Wino? No. Whine? Oh, yes

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All families have traditions.

For mine, as a child, all gatherings of the Mueller clan meant one thing — whether it was the Fourth of July, Christmas, a birthday or just a Saturday — Grandma Onie would unleash her talent. And it always came in dark glass bottles from a secret upstairs hiding place.

“Is everyone ready?” she’d ask with unusual glee.

She’d pass out plastic glasses covered with grape décor. They only went to the adults — the children were not allowed to partake. Then, she’d walk to the kitchen and perform the secret ritual of opening the bottle sealed with canning wax.

“Here it is!” she’d exclaim, eyes full of excitement while Grandpa Andy thrust his glass forward.

“Andrew!” she’d scold. “Wait until everyone else has a full glass!”

He’d quietly pull his glass back against his chest, mumbling that he should have known better after 60 years of marital bliss.

Then, she’d walk around the room, pouring her mysterious elixir. Eventually, Grandpa Andy would get a few ounces and everyone would take a taste.

“It’s really good,” my father would say right before he washed it down with a swallow of beer.

“Yes, I agree,” my Aunt Corinne would offer.

My mother seemed to really like it — she always drank an awful lot of it.

We’d beg to taste the product which took more than a year to create after she picked the purple grapes from the thick vines along the garden fence. Only Andy was willing to let us have a sip — but his arthritis made him move so slow, we’d always get caught before we could see what all the fuss was about.

Whatever it tasted like, it was apparently a magic potion of some sort because it made an otherwise tense room a lot more relaxed. Grandma Onie didn’t scold us for “scuffling on the davenport,” and Grandpa Andy could suddenly hear what his wife was saying (he was ordinarily deaf when she spoke). My mother would tell Grandma Onie her roast beef was good, although it was usually something I’d only heard be termed “drier than a popcorn fart.”

Oh, the artistry of Grandma’s homemade wine! We marveled at the transformation of the family authorities when we came back from playing in the trees. The pitch game was a lot louder than when we left and affection was apparent.

As we grew older, the secret wine-making closet was discovered. It was in a cold, vacant bedroom. The tiny closet held only a hat collection, a few old ladies’ coats . . . and the wine-making operation. There were mysterious jars, bottles, crocks, as well as narrow tubes and other gadgets. When we asked about the closet, Grandma Onie literally gasped.

“Don’t you ever, ever, ever, open that closet door again!” she warned as our eyes grew wide. “If you do, bad things will happen! And don’t you ever, ever, ever drink anything that’s in that closet! Some of that wine is done, some of it is still aging, some has just started. If you drink anything in that room, you will be in so much trouble, you’ll never forget it!”

Sure, we were scared. Grandma Onie could be scary. But I think the warning made us more intrigued. Of course, every time we’d sneak upstairs, we’d dare another in the group to open the closet. We would just look inside. Sometimes it smelled funny, sometimes it didn’t.

But one thing was for sure, we definitely didn’t drink anything. Well . . . not until the fateful night.

It was the height of summer — hot and sticky. My cousin, Christi, was spending a week with the grandparents and I was invited to sleep over in my dad’s old bedroom. We put on our “summer nighties,” as Grandma Onie called them, and she pushed open the heavy window to let the breeze into a room that had been stale for more than a decade.

As we climbed onto the tall, hard bed, she said good night. But right before she pulled the string to the old ceiling lamp, she gave us a stern look.

“Remember, girls, no hanky panky up here,” she said, pointing her extremely long fingernail at us. “And I mean it. If I hear anyone in the wine closet . . .”

We assured her we would stay away from her liquor-making operation.

We lay there in the dark, talking as only 12-year-old girls can.

“I heard Grandma is a wino,” Christi said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Christi said. “I guess somebody that drinks a lot of wine, maybe.”

“No, Grandma doesn’t drink a lot of wine, she makes a lot of wine,” I said. “It’s the same thing as saying my mom eats a lot of cinnamon rolls. She doesn’t. She just bakes a lot of cinnamon rolls.”

“I’ve heard of winos before,” Christi said. “On TV. They were a bunch of guys lying on the street, drinking wine until they fell asleep.”

