Mom last visited me in Sacramento two Christmases ago. I was always apprehensive picking her up at the airport. She'd look me up and down, size me up then hit me with a zinger -- "What did you do to your hair? What's that on your feet? You gained weight!" Mom got to that certain age where she felt she survived life long enough that she could say anything she wanted, and she did.
On the drive home she ordered me to stop at a liquor store. She went in and started demanding unusual items. "I need red Vermouth. A bottle of bitters. Maraschino cherries. And some rye whiskey." I like my wine but don't do Vermouth and certainly not Bitters, whatever that is. I winced at the $7 price tab for the tiny bottle.
Once home, she took out two highball glasses and got to work. I watched as she slipped in ice cubes, assembled two shots of Whiskey, a dash of Vermouth, the tiniest splash of Bitters then topped it off with one of those cherries I used to eat out of a jar when I was a kid.
"Here," she said. "It's a Manhattan." We clinked our glasses and drank the strong classic cocktail that warmed up the winter cold. Oh, boy, did it. It became our drink that holiday when I came home from work. And even at 79, Mom went out with me after work to restaurants and bars when most middle-age Sacramentans went to sleep.
Mom came from another era. She and my father were blue collar factory workers with a small income, but you'd never know it. They celebrated life and threw grand, dress-up parties in our tiny apartment complete with cocktails out of "Mad Men" with the proper stemware and glasses to match -- frothy whiskey sours, daiquiris, highballs, martinis and yes, Manhattans.
Mom returned to her home in Florida. In October, I got a late night call that she unexpectedly passed away.
I made it through my first Christmas without her. But I still have those bottles of Vermouth and bitters. Sometime this week, I will make a Manhattan just like Irene made for me, raise my glass and toast her. Thank you, Mom, for reminding me no matter my job, income, age, problems or circumstances -- live life fully every day. Here's to you.