Family vices

I come from a family of Appalachian moonshiners who lived in obscurity in the Cumberland Gap of Tennessee. There in the poverty above the coal mines they smoked, chewed tobacco and drank in remote little bars, until bleary-eyed and swooning they staggered back into their rust-bucket cars and made their way on unlit, unpaved paths, through the hills back to their homes.

My grandmother Jo Ann learned to drive that way, ten or eleven, sitting on her drunk father’s lap while her mother swayed or snored, equally drunk, beside them. For the first few years, she steered while her drunk dad Winnel moved the gas and brake pedals below her dangling legs; after a few years, preteen Jo was big enough to work the car entirely by herself, designated driver for her incapacitated parents.

A taste for booze was either in their blood or was just a necessary way to pass the time in those quiet hills where there with nothing else to do. During Prohibition, my family made and sold their own rot-gut grain alcohol. But petty disagreements rose up between distant uncles and cousins about the terms of manufacture and sale. The conflict worsened until, my grandma once told me, it came to blows. One cousin shot the other in the early morning light, and pressed his body up against a tree so that in the shadowy distance it would look alive.

As a child, this story lingered in my imagination. I supposed the murdered cousin’s body stood still and mistaken for alive for days and days; surely it lasted only an hour or so, if the story is even true at all. I hope it’s true. It’s so lively and backwoodsy; gruesome and sadly funny all at once. It’s beautiful as a story, except it has no conclusion.

Jo never told me how the murdered moonshiner was found, or if the perpetrating cousin was brought to justice. Of course the actual events predated her. Any lies or omissions can’t be said to be her fault. By the time she was born, alcohol was plenty legal, and her parents were getting blotto on beer and liquor bought with legal tender in a bar tucked into the hills.

The Whitehead-Bohannon clan has its vices. On the Whitehead side, drink was chief among them. By all accounts, my great-grandfather was a negligent drunk, if charming in his old age. He smoked too, and as an old man his voice was shockingly graveled and low. It made my infant self cry and want to hide. Winnel took poor care of himself, and died in part as a consequence of his drinking habits. Of his wife, Dorothy, I know very little, just that she drank and died before I came into existence.

Their daughter, my grandma Jo, loved to drink but never seemed dependent upon it. I remember her laughing and tonguing a bright pink lemonade Jello shot from a little plastic cup as she sat in her lush, green backyard, her carefully painted toes like rubies running through the grass, her Southern-accented voice twinkling and cackling with laughter. I remember the platter of Jello shots, some pale yellow lemon, some a beautiful pink, lit up by the glow of the sun, made carefully by my grandmother and laughingly enjoyed by her, my mom, and my aunt.

My grandmother loved a good drink. She couldn’t watch her soaps without a mouth-watering glass of Bourbon and Branch at her side. She also loved food. Her kitchen was always warm and crackling with bacon and silver dollar pancakes, doused with super-sweet rivulets of syrup tapped directly from Ohio trees. She loved cherry cheesecake, grilled cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, and all kinds of tea.

As she aged, her belly pushed out and became round, almost bulbous, like a pregnant woman’s. It was partly a trick of menopause, and partly a consequence of accepting her age and abandoning watching her weight. Her jubilant love of delicious substances was passed on to her son Greg, my father, who in turn handed it off to me. And while my father’s irascible sweet tooth would prove the death of him, it never did Jo much harm. She died of neither drink nor sugar, at the tragically young age of 64.

The other side of my Tennessee family was less devoted to booze and food, as far as I can tell, and more enamored with smoking and chewing. My great-grandmother Pearl, was a tobacco-chewing, spittoon-filling, toothless little hellion; my mother recalls meeting the woman sitting in a rocker, spitting dark threads of spit into a jug or cup on the patio. It was right after my parents had been married. That is all I know about the woman, who gave birth to my grandfather, Arval. Of Arval’s dad, I know nothing.