So we talked about the mysteries of being a wino and whether Grandma Onie was one after all.

Then, temptation set in about midnight as the silence indicated the old folks were officially asleep.

“Let’s go to the wine closet,” Christi whispered.

“No, we can’t!” I argued, as I’d been witness to Onie’s wrath far more times than she had because I saw Grandma every day. “We will be in so much trouble.”

“Nobody will ever know,” Christi said as she tiptoed across the old wooden floor and turned the brass door knob.

I lost my mind, in a moment of prepubescent peer pressure and curiosity. I followed her to the place more restricted than Area 51. We opened the closet of adult secrets from which we had been shielded our entire lives. There were all the dusty bottles. A rag was stuffed into the neck of a very large one — it wasn’t sealed with wax as we’d typically seen.

“Let’s take a drink!” Christi excitedly said, when she realized we could get to the contents without a blow torch.

The crucifixes hanging on the walls reminded me this was a sin. I knew it was wrong. I knew we’d been warned. I knew the consequences would be bad — after all, Grandma said we’d never forget it. But the temptation was just too great. Suddenly, Christi was opening the wine bottle and we both prepared to taste the forbidden fruit (or at least what the fruit had become).

We each quickly took a sip — and our lives, when it came to being wine-drinkers, were never to be the same.

I knew the second it hit my tongue that this was an experience I was not supposed to have. It tasted like a combination of vinegar, the rotten stuff that rises to the surface when making sauerkraut and dirty water from the bottom of the big cow tank full of goldfish by the windmill.

We gasped. We choked. Our eyes watered as we struggled to put that rag back into the bottle’s neck. The taste wouldn’t leave my mouth. It burned going down my throat.

As we tried to calm down, back in my dad’s old room, we swore that we’d never become winos. Never. Wine tasted terrible! How could adults drink that? It was horrible!

Twenty minutes later, the two young sinners felt horrible. Our stomachs turned, we were sick. I knew that stuff was coming out of my body one way or the other . . . and maybe both. I had to head for the downstairs facilities and run the risk of being heard by Grandma as I slid past her room.

Sure enough, as soon as I hit their one and only bathroom, Onie was standing in the door in her nightgown.

“Are you sick?” she asked, as my stomachache increased and I nodded my head in affirmation.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, writhing in pain. “Maybe it’s the flu.”

“It came on pretty fast,” she said, a speculative look on her aged face. “You were fine a couple of hours ago.”

She went upstairs and interrogated my partner in crime. I don’t know what Onie said to crack my co-defendant, but apparently Christi rolled over on me because we were busted.

Before I could even get a square of toilet paper off the roll, Onie was pointing that finger in my face, lecturing away about sin and punishment, resisting temptation.

As we wallowed in guilt and nausea, I heard Grandma make the call I dreaded. My dad answered . . . probably startled by the phone ringing in the middle of the night.

“Yes, those two got into the wine closet,” Grandma told him. “Melanie’s just sicker than a dog. Christi’s a little green. You better come over and get yours.”

When Dad arrived, he didn’t look too thrilled. I felt bad because he had to be up to milk in a few hours — but instead of being in bed, he was getting yelled at by his mother because his 12-year-old daughter was “going to grow up to be a wino.”

That surprised me. I wasn’t a wino! I was just a kid with a really bad stomachache and even worse judgment. Apparently, we had consumed wine that was still going through a critical point of the “fermenting stage.” How were we supposed to know that? If we were true winos, I would have thought we would have known that classified information.

“Go ahead, tell me how bad you feel,” my father said as he shut the pickup door. “I know you’ve been staying quiet because you’re afraid of Grandma.”

With his permission, I proceeded to whine until we got to our house. In the dark, I apologized for causing problems, told him how much my stomach hurt and that I was belching something that smelled like diesel fuel. Then, with the bathroom calling, he told me to come get him if I needed anything.

“I’m sure this won’t be the first time I have to come get you in the middle of the night,” he said, suddenly smiling and patting me on the side of the head.

The next day Christi was sent packing, back to her home in Norfolk, with an equally bad stomachache and plenty of whining to go with it.

Were we winos? No. Did we whine? Oh, yes.


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