Top | First Person

The secret sharer

(article, Christina Eng)

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I opened a decades-old bottle of white wine the other night, wanting to see if I could drink it or if it had secretly turned into vinegar. It was months after my father’s funeral, when the grief had begun to subside. 

The wine was a revelation. It still is.

It was fruity and quite mellow. It tasted bright and complex. It was eye-opening. Free of the tannins that sometimes accompanied wines I bought, it went down smoothly. I drank two or three glasses effortlessly. Like water from a spring. 

Then, of course, the alcohol kicked in. 

The bottle came from one of several dusty cardboard boxes stashed inside my garage, moved not long ago from the basement of my parents’ house in Oakland's Chinatown to my place in the Oakland hills. 

To proceed with a seismic retrofit my mother wanted, we cleared out old mattresses, tattered board games, and items from earlier renovations. We didn’t know what to do, however, with the cases of wine my parents had also kept there. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A glass of wine brings back memories."]

My brother wondered if we could donate them. But the food bank didn’t accept alcohol. He considered pouring the wine down the sink before tossing the empty bottles into the recycling. But that seemed drastic and extremely wasteful. 

I drank wine sometimes and cooked with it, too, scanning the shelves at Trader Joe’s for interesting, affordable bottles. My brother insisted he did not drink. Soda, certainly, and juice nearly every day. But not wine. I told him he could always start. 

We negotiated and compromised. I would find room for the tattered boxes somewhere in my house, I said, at least temporarily. He would not chuck any bottles down the drain just yet.

The boxes of bottles came from my father. Decades ago, he owned a liquor store in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, commuting across the Bay Bridge from Oakland six days a week. 

Growing up, my sisters, brothers, and I spent our summers in the store. We stocked shelves and worked the cash register. We earned money, but mostly we were rewarded with candy, ice cream, and comics.

We began to recognize California wine labels: Almaden, Inglenook, Charles Krug. We learned spellings and pronunciations for words like Merlot, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

A woman on the way to her boyfriend’s once asked my brother to recommend a good Chardonnay. He instinctively flagged our father over before slipping away from the conversation. 

A man asked me once what went well with fish. I was no more than 13, maybe. What could I tell him? I mean, I knew as much about varietal and vintage as the next child, which was not a lot. If only he had asked me instead about Life Savers candy, It’s-It ice cream, or Richie Rich.

Sometime in the 1980s, my father lost his lease. Rather than move the business, he retired altogether. He had worked 10-hour days for as long as he could remember. He needed a break.

He returned as much inventory as he could to distributors. The alcohol he still had at the end he brought home to Oakland. My parents put the cases away in a corner of the basement. 

Though it saddened my mother to close the store, she understood my father’s decision. Besides, my siblings and I were high-school students then, anxious to start college. Would we even want the business? Could we handle the responsibility? We said no. 

Years later, I returned to Haight-Ashbury, curious to see if the streets around my dad's liquor store had changed. But the sidewalks appeared as crowded as I remembered them, peopled, as always, by a wide cast of characters. 

I entered the building that used to house my father’s liquor store, happy to find it had since become a bookshop: The Booksmith, one of the few remaining Bay Area independents.

And then I was no longer in the bookstore. Instead of shelves filled with books, I saw shelves on my right lined with wine bottles; on my left, behind the cash register, shelves crowded with liquor bottles. 

An employee, a woman in a brown T-shirt, must have noticed me standing, staring into space. She asked if she could help me locate something in particular. Oh, no, I replied. Thanks. I was just looking.

Growing up, I did not connect much with my father. We were not as close as we could have been. The fifth in a group of six children, maybe I got lost in the scrum. I don’t know.

In the throes of adolescence, I pulled away. Or was he the one who resisted? He was the kind of man whose actions spoke louder than words; he kept his opinions and feelings to himself.

On car rides home from school, I struggled to make conversation with my father. The radio became my salvation. I craved affection long before I knew I needed it.

I meet a man with a teenage daughter. Separated from her mother, he tries hard to spend time with his child. I want to tell him to hang in there. His daughter needs her father, even if she pretends she doesn’t.

A scene in the movie '"Sideways"' stops me cold. The DVD had been playing at my brother’s place. Virginia Madsen is talking with Paul Giamatti about her attraction to wine. 

“I like to think about the life of wine,” she tells him. “How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining, if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now.” 

It is a terrific encounter, a quiet, genuine moment between two key characters. I hadn’t thought before about any of that, about what it might have meant. 

The wine I opened, I realized eventually, had been one of the last things left from my father’s store, a part of his legacy and my personal history.

It represented his commitment, the way he earned a living to support my sisters, my brothers, and me. His hard work, coupled with my mother’s frugality, helped to raise a family. Their sacrifice sent me to college across the country. It sent me on my way.

For the longest time, I wondered if my father actually cared. Nonchalant, he remained a mystery. Indecipherable. I didn’t know how he felt or what he felt. I wracked my brain trying to figure him out.

But maybe his love had been there all along. I just didn’t know it. Maybe I simply hadn’t figured out where to look.

It was there when he sided with me after I bought blue jeans. My father convinced my mother to let me keep them, telling her I needed denim for winters on the East Coast. He sided with me when I wanted dark colors, to my mother’s floral-print chagrin.

It was there at his kitchen table. He read the local paper, the Oakland Tribune,_ every day when I worked there after college, scanning it for articles I had done. Had he been proud? He never said. 

It was there when he went to produce markets in Chinatown. He heard I would be home from grad school in Oregon and knew I liked the way my mother cooked eggplant, stir-fried quickly with ground pork, water, soy sauce, sugar, and chile paste. He asked her to make my favorite dish. 

He shared other foods, too, over the years, inviting my siblings and me to dinner. Birthdays and holidays, sure; these we expected. Those days were feast days. But he called us for ordinary meals as well, on random weeknights. Just because.

And it was there when he held my hand those days he spent in the hospital. When the doctors spoke, we listened. I held his hand. He didn’t pull away. I watched as he rested. I cried when he died.

Maybe his love had been there all along, bottled up like liquid gold. Like the wine in the basement, it was something I would discover and appreciate when I was good and ready. It might take years, even decades. But I would learn. 

It was just waiting for me to uncork and savor. 

p(bio). Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California.

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