It was Bottles before Booze

My infatuation with alcohol started long before I’d ever thought about drinking. It began when I was seven, after I’d spotted a tall bottle of Galliano and a few gift boxes on my Grandmother’s dining room table.

It was her birthday, and the Galliano and boxes were from her friends who’d arrived for lunch. They also brought a bouquet of flowers and a lemon chiffon cake, but I wasn’t as interested in those things as I was in the bottle and the three boxes, wrapped with the types of ribbons I thought would look good in my hair.

Grandma slapped my hand away from when I tried to pull a blue bow off the top of one of her gifts. “Is it your birthday young lady?” she scolded as she poured a little Galliano into four of her best crystal glasses and topped them up with orange juice.

They sipped and talked and refilled a few times before Grandma decided to inspect her gifts. I was thrilled when she asked me to help her, and especially careful not to tear the wrapping paper or ruin the ribbons. Grandma barely looked at them before she put them back in their boxes, and I had to wait several hours before I could inspect them in private because Grandma’s friends didn’t leave until we’d run out of orange juice.

After they’d gone, and Grandma had climbed the stairs to her room for a lie-down, I pulled the thin gold cord-like ribbon off the Crown Royal box and tied my hair back with it. Next, I opened the purple velvet pouch to expose the most beautiful bottle I’d ever seen. The uniquely shaped bottle had the same fancy cursive ‘Crown Royal’ printed on it as the box that it came in. And even though it looked like it, I suspected the liquid inside wasn’t the apple juice I sometimes helped Grandma make.

I sat down and put the Crown Royal bottle on my lap so I could inspect its goldish-brown lid, shaped like a miniature crown, and run both of my hands over the triangles carved into the bottle. When I finished, I put it back in its purple pouch and moved on to the next one; a tall red box with a large blue bow that I’d already admired. That box contained a bottle of Seagrams V.O. I only lifted it half way out because it was brown and not as exciting as the box it had arrived in. Besides, I was eager to get to Grandma's third gift, the largest one, the one with the gold canister inside, the one I’d barely gotten a glimpse of before Grandma put it back.

It wasn’t too hard to get the canister out of the cardboard box, but it took several attempts before I was able to pry its lid off. Inside, I found a large jug-shaped bottle of Canadian Club. I moved it to the side so that I could look at the colorful pictures of dancing girls on the outside of the canister. They were beautiful; like precious jewels or Mom’s good china that I promised not to play with but did anyway.

I’d put everything back by the time Grandma got up from her nap,  and that night, I prayed Grandma would let me have the boxes, the gold canister and the bottles when she was finished with them. She did, and that’s how my bottle collection started.

That collection grew into more than one hundred bottles in the following years, thanks to my family of big drinkers. My Aunt Nancy was the biggest by far, maybe the heaviest drinker I’d ever known. She was a little sauced all the time, but she wasn’t sloppy or mouthy like so many of my uncles were.

Aunt Nancy was a bartender at a fancy Seattle restaurant. She was a little famous for a drink she’d invented and a poem she’d wrote and hung over the bar:  "My Harvey Wallbanger is nice, my Whiskey Sour has spice but if you're looking to meet ole Jesus Christ order my Holy Moses - no ice. "

Aunt Nancy would often bring me beautiful empty bottles for Midori, Bombay Sapphire, Frangelico and the occasional Crown Royal; my favorite. Sometimes, she'd bring over a trunk load of her empty wine bottles and get me to help her wrap them in a newspaper and break them down with a brick. Then we’d sneak them over to my neighbor’s and put them in her garbage can.

Throughout the following five or six years, my collection took over my bedroom. I couldn’t put shoes in the closet because there wasn’t room and whenever someone slammed the front door the sound of bottles rattling could be heard throughout our house. Mom made me move most of them to our garage after she saw a couple of earwigs on my bedroom floor. The only ones I was allowed to keep in my room were my thirty Crown Royal bottles and their purple pouches because Aunt Nancy had told her they were worth lots of money.

I didn’t stop collecting bottles until after I began drinking, which was soon after an incident at school that got me into big trouble and made me feel stupid.  I’d come up an idea for the school Christmas fundraiser store after my Grandma told me how much she loved the Crown Royal bottles I’d filled with purple colored water and put in her front room window.

I spent three days filling some of my best clear glass empties with red, blue, green and yellow colored water. I was pretty confident that people would buy them for their living room windows, and I planned to give all the money from the sales to the school.

Aunt Nancy drove me, and my colored bottles, to the fundraiser store (our school's gymnasium) on her way to work. We got there early, and put my twelve sets of four bottles (same shape with four colors) on an empty table we found in the front of the room. Before she left, she found a piece of paper and wrote a sign for the table that read, “Original Spirited Water- $4 a set.” I taped the sign to the front of the table and waited for people to come.

Lots of people walked by my table and looked at the bottles. Some of them said nice things, some laughed, and I heard a few teachers and parents whisper not-so-nice things under their breath. I only sold one set; to a guy who could name the kind of booze that belonged in each bottle. 

The principal of my school wrote a note to my mom and a few days later we had to go to his office for a talk. He asked me about the bottles and where I got them and mentioned my parents’ divorce, then told me to sit in the waiting area so he could talk to my mom in private. On the way home, Mom told me that he’d suggested I collect marbles or dolls, instead of empty booze bottles.

I thought Mom was gonna make me get rid of them, but she didn’t, and she didn’t say anything when Aunt Nancy showed up the next day with several bottles including a half-empty one of an expensive champagne some rich guy had ordered and sent back because he said it was flat. She said she hadn’t had time to rinse the bottles because she’d been in a hurry to get home the night before.

Later that day, I took my new bottles to the garage with the intention of rinsing them out and storing them. But instead, I came up with an idea to drink the leftover champagne. And that started an entirely new infatuation.

  • HOLY MOSES (a kosher cocktail): 2 shots of Johnnie Walker Black, one shot of Vodka, Ginger Ale, Squeeze of lemon and three crushed mint leaves.

This story is fiction, based on real life experiences. I write about similar situations in my novel, "How to Grow an Addict."