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My sister-in-law is anti-booze. Do I call her out for being judgmental?

The question

My father and I were making a family dinner at his place. My brother and his wife were coming, and she asked what they could bring. I said a salad, and some wine. She refused to bring wine because at the last couple of family dinners my dad was slurring his words. My brother and sister-in-law are non-drinkers. Me, my dad and his girlfriend like our wine, but nobody imbibes to the point of being drunk, or would ever drive after drinking. Plus, I think not bringing wine isn't more likely to make anyone drink less than not bringing food is likely to make us eat less. She states her position as, "We don't want to support that kind of behaviour." I know that people can be stubborn about what they think is best/healthiest for family members but this seems so judgmental and, quite simply, not fun. Please advise.

The answer

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My mother had a policy like that for a while. She wouldn't give alcohol as a present: "It sends the wrong message."

Me: "What message? That you don't want people to go to the liquor store to buy their own booze?"

Ah, well. "A rum type, the sober," as Martin Amis says ("rum type" being Brit-speak for "queer sort").

Don't get me wrong. I raise a glass to everyone who's on the wagon. I'd like to propose a toast: "To sobriety: keep it up." Me, I'm going to stick to my policy: ironclad moderation so I never, ever have to quit.

One pitfall of being a non-drinker is tipping over into telling the tipplers how to live their lives, thus adding a dash of bitters to the emotional cocktail of family dynamics and other relationships.

I had a situation something similar to yours in my own family. My grandmother, who all her life drank nothing but dozens of cups of coffee a day (I come from sober stock, Prairie folk: my own parents also served only coffee at their wedding, if you can believe it), suddenly discovered, at age 80, sherry.

Hot on the heels of that discovery was another one: she liked it. Sherry was a gateway tipple to cocktails, which she found she also enjoyed. So much so, she had to be carried out of our wedding.

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My father tried pouring her progressively weaker cocktails at family dinners. That dog didn't hunt. Grandma might have been a tad overrefreshed at times, but she was sharp as an ice pick: great-grandma didn't raise no fools.

Grandma would stare at the cocktail Dad had light-handedly fixed her in the kitchen with gimlet eyes and a (bourbon) sour frown. Then look up and declare: "There's no stick in it!" And send Dad back to the kitchen to freshen/top it up.

("There's no stick in it" became a much-used family catchphrase, applicable to just about everything but mainly mixed drinks.)

He also held a couple of completely "dry" occasions at his house, but the feeling there was: Why should the rest of us be punished just because we have a thirsty nana?

All of which to say: Trying to turn off the tap at family functions is not an effective strategy.

Now, I would be an irresponsible and intemperate advice columnist indeed if I failed to say somewhere that if you feel like your father is tippling over the line into alcoholism, of course urge him in the gentlest and most compassionate way to get help.

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And I have to say I agree your sister-in-law's gesture, or non-gesture, of refusing to bring wine, is purely symbolic, if not downright priggish and sanctimonious.

But I'd just let it slide. Look at it this way: Squabbling with your sister-in-law over whether she should bring wine to family dinners isn't going to do your father any good. It's the very definition of a red herring, and sure to cause unnecessary friction.

It isn't going to do anyone any good. Plus, I feel like you'd sort of be playing into her trap. I can almost offer you my patented Damage Control Absofreakinlute Guaranfriggintee she has a speech she's just dying to unpack. You drop a mini-lecture on her, and she'll let you have it, right between the eyes.

Then again, maybe it's a good idea if you have that conversation. If she feels like your father has a genuine problem, and you don't, maybe you need to sit down at the kitchen table (you with a glass of wine, her with a club soda) and talk it out with her.

Might be time for that. Either she may convince you there's an issue, or you could persuade her to be tolerant of the temperate. In vino veritas or not, the truth will out: and that's a good thing.

What am I supposed to do now?

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