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Drinking Lessons

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The distiller and I are sitting across from each other in the swelter of a Denver June afternoon, three tiny unlabeled bottles of bourbon lined up before us. He pours from one into a scratched goblet that will serve as a snifter, lifts it to his nose, and then offers it to me like a teacher holding out a piece of chalk.

My turn.

Our classroom is the backyard of the rented house that he shares with his girlfriend, his Bassett hound, a cat, and a roommate to help pay the rent while he gets his business off the ground. He is showing me how to taste the spirit in which he has invested thousands of hours and dollars that he has scraped to earn, borrow, or finance at vertiginous rates on credit cards. As with wine, there is the “nosing,” the swirling, the chewing, the spitting, but the step that follows the first taste is the one that gets my full attention.

“Warm it,” he instructs. “Cup the glass in your hands, like this. Bring it in close, hold it next to your heart.”

The moment feels as fragile as the glass in my palm. I know from experience that one false move can shatter it.

I swirl and swish. While my nose strains to pick up notes of oak, the judge who lives inside me inhales a whiff of old anxieties. The distiller is my son. There is the matter of the credit cards, the nagging concern about the business he’s chosen given his past, complicated relationship with alcohol, the kinds of things mothers are supposed to worry about. I have a list of those things. It seems to write itself during the long stretches between our visits, it unfurls in my brain after our phone calls which often leave me with more questions than they answer. The details of his days are lost to me and so I fill in the blanks with pictures patched together from casual references, the sudden silences when I ask a question that goes too far, or assumptions based on the boy I knew who lived with me for sixteen years. It’s my job to worry, I used to tell him with a smile meant to smooth things over between us.

But I’m no longer sure what my job is when it comes to him. I weigh the fear in my heart as the glass warms in my palm. I’m tired of this worry. It seems to have outlived its usefulness which, I am beginning to understand, was only useful to me. I believed it tethered us but in fact it has been driving us apart for years. It has never stopped anything bad from happening. It has never helped anything good happen. And right now I am sitting in the sun occupying a moment with a person I have loved his whole life and I want to savor it. All of it.

I take a sip. The bourbon settles on my tongue and begins to release its history layer by layer. He talks about the charring of oak barrels, the differences between this and whiskey aged in peat but I’m letting the warmth sink into me. I’m thinking about how competent he seems, how intensely serious he is about what he is doing, how undeterred he has been since he started down this road, and of how little he wants or needs the things I used to provide.

It occurs to me that this moment is the distillation of every one that had has led up to it beginning with the moment he slithered out of my body and began to breathe on his own. It holds the echoes of the social worker who tried to convince me at eighteen to give him up to older parents who were ready in ways I could not be. It grew from the doubt and fear of being responsible for a person’s life along with the determination to hold on to him and prove her wrong. It contains the ache I felt when, sixteen years later, I realized I needed to find him a safe place to finish growing up even if it was over two thousand miles away. In this moment are the lessons I’ve learned and relearned in the nearly sixteen years since then about what I can control and what I can’t and that being his mother means, ultimately, letting him go.

The fact is, he’s done fine. He’s done better than fine even with some false starts and some painful setbacks that I sometimes knew of but other times discovered after his wounds had healed and the lessons they taught, absorbed.

The glass in my hand flashes in the sun and seems to expose my worry for what it is: a reflex and something I need to fill spaces left empty by my job, by the writing I haven’t started yet, by the need to define myself to others according to his successes and failures. I have been afraid that if I stop worrying, I will be letting him go. If I let him go, I will lose him.

This realization opens inside me like a window and before I can do much about it, the fear slips out. I am left with my son, his eyes shining with enthusiasm and some surprise — I haven’t interrupted him once since we sat down. I am left in this moment full of sun and promise and a kind of stillness we have never shared before.

In the five years since that visit, he’s moved from that backyard to Grand Junction. The distillery thrives and so does he. We’ve had more moments since then. Some perfect, some not. Keepers, all. But here is the one that I summon up when I come home and begin to wonder again how to be a mother of a grown and still-growing human being:

We are driving to the tiny Grand Junction airport after one more visit that in the old days I would have complained was too short. The hot breath of the high desert blows through his truck windows and surrounds us. There is so much I want to say but I don’t trust myself to speak when we are about to leave each other for another long absence. My son reaches over and closes his hand around mine. His palm is rough against my skin, his grip gentle and unhurried. I say nothing. I don’t think about when he’ll have to let go. I taste the moment fully, breathe it in. I hold it close to my heart.

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If you find yourself thirsty for more information about this bourbon and other fine spirits, here’s a video and a link to the site for Peach Street Distillers.


