Gin & Tonics

When I fly, I drink Gin & Tonics.

Other than when I’m with my parents, I never do this. The drink is specific, only and to either, my mother and father or an airplane. Sometimes both. 

The association never really occurred to me until now. Now that I’m sitting in an airport, craving a G & T. Truthfully, I don’t even like Tonic water. I think it tastes like dirty bubbles. But there’s tradition behind this one.

My parents drink Gin & Tonics because of my grandmother, my father’s mother. She was a tall, athletic Irish woman – charming and elegant and perfect in every way. It was her drink of choice and she was the personification of it – a double in a highball glass – refreshing, reminiscent of another era.

My mother used to say that she lucked out with Grammie, Gram for short. She couldn’t have asked for a better mother-in-law. Gram extended her graciousness and good heart to her grandkids, something I imagine that came very naturally to her. I emphasize this because as a child, I remember plenty of adults treating me like… a child. Not Gram though. She was the one who played whiffle ball with us when we were growing up. She taught me and all my cousins how to play golf. She took my brother out driving, with all the cousins piled in her white station wagon, ready to die in the name of Seamus getting a license.

The summer before she passed away, she would pick all six of us up from our houses and take us for breakfast to Huck Finn in the West Lawn neighborhood of Chicago, just down the block from the house where she raised my father and uncles. Then, we’d go on an adventure. Some days we’d play a few rounds of mini golf. Some days we’d go to the movies. The cemetery was frequently on our route. Gram wanted to visit Grampie, make sure his footstone was tidy, and say a prayer over his grave.

She was a class act. A worldly, down-to-earth woman who couldn’t be done justice by Rosy the Riveter herself. There is only one woman I’ve ever met who reminds me of Gram, and that’s my partner Terry’s mother. She’s absolutely lovely.

Gram and Gramps were actually responsible for my very first plane ride. The one I can remember anyway. And remember it I do. Vividly, in fact. I was six. I traveled with my cousin Jennie to visit my grandparents in Florida, where they lived full-time sans summers. Jennie was eight at the time. This was back when you could do just about anything when it came to air-travel: go through security without a ticket, throw two very young unaccompanied minors on a plane by themselves… Hell, they still had functioning ashtrays in the armrests. I know this because I remember wanting to play with the ashtray on the way there. Jennie was doing it, but I couldn’t because I was sitting next to a man who was using the armrest to rest his arm. The nerve.

Jennie knew I wanted to play with the ashtray. She remained silent as she stared at me, continually flipping the tray top up and down, never breaking eye contact. Her intensity fueled my curiosity. I turned to my shared armrest only to find a large arm attached to a sleeping man that I didn’t care to wake.

That was another thing about the flight. There was no talking. Our parents must have told us to be good, and that must have translated as ‘no talking’ because we were completely silent, unless provoked by an adult, for the entire flight.

Eventually we landed, and I’m sure we saw Gram as soon as we got off the plane, and I bet we had a fantastic Easter with her and Gramps. But there’s only one other thing I remember about the trip, and it happened on the flight home. This time I had a window seat, and I was totally psyched! It was a bright, beautiful day and I was enjoying the view, taking it all in. I glanced over to the seat next to me and caught Jennie’s envious eye. A smirk manifested across my face. This was it. Timely revenge, an unbeatable view. I was flying high on cloud nine. Excuse the puns!

And then, with no explanation at all, the flight attendant came over and pulled my window shade down. If the expression “WTF” existed in the early 90s, it was written all over my face. I looked at Jennie, her sly grin stretched from ear to ear. In a moment, I was Nancy Kerrigan. WHY?!. I wanted so badly to pull up the shade, but the afore mentioned behavioral rule kept me in a dark windowless silence for the rest of the flight. Just as quickly as I had come into power, my reign was over. 

Through an elaborate series of head turns and directional nods, Jennie and I discovered that another sleeping man was the culprit. He couldn’t catch any Zs with the miraculous day that was filtering into the plane. Somehow, light was ricocheting off the wing, through my window, and directly into his closed eyes. Sometimes being a kid is the pits. Gram would never let this happen to me, I thought, silently, as I endured my own personal hell on wings. 

My fondest memories of Gram all take place the summer before she died. Every day, we'd hang out. And every night, the entire family would gather at my uncle John's house, where she stayed during her trips to Chicago. All the cousins would play in the pool while our parents cooked spaghetti with my mom's homemade pasta sauce, or picked up pizza from Vitto & Nick's. All the favorite dishes were had. We spared no expense.

At the time, I thought nothing of it. This was just what families do. But I never considered the severity of Gram's health. As far as I was concerned, she was cured. Good as new from her first bout with cancer. And back, better than ever. I mean, she was taking her entire summer to hang out with six kids between the ages of 8 and 16. I suppose if I had been a more thoughtful 10-year-old, I might have picked up on something. This was her last hurrah. The cancer had come back, and with a vengeance. She was in her 80s, treatment was a long shot, she’d lost her husband a few years prior, and she was ready. 

So now when I sit and have a drink with my folks, who are either in or near their 60s, we all think of Gram. My mom says, “I’m honoring your grandmother,” as she holds up her glass before she takes her first sip. 

I’m named after Gram, too, by the way. There's something sacred about that. So when I'm indulging with my parents, or on a plane alone, I hold up my glass and cheers to the Marys.