Relocating to Baltimore when I turned twenty-one liberated me from following silly rules. Or, allowed me to enjoy a cocktail without fearing for my soul. My religious mother, on the other hand, remains devoutly committed to the belief that drinking is sinful. Although I grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, a town relatively close to Bardstown’s legendary Bourbon Trail, I foresaw a dry adulthood if I settled in Paducah.
I’d observed the ultimate proof of my concerns at my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary party. I was a sophomore in high school at that critical stage where people pestered me about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had big dreams about big cities and occasions for high heels. I thought my grandparents’ celebration could kick-start this chic culture I longed for. But Mom’s local sense of style limited the party fun to stringing gold-accented signs and unfolding three-dimensional, tissue-papered wedding bells. “Really, Mom?” I’d asked.
At the last minute, Mom gave in to my peer pressure to spice things up and agreed to . She’d buy a bottle of champagne for a special toast to her parents. She hemmed and hawed just to reach the decision, but then she had to execute it. Paducah had two liquor stores, that she knew of, and they both sat alongside the two major roads running through town.
Knowing her luck, somebody from church would spot her or her car in the lot and think she was a boozehound. “I’ll park beside the fabric store and pray no one sees me crossing the parking lots like a wino with those brown paper bags,” Mom said. She hadn’t allowed me to go with her, but I pictured my mother, who classified fly swatting as exercise, running across the blacktop, hunched as if dodging a lightning bolt.
When she returned home, a little tizzied, it dawned on her that she didn’t have champagne glasses. “Let’s use these,” I suggested pointing to the crystal sherbet glasses in the neglected china cabinet.
She’d worked herself up for what amounted to delicate, devil-may-care sips in between Granddaddy’s dinner blessing and the ceremonial cake cutting. My uncle took pity on my underage exclusion and snuck me a sip from his glass. Still, when I imagined my 50th Anniversary, I saw myself smooshing icing onto my husband’s face and calling for another round, not the scene before me—one bottle split ten ways.
I didn’t move to Baltimore with aspirations of becoming a lush, although the graduate programs I did come for could have driven me in that direction if I’d let them. Having a glass of wine with dinner or a cocktail with friends is a customary reward at the end of a grown-up day here.
Baltimore, it turns out, is the perfect city for someone looking to drink without guilt. The locals brag that Baltimore maintains a Guinness record for the highest number of bars per square mile. Toddlers lounge in strollers with sippy cups of juice while their moms and dads unwind on the stools beside them. Churchgoers invite liquid spirits into their hearts just as they do the holy spirits. In fact, church functions in Baltimore can be occasions for wearing my party heels.
I called Mom one weekend to confess that I was drinking and gambling. “Holly, I wish you’d go to church instead of carrying on like that,” she said. “Mom, I am at church. The priest just poured me a beer.”
“Oh, well that’s Catholicism for you,” she said, adding that she’d ask around about appropriate churches in my area.
The liberation I feel to drink in public, especially at church fundraisers, might seem abnormal. But I was brought up in a conservative faith where consuming even one alcoholic beverage is sinful. Thinking about consuming alcohol is sinful. Thinking about trying not to think about how good a cold beer would taste with your pizza is a gray area, and therefore best to err on sinful.
Over the fifteen years I’ve spent away from Paducah, I’ve tried to set an example that it’s possible to love God and alcohol. With each visit to Baltimore, Mom lectures less about the time I waste in beer joints. She even admits that they have practical purposes.
“These row houses are so narrow it’s no wonder you have to go out to be with friends,” and “I bet you could meet some good contacts for work while out socializing.” But it took ten years for her to concede, “I guess you can find a husband at a bar.” And she only allowed this heroic shift in ideology after I met my husband (whom she adores) in a bar.
Mom gradually started ordering a drink while wasting time with me in Baltimore’s beer joints. At first she’d order a glass of some sweet-smelling rosé that she’d mostly bat around like a cat toying with a bug. Eventually she advanced to specialty mixes with names like Sunset Over the Sea and Fizzy Swizzle. Just as I began to research if I’d been switched at birth, Mom graduated to a drink that erased my doubts about whether we shared DNA—the whisky sour.
A recent event, though, tested our Baltimore bravery. After thirty-four years of marriage, Mom and Dad divorced. They both welcomed new phases in their lives, which made their separation easier to accept. But for the first time in her life, Mom would be living alone. Like any good daughter, I flew into town to offer moral and potable support.