Arval was a whisper-thin, dark-skinned man with stringy black-brown hair and a colicky temper. He was a picky eater, and grew furiously irritable when he needed to eat. However, he was equally infamous for eating like a bird, picking at the plate before him and putting very little into his weak-looking body. One family story has him throwing a shitfit around the house, yelling and embarrassing himself as he demanded that my grandma Jo fix him some food. Jo told him to get his own damn food and stormed out of the house, my young, shy mother in tow. I imagine that this was when my mom began to admire her surly mother-in-law.

Tepid though Arval was with food, his love for cigarettes was unyielding and gluttonous. A former coal miner who moved up to Ohio to mine salt, he’d picked up the habit quite naturally. He was also an amateur mechanic who made a sizeable amount fixing other people’s cars for petty cash. I can imagine him bent over an open hood, plumes of smoke flowing from his mouth, ash falling onto the pavement. It’s where my dad got his taste for smoking. It’s why I can see the allure of it despite knowing better.

Arval smoked his way right into a heart attack. The first time it happened, he survived. He also kept smoking, too. Some point after that, I was born. He adored me. There is a photo of me in his arms, beaming with the radiant, uncomplicated joy that only a beloved baby can know. I’m wearing a Superman costume. Not Supergirl. Arval and Jo Anne are grinning at me; Arval’s face is a study in rapturous love.

I have only one memory of the man, and even it may not be genuine. In it, we are throwing a ball in the back yard. Jo Anne is there; so is my father. I’m only one or two years old, barely able to walk, running after a bright plastic pink orb Arval has thrown to me. Is he smoking? I don’t know. He died of a heart attack the next day.

Perhaps because some of his own grandparents were drunks, my dad never had much love for alcohol. Except for an odd wine cooler or two kept in the refrigerator’s produce bin, my parents never had alcohol in the house. Alcohol was such an omission from our lives that when a friend’s parents drank a beer in front of me, I was horrified. The first time I saw my mom order wine in a restaurant I was inconsolable, and pleaded with her to stop ‘doing drugs’.

My dad did, however, inherit the Whitehead-Bohannon propensity for vices. He adored sugar and caffeine. He smoked every day of his life, disappearing from the house and from family gatherings to surreptitiously do so, hiding the fact from us for 16 years. After I was caught with marijuana, my dad confessed to me that he had no taste for depressants, but that he had, quote, ‘really liked speed’.

There are many biological ways to account for an addictive nature. You can point to genetics, or dopamine receptors. You can claim someone is under-stimulated, or over-stimulated, or starved for chemical release. You can say it’s a byproduct of untreated depression, anxiety, or PTSD. You can explain it by pointing to the monkeys and apes who drug themselves with fermented fruit and pilfered wine, stolen from outdoor tiki bars. You can say that so much is inevitable.

My dad’s brother, for his part, is no kind of addict. He works in Public Health, and spends his days rallying against the tobacco industry for reasons that are obvious to everyone. He is suspicious of e-cigarettes. He is capable of enjoying a good pint or a fistful of movie popcorn, but in the latter case he will remind you that just one serving contains a week’s worth of saturated fat.

My addictions are mild. I cannot tolerate alcohol. More than two drinks and my body rebels, sprays the contents of my stomach on the sidewalk. Altered states of consciousness have little appeal. But what I have inherited is the longing for escape, the sense of bliss that comes from filling my brain with TV, with sweetness, with an all-consuming romance, with forgetting my existence and just staring at the wall. I feel as though I require coffee, candy, and Law & Order: SVU in order to live. I can scroll through empty, lallating internet content forever, sick to my stomach on brown sugar and airy-light cereal, scratching at my scalp to attain the perfect blend of bliss and mild pain.

To distract myself from myself is rapture. To feel nothing but an intake of pleasant, easy stimuli is transcendence. My addictions are manifold, and legal, and quiet. And sometimes, truth be told, they do get in the way of life. They rob minutes, hours, years from me, as alcohol, cigarettes, and sugar have stripped years from the lives my grandparents and my dad. But at least I’ll never get so strung out on an SVU binge that my preteen daughter will have to take hold of the wheel in the middle of the night, cross her fingers, and drive me home.


Originally published at overland.org.au.

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