My mother, Nellie, did not drink. No beer, no whiskey, no wine, no cocktails. Her beverage of choice was hot thick black coffee, the kind that left a half inch of sediment in the bottom of the cup. In the summer, she opted for iced tea, unsweetened with as many lemon slices as she could squeeze into the glass. If Nellie were a radio station, the tag line promo would be ALL CAFFEINE, ALL THE TIME.
Since she spent almost all of her waking hours inside the E Z Way Inn, people were and are often surprised that not only did Nellie abstain from alcohol, she actively disapproved of drinking.
“Your mother’s the best bartender in the world,” my dad often remarked. “Doesn’t drink up the profits.”
She also was the cleanest, fastest and liveliest bartender in the world. She just wasn’t the best purveyor of alcoholic drinks.
“Buy you a drink, Nellie?”
“Nope, and you shouldn’t have another one either. Go home now.”
My dad would shake his head, comforted by the fact that he did, after all, have the fastest, cleanest and least troublesome bartender in town, if not the most profit-motivated.
If someone was especially persistent about buying her a drink, always a not-quite regular customer, who coaxed, wheedled, and nagged, Nellie would get a sly look and collect for a shot of their best whiskey, open the register with a flourish and drop the money in. The buyer would shout with pride, making sure everyone knew he had successfully persuaded Nellie to have a drink with him.
The drink, of course, was never poured.
“You wanted to buy me a drink, right?” said Nellie wiping off the non-existent spills in front of the pouting big shot. “You bought it and I’ll drink it when I drink it.”
The exception, the only time Nellie jumped off the wagon, I discovered, was at Christmas.
The EZ Way Inn usually closed early on Christmas Eve. Whoever was there just before the lights were turned out around dinnertime would offer to buy Nellie a Christmas drink. Instead of her usual disgusted headshake, she would dust off the bottle of peppermint schnapps and pour herself a shot. She threw it back to the amazement of all who had remained for last call. Everyone, including my brother, Emory, and me, dropped our jaws. Watching Nellie down that schnapps seemed like some kind of Christmas miracle.
“There. You satisfied?” she asked, scraping the money off the bar for her drink and ringing up the sale. Thanks to Nellie, another angel got his wings!
Then Don and Nellie shooed out the regulars, exhorting them to go home to their families. And the regulars without families? They were a worry to all of us. Don usually opened on Christmas for a few hours in the middle of the day, just so Barney and Vince and a few others would have a place to be on Christmas. But what to do when a bartender couldn’t be found and my mother had laid down the law about my dad staying with us at my Grandparent’s for Christmas dinner?
There were a few years when our family, Don, Nellie, my brother, Emory and I, solved the problem by inviting two of the loners to come with us to my grandmother’s.
Barney and Vince, all clean and shiny in their best suits, joined the party at my Lithuanian grandparent’s small house next to the railroad tracks on Union Avenue. We were all crowded in, eating the feast in at least two shifts at the dining room table, so what difference did two more make? Grandpa Schultz was glad to see them. They were both better euchre players than my Uncle Joe and my grandpa who spoke no English except to swear while listening to the baseball game on the radio (for years I thought gottamcubs was a Lithuanian phrase I was supposed to learn) always got stuck with Uncle Joe as his partner. Barney and Vince made the card games more interesting, evened up the odds a bit, and, even more important, they showed up with gifts of whiskey and a case or two of beer so they were welcomed by Grandpa and the Uncles. Even the Aunts poured a shot or two of whiskey into their glasses of coca cola, enjoying what they always referred to as a highball or two for Christmas. Nellie cut her eyes in disapproval, never joining in on the highballs poured in the kitchen as the women washed and dried the plates for round two of Christmas dinner.
“Not even a drink on Christmas, Nellie?” my Aunt Veronica would tease.
“Nope, I don’t drink,” said my mother, giving me a look that warned against any mention of peppermint schnapps.
On the way home in the car, I asked my mother about the schnapps and why it was a secret from her family that she did occasionally make an exception to her no-drinking rule.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” said Nellie. “Besides, I just have that schnapps to see the look on everyone’s face when I drink it. It’s not like I enjoy it.”
My dad laughed at that and so did Emory and I, although I’m not sure why. Nellie started laughing, too, which was rare enough that it made us all silly happy. To this day, I can’t tell you why it was so funny, but it was. Maybe the lesson has something to do with being careful, being selective in what you give away and what you keep to yourself. In Nellie’s case, saying no throughout the year certainly made saying yes at Christmas all the sweeter.