Last Year's Punch

My parents picked me up in New York on their way from my hometown in suburban Pennsylvania to western Massachusetts, where we have done Thanksgiving ever since I can remember. This year was small; a few regular attendees had died. So, for the first time, the youngest generation, my generation, was entrusted with the most sacred of our family’s Thanksgiving traditions: making punch.

Thanksgiving punch is the official kickoff of the holiday; as soon as everyone arrives, construction begins. The Thanksgiving table, before it bears the weight of turkey and stuffing and potatoes, is the stage for an enormous, baroque crystal punch bowl surrounded by crystal glasses. It is an affair of much swilling and tasting and remarking on the flavor and mouthfeel and alcohol level of the punch-in-progress.

This starts at maybe 1pm, a time at which I would normally be sipping coffee and thinking about work, or making a trip to Trader Joe’s, because the lines are short and I can be sure to snag one of those Cuban sandwich wraps, which are spectacular when microwaved for around forty-five seconds, but which are sometimes gone if you try to brave the store during the crush hours of “any day after 4pm or at any point during the weekend.” But on Thanksgiving, I do not drink coffee at 1pm, and I do not go to Trader Joe’s. I make punch.

There are many rules which my cousins and uncles and I tell each other over and over again: We can’t add carbonated drinks until the end, because they’ll go flat. Remember? Remember. It must have a good, strong base of bourbon before the weirder liqueurs. It can’t be too sweet or too fruity. Don’t add too much peach nectar. It’s sweet, remember? Remember.

Soon, we agree, the base is done. For years, I assumed that decades of drinking had endowed my uncles Mark and Geoff with the ability to discern when a punch base was ready. Now I think it’s mostly that Mark and Geoff just want to get on with it.

Then we pour in wines, liquors, liqueurs, sodas, slices of orange and lemon and lime, cheap blended whiskies, thin unlabeled bottles full of light tan liquid that may turn out to be applejack or schnapps or rum from a long-ago vacation or absent friend, bottled mango and orange and cranberry juices, gross flavored brandies whose screw-top caps are encrusted with sugar and years-old basement dust. We sip, swill, and remark on the punch’s emergent quality.

“It’s getting there! It’s really getting there!” we tell each other. Eventually we are drunk enough that the punch tastes good, and is pronounced finished. At this point we are pretty much fed up with the punch anyway. The point is not to drink the punch, but to make it.

The punch bowl never been empty by the end of the night — not even the year there were 25 guests and a turkey the size of one of the Subarus that inevitably end up in the driveway of every house in the neighborhood. That’s important, both for the blood-sugar levels of the guests and for the sweetest, most nostalgic part of the punch process: the ice cube. Eighteen years ago, my uncle Geoff kept the last bit of the punch and froze it in a large Tupperware container. The following year, that giant hockey puck of punch became the ice cube in that year’s punch. As the night went on, the previous year’s punch melted into the diminishing remnants of the current year’s. This substance, this two-year punch, became the ice cube for the following year. And so on. The punch that we drank this year, the punch I helped make, has a tiny bit of the punch from 1996, when I was ten years old and not allowed to drink it, and every year since.

This year, as we gathered around the punch-creation station, my uncle Mark, with totally uncharacteristic earnestness, looked to his brother Geoff and said that it was time I and my brother and my cousins took the lead on the punch. Mark and Geoff’s father, a wonderful, warm, elfin man with permanent laugh-crinkles around his eyes, had died in early October. He was an integral part of the punch-tasting, even as he aged. The youngest of the cousins, Mark’s son Ben, was soon to graduate college, and already had a job lined up. The lives of this younger generation, myself included, were becoming real, and fixed.

In a family of northeast Jews, acerbic artists and writers and scientists and engineers, this is the way we signified that something has changed, that perhaps this Thanksgiving tradition isn’t as permanent as we’d all thought it was. This year was the smallest one in decades, maybe 12 people strong. My uncle Mark’s gesture was a submission, an acknowledgment of the fragility of life as represented by what’s in that old-fashioned punch bowl. At the time it seemed unexpected and sad. Now it feels a little crushing.

But at least now we know how to make the punch.

Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.