I was so young when I drank my first mint julep that I don't even remember it. It wasn't the customary julep of two-thirds bourbon and one-third limewater. It was one of those fake juleps, sweet concoctions of sugared limewater and a few drops of bourbon. I believed them to be real juleps. They were an unquestioned part of my childhood because my father's family saw juleps as signifiers, as somehow inextricable from the sacred phenomenon called "the family." These relatives believed that juleps, by example or an ill-defined type of osmosis, would lend to my brother and me a southern identity. Juleps would transform us into children who appreciated that we walked on tended lawns of Kentucky bluegrass, children who knew the value of manners as perceived by those who grew up with this century.
They were people who used sterling flatware every day because every day is all there is. I once tried to impress them by telling them that I'd read about Chinese Gordon and was amazed to learn that he'd gone into his headquarters and put on a clean white shirt moments before the Madhi took Khartoum and killed him and put his head on a stick. One of my father's uncles mumbled, "Well, what else?" My grandmother said, "I suppose you'd face them with your underwear held together with safety pins?"
It is said that the day in 1919 when Billy T. Boyd robbed the only bank in town, instantly plunging everyone into poverty, that these people gathered at my great-grandfather's and ate dinner under the trees in the yard and drank juleps and talked about anything but the robbery.
It is because of our mother that my brother and me were given juleps. My mother had a number of strikes against her. She was born and raised on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. She was French. She was Catholic. She was something peculiar, something called a lady lawyer. My father thought he was a lucky man to have met her. His family thought he was an errant fool; yet they treated my mother well. She was, after all, my father's wife and the mother of his children.
My Uncle Lee, my grandfather's brother, made a ritual of juleps. We had to watch him hand-pick the mint, crack the ice, prepare the limewater. He explained each step. He invariably mentioned that, while my father already knew how to make a proper julep, the rest of us, being northerners, might benefit from the instruction. Neither of my parents liked to drink, but when Uncle Lee handed them their juleps they thanked him and sipped and remarked on the tastiness of the drink.
If we were in the South, Uncle Lee would say that the climate was harsher than we were accustomed to, that the juleps were of medicinal value. If he was visiting us in the North, he would say that the climate was weak, that the juleps were a medicinal imperative. He once told my mother that juleps were a guard against malaria. My mother said, "Malaria?" Uncle Lee said, "Surely you've heard of malaria."
Uncle Lee made the trip north for my brother's 10th birthday. Uncle Lee announced that he had some advice for my brother. My brother looked terrified. Uncle Lee said, "Boy, you are now a decade old. The border of manhood is staring you in the face. Grave duties await you. I am going to give you the same advice my daddy gave me, his daddy gave him, your granddaddy grandaddy gave your daddy. Boy, never insult a woman, never bring a horse into the house, never crush the mint in a julep." There was silence. My brother stared at Uncle Lee. My mother left the room. My father raised his glass to Uncle Lee in something like a a kind of tribute and then tried to drink. He squinted his eyes and pressed his lips together. and I wasn't sure if he was trying to keep from laughing or from crying. I ran after my mother and complained that it wasn't fair that Uncle Lee gave me old tea pots and gravy bowls and yet here he was going to give my brother a horse for a birthday present.
The day of my father's funeral my mother whispered to me, "I will never drink another damned mint julep again. Do you hear me?" But later, at my grandmother's house, my mother asked if someone would be kind enough to make her a julep. She, in fact, had several and began telling stories about the days when she and my father were in college. Something happened. I saw the family close ranks. My grandmother remarked to my great-aunt Beatrice and to her third husband that my father had discovered a jewel when he found my mother. Uncle Lee said, "Yes. Yes. The boy did well when he drove his ducks to that pond."
When my son was born, my husband and I went to visit my relatives. They were gathered, waiting for a look at the boy who was the first of a new generation. I had married a man whose parents were from the south; my relatives thought this was about as good as they were going to get from me. My son was a miniature of his father; but they talked of how he resembled all of them. Aunt Bea gave us a tiny sterling cup. I thanked her and said it would be a while before the baby would be drinking milk from a cup. They stared. Aunt Bea turned to my grandmother and said, "This girl is as big a fool as her Catholic mother." Uncle Lee jabbed his cane in my husband's direction and said, "Go on boy, tell her what it is." My husband looked Uncle Lee right in the eye and said, "Sir, I'd say that is a julep mug."
Uncle Lee and my husband went into the next room for a confidential chat. Uncle Lee's hearing wasn't what it once was and I could hear my husband saying: "Sir, we are married, doesn't that make plain my intentions? . . . Sir, you misunderstand. I do not intend to make light of your concern or your position as head of the family . . . Sir, forgive me; but I am not convinced that it is all right to give bourbon to an eight week old baby . . ."
I asked my husband how he had managed to guess that the silver cup was a julep mug. He said I'd been lucky enough to marry a genius. He asked if he was also correct in guessing that I'd spent my childhood sloshed on bourbon.
Uncle Lee made it into the last years of the 1970s. The last time I spoke with him he startled me by saying something about the New South. I asked him if he was ready for it, ready for the changes such a term implied. He said, "What's wrong with you girl? I am the New South. Your family has been the vanguard of reform, the vanguard of all that is new for the last hundred years." I was speechless. He asked about my mother. I told him that she was fine, just fine. He said that my mother was one of the best girls ever to marry into the family and wasn't it funny, her being a Catholic and all. He asked about my brother. I told him about my brother's recent engagement to a woman from Tennessee. Uncle lee said, "That boy is a clone of me."
I said, "A clone, Uncle Lee?"
He said, "Yes, girl. A clone. Don't you know your science?" He asked if I still liked juleps. I lied and said I had one every evening. I said that I'd yet to succumb to malaria. He chuckled and said, "That's my girl."
The day Uncle lee died I called my brother in Alaska. We talked for a long time. He said he hadn't forgotten Uncle Lee's advice. I interrupted him by saying that no one could have forgotten it. He said he'd figured out that the advice was hillbilly code for the need to feel civilized. I told him about Uncle Lee being the personification of the New South. We laughed. I told him about Uncle Lee's clone idea. He said, "What's wrong with that?" He said he was going out to find some mint and a bottle of decent bourbon and drink toasts to Uncle Lee and think about the South that may or not have ever really existed. I said it sounded like what I'd probably do too.