Message in Some Bottles

Message in Some Bottles: Divorce and the Family Liquor Cabinet

The bottles were faded and dusty, scattered across the kitchen counter like a graveyard.

I recognized them immediately, like seeing the people you never talked to in high school at your 10-year reunion. The crème de menthe with the crusted green lip. The liter of DeKuyper peach liqueur with the scratched-off label. The bottom-shelf butterscotch schnapps. Baileys. Kahlúa. A half-empty plastic handle of some Russian vodka. Crystalized grenadine. Unopened 90s-era Jose Cuervo.

This was my parents’ liquor collection—the exact same bottles I snuck swigs from as a teen. In the sixteen years since I left home, they hadn’t changed—like they’d been preserved in congealed margarita mix.

“Jesus,” I said. “I can’t believe you still have these."

“Take ‘em home!” my dad said. "There’s probably some good stuff in there!”

After 26 years, my parents had sold the house in Virginia and were moving to Minnesota. My brother, sister and I were home sorting adolescent memories into trash/keep/donate boxes and loading trucks.

I gently picked up a bottle, afraid it might spontaneously shatter. “This is the first alcohol I ever drank.”

“Crème de menthe?” said my brother Dan, as he carried a box of books to the garage. “Seriously?”

“I didn’t think you drank in high school at all,” my sister Emma added.

She was mostly right. As a teenager, I wasn’t cool enough to be invited to parties. But my room was in the basement, next to the tool shop where the bottles were kept. I would occasionally open one and take a sip, just to see what it felt like. The fact that I started with crème de menthe may have something to do with why I barely drank until college.

My dad’s alcohol tastes begin and end with Miller Genuine Draft. My mom’s biggest vice is her daily can of Coca-Cola. The only reason they have liquor in the house at all is because, as commanding officer of a Navy squadron in the early 1990s, part of his job was throwing a backyard rager from time to time. Bottles showed up, then they just sat there, in a cardboard box between a bin labeled “rope” and another marked “glue/paint.”

“Take anything you want,” my mom said as she passed by. “We’re not gonna drink it.”

Seeing them out in the open was uncomfortable. Like a secret part of my life was on display. I had no interest in drinking them, but it seemed wrong to throw them away. I avoided the issue by heading upstairs to sort through more childhood crap.

After a few hours of putting memories into various bags, my dad yelled from downstairs.

When we were kids, all important information was communicated via, “FAMILY MEETING!” Some families scream, others bottle up everything. We demand a quorum and follow Robert’s rules of order.

In the living room, Emma, Dan and I sat in a row on the couch. My parents sat in recliner chairs on opposite sides of the room. Everyone in their designated places, probably for the last time.

“Since we’re all here, there’s something we want to tell you,” my Dad began.

“We’re getting a divorce,” my mom said. “Just making it official."

We weren’t surprised. They had been married for 41 years, but separated for the past three.

“Nothing’s going to change,” my mom explained. “We’ve just decided that we’ll be happier living separate lives.”

Something was off. This was the conversation divorcing parents have with young children, not adults in their late 20s and early 30s. I half expected an “it’s not your fault” or “we still love you.”

“Will you still get together with us for Christmas and stuff?” asked Emma.

“Of course,” said mom. “Like I said, nothing will be different.”

“I’m proud of you guys,” said Dan. “Better to make a choice than stay in relationship limbo.”

“Are either of you seeing anybody?” I asked, because I am an asshole.

“I’m not,” replied dad, more to himself than anyone else.

“God no,” said mom.

And that was it. We went back to packing boxes and loading trucks.

I’m lucky. My parents stayed together well into my adulthood. But no matter how old you are, when things you see as permanent are suddenly upended, it puts you off balance. You feel it in your gut. 

Dazed, I wandered into the kitchen. There were the bottles. At fourteen they had seemed forbidden and magical, tiny hints of the adult world that lay ahead. Now they looked like a frat house recycling bin. They had to go. Now.

The kitchen sink filled with the fluorescent green of the crème de menthe. Adding the bright red of the grenadine made it the scene of a Christmas massacre. Then came the Kahlúa, slopping around like dirty water in a flood. Then I tipped over the bottle of Bailey’s. Nothing came out. Its contents had congealed to a solid mass, the liquid forever now the shape of its container.

Bottle after bottle went into the recycling bag. Then I spotted one I hadn’t seen before.

It looked like some kind of red wine. It was dark and rust-colored, like something from the Titanic wreckage. "VP 6, June 1991,” the label read. Below were the words “White Zinfandel.”

“Hey Dad,” I called out. “What’s the story with this wine?”

My dad shuffled into the room and took a look at the label.

“Huh. They gave me that when I left my old squadron.”

“How come you never drank it?”

“I dunno. I guess I just forgot about it.”

I wouldn’t forget about a bottle of wine for a week, let alone 25 years. How could he forget about this bottle, this gift, this piece of his past? And why was it brown?

I looked at the label again. “Please enjoy within 3 years of bottling date.”

This was not good wine. It was probably never good wine. But for some reason, I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted this one to count.

I looked at my dad. “We’re gonna drink it.”

I poked my head into the dining room where my mom was wrapping china in paper and carefully packing it into boxes.

“Hey mom, want to try some 25-year-old wine?”

“No thanks, I’ve got a Coke. Just found a corkscrew though!”

She fished it from a box and joined me and my dad in the kitchen.

The cork crumbled like a shortbread cookie. With effort I was able to coax most of the cork dust out of the bottle. I grabbed a few plastic cups and poured a small amount of “wine” into each. It was cloudy and brown, like warm iced tea with a musty smell like the cardboard box it lived in for so many years. I handed one glass to my dad and picked up the other.

“Mom, can you take a picture of this?”

Chris Plehal

I’m still not exactly sure why I wanted to capture that moment. My parents didn’t care about the wine itself. We didn’t pour an ounce for the house, or the end of my parents’ marriage. We didn’t toast to new beginnings.

I guess after watching so many memories go down the drain that day, I needed to make a new one.

“Cheers,” I said.

“Cheers,” said Dad.

We drank.

It tasted like vinegar—specifically, vinegar that had shat itself. There was a chemical tang that tasted like paint thinner smells. And I detected a touch of iron; like licking a rusty drain pipe. I spat it into the sink involuntarily.

“Not bad,” said Dad, going back for another sip.

In the photo, I’m pretending to lick my lips while my dad holds up his nearly-empty plastic cup with pride. It’s not really a father and son picture. Just two guys doing something dumb together.

Together, we poured the rest of the bottle down the drain.

“Want a beer?” asked Dad, pulling two cans of Miller Genuine Draft from the fridge.