  1. Hi Betsy,

    You are such a phenomenal writer! This article was great (as are all your articles).

    Very moving!

    Take care, and my best to you and Ed.


    Sent from my iPad

  2. OH Bets – I try so hard to stop worrying. It fills the spaces between pride and love for my sons. Are you sure that you’re worrying didn’t shape Rory is some small way?? You write beautifully but this one broke my heart

    1. Oh, Becky I know what you mean. I guess I reached the point where I finally understood what someone once tried to tell me: worry isn’t love. The worry can stop. The love continues. It’s a lot harder to let go and love because it means trusting, accepting and recognizing the strengths and growth of those we love – and sometimes it means getting out of the way. I’m not sure how worry shapes our kids. Timing is everything. There is a time for a worry, I suppose, and a time to let it go.

  3. Found you through Oliver Gray’s blog. This is just what I needed to read after receiving some distressing news last night about my daughter. My mother used to say “A mother never stops worrying,” and I’ve found those words to be true, but I also know that my worrying doesn’t help–only my love can do that. Thank you for sharing this moving piece.

    1. This means the world to me to receive. Thank you. I am off to spend the weekend with my mother and two sisters. I will be spending some time reflecting on all this from a daughter’s point of view as well! Good luck to you and your daughter and every precious minute you both have.

  4. Oh my goodness Betsy, this is incredible. For some reason, I wasn’t receiving your posts and I came here to check what was going on and I am so glad I did!!! This post is so gorgeous and I am just sitting here crying. Wow. I hope you send this out to be published in print.

  5. No parenting fairy that visits you and tells you what to do and how it will turn out. You can only do your best and keep your fingers crossed. I’m sure you know it now. Sounds to me like you did a good job without that fairy and all on your own. good job. Don’t worry about the worrying. It begins when they ‘slither’ out of your body and ends when you die. Just keep it to yourself. 🙂

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thank you. As the mother of two interesting adult children, it is heartening for me to read something so affirming of such complex relationships.

  7. Amazing piece, I felt all the emotion in every word. The fact that I was enjoying a glass of bourbon while reading it made it that much more relatable, also made me look at things from my mom’s point of view, for a change.

    1. What a great image you’ve given me – knowing you were sipping while reading and getting in touch with your mom’s perspective at the same time. Thanks so much for sharing that with me.

  8. this is so warming – the lessons by your son – drinking is what he teaches, pride is what you learn. the contentment you felt seeing your son , emerge as a man is well described in here. am far from being a mother, infact am just a very young woman but it made me teary thinking of how parents feel when they see their child succeed. beautiful, thanks for sharing. congratulations on being freshly pressed.

    1. Thank you for the comment and for sharing your perspective. The magical thing about relationships is that they evolve. That said, watching each other grow and celebrating that never gets old.

  9. Good job. You saw a barrier between yourself and your boy, and you changed it. I so wish that more parents could do that. Accepting our children for all their pitfalls, starts unfinished, and flaws is so wonderful, once we fully embrace it. He must be so proud of you. And tell him congratulations on his distiller of the year award, from another blogger who appreciates such things…

  10. Beautifully written as only a loving mum can! although I wasn’t too sure about “slither” as mine tended to catapult out!
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed looks like it’s Momma’s turn for success, which is what happens when you finally let go!
    my very best wishes Geraldine 🙂

    1. Well…it was kind of a sudden slither, as I recall. Thanks so much for your kind words. You cannot know how encouraging yours and all the other comments I’ve received on this post have been for me. Thank you.

  11. I passed my lesson when I found out I’m a recovering alcoholic, sure you, who can drink and have no problems, so see I’m not saying everyone cant enjoy, no ,there are some who cant

  12. I myself have many important memories associated with whiskey that have nothing to do with the “normal” drinking tales people would often assume on me. Very well-written.

    1. Hi there, I tried to reply to this when I was traveling but the wifi was unreliable. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to comment and share your link. My son has explained the similarities between distilling alcohol and essences such as lavender. Now, I have an even better idea. Good luck with the lavender (one of my favorite scents) and thank you again for stopping by.

      1. Hi- Your very welcome. I was excited to see that other people are experimenting with distillation and getting to know the process. If you ever have any questions for us or my family’s company feel free to ask. / Eventually I will be making my own lavender herbs for meats and such, and selling it on the website. 🙂

  13. Beautiful. I have a complicated relationship with my oldest son (he’s 22) and this piece really spoke to me.

  14. This was incredibly well written. I am a 19 year old kid with a mom that I’d like to believe loves me to death. And I can not wait until the day that I can have my mom over to my own house for a drink. I am in college now and will hopefully own a house next year, so this moment is creeping closer and closer. This piece just brought the anticipation up to an all time high.

