This New Year’s Eve, writer Lindsay Fleming remembers her father-in-law’s wit and wisdom, his whiskey sours and his elegant exit.
My father-in-law was famous for his whiskey sours. When your drink ran dry, he’d be quick to notice and urge a refill. If you hesitated, he’d settle it with the reminder, “No bird ever flew on one wing.” When he died, copies of his recipe were posted by magnet on the refrigerator at the family beach house. A backup was filed underneath the highball glasses in the art deco bar on the screened-in porch.
He was a sunny drinker—not prone to the dark, brooding currents common to my own father into his cups. Holiday dinners grew more convivial under the influence of several whiskey sours. As the mood grew festive, someone would inevitably produce a sloppy turn of speech, prompting a refrain from the collective memory, delivered by one or the other of his children: “I’m not under the affluence of inkahol as some of you thinkle may peep I am.”
This line never grew old, never failed to produce hilarity around the dinner table. Alcohol seemed to bring his family together in a helpful, even delightful way. It didn’t arouse anxiety or activate complexes; people didn’t storm out of the house into the night, making dramatic stands; policemen didn’t appear at the door armed with arrest warrants on alcohol-related charges. It didn’t end in 12-step programs or lugubrious scenes. Shame wasn’t part of the program.
My father-in-law was well respected and well loved, a paragon of the virtue of regularity. He’d suffered a heart attack early in life and made constructive lifestyle changes, leaving for the office each day after rush hour, cruising in his navy blue Cadillac along arteries delivered of clots. He spent a lot of time on the golf course. He found a cause that he cared about and gave his time and energy to it, assuming a leadership role on the board.
After his death, the institution recognized his many years of service. A bust was commissioned for the lobby. We family members were asked to produce photos that might help the sculptor charged with creating the bust. A number of fuzzy shots from my archives provided unassailable evidence of the affluence of inkahol on the photographer’s hand. In one his clear blue eyes gazed directly at the camera, caught in the act of carving the Thanksgiving turkey. In another he swelled in full song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” wearing a purple paper crown. I couldn’t produce a definitive portrait, just a few merry shots. He wasn’t one to seek or avoid the camera. He simply held his center, a center delimited by the TV, golf course, home bar, and the office where he still went to work every day until the time of his death.
An unveiling ceremony was planned. His children, their spouses, and the grandchildren were invited. We were eager to see him again, at least in facsimile. He’d died a year before on the 17th green of a golf course in Jamaica. He was 85, at play with some of his best friends, and lying one off the lead a few feet from the cup. We were told he died almost instantly. It was impossible not to see a certain poetic beauty, even cosmic scripting in this denouement, just several hundred yards shy of the 19th hole.
The bust had been placed in the lobby with a white sheet thrown over it, awaiting the dedication, the speeches, the ta-dah moment. Before the unveiling, over cocktails, a feeling of happy expectancy grew among family members as we stood loosely banded in the crowd, flying, most of us, on at least one wing.
The moment came and the sheet was plucked away to reveal a bronze that might have been any balding octogenarian of presidential stature. This stranger’s face carried an air of stern authority. It seemed my father-in-law, who would not have been impressed by any of this, had made a clean getaway. To my right his eldest granddaughter whispered, “It doesn’t look anything like Pop.”
I felt a giggle rising up. In fact I felt the swell of a collective family giggle, the sort of hilarious ripple that had always accompanied the famous monologue, Murtherfore, I’ve only had tee martoonis. It was the kind of giggle that grows under force of suppression, eventually bursting out in a snort you try to pass off as a respiratory event, a sneeze or hiccough.
I imagined future visitors to this lobby pausing to look into those cold eyes, extrapolating an austere fiction from the bust. I imagined what those thinkle would peep.
Lindsay Fleming is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Room to Grow and Baltimore City Paper.