I was 9 the summer my mother had to be taken to hospital. She hadn't been feeling well pretty much since the end of the school year, but she refused to go to the doctor, saying that all she needed was a bit of rest, and that she'll be better after the holidays. She was wrong.
The doctors didn't know how long they'd have to keep her there. It all depended on how well she recovered from the surgery, they said. That didn't seem to worry my mum as much as about who would be looking after me while she was gone. My dad had just begun an important project at work and wasn't able to take any days off, My mother's parents were abroad, visiting my uncle, and they wouldn't be back for another week or so. (Later I learned that my dad didn't even give them the news. The doctors had assured him it was a routine procedure, and that she'd be fine, and my dad didn't want to worry his in-laws unnecessarily during their time with their son). Sending me to a summer camp was out of the question. It'd be almost impossible to find one in such short notice, and I doubt we would've been able to afford it anyway. Our only alternative, then, were my dad's parents.
We didn't visit them very often, not only because they lived in a small town quite far--back when distances were longer--but also because my dad didn't get along too well with his. But, as I've said, we were out of choices.
Dad managed to talk his bosses into giving him at least a couple of days off, and we left to my grandparents' after visiting mum in hospital the day after she was admitted. She was in good spirits, glad that someone would be looking after me (and maybe relieved that my dad wouldn't be feeding me—he was an awful cook).
We didn't arrive to my grandparents' until the early evening and my dad left the morning after, as early as politely possible. I still remember the tension when he was saying good-bye to his father. It was as if the older man wanted to say something comforting, but wasn't quite able to find the words my dad was waiting for, but hoped wouldn't arrive.
It wasn't until I saw him drive away that I became fully aware of the situation. Mum seriously ill in hospital and I would have to spend a yet unknown number of days with these two people whom I didn't know much better than my street's baker. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a mixed bag of emotions—a pinch of sadness, a cup of fear and a dash of excitement, too, as I had never been away from my parents for so long.
After my grandfather retired to his workshop, my grandmother put one hand on my shoulder and said the usual stuff: that everything will be fine, that I shouldn't worry, that I would have a lot of fun with them, and would sure make some new friends... Maybe she was reciting it to make herself feel better, rather than me.
She was a nice woman, my grandmother—your archetypal small-town elderly lady; good-natured, but easily outraged; she would hardly ever venture out of the confines of her small world, and seemed happy with looking after the house and the garden, gossiping with her neighbours and gently nagging her husband at every chance.
That must have been the reason why, when at home, my grandfather, himself very archetypal, too, spent so many hours a day pretending to work in his workshop, while listening to the radio or reading the newspaper. And most of the time he wasn't there, or walking the moody backstreet terrier they had, he would spend at the taproom of the local brewery.
He had worked all his life as a cooper there, just like his father before him, and his father before that (and likely, a few more generations, too). Perhaps that was the reason of his uneasy relationship with his son, who instead of carrying on the family tradition, chose to follow his own path. It's not that he resented my dad, I don't think so, I believe it was because my dad's decision made him realise that his was a dying breed—no man takes that well.
He was a very different person at that pub. Whereas at home he was economical with his words, there he spoke a lot, and laughed a lot, too. He had a contagious laughter that sounded as if it came from the bottom of one of those large barrels he used to work on.
I loved going with him there. There weren't other kids to play with, but my granddad’s friends were very nice to me and I enjoyed listening to their stories (and their dirty jokes, which they always made me promise not to repeat, but I that still tried to memorise so I could share them my friends, even if at the time, I didn't quite understand what most of them were about), and my grandfather would always let me take a few sips of his beer. I loved the taste, even more, perhaps, than the taste of the soda the tapster gave me, always on the house.
I ended up staying more than two weeks with them, and I did have a lot of fun; and even made a couple friends. My mum's surgery turned out fine. She was released a week after it, but my dad decided she'd give her a few more days to recover under the care of her mother.
The day before I was to leave, my grandfather asked me if I would like to see the brewery. I said I would, but more because of the excitement on his face than my own interest on the thing, and also because he was quite a lot of fun to be around. I was quite impressed in the end, everything looked so large and ancient, even though the brewhouse was only a few decades old at the time.
We were shown around by one of my granddad’s mates, who turned out to be the brew master. The tour stopped in the cellars, where the brew master produced a tankard almost as big as my head. He filled it with beer from one of the few remaining wooden barrels and took a long draw, he wiped the froth with the back of his hand and, without uttering word, passed the tankard to my grandfather, who proceeded in exactly the same fashion. To me, it was like observing a ritual or a ceremony, and I almost burst in excitement when the tankard was given to me. Just like the two men before me, I took a long draw, careful not to spill anything on myself for fear it would ruin the initiation rite I felt I was being part of. The brew master congratulated me, and my grandfather, on how well I had handled the tankard and asked how had I liked the beer. I had loved it! It tasted very different from the one at taproom, it was as if something trembled in my mouth.
The two men went on to talk about things and people in the brewery and I kept on drinking. I must have downed at least one full pint before their attention went back to me.
That was the first time I got drunk. It was a strange, but not unpleasant, feeling, as if reality had lost some of its synchronisation—sounds, which felt like coming from behind a door, were a bit faster than sights—and I felt I was walking on a hard mattress.
My grandfather must have figured out what was going on with me, and, after getting me some soda, took me back home. He laughed most of the way, and said that we shouldn't tell anything to his wife, or to my parents, about it. I don't remember much of the rest of the day. When we got back to the house, my dad was already there. I fell asleep in the sofa and didn't wake up until the morning after, in my bed.
My dad had got up before me. He was in the kitchen having breakfast and talking to his parents, or rather, to his mother. When they saw me walking into the kitchen rubbing my eyes, my grandfather came back from whatever he was thinking and started telling my father what a great boy I'd been, and the sort of things that can make a child that age feel both proud and embarrassed at the same time; he also made me promise I would come again to stay a few days with them.
And I did. From then on, and for the following five years or so, I would go there every summer to spend at least a week. And every time, on the last day of my visit, I would go with my grandfather to the brewery and repeat the ceremony, with pretty much the same results.
The brewery shut down a few years ago, or rather, was closed down by its multinational owners because they sought to improve the positive effect of synergies, or some other stupid corporate excuse like that (I'm glad in some way that my grandfather didn't live to see that); the brand, however, is still being brewed—brands, after all, are more synergistic than brick, mortar, equipment, and people.
I still drink it, though, and to this day it's one of my favourites; much to the dismay of my beer knowledgeable friends. They are always telling me I don't get it, about the beer not being brewed in the place that gave it its name, about the ingredients, processes and what not; as if I didn't know all that already.
It's them who don't get it. Beer isn't about that—at least not this beer, and at least not to me—it's more than the result of the sum of all that data. To me, that beer still tastes like that summer, the conflicting emotions, the afternoons at the taproom and my granddad’s baritone laughter, and like the first time I got drunk. I'm yet to find a beer that tastes remotely like that, and I don't think I ever will—or at least not until my infant son gets old enough to be too young to get drunk.