Once we were past the age of uttering two repetitive syllables as means of conversation, our parents bestowed upon us a Maleficent-like gift: the burden of trust. We were never forbidden anything and had to be mature enough to make our own decisions. A lot of days had to pass by before we knew for sure that Mother could not see from the back of her head. Oh, we tried to conceal the evidence of our misdeeds, using every ounce of intelligence we possessed. We lied with dead-pan faces. We employed the imagination and creativity for which our teachers praised us daily, and which worked like a charm with our friends. But Mother obviously had an eye (or two) of Sauron’s.
She knew when I swiped a stick of gum from our local small grocery store. She knew when my sister and I went to the river to swim without an adult to accompany us. She knew when my sister lit her first cigarette at the age of twelve. She knew exactly how many pens my sister and brother took from Father’s huge pile, even though he never noticed (and why he was so hard to part with them we could never understand; the ink inevitably dried out, and they became useless before he could get to them all).
Getting caught in a lie meant losing her trust (and in turn Father’s, because she had never hidden from him anything we did, no matter how small and insignificant). And losing her trust was the worst punishment you could imagine. Father would thunder and roar, wave his arms around and point his index finger into our faces. He would send us to stand in a corner when we were little, and ground us for two years when we were teenagers, only to forget everything after couple of hours and some warm hugs from his “I-will-never-do-this-again-for-the-rest-of-my-life-I-promise” repentant children. Not so with Mother. Her sentences were final, with no right to appeal. We knew better than to try to sway her by being more loving, or offering to do extra chores. No way. She saw through our transparent intentions and she never forgave us for them. We had to honor her verdict without audible complaining. Period.
It follows every rule of logic that they kept nothing under lock and key. The only exceptions were Father’s hunting rifles kept immaculately cleaned and unloaded in a small cabinet in the den, and his stun gun, locked in the first drawer of his desk (it was hard to get a licence to carry arms in Yugoslavia, even for a stun gun, but Father was a Commander-in-Reserve of the field hospital, and the gun was officially issued and legal).
We had access to anything: cash, jewelry, medications, documents, alcohol, and Father’s medical encyclopedia, considered soft-porn by his offspring at the tender age of seven or eight. We knew we were not supposed to dig through their things, but leafing through the glossy pages of his books was too much of a temptation. Few young souls would be able to resist the combination of gruesome, bloody, degenerate, malformed, infected, and very rarely mildly arousing drawings – after all, they were in full color!
We mostly left their stuff alone (I say “mostly”, thinking in averages: while I had no curiosity about them at all, my sister could not wait for the door to click closed after they left, her feet running to rummage through old photographs, Father’s love letters from college, and Mother’s sketches). The off-white credenza with double glass doors hugged the corner of the formal blue dining room, and housed at least thirty different kinds of booze. And I am not including several bottles of beer we always had on hand, dozens of bottles of wine in the cellar, and numerous varieties of “Å¡ljivovica” (Serbian plum brandy) nestling on the pantry floor, to Mother’s eternal chagrin.
As a doctor, Father rarely returned from the hospital without a bottle of fine liqueur, or a pack of foreign cigarettes. He had a reputation as an appreciative consumer of the finer vices. His patients rewarded his diligence, diagnostic acuity, and friendly (but stern when needed) rapport with these gifts encased in shiny colorful boxes that we coveted so intensely that, for a couple of years, we built a most unusual “mural” in our upstairs living room which consisted of hundreds of boxes in different sizes (to this day, Father insists on saving the boxes as a habit, even though his Santa days are past perfect tense, and we have no interest in covering our walls with skeletons of cigarettes smoked and perfume evaporated).
Our relationship with alcohol was one of indifference. We knew it was there. We could have a half glass of wine at dinner once we turned twelve, but chose not to imbibe, except for the New Year’s Eve toast and Deda-Ljubo’s slava*. I was especially prone to stage fright and at times behaved like the frog from that Warner Brothers cartoon (yes, that one). Before leaving the house and facing my demons, I would accept a thimbleful of Mother’s home-made cherry brandy, and while the sweet, thick liquid would slide down my throat, I would gather the courage to endure another school dance, or read aloud my award-winning essay in front of the whole class (shudder). We were perfect hosts-in-training, offering patients waiting to talk to Father a refreshment, usually consisting of something 80 proof, served neat, as was the custom (in those days, if you asked for anything “on the rocks”, you might be granted a puny, half-way melted piece of ice, dug up from a defrosting freezer and presented with the utmost contempt).
