I was about 12 years old when I went over to Meme’s house with the beginnings of a cold.
It was just a runny nose that had drained into my throat, but when Meme heard, she poured me a half a shot of Canadian Mist blended whiskey and told me to drink it.
Dozens more times over the second half of my life I would hear the story about how she told a doctor that a shot of liquor was what she took whenever she felt a cold coming on and how the doctor had said “Well that’s about as good as anything, huh?”
I drank it fast, like cold medicine, but when it hit the back of my throat it burned something awful. It was a gripping pain, with a taste that made me want to scrape it off my tongue like when I once bit into a sour persimmon.
I began to plan the rest of my life, vowing never again to let on to Meme that I was getting sick. If I succeeded, she would never make me drink that horrid stuff agian.
But by the end of the night, either because of some strange healing powers or my first whiskey buzz, my throat was fine. It felt great the next morning, as well, and when I fully recovered, I realized that my Meme was on to something.
My parents, who never drank, began keeping airplane bottles of Canadian whiskey in our medicine cabinet, and while it took some prodding, my mom began accepting the home remedy as a treatment for sore throats. In extreme cases, anyway.
I worked on the combinations throughout high school, but in college, especially post-21, I began to really master my colds. I can’t remember the last time I was sick for more than two or three days, thanks to a combination of shots of whiskey before bed and a day-long diet of orange juice.
I didn’t always have the best whiskey around, though. I recall a tickle in my throat minutes before leaving my dorm for an exam when I took a swig of Aristocrat Rum to knock it out. I may even recall doing well on that exam …
Before long, the ritual came to embody the very essence of who my Meme was. A strict, religious, if intolerant, woman, who I doubt is very much different from other grandmothers and grandfathers born in the midst of the Great Depression, she definitely didn’t go down easily.
In fact, at times she was downright abrasive. I remember several times hearing her say that I was an ugly baby, but I ended up being the prettiest one of all of her grandchildren. (That’s right, suck it y’all!)
In the moment, though, all I could think of was how horrible it was to have been called an ugly baby by my grandmother.
I wasn’t quite old enough, then, to search for intrinsic value in things, or even to evaluate things based on their intent. She was telling me she thought I had grown to be her “pretty boy,” which was what she always called me. (If you could hear her say it, you would know it wasn’t sarcastic.)
It took her death, in December, and a 12-pack of miniature Canadian Mist bottles for me to see the connection. To see that you don’t just drink whiskey for its initial taste, as sharp (or as beautifully mellow) as it may be.
You drink it for the linger. The warmth in your cheeks and throat. The odor that soon permeates your palate and transforms your sense of taste. The way it soothes your mind beginning in the back of your skull and then moving, slowly, into the front of your mind.
You never really know you’ve had a good whiskey until it’s left you.
And that’s precisely how I’ll remember my Meme.
I always knew her love was there, even though taking her was sometimes difficult. It could feel like walking on eggshells with her sometimes, but I always knew there was an unmistakable love she had for me.
And now that she’s left me, I can feel it fully.
So here is to the woman who taught me to take my whiskey neat; the woman whose wisdom and love aged into a blend that I couldn’t fully appreciate until after she had left me; the woman whose memory will linger with me, warmly, for the rest of my life.