essentially the highlight of my mom’s drinking career.
As for my dad, better known as Baba?
Aside from an occasional Heineken, which he rarely finished, I didn’t see him drink.
He did have a habit of hoarding boxes of Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes in the closet of my parents’ bedroom.
The cornflakes didn’t annoy my mom. She attributed his odd behavior to WWII, of course. Apparently, my dad and my grandmother Sevasti lived in Athens at the end of the war. My paternal grandfather had abandoned them.
My poor grandmother Sevasti died of malaria at the age of 42 in Athens. As the story goes, she gave my father quinine that was prescribed for her. She literally sacrificed her life to save my odd father.
The whole event traumatized my dad but he never became a drunk. Instead he became a dry cereal hoarder. But then something shifted in his behavior. He started stashing perishables like yogurt and milk in the closet. That’s when my mom lost her compassion. There were quite a few heated arguments.
My dad would call my mom a Simian because she was from the Greek island of Simi, an insult that makes no sense because he was also from the same damn island. But simian also, of course, means “monkey” and he did this to be mean.
My mother would call my dad names, but there are too many to remember, and they weren’t as bad as “simian.”
Besides the crazy screaming, which was in Greek, there was the drumming.
My mother had bought my younger brother a Pearl drum set. Often I would hear him practicing rock favorites, like Smoke on the Water.
And then more Smoke on the Water.
The drum set was in the living room, which also included plastic-covered couches that no one could sit on, an embroidered picture of Helen of Troy (which my mother had knitted), statues of the Parthenon and a painting of a blonde Jesus staring ahead, as if to say, Get me out of this house. There was a color television set propped on top of a non-working Zenith black and white television. This means that when my brother practiced Smoke in the Water, there was no escape.
Finally, he moved the drum set to the basement.
After I got sober, I wondered a lot about my family and the fact that I became the wino incarnate. It made no sense. But the truth was, aside from my parents, I haven’t seen my siblings in over a decade, not since my mom died in 2002, so I have no clue if my sister or brother are drinking; honestly it is none of my business.
But while my immediate family really did not drink, there were red flags along the way that I suspect became triggers for my own alcoholism.
My family members were all like ships in the night, sailing on different paths. You know the adage, we are born alone and we die alone? Well, in that family I felt like I lived alone.
I also became a lonely drunk. Even today, almost four years sober, I am a bit of a recluse.
At this point, I have come to realize that alcoholism does not necessarily have to be present in families for children to become alcoholic. There could be other issues going on that we are not aware of that are contributing factors.
I suppose that’s what happened. Maybe I heard too many war stories and they made me want to drink? Or maybe my family was, shall we say, unusual?
I have come to the conclusion that pondering a little too much about my family and their lack of drinking is not healthy.
After all, look at poor Socrates and where all his thinking got him.