I hadn’t spent any significant time in Paducah since high school, but I figured a lot had changed over the years and I could make Mom’s first nights in her new home special. Like Mom had done to commemorate my grandparents’ anniversary, I bought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate her milestone, independence. It was my first time to enter that liquor store that had frightened Mom into exercise across multiple parking lots. More sophisticated stores called wine “shoppes” have since opened, but entering the taboo establishment of my youth was a milestone for me that I didn’t want to miss.
I pulled into the store’s actual parking lot and parked in a space out front. I maintained a confident stride inside. Shadows cast by flickering, fluorescent bulbs and the lack of natural light didn’t help to dispel Mom’s stereotype of the dingy liquor store. I trolled the aisles searching for a champagne section. Selections of beer and bourbon dominated. Dust coated bottles of everything else. A woman wearing jeans and a t-shirt asked me if she could help. The Kentucky woman can curl words into ribbons and bows that wrap a run-of-the-mill conversation into a gift for her listener. That was not the case with this woman. While she offered the customary hospitality, hers was just wrapped more like a cigarette I could bum.
“Whatcha need?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Veuve Clicquot,” I said.
“Whaaat?” she asked, casting a tone of judgment in her drawl.
I was embarrassed to see myself reflected in her expression, as an outsider who’d taken a wrong turn off the highway.
“Where’s your champagne?” I corrected myself.
“Well, we aint got much.” She led me to the back near the wall of refrigerated domestic beer. She knelt onto the linoleum floor and shuffled and clanked around bottles on a bottom shelf. After pulling a couple bottles aside, she stood up and slapped the dirt off her knees.
“Here’s what we got.” Her sun-weathered arms held out a sparkling pink wine and a bottle of Yellow Tail Bubbles.
“I’ve had Yellow Tail before!” I yelled, overshooting a reasonable volume of enthusiasm in my attempt to make up for giving an uppity first impression.
“Have you now?” She twisted the bottle to read the label. “It any good?” “Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty good. You should try it.”
As I was checking out with bottles of red, white, and something that promised to be effervescent, I wondered if Mom had a corkscrew. The woman tossed two pieces of saffron-yellow plastic onto the counter. Thankfully she read my mind and demonstrated how to interlock the parts to create a lever.
“That’ll do,” I said.
I left the store with brown paper bags and blond head held high. Now was that so hard? I thought, reflecting on Mom’s reluctance.
But I soon discovered that drinking with Mom in Baltimore was more cut and dry.
Dizzying impediments mounted in Paducah. For one, that it was Thursday presented a problem. Her two friends who would drink would never think of coming over on a weeknight. Then Mom chose the white wine to have with girl talk even though it wasn’t chilled. She put the champagne—and the red—in the refrigerator. She looked too proud stocking her shelves for me to remind her that reds don’t need cooling. And after searching for the unpacked box of crystal sherbet glasses, we couldn’t even find the box with coffee mugs.
“I guess these will do.,” Mom said as she rinsed our Coke from the red Solo cups.
“Mom, you do know we’re made fun of for drinking from these?”
“Fancy has its time and place, but so does practical.” She snapped ice cubes loose from a tray. “You want yours cold, don’t you?” She plopped several cubes into my cup.
With the glass issue resolved, we stared at the yellow puzzle pieces the store clerk promised linked to form a corkscrew. Both of us lacked upper body strength and an appreciation for labor-intensive pulleys and levers. We jabbed the spiral tip into the cork top, hacking the stopper into submission with momentum and will power.
When I poured the first cup, chunks of cork buoyed to the surface like life rafts after a crash. I scooped out the debris with a take-out spoon and poured a second glass. Mom and I clinked our plastic rims in a toast.
“To your happiness,” I said. “And to yours.”
When we didn’t finish the bottle in one sitting I realized what other drinking accessory Mom lacked—a wine stopper. “I can run back to the store,” I offered. “No, no. I’ll make something work.” Mom removed a whole carrot from the refrigerator and whittled it into shape with a carving knife. “That should do.” She laid the carrot on a paper towel and unrolled a sheet of aluminum foil. “We don’t want our wine to taste like vegetables, do we?” she joked as she fashioned a foil robe around the carrot stick. “That’s some fine improvisin’, Mom!”
