Loss Close-up of a blonde-haired woman, circa the 1980s, with a big smile. She holds onto a bearded man with a cigarette.

Published on March 29th, 2022 | by Natalie Serianni

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My Mother’s Manhattan

One Cocktail Glass

For twenty years, I’ve been haunted by the clinking ice in her glass, the whiff of nostril-burning vermouth vapors. The cherries bobbing in a lowball glass, the swirling syrup on top. I can see my mother sitting in an oak chair, taking a sip, her hair pulled up, the heat sliding down her throat. She breathes deep, grateful for a pause. She puts the glass down.

Her three babies are growing up. The toddlers tumble into her denim-clad lap; I can see her beaming in a plaid blouse on a floral couch, a fashionable red lip, her frosted hair. Tiny hands holding her fingers.

When she drank, her glass remained on the table. She never carried it around or swirled her glass or slurred her words. That was her father. I only ever saw her drink one Manhattan at a time, maybe two.  Sometimes she didn’t even finish it, leaving it resting, the glass sweating on a crumpled white cocktail napkin. This was a slow sipper, an enjoyable escape. Manhattans made her laugh, her long front teeth glistening as she leaned back to slap the table. Everything was light around her, shiny, like an episode of Solid Gold in our house. 

A blonde-haired woman, circa the 1980s, with a big smile. She puts her hand on the chest of a smiling bearded man with a cigarette.

.05 oz Sweet Vermouth

A “timeless drink,” the Manhattan is often considered “an acquired taste.” While I was not there for her first sip, something makes me believe she hated the drink but grew to love it. Manhattans get smoother as you sip. It was fancy, yet easy, like her. 

She made our childhood carefree, cheering us on soccer sidelines, giving Clinique lipstick kisses after games. She lived for those ten-year-old birthday parties at the Wheel O While roller rink, and sleepovers—pajamaed girls with army-green sleeping bags and bowls of popcorn crammed in the living room. Later, she’d leave yellow sticky notes on the counter, in swirling cursive, with after-school directions for dinner: “Dish in the fridge—350 for 30 minutes.” 

Swelling into teenage territory: tension and release, as I labored into womanhood. She was on the outside, holding my hand while I pushed her away.

Returning home from college, our heartbeats would sync again. She would lay with me in my childhood bed, in my coral-colored sheets, a cocoon during the confusion of growing up.

1 oz Bourbon or Whiskey (her preference)

She gave me diamond earrings for my 21st birthday, and a wine rack. Because I was a drinker. It started with light beer and penny drafts, but the night usually ended with a shot, slammed down on the bar, and a tippsy, sideways walk to a cab. Hazy memories of wedding-circuit gin and tonics, graduating to bottles of Malbec with girlfriends before late nights in DC. Ever steady, she had her one drink, while I was like a crazed stock market, dashing between dots of alcohol. 

I can still see a Kool Mild sloped in our kitchen-table ashtray, the only kind my mother smoked, from square green packets in her purse. Where does the cigarette smoke go? I wondered as a child, and later, as I watched smoke get trapped under old Tiffany lamps hanging over a dive bar. It curls and evaporates, then disappears.

Like her. It’s been twenty years.

3 Hits of Aromatic Bitters 

After she died from a brain aneurysm when I was 25, I was consumed with thoughts about her death, my death, the death of everyone I knew. The recurring dream of red WWII bombers overhead, as I ran in an open field. It drove me to blackout drink; everything went dark. 

“She’s visibly intoxicated,” a bouncer would say to my boyfriend as we waited in line. 

“Noooo, I am NOT!” I’d slur, fist on my hips superwoman-style, before slumping back into his arms.

I drank to preserve pain. To preserve love. To freeze, hesitant to propel forward into life without her. But the tap began to run dry, and I was exhausted from beating my body up. With a heavy hangover, I drove thousands of miles with a man, with the  spark of new love, to stretch my being, my body, apart from my mother’s, to find an equivalent home without her. Planting roots in the Pacific Northwest, we acquired a city lot framed with towering cedar trees in a fenced-in backyard. A marriage and two baby girls, both placed onto my hospital bed heartbroken chest.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Maraschino Cherries (many, and also, the cherry juice) 

When my youngest was born 15 years later, on the day my mother died, the same date as her birthday, I felt a synchronous beauty. September 2nd. All three of us breathed it in together; there was a flutter of meaning again. 

Jigger 

Twenty years later, I taste equal parts stinging bitters of motherless motherhood, blended with the sweetness of reassembly. Although I acquired my mother’s knowing “eyes in the back of her head,” and her whole-body ability to be with her kids, I yearn for a shot of my mother’s wisdom. I wait for a whispered secret, some sort of recipe to follow, to know if I’m doing motherhood, or really anything, right.

When I need her, I drink in my mother: looking at pictures, reading old notes, metabolizing her early motherhood. I can feel the joy she sniffed from our baby-powdered skin and recognize the moments she summoned JesusMaryandJoseph to keep her calm. We both know the shattering, indescribable beauty of motherhood, the mundane moments, the sheer delight in milestones. 

As my girls grow, I’ve been thinking about the Manhattan, my mother’s signature drink. It’s one I’ve never held in my hand, never ordered. Never sipped. I’ve been too afraid to edge close to her memory; that it would pull me in, a desperate tangle of missing and misplaced sadness.  

These past few years, I learned to occupy the space my mother and I made, the excerpt we’ve shared. I stand in it, reaching out for more. Hoisting a cocktail glass into the air, with just a small sip of whiskey, I honor her. 

A toast: to an interrupted life, to measureless love. 

To a classic. 

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About the Author

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, instructor, and mother of two with work at Motherwell, MSN/SheKnowsToday’s ParentThe Manifest-Station, and Seattle’s ParentMap. She has an essay included in the recently published anthology The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: GenX Women on the Brink. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.



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