An e-droog recently waxed poetic about a single malt Scotch that she gave to a friend on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday. If I recall correctly, this was an especially rugged Islay beast, and stronger than the infamous Laphroaig. The subject of single malts triggered an avalanche of nostalgic reverie, not uncommon for us geriatrics, so I will inflict you with my aged yammering…and photos… here.
A British friend, then a post-doc in the lab next door and now a chemoinformatics guru, introduced single malts to me back in my grad school days. My previous experiences with Scotch had been as mediocre blends over ice, and I thought these were nothing short of wretched. As I discovered, single malts, sipped in their pure, room temperature form, were an entirely different species. Most often, we partook of these at our Brit friend’s apartment on Friday or Saturday evenings. I was amazed by the liquors’ complexity, which was every bit as elaborate as cognac, my favorite liquor and a rare treat during the salad days of grad school. The single malt Scotch was pricey, but we pooled our funds and bought a bottle to share amongst our little clan of students and post-docs.
Flash forward about a decade or so.
When my husband, kids and I moved to Cambridge MA in early 1998, we rented an old Victorian mansard from a retired Harvard professor and his wife. They were spending six months in Rome so they needed someone to house-sit. The three story, five bedroom house had beautiful “bones:” high ceilings, detailed plaster moldngs, elegant woodwork, and a fabulous six-foot grand piano but it was all, how do I put it, shabbily elegant. The place needed at least $200K of renovation. The kitchen was dilapidated, the house was heated by an ancient oil-burning furnace, and only one of the three large bathrooms had a shower and decent plumbing. The electrical wiring was downright scary. The second floor landing exuded the odor of an incontinent cat. Still, it was a neat place to live for a time while we waited for our new townhouse in another Cambridge ‘hood to be completed.
The whole neighborhood was fascinating. The houses were similar to the one that we rented: big old Victorian era homes. The trees were all tall and mature. A murder of crows roosted every evening in one of these trees across the street. I have always liked crows, and this group was entertaining. I didn’t need an alarm clock since their morning ritual woke me up. One bird would grumble, and the rest would begin to murmur as the sun rose. Unfortunately, they bombarded the neighbor’s Volvo that was parked beneath their tree.
Our immediate neighbors, a physics professor at MIT and his wife, an artist, hosted a “welcome to the neighborhood” party on our behalf. Scientists, writers, activists and artists surrounded us on all sides. One couple lived in Al Capp’s (cartoonist who drew “Lil Abner”) former home. We discovered that most of the adults in the neighborhood had been on Nixon’s Enemies List. They don’t call it “The People’s Republic of Cambridge” for nothing.
Our landlords were interesting people, too. He had a hell of a library in the large second floor study, and I often perused his books. He was friendly with John Updike, and taught him to play the viola. She was a therapist, and a little on the New Agey side. She had recently commissioned the installation of a labyrinth in their backyard (a good sized one for crowded urban Cambridge) and regretted that she was going to miss the blossoms of all the forget-me-nots planted among the stones. I assured her that I would take photos.
Not long after our landlords departed for Rome, and we were settled into the house, a woman of decidedly earth-mother countenance rang the doorbell. She sported very long greying hair, an ankle-length loose flowing dress, and was quite obviously sans brassiere. She was one of the women who had installed the labyrinth. I invited her in, of course, and dug up some herbal tea which I figured would be appropriate. We chatted for a while and before she left, she gave me a package of sparklers for the “initiation” of the labyrinth. She advised that my kids should not be allowed to use them because they were “orgasmic sparklers.” I agreed to her conditions, struggling to keep my face solemn and reverent. I set the sparklers aside in a drawer, figuring I’d find some excuse to light them.
A few weeks later, on a fine, mild spring evening, two close friends came over for dinner. These fellows have been dear friends since we all met in grad school, and we have worked on and off with each other over the years. So here we were reunited in Cambridge. S. arrived with a couple of bottles of wine that were consumed with dinner. R had called earlier, and said he’d arrive late since his wife had succumbed to a nasty cold. He wanted to be sure she was comfortable before he came over so he arrived a bit later in the evening. In addition to a bottle of wine, he brought a single cask malt Scotch.
My kids were tucked into their beds and deep in sleep by the time we opened the Scotch. I cannot remember the distillery, but I do recall how good it was. Oh, yes, it was very good: rich, complex with an underlying dark mysterious subtle sweetness. I swear, my old Scots’ genetic memory started dancing a jig. All of us, regardless of ethnicity, were feeling pretty lively near midnight, what with the prelude of wine then the Scotch.
I recounted the story of the earth mother’s visitation to my pals, and as one, we knew what we had to do. I retrieved the orgasmic sparklers from the drawer, and off we went to the labyrinth. My husband lit the suckers, They were large fiery things that ejaculated copious sparks. R, S and I ran around the labyrinth like crazed monkeys. My husband, a more reserved Type B kind of guy, indulgently watched us. I’m not sure that this was the initiation that the earth mother had in mind for the labyrinth: three inebriated rationalists, about as far removed from New Age archetypes as one can get, awkwardly spinning around on the stones, gleefully waving the spurting sparklers and giggling uncontrollably.
The guys stayed overnight, since driving at this point was completely out of the question. We all nursed hangovers the next day, and I felt a bit guilty seeing as how I was supposed to be A Responsible Parent. But well, the kids were asleep…she rationalized.
Anyway, it makes for a fun memory, and one which R, S and I often recall fondly.
Here are a few photos taken around that time.
You can see the side of the house here on the right of the photo. Somewhat to the left is a huge copper beech. Beeches are among my favorite trees. and this was a lovely specimen.
So that’s me, Doc Bushwell, In the middle of the labyrinth. I believe we initiated it a few days after this photo was taken. The plants interspesed between the stones are forget-me-nots. Our neighbor behind the fence was Alexander Rich, the discoverer of the Z-form of DNA. Rich often puttered around in his back yard, always wearing the same cap. Our physicist neighbor told us that the cap once belonged to Linus Pauling and that Rich always wore it while gardening.
Here I am providing a distinctive contrast to a cherub.