Saturday, February 01, 2014


A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail out of the blue from N., the daughter of longtime friends of my parents'. She had come across an essay I'd written about my family, prompting her to track me down. N. is about a dozen years older than me, and I never knew her well, largely because of the age difference, which made her an adult while I was still a kid, but I did know her parents. 

Her father and mine had met in college in the 1940s, then my father helped get her dad a job in Washington and they remained colleagues and friends for decades, even after their retirement from the government, when they both worked for a private firm for another 20 years or so. Our mothers were also close. I remember luncheons Mom would host for small groups of women friends, mostly wives of my father's colleagues, including N.'s mother. The menu might include vichyssoise or chicken in aspic or something prettily sliced like stuffed flank steak. Dessert could be plum kuchen or individual caramel custards.

I learned from Mom how to be hospitable, the value and satisfaction of welcoming people into your home and making delicious things for them to enjoy. (So why don't I do it more often?)

As N.'s parents, then mine, succumbed to the trials and diminishments of age, they fell out of touch. Her dad died in 1999, her mother in 2012, the same year my father passed away. All were in assisted living.

My mother, as I've written before, is still alive and in "memory care." I've also written here of a long-ago teaching colleague of hers who connected with me through the same essay of mine that N. read and who continues to visit Mom after more than two years. But N. is the first person to share with me in such detail the impression my mother made. Here's an excerpt from her note:

I was always fond of your parents, but I adored your mother. She was beautiful, stylish, talented, cultured, creative, articulate, and a wonderful cook. I still own and cherish some things she made for me—a knitted tea cozy, accompanied by a poem that she wrote, a patchwork hot pad, badly faded 40 years later, but still treasured, and a little collection of handwritten menus with recipes I still use.  Once she gave me a pretty glass jar filled with potpourri she had harvested from her garden.  Your mother was so un-ordinary, and I wish I had kept in closer touch with her. . . .  

Sometime in the mid-'60s, your parents gave a 12th Night party one winter afternoon after Christmas, and children were invited. Do you remember that? I can see exactly what your mother wore in my mind's eye—a gorgeous, long emerald-green hostess dress, which she told me your father had given her for Christmas. (I'm pretty sure I'm remembering that correctly.)  It was a wonderful party—lots of delicious homemade things, including candied grapefruit, which I'd never had before. 

Your mother never took the easy way out. If something was worth doing, it was worth doing to perfection. Once on my mother's birthday, your mom invited her over for lunch. My mother came home with lovely birthday gifts your mother had made—including homemade croissants in a basket with a beautiful embroidered cloth. By the way, I recall that your kitchen was all pink. Was it still pink when you sold the house?

I was sitting at my desk at work practically in tears at these lovely, unasked-for reminiscences—all, I might add, accurate. I do remember the 12th Night party. It was an open house—come anytime between, say, 3 and 6—and it became sort of legendary in the family. Mom would often say, "We should have another 12th Night party." But for all the other entertaining she did over the years—and she was essentially a shy person, a tough thing to reconcile with an inclination toward graciousness—we never had another bash like that.

I remember the green hostess dress, too—if you'd asked me what she wore to that party nearly 50 years ago, I couldn't have said, but N. helped me recall.

What I've realized reading and rereading N.'s e-mail (and we've continued the correspondence over the last two weeks) is that she has idealized Mom—and I love that she has. I think it's great.

I knew all of the same traits of my mother's that she describes, along with the more human side that everyone knows of a parent: the misunderstandings, the bathrobes, the TV dinners, the workaday. But N. saw her from a remove; maybe she even admired things that were different from her own mother (I didn't know her mom well enough to say). But what she has captured in those sentences is true—all of it. There are so few people in the world whom I have access to anymore, outside family, who cherished the beautiful things Mom brought to the world. The fact that N. went to the trouble to tell me was a real gift.

And no, the kitchen was no longer pink.

Before I was born.
Same front porch eight years later (me on the right).

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Anonymous thetotalfemme said...

A little snowy, a few tears in my eyes -- that's what the morning looks like over here! What a beautiful thing to have happen, and how beautifully you bring it to life. Thank you for writing with so much big heart about family!


10:30 AM  

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