Today I am Nepenthe

The Story

It’s weird, time travel.

Scholars have been driven absolutely mad trying to figure out both the moral and scientific intricacies of how one moves between the particles of the timeline. How would a single shifted leaf affect the people left behind when the experiment was complete? Would the battery of such an instrument hold to return the scientist to their intended year? And as with every new trial in a learning world- is the risk worth the knowledge?

So I tell you with no small amount of seriousness, that I’ve time traveled many an instance, with very little effort.

The mixture is unordinary. I’m not of the fairy mindset myself, but my ancestors speak of a time when the ingredients once had to be gathered by the woods. My grandfather, and his father-in-law before him, and those before him, would go out to the woods to a special tree stump and leave an offering. He would then turn away. When he would turn back, there would be a special elixir waiting for him.

He would bring this elixir to his wife, my Nanna. With a careful hand her mother taught her, she would take eggs from the hen as a sign of fertility, vanilla from the vine as a gift from earth, cream from the cow as signature of purity, the elixir from the woods, and just a bit of sugar- for the sweetness of life.

And she would make the concoction that makes one capable of traveling across the centuries.

Knowing the preciousness of this alchemy, Nanna guided her sons and daughters, and then I and my siblings, through the steps so our hands would come naturally to them whenever the season asked. It is a dance to be a part of, a beat and a rhythm to scour hot sugar and conduct whipped whites to peak as one begs the barrel’s best angel share to impart onto the yolk of one’s offerings.

I’m talking, of course, of eggnog.

Not that nonsense that can be poured from 3×16 paperboard from your local grocery. True sorcery made from backwoods moonshine, or front-woods Wild Turkey should the world conspire against you, and a dash of magic.

I cannot give you the full recipe, no. Because I’m bound to secrecy. Those are the rules. The recipe can only be exchanged in person. You haven’t been taught by hand, haven’t been guided by someone who has gone before. I can’t have you lost among the years not knowing how to get back. I’d feel so guilty, and the great aunts would probably haunt me. I inherited their coffee table so they know where to find me.

But one sip, one whipped, spiked bubble upon your lip- and you can go anywhere.

I myself only make the delicious concoction once a year, so to get my traveler bearings, I always start with the same place: Madison, Georgia, USA, 25 December 1982.

It’s a safe place for me, and when you’re traveling, you need a place that you know really well. I’m lucky, I once got one of those storybook Christmases where there’s too much family and too much food and too many dogs and it’s too hot in the house and too cold outside and just enough yelling while a casserole gets slightly burnt around the edges. Then I fall asleep on the couch with my grandfather holding my hand because he’s worried if he moves, he’ll wake me. No matter where I am, I can recall the exact feeling of his large, calloused hand against my smaller one as I failingly beg my eyelids to stay open. From there I can build every inch of the scene around me: his turquoise sweater with folded back cuffs, the white pastel-striped couch we’re sitting on and its many satin bird pillows, my mother rising from the chair beside us to refill my Nanna’s glass of chardonnay, the beige carpet beneath her feet as she does so, the grand tree in the background, the displaced wrapping paper beneath (dark green and gold that year), on and on and on. And I’m there. Looking through the eyes of someone decades younger than I am now.

Grounded, I can continue.

When someone has passed recently, my next trip is always to my favorite memory of them, or their favorite memory of me. It’s a shame how much more frequent this has become as I get older. It would be cruel to warn the youth about it, but somehow I wish we could.

But there are, of course, drawbacks. I remember the first time I made a visit I was unprepared for. After falling asleep, hand in hand on that Christmas, I grabbed a strand and found my way to the other side of my family, to my passed Grandmother. I sat at her dining room table, with its thin white lace runner. Supper was finished and someone else has been tasked with gathering dessert. She turned to me with gray eyes, and asked me about my college courses. I begged my mouth to tell her I missed her, to form the questions I’d never properly asked. But instead they’d formed the responses I had given that day.

“They’re going well! I have a lot of hours next semester, but I really love Professor Scallion so-“

Suddenly back in my kitchen, mug of eggnog spilled across the counter, stomach turning over, heart beating furiously. It would not allow you to be upset and travel. Mmmm no, this was for pleasant traveling only.

So you learn to make it strong, to warm the extremities as well as ease the mind. Learn to appreciate the truly good moments and reach out for them only. You learn not to travel where you’re not wanted or not welcome, and where it does not hurt.

The best thing about traveling, is it helps you remember pieces you may have forgotten. It reminds you of stories that previously may have been lost. I’ve been asked before by companions how I know so much about my family tree, and I always say “oh word of mouth, we can’t help but tell stories!”

Which is true. But I hear them over and over again each winter, when I finish pouring cream over sugared yolks and a few other whispered ingredients. And go traveling.

The Word

Nepenthe (noun): 1. A drug described in Homer’s Odyssey as banishing grief or trouble from a person’s mind; any drug or potion bringing welcome forgetfulness (via Latin from Greek nēpenthēs ‘dispelling pain’, from nē- ‘not’ + penthos ‘grief’; sense 2 is from modern Latin) 2. A plant of a genus that comprises the Old World pitcher plants.*

This may be the most personal story I’ve put here. Every story has a bit of me, and I put myself in my characters feet as much as I can (and there is ONE character that I think is most like me, meaning they’re probs the least, but would love your guesses if you’re up for it, team). But THIS one has the most real stuff. Should I say that on the internet? Don’t be weird, guys. I’m trusting you, readers. To not be weirdos.

Anyway, readers. My family really does make eggnog from scratch every year. And due to -gestures vaguely at the world- I made it alone this year. And not to get too sappy, but I wasn’t all that alone. Between group chats, phone calls, and zoom calls, I had a lot of togetherness and was very lucky. We do a lot of story-telling (where I get it from!) and general merriment-gathering around the eggnog, and that’s what led to today’s story. And I have LOVED this word ever since I found it. I hope I did it okay justice.

And I hope your holidays were lovely, reader. We made it through whatever 2020 was. Here is 2021, and we’ll do this too. Happy reading!

*There is also a VERY good brewery in Baltimore, MD named Nepenthe that I would highly recommend if you are ever in the area. I was so exuberant about knowing what the name meant, that I bought the first round, and the bartender slipped me an extra beer simply because he was so amused 🙂