I do invite the kids to have a drink every now and again in the European tradition, and often someone will in fact raise their eyes at me. But I laugh it off. I drank with my mother when I was young. Then she quit, then she drank again, then quit, then drank, then quit. Then she quit again, permanently, until my wife and I encouraged her to pick it back up.
My father had just died. She had to sell their home in Illinois. My wife and I moved her into our home and world with us and the kids. To call her miserable! I didn’t even say anything: I just filled a snifter one evening, left it there on the end table beside her recliner in our living room.
The kids’ swimsuits had disappeared before this, yes. But the day following the left snifter, a suit vanished, and then several more disappeared later that week. The relationship wasn’t immediately obvious. I retrieved a teal Speedo from the lower branches of the cottonwood out back. My wife found the top to our daughter’s two-piece in our compost pail. Naturally, we blamed the kids, who were negligent and brazenly irresponsible, generally. They argued their blamelessness to no effect. My mother was asleep on the sofa by dinnertime. We thought nothing of it. We are a people surviving day-to-day by the most basic of arithmetic.
Then one morning we learned through a neighborhood app that a woman had been found at sunrise on a whale floaty in the community pool wearing only a pair of boys jammers. I did not claim her. Instead, I reported that I’d just witnessed a Welch Corgi having been hit by a van, and that the sweet thing was bleeding out on the corner of Eighth and Vine.
My mother would find her way back to our house, swaddled in some expensive robe she’d picked up in lost and found, and my wife would help cut her out of our son’s suit in the powder room. That’s when we realized we’d better pump the brakes on the wine at dinner for the kids, for all of us. Sobriety is no one’s friend, and the kids were dismayed. My mother shook her head. We pointed out that our neighborhood, for all its good parts, was mostly conservative filth, the seething backwaters of a lifetime of wealth and religious sentimentalizing, and if we weren’t careful we might find ourselves smote or crucified.
Sadly, perhaps predictably, the suits continued to disappear until the day my mother would eventually die in our living room. She had been drinking beer on the sofa while we’d been away at the grocery store. She was wearing my wife’s pregnancy swimsuit, which was burgundy, the belly a large sagging prune across her lap. Her head lolled back over our woolen throw. The kids saw nothing, as kids so often don’t, a mercy. My wife and I buried her quietly in the garden later that night. The suits stopped vanishing, mostly, and we resumed inviting the kids to have a drink with their snacks after lunch, etc. To the day, they express their disgust at people who live as we do, in a neighborhood like ours, where you find no social peace whatsoever, where your grandparents live with you but don’t know you, where your swimsuit will be disappeared without warning or explanation and then miraculously restored.
Christopher Merkner is the author of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. He teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.