There were two things my mother rarely did: drink alcohol or talk about my father. Her dad was an alcoholic, she told us, so she had been put off the stuff early. I had no more idea if my own father liked booze than I did what he looked like, but I would soon find myself magnetically attracted to shitty light beer as if it were part of my biology.
By the time I was 13, I had figured out that unlike my mother, I loved getting drunk. To be fair, there was fuck-all else to do in Cookeville, Tenn., a place that didn’t like the things I did: literature or too many questions, especially if they were about God. The only thing to do was go to the mall — actually called mall* — or leave the mall to cruise the strip, a long street of chain restaurants patrolled by mulleted men in low-riders. Sometimes people would fight in the parking lot of the mall. Sometimes the entire next town over would come to fight our town in the parking lot of the mall. Parental supervision was nonexistent, and bored, under-parented teenagers make their own fun. Sometimes that meant going to parties.
Once, at a party of high school metalheads, someone handed me a cold can of Coors Light from a bucket of ice, and that’s when everything changed. This wasn’t the full-blown drunkenness that ended with my head in the toilet—it simply took the edge off. I was still me, just better. The flavor was light, crisp and easy to handle. I never got too drunk too fast if I just paced myself, and the buzz was unmatched: airy, fun and easy — the opposite of everything else about that town. The opposite of everything else about my life.
My parents split when I was 5 years old. My sisters and I got on a plane in New Orleans after being asked which parent we preferred (our mother, in Tennessee). And in a matter of months, whatever imprint my father had left on my memory had all but vanished. I had vague recollections of him (his wiry build, his angular face) and a handful of memories from very early childhood (ice cream? a dog named Sam? a front porch?) that I was never quite sure actually happened. Maybe I just saw them on television.
But no pictures survived our move away from him, and no details from my mother meant that I spent a lot of time walking around with a void that other people took for granted — precisely one half of my identity and heritage. I had friends who hated their fathers; still, I envied that they knew enough to hate in the first place.
I would spend most of my young adult life trying to solve the mystery of him with nothing but dead ends: I had a name, which turned out to be fake. I had an address on a birth certificate—the street never existed. I had clues that fell apart once scrutinized, and the only witness I had wasn’t talking — my mother. What was he like? Did he crack crass jokes like I did, love puns, dislike authority figures, charm people until he got bored of them and moved on?
I was unlike my mother, who was a nerdy recluse who’d skipped a grade and preferred holing up in her room with books to people. I was smart, but I had a bad attitude; as prosocial as I was antisocial. I needed people, yet I hated people. Beer, it’s safe to say, split the difference.
They say you inherit a taste for bitter foods over sweeter ones. You also inherit a tendency to drink, but typically, the extreme drinking that leads to alcoholism comes with early exposure and high tolerance. I had the first part but never the second, and could never drink more than two or three beers in a night no matter how hard I tried. I don’t know how we end up preferring one drink to the next — why one person has a Scotch palate and the other rosé. But for whatever reason, beer aligned perfectly with my palate and tolerance in a way nothing else could.
It came to symbolize more to me than just my drink of choice. It was what I drank with my jock high school boyfriend and his basketball teammates. We’d drive one county over to a place called Stan’s, which didn’t card, to buy cases of cheap beer — Natural Light, Falls City, Bud Light or Miller High Life. The boys would hand me two beers and pound the rest on a backroad rumored to be lined with booby traps for marijuana. Later, in college in Murfreesboro, I’d pay for $5 pitchers of Bud Light at the local dive bar with pennies, before watching local bands play dissonant guitar for hours.
Though I had aspirations to escape the poor South, I loved that my beer wasn’t classy. Yes, it was piss water, yes it was barely alcohol. But it also had a distinctly working-class vibe I had an affection for. You drank cold beer after hard labor on hot days. I was a lower-class white Southerner: I should drink beer. And it was also associated with distinctly masculine activities I romanticized: rock bands, old cars and a general fuck-you attitude toward The Man. I had learned none of these things from my mother, a shy, retiring librarian who played by the rules to a fault.
I would keep drinking cheap beer throughout my 20s, chalking it up to a random preference, until my early 30s when a crack came in the case of my dad’s identity. After a slew of conflicting aliases, my sister and I finally deduced a name. A real one. With that came frantic searching, and the location of a distant relative. Other wives. Other siblings. Entire other families, scattered all across the country. But most importantly, there was a picture.
Diane Arbus once wrote that a photograph is a secret about a secret — the more it tells you, the less you know. Fittingly, the picture was a Polaroid of my father wearing a mask, hat and wig, playing guitar with a bottle of shitty light beer in his mouth and a glass of light beer on the table. Underneath, “Sweet Caroline” was scrawled, the Neil Diamond song (that I loved). It looked like a Miller Genuine Draft in his mouth. I couldn’t make it out from the darkness of the photo or the early 1980s vintage of the bottle. But it didn’t matter. Here were all my intersections in one photo: a weirdly antisocial, masked drinker with an affection for beer, music and shenanigans. Hiding in plain sight.
Through reaching out to people who had known him, I pieced together data points that made me suddenly make sense. He was a troubled but charming guy with a dark sense of humor who hated taking orders. He chain-smoked cigarettes and paced around like someone who’d done prison time (he had — felony car theft). He played in bands and loved music. He moved cities as soon as he got sick of them. And he drank light beer, all day long.
Armed with this profile, I asked my mother why she never told me any of these things about him, even just as a point of biography. A cautionary tale, even. Why she hadn’t wanted me to know what sort of person he was, particularly when there were so many striking similarities between us, down to the beverage.
“I didn’t want you to end up like him,” she said, unapologetic.
I would never meet him. But I was struck deeply by the realization that somehow my steps had always been laid out for me. I thought I owned my choices, idiosyncrasies and preferences, but here they were, lived out before me. Even though my choices had seemed random, or rebellious against my old-fashioned mother and this staid town, I was my father’s daughter without ever knowing a thing about him, playing out his life.
Well, not exactly. Had my lifelong affection for casual drinking played out like his, I’d have left failed businesses, failed families and a string of broken hearts all around the country. Though I’d certainly come close, I’d never had a felony. Though he drank excessively, I’d managed to maintain a recreational relationship to drugs and alcohol. Though I hated authority, I’d managed to live an on-the-grid life, finish college, maintain steady employment, pursue a career and acclimate myself to the rules, even when I despised them.
For every way we were the same, it turned out that I’d had enough of my mother’s restraint in me to buffer his excess. We may have both loved old cars and music and never quite taking the world as it is, but in the end, rather like the cheap beer we both loved, I was just a watered-down version of him. The beer that had saved me had drowned him. That was nothing to toast to, but the same impulses in both of us, wrung out two different ways, was something never to forget.