She was a WASP and self-deprecatingly proud of it.
I underestimated what that meant. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. How different could it be? I was three-fourths of that, after all.
She’d invited me to go along for Thanksgiving at her gramma’s. I’d meet her dad, and I’d hang out with them while they helped her move out of her Wealthy Suburb mansion. Gramma had had a stroke, and a lingering after-effect from her stroke was that she had a pronounced aphasia—an inability to conduct verbal communication. She was in pretty impressive condition otherwise, but speaking in riddles turns out to be quite a social and practical liability, so it was time—they all agreed—for her to go into a home.
Dad was a traveling salesman, but not the sad, alcoholic Willy Loman kind. The successful, happy, genial kind—you know, wealthy.
She was a grad student. We’d met there and become friends—not close, but fond. We kept track of each other’s relationship status in coming years until the day came we were both single, and then she informed me—in response to my whining that I’d never date again—that of course I would. How could she be so sure? Because, she informed me, I was going to ask her out.
Which I did.
We’d been dating for a while by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. Half a year, maybe? Who knows. But it was time to introduce me to the family, starting with Dad and Gramma. Mom was even more WASPy, and true to type, no longer in the picture—happily single and marginally employed as a thriving artist somewhere in the coldest reaches of New England.
So we drove up to Wealthy Suburb, and since we were running a little late, we met them at the restaurant. Dad greeted her with a big hug, a rakishly charming grin, and a lower-back pat. He gave me a sparkling grin and a handshake of the sort that probably won him a lot of deals. Gramma greeted us with enthusiastic gibberish, and then we got down to business.
“Dewars on the rocks. And, Daughter—would you like a glass of chardonnay?”
“I can’t stand chardonnay, Dad. Bourbon please—rocks.”
With a puzzled grin, he repeated her order to the bartender. He turned to me and repeated his question.
“Actually, your Dewars is more my style.”
Big grin; another scotch, and a glass of whatever it was that Gramma had drunk since before anyone had cars.
He clinked my glass with a little more enthusiasm than the others.
Dinner was at the best restaurant in town, decadent and delicious, with several bottles of expensive wine, and full of scrambled tales in which Gramma held court and we played a new kind of Charades. It was exhausting in the long run, but in the short run amusing especially for those of us who enjoy parlor games. Turns out Gramma had been the life of every party—and she’d hosted lots of them. Cocktail parties to lubricate the business aspirations of Grampa, an inventor at Big Industry in the City, successful and long gone. Nobody said, but liver disease as his exit ramp wouldn’t have surprised me.
Once the life of a party, always the life of a party. She was a charming story-teller, full of winks and big generous smiles, happy to be the butt of her own jokes. Not having a clue what the story was about didn’t get much in the way, and Girlfriend and Dad did their best to supply details for me.
“It was… around, and around, and around (upward spiraling gesture)… and then we… did it to it… around and around, until… the thing! You know, we… with the thing. Did it!”
“The car? … the road? …it went up? …the mountain? …got stuck?”
“Yes! …Yes! …Yes!”
Something to do with tourism somewhere exotic, with their own rental car, gone lost. Gales of laughter at their predicament. Clearly a favorite family anecdote.
We got back to the mansion, and Girlfriend announced that she was exhausted from the drive (read “Gramma”) and the long day (read “Dad”) and going to bed (read “wanted to read”). Gramma said she would, too, and tottered off to a wing of the house that I never did get to see.
Dad looked at me, looked at the enormous bottle of Johnnie Walker Red sitting among its friends in a half-packed carton, and asked with a grin and a raised eyebrow. I nodded. He plucked cut-crystal tumblers out of the cabinet, led me to the kitchen, and nodded toward the freezer. I plopped several ice cubes into each glass, and he splashed a splooshy splash of scotch over them.
Our tumblers were alarmingly full.
He led me into the living room, and we sank into fat leather armchairs. We ought to have been staring into a fireplace, but I think it was a stack of boxes.
Dad and I chatted amiably. (Girlfriend and I had recently watched Pride and Prejudice together—the long BBC miniseries version—and I couldn’t help thinking of Dad as “tolerably amiable.”) He was a good story-teller, and he was good at drawing me out, too. After a tumbler of safe chat, he worked around to asking about Daughter. Was she happy? Was she doing okay in grad school? Did she need money? Was her car running okay?
