On my bedroom wall hangs a family portrait almost 100 years old.
Dressed in their Sunday best and formally arranged in two rows, my paternal grandmother, Clara; her parents; three brothers; and four sisters stare solemnly at the camera. Grandma’s right arm rests lovingly on the shoulder of her little brother, Walter.
I remember almost all of my great-aunts and uncles, but I never knew Walter. He was about 40 when he died shortly after I was born. Drank himself to death, my mother said.
She said Grandma’s father also drank a lot, but I never saw him drunk. The only thing I remember about great-grandpa Charlie is that he made good bean soup.
Dad told many family stories, but he never talked about Walter. Neither did Grandma. I think it was partly because Walter was so rarely mentioned that I grew up believing that drinking was shameful.
I drank briefly during college, but I didn’t like the taste, didn’t enjoy the effects and quit after a minor traffic accident.
When I was younger, I might have credited moral superiority for my dislike of alcohol, but that’s not the reason. I was just lucky enough to inherit a combination of genes that made it highly unlikely I would become an alcoholic such as Walter.
A lot of people are less fortunate in the gene pool. Alcoholism is dismayingly common. It inflicts enormous pain on families, both the high-born and the low.
Great-grandpa Charlie was a farm laborer who could never scrape together enough money to buy his own land. I was told there were times when his eight children hardly had enough to eat. But they married well, they didn’t drink, and as adults, they were far better off than their parents had been.
When I whined for a treat, Grandma would give it to me. Then she’d tell me how happy she’d been as a child when her mother had enough money left over after grocery shopping to buy everybody a single cracker from the big barrel at the general store.
In contrast to Walter’s humble upbringing, Hall Roosevelt was born to privilege. He was the nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt and beloved younger brother of Eleanor, who married Franklin Delano Roosevelt and became first lady of the United States.
When Hall lay dying, his liver destroyed by alcohol just as Walter’s was, Eleanor sat at his bedside musing over memories of their childhood. Watching Hall die was, she said, “My idea of hell.”
Hall had been a “dazzling student at Harvard,” Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in No Ordinary Time, her biography of President and Mrs. Roosevelt that won a Pulitzer Prize. He had “an intellect which both Franklin and Eleanor recognized as superior to their own.”
But in addition to his brilliance, Hall inherited the flaw that had been fatal to his father. As Goodwin wrote, “He began drinking when he was in his twenties and never stopped.”
Writing to a friend after Hall died, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “This was once the little boy I played with and scolded, he could have been so much & this is what he is.”
Grandma must have felt that way when Walter died. Alcoholic liver failure is an ugly way to go.
As a medical examiner and coroner, I’ve autopsied many hundreds of people who died young because they abused alcohol. To me, those people are just statistics. Walter is just a fading picture on my wall.
I wonder what they could have been.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003 to 2012.