Sometimes a gene

carries a curse

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

    Except for the Temperance Methodists on my father's side, everyone in the family drank. It was expected. Hosts greeted you with, "What would you like?" If you said, "Water will be fine," you were considered strange and uncongenial.

    Drinking meant you were grown. My sister and I began by sucking down the watery ice left in the highball glasses after the adults went in to dinner. At 12 I visited the Episcopal Church and got on my knees for my first real wine — a rich, golden taste that went burning down. When I was 16, a date took me to a drive-in and plied me with Old Crow and Coca-Cola. I knew I was drunk when I couldn't read the words on billboards. In college, we played drinking games. I'd drink, play, feel sick, go outside and throw up, come back, and drink some more. This was my first hint that I might have my father's drinking gene and not my mother's.

    Mother was a Latimer, and the Latimers knew how to drink. They got loud and slurred their words, but the world was a grand and funny place. They never excused themselves to go throw up and never gave any sign of regret or a hangover the next morning.

    If you got the Latimer drinking gene, you were liable to become an alcoholic, because liquor did not punish you enough — or not soon enough — to make you slow down. You drank until bedtime and rose relishing the idea of a nice Bloody Mary.

    If you got the Watkins drinking gene, you threw up after three drinks and felt so awful the next day, you swore never to do it again.

    As time went on, I hated the results of drinking more than any pleasure it brought. I hated the buzz, the vomiting, and lying in bed with a foot on the floor to keep the room from spinning. The day after was spent in a fog of misery.

    My father was the same. He drank less and less until, in his last decade, he limited himself to one small glass of Mogen David over ice.

    The Latimers had no such restraints. Mother died at 59, from adhesions the doctors said, the result of a long-ago hysterectomy. I think she destroyed her insides with alcohol. In her last years, she ate almost nothing. After a night of drinking, she woke to a cup of black coffee, two Bufferin and a Lucky Strike.

    I wasn't surprised when liquor killed her. Sad, but not surprised.

    My youngest sister was another matter. Sydney was the baby. Everyone loved her. She had blond curls, blue eyes and an infectious laugh.

    She was 10 when I got married and managed to get totally potted on champagne punch at the reception. At the time, I found it funny.

    No one ever admitted to a problem. My Uncle Doug drank himself into a stupor three nights a week at the Petroleum Club. Aunt Leigh helped him home and, if things got difficult, telephoned a nephew for assistance.

    I tried to tell Mother once that she drank too much and got my head bitten off. She said she could manage her house. If she got where she couldn't, then maybe, but until that time, I could mind my own business.

    I didn't know my sister had a problem. She was so good. When our stepmother became ill, Sydney came home to look after her. She died, and Sydney stayed to care for our crippled father. When I mentioned how much wine she drank, she claimed it was the stress of caring for Daddy. As soon as that was finished, she'd cut back.

    She never seemed drunk. A friend said it might be because I never saw her sober. She lost two marriages and her only daughter. Still she drank. But she was my sister, and I loved her.

    The year she turned 60, she asked me how old Mother was when she died. As if she did not deserve, or want, to live one year longer.

    Sydney was a teacher. She began arriving late. Her colleagues smelled the alcohol. It was coming out of her pores. When she stopped showing up, friends from school went to check. She wouldn't answer the door. When she called for help, it was too late. She sank into a coma and never woke.

    She never loved any of us, or herself, more than she loved alcohol.

    People drink everywhere, but it feels like a particularly Southern curse. It's our social grease. In the years we grew up, women in the South needed an anesthetic. We had no power and little money. We drank to hide the disappointments, along with the hypocrisy of glorifying the past while holding half the population in servitude.

    I miss every person killed by alcohol, but especially Sydney. I keep needing to talk to my sister.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, "The Last Resort," was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.