“I’ve never met a drink I didn’t like,” grandmother-of-four Donna Calcutt-Andrew told HuffPost Canada on a Skype call from her home in Ottawa. Wearing an elegant black sweater and jewellery, she had her hair and make-up freshly done in anticipation of her favourite new pandemic ritual: happy hour.
Calcutt-Andrew moved in with her 54-year-old daughter, Roshene Lawson, her son-in-law and her 16-year-old granddaughter, Kiera back in August. The 82-year-old made the decision after a four-month stint in the hospital and a general deterioration in her health and mobility.
Intergenerational living has become increasingly common during the pandemic, but it’s not without its challenges. “After living independently for many years, Mum had this entirely new life, with this tight-knit family, with different ways of doing things. The first month or so was very rough on her,” explained Lawson.
“She felt safe, but she was extremely depressed because she’d lost her mobility, her home, and her friends all at once,” Lawson explained. “I work as a clinical chaplain, and I knew if we didn’t do something, she might give up and let go.”
Around that time, when Calcutt-Andrew was really struggling with the major life change, Lawson saw a friend post images on social media of a cocktail care package she’d had delivered to her home. This DIY-cocktail kit was a new pandemic offering from Bar From Afar ― the first cocktail delivery service in Ottawa and the brainchild of Sarah O’Brien and her bartender husband Greg O’Brien, who was laid off at the start of the lockdown.
“You hear the unpleasant comments, like, ‘We’ll just let the old people die,’ but these are people with stories, a history and value who still want to be here.”
Thinking it would be fun to bond with her mother over building cocktails, “the way Mum might have done at home in the ’60s,” Lawson placed the first of what would turn out to be many orders.
Calcutt-Andrew seemed to cheer up a lot, that first time, making fancy drinks to sip while video-chatting with a friend from her old, independent life. Afterwards Lawson shared a few pics of her 82-year-old mother on the Zoom call, enjoying her tipple. One friend suggested they start a dedicated Instagram account, just about happy hour. “People want to see this; it’s joyful,” she said.
At first, the cocktail-loving senior said “No way!” to social media. But Lawson coaxed her into giving it a go. “‘The people looking at you think you’re beautiful, Mum,’” she said. “‘And they’re enjoying seeing you and your friends have fun in life.’” And so the Instagram account, Cocktails with Grandma, was born on Sept. 12 ― and the content is just lovely.
Some posts show Calcutt-Andrew and Lawson imbibing together, such as this one, below, that they shared on #NationalDaughterDay.
Others announce a new boozy theme, like this post for “Vodka Week.”
This one, posted the day Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, shows their cocktails by a little shrine to celebrate the late Supreme Court Justice’s life.
And on Halloween, the Instagram-famous Grandma went all-in with a witchy hat and wig, spider ring and skull drinks dispenser. Her drink that evening: a classic vodka and soda water.
With happy hour fast becoming a highlight of her grandma’s day, Keira started helping Calcutt-Andrew with her makeup and hair. Some evenings, Lawson would do a quick photo shoot for the ’Gram. Others, it was just about being in the moment and enjoying an end-of-day catch-up, martinis in hand.
“Rather than staying in her PJs, Mom would get up and get dressed and have some purpose and excitement,” said Lawson. “And now she asks every morning, ‘How many followers do I have?’”
One beautiful outcome of sharing on social media was that Calcutt-Andrew heard from an old friend, Suzanne, for the first time in five years: “I would love to have a cocktail with Grandma!,” she wrote, after slipping into Calcutt-Andrew’s DMs. The two used to have drinks together, with a few other female colleagues, at the National Press Club, at the height of their careers in government communications.
That first message led to a reunion and weekly Zoom cocktails with the old gang on Friday evenings. “I’ve hooked up again with three very talented, highly functioning women I used to know, more than 20 years ago,” said Calcutt-Andrew, smiling.
From the early days of their friendship, the ladies have referred to themselves as the Nellies, after Canadian suffragette and feminist politician Nellie McClung. “Back then, in that high-pressure world, we shared difficulties, we shared victories, and we had a great level of fellowship, said Calcutt-Andrew. “We still talk about everything over now, on Fridays,” she added, “including the perils of growing old, which is not fun sometimes.”
In late September, Calcutt-Andrew decided to use her newfound influencer status to help other Ottawa seniors, who she knew could be feeling vulnerable and isolated during the pandemic.
As a young woman, she’d done high-level fundraising, helping to raise six million dollars once as a communications-team volunteer for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit. So, she drew on that experience, to support The Good Companions, a non-profit, multi-service seniors centre in Ottawa.
As well as providing meal delivery services, telephone safety checks and transportation to seniors, the organization runs programs such as chair yoga, book club, improv, ukelele lessons, and a Latin dance class called “Salsa Senioritas” ― all offered virtually in these pandemic times.
“My mother went there. There was that familial connection as well as that community connection for me,” said Calcutt-Andrew.
While they were floating the idea of a fundraiser, Lawson read her mom an article about Fauci Pouchies ― cleverly branded craft cocktails-to-go, being sold in Washington D.C.
These bagged drinks bear the image of the U.S.A.’s chief infectious disease expert and unlikely pop-culture icon, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on a prescription-style label. The cheeky cocktails were created by Rohit Malhotra of Washington D.C.’s Capo Delicatessen, as a pandemic pivot, after foot traffic started to drop. The marketing-savvy grandmother agreed with her daughter they’d be the perfect attention-grabber for an election-day fundraising drive.
When Lawson cold-called Malhotra and asked if he’d partner with them, he immediately jumped on board. “Something that is pulling people together right now is seeing how many elderly people are affected by COVID,” Lawson told HuffPost Canada. “You hear the unpleasant comments, like, ‘We’ll just let the old people die,’ but those of us who know and love seniors understand these are people with stories, a history and value who still want to be here.”
In October, Malhotra mailed dozens of custom-designed Fauci’s Pouchy-Cocktails With Grandma labels to Ottawa, where Calcutt-Andrew would become an exclusive distributor on the eve of the U.S. 2020 presidential election, for the purposes of her fundraiser. He entrusted O’Brien from Bar From Afar with the formula for a refreshing mixed drink made with mint-infused lemonade, elderflower liquor and vodka.
While O’Brien took care of mixing a giant batch; Lawson and two of her friends poured the drink into pouches. Calcutt-Andrew did the labelling. And their fundraising formula? In exchange for a suggested donation of $20 to The Good Companions, the mother and daughter would deliver donors a very 2020 thank-you gift: a Fauci Pouchy to sip on during the nail-biter of a ballot count.
On Thursday, for her efforts, Calcutt-Andrew was able to present The Good Companions with a cheque for $2,200 ― all raised in 24 hours.
And as a special delivery just for the philanthropic grandmother, who stayed up past midnight on election night, Malhotra sent a few more politically themed drink labels and the recipes for drinks from his ever-expanding craft-cocktail line, which includes the Joe Embiben, the Trumpkin Spice Latte, the Mike Pencicillin and the Piña Kamala. She can be seen toasting the V.P.-elect with that last one in the post below:
It’s a well-deserved refreshment for the big-hearted grandma who gave back to seniors, by helping Ottawa get its Election-Night drink on. And now she can get back to the quiet business of sipping, posting, bringing pandemic joy ... and watching her following grow.
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