How had we met?
Were we happy? Did we do fun things together?
Although camping didn’t seem like his idea of a good time, he seemed happy that we’d gone on several trips together.
He splashed some more whisky into our tumblers. I learned a bit about his new girlfriend and how he’d been noticing recently how similar she was to Ex-Wife.
I think I might have heard some relationship advice ’round about the time of his third tumbler. I wasn’t keeping up.
Eventually we wandered off down separate hallways to bed. I found Girlfriend snoozing, with a book on her face.
The next day was our Thanksgiving feast. Girlfriend and I did most of the work. Gramma was most pleased that my stuffing recipe seemed to involve almost as much sage as breadcrumbs. About an hour before the turkey came out of the oven, Dad got Happy Hour underway.
“Daughter, we have some chardonnay chilling—would you like a glass?”
“No, thank you—does Gramma have any bourbon?”
“Chardonnay for you, Erin?”
“Bourbon or whisky for me, too, please.”
No Whatever for Gramma; it was Thanksgiving and she wanted, “The stuff, with the things, that go up and up and…”
We had more Champagne with dinner. I’d never heard of such a thing—Champagne with a meal?!—but it was great. Perfect foil for the turkey and all those rich, fatty side dishes. Many hours and countless rounds of Charades later, the ladies scattered, and Dad and I enjoyed a companiable tumbler of Johnnie Walker.
The next afternoon, about an hour before our dinner reservations at the country club, Dad asked Daughter, “Would you like a glass of Chardonnay?”
A resigned sigh. No, Dad—I’d prefer bourbon.
No, thanks—some of that Johnnie Walker Red he was pouring would be just fine—sure, I like it neat, too.
And a glass of Whatever for Gramma.
We got to the country club, and he headed to the bar, first asking our preferences.
A glass of chardonnay, daughter?
No, Bourbon. Dewars for me, too, thanks. No need to ask Gramma about the Whatever.
We got home that night, and after the ladies retired, Dad and I had our last tumblers of Johnnie Walker together. The next day, Girlfriend and I headed back west, and Dad headed back east. Gramma was in the home within a few weeks of our visit.
The next year, we were back in Wealthy Suburb, helping Gramma move into her spiffy new condo. Turns out that, aphasia or not, Gramma was damned if she was going to rot away in that home where they were all old and boring and never had Happy Hour. Dad and Girlfriend were worried that she’d fall, break a hip, and lie there until someone followed the odor and found her body a few weeks later. Gramma was fine with that possibility, saying it was better than dying of boredom.
Well, what can you do but drink to that?
So we did. Daughter and I passed on chardonnay, and the three of us clinked our new cut-crystal tumblers into Gramma’s glass of Whatever. And we spent another Thanksgiving weekend much like the one before: lots of great meals with Dad genially footing the bill, Gramma holding court, Girlfriend going from amused to exhausted, and me improving my game of Charades. Lots of evenings spent companionably sipping Johnnie Walker Black with Dad (Gramma had upgraded) and chatting after the ladies had gone to bed.
Gramma died the next spring—another stroke. It was quick and painless, they were told. I still have the compass of Grampa’s that she’d given me on my first visit “to remember our Thanksgiving together.” The geometry kind, not the camping kind.
That summer, Girlfriend and I broke up. We’d had a lot of fun together—dinner parties, camping trips, video rentals—and we had lots of stories together, but we hadn’t found ourselves using the L word. I never did meet Mom.
Not sure what happened to Girlfriend; we drifted apart.
I have fond memories. Just the other day, I ran across a handful of pictures of her and her cat, Lizzie (named for Miss Elizabeth Bennett, of course), and remembered what a great smile she has. Every so often I find myself pulling out one of her recipes, and I still associate the entire Silver Palate series of cookbooks with our epic dinner parties together. I frequently chuckle to myself when someone suggests a glass of chardonnay.
A kaddish of Thanksgiving for failed relationships—a nod to the sadness of lost hopes, and a grin to the good memories that stay fresh far longer, when we’re lucky, as I have been many times.
I still miss him.