I had no idea the juice was supposed to taste awful. What was wine, and was I in trouble?
It was Christmas Eve 1965 and for the first time in my ten years (or for as long as I could remember) we were having company for the holiday. Dad invited a family who had arrived at their overseas assignment smack in the middle of the Christmas rush. Sergeant Smith had joined my dad’s military aircraft maintenance unit, and Dad had taken him under his wing. None of their furniture or belongings had arrived, so they were staying in temporary barracks until they could move to the on-base housing. Mom was apprehensive about sharing Christmas with strangers, but she quickly changed her mind remembering how overwhelming our move to Japan had been. Moving a household from state to state was one thing – to another country was quite another. This family needed some friendly faces and a place to decompress.
The Smiths had one child, Ellen, who was my age and would share my room for the night. Mom gave me and my siblings a list of do’s and don’ts. We were to be on our best behavior, and I was to be very nice to my new “friend.” In the morning, we were to take turns opening gifts as Santa would be leaving presents under the tree for our guests as well.
The Smiths arrived bearing boxes of desserts and a large bottle of grape juice. As it turned out, Dad and Mr. Smith had a lot to talk about. Ellen’s mom was quiet and soft-spoken like my mother. They smiled a lot, but their conversation was stilted. They made themselves busy getting the food on the table.
After dinner, Ellen and I played games and listened to the radio in my room while the adults talked. When my parents put my brother and sister to bed with teasing reminders that Santa would be coming, I snuck into the kitchen to grab munchies for my little slumber party. The large bottle of grape juice the Smiths brought had been opened but not poured into the glasses that stood waiting to be filled. Fancy, I thought when I saw the cork laying on the counter. I grabbed two plastic mugs, poured some juice into one, and took a mouthful. I immediately spat it on the floor. The juice had turned bad. The Smiths would be so embarrassed when mom served it. I had to do something. I ran to the cupboard to get a new bottle of Welch’s grape juice. I poured more than half the soured liquid into the sink and refilled the bottle with the Welch’s juice. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would taste much better than the spoiled stuff. I cleaned the counter and floor, grabbed the stash of junk food, and returned to my room satisfied I had done a good deed.
As the evening progressed, our parents’ voices had gotten louder. Ellen and I could hear our usually quiet mothers’ conversation punctuated with breath-catching laughter. “Shush,” I heard my mother say, “we’ll wake up the kids.” But the giggles and chatter continued into the night.
Ellen and I played board games and nibbled on potato chips until we fell asleep.
The next morning, my friend and I woke early and tiptoed into the living room to check out the tree. I had been relieved to see packages with her name on it. Though I had some niggling doubts about where the presents came from, I wasn’t ready to voice those thoughts . . . just in case.
My brother and sister ran into the room, eyes wide, ready to tear into the bounty of gifts Santa had delivered.
Our parents soon followed. “No presents until the adults have coffee,” Dad ordered.
“I’m amazed I don’t have a headache this morning,” I overheard my mother say to Mrs. Smith. “We drank that entire bottle of wine ourselves,” she whispered.
I froze in place. As a rule, my parents didn’t drink. The beer Mr. Smith and Dad had imbibed was the only adult beverage I’d ever seen in the house. I had no idea the juice was supposed to taste awful. What was wine, and was I in trouble?
The day passed with no recriminations, and I happily put the wine incident to the back of my mind.
Forty-some years later, I arrive at Mom’s apartment for our weekly visit. The South Carolina assisted living home is festooned with garland and plastic snowmen that sway in the pleasant breeze streaming through the open doors. In my bag are a few ornaments and a bottle of Duplin Christmas Wine. At some point in her later years, Mom had taken a liking to a glass of sweet wine before dinner.
“I come bearing gifts,” I say smiling when she opens the door.
“Is it my birthday?” she asks, a telltale sign it is not one of her better days.
“No, your birthday is in July.”
I hand her the ornaments and point to the small artificial tree. “You decorate and I’ll pour.” I show her the Santa on the bottle.
“Christmas wine,” she reads and a spark of recognition flickers in her eyes. She settles back in her armchair and takes a sip from her glass. We talk for a time as memories erupt and fade. Suddenly, she giggles – a giggle that turns into a solid laugh.
“Grape juice,” she says.
“Wine,” I respond.
“No, it needs grape juice.” She winks at me.
“You knew?” I marvel that she remembers a Christmas Eve so many years ago.
“Of course! That wine was awful and then, magically, it wasn’t.” She smiles. “You forgot to put the juice bottle away. That sweet drink got me just tipsy enough to enjoy the day.” She chuckles and closes her eyes.
“Thank you for the birthday party,” she says.
“And many more,” I whisper as I remove the empty glass from her hand.