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In 1976, at the age of 7, I learned a valuable lesson.
We were staying at my grandparents’ cottage on McGregor Lake, in the Gatineau Hills outside of Ottawa. I grew up in England with a Canadian mother and every couple of years we came to visit her family. The lake remains my favourite place in the world. It’s where I learned to swim, to water ski, to interact socially – and to mix cocktails.
All grandparents, of course, seem impossibly old to seven-year-old boys, but my grandfather, born in 1903, truly seemed ancient. He was, after all, literally Victorian. The lake was dotted with cottages filled with their contemporaries and, as late afternoon rolled into early evening, a gathering would sometimes occur, more often than not at Squirrel Wood, my grandparents’ place. Sprightly 80-year-old neighbours would make their way through the woods. Septuagenarian couples would canoe across from McCarthy Bay. And cocktails would be served on the veranda. Not wine, mind. Nor beer. Cocktails.
My grandfather took the etiquette of serving cocktails very seriously. He had a marvellous, multicoloured collection of glass swizzle sticks. The refrigerator on the back porch religiously contained a jar of pimento-stuffed olives (two per martini). Ladies were served first.
As you walked through the woods between our cottage and the cottage next door, you would come to a low, wooden bridge, similar to something out of a Winnie-the-Pooh story, that crossed a little, meandering spring, one of the many that fed the lake. It was to this spring that my brother Andrew and I would be sent, plastic jug in hand, to fetch water for the ladies whose drink of choice was rye and water. It was the best water in the world, fresh, minerally, ice cold.
Back at the cottage, as part of our tuition, my grandfather, Cuthbert, would have my brother and I wait patiently beside each guest until they had completed their greetings with the family and then ask, “Excuse me, what would you like to drink?” It was only some years later that I realized he was doing this for our benefit, teaching us how to interact. Cuthbert knew perfectly well what each of them would be drinking. They had been having cocktails together for 40 years.
The drinks on offer were uncomplicated but my grandparents’ generation seemed to have an uncanny ability to make them as elaborate as possible. Whisky became “A double whisky on the rocks, two cubes of ice, with a small glass of water with no ice.” Rye and ginger became “Rye and ginger in a tall glass, lots of ice, with lemon.” Not all that complicated in hindsight, but quite flustering for a boy just beginning his apprenticeship whilst trying to answer questions about when he had arrived, how he was enjoying his stay, etc.
We would stand with my grandfather as he showed us how to mix the drinks, and then take them, along with a cocktail napkin, to their rightful owner. No matter how quick we were we often found that by the time we got there the owner would be looking around impatiently, even nervously.
Another thing we were tasked with was to be on the lookout for those needing a refill. An unfilled glass was, apparently, bad etiquette. To ensure none of the guests went wanting, my brother and I constantly scanned the room, like hawks over a berry patch.
And this was when, noticing a loud, imposing, elderly lady from across the lake in need of refreshment, I made my mistake.
“Would you like another drink?” I asked in my poshest British accent at an appropriate pause in her conversation.
Immediately her wrinkly old hand darted out and surprisingly strong fingers grasped my thin bicep, her freshly painted nails digging into my sunburned skin like talons. I was terrified! What had I done? She pulled me so close that her wet mouth was just a few inches from my ear and half-whispered, half-hissed:
“What did you say, young man?”
“I … uh … I … uh … I just asked you if you would like another drink.”
“Another drink? Another drink? Let me tell you something, young man. Nobody at this lake has ever had another drink. The question I believe you meant to ask me is, ‘Would you like a drink?’”
“Oh! Yes, of course. Would you like a drink?”
She released my shaking arm and smiled at me. In an instant she had transformed into a gentle, doting grandma.
“How sweet. Look at those freckles! Thank you, young man. Aren’t you kind? Rye and ginger. Lots of ice. Twist of lime. A glass of tepid water on the side.”
For a long time, I thought that episode was simply the paranoia of a generation that drank too much and didn’t want to be reminded of it. But it wasn’t at all. It was about having the best etiquette possible. It was about putting people at ease and making sure that no one felt they were being judged. It was a reminder to word things as kindly as possible, because, well, why wouldn’t you? And it wasn’t just the etiquette of cocktails that generation taught us. We learned to stand when a guest entered the room. To look people in the eye when you greeted them and when you spoke with them. To have a firm handshake. To listen and speak in equal measure during conversation.
My Aunt now owns that cottage, and some years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to buy the next-but-one cottage to her. Thankfully, still, some evenings, friends and cousins and neighbours from across or around the lake paddle by. They are always invited in to socialize. My grandparents’ generation has passed now, but we are still trying to pass on their good manners, social graces and marvellous etiquette.
So, if you are ever in the Gatineau, specifically on McGregor Lake, come to our cottage and you’ll find you can eat an entire cake without ever having another slice. You can have as much cheese and crackers as you like without ever having more. And whatever we are drinking, I guarantee my children will never offer either of us another one.
Mark Angus Hamlin lives in Toronto.