But the next day, my first experience in dividing time between parents, I made plans to honor Dad’s expression of independence with a game of penny poker. Mom and I trusted that the designer carrot would preserve our wine for one more day. Just as a pair of Jacks turned luck my direction, Mom called.
“Holly, we haven’t drunk that champagne yet.” I heard a predicament brewing in her tone of voice and in the sound of her yanking tape off of moving boxes.
“I’m staying at Dad’s tonight. We’ll finish it, I promise.”
“Well I have a situation on my hands. Clora, you remember Clora, well she’s come down with something and can’t host the life group from church—”
“And you volunteered even though your house is a wreck with boxes.”
“I hadn’t even thought of that part,” she said, “but, yes, they’ll be here for lunch tomorrow.”
I paused on the other end until she explained further. “There’s champagne and wine in my refrigerator, Holly.”
“And that’s a good place for it.”
“But where do I put it while they’re here?” Mom asked.
“You leave it in the refrigerator.”
“What if someone opens the refrigerator door and sees bottles in there?”
“You tell them you’re not sharing.”
“I can’t let anyone from church see this. What will they think?”
“They’ll think, ‘here’s a woman who’s already doomed because of the divorce so she might as well kick back and have some fun,’” I said.
I sensed Mom scrunching her face in irritation, but I struggled to identify with her dilemma. In Baltimore I’d adjusted to strange men interrupting my daylight walks by forcing dandelions into my hands and then demanding spare change as a token of my appreciation. A crisis was running out of mugger money while blocks from home.
“Look, it could be worse,” I continued. “You could have the bottle of red out on the counter where it belongs instead of shivering to death in the fridge.”
“I’m going to hide them in the pantry,” she said, ignoring me. “Oh, but what if someone opens the pantry for something and finds them. That would be worse, wouldn’t it?”
I entertained Mom’s point of view by placing myself in a comparable hypothetical. Worrying about other people’s opinions was not among my dreams for my adult life, but surely such scenarios existed. Once I could envision a Baltimore friend stumbling upon a brick of Velveeta or a can of Vienna Sausage in my kitchen, I became more sympathetic. Mom couldn’t come clean about closet drinking any more than I could admit to grocery shopping at 7-Eleven—by choice.
“Maybe I’ll just toss them out and we can buy more later,” she was saying, “or I could cancel the luncheon.”
“Look, Mom, there’s no need to cancel plans with your friends. If it will make you feel better, throw them out.”
“Do you seriously mean that?”
“Yea, or maybe hide ‘em under the bed or someplace guests won’t go,” I encouraged.
After I’d lost a couple dollars in pennies to Dad while distracted on the phone, Mom opted to bury the bottles under a row of onions and bell peppers in the crisper drawer.
“I’ll blame my heathen daughter in town if anyone asks,” she said.
Well that’s just great, I thought. Being mom’s evil influence didn’t have a nice ring to it. I’d been away for so long that I’d forgotten about the emphasis our church placed on being accountable, not just for your afterlife, but for everyone’s.
My years of bravado about a drink or two nourishing the soul crumbled like the cork we’d fought to free. I didn’t like the idea of church members who’d watched me grow up thinking my character is flawed or that I’m dooming my own mother for eternity. From that perspective, rules about alcohol didn’t seem so silly. I still didn’t agree with the philosophy, or that it had backed me into a corner where settling for secrecy and white lies were superior alternatives to a bad reputation.
I knew as a teenager that I wanted to leave Paducah for a life less dull, although Paducah isn’t so boring anymore, particularly when I’m trying to get a drink around there. But my visit added to my expectations for my adulthood—a desire to be myself in my hometown, guilt-free.
Holly Morse-Ellington has published essays, legal analysis, and Op-Eds in Baltimore Fishbowl, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore, Urbanite, The Journal of Homeland Security, and The Washington Times. Anthologies include Whereabouts: Stepping Out Of Place and Freshly Squeezed: A “Write Here, Write Now” Anthology. Holly is an editor for Baltimore Review. She was a staff writer for Baltimore Fishbowl and has told her true stories for the Stoop Storytelling Series, The New Mercury Readings, and Lit & Art. She is currently working on her first novel. Links to her publications are available at www.hollyneat.com.