Tippling in the Tropics
I think that I first realised that my father was an alcoholic when my mother and I went looking for him in a downtown bar one morning after he’d not been home for a few days. I must have been about 8 at the time. He wasn’t there - that didn't stop me from feeling the pain and embarrassment my mother was going through when the sympathetic barman explained that he’d been there the night before but that he wasn’t sure where he’d gone. But I only realised that my grandmother had a drinking problem a few years later once she’d become my guardian. She may not have been an alcoholic in the traditional sense as despite being a regular drinker, she rarely got drunk but she used to have periodic alcoholic binges when she lost control of her life and wreaked havoc on those around her.
The first binge I recall was the one that happened over the festive period that culminated in her refusing to allow my brother and me to go to the Maxixe club ball. There was absolutely no reason for her refusal except pure selfishness. For days prior to that, she’d not left her room at all but she let her demands be known by shouting down to the staff, to Mac (her boyfriend) and Cecil (her son, my uncle), and to my brother and me when she needed something, usually more to drink. Mac and Cecil had told the staff to not give her anything but the staff were in an even weaker position than they were when it came to resisting her demands. Us boys had also been told not to give her anything but we’d often have to sneak downstairs into the bar when Mac and Cecil weren’t looking to get her more to drink. It was cruel and unfair to us and we hated having to do it.
In later years, when I heard about the things she’d said and done, I realised that there had been times when we’d also been subjected to the side of her character that some people despised.
Probably the worst binge occurred when she and Mac came to collect my brother and me from boarding school in Barberton. Those three-monthly trips to South Africa were usually combined with a major shopping exercise to stock up with provisions for the hotel so we’d sometimes spend a few days in Nelspruit, a much larger town about 30 km from Barberton, before returning to Mozambique. She was in such a bad state that we didn’t manage to get to Nelspruit that time. We spent a week in the Phoenix Hotel, mostly in our rooms where we ate our meals, read comics and played board games while wishing desperately that we’d be going home soon. Mac tried his best to stop her drinking but he’d eventually give in when he noticed that she was trying to coerce us into getting her drink even though it was illegal for us to do so. We thought that things were improving when we got across the border into Mozambique and seemed to be on our way to Maxixe. When we reached Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) many hours later, after several stops at roadside 'cantinas' for drinks, she insisted that we check into a hotel there. We didn’t leave that hotel until 3 weeks later when it was time to return to boarding school.
She'd wrecked our holiday.
Without there being anyone to ask about how long those binges had been going on for or explanations for them, I can only speculate. It may have been a coincidence, but they seemed to start after the death of my mother and then seemed to get worse even if not more regular. During those binges, her moods would swing wildly. Sometimes she’d be deeply unpleasant to everyone but she’d mostly fall into a deeply maudlin state in which she would berate herself for upsetting those around her and discuss, at length, the tragedies in her life. There was the death of her father before she’d known him, the death of her mother, the death of my grandfather and, most awful of all, the death of her daughter, my mother. And then there was the breast cancer that had resulted in severe mastectomies of both breasts. Occasionally she’d bring up long forgotten slights, possibly imagined, that had upset her.
And once, just the once that I recall, she got weepy about not having won the Miss Europe contest. She’d come second to Miss Austria, a woman she said who'd won simply because she’d worn false eyelashes!
(*) Go here for an introductory post about my grandmother