Memoir: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Joyce Maynard's father was an alcoholic, so she’d always watched her step. She was sure she never drank to excess—until one night on a dark road after she drank and drove

by Joyce Maynard
drinking and driving image
Photograph: Trunkarchive.com

It was one of those last warm nights of summer when you can see the first hint of red on the leaves, signaling that if you haven’t taken your last swim yet, you will soon. Transplanted to Northern California 16 years earlier, I was spending three weeks back east, visiting old friends in my home state of New Hampshire, where my adult daughter, Audrey, still lives, on the farm where I used to live, too. 

Twenty-two years had passed since I swam in the pond by our house there and read to my children on the bed I shared with their father. That chapter is closed now. But sometimes, when I pass through as I did that day, old memories catch me up short.

I remember some good times. But also I remember those dark nights as the marriage was coming undone at last and how—when everyone else was in bed—I’d move through the rooms of our small house, laying my body down alongside first one of my sleeping children and then another, in search of rest that I could not find.

Not much of a drinker in those days, and never a fan of the hard stuff, I took to setting my husband’s Christmas bottle of Johnnie Walker Red on the kitchen counter and pouring myself a shot. Daughter of a beloved but heartbreaking alcoholic, long dead, I recognized that my father’s example—“When life is hard, pour a drink”—was part of his legacy. The final winter of my marriage, the year I turned 35, that legacy, usually dormant, had surfaced with alarming regularity. And because I wanted my husband to recognize my despair, I’d leave the bottle on the counter to greet him in the morning. “See what you drove me to do?” it was meant to tell him.

The marriage ended. I put away my Johnnie Walker habit, though in the years after, I discovered a fondness for wine—how it tasted and what it did to me, softening the many harsh aspects of my life. Two decades later, I could not name a single night I’d been drunk, but a glass of Zinfandel at day’s end had become a frequent, then nightly, event. Not just one glass either. Two. Three, if life seemed particularly stressful.

Now I was back in New Hampshire, on the last evening of my annual late-summer pilgrimage there. The farm is now owned by my ex-husband, who lives with his new family in the main house. My daughter rents the cabin behind it, where I used to write. For years after the divorce, just driving past the farm was hard for me. But I made peace with it, and my most recent visit had been a happy one, until the very last night.

Audrey and I were invited to the home of friends who live near the farm. Earlier that afternoon, she and I had plunged into the swimming hole we used to go to when she was small. The next morning I’d be turning in my rental car and flying back out west.

I was feeling fortunate that night, being with Audrey, visiting these friends, hearing the crickets just outside their screen porch. But I was also tired, feeling the tug of leaving my daughter soon and a little ragged from the memories these visits invariably dislodge. So the Chianti we drank with dinner felt especially welcome.

As the daughter of a man who got drunk every night—and got up every morning pretending nothing had happened—I know well the danger of looking to wine when I’m sorrowful or worried or tired. I’ve always been careful about how much I consume. But in moments of stress, the impulse to reach for a glass is always there.

Our friends are Italian American, and they had made eggplant parmigiana, and spaghetti in a homemade sauce. There was garlic bread and corn on the cob. I ate well and reached for seconds.

As for the wine, I can’t say how much I drank, because every time my glass got a little low, our host topped it off. No tipsiness evident, I could tell my friends a story or absorb the details of the spaghetti-sauce recipe; I even rattled off a recipe of my own. Mostly the wine just intensified the warm glow of a wonderful evening.

We left the cottage sometime around 10 PM. Audrey’s boyfriend drove us back to the cabin. During my visit, I’d been staying at the home of another friend, 20 minutes away, but Audrey now asked if I wanted to spend the night on her couch.

First published in the September 2012 issue

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