A Story About Wine


Yesterday, December 6th, was the 8th anniversary of my father’s death, and as always on these anniversaries, I had a glass of wine in his honour. Now, me drinking wine in the evening after the kids are in bed is nothing unusual, but when I’m toasting Dad, I go to a bit of extra effort. Instead of opening any old plonk that happens to be handy, I take the time to find a bottle of nice wine, the kind of wine Dad would enjoy.

In life, Dad had a true appreciation for fine wine, and he had an impressive collection. Where I’m the kind of person who will buy a bottle of wine and promptly drink it, Dad actually collected it. Every bottle he got was meticulously marked with the date of acquisition, and if it was a gift, it would also be marked with the occasion and the name of the person who had given it to him. The wine would then be put into one of the wine cabinets and left to age as appropriate.

Dad belonged to the Wine Of The Month club, and the bottles he received from them were treated to the same attention to detail. His last shipment arrived about three weeks before he died, and as sick and fragile as he was, he waved away offers of help and lovingly made his annotations on each bottle.

A love of wine is just one of the things I shared with Dad. We spent many evenings sitting out on his patio, enjoying the last of the day’s warm South African sun, sipping wine as we discussed the other interests we had in common, like running or books. Even after I moved to Canada, we chatted to each other about what wine we were drinking. It always felt as though I was still drinking wine with him, even though he was on the other side of the world.

And so, the first time I opened a bottle of wine after he died, it felt a little odd. It didn’t feel right, somehow. Dad clearly didn’t think it was right either, because judging from how that particular wine-opening went, he was there and he was trying everything in his power to prevent that wine from being opened.

The scene unfolded two days after Dad’s funeral. My mom, my brother and I were having lunch at my aunt Ann’s house, along with some of my cousins. Lunch at Ann’s house was always a feast. She was – may she rest in peace along with Dad – a master in the kitchen. Her fine food had to be accompanied by fine wine.

While the others sat chatting at the dining room table, I was in the kitchen with Ann. She was transferring food into serving dishes, and I was opening the wine. In those days, most bottles of wine had corks. Not that weird composite plastic stuff you get these days, but real, honest-to-God corks.

I did my thing with the corkscrew, and the cork came partway out of the bottle, and then it just stopped. You know how corks sometimes just get stuck, and no amount maneuvering will get them to budge? This was one of those corks. I was not deterred, though. I had several years as a university student behind me – I was capable of getting any wine out of any bottle, no matter what impediments stood in my way.

I extracted the corkscrew from the cork, grabbed a breadknife, and used it to saw off the bit of cork that was sticking out of the top of the bottle.

I could almost hear Dad spinning in his coffin.

I set about using the corkscrew on the remaining piece of cork. I got it firmly in place and then started the process of getting the cork out.

The corkscrew broke.

So to sum up the situation I had the following: a wine bottle with half a cork in it. Said half-cork had half a corkscrew in it. And most importantly, there was wine inside the bottle that was stubbornly remaining inaccessible to us.

By this stage, Ann and I were in absolute stitches of laughter. Ever the graceful hostess, Ann did a skilful job of politely heading off anyone who tried to come into the kitchen wanting to know what was so funny.

Fortunately, Ann was a great believer in contingency planning, so she had a backup corkscrew which she produced with a flourish, like a magician. Through a series of hit-and-miss stabby attempts, we finally got the cork out.

The good news was that we had freed the wine within the bottle. The bad news was that it was riddled with cork.

No problem.

Ann and I strained the wine into a plastic measuring jug, rinsed the bottle to get rid of any stray bits of cork, and then restored the wine to its rightful receptacle. I mean, we had to. There was no way we could show up to the dinner table bearing a plastic jug full of wine.

That hard-earned wine was some of the best I ever tasted, as if the person whose life we were toasting had sprinkled a little bit of magic into it.



Goodbye To A Lady

To my beautiful Aunt Ann,

For months, I have been telling myself that I would write you a letter. The Internet never made its way to the charming old farmhouse that has been home to you for your whole life. Since I moved to Canada eleven years ago, we have kept up with each other’s lives through my Mom, the occasional phone call, my two visits home, and the odd piece of snail mail.

When I got married last year, you painted me a picture. A bright, beautiful picture of flowers. It brightens up my mantle and I think of you every time I look at it. And although I sent you a card to say thank you, I promised myself that I would write you a proper letter, full of news and anecdotes. Maybe I would put in some pictures of my boys, the great-nephews who filled you with joy even though you never met them.

Now you are gone, tragically taken from us while the letter in my head remains forever unwritten.

When Mom called in the early hours of this morning to give me the news, I could not believe it. You have always been such a big, influential part of my life, and I cannot help wondering if my world will ever be able to adjust to your absence.

You were, to me, the epitome of a lady. Stylish and elegant, you were utterly beautiful inside and out. The many wonderful qualities about you will never be forgotten: your warmth and kindness, your generosity, your patience, and of course, your second-to-none baking skills.

Memories of you are playing in my head like a slideshow.

…the countless times you helped me prepare for my piano exams, showing me with infinite patience where I was going wrong and applauding what I was doing right.

…the times I walked around your large property with you and your dogs, helping you feed the pigeons.

…the times I played checkers with Granny when she was still alive, while you tried out a sewing experiment at the other end of the table.

…the way I admired the garden that you put so much love and care into.

…the lazy summer days I whiled away on the hammock in your front yard while you happily pruned roses nearby.

…the times I ate the shortbread that only you could make just right, that you dipped into melted chocolate.

…the little “Happy Birthday” music box you had, that you would play over the phone to whoever was celebrating a birthday.

…the time you took me and two of my cousins to the lion park.

…the time you tried to firmly but lovingly talk sense into me when I made a stupid decision that would have far-reaching effects.

…your home renovation escapades that made the rest of the family alternately despair and laugh.

…the way you folded me in your warm, loving embrace when my Dad died, comforting me even while you grieved the loss of one of your best friends.

…the day, shortly after Dad’s funeral, when you and I broke the corkscrew while it was still in the cork and we ended up having to strain the wine, and we agreed that Dad was messing with us.

…your absolute delight when we welcomed my firstborn child into the world the day before your birthday.

At the beginning of this week, I was gripped with inexplicable intense anxiety that wouldn’t go away. For three days I was living with the iron first of dread, and I didn’t know why. Little did I know that my universe was bracing itself for your sudden departure.

It is surreal to think that you left your house expecting to be gone for a short time – just long enough to walk your dogs down the road and back. You probably thought you would return home, have a cup of tea and maybe a sandwich for your lunch, and spend the rest of the day relaxing in your garden with your dogs.

I wonder if you had any sense of what was to come as the car approached, starting off the chain of events that would lead to your death. I hope you went quickly, without feeling any pain.

I love you, and I always have. I am going to miss you more than words can possibly express. And I am grateful that I had the honour of being your niece, that you were such a big part of my life, and that you helped shape me into the person I am today.

I know that you will be worrying about Mom. She is devastated. You were her best friend and she will miss you so much. But we will take care of her. We will make sure she is OK.

Rest in peace, beautiful lady. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.