Old Fashioneds

Photo: Jessica Poundstone

Photo: Jessica Poundstone

Published Arroyo Literary Review, Spring 2015

For Old Fashioneds my family always used Seagram’s 7, an inexpensive blend that served as the house whiskey. Though they kept a fully stocked bar for their friends, from British gin to Grand Marnier, my parents regularly drank Seagram’s, even after Father began making money in the law practice. Once, as an amusement, he calculated how much he had saved over the years by not drinking a good bonded bourbon. He sidled up to Mother at the stove, slipped his arm around her waist, and revealed the astonishing sum. Like much of what my father said, his announcement aimed to make her laugh, and she threw back her head and rewarded him a generous throaty yelp.

Old Fashioneds were the first cocktail I ever learned to make, Father having taught me the recipe when I was nine, an age old enough to responsibly lift the short gold-rimmed tumblers down from the kitchen cupboard. These drinks were reserved for Sunday, when the afternoons melted long and shining and no one was in a rush. Once we children were brought home from Sunday School and Mother had started something roasting in the oven, I would get down the glasses, one for every adult.

I made Old Fashioneds most Sundays for eight years, until I moved away to college, where I only stayed two years, then took up living at loose ends in San Francisco. Finally, I came home for Christmas and simply stayed on beyond the holidays. For what purpose I did not know.

One Sunday afternoon found me back at my post in the kitchen, making a first round and now including one for myself. At 19, I had learned something of the history of the drink, its 19th-century Louisville origins predating the Kentucky Derby, the classic mix of whiskey and bitters that earned its name. As I measured Seagram’s into a glass jigger, I heard Father speak behind me

I turned.

He stood in the archway between the kitchen and dining room, handsome at 48, with dark eyes, and a crew cut now turning grey. He wore his usual weekend clothes, a sports shirt loose outside casual slacks. I don't remember what he said. Perhaps he had come to check on the drinks, or maybe another guest had arrived and he'd come to revise the count.

As we stood gazing at each other, one of his knees buckled. He sagged, then caught and steadied himself, recovering instantly. In that moment I knew -- in that telepathic way impossible to account for later -- that he was dying.

A look of fury came momentarily to his face, and his eyes said, You didn't see a thing. He focused on me long enough to make sure I understood. Then he turned, perfectly balanced and perfectly composed, and was gone.

And so I knew why I'd come home.

As winter turned to spring I watched Father closely, but he never again gave himself away. In May of that year, he and my mother made a trip to Mazatlán, and I was left in charge of the house and my three siblings – Michael, 16, and the girls, 14 and 11.   

In Mexico Father was in so much pain that the manager of the resort courteously provided morphine, and upon his return to Oregon, he was hospitalized in Portland, a candidate for open heart surgery.

Mother spent those last weeks at the hospital in Portland, in constant vigil by his bedside.

I was left at home in the country to provide some regularity in the lives of my siblings, though their lives would never again be regular.

I remember those short summer nights. After I sent the kids to bed, I’d sit chain smoking Camels and listening to one particular record of Art Farmer playing flugelhorn. His soft swinging rendition of "Embraceable You" brought tears to my eyes, and I played it over and over again. I'd fall asleep just as the downstairs rooms began to fill with light, and I could make out the border of roses and artichokes along the south side of the house.

Father’s heart was found to be riddled by some toxin, possibly a recurrence of the malaria he'd picked up in the Philippines, where he flew fighter planes at the beginning of the War. The heart surgery – a procedure then in its earliest days -- was attempted, but he died on the operating table.

It would be months before my mother, then 41, could believe her loss -- years before she could accept it.

Abruptly she changed her drink to vodka. I now understand that the sudden sting of Seagram's on her tongue would have sent a shudder straight to her ambushed heart.

This is my father's Old Fashioneds recipe, simple enough for a child to follow: 

Put one teaspoon of granulated sugar in the bottom of a short tumbler and muddle with a little hot water. Add three dashes of Angostura bitters, followed by a double shot of whiskey. Stir with a teaspoon. Add a maraschino cherry speared on a toothpick, and three or four ice cubes.

If you use Seagram’s 7, you’ll save some money, but that may not matter. Life runs out before the money does anyway. 

Copyright Martha Gies, 2019. No portion of this site may be used without written permission.