The hour that draws us toward one another and into the present.
I stand in the kitchen with my mother and sisters, bare feet sticking to the hardwood floor, pressed against each other at the counter while the sun streams through the window and makes our hands glow. We slice oranges, lemons, and cucumbers, dumping them into tall transparent pitchers. The room is hot, sweltering, in fact, and we edge toward the open window in hope of a breeze. My mother, who grew up twelve miles off the coast of France and so naturally has a strong opposition to air conditioning, thinks about getting a sweater. We, her grown-up children, take ice cubes from the blue trays in the freezer, and slide them down our sticky backs. We hold them to our foreheads when she is not looking, careful not to place those ones in the pitchers.
My mother then opens a bottle called Pimm’s, an English cocktail drink; a pink concoction of gin and herbs. She divides it carefully among the pitchers and mixes it with a different soft drink in each one: lemonade, sprite, ginger ale. The drink is the color of dark tea, made with spices and citrus fruit. She accents the drink with a few sprigs of mint. My sisters and I arrange snacks onto floral trays: strawberries so ripe they can barely contain their juice, dipped in a dark chocolate and cold from the fridge, mixed nuts coated with sea salt, slices of thick French bread and smelly cheeses bought this morning from the market. Carefully, we carry all our preparations outside and across the lawn, where the five o’clock hour casts a golden glow on the table with the umbrella. We summon my father, my brother, and whatever family from England is over at the time. It is Pimm’s O’Clock.
I’ve been having a version of Pimm’s for nearly two decades now. My mother used to tint my sprite with raspberries, so that even at the tender age of four, I felt like one of the adults. Until about five years ago, Pimm’s could only be bought in Europe and at the Heathrow Duty Free, and so most of my early memories involving Pimm’s take place in a villa in the South of France, in the windy Lake District, near the beaches of St. Margaret’s Bay in Dover. In my memory, I am usually on a knee: my grandad’s, my auntie’s, my father’s. I am lulled into a dreamy comfort, seduced into silence by their own soothing chatter until, eyes drooping, I am carried upstairs. Half conscious, my cousins and I put on pajamas and are tucked into our airy, salty sheets with a kiss. The windows are open, and as I drift off to sleep, smells of coffee mingle with the laughter outside. To this day, I cannot smell coffee without thinking, deep in the recesses of my mind, that I am loved.
On the lawn, we raise our drinks to a toast, hands touching and glass clinking, the liquid spilling over and running onto the table. We sit back on cushioned chairs, in that sun’s fading light, stripped down to the bare essentials, soaking up, as you must in Buffalo, every minute of summer’s warmth. Completely unhurried, with no agenda other than to fully enjoy the food and the company, we visit each other in a way that can never be done in rushed conversation. We laugh over family memories and stories I can’t remember the original versions of: the time we went backpacking through the wilderness and it poured all four days, the time my Grandad drove the tractor into the fence, the time we drove to Italy by mistake because my mother had the map upside down. We sit outside, until we are swollen from sandwiches, until our glasses are empty, until the fireflies flash around our table like strobe lights.
Pimm’s was my first alcoholic drink, imbibed in the heart of the Newforest on another trip to England when I was sixteen. Elated that I could finally participate, and even more so, do it in the open, I drank two glasses, quickly. The sting of the gin was softened by the sprite, and the citrusy, minty aftertaste made the liquid go down smoothly. When my head started spinning I eagerly smothered folds of warm brie and fig onto buttery crackers and stuffed them into my mouth.
It’s a little weird, growing up in a town where your parents are the only two immigrants for miles. It’s uncomfortable, in school, to say words you thought were plain English, like kitchen roll, duvet, and queue, only to find out, in front of the entire third grade, that they are horrifically unAmerican. It’s also strange to go back to England, where all my family lives, and there, with my siblings, be counted as the odd ones out, the Americans. To be laughed at for the way we dress, to suddenly think we’ve been saying ordinary words like car and pants the wrong way our whole lives. “Just listen to that accent!” they say, and we wonder why we are to blame for being born in the wrong place.
My cousins and I, whatever competition lay between us, whatever need we each had to prove our country and way of life was better, were all united by our love of Pimm’s, or rather, the atmosphere Pimm’s created. We all grew up craving that golden hour of snacks and fizzies, sitting around outside as the day squeezes out its last light, celebrating togetherness, each other, and the realization that not even an ocean could keep us from being close. It was as though those last drops of the sun also shed light on the fact that we weren’t so different after all. My brother Matt and my cousin Daniel always ate too much at dinner, Emma wore her hair the same way I did, Rebecca and James had the same blue eyes. As we grew older, we exchanged the laps of our parents for a table of our own. By the time we were teenagers, we too brimmed over with stories, inside jokes and memories unique to the nine of us.
It was Pimm’s and tiny sausages that we had to celebrate the wedding of my cousin Daniel. No sooner had they left the church than they were back inside, glasses in hand, asking us all to join them for “Pimm’s on the lawn” that was covered with bunting. It was Pimm’s, flavored with cucumbers, that we had in England the week my Grandad breathed his last, a horde of seventeen surrounding him to the end. It was Pimm’s that my immediate family sipped on back in Buffalo, our drinks mixing with salty tears, as we spoke about his life and mourned his loss.
Next week, I’m going back to Buffalo, with my husband who has also come to love the drink and its tradition. I stop by the liquor store to pick up a bottle. The clerk has never had Pimm’s before, but she tells me she’s heard it is a very fashionable drink.
“Yes,” I say with a smile, as I think of sweaty limbs touching, laughing hard into the dark night, arguing over the correct way to pronounce squirrel, and enough cheese to give everyone a stomach ache. “Very Fashionable indeed.”
Recipe for the Perfect Cup of Pimm’s
1 Part Pimm’s
3 Parts Sprite, Ginger Ale, Champagne, or Lemonade
Mint, Cucumber, Lemon, or Oranges for Garnish
Rachael is an MFA Student and Writer in Pittsburgh. She blogs at Steeped in Thought.