Cocktails by Marci Washington
I realize there’s a certain irony to writing about your great grandmother’s alcoholism right after you’ve attended your third wine tasting in as many days, but it was Austrian wine, which doesn’t really count, and I think Gima would appreciate it.
Gima was, by all accounts, the life of every party. Unfortunately that cut her life short by a considerable amount, as she was dead at 62, having aspirated sometime during the night of April 25, 1955. As we’ve established, my father didn’t talk much about his childhood, but one of the few things I knew about Gima was that she had died unexpectedly, possibly by her own hand, as a result of a combination of booze and pills. It’s actually a lot to take in when you’re a kid, and your brushes with death haven’t encompassed much more than the loss of your pet hamster, Ms. Bianca. Surprisingly, perhaps, we still didn’t talk about alcoholism when Grampa Shel died after several decades of taking his frustrations out on his liver, and no one mentioned Gima as my brother’s incipient alcoholism reared its ugly head in his late teens. I feel a bit bad about that—while some of us seem to have inherited Gima’s flair in the kitchen or her breezy and intrepid writing style, more than one member of the family inherited her deadly attachment to drink.
My parents were never drinkers, but alcohol was an ever-present specter in our young lives. My brother Jeff and I were surrounded by rum punch and champagne cocktails at five o’clock with our maternal grandparents, and postprandial martinis and all day whiskey sour weekends on our paternal side. Even before we were trusted to ride our bikes along at night, we learned to make our own mocktails, pop corks, measure out jiggers, and gently waft vermouth. Cocktail hour seduced us in different ways. My usefulness at all things drink-related, be it refreshing vodka or replenishing hors d’oeuvres, granted me entre to the mysteries of the adult world. Rather than finding myself banished to playing school with my excruciatingly boring maternal cousins, I was permitted to hear tales of adult wonder and intrigue while increasing my youthful vocabulary in not altogether desirable ways. Jeff, on the other hand, found that alcohol was a social lubricant. With a bit in him, he was comfortable; with a lot in him, he was king. And he went the way of many kings, dethroned and in an early grave at twenty-eight.
Needless to say, with all of this not talking about Gima, I was shocked when Dad casually mentioned a few months ago that Gima had done two stints in a sanitarium in an effort to dry her out. And that he had lived on the grounds of said sanitarium while they waited for his father’s next naval assignment. Now, we all have our secrets. But one supposes that by the time they’ve reached the ripened age of 41, one’s father might have mentioned that he’d lived at a sanitarium. Particularly if one’s daughter happened to be staying under one’s roof while conducting archival research on, say, asylums and the like. No sooner had Dad shared the particulars of Gima’s institutionalization than I was off like a shot to Baltimore’s western suburb of Catonsville, where I found the Gundry Sanitarium, very much intact (albeit no longer operational). And forty-seven pestering calls to the city of Baltimore housing office later, I was greeted at the front entrance by one very delightful Ron Frado, city housing manager, clad in homemade wife beater and comely daisy dukes. Together we traipsed through the beautiful Victorian stone manse, marveling at its stained glass windows, ornamental hardware, hand-carved mahogany staircases and tiled fireplaces. I inspired Ron ever upwards, not stopping until we reached the widow’s walk, with its stunning view over the treetops and out to the Chesapeake. I have no doubt that Gima smoked hundreds of cigarettes up on this roof during her unsuccessful confinements from alcohol, enjoying the breeze while ruefully thinking of the dinner she wouldn’t be cooking and the drinks she wouldn’t be having.
I tracked down the last descendent of the Gundry family. Alfred T. Gundry III was startled yet more than willing to chat about old times when I reached him in Annapolis. He was quite well versed in his family’s history, and had a vague remembrance of Gia coming to visit. As is so often the case with private hospitals, it seems that the records of the Gundry Sanitarium are either lost or destroyed, so it’s not certain when Gima stayed there, or what her diagnosis and treatment consisted of, but I’m assuming she was there in the late forties, as my father can remember it and his sister was not yet born. The Gundry didn’t specialize in alcoholism, but was more for women with nervous and compulsive disorders, which may go some way towards explaining why Gima wasn’t helped by her stays there.
While the family line is generally that Gima died from booze, Dad did mention, when I was little, that it was booze and pills, and that it was possibly a purposeful overdose. That she might have been sick. That it had been better to go of her own accord, rather than dragging things out. Dad’s mind is a good one, and I doubt he’d have a notion of suicide if his young and fertile noggin hadn’t tucked it away to mull over later.
I’ve read everything Gima ever published, combing through her lighthearted rhetoric trying to find clues as to what was really going on in her life. And I think there is an inkling to be had in her newspaper columns,where she relates in the midst of a chatty little rundown of shopping on Wilmington’s King Street that her trip to the city was for x-rays, and that she left her happy purchase of calves’ brains in the phone both while telephoning the hospital for her results. While she tells her readers that her news is good, I’m not so sure that she was, or that this wasn’t a precursor of future bad news.
While I can ponder on Gima’s physical and mental health all I want, I’m never going to have those answers. Alcohol is as much a part of the Potter family crest as the wyvern that stands atop the shield; it remains a part of all of our lives, in that some drink it, some like it too much, some studiously avoid it, and some write their dissertations about it. But none of us has the benefit of indifference to it.
Gima’s alcoholism wasn’t hushed up as an embarrassment, or out of a desire to preserve only the happy memories. I believe Gima’s drinking wasn’t discussed because her death—so untimely and so unwarranted—hurt everyone in the family so much, that speaking of it is still painful, decades later. Gima was truly the beating heart of the family, and in an instant, the light and warmth of the hearth was stilled, snuffed out, and forever gone, rending a gash in the family that cannot be mended without a visible seam.
So as Gia would query, “is the sun past the yardarm yet?” And if you’re reading this post after 11AM, feel free to pour yourself a drink. But try floating the Scotch on top of the ice, rather than having it neat. Your liver will like you longer.