The Bourbon Decanter #52essays2017 no. 8

My father was a drinker, if not a drunk. Opinions vary on whether or not he was an alcoholic. I think he was, though I’ve heard arguments against it, but perhaps at this point it doesn’t matter, as he’s been dead over thirty years, and debating the illnesses of so long ago seems like a waste of time. But he was a drinker, a man who mixed himself a row of drinks every night at the kitchen counter throughout all my childhood, a man from whom I learned the word jigger at a very young age.

Bourbon was his booze of choice, and he made it into whiskey sours, though I believe he also drank it neat. I remember him standing at the counter and measuring and pouring and mixing — we had a little two-headed pewter jigger he liked to use, and various other implements of the sort people once used for mixing drinks back in the days when people drank more such concoctions at home. Our house was not far removed from a 1950s academic cocktail party, though it was the 1970s by the time I showed up on the scene to wonder at why grownups took so very long to drink their drinks when I could down my apple juice in no time.

We have been clearing out my mother’s house and recently she offered me a bourbon decanter. I had not idea there was such a thing, although I suppose now that I think of it that people in old movies drink their liquor from lovely decanters they keep on their sideboard and not poured straight from the bottle they keep in a cupboard. I own no sideboard and drink bourbon perhaps only once every month or two, so I declined the offer. The bourbon decanter was, my mother said, a wedding present, though she could no longer remember from whom, and I likely wouldn’t know the people even if she could.

As with so many things we have uncovered, the bourbon decanter is a relic of a life we no longer live, a life with formal dining rooms and sideboards, a life of dinner for twelve on china and large roasts. We did keep two small glass items that apparently are meant to form a rack where you rest your carving knife. Surely they have a name, but what it is I couldn’t say, as I rarely cook anything that needs carving, and on the occasions when I have made a turkey I’ve ended up hacking away at it with a paring knife. Such are the times we have descended to.

My mother’s family does not come from hard scrabbling, at least not for a few generations back, longer ago than anyone now living can remember. We come from grace and ease. My great grandparents had servants and took vacations of the sort where all my great grandmother had to carry was her purse. I have been reminded often that this was not uncommon for the time they lived in, but still, they had servants; they were not servants themselves, which presumably other people’s great grandparents were.

My father’s parents were not so well to do, and my grandmother on that side (who was the same age as my great grandmother on my mother’s side because generations in my family are off) kept plastic over her furniture, perhaps due to a lack of servants. But even she had silver, a few pieces of which we still have and drag out to use on rare occasions.

My house was built in 1931 and has now been added onto twice. It’s still not a large house by 2017 standards, but it was much smaller when it was built, and it was a house for a family. There were two small bedrooms and one bathroom and a living room and a kitchen, and that was the whole house. The people who lived here first did not keep servants, nor can they have had much room for china and silver. I don’t have much room for it myself, many decades and two additions later. But it humbles me to think of a family in that small space, as it humbles me every time I think of raising children in the era before on demand TV.
The bourbon decanter isn’t something I remember my father using, so it was easy enough to let it go, handsome though it is. The weight of history is upon almost all the objects in my life, and I am trying not to let it drag me down.