The Family Disease of Denial

By Malina Saval 03/19/13

Nobody thought my grandfather was an alcoholic even though he drank constantly—a perfect cue for me to recreate the dynamic in my own life.

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My grandfather wasn’t an alcoholic; he just drank all the time. My entire childhood, he sat at the head of the table in my grandparents’ kitchen with his brown bottle of Miller Lite beer tipped up to his mustachioed lips.

For years I studied his beverage with the curiosity of an aspiring sculptor: the foamy golden-brown backwash, the bottle’s long slender neck, the way the four-packs fit snug inside the refrigerator, the soft hiss of the cap as he popped it off the bottle. I remember the cigars that he held in his free hand, and the smoke that would linger in my hair long after our visit. Mostly, I remember the way my grandmother’s eyes flitted nervously around the kitchen if the supply of beer ran low. I’d recall that look decades later, when my alcoholic husband drew a bottle of half-drunken vodka from the freezer.

Growing up, it never occurred to me that my grandfather drank too much. I never saw him drinking hard liquor and I never saw him drunk. He was quiet and sensitive and kept mostly to himself. He kissed me hello and called me ‘Doll.’ He had a fiery temper, but it never lasted long. There were no bruises or bars or booze-filled fights. There were no highballs or screaming matches like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If anything my grandparents’ house was more like the flashback scenes in Annie Hall.

My grandfather was fine, my father told me. Everything at home was always fine. The worse things got, the more fine everything became. 

But aside from my grandfather’s drinking (which was somehow not drinking), and unless you counted the few sips of grape Manischewitz on Friday nights, Jews didn’t drink. Jews weren’t drunks. (I had a cousin who was a coke addict, but that was totally different.) Vodka was a once-a-year beverage and only at weddings or bar mitzvahs. And only when mixed with pineapple juice and served with a miniature paper umbrella. And only when We are Family by the Pointer Sisters was playing.

The word alcoholic was not part of our family vocabulary—until the summer I turned 15. I was visiting relatives in Toronto where an older cousin explained why my grandfather sat around looking sad half the time: “He became an alcoholic.”

It was that became that struck me first—as though there had been some before. What came before? What happened? Was it because my father’s sister died? Her death shaped so much of our family make-up. But it was my grandmother who talked about her incessantly. My grandfather just sat there, drinking, sucking on his cigar, barely able to say her name.

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