  15. Thank you! My only son is getting married in June. In China where he lives. I will see him in a few weeks for the first time in 4 years. My heart aches that he is so far away. Heart-full 🙂 post.

  16. Excellent post – a beautiful read about both what parenting is all about and what enjoying the art and craft of a good spirit is all about. As a seasoned beer drinker (read: beer snob), there is something to be said for understanding why there is a proper way, in all of its steps and nuances, to properly taking a drink of a good wine, scotch, bourbon, or beer. A quick quaff does no justice to the long journey that is a good drink, and behind a good drink, is an even better story, such as the one in the post above.

  17. This is beautifully written. It’s moving and thoughtful and flows so elegantly it’s as if I wasn’t even reading. You have a wonderful voice and I look forward to reading more from you.

    1. “as if I wasn’t even reading.” Those words are so wonderful to read. Thank you for letting me know that’s how the piece worked for you. I look forward to reading your blog and to sharing more thoughts in the future.

  18. You have managed to bring tears to my eyes, as I am struggling with my son wanting, even possibly needing, to go live with his dad in the near future. He is 12, so it has come a little sooner than yours did at 16. . .the inevitable decision of what’s best for your son, and the heartbreak of knowing that staying with you might not be.

    “I’m tired of this worry. It seems to have outlived its usefulness which, I am beginning to understand, was only useful to me. I believed it tethered us but in fact it has been driving us apart for years. It has never stopped anything bad from happening. It has never helped anything good happen.”. . . . these sentiments are so perfect, I can’t even expound on them, because there’s no need.

  19. Oh GOSH! I thought it was just going to be a piece on the loveliness of a good bourbon, but this is so much more than that. If you had written this as a piece of fiction, it would be superb, but to know that it is indeed your life?

    1. Thank you so much for these words. The response to this piece has been so encouraging and has come at a time when I particularly needed encouragement. Thank you so much for adding your voice.

  20. Found you here after your comment over at my place…..and glad I did. Compelling and beautiful. We moms of sons remain moms always, whatever path taken and however far they have launched. Look forward to reading more from you. .

    1. Yes, we remain moms. The job descriptions may evolve a bit but once a mom, always a mom. Thanks for connecting. I’ll continue to follow you and stay in touch. I invite you to stop by anytime!

  21. “The glass in my hand flashes in the sun and seems to expose my worry for what it is: a reflex and something I need to fill spaces left empty by my job, by the writing I haven’t started yet”

    If you cant get
    or find
    writing out of the drink
    in your hand
    then you
    doing it right

    good luck to you and yours


    1. Thank you for sharing this with me and for the good luck wishes. I will take them and also wish them right back to you. I’ll be checking out your blog shortly. Please keep in touch!

  22. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Your perspective has opened my eyes to the flipside of my world — being raised by those older parents. I’ve rarely thought of what life would’ve been like, but your sacrifice to dig in and make the best of things is something to be applauded. Best Wishes.

    1. Thank you for the congratulations. The FP thing has been a delightful and well-timed experience. I am so encouraged to keep at it now. A couple of folks have commented that the piece prompted them to consider an alternative perspectives to the whole parent-child relationship. That’s a nice thing to hear. Thank you for your kind words and the time you took to post them here.

  23. This story really touched me. At one point in my life I owned a small chocolate-making business. I remember a day when my mother played dress-up in a wig and strange clothes and came by my booth at the Farmers Market to pretend to be just any customer. She also came and visited me when I lived in Mexico, even though it was way outsi her comfort zone. Her willingness to playfully embrace my strange adventures is one of the main reasons she’s not just my mom, but also my friend.

    1. What a great story about your mom! My own mother, with whom I have just spent five days, was my role model for so much. She sent her five kids out into the world early and then visited regularly, often sleeping on the floors in sleeping bags, using outhouses, and just generally accommodating herself to our situations so she could spend time with us as we all grew up. I think it always amazed me how much she allowed herself to grow and change. And wonderful too. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I’ll be checking out your blog. Stay in touch!

  24. Wow. What a powerful piece! I have to tell you it moved me to tears, because I have an estranged relationship with my own son. Thank you for sharing such an intimate moment.

    1. I suffer from ET or Essential Tremor…some at meetings say how a beer? might slow the tremor down???? fine for them not me! or they say a glass of wine??? for an alcoholic?? a beer? a glass of wine???? I don’t think some know what the word recovery means???

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