I believe what we drink says more about us than we know. At an early age, I was lapping up the dregs of holiday blackberry brandy from Waterford Crystal goblets. My family was large and Irish; certainly, I was a woman destined to appreciate a good drink.
When I reached the sexually uncertain age of 13, one cold January day my spinster aunt asked me to accompany her to my Great Uncle James’ funeral in New York City. This promised to be such a Grand Adventure that I willingly resigned myself to Aunt Mary’s well-known, and well-feared, driving habits.
The long drive into the city was singularly eventful. On the turnpike, my Aunt alternated between 30mph and 80mph in the blink of an eye, tailgating and jumping curbs when distracted. Once within city limits, she rear-ended another car at a stoplight, hurrying off with a shout, “I’m going to a funeral!” I lost count of red lights we raced through and near collisions we narrowly avoided. Aunt Mary was determined to attend this funeral, even if it killed both of us as well.
I hunkered down in the seat, ready to join my Great Uncle James in his casket and feeling a deep, certain need for a glass of blackberry brandy.
The funeral ceremony itself has since passed from memory, definitely tame after Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in arriving. Mourners crowded into my Aunt Theresa’s tiny Bronx apartment, and I was introduced to a host of smiling, talking faces. They were mostly O’Reillys from my grandmother’s original 12 siblings. One image pressed itself into my teenage consciousness — the pockmarked, world-weary face of Cousin Stephen. I could feel him watching me, sizing me up. I was accustomed to the crude stares of schoolboys, kids my own age. Delirious with this mature attention, I accepted Stephen’s drink offer, expecting my first full glass of blackberry brandy. The amber liquid in the tumbler was intriguing.
“Go on, love,” he encouraged, “it’s good Irish.”
The taste was at once puissant and smooth. Coughing, teary-eyed, I downed it in one gulp. Then came an amazing transformation. I felt drawn for the first time to a decidedly adult discussion.
Everyone in the jam-packed living room vigorously and simultaneously expressed an opinion on every subject under the Irish rainbow. These debates held particular fascination because Stephen was in the midst of them all. My second cousin Stephen was the most charismatic man to come within touching distance of my sheltered, rural existence — a rambunctious, opinionated boyo. A shock of thick, unkempt curls fell into his eyes and he constantly brushed the hair aside with an impatient hand. I was mute with worship, downing each fresh glass he handed over. I had no footing to break into the conversation but I wanted desperately to be part of this clan.
Stephen left the group before I could steel my fragile courage to speak. Pushed from the room as my Aunt’s elbow prompted departure, I turned at the door and with tipsy sincerity told my Great Aunt, the widow, “This is all very sad.”
“So ‘tis, so ‘tis,” she agreed, “but you’ll be right enough.”
She hugged me goodbye and I clambered into the back of Aunt Mary’s Buick, nearly oblivious and yet surely, infinitely matured by this experience. After dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant and a brisk walk to our hotel room, I felt maturity shaking me by the shoulders and directing me to the nearest bathroom. My first hangover came close on the heels of my first official drink.
Decades later, I heard that cousin Stephen died, with the whispered attribution, “He drank a bit.” I didn’t go to the wake, but I poured a drink from a familiar bottle — Jameson’s — and thought of sadder times.