We handled the alcohol with expertise. It did not scare us. It did not intimidate us. It did not tempt us. It just was. Until one night when we decided to experiment with cocktails. It was the Fall of 1979, and we just moved to the new house. I was a high school freshman, my sister was in seventh grade, and my brother in fifth. Our Aunt Boba moved in with us from out of town to attend the University (do not ask me to explain Serbian blood ties, too complicated). Our parents were gone for the evening, and we had the run of the house. It was a weekend night and all of us were free of obligations and full of energy. For years we were ogling a book of cocktails issued by Pepsi, imagining the miracles that would occur if you add a little bit of this, and a little more of that. After all, who did not want to join the Pepsi generation? I do not remember who was the genius behind the unanimously accepted mixology lesson, but pretty soon the four of us went about gathering the ingredients, glassware, measuring vessels, lemons, and the one solitary tray of ice that made ice balls.
Campari? Check, second shelf, back row. Dark rum? Check, second shelf, front row. Whiskey? No problem – we just had to choose between Johnny Red, Johnny Black, Chivas, Ballantine, Black&White, and some unpronounceable Anglo-Saxon brand (I chose Black&White as it had the cutest little schnauzers on the label. Thank God I did not pick the unpronounceable single malt scotch. I would not be writing this for sure). Orange liqueur? Hmmm, how about “Mandarinetto”? Angostura bitters? No clue, but there was a bottle of wormwood liqueur we knew was really bitter because it was doled out in minuscule doses as a remedy for stomach-ache. We leafed through the booklet with frenzy, coming up with the most interesting and vile concoctions imaginable. As the experiment progressed, we became louder. Our giggles were contagious and our cheeks flushed with excitement and adventure. We mixed everything, getting bolder by the second, boosted by liquid valor. It did not take long for the words to become slurred, or for the eyelids to get heavy.
By the time our parents returned home, the sink was full of sticky glasses, the kitchen table piled with bar accessories, and the four of us were sprawled all over the living room, some on the couches, some on the floor. All they heard was heavy breathing, snoring and moaning.
The next morning Reveille sounded promptly at eight, the product of Mother’s special brand of instructional sadism. We could not lift our heads off the cushions. The cursed bell hanging on the stairs rang on and on, until we could not ignore it anymore. We groaned and sighed loudly stumbling upstairs in a weary procession, not able to keep our eyes open. We could not recall the previous night. We could not stop our heads from exploding with rhythmic pounding. We snarled at one another, wishing for the impossible: the soft comfort of a dark room.
Mother did not mention our adventurous experimentation with drunkenness. She greeted us cheerfully, served us breakfast and coffee, and delegated the chores for the usual Saturday morning clean-up. No rest for us. No empathy. No aspirin. And no grumbling allowed. The lesson learned: suffer the consequences. She did not need to punish us. We could not decide what was worse: climbing the ladder to clean the windows with your head spinning, running the vacuum cleaner on full blast, dusting the crystal glasses and delicate figurines with your shaking hands, or caramelizing the onions in bacon grease while your stomach was doing back flips.
For a long time we could not drink Pepsi (Coke was acceptable, although not a preferred choice). And we circled in a wide arc around the liquer cabinet. But in time we healed and made our peace with alcohol. We respect its power and acknowledge the consequences of indulging with stoical endurance. When we meet, we laugh about the “Pepsi” night, letting the time soften the pain of pounding headaches and the quivering of young hands. And we raise our glasses to Mother, the only person I know that is truly allergic to alcohol, who managed to teach us a lesson without punishment.
*Each Serbian family celebrates its saint-protector. These holidays are remnants of the old Slavic pagan religion that continued in Christianity.
There is a group of very dear bloggers who are celebrating Giada De Laurentiis and her recipes. For this week the emphasis was on Giada’s international recipes. I chose a cocktail. For more recipes for Out of Italy head to I Heart Cooking Clubs.
Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies has started a Cocktail Puppy event, where we are encouraged to submit our best recipes for potent potables. This is my contribution.
HIBISCUS TEA WITH CITRUS AND VODKA (FoodTV, Giada De Laurentiis)
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups (2 ounces) dried hibiscus flowers or dried rose petals*
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 cup vodka chilled
- 1 cup ice
*Can be found at specialty Latin markets
In a medium saucepan combine the water, hibiscus flowers, and sugar over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool for 25 minutes. Add the lemon juice, lime juice, and vodka.
Place the ice in a tall pitcher. Strain the hibiscus tea into the pitcher and discard the flowers. Refrigerate until ready to use.
NOTES: I thought the beverage was a bit too sweet, but Husband liked it just fine (he is from Georgia, so I forgive him). Would be the best served after the meal, not as